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To Timmy—for eternity
The Funeral His mother was dead. Matthew watched as several children sat in the pews playing with their dolls. A few sat quietly, slowly fingering their shoelaces. A little girl near the entrance had a sketchpad and drew meticulously with crayons. Matthew wanted a cigarette. Matthew Kooper’s mother had died five days before the new millennium—quietly, in her sleep. She made it ninety years, though Matthew hadn’t seen her in nearly thirty. Now pieces of the Kooper family gathered around for her funeral. The crowded Catholic church swelled with family and friends, quietly talking with each other. Elizabeth Kooper, Matthew’s mother, lay in a casket made from mahogany. It was polished so much that it shined even in the dim candlelight. One of the undertakers had put makeup on Matthew’s mother, though she had never worn any during her lifetime. She looked much fancier and far less grand than when she was alive. Candles lit the perimeter of the church. They glowed intensely but couldn’t provide enough heat for the cavernous stone building. The priest sat in the back, quietly talking with Emma, Matthew’s sister, and her nieces. Behind the casket was a large colorless picture of their mother dragging a chopped tree. The whole place smelled like cinnamon and fresh wool. The pews and floor were polished, smooth and slippery to the touch. A boy slid back and forth on the pew, giggling in delight. Matthew walked towards the altar, knelt down and prayed. He hated being back in the church. He ran his hand
through his thinning hair. Even though he was over fifty, Matthew didn’t feel old—but he knew the look on his face was far too serious. He glanced down at his hands. They were so large that as he had patted a few of the children on their heads, they bent under the weight, like branches under snow. Matthew felt Emma waiting for him to stand up. Most everyone Emma Kooper had invited had shown up on time, though Matthew was late. He had always been late when the two were younger. He stood up slowly and turned around. When he looked at his sister, he thought she had much grown older and a bit grayer. Her eyes gleamed as intensely as ever. He smiled at her and extended a hand. She stared at him and he retracted it. The cold look didn’t melt away so much as it cracked. She gave a short nod and touched Matthew gently on the shoulder. “Let old feuds be buried with her,” Emma whispered. Matthew laughed and squeezed her hand tightly. Emma wasn’t crying. “Where’s Jenny,” he said after letting go of his sister. The church had grown noisier, the awkward moments after a funeral fading. Emma and Matthew stood in the front of the church, side by side. “I think she’s out front. You must have walked right past her,” said Emma. “Probably did. Haven’t seen her in so long.” “She’s grown up. Beautiful,” said Emma. “Just like her mother,” remarked Matthew. Emma blushed. “Would you like to meet Jenny’s daughter?” she asked. Matthew raised an eyebrow. Despite his
wizened face, Matthew’s eyes had grown more youthful since the last time Emma had seen him. “Of course,” Matthew answered, without hesitation. Emma pointed and called to a girl in the fifth pew who was playing with one of the little children. “She’s twelve, right?” he asked, trying to remember his conversation with Jenny. Emma told him the girl was ten. “She looks a lot like you when we were little.” “She does, doesn’t she?” responded Emma. The grandmother bent over and kissed the girl on the forehead. “Marie, this is Uncle Matthew.” “My name is Marie,” she said in a high squeaky voice, though Matthew already knew her name. The three of them sat down in the front pew, Marie sitting in her grandmother’s lap, head down and docile. She kept quiet unlike the other children, and seemingly knew how she was supposed to behave. Matthew thought it odd—Jenny had told him Marie was diagnosed with hyper-active disorder. “What took you so long to come?” asked Emma. “There was a motorcade you could have been part of. Mom got popular.” Matthew scratched at his white skin. “I know. But I’ve never been very good with this sort of stuff. I thought the article in the newspaper was tastefully done. That obituary was good. Do you want any money for it?” Emma shook her head. The two of them sat staring at the expensive but plain coffin. It was so big for such a little woman. She wasn’t any bigger than a monkey. After a few
minutes, Matthew stood up and went outside for a cigarette. He breathed deeply, inhaling the smoke. He frowned in the sunlight as he emerged from the dim church. The crowd made him desire open space. Not only was Matthew’s mother gone, but the entire family—or at least what was left of it—sat inside. He had a hunch it wasn’t just coincidence. He had avoided Donny the entire time. He wasn’t ready to face Donny. “What have you been up to?” asked a voice to Matthew’s left. He turned and saw Jenny. He recognized her from an old photo he had once kept in his back pocket. She recognized him from a similar photograph. He’d sent it to her after Emma told him Jenny didn’t remember him. They had talked a few times over the phone. He walked over and offered her a cigarette. She smiled and took one. “I’ve just been playing in the same old jazz club out there. You know, your mother wouldn’t like it if you smoked.” He gave her a wink and held up a match. He told her about the smoky jazz club and how a man a few weeks back had left him a big tip. Matthew didn’t tell her the man went out and shot himself later that night. “Doesn’t sound too bad,” Jenny said. She was a slender woman, though she limped a little from being hit by a car when she was twelve. Her pale skin shined in the cold sun. She was forty now and gorgeous. But she still limped. Her curly brown hair gave her face a little more color. Her green eyes and thin red lips vibrated in the sunlight.
“Saw your daughter inside. Looking healthy and pretty, just like her mom. Where’s Joseph?” Matthew’s voice stuttered a bit. “He’s inside with a couple of my cousins. He treats our daughter like a queen. A shame you haven’t met him before.” Matthew grew a sad smile. Cold wind gusted against their cigarettes. “I’m sorry,” Matthew started to plead, “that I’ve haven’t been around very much. Okay, not at all. But I’m here aren’t I? I’m trying.” Jenny gave him a glance. He looked at her but wouldn’t look at her eyes. “I’m trying,” he repeated. “I’m too old, Matthew,” she said. Matthew thought she looked a lot like her father. Matthew had only known Jenny’s father for a short time. He was a navy man and had been killed overseas, only a year after Emma married him. The only concrete evidence that Emma had ever been married was Jenny. Matthew took care of Jenny quite a bit when she was an infant, though he left before she became a woman. “You look young to me.” The two sat a few minutes in silence, smoking. Jenny shuddered a few times, pulling her coat up around her neck. The wind made her shiver. Matthew didn’t mind the cold. He just continued to stare, squinting. The temperature wouldn’t rise above twenty. Jenny pulled out her sunglasses and put them on. The church sat on a major roadway that always seemed busy. The pair watched the cars drive by, disobeying the speed limit. “The last time I was home this road wasn’t so crowded,” said Matthew. Several cars drove by, honking at
one another. The road had been widened. The last time Matthew had seen it there was only a narrow lane in each direction. Now there were two lanes each way and a large shoulder in case of accidents. Across the road was a park, old swings and a large sandbox that didn’t have any sand. A few tables were set up in the park for chess matches. About a dozen middle-aged men played basketball on a court that had grass growing through the macadam. They were all bundled up, laughing in the bitter cold. The hoops didn’t have any nets, but they didn’t mind. They couldn’t find work, except in the summer when tourism was at its peak. “The mill closed, but they reopened it when they found a pocket of natural gas. The experts say it’s the largest in all Oak County. Maybe even Wisconsin. Some say the entire country. Last at least twenty more years.” Jenny stopped speaking. The two of them had talked four or five times, so she knew why he had left. She knew why he hadn’t come home, but thought it was immature and hurtful. “But no more lumber, then?” asked Matthew. “Nope. Harvesting the lumber wasn’t profitable enough for Harold Teague. So he was forced to close and sell it.” Matthew stood up and took one last drag on his cigarette and dropped it on the ground. “Shouldn’t leave it there. There’s an ashtray there,” said Jenny, pointing to the top of a trashcan to their left. Matthew looked at the thick doors that made the church echo when the altar boys opened them fully on Christmas Eve. The church at least hadn’t changed since Matthew was little, when he had been singing in the choir before his
voice got too deep and too husky from smoking. Same thin steeple donated by Harold Teague’s father. The same massive cross hung on the front of the church. Matthew motioned that they go inside before the wind picked up. Up the road, the mill horn blew, letting the men out. They still headed down the street, past the church to the same three bars. Matthew knew they would. “Same thing,” he muttered. He looked at his niece and said, “Thanks for your help with the plane ticket.” Jenny watched the workers for a few more moments. Most of them had silver hair from the chalk that lined their protective suits. She took another drag, threw her cigarette on the ground and went inside. Matthew said nothing else and followed her. * Emma. “Sure, works for me,” replied Matthew. “I’ll stay here tonight and then fly back tomorrow.” He stared at Emma and gave her a hug after he saw the look on her face. She had thick brown bags under her eyes, despite the mascara she wore. Her perfume had faded away and as Matthew smelled her hair, he could tell she needed a shower. The wool sweater she wore felt damp. Both Matthew and Emma were glad to be out of the church. Matthew walked up the steep stairs his mother had traveled up every morning to wake him before school. The room was small. He had shared it with his brother, Donald. Donald had died three years before their mother had, in a car * * “You can have your old room in the attic,” said
accident. It had been icy, another boy had been drinking and driving, and that was that. Matthew ran his fingers over a desk that had deep grooves from his meager attempts to understand algebra. His eyes glanced off the closet where he had hidden when his father got drunk. He walked downstairs and sat in the old recliner. Emma had thrown out every other old piece of furniture. Elizabeth Kooper had refused to sit in any chair except that one—with its fake plastic leather, scratched away by two tabby cats that no longer inhabited the cookie-cutter house. Above the old chair was a polished shotgun that had been in the family for generations. It reminded Matthew of his .22 pistol out west. He collected shot-glasses. When he got enough of them, he went to a gun club and shot them, pretending they were his dad’s whiskey glasses. “You always liked that chair,” said Emma, walking in from the kitchen. “Where are Jenny and Marie?” asked Matthew. “They’ll be over for dinner, but Jenny is helping to plan Marie’s school play.” “Did some decorating?” Matthew said, looking at the walls. “Not bad.” Matthew shifted in the hard, tape covered seat. The walls had new paint on them, an odd mauve-like color with feather swirls. The couch and two chairs all matched, light black corduroy fabric. The big-screen television had replaced the smaller one. Matthew didn’t remember having cable or a remote.
“You’ve grown handsome. Why don’t you stay a little while? Get to know us.” “I’m old,” replied Matthew. “You’re only fifty. I’d say your cheekbones make you look distinguished. Your eyes still have that twinkle. I’ve missed that.” Emma never cried. It wasn’t in her nature. But her mouth curved enough to show what she felt. She sat down in a modern chair. “Need some help with dinner?” he asked. She nodded and they both stood up. Matthew followed her into the kitchen, where a pot roast sat in a pan. Broccoli sat in water, ready to be boiled. Emma started scrubbing the potatoes and Matthew cut the bread up into slices like she asked. Emma’s hands moved the same way their mother’s hands had moved— quick memorized motions. “This looks like a pretty damn good meal,” Matthew stated. Emma looked up at him, brushing dirt on her apron, which fit snugly around her petite frame. “It’s been a long time, don’t you think?” she said coarsely. “Look, I’m trying, I really am.” Matthew never took responsibility very well. Often times he put the onus on others. He put down the bread knife, the same one he’d used to threaten his father when he was little. “I haven’t been around here in a long time. At least I started calling after he died.” He cupped his hands and motioned towards himself. “I called,” he whispered, more for himself than for Emma. In his mind, calling was a form of admitting wrong.
“Once a month, like clockwork,” replied Emma in a robotic fashion. “Mom looked forward to it.” Matthew’s eyes darted. He despised his mom for getting drunk alongside the old man. He started calling Emma and his mother about ten years prior, just after his father passed away. The conversations with his mom didn’t go over well, but they were still conversations. Matthew and Emma, however, had slowly gotten to know one another. When they were little kids, they got along especially well, always making tree forts in the summer. “I should’ve come home sooner.” “It’s in the past,” she said. “Doesn’t change it.” “No, I just wish I could have known you, or at least gotten to know you,” Emma said. She started cubing the potatoes for mashing. “It was wrong—of you and of them.” Matthew smiled at her, remembering the days when Emma was still the older sister. Now she seemed more like a mother than a sister. The eleven years she had on him seemed to have lengthened. “I couldn’t take it,” he told her simply. “Couldn’t take it?” she said, her voice pleading, but never cracking. She put down the knife. She still refused to cry. “He died ten years ago. God sake’s, Mom divorced him five years before that!” She lowered her voice a little. “I know you ran away when I was still in my twenties. Dad beat you, I know. But it doesn’t mean you could just abandon me or Donald. I can understand not liking Donald, even hating him
for his taking Dad’s side and all. But you didn’t even come home for your little brother’s funeral.” “She still drank, though, didn’t she? Mom, I mean,” Matthew asked. His eyes watered. He wasn’t going to tell her about the one-bedroom apartment he lived in. He couldn’t tell her much. Living in the squalid section of Oakland allowed him to understand that both his parents were to blame. The place to which he escaped wasn’t much better than the one he left. Emma walked to the gas stove and flicked it on. She started to bring water to a boil for the potatoes. The kitchen heated up in an instant, like it always had. “She walked around in a stupor every damn day,” Emma said after a moment. “She wasn’t right, either. But you didn’t need to berate her. She had patience and loved you. All you did was yell at her, get annoyed at her. It wasn’t right.” “I know. I’m just trying to speak honestly.” Matthew finished with the bread and pulled out a large plate from the same cupboard in which his dad had kept the whiskey. It was wall-papered differently, but the shelves all looked the same. The top shelf, the one that their dad had “owned,” was empty. Matthew arranged the bread with butter on the center of the plate, like their mom had taught them. They heard a car pull up and turn off. Emma said, “That’s them. I’m going to put the roast in. I cooked it last night, so it just needs to be heated up.” Her voice had softened. “I can’t change it,” said Emma. “But I’m here, aren’t I? Home, in this same house, ready to talk.” Jenny and Marie
walked in the front door, Jenny carrying her daughter’s costume that looked like a candle. “I think I’ll stay a little longer,” Matthew told Emma. He went over to Marie and picked her up. They started playing, Matthew giving her a gentle piggyback. His eyes looked so much younger and happier than when he was a child—he could feel the difference in the house without the haunting gaze of his mother or father. Matthew heard Emma stand up. He put Marie down and went to help her in the kitchen. She shrugged him away and said, “We’ll talk tomorrow. I’m taking off from the hospital.” But she gave him a quick tight-lipped scowl. Her face didn’t quite melt but it cracked into one, like ice. She put the roast in the oven and asked her granddaughter to set the table. Matthew started to help Marie, not knowing what else to do. Work Matthew pulled off his mask and breathed in the early June air. He lit a cigarette and breathed deeply. Sweat pooled around his lower back. Droplets hung from his eyebrows. The bench he sat on had been broken long ago, uneven on the left. Taking another drag, Matthew thought about meeting his father on the same bench, waiting for the old man to come out of the mill. “Doing good work for your first day, Matt,” said Patrick from behind him. The boy—the man—stood there, still hating his cousin, Matthew, for not attending any family events in the neighborhood. Pat worked as the shift manager; the same position his father and Matthew’s father had had.
Matthew’s father, though, had a new job and Patrick’s had gone back to the army because it paid more. The two of them sat there in silence, each holding a cigarette, but not smoking it. Matthew wanted to get away. Patrick wanted to support his family. After their fifteen was up, Pat smashed his against the sand-topped trashcan. “Still the same,” Matthew stood up, throwing away his cigarette. He wished he could be landscaping with Teague. The July sky burned down, scorching the empty fields that surrounded the mill. The playground near the mill had been deserted in favor of the community pool. He put his mask back on. Pat followed suit. They walked through the door and attached their protective masks. The timber plant always left one with splinters everywhere. Pat went up on the catwalk with his small metal case to test the machines. He did it every hour, just like Matthew had seen his own father do. Both he and Patrick weren’t going to college, so they ended up working at the plant. Except this time, they weren’t merely watching the dads. Matthew walked through the sliding doors, leaving Pat behind. Inside, he had to move the compressors to treat the wood. “The man’s an asshole,” he told himself in the suit. Matthew had had to pick up his father from one of the bars the previous night. A static-filled voice crackled. “What’d ya say, Matt? Copy?” “Nothing Pat, just trying to make sure the wood is done so we can go home for the weekend.”
“Take your time man. It’s better to be safe.” The radio crackled again, leaving Matthew in silence. Each chemical drum weighed at least two hundred pounds, and if he worked too quickly they would smash his hands and wrists. Just the week before a man who had been working there for twenty years had his wrist crushed. The man didn’t have insurance. Matthew wanted to go back outside, out west somewhere, and listen to the blues. But something kept him in Oak County, doing the same tasks his father had done. Maybe it was Dawn, his lover, his fiancé. Dents had formed on the underside of Matthew’s forearms—his father had scars on his legs from moving logs his entire life. Tears formed in Matthew’s eyes and it was at that moment that he decided. There were good people that deserved to leave— escape—Oak County. Matthew couldn’t stand them being stuck in the town. The machines were old and dangerous. So were the chemical used to treat the wood. The company needed to hire a guard around the clock to make sure no one was hurt while trying to break in. Oak County, like a lot of places in Wisconsin and Michigan, was sparse in the job department, so the company was always filled with hard, unschooled workers. It made sense that a lot of people wanted to escape. However, the schools and family connections kept people in the tourist town. “You’re still coming over for dinner, right?” asked Patrick over the intercom. Normally, there were five or six machines that needed to be cleaned at the end of the shift. It
was a Friday, though, and the engineers were only really needed early in the day. Patrick and Matthew both took advantage of being alone with the other every Friday and talked freely over their headgear as they cleaned up. It was easy—move the containers to one side of the room in rows. “Yeah, I’m coming,” said Matthew after grunting a barrel into place. His mask was supposed to be fog-proof, but the plastic shield still had a lot of built-up condensation on it. After he was finished cleaning and moving the barrels, Matthew punched the exit code in the storeroom and walked into the next room. He was glad he didn’t have to smell the bleach used to treat the lumber. The door behind Matthew closed, and the decontamination room blew air over him and then a green light blinked. He took off his suit and went into the crew’s quarters, down the stairs, near the parking garage. A few minutes later, Patrick found him and the two went to Mary’s house, Patrick’s sister, for dinner. The next day Matthew left for California and never returned. Teague’s Bar The day after his mother’s funeral, Matthew went to one of the local bars. They would be getting ready for Friday night and Matthew hoped he could find Harold Teague. Matthew hadn’t slept soundly, but it was still a decent night’s sleep. The old bed was a little dusty, but now there wasn’t anyone to wake Matthew in the middle of the night. Standing in front of the bar, in the middle of the afternoon, Matthew smiled to himself. All those years of early mornings and late nights dealing with his father and Matthew had never seen the place during the day. He chuckled. Teague
bought the bar twenty years ago, according to Emma. An overhang with frills hung above the bar entrance. Matthew knew from experience that those kinds of overhangs meant the bar was higher class. The bar Matthew worked out west had one. The sun pulsed brightly, though the wind bit Matthew’s neck and face even though they were covered up. It was one of the coldest days on record in Wisconsin, the reporter had said on the radio. He opened the same steel and wood doors that were hard to pull from the outside, but easy to push. The drunks had a hard time getting in and could easily be thrown out. Matthew walked in and noticed that whole place had been revamped. There were silver stools around a freshly lacquered bar. He supposed it would have been, but he still hadn’t managed to shake his mind free from the image of the old bar, back when the old man still visited the place five nights a week. He noticed only one man working. Matthew recognized the bar hand. Donald Kooper III, Donald’s son. Everyone called him Donny. Matthew sighed and realized his brother’s son was helping Teague run the bar. Teague’s father had always been good friends with the Kooper family. “I’m looking for Mr. Harold Teague,” Matthew asked Donny. He looked at his uncle and didn’t smile. “Took your sorry ass long enough,” Donny told him with a minor Canadian accent. He was an average looking man. Not to tall or short, medium build, brown hair, not ugly, not handsome. He looked slightly out of shape and he had a belly starting to grow from too many free pints. Matthew remembered taking his nephew to baseball games. Once upon
a time, Donny had the potential to be a professional pitcher. But he’d lived in Wisconsin his whole life and had never left, refusing to take the baseball scholarships down south because he wanted to remain with his family. It was a waste of an amazing fastball. “You’ve grown up a lot, Donny,” replied Matthew. Unlike most bars, Matthew noticed that Donny had done an exceptional job of keeping the place clean. He looked past the thirty-year-old Donny and noticed a small office in the back. The door was closed with a hand-written sign that said: Taxes and death. “I’ve had to,” he said haughtily. The bar was closed and Matthew realized it was only Donny and himself standing in the whole place. “Saw you at the funeral. You didn’t really talk with anyone except Aunt Emma. But at least you came to Grandma Lizzy’s funeral. That was the least you could do. Though you probably don’t care, asshole. Fucking asshole.” Matthew looked at the scar that ran across Donny’s forehead. He remembered where it came from. “Your father and I never got along. But that doesn’t mean you need to pick up where he left off.” Donny weighed the statement, almost as if he were tasting his response before he let it roll off his tongue. “Mr. Teague’s not here. So what can I help you with?” Matthew swallowed and sighed. He knew trying to have serious conversations weren’t accomplished in a bar. He learned that lesson years ago. But he still wanted to get his money. “Mr. Teague owes me some money for work I did back in the day. Long time ago.” Donny’s revulsion was
visible. Mathew tried to stay calm, but the bar—which had changed but remained filled with the same smell of beer, sweat, and pool chalk—fueled his anger. The nights taking his dad home started to waft through him mind. “He doesn’t owe you anything, asshole,” responded Donny. “What? You come back here just for money? Get the hell out!” He walked around from behind the bar and took a step toward Matthew. He had his father’s chest and squinty eyes. Donny didn’t look very strong, though his fists were clenched so tightly they were white. “Teague sent me a letter when my mother died. He said he would have the money waiting for me,” said Mathew. “Did he now?” shot back Donny. He had a rag over one shoulder and when he put it on the counter, Mathew noticed a gun holster locked around his sides. He couldn’t tell if a gun was in it. “What’s the problem?” called a voice from the back, in the office. “Nothing, sir,” called Donny. But Matthew recognized the voice. “Mr. Teague, it’s Matthew Kooper!” Donny stalked over towards his uncle. He stood less than four feet. The door to the office opened. “If you do anything else to you sister, I’ll kill you,” Donald whispered. He went back behind the bar and moved the taps to clean them. A bottle opener lay on the counter. It was almost a replica of the kind that Matthew’s father had used decades ago.
Matthew couldn’t believe his eyes. Teague didn’t look more than a few years older, despite the passing of three decades. He was nearly eighty, though his eyes still shined like a would-be father. His voice still cracked from smoking cigars—though the cough sounded a bit throatier and full of tobacco. “Matthew Kooper?” he asked, though he already knew the answer. “Damn.” And that was all he said when Matthew started talking to him. They sat down in a booth. The leather felt smooth, broken in. The entire place was cool to the touch. Later that night, like every night, the place would be stifling and humid. During the day, however, the heating and air conditioning worked well. According to Teague, the bar was comfortable when the place wasn’t overcrowded with factory workers trying to hit on the same women from the week before. They continued talking. “So I basically need that money so I can get started again, here. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. Figure I’ll try my best to stick around.” He finished by reminding Teague that the money was for building Teague’s shed and shingling a roof from their old landscaping business—the business that had allowed Teague to be wealthy independent of his rich family. Years ago, Matthew’s hands helped make Teague rich. “I don’t exactly remember what you did to get that money…I mean I remember the yard work and the shed, but I don’t know what it’s for. That’s not important. A few years back, your sister sure did remember to remind me of it.
Anyways. It’s sitting in a bank. Has been since you left. I put it there to make sure it gathered interest.” He paused and said, “I knew your father…” but then stopped, leaving it at that. He had worked at the bar while he was starting up the landscaping company. He’d seen Matthew come pick up the old man. He’d seen Matthew mature between visits, in clips that revolved around taking home a drunk father. One week, Matthew would have braces. The next time the dad needed a guide, Matthew would show Teague a new report card. Another time, Teague noticed Matthew no longer lisped. Another, Matthew had a bounce in his step, eyes glimmering. A little love. Teague and Matthew were more than partners in that landscaping business. They were friends and, long ago, Teague became Matthew’s surrogate father. Teague bought Matthew his first cigarettes and beers. The two sat in silence for a moment. It wasn’t comfortable silence. The men hadn’t seen each other enough over the years to be relaxed around one another. But if they had known each other and at least seen the other, they would have been right at home, ordered a beer and talked about the local hockey team. After Donny finished with the beer taps and setting up for the weekend, he said, “Mr. Teague, I’ll see you later tonight, around four or so?” Teague responded with an affirmative sounding grunt. Donny glared at Matthew. Then he left. “Doesn’t know, does he?” Matthew shook his head. Teague said, “I knew and still know I should tell him. But not many people of his generation believe their parents could or
would be as foolish as his father was. So when you try and attack their grandparents, people they respect even more, it just gets worse.” “So that’s why he hates me,” said Mathew. “Correct,” answered Teague. “But hatred wouldn’t do him any good,” replied Matthew. “Particularly not towards the people he loves. I guess he figures he might as well hate the people he dislikes.” Teague chuckled. “You take it in good nature.” “Hey, tomorrow night, my niece is having a school play. She’s the candle in Beauty and the Beast. Would you like to come with me? Emma will be there and so will Jenny. Even Jenny’s husband is going to be there. Let me take you.” “Sorry, but I have this place to care for,” the old man said, trying to stifle a whooping cough while motioning around him. “You need to stop smoking,” said Matthew. Teague said he’d stop when drunks ordered soda. They said their goodbyes and Teague gave Matthew the bank booklet so that he could withdraw the money. Matthew walked outside, check in hand. Donny stood waiting. He had pulled his overcoat aside, despite the frigid wind, to reveal that his gun holster certainly had a gun in it. Matthew eyed it, but Donny told him not to worry. The cold blew between the two of them. It separated them.
“I’m not going to shoot you,” he said. “I’m going to beat you to a bloody pulp you unless you get your sorry ass out of here.” The town has long ago rusted away, a suburban area without any semblance of a city. It held an odd irony. The town was a true slum in the winter, though in the summertime, the tourism made the place boom. Houses crowded together with small restaurants and bars. Nothing seemed to stand very long and, in the winter, the people all seemed tired from trying to get on the train and go to welfare work. Oak County, though, outside of the town, was surrounded by wilderness and trees—which supplied the town with its tourist business. A large federal forest and lake jutted into the northern part of town. Suburban wretchedness met the darkness of rough country. Donny, as far as Matthew could tell, felt an insatiable need to protect the area from his uncle. “I’m leaving soon enough,” said Matthew. “I’ll just try to stay out of your way in the meantime.” Matthew stopped talking and walked over to his rental car. He’d taken no more than a few baby steps when Donald stepped in his way. The boy who was now a man—the boy who now pronounced his words with slang despite getting a high school education— held up his hand as if he finally realized Matthew could no longer ground him. Matthew no longer had the authority of babysitter. Matthew saw the long scar on Donny’s forehead from when he was a child and fallen from a tree. “You’re a disgrace,” cried Donny, not letting Matthew pass. “You don’t even have a real job. Just floating around from what I heard. You hit that bottle pretty hard
yourself, don’t you? At all those bars. You’re a bartender like me—but you like the making drinks for yourself, too. I bet that’s why you left. You couldn’t handle not being at the bar with my grandfather because he would make you stop drinking.” Little specks of dried spit were forming around Donny’s mouth. He made sure to emphasize that Matthew’s father was his grandfather, as if Matthew had no relation. “You just wanted to get a free drink and he made sure you wouldn’t drink. Ain’t that right?” Matthew pulled his fist back and pelted Donald’s forehead. Donny crumpled to the ground. Matthew felt a satisfaction he rarely felt. Only a few nights when he was a bouncer and one night with Dawn had he felt more satisfaction. It wasn’t happiness or pleasure. It was simply doing what needed to be done. Donny stood up, a little woozy, blinking his eyes. He grunted and took a swing while still looking surprised. Matthew tried stepping aside, but Donny shifted in mid-swing and connected in his uncle’s side, right in the soft area where one’s kidney rests. Matthew called out in a quiet pain. His shout was not loud, but it gave Donny satisfaction. Matthew suddenly remembered when Donald Kooper III was born. Donald Jr. married young and had a son just a few months afterwards. The image of building a swing-set for his nephew faded as Donny hit Matthew again. The asphalt felt cold when Matthew put out his palms to brace himself. It was so cold that it burned Matthew’s skin. Another image popped into Matthew’s head: when the young Donny had broken a lamp while Matthew was babysitting him. The two of
them glued the lamp back together and no one ever realized it was broken until Matthew eventually told Donny’s father. The little boy hadn’t done anything wrong, but Donald Jr. beat his son with a belt to underscore some lesson of discipline that Matthew didn’t understand. Matthew smelled gourmet coffee from the small café across the street. He stood up but Donny hit him again, connecting in his right shoulder. With the wind knocked out of him, Matthew stood up again and swung quickly. This time he hit his nephew in his right temple. Donny backed off for a moment looking woozy. Matthew felt oddly calm. There was no rage inside his gullet. But Donny was younger and hate seemed to give him energy. Instead of grabbing his head, like most drunks Matthew had encountered, Donny charged into him. He headed-butted the older man into the ground and drove his heel into Matthew’s side. Bending down, Donny tried to punch Matthew in the head. Matthew was too quick and kneed the man in the groin. Matthew look up. He held his bloody nose and saw Teague standing there with a police officer. He shook his head. * * * An hour later, Sheriff Joseph Wheeler, Jenny’s husband, arrived and took both men to the county jail. He put each man in separate cells on opposite sides of the police station. Normally, or so Matthew was told, there were two cells: one for real criminals and the other for drunks, delinquents, and petty crimes. Joseph Wheeler put Donny in
the one for criminals and Joseph in the one for drunks. He did so in order to isolate each man away from the other. Matthew thought it was a wise decision. Joseph walked into the holding area and stood in front Mathew. Matthew thought his cell smelled dusty. The bed he sat on emanated an odor of vomit. “You want me to call Emma?” Joseph asked. “I would bail you out, but it’s against our rules. Can’t treat our family any differently than we would anyone else.” Matthew nodded. The rule made sense to him. “Can I bail myself out?” asked Matthew. Joseph shook his head. “It has to be someone else. They don’t have to pay— in fact I think you should pay. But according to Oak County laws, I need to release you to someone. When I get off at six, I can bail you out then, if you want. I just need to wait for the night crew to come.” “Can you do it?” asked Matthew. “Don’t want me to tell?” said Joseph. “No,” replied Matthew. “I understand. I don’t like it, but I understand.” Joseph stood up and started to leave the room. As he walked out the door, he called back, “I’ll be back in a little while.” The door closed and Matthew was left in silence. The concrete walls hummed from the generators in the next room. Matthew knew from picking up his dad and dropping off drunks out west that most public places had back-up generators. The whole police station, however, seemed to vibrate from the generators. They sounded old and rusted.
Matthew supposed they needed to be repaired, except budget cuts wouldn’t allow it. The hum gave Matthew a headache, so he lay down on the dirty sheets. They were stained yellow from sweat. Matthew didn’t mind. He had sleep in his share of disgusting places, motels with cockroaches in the sheets and apartments where the bathroom was literally in the bedroom. In comparison, the bed in the prison was comfortable and soft. The police must have washed it to keep it soft, though they couldn’t get the smell out of the sheets. Matthew’s migraines had hounded him since childhood and the dull buzzing sound from the walls only made his head split worse. It hurt worse than when he had decided, years ago, to try and beat up a neighborhood bully (who subsequently definitively won the fight). He massaged his forehead until Joseph came back. “What time is it?” he asked. “Around two. You want lunch? We’re allowed to give lunch to people if they want it.” “Sure. What is it?” “Nothing very good. It’s a microwave dinner that’s provided by the government. Worse than Marie’s cafeteria food.” Matthew told Joseph he’d eat it anyways. Joseph went over to a stainless steel refrigerator and pulled out his keys. He unlocked a bolt and took a small package from the door. Then he popped it into the microwave. He sat down and began to fill out various forms. Matthew felt uncomfortable. Somehow Joseph felt like a boss-like figure, not merely a nephew-in-law
or sheriff. Matthew suddenly felt as though he couldn’t sit and do nothing. Joseph had the presence of a manager. “Marie is beautiful,” Matthew said. He meant it. Very few times had Matthew given a compliment that held a place of esteem for him. Hunched over the paperwork, Joseph smiled a bit and replied, “Yes she is, isn’t she.” He didn’t make eye contact with Matthew. “May I still go with you to her school play tomorrow night?” “Of course. Why wouldn’t you?” Matthew didn’t answer right away. Joseph continued, glancing at Matthew, “Look, I’m not going to hound you about this. Besides, Donny comes in here at least once a month. I’m only keeping you because I’m supposed to. Harold Teague called me. He doesn’t like Donny’s attitude very much and you just happened to be right there with the fighter. Teague’s trying to help Donny out, but Donny is still just trying to prove he’s a man.” Joseph shook his head. “When’s he going to learn it’s the men who don’t fight who are real men?” The microwave beeped. Joseph gave Matthew plastic cutlery with the meal. Somehow, Joseph knew Matthew hadn’t eaten anything the entire day. Joseph’s soul was old. The men smiled at each other for the first time. Not with each other, but rather at each other. Joseph went back to his desk and Matthew sat down eating the dinner. He ate fast. He always ate fast. It was a convenience. He only needed to eat slowly around other
people. Eating alone is simply a need. Food becomes a chore when alone, particularly cooking it. Matthew had mastered the art of eating at a moment’s notice. After he finished, he looked again at his nephew-inlaw. The man was young, no more than thirty five or forty. He had lines around his cheeks, and his neck was pockmarked. Other than those traits, he was a handsome man. Joseph’s eyes shined with acceptance of his role; he dealt with criminals all day and still managed to treat them with dignity. Quietly, Joseph stood up. He gave Matthew a look and said, “I have a meeting.” Matthew nodded and noticed for the first time that his cell had bars but no lock. It was electronically opened. There was only one keyhole. A label under it stated that the door should be opened manually in the case of an emergency. Matthew mused. He turned the realization over in his mind, thinking back to when he had to bail his brother out of jail. They were still young, young enough that Donald Jr. wasn’t eighteen yet. But Matthew understood that having an older brother pick you up was better than having a drunken parent come. Plus, Sheriff Croken had let Donald Jr. off without any trouble. Croken was a good man. He had died from Alzheimer’s, but managed to live until he was at least eighty. When Matthew had seen the jail years ago, the cell— the one in which he now sat—still had a real lock. Matthew heard the holding cell open. He saw Joseph standing next to Harold Teague. Matthew walked through the open door.
“You don’t have to wait for me, Matthew. You’ve got a good friend.” Matthew smiled. “Yes I do,” said Matthew. “Need a ride to the bank?” asked Teague. “Sure,” said Matthew. They said goodbye to Joseph and walked out of the police station. The sky darkened. It was nearing four and the days were short. Wind snapped at Matthew’s face like an agitated snake. Teague shook his head. The wind whipped through the parking lot. “It’s going to snow soon,” Matthew stated. “Donny should know about your old man,” Teague said. “I know,” said Matthew. “Which car is yours?” Teague pointed to a dented grayish pick-up truck. Matthew nodded and climbed into the passenger seat. * * * The men drove to the bank. The town was not spread out, but the bank was still a few miles away. Most of the places in town were built far from the police station. They pulled into the parking lot and Teague turned the car off. He looked at Matthew and sighed. His face looked taut, like cellophane wrapped around an object too thick, as though it were going to burst. “I’ll go in with you. I should probably just make sure they know it’s yours,” Teague said. “So you didn’t pick me up from the station out of the kindness of your heart?” asked Matthew. “No,” the old man laughed. But Mathew knew he was serious. Ever since he had known Teague, Matthew had
known him as a man of little interference. He let people help themselves. “Still a helpful old man,” responded Matthew. The pair stepped out from the truck. Matthew hadn’t seen it before, though it looked old. “How old is that truck?” he asked. “I got it a few years after you left,” said Mr. Teague. He started talking about the bank. “They’re pretty nice here and they usually don’t make you wait in line. Though it is Friday and everyone always gets money for the weekend. Plus all the factory workers get their checks on Friday morning.” “How much is in the account?” asked Matthew. “Enough,” said Teague. “Just look at it. That booklet should state the balance somewhere.” Matthew paged through it and found his answer. He walked in with his old friend and saw how big the bank was. It once was a family bank, but a corporate bank had bought it and decided to keep the family name—along with all the family-loyal customers. The inside looked the same to Matthew, all except for the carpet and the drive-through window that had been put in. The lobby was crowded with people wanting to cash their checks and get money for the weekend. Only two lines were open even though the bank had six. Matthew heard several people talking about how the tourism in the summer would be a record low. The bank echoed the town almost perfectly. The overpopulated bank didn’t surprise Matthew. Every bank Matthew had ever been in was underemployed and
slow. Even on Fridays, when everyone in town always stopped by the bank, there weren’t enough people to make the place run smoothly. Matthew started to go up the counter, but Teague caught him by the shirt sleeve and pointed to a sign that stated Personal Accounts. The pair sat down. Mr. Teague knocked on the closed door as he did so. A voice called them from within and told them to enter. They walked into the small windowless office. “Harold, so nice to see you again,” replied a frumpy middle-aged woman in the office. She was overweight, though not by much. Her face was pretty even though it was stretched over a wide skull. His complexion was clear and her smile extended them a welcome. A photograph of a pineapple floating on the crest of a wave hung behind the woman. Pictures of her children were hung around the office. She had twins; a boy and girl. A few pictures were of her husband, a skinny man compared to his wife. In all of the pictures they were smiling and holding hands or kissing. Matthew felt awkward. “Nice to see you,” said Teague. They shook hands. “And this gentleman is Matthew Kooper. Matthew, this is Sheryl.” Matthew and Sheryl shook hands. Teague looked at the woman and said, “Matthew’s here to claim an account I set up for him.” Sheryl’s eyes were plastered in pink eyeliner. She reminded Matthew of the time his sister had gotten into their mother’s makeup one summer morning when he was four.
“That account that has your name and his name on it? Yeah, I’ve wondered who that is. Nice to finally meet you,” she said The three of them sat down and Sheryl started to enter things into the computer. She took the bank booklet from Matthew. Her fingers moved delicately over the keyboard. Her fingers were short, supple and nimble. “Take me off the account now that it’s his, would you?” asked Matthew’s old mentor. She nodded, her smile gone in a moment of concentration. Without looking at either one, she asked, “So how long have you known each other? Matt, where are you from?” “Years,” said Teague slowly, as if he were counting the syllables rolling off his tongue. “I’m from here,” said Matthew. She raised an eyebrow. “I left a long time ago, before the town got bigger.” “It’s not that big now sweetie.” She had an accent that made her sound like she was from North Dakota. She spoke with a nasally staccato. “Yeah, but it’s changed a lot. When’d you move here?” asked Matthew. “There that’s all done,” said Sheryl. She handed the booklet back to Matthew and told him that he could get the money after the weekend. He thanked her and asked if he could take the money out early on Monday. “Sure thing. We’ll be open at nine.” “It was hard earned money,” said Teague, ignoring both of them. He volunteered the information that Matthew knew Sheryl desired. “He helped me years ago, building up
my house, getting things fixed up. He shingled my roof. He helped me when I was just trying to start my old landscaping business. Come to think of it, my roof needs to be shingled again, if you want Matthew. Want to hear a funny story Sheryl?” She nodded. “Well, Matthew doesn’t know I know this, but he stole all those shingles. Now we were landscapers together, but he wanted to fix my house for free and without my help. So he drove a ways away, to a factory with a friend. They took all those shingles so they could build my roof easy and quick. For the longest time, I thought I was getting a great deal. Until one day, a little while after Matthew moved away, one of those shingles fell off—they have serial numbers that identified where they were to be used. But there’s not much harm in it now. Nothing is a big deal in the long run.” Teague stood up. Matthew rose with him, shocked and ready to be out of the bank. Teague’s “bad” memory didn’t seem to inadequate now. “Thanks again, Sheryl,” said Matthew. “I’ll see you Monday.” She nodded and they shook hands again and walked out. They passed the same people in the lobby. Most were jealous that the two of them were finished already. They walked outside and then over to Teague’s truck. “Funny isn’t it?” asked Teague. Matthew just stared. “People wait there for hours, but you can go into the office and get the same service. They just don’t realize it. I see that a lot now.” Teague valued people over speed.
“How’d you know?” Matthew asked. He was talking about the shingles that he had so long ago used to patch Teague’s roof. “There are stamps on those sorts of things. You can steal them, but the stamps tell which company it is and where is comes from. I knew you swiped them about a month after you left.” “Didn’t report me?” asked Matthew. “No. Not worth it.” They were silent for a moment. Teague had been a middle-aged man when Matthew left and was now an old man still without a wife or children. He never really had any family. Matthew realized Teague hadn’t save the money for Matthew Kooper. He’d saved the money for Matthew, the boy who ran away. It was plenty of money, even for a roofing job. Teague had vastly overpaid Matthew and that overpayment had only gained interest. “Would you take me back to the bar so I can pick up my rental car?” asked Matthew. He was looking forward to having the money going back to California. It was rent money and eating money, particularly since Matthew’s savings had been confiscated by the gaming commission. Matthew had been careful to avoid any sort of other debt since his gambling losses. “Sure, I’ll take you,” Teague said. They didn’t talk about much on the trip back. The silence was enough for both men. Music Matthew returned to his sister’s house around five. She wouldn’t get home until a little while later, though, and so
Matthew sat outside on the back porch. It was a new addition to the house. Matthew had been told she installed it a few years ago. Their mother liked sitting there in the summer, watching the backyard which abutted up against a forest. A hill rose up so one couldn’t see much past the immediate forest, though Matthew knew the national park extended onwards for miles. The whole neighborhood was built a few miles away from the town and was one of the better places to live in Oak County. Matthew sat on the encased porch, watching the darkness. The wind howled as it tore around the corners of the four-bedroom house. He sipped a glass of water and liked being alone. His toes and fingertips were cold, though he had on a heavy coat. The porch dulled the cold, though it was still noticeable. He adored the bitter winter. He pulled out a quarter and fingered it. The quarter was old and it had several scratches in it. “It’s cold out here. How was your day?” asked a voice from behind him. Emma walked out from the house and sat down opposite from him. The chairs weren’t comfortable, but they were sitting chairs nonetheless. She took off her shoes and rubbed her feet. The nurse’s uniform was clean, but there were dark sweat stains under Emma’s armpits. “I met up with Teague. And I saw Joseph for a little bit,” said Matthew. “He should be over pretty soon, along with Jenny,” responded Emma. “They’re coming over for dinner?” Emma nodded. The two of them sat there, talking and reminiscing about what
the yard had once looked like, with its swing-set. There were some trees that had been cut down. They had grown too big and eventually split from the stress of their own weight. “Need any help with dinner?” asked Matthew. “No, they’re bringing over pizza. We usually have a pizza night out or get it and have dinner together. We’re homebodies. We don’t do much, at least I don’t. Sometimes they go out and leave me with Marie. I like that though.” It began to rain outside and then it turned to ice. Matthew turned and looked at his sister. “Let’s go inside,” she said. They both stood up and walked through the heavy wooden door that was replaced with a glass door in the summer. They sat down in the living room. Matthew sat on the couch, Emma on the straight backed chair that was moved for the Christmas tree in December. There were still remnants of pine needles around the edge of the room. The entire Kooper family always had real Christmas trees, but Matthew hadn’t gone to church in the past three decades. Christmas had nothing to do with church. “I hope it’s nice this weekend,” said Emma. She turned on the television to watch the weather report. “I think I’m leaving on Monday,” said Matthew. “Going to catch a flight late in the morning.” “Well, they say that it’s supposed to stop raining around midnight and get sunny tomorrow and Sunday. Still be cold as hell. You want to go anywhere tomorrow or Sunday?” asked Emma. Matthew shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know. Know of anywhere to go?” Emma glanced at the floor, avoiding Matthew’s eyes and thought to herself. Matthew picked up the paper she had brought home and read it. The reporter on the television squawked about a forest fire. Matthew read that the local VFW was closing down because the members had been gambling illegally. Some of them weren’t even veterans. He sighed. “We could go see a movie,” said Emma. “Or we could take a little trip up to the orchards. Nothing is in bloom, but the hiking trails are still fun. The trails might be a little muddy, though.” They stared at each other. No one hiked in Wisconsin winters. But they both knew who the owner of the orchards was. Matthew didn’t say anything. They heard a knock on the door and Marie’s giggle. There was a small window at the top of the door. They could see Marie swaying in front of it, sitting on her father’s shoulders. Matthew opened the door. Jenny gave him a small peck on the cheek. She went inside with the pizzas in her gloved hands. Joseph gave Matthew a crooked look. The man looked far stronger without the uniform than with it. He had Marie by the ankles, but took a hand off to shake Matthew’s. “It a tradition on Friday nights,” he said. He ducked in the doorway with Marie still hovering. She waved at Matthew. Matthew closed the door and went into the kitchen. Jenny had already set up the pizza. Emma got up and the five of them sat down at the dinner table. * * * “…that way no one had to make costumes all by themselves,” said Marie. She had only eaten one slice of pizza.
Matthew had eaten his share and so had the other three adults. Marie finished talking about how her class had the older children in the school help them put on the play. The younger kids were acting in it, but they needed help to create the sets and costumes. Matthew reflected that school seemed to be running smoothly, even with so high unemployment. Marie licked her lips and drank her juice. She only drank grape juice. No orange or apple. The glass also had a straw in it that Marie drank from. She didn’t like her lips touching the top of a glass. It wasn’t because the cup might be dirty, but because it might have a scratch on it and cut her lips. A year ago, one of the cups had a small glass sliver sticking out of it—so tiny no one noticed until Marie had licked the cup of orange and apple juice mix. She had sliced open her tongue. It wasn’t a bad cut. It was no worse than a paper cut, but she had cried for days. Any young child would have had the same reaction: taste aversion. “The pizza was good,” said Matthew. Jenny and Joseph were sitting next to one another, leaning on each other’s shoulders. Emma sat next to Marie while Matthew sat at the foot of the table. Jenny smiled. “It’s a good pizza place that opened up just a few years ago,” said Jenny. “So many people in town go there, though, that it feels like it’s been there forever.” The lights flickered and dimmed. The storm was no longer ice, though the snow was falling rapidly. The lights went out for a moment, but came back on, again burning brightly. “They’ve got good prices, too. It’d be a gold mine except that business is so slow around here in the winter.
Besides us, only drunks go there during January.” said Joseph. Emma stood up and starting clearing the table. The rest followed except for Marie, who went into the living room and started a puzzle she had brought with her. The adults did the dishes and cleaned up. Then they all sat down. Matthew and his sister sat in separate chairs while Joseph and Jenny sat on the couch. Matthew picked up the remote, but Emma told him not to turn on the television. Marie sat on the floor, not paying attention to the adults. “I’ve got something to show you all,” she said and went out of the room. Matthew, Joseph, and Jenny gave each other questioning looks. Marie sat quietly, quickly putting the pieces of her puzzle together. She was a brilliant little and when she became engrossed in something, it consumed her. Matthew had noticed that and more: she wouldn’t respond unless one put a hand on her shoulder or drew her attention away from the pieces of the puzzle. Matthew was amazed at her excellent behavior at the funeral. But more than that, she reminded Matthew of himself. Emma returned in a moment, carrying what look like a large flying saucer with a hole in the bottom. It was silver and had finger grooves in it. “What is that?” asked Jenny. “This is a drum. Or at least, it’s a form of a drum,” responded Emma. “How do you play it?” asked Jenny. Matthew and Joseph echoed the same question. It was an odd piece. It was half the size of a normal cylindrical drum. Emma showed them that the drum went between the drummer’s legs. The hole in the bottom had to hang open so air could enter it and
make sound. Emma then placed her fingers on the groves. She made her fingers go tight and rigid. Emma tapped the top of the drum. The sound that emanated wafted through the house. She played with the skill of a virtuoso. Outside, the rain stopped. The wind continued to howl. The lights flickered again. Emma had been given numerous lessons as a child in playing instruments. She’d also been taught to dance. The only reason she wanted the lessons was to outdo one of her schoolmates. They hated one another, always pulling each other’s hair at recess. The other girl was a fantastic dancer. Emma became an even better one but stopped in middle school when she realized her spite had long ago vanished when the girl moved to the east coast. Matthew was never given any lessons, though his father taught him how to repair cars and install plumbing. Matthew’s father was practical despite his adoration of whiskey straight up. “And see, if you flick the drum with different speeds or strengths, it will make a different sound,” said Emma. Joseph asked if flicking it different places mattered. “No. That’s what neat about this. It’s not the drum that makes the different sounds. I do. That’s fun.” She continued flicking, making the tune her mother used to hum to her and Matthew. Matthew thought how different his sister and he were. Yet, they both liked music. Both seemed entranced by the power of sound. He had been a truculent child, never listening to his parents. Emma had listened to their mother, learning how to play well-crafted music with professional skill.
“Can I try it?” asked Jenny. Emma smiled and handed the drum to her daughter. “It’s lighter than it looks.” “Yes, but it’s still heavy. Probably weighs twenty or thirty pounds. Having that sit on your lap for a couple of hours makes it feel like a few hundred.” “I’ve seen those around in a few shops out west,” said Matthew. He continued, “Where’d you get it?” “From a yard sale last weekend,” said Emma. “A family was moving to the east coast and needed to get rid of the stuff they didn’t need. I would think this thing is too nice to sell, but I got it for next to nothing. They even shined it up for me.” Jenny played the drum. Her fingers moved a bit awkwardly at first, creating a sonorous but raucous noise. After a few minutes, though, she had mastered the primordial drum. Matthew thought the drum looked like a prehistoric version of the drums he had seen bands play at the bar where he worked. Emma tapped her foot along with Joseph who snapped to the beat his wife set. They looked at each other with zeal, entranced with the other despite the passage of time. They had learned from their mistakes and had managed a happy marriage even within the Kooper family. The Kooper family was spiteful. No one seemed to like each other, particularly those who were married. But Joseph and Jenny stared at each other, their eyes twinkling. They had been married almost thirteen years and still talked to each other like newlyweds. At dinner, they told each other about their day and discussed their common hobby of fossil classification. Jenny liked to fix cars and Joseph liked to
garden, but they both had a healthy obsession with archeology. They had told Matthew that they visited a new excavation site every year. “I’m finished,” cried Marie. Matthew looked at the puzzle she had been putting together. It was a pterodactyl flying over a massive ocean. Underneath the waves were shadows of large prehistoric fish. Pointing to the pterodactyl, Emma asked Marie, “What is that called?” But Marie was already focused on the drum she had not yet noticed. Her eyes narrowed, focusing on the finger groves. “Can I play with it?” asked Marie. “Just be careful,” said Emma. Jenny handed it to her daughter. Marie didn’t know how to use it so Joseph showed her how. “Weren’t you listening to anything your grandma told us,” Joseph said rhetorically as he moved his daughter’s fingers into position on the drum. The ten year old shook her head. “We’ve told you before. You need to make sure to listen. Are you listening to what I’m saying?” “Yes,” replied Marie. “What did I say?” “You said,” answer Marie, “that I need to pay attention because I can get myself into trouble. Like at school. I’ll really try, Daddy. Promise.” “I know,” said Joseph. He showed her how to hold the drum. He was a large man but ever so easy with his daughter. Matthew marveled at the change in the man from the police station. In both places he was gentle and soft-spoken.
But with his child, Matthew could tell the man would never let anyone stand in the way of his family. There was no trace of the police station. Everyone in jail or who Joseph arrested was totally forgotten during that night. Matthew remembered the advice his mother once gave him. She had told him not to become too wrapped up in anything that involved money. She also reminded him to understand the need for money. The entire family had made that mistake. His mother tried to instill the opposite values. She still liked money and recognized its importance. Somehow despite her husband, Elizabeth Kooper had maintained an objective outlook on money. Most people end up with one of two opinions. Money is evil or money is everything. Elizabeth believed in both of these views. Joseph seemed to have embraced that advice too. “Did she get into trouble at school?” Matthew asked Jenny in a low voice. Marie was playing with the drum, making loud and then soft noises. The louder ones sounded like thuds. “She had very severe attention problems,” responded Jenny. “They’ve wanted to put her on medication for a long time, but Joseph and I refused. We let her play outside every day. Actually, we make her play outside everyday after school. So, for the most part, she behaves well in school and gets good marks.” Marie created a tune none of the adults had ever heard before. Emma stood up slowly, holding her back a little. She was too old to be working, but she needed the money. Besides that, she liked being a nurse. It gave her a
purpose and didn’t allow her to stay bored. She walked into the kitchen. “Would anyone like tea?” she called. Everyone responded except Marie, so Emma began boiling a large pot of water. Joseph looked at the cabinets in the living room. They were handmade from a pine tree. All of the doors were made from pine. The night before, Emma had told Matthew that Joseph had made them for a birthday a few years back. Jenny continued talking. “When Marie was very young, I always warned her to wash her hands. Two squirts of soap and then put her hands together, feeling the little grains of the cleaner. She said it makes her skin rough, but she also told me her hands felt clean. It took a while for her to pay attention. Her preschool teacher kept telling me she didn’t wash her hands. But sure enough, once she came inside from playing all day, she didn’t have enough energy not to listen. She was tired and wouldn’t fade away.” “It’s not really the school or her that’s the problem. She needs to stay active and use her energy. She actually pays attention very well after that.” Jenny finished talking and watched Marie. She was playing lightly now, but very fast. Like her mother, her fingers moved gracefully. Her drumming sounded well-practiced. Joseph came over and sat back down next to Jenny. “I think most parents would be better off if their parents took a healthy interest in them,” he said. “Not trying to tell them
what to do, but helping the children figure out what interests them. Marie just needs to get rid of excess energy.” “Tea,” said Emma, coming in from the kitchen. Matthew noticed she hadn’t said much, during dinner or while they were sitting together. She brought over the cups with their tea bags. After she placed them on the little coffee table, she said, “Would anyone like cream or sugar?” Matthew took some cream while Jenny took some sugar. They sipped tea for a little bit until Marie stopped playing the drum. She crawled onto her uncle’s lap and fell asleep quickly. After a few minutes, Jenny and Joseph stood up. “Well,” began Joseph, “I have to get up for work tomorrow morning. Just close up a few loose ends from this week.” He didn’t look in Matthew’s direction when he spoke. “I guess we should be going,” said Jenny. Jenny picked up Marie gently. She gave her uncle a kiss on the cheek. Joseph shook his hand. Emma gave them both a hug. Once they had left, Emma turned on the television while Matthew went to bathroom. He looked in the mirror for a moment. He rubbed his neck, which had a few wrinkles in it, and splashed some water on his face. His eyes watered when he thought of the dinner he’d just had. Already it was a better memory but already it was a memory. He went back into the living room. “It’s going to snow tomorrow morning, but then it’s supposed to be sunny,” said Emma after Matthew sat down. It was only a few minutes past ten. “Hope Marie’s play goes well,” said Matthew. The two of them talked until midnight. They didn’t argue or
complain. They weren’t very friendly to each other either. They were civil and laughed, but there was an uncomfortable air that surrounded their conversations. They simply talked about their disconnected pasts. Afterwards, they both went upstairs, tired. But they were more informed of what the other had been doing, Emma with her nursing and Matthew with his crazy schedule as a bartender. They talked a little about their father on the stairs. They avoided the topic of their mother. “Goodnight Emma,” said Matthew after they had finished. “Hope you sleep well,” said Emma. They gave each other a hug, but it was brief, little more than a handshake. Matthew went to the guest bathroom, a place he never used when he was younger. He was surprised the lights still worked. He washed his teeth and face, trying to avoid looking at his reflection more than he needed. Then, he went to bed, trying not to think about missing seeing Jenny and Marie grow up. Instead, he thought about whether he was going to see his ex-lover who owned the orchards. Hiking Matthew turned over in his bed. The single window filled the room with light. Outside it was bright and sunny but snow had fallen in droves. Directly above the house, there were no clouds. But along the horizons black and gray blots circled, like the blood of a thunder god. The wind swirled and pulsed. Matthew got out of bed and put on his shirt and pants. His back had grown cold because the blanket he had been using was too small, too dusty, and too many memories. Downstairs, Emma was cooking breakfast.
“If you still had your long hair it would be a mess,” she told him. “That’s why I keep it short,” said Matthew, running his fingers over his short military-length hair. It was short, efficient, and easy. No combing or fussing. Simple. “You can help yourself, if you want,” said Emma. Matthew went over to the fridge and took out the orange juice. He poured himself a glass. “I remember making you making us breakfast when we were little.” “I didn’t make it often,” she retorted. “Don’t get me wrong. I remember doing it, but only when Dad and Mom were both working in the summers.” She mused for a moment. “You kept offering to help me.” “I wanted to help because there was no one else to help you,” Matthew said. He sat down with Emma. She sipped her coffee. He ate his bagel in large bites. Matthew ate quickly, like a prison inmate would. Except Matthew had never spent any time in prison. He ate the same way Emma ate when she was by herself, except he ate even faster and with worse manners. The pair ate as loners eat—out of necessity. “You didn’t like me very much,” she said. “I didn’t like anyone. Well almost no one.” “What would you like to do today?” she said, changing the subject. “It doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t have anywhere to go. We’re still on for the play tonight, right?”
Emma nodded and said, “Yes. But the play might be pushed back to next week if the snow keeps coming. It’s snowed five inches last night.” “Wisconsin sure acts differently than California. A little blip of snow and everything’s canceled. Most people out there think snow is a myth. Here, it’s no big deal. At least people here don’t overreact.” “Overreact?” asked Emma, raising an eyebrow. “About snow maybe not, but they certainly do about other things. Donny gave me a call this morning, said he was still stuck in prison.” Emma paused. “He told me you two had already run into each other.” “And?” “I take it Joseph didn’t tell me because Donny was the one at fault.” Mathew sighed. Emma returned his stare. Their eyes were the same dingy color. “No, we were both wrong,” he said. He finished the bagel and put his plate in the dish washer. It looked brand new. Emma told him she had bought it a month ago because she was sick of washing dishes by hand with their mother. “Donny was wrong too, though,” continued Matthew, “but so was I. Teague said Donny doesn’t know about how much his grandfather was a drunk. So he holds everything against me. He was looking to pick a fight and I wasn’t smart enough to stay out of his way.” The snow crews in the area cleaned the roads with brutal efficiency. After the day cleared up—and the sun started to shine—they returned Matthew’s rental car and then
got into Emma’s car to head towards the orchard. The late morning sun was in stark contrast to the boot-deep snow. “You just wanted to see it, right?” asked Emma. “It’s pretty cold.” Matthew nodded his head. “I don’t know about you, but hiking isn’t on the top of my priority list. But seeing the place might be nice. She has a greenhouse, doesn’t she?” asked Matthew. They both avoided talking about Dawn Bullock until now. “Yes,” said Emma. “I need to stop by the grocery store after that. Then I could take you to the merchant center.” Matthew asked what that was. “It’s a new place. In the summer, we get a fair amount of tourists. You know, camping and hunting and fishing just like when we were little town, except now it’s a big business. So the town council decided to build a venue where the local craftspeople can sell their knickknacks. It’s pretty neat. Since you’re a semi-tourist, I figure you might want to see.” She explained that it was only open a few hours a day during the winter. They drove towards the orchard, which was beyond the factories in town. It was an apple orchard that covered dozens of acres, butting up against the national park. A family used to own it, but they had sold it to a small family operated company. The company, run by Dawn Bullock after her parents died, in turn used the orchard as a tourist gimmick. They sold various sized bags and the customers could pick their own fruit. Matthew thought it was a brilliant business. No maintenance was required except for spraying the trees when they had bugs. Other than that, the orchards only needed to be mowed. The buildings needed work, but nothing else
did. The place made a large amount of profit, so much that the company had long ago put in a greenhouse where people could pick oranges and bananas from the “tropical section.” It was the most successful business in the area. It was cold once they arrived. The drive was quick, even though there was only a gravel road that entered the orchard. The wind shook the car on its shocks. A gate stood closed at the opposite end of the parking lot, a large bolt kept out trespassers. The orchards were closed between November and May. However, there was an open sign on the door to the greenhouse. It wasn’t very tall, only two stories, maybe three in the back. The trees needed their space. Matthew walked in with Emma following him. “She’s probably around here somewhere,” said Emma, seeing that the front desk was empty. “Very few people come here in the winter. She fixes everything until the beginning of the summer.” Matthew didn’t respond, instead walking over to the desk and rung the bell. The desk wasn’t much more than a large grocery checkout line. “I’ll be there in a minute,” shouted a deep but melodious voice from the back of the greenhouse. Matthew looked around, noticing the place hadn’t change much since he had helped Dawn’s father put in a few glass panels that had been smashed during a Halloween night. The Bullocks were always being harassed. They were one of the only black families in Oak County—and they were extremely successful.
The entire place was glass and the snow on it had melted already. The sun was warming the place up, but it still wasn’t much warmer than seventy degrees. Yet, the outside temperature was twenty below freezing, so Matthew thought the place felt sweltering. He looked at the notices on the check-out line. There were various prices for various bags. Each had a weight limit. The prices were expensive, but the orchard was entertainment as well as buying produce. “Matthew?” asked the voice. Matthew saw his exfiancé. Dawn Bullock hadn’t changed much, except grow more beautiful and stronger. She was a black woman a little over six feet tall who stood a few inches taller than either Emma or Matthew. Her arms were thick and powerful. She had always been big, but now she looked like she had been lifting weights for years. Her cheeks were deeply grooved and she had makeup on that covered the large bags under her eyes. Her dark skin glistened from sweat. “How are you, Dawn?” asked Matthew, smiling meekly. Emma gave her brother a quick look and walked down the to the banana trees. Her brother stared at Emma. She hadn’t brought him to the orchard for any reason except to see Dawn. He wasn’t sure how his sister felt but he owed Dawn an apology. “It’s been a long time,” said Dawn. “I would love to give you a hug, but you’ll understand if I don’t. Couldn’t remember to treat me with respect, could you?” “I can’t apologize, D.”
“No,” said Dawn, “it’s too late for that. You ran away before we could ever get married.” She spoke in perfect syllables, like a teacher trying to make a student speak correctly. But she hadn’t told him to call her Dawn. Everyone who knew Dawn Bullock called her by her full name. Dawn Bullock. There were no additions or substitutions. She’d been that way with everyone since she was young—except Matthew. Even her parents weren’t allowed to give her a nickname. Except Matthew. “I’m sorry, D?” asked Matthew. “Stop calling me that,” spat Dawn. Emma had gotten a cart and was picking bananas and oranges and even a few mangos. Dawn spoke loud enough that Matthew could hear above the rumble in the greenhouse. “Let me take you out to dinner,” said Matthew, feeling his wallet tucked in his back pocket. Having it full and knowing he had money in a bank account gave him confidence. It was a different confidence he had from when he was throwing drunken men from the bar in California. “Matthew,” said Dawn, “the past is the past.” She went behind the counter and starting cleaning. Matthew took some of her paper towels and helped her. He moved methodically while she moved quickly. “Look Dawn Bullock, I’m leaving on Monday morning. Tonight I’m going to see my niece’s daughter in her first school play. I don’t have a lot of time, but I want to fix some of the shit that I caused.” The things that went unsaid were all Matthew’s fault. Leaving a fiancé and never telling
her why—that was Matthew’s fault and he knew he could never truly fix things. Dawn straightened her back out and crossed her arms. She looked defiant, exactly the same way she dealt with the racist boys at Matthew’s high school graduation. Despite the passing of all the years, her radiant eyes sharper than ever. Her green t-shirt said Bullock’s Orchards. She had a large chest with large breasts. Her neck was thick like her arms. She had the build of a farmer, despite going to Yale for three years. She had dropped out when her father got sick. She had been twenty-one then and Matthew had only been seventeen. They were engaged three years later. Six months after that Matthew left, run away without telling anyone save for Harold Teague. But the two of them had bonded back then. Dawn’s brother hadn’t wanted any of the family business and Dawn hired Matthew to do odd jobs after school his senior year. Everyone in the whole town knew Matthew had needed all the money he could earn. The Koopers never had much money. Teague made sure everyone knew that so they would hire Matthew. But no one expected Dawn and Matthew to become involved. And they truly loved each other. Matthew, even though he was in high school, saw Dawn everyday, helping her establish the business and fixing it up. Many times his work went unpaid because the orchards had not yet grown successful. The two had once talked about the running it together. Neither of their families was fond of the idea. “Are you seeing anyone?” Matthew asked.
“No. I’m too old now. And when I was younger, I was building this,” she said, motioning to the greenhouse. She put her hands on her hips. “Knock it off, Matthew. What did you really come here for?” Dawn’s voice quivered with repressed anger. But it was still softer than many people had heard her speak. Matthew had helped her when no one else in her family would. She would never forget that or forget how truly evil Matthew’s father was. Matthew thought about her question. Emma had suggested they come. He hadn’t tried to dissuade her, either. He clenched a fist and then relaxed his hand. He had missed Dawn the most—and Emma knew that. He had his family in Oak County, but his lover was there too. His mother’s death offered him another reason to visit the northern Wisconsin town. Emma had no real desire to visit the orchard and neither did he. But he wanted to see Dawn again. Dawn Bullock’s eyes were emblazoned in Matthew’s mind. “I came here to see you,” said Matthew. He said it so coolly that it seemed to catch Dawn off-guard. She said nothing. “What can I do? I’m trying,” he said. She brushed her long brown hair from her eyes and thought for a moment. “You treated your niece and her daughter like shit,” she said. Matthew didn’t respond. “So I’ll tell you what,” she continued, “make sure you see that little girl’s play and I’ll go to lunch with you. You have to do something for me, though.” Matthew raised an eyebrow. “What?” he said flatly.
“Take pictures of Marie for me. I asked Joseph to do it, but I’d rather have you do it. Get them developed, too.” “Do you still talk with Jenny?” asked Dawn. Emma started walking back. She had two large watermelons in her cart, along with the other fruit she had selected. Dawn glanced at Emma, who had not been in speaking distance before. “Does he know,” asked Dawn. “He doesn’t,” said Emma. “I didn’t want to tell him. And neither did Jenny.” Sun streamed into the greenhouse. The place reminded Matthew of the garden his mother kept when he was younger. He would hide from his sister in the tall oak tree in the front yard. She couldn’t get to him up that high. He’d whistle until his mother would call him down. But while he was up in that oak, he’d pretend to be Peter Pan flying among the clouds. He even carried a whistle then, announcing his unseen presence to all the neighbors. “Tell me what?” “I’m around a lot, Matthew. I’m Marie’s godmother and your mother’s power of attorney,” said Dawn. It suddenly made sense to Matthew why he had caught a glimpse of Dawn at his mother’s funeral. She probably knew the law as well as any lawyer. Emma started unloading the fruit on the counter. She had sweat forming around her forehead. The back of her shirt looked damp. Matthew probably looked the same way she did. Dawn had the aura of being at ease, but she worked in the greenhouse and was adjusted to its heat. Mathew helped his sister and Dawn put the fruit in the oversized paper bags.
“What about family?” Matthew asked his sister. “No offense, D, but Emma, don’t you think it would be easier if you gave it to someone who knew the family? What about Teague?” “Teague is a good man,” said Emma. “But I’m not close with him. No one really is. He often leaves here in the summer and travels. God knows, he needs it. Works all the time. No, Matthew, Dawn is the right choice.” He watched Dawn ring up the bill. He gave Dawn a sideways grin. “I couldn’t think of anyone who would be a better choice,” he said softly, his eyes unfocused. Neither woman could tell whether or not he was talking to them or himself. “Sure,” he continued, “I’ll take those pictures at Marie’s play and get them developed.” “Then you can take me to lunch,” replied Dawn. “Where?” asked Matthew. The three of them started walking towards the exit of the greenhouse. Matthew felt uncomfortably hot. Emma walked ahead and left. A cold gust of air penetrated the greenhouse after the door closed. It brushed against their skin, reminding Matthew how long it had taken him and Teague to help Dawn build her business. They watched Emma load up the car and then get in. “How about you take me to the sandwich place?” she asked after a moment. “It’s that place we used to go to when you were last here. It’s changed names since you left, but they still serve the same things.” “Do you still live here?” asked Matthew. “In the back lot,” said Dawn. “I’ll meet you there, though.”
“So lunch, then. Same place?” asked Matthew. “Same place,” said Dawn. “Is noon alright?” asked Matthew. “As long as you have those pictures and you’re treating,” said Dawn. She spoke without hesitation or enthusiasm. She had no one to impress nor would she turn down a free lunch. “Noon then,” said Matthew. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Bye, D.” “Bye, Matthew.” Dawn turned around and started to walk back to the greenhouse. “One more thing,” called Matthew. “I have a picture of you in my wallet. I keep it there just like you asked me to do.” Dawn didn’t say anything. Matthew climbed into Emma’s car. His sister sat in the driver’s seat. She gave him a quick glance and started the engine. Matthew thought about the play and the costumes all the parents had been designing for their children. He thought it would be fun to take pictures of the play. Jenny hadn’t shown him the candle outfit yet, but he knew it would be fantastic. “How’d it go?” asked Emma after they had driven in silence for a few moments. Matthew didn’t hear her at first, but responded after she asked again. “She’ll go to lunch with me,” he told her. Dawn wanted the pictures because she didn’t believe Matthew cared about his family at all. “That’s pretty good. If you’d done to me what you did to her, I’d punch you in the face.” Matthew gave her a
stare. She fired right back, reminding him of when they were younger and romped around the backyard. Their parents would yell at them for breaking the fence. Afterwards, they would glare at one another. “If I did to me what I did to her, I’d hit myself. It wasn’t right.” “No, it wasn’t,” said Emma. “It wasn’t wrong either. You needed to get out of his place, I understand that. No, Matthew, it wasn’t that you left,” she continued, her voice softening for the first time since he’d returned, “it was the way you left.” She kept her eyes on the road, sunglasses on because of the sunshine that reflected off the snow. “You just left. No goodbyes. No notes or letters. Just ran away, like a scared little boy.” “I wasn’t much more than a boy,” he replied. “You were a man. Didn’t act like it maybe. I blame you as much as I blame our father.” The harsh tone of Emma’s voice was hidden, just like when she hid in the attic when they were younger. She could squeeze into any place, among the various storage boxes and old furniture. Her favorite spot was between the floorboards above the kitchen. There was a large exhaust pipe that came into the attic. Emma used to squish herself into a little ball until she fit. No one bothered her there. Matthew was the only one who had found her there. Often times he would find her there when they were not playing a game. “But that doesn’t matter,” she said suddenly. She paused a moment to turn into the grocery store. “We need to get stuff for the snack bar at Marie’s school. I volunteered to
make cupcakes and brownies.” Emma adjusted her hair and put on some lipstick after she turned the car off. She looked at herself in the mirror and nodded approvingly. “What doesn’t matter?” asked Matthew after a moment. “You’re here and so far I like what I see. You’ve grown up. The point is just that you’re here. Ready?” “Do you have your grocery list?” “Yes,” replied Emma. The two of them got out of the car and walked quickly into the store so the wind wouldn’t bite their ears. “Why the lipstick?” asked Matthew when they got inside. The day was odd for him. Being used to the California weather, he couldn’t quite grasp the sunshine being paired with the blistering cold air. “A lot of people around town,” she began, “know me because I’m one of the leaders of the PTA. So when I go around town, I try to look nice.” Matthew asked her if they cared what she looked like while she was buying milk. “You aren’t a parent, I mean. You’re a grandmother and don’t have a child in school.” They walked around the store, picking up the items on Emma’s list. It was the first time the tension in their conversations had faded. The grocery store was empty. “That’s true,” sighed Emma. “But they do care. And that means I have to care. Besides, it’s important to Jenny and Joseph. They’re busy with their own jobs. I don’t have much at home, particularly now with Mom gone.” Emma picked out a large steak and put it in her shopping cart. They continued
walking. Matthew thought he saw a few of his old schoolmates shopping. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought they were looking at him, trying to place him just as he was trying to place them. “You know, you have a job,” said Matthew. “You work and are busy yourself.” “I know,” said Emma, “but I’m not trying to raise a child anymore. Once Mom got really feeble, the government paid for help at home, making me a little obsolete.” Emma didn’t say it, but Matthew could tell how she felt. She needed someone, the same way Dawn had needed him, they same way he had needed Teague when he was younger, the same way Donny needed Matthew to hate. Emma felt obligated to help her daughter. “So is being on the PTA hard?” asked Matthew, changing the subject after an awkward silence. “No,” Emma said quickly. She told Matthew about the details of the paperwork and described the boring meetings that went on. “The parents,” she stated, “always want to have things fixed, but never want to do the fixing.” Matthew asked about the teachers, but Emma told him the teacher’s responsibility was to teach, not to entertain the children or provide social functions. After Matthew picked up the cake mixes and sugar for icing, he turned to his sister and asked, “Anything else?” “Nope, that’s it. Let go checkout. Then we can go and make these snacks up for tonight. I don’t think we’ll have time to visit the tourist shops. Tonight is a pretty big event—
for the students as well as the parents.” She said the last part with a smile. “Vicarious living,” said Matthew. Emma replied with a laugh. They walked up to the cashier. As Emma was paying, another younger looking woman walked past them and started chatting. Apparently her name was Lindsey and she was another member of the PTA committee. She talked so fast that Matthew couldn’t keep some of her words straight. She slurred the end of her sentences. “And who is this gentleman?” Lindsey asked Emma after the cashier had handed them change. They walked towards the parking lot, slowly so they wouldn’t finish their conversation in the cold. “Actually,” said Emma, “this is Matthew Kooper, my brother.” She ignored the nosy tone in Lindsey’s voice as well as the accusation that Matthew might be a well-kept lover. “You have another brother besides Donald Junior?” she questioned, not expecting an answer. Emma told her that Matthew had been living in California on a business venture. Matthew thought about Emma’s statement. He had been on a venture; one that had led him all around California and now back to Oak County. They stopped in front of the exit door and moved aside to let other customers pass. Lindsey, her face slightly flush and her skin falsely tanned, lowered her voice and said to Emma, “So has Jenny told you what Donald Junior’s son did?” “Donny?” replied Emma. Matthew had given Donny the nickname. They called Matthew’s father Don, Matthew
brother Donald, and Matthew’s nephew Donny. The names had allowed the family to keep the men straight. Matthew thought it would have been easier to give them different names, but the trio believed in keeping the family name. “I don’t know what happened to Donny,” said Matthew. “Well, yesterday, Joseph picked him up from the bar for fighting. And because Joseph wouldn’t let him out without someone coming to pick him up, Donny got pretty angry. So when one of his friends picked him up this morning, he got angry and left. But a few minutes later—at least this is what my husband told me and my husband’s friend was one of the policemen on duty—Donny came back into the station and punched Joseph in the face.” Matthew remembered that Emma had told him Donny was still in prison earlier that morning. “What!” cried Emma and Matthew in unison. “Is Joseph alright?” asked Emma, holding her hand to her mouth. “Oh, he’s alright,” said Lindsey, popping a piece of gum into her mouth. She started chewing it with her mouth open, revealing braces that were clear. They were designed to be invisible, but Matthew could see them plainly. “But they threw Donny back in jail and he’s facing some serious charges, I think.” “Do you know where Joseph is now?” asked Matthew. “You know what, I don’t actually. Sorry, Matt.” She looked at the parking lot and blew a bubble and cracked it on her front teeth. “Look, I’m sorry you two, but I need to get
going. You know, things to do before my little girl can put on a great show.” She said goodbye and went to her large SUV, which was parked in a handicapped spot. When she was out of earshot, Matthew said to Emma, “What just happened?” Emma looked worried. Without saying anything, Emma loaded up the car and they drove back home. During the car ride, Matthew said nothing. They got out and Matthew carried in the bags while Emma checked the phone messages. Jenny had left three messages, all of them telling the same story Lindsey had relayed and assuring them that Joseph was fine. “He’s a little upset and pissed off,” Jenny voice said on the answering machine, “but we should be more worried about Donny than Joseph. If you want, you can give me a call.” With that, the phone clicked and the answering machine turned off. “Ok, I know it’s not the most appropriate time to ask,” said Matthew, “but don’t you think that lady Lindsey is a little gossip?” Emma snorted a bit. He sounded as if she wanted to stifle a laugh and a cry at the same time. “That woman is a colossal gossip,” said Emma. She picked up the phone and dialed a number. Matthew started to say something, but stopped when his sister started to speak into the phone. “Hi Jenny,” Emma stated. Matthew heard a few words spoken over the phone. “Yes, that’s good to hear,” said Emma. “I’m glad they’ve kept him locked up.” Emma paused again and shifted her feet on the ground. “Are you sure?” asked Emma. “I mean,
I feel like we should come over.” She glanced at her watch. “Yes, it is just a few hours until the play. Well, we’ll see you there. Give Joseph all my love. See you soon.” With that, Emma hung up the phone. She walked into the kitchen and pulled out some pans and material for making the snacks. Matthew followed her. “How is Joseph?” “Jenny said he was just fine,” answered Emma. “They sent him home and the officers have been visiting him ever since. It was a solid fight. But we’re going to see them tonight at the play.” Matthew pulled out the mixes for the brownies. Emma started greasing the pans. Outside, the sun shined. They took the next couple of hours and made enough snacks for the entire PTA to sell. Once everything was in the oven, they sat down and waited for the sweets to bake. “So how about that woman,” said Matthew. They had the television on and were watching the news. It talked about how the weather had knocked out the power in the closest city. Matthew was reminded that their house, though close to the forest and away from civilization, had never lost any power. “She moved here about ten years ago. She’s only got two children, about five years apart. Her husband is the manager at the gas plant, now. He used to work in New York City.” Emma told Matthew the entire story and why Lindsey had managed to make herself hated by nearly everyone in Oak County. She and her husband were from Long Island and both their families had money. In fact, according to Emma, the
money was more than enough for both of them not to work. But in order to be able to inherit his inheritance, Lindsey’s husband needed to join the family business. The family business was investing and manufacturing oil and other types of fuel. The family had bought the old lumber mill from Teague and transformed it into the gas company that now employed, in one form or another, nearly half of the county’s workers. It was a good company, treated its employees with respect. It paid them well and respected the environment, which provided the town’s other revenue from tourism and camping. In fact, Lindsey’s husband was a generous man. He had created a park and recreation center for the children in the area. A hard worker, he did everything the company needed him to do. Except Lindsey insisted on getting involved in helping the town too. “…And that’s why people don’t like her,” said Emma. “She doesn’t seem to make anyone angry. Her intentions are good even. She just butts in where she shouldn’t. It sounds petty, I know.” Matthew spoke for the first time since Emma had started telling him about Lindsey. “What do you mean?” he asked. “It sounds to me like she is just trying to help.” “That may be the case,” said Emma, “except she tries to help out with things that are not her business.” “Like…” “Like today for example. She always has to know what’s going on. I don’t know how she knew about Donny so fast, but she usually talks with everyone in town at least once a
day. Even at the PTA meetings, she tries to implement these new policies. Never mind that the schools can’t afford them or don’t need them.” Then Emma lowered her voice and said, “Plus I think she cheats on her husband.” Mathew didn’t say anything. He didn’t have any words. He glanced at his watch and saw the brownies were almost done. Standing up, he went over and pulled them from the oven. “Well?” asked Emma. “Well what?” “What do you think?” Emma asked. Mathew cut the brownies and made some little bags of carrots. He put them all into boxes so they could be sold to other parents at the show, which was in less than an hour. Talking about Lindsey reminded him of all of the people out in California who talked about each other. He didn’t want to talk about people. He wanted to talk with them. “Nothing. She is what she is. Want to try a bite? I added some fudged icing to make the brownies thick.” Emma smiled at her brother. She dropped the conversation and they had dinner before they went over to the Marie’s play. * * * “So this is the elementary school,” stated Matthew. Emma pulled into the parking lot, which was almost full, despite their early arrival. Emma told him the school was rebuilt five years ago. It was equipped with new computers in every classroom. They parked and saw Jenny and Joseph waiting for them outside. Matthew realized Marie was already inside preparing for the play. He turned his sister’s camera over in
his hands, making sure there was film inside. Joseph waved at them as they walked up to the school. “How are you?” asked Emma, giving her son-in-law a hug. Joseph had a large bruise on his left cheek. Jenny told them it had looked worse, but she put makeup on it to conceal it a bit. Matthew stared at the school. He remembered graduating from high school. He remembered the school prank he and a few friends had pulled off. They had wrapped up the principal’s car with shrink wrap. It was a funny prank and no one was hurt. But he had long forgotten those things. Only three years after he had graduated high school, he had left. The elementary school looked far different than when he had dropped Donny off in the mornings for his brother. “Shall we drop these goodies off and then get some seats?” suggested Emma. Both she and Matthew had their arms full of paper plates and snacks. Joseph and Jenny took a few. They went inside, out of the darkening sky and dropped their packages off. Then they all got seats in the middle of the auditorium. Matthew reminded Emma that they didn’t have an auditorium when they had attended to school. The two women went off to the work at the snack shop, leaving Joseph and Matthew to talk. Their seats had an excellent view of the stage. “I’m sorry this happened,” said Matthew. “Matt, it’s not your fault,” said Joseph. “Can I ask you a favor?” “Sure,” said Joseph.
“Can you call me Matthew?” asked Matthew. “I don’t like being called Matt. My mother and father always told me to be called by my full name.” Joseph nodded. “Donny needs some help,” said Joseph. “He listens to no one and I think it has something to do with his father. Donny acts like his father was this great man, but in fact your brother didn’t like his son.” The seats in the auditorium were growing crowded, so the two men lowered their voices and sat next to each other. They laid down their coats to reserve the seats for the two women. Matthew noticed how large he was. Particularly Joseph’s arms. They looked like stumps growing from a tree, much like Dawn’s. Joseph’s dark olive skin was soft, but his hands were rough and flaky. His arms seemed to be pampered while his hands looked like a construction worker’s. Matthew had never noticed the juxtaposition before. It was that moment that he realized he should have come home sooner. “What do you want me to do about it? Donny, I mean.” “Would you go talk with him?” asked Joseph. “Go talk to him!” cried Matthew. Everyone was talking in hushed voices despite the stage’s curtain being drawn and no sign of any actors. Once Matthew cried out, people realize they could talk in a normal voice. “Yes, just go talk with him,” said Joseph, his voice returning to a normal pitch. “Maybe even after the play. I could take Emma home and you could visit him at the police station.” Matthew asked if Donny was still in a cell.
“Yes,” replied Emma. She and Jenny had come back and overhead Joseph’s response. They asked what the pair was talking about. Matthew had already made up his mind to talk with Donny. “I asked Matthew to see Donny down at the station,” said Joseph. “I could take you home Emma and Matthew could borrow your car.” Emma didn’t like the idea, but the other three convinced her to go along with it. They agreed Matthew would take Emma’s car. Joseph told him that there was only one police officer there, so there wouldn’t be much trouble. “There’s only one there?” asked Matthew. He was astounded. “There’s a few on the road. Don’t worry. Donny isn’t going to get out of that cell. Besides, the other officers are on call.” Matthew was given a look that reminded him of the low crime rate in Oak County. The lights dimmed and a spotlight turned sprung into action. An older woman, who looked very much like a teacher Matthew had had in third grade, walked onto the stage. She greeted the hushed audience. Flashes went off, but the teacher didn’t stop the parents from taking pictures. After telling the crowd where the exits were and reminding the younger children to keep quiet, she proclaimed, “Now, without further adieu, Oak County Elementary proudly presents Beauty and The Beast!” There was applause as the curtain raised. The play went off without too many distraction or mistakes. The first time Marie walked on in her costume, Emma began clapping loudly, but Matthew nudged her,
making sure not to embarrass the youngster. Joseph took pictures of his daughter. Matthew took pictures as well, but he wouldn’t have unless Dawn had asked. In a way, Dawn Bullock made Matthew care just a little bit more. There was something about taking pictures that Matthew despised. It was an impersonal way of remembering things. He never kept them because he felt they prevented memory from doing its job. In his apartment, there were no pictures of any kind. Not even posters or painting. Although he read, he didn’t keep his books either. Matthew gave the books away for other people to read. It wasn’t that he didn’t like to own things—far from it. Matthew collected all sorts of things. But none of them needed to be seen or remembered. All of Matthew’s possessions had functions. In fact, Matthew was, in a way, afraid of forgetting things. Thus, he made sure to commit everything memory. Matthew whispered to Jenny, who sat on the other side of her husband. “Is she on stage for very long?” he asked after Marie had finished her first scene. Jenny nodded, her attention focused solely on the stage. The light hit Jenny’s face in such an angle that Matthew realized how young she still looked. He stared at the ground for a moment, thinking about Jenny’s father, Jim Fritz. They had never really known each other, despite going to school with each other. Fritz was an athlete—a jock. He and Emma had been in love and gotten married. A year later, Fritz was dead from naval combat. Still, Matthew thought, Fritz was a handsome man and had managed to pass his genes on to his daughter.
“What do you think?” Joseph asked Matthew in quiet voice. He seemed bored when his daughter was not on stage. Matthew couldn’t blame him. “Marie looks cute in her outfit,” said Matthew. Emma nudged him a little. The men lowered their voices more. “Jenny took a while trying to make it look good. Some of the parents used expensive material we couldn’t afford. So Jenny spent hours making sure the dress looked right. She must have clocked at least a month’s work on it.” They stopped talking after someone from behind hissed at them. Emma gave the pair a satisfied glance. * * * As the play ended, Matthew made sure to take pictures of Marie as she took a final bow. He was impressed with how well the children remembered their lines. They weren’t great at acting, but they needed very little prompting from their teachers or classmates. There was one amusing point when the boy playing the beast forgot his line in proclaiming his love, but the girl playing with him whispered in his ear. The audience chuckled and Matthew was sure the boy had turned red under all the makeup. The lights went up and the whole audience stood up as the children came out for a second bow. Some of them yawned and looked quite tired. Flashbulbs snapped incessantly, including Matthew’s camera. “Bravo!” shouted numerous parents. Some of the older siblings smirked and kept quiet. A few of the parents kept clapping even after the children left the stage.
Matthew mused on the zealousness of the parents. Like his sister, they were involved with the play’s creation. However, they kept taking pictures, as though trying to resuscitate the play with their cameras. Matthew stood with the other three adults, off to the side, waiting for Marie to come out. She was one of the last ones because she had a costume on, and only a few other students had big costumes that needed to be taken off like hers. “Congratulations!” said Jenny. Joseph gave his daughter a big hug and put her up on his shoulders. Marie’s smile was so wide, it made everyone around her smile. “Good job, Marie,” said Matthew, patting her on the back. “Thanks Uncle Matthew,” she said. She had started calling him “uncle” but he didn’t mind the mistake—he wasn’t even sure if there was a title for great-uncle. But she had given him a warmer reception than most of his family. “Are you feeling any better Daddy?” She gently stroked her father’s cheek, much like she would pet a dog. “I’m fine darling,” he answered. “But I think we should be going.” He looked at his watch and it read a few minutes past nine. “It’s your bedtime already.” They started walking to the parking lot. “Here are my keys,” said Emma as they got to the exit. “Thanks,” said Matthew after he had taken them. He gave Marie a kiss and Jenny a hug. Then he said goodbye to Joseph and told Emma he would be home later than night.
“Hopefully I won’t be too long. I mean, I do need to party on Saturday night after all,” he said, trying to force a smile. His palms were sweaty and he could feel his legs muscles started to twitch. Matthew got into Emma’s car. The wind howling in his face, Matthew watched his family for a moment and then drove to the police station. The cold drive made him shiver. Yet, his shivering vanished when he arrived at the police station. Which had smoke billowing from its windows. Fire Matthew pulled up into the empty parking lot and jumped out of his car. There wasn’t a large amount of smoke swelling from the windows but it was obvious enough. He remembered Joseph saying there was only one officer in the station. Rushing to open the door, Matthew found himself hit in the face by the boiling air. It wasn’t dark smoke. Rather, it was almost steam. Except it smelled like melted plastic. Then Matthew recalled the pipes from the day before. They hadn’t sounded right, like they were on their last legs. The smoke made Matthew light headed. There was only one other car in the lot. “Must be the officer’s,” Mathew told himself. Donny and the officer had both probably both escaped. Or dead. Matthew shrugged off the latter thought. As he stood outside the station, thoughts raced through his mind. He didn’t want to go into the building. One of his apartments had burned down in California. Everyone inside had died from smoke inhalation. He wasn’t going to end up being mourned like the
little boy on the third floor chewing grape flavored bubblegum. But he remembered taking the boy’s father home. He remembered Teague treating him well and respecting his decision to run away. Teague was the only one who knew where Matthew had gone. The face of a smiling Teague haunted Matthew. The face of the moon, which seemed to have the face of Matthew’s mother, was covered by the clouds, eliminating any light in the parking lot. Matthew blinked and walked forward. He wrapped his scarf around his mouth, forgetting about hypothermia. Then he rushed into the building, hoping to find his nephew and the other police officer. When he opened the door, he noticed the smoke wasn’t settling. If he stayed close to the ground, Matthew could see where he was going. He crawled along the floor, on his hands and knees. He went to the office first, but found no one. Angry and scared, Matthew went to the other end of the station, away from the cell where Joseph had put him. The station had bare white walls that looked like a hospital’s. Luckily, like a hospital’s, the doors of the station were all well marked. The smoke above Matthew had swirls of black in it. As he continued to crawl towards the other end, he noticed the white smoke grow darker. Rather than steam, it looked like smoke from a cedar burning. With his scarf still around his mouth and nose, Matthew kept his face close to the ground. The air was hot and sticky, but Matthew could still breathe. However, his head was beginning to pound, reminding him he needed to get out fast. He checked the doors until he found one that read CELL B. Sweat poured from his brow and his
knees hurt from the floor. The lower part of Matthew’s back was strained and suddenly popped. He cried out but kept moving. He reached up and opened the door only to be welcomed by a gust of brimstone air. He saw a body on the ground, prone and unmoving. Another figure was slumped in the actual prison cell. The officer was holding keys in one of his hands. Donny’s body looked as though it were squirming to get out of the cell. Quickly, Matthew grabbed the keys from the officer’s palm and opened the cell with the emergency key. An alarm went off, ripping into Matthew’s eardrums. A voice in the back of his head laughed that the alarm still had not yet gone off. The officer hadn’t pulled the fire alarm nor had the smoke detectors gone off. It must have been a quick fire—one of the boilers must have exploded. The officer probably didn’t even think about Donny until they were both unconscious. Still aching and his hands sweaty, Matthew grabbed each man by the forearm and pulled. In doing so, he had to stand up and breathe the smoke. He coughed and saw soot in his spit. He pulled them, dragging their lifeless bodies. His shoulders and back hurt, strained. His toes started to go numb from a lack of oxygen. At the bar, he was used to dealing with drunks, but he had never actually had to move two lifeless, fully grown men. Drunk were usually at least a little easy to move. Unconscious men were far harder and stiffer. As his breathing began to labor more and more, Matthew saw soot starting to form around the scarf. It was doing him so good, but not enough. He bent down and sucked up some of the
cleaner air. By now the whole building was covered in soot and black smoke. The “steam” had vanished. Matthew couldn’t see any large flames, but he could indeed feel the fire’s heat. He continued pulling them, one in each arm. Veins bulged from Matthew’s arms. His muscles burned. He felt like he’d run a marathon. He saw the door and opened it with the small of his back. He took each outside separately because the door wouldn’t stay open. In the distance, he heard sirens and firetrucks. He pulled each man a safe distance from the fiery station. A few passing cars had stopped upon seeing the smoke billowing in the dark freezing night. They rushed over to Matthew, helping unburden him of Donny and the officer. Matthew felt woozy. He couldn’t see from the soot that had gathered in his eyes. He remembered the look on Donny’s face when Matthew had seen him in Teague’s bar. Then he remembered the pictures he’d taken for Dawn. Then he promptly passed out. * * * “Are you okay, sir?” Matthew at first only saw a few blurs between the slits of his eyes. Instead of a scarf, an oxygen mask now covered his mouth and nose. Pulling off the strap of the mask, Matthew took several deep breaths, feeling the icy January air roll over his lungs. “Yes,” said Matthew, surveying his surroundings despite the sting in his eyes. He was on a stretcher outside of the police station. A few feet above his head was an ambulance. Inside was the police officer. Matthew couldn’t
see Donny anywhere. Firefighters were dousing the blaze with what looked like foam. “Where are they?” “One’s going to be taken to the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning,” said the medic. Matthew trembled slightly. “He’ll be fine. The other is over in the parking lot.” Matthew started to get up, but the medic put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re not going anywhere,” she said. “Let me take your vitals.” She made him stand up and two other medics closed the ambulance door. They turned on the vehicle and drove to the hospital. The medic had another ambulance. She took Matthew and checked him over to make sure there was no damage. “Do you feel okay? Well how about your vision and hearing. They’re fine? Good.” Matthew refused to go to the hospital, so the medic made him sign a release form. Then she got into the ambulance and drove off. The blaze was going out rapidly, but the firefighters were having trouble because it kept burning through the foam. Matthew saw Donny walking towards him. “You okay?” Matthew’s nephew asked. Matthew nodded. “And how about you?” “I’ll be okay according to the EMT,” answered Donny. “I was smart enough to hug the ground.” He looked tired. Matthew looked at him, but Donny wouldn’t make eye contact. They both shivered, without any blankets or jackets. Donny looked cold and disheveled, like the time they went camping without tents, but the weather decided to rain. They refused to go home and instead came home the next day and
spent the next two nights coughing and shivering because they both had hypothermia. “I have the keys to Emma’s car. Let’s go sit inside and get warm. Then I’ll take you home.” Donny’s face shrunk but promptly gave up. He had wanted to say something but given it a second thought. They crossed the parking lot and got inside. “I’m surprised Joseph isn’t here. “He was. But a few minutes before you woke up, he had to go to a roadblock the other officers had set up. Apparently, there was a man who kidnapped his little child from his ex-wife. They’re trying to catch him.” “How long was I out?” asked Matthew. The car’s heat was finally kicking in, making the fog on the windows dissipate. “Five or ten minutes. The EMT said you were more tired than anything else. No exercise and breathing in fumes will make you pass out pretty quick.” There was both admiration and jeer in Donny’s tone. There was no hint of eagerness in his voice to keep talking, but he had no choice. Matthew blew on his hands, trying to warm up his fingertips. Pointing at a few people in the parking lot, Matthew told Donny, “You should thank those folks. They saved our lives.” “I did,” said Donny. “They told me I should thank you.” He paused for a moment. “So thanks, Matthew.” “You’re welcome,” smiled Matthew. “What happened, out of curiosity?” he asked with hesitation. The firefighters finished putting out the blaze and were beginning to pack up their equipment. Their fire trucks
sat parked, without any water being used. Whatever foam or gel they had used ended up smothering the blaze like a soaking rain puts out a brush fire. Donny saw him looking at the embers. “They don’t use water if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s too cold here for water to be kept in the pipes during the winter. So they have foam canisters that explode and drain the oxygen from the building. They teach the kids all about it. Ask Marie if you want.” When Donny finished talking, Matthew offered him a cigarette and the two of them cracked the windows and smoked until all but one fire truck had left. “What happened, though?” asked Matthew again. “I really don’t know exactly,” began Donny. “I felt slightly tired and then started to doze off every now and then. But I didn’t smell anything. After about ten minutes, I saw white smoke starting to come from the vents. It emerged all of a sudden too. I started calling for someone and after I shouted my mind goes blank. I must have blacked out after I crawled onto the ground. Then I woke up outside with a pretty medic taking my pulse. And you were there with two or three ambulance people looking over you.” The last firefighter walked over to them. Matthew rolled his window down completely. The cold air blew in. Donny rolled down his window and flicked his cigarette. “How are you, sir?” said Matthew. “Fine. Well, we found the problem. The generators for the venting system were old. They started pushing out carbon monoxide. That’s why you feel asleep, Donny.”
The way the man talked to Donny made Matthew think they were friends. “But,” he continued, “then the generators just gave out and short-circuited, catching fire. You’d better thank your friend because without him pulling you out, Donny, you would have been fried better than my mom’s potato pancakes.” He smiled and told them the fire was going to smolder a bit. They had set up caution tape. “Thanks, Ben,” said Donny. “Have a good night.” “Hey, I’m just tired. Been up since nine this morning working. Lots of problems on Saturdays.” He walked away and Mathew started the engine. “They’re letting you go home?” “They’ve already charged me and set bail at nothing. They didn’t want to keep me—and they really couldn’t,” said Donny, pointing to the smoldering ashes. He looked slightly pinkish and was breathing a little hard. “I’m still getting charged, don’t you worry about that.” “You want me to take you home?” asked Matthew without commenting on Donny’s situation. “Sure,” said Donny. It was dark and nearly eleven by the time they reached Donny’s apartment. Emma had told Matthew that Donny never married or had any successful relationships. Matthew chuckled quietly to himself. Donny hated him but they were so alike. Maybe that was the reason Matthew had taken care of Donny when he had first been born. As he pulled into the parking lot, Donny asked him the question both had avoided. “Why were you at the police station?” he asked. He said it as if trying to pass over a speed
bump without feeling it. When he was a child, Donny had used the same tone when he was scared of getting in trouble. Matthew cocked his head sideways and gave Donny a smirk. “Because,” he said, “I was coming to talk with you.” “Why?” “Because Joseph asked me to,” said Matthew. Donny didn’t say anything. Vitriol had been replaced by confusion, just as quickly as winter turns to spring. “I want to bury it. Bury it, kill it, leave it, whatever. I’m sick of arguing with people, not talking with my family. Remember when I used to take you to the park?” Donny’s lips turned up in a slight smile, revealing straight teeth that looked yellowed from drinking coffee. Years ago, when Matthew was angry, he would visit his brother’s house. Not to see his brother, but to see Donny. The two of them would visit the local park. Matthew would push Donny on the swings or the two of them would shoot a basketball. Often times, they would have games that were just made up, never before played and never to be played again. The sun would set and they would get into the car because the parks closed at dark. Except once the police came around and left, they would get back onto the playground and play tag or swing together. When they were around each other, Donny always seemed older and Matthew always seemed younger. Matthew was fifteen and Donny was three, but they had both seemed the same age during those games. “Want to go to the park tomorrow morning?” asked Donny. “Let me call Emma,” said Matthew. They went into
Donny’s apartment. As he called his sister, Matthew noticed Donny’s apartment didn’t have any pictures and had very little in it. It was only a one-room place, but it still only had a bed and a desk. No television, no computer, and only one lamp. It reminded Matthew of his own apartment, except he had two lamps. “Well?” said Donny, after Matthew had hung the phone up. “She says she’ll come and visit you tomorrow,” said Matthew. “She wants to know what you want for dinner.” “I meant you and me,” said Donny. He went over the kitchen—which was little more than a table with a stove next to it—and sat down. He put a cup of tea on the boiler. Matthew thought the tough-guy act Donny put on was just like when they had played cops and robbers: Donny always wanted to be the bad guy and arrest the cops. Mathew just played it because his nephew enjoyed it. Matthew never tried to put on an act. He said what he meant and lived with it. Even if he would offend someone, he told them what he thought. Even to the point of being abrasive and hateful and prejudice, Matthew was honest. His manager at the bar disliked that trait in Matthew. “I’ll meet you at the park at eleven,” Matthew said at last. “Be on time, okay. I’m meeting Dawn Bullock for lunch.” “Meeting big Dawn?” cried Donny. “She’s the only one who I keep a picture of,” said Matthew.
“I don’t have any pictures. Don’t need them. I have everything up here,” said Donny, pointing to his temple. “See you tomorrow morning?” “Eleven,” said Matthew. He left without addressing the silent animosity that existed between the two. Matthew walked out of the apartment and drove the dark road home uneventfully. He told Emma what had happened and then he went upstairs to go to sleep. Emma gave him some pain medication and went to her own bedroom. Before he fell asleep, he thought it was odd that Donny hated him. Then he realized that the camera with Marie’s pictures had fallen out of his pocket when he had pulled Donny out of the fire. Hopefully, Dawn wouldn’t care. Matthew shrugged as he rolled over in bed. He was too tired to care. * * * Across the street from the park was a coffee shop, just like the one across from Teague’s bar. It was run by a Puerto Rican man and his sister. Donny told him they made the best coffee outside of Bolivia. “They’re saving up their money and sending it home,” Donny told Matthew. “Eventually, they’re going to be able to bring their parents here. Having shotguns next to your bed will want to make you move to a different country.” They sat at the counter facing the park. The wind wasn’t howling, but the day had grown colder than Matthew could ever remember feeling. Frostbite would occur in less than ten minutes. So they sat inside, sipping the freshly ground
coffee. Bobby, the owner, ground every pot of coffee fresh. He had told Matthew that the best way to save the powerful flavor was to keep the beans whole for as long as possible. There was only one picture on the walls. It was of a moonlit beach. Matthew wished the place existed. “I want to tell you something,” said Matthew after they had talked more about the fire and what Donny was going to do about his charges for hitting Joseph. The aura of the conversation rippled with a keen wave of blunted fury. They stopped and a few minutes of silence went by. They watched the trees across the street sway gently. “Go ahead,” replied Donny. His eyes were fixed downwards as he stirred his drink slowly. Each man took two creams and a sugar. They had laughed, genuinely, that they took their coffee the same way. “I left because,” he began, but paused for a moment, “your grandfather didn’t treat me or your brother very well. He drank too much and made us all deal with it.” Donny started to protest, but Matthew held up a hand. “Just hear me out. I should have handled it differently. My father was a bad man. But it doesn’t excuse what I did. So for that, I apologize. I don’t apologize for being away so long, just that I did it in a way that, well, wasn’t mature.” “There’s not much else to say,” said Donny in a dismissive voice. His eyes were washy, but he didn’t get angry or violent. He simply clenched a fist. Matthew stood up and left Donny some money. “That’ll pay for the coffee,” said Matthew. Donny picked it up and gave it back to his uncle.
“Don’t need it,” he said curtly. “I told you the truth and that’s all…” Matthew tried finishing his sentence, but Donny interrupted him. “You were wrong. And don’t you get that apologies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. You’re an ass. Apologies are sincere.” Matthew breathed out steaming air. His patience, which had been long practiced before coming back for his mother’s funeral, finally broke. “Look you spoiled brat,” he hissed, moving close to Donny, “you’re father was just like mine—a drunken old Russian who drank all of his money.” He moved even closer to Donny, who tried backing away, but was stuck sitting in a chair. Matthew moved so close to his face he could feel the heat emanating from Donny’s mouth and nose. “I’m sick of you treating these people like they’re your servants. You’re not special. No hopes. No prospects. Nothing. Just like me.” Matthew didn’t reach out for Donny. He wasn’t going to be sucked into another fight. Donny looked surprised at Matthew’s last statement. Matthew realized he had been screaming. The entire coffee shop, which was beginning to grow busy with people coming from Church, went silent. The owner looked ready to call the police, but held off, hoping for a peaceful resolution. Matthew held up his hand to the owner, who looked, at the very least, relieved. Matthew turned and Donny held up his arms, positioning himself to fight. But Matthew just shook his head and gave Donny a slight nod. He remembered Emma’s advice: Donny was a mendacious
individual, without any sort of honesty and always out for himself. He had grown up that way since Matthew had left. “I am leaving,” he said with a calmness that made Donny even more nervous. “And I have been wrong. You just need to realize that you are wrong too. Just because you believe it, doesn’t make it right. You’ll learn that. I learned it in a painful way.” Matthew unclenched his fists and walked out of the coffee shop. He lit a cigarette, but put it out. He decided to give up smoking because he needed the money. He tossed the pack into the trash can and headed towards Emma’s car. He had a lunch date with an old friend. After giving his stunned and downtrodden nephew one more look through the window, he climbed into the car, started the engine, and breathed a deep sigh of relief as he drove away. There were a few tears in his eyes, but he wiped them away so no one saw them. Sunday Brunch With his mouth still tasting like coffee, Matthew walked into the restaurant that he and Dawn Bullock used to visit every Friday afternoon. It had changed, gotten much cleaner and more expensive since the last time Matthew had been in it. The walls were covered in thousands of old newspaper clippings, all movie reviews. Some of them were recent while others were yellowed. Matthew sat down at a two person booth. He ruminated whether the place looked better. It had more personality, but he didn’t know if he liked it more. It seemed too busy.
“That’s it,” he said to himself quietly, the anger at Donny having faded away on the car ride. “It’s false.” That was the word Matthew was looking for. The waitresses were old, mostly retired spinsters making a few extra dollars by working the Sunday shift. Previously, the waitresses had been the children of the owners and there were only three or four of them. Now, it was only women and there were certainly more than a handful. That part was acceptable to Matthew because the place had expanded, nearly doubling in size. The part he disliked about the restaurant was that the food seemed overpriced and the walls seemed too eager to please. He wanted the old blank walls back and wanted the two dollar sandwich. A waitress came over and he asked for water. She tried telling him the special, but he waved her off. She sulked away. Matthew wasn’t going to tolerate anyone trying to ingratiate themselves to him, not the waitress and certainly, he thought, not himself. “Can I sit down?” asked a voice. It splintered Matthew’s thoughts about not having the camera. He looked up and saw Dawn Bullock. Her black skin looked soft in the fluorescent lights. She was beautiful. But she looked tired and obviously had not showered. Matthew, on the other hand, had shaved and worn a suit. He had even splashed on cologne before coming into the sandwich place. “Yes,” he blurted and stood up quickly to pull out her chair. “You never did that for me when we were younger. Don’t start it now.” “Chivalry is dead,” said Matthew.
For a brief moment, he remembered working at the bar and the women he had dated. Or more precisely, the women he had slept with. He remembered none of their names or their faces, but he remembered every line and mole on Dawn’s nose and cheeks. “Chivalry has been rotting for years,” stated Dawn as she sat down in the chair. The waitress came over again and asked them for an order. They each ordered a turkey and cheese sandwich with lots of jalapeños. “The play went well I take,” Dawn said softly to her ex-lover. “Marie was lovely,” said Matthew. He plodded his fingers on the table. His back and arms hurt from the night before. The tugging and pulling had left him aching but also feeling inadequate. When he had attended Marie’s play he had felt like a much younger man. “She was a wonderful actor,” he continued, “and I think she might like it enough to keep on acting.” “That’s good,” said Dawn. “I just need to make sure Emma and Jenny don’t push her too hard—I’ll make sure they push her, just not too much.” “You talk to them much?” asked Matthew, his tone accusing her of being nosy. “I mind my own yard, but then again, you’re family is part of mine now.” “Could be that you’re part of our family,” said Matthew.
“Could be,” said Dawn. She tilted her head sideways and stated, “You’re probably right about that. I like your view better.” The waitress came over and the two stopped talking. She brought them water and a beer for Dawn. The town had a good history of beer. A few of the local bars made their own brews. Matthew had grown up with it and turned that knowledge to his benefit when working as a bartender out west. He had enough knowledge from sitting at the bars while the owners or police dealt with his father. All of the owners talked with Matthew while he waited and they often talked about how to make good beer. Matthew still found it fascinating that hundreds of years ago, beer and wine had been safer to drink than water. “Don’t drink?” asked Dawn once the waitress had left them with their drinks and sandwiches. “Don’t drink.” Matthew was an abstemious person; he’d been a teetotaler since he started making sure there weren’t any brawls during his bartending shift. “You’re father?” “No. Hell, I’m a bartender, D. I just know what alcohol costs and know it’s just not worth it.” “Are you poor?” asked Dawn, her voice rising. Matthew avoided looking at her. “You came here for money, you son of a bitch.” “I did, at least partially. Not from you—from Teague. But that’s not why I stayed,” said Matthew. “Really?” she said, her voice sounding vindictive. Her high cheek bones and deep set eyes highlighted her face
as it grew more and more flushed. She never possessed much patience and became angry quite easily. Her eyes, looking almost chiseled in their cavities, bore into Matthew. “My mother was dead and I felt I needed to go to her funeral. But Teague had some money for me. I swear, though Dawn, that I did come home to set a few things right.” They ate their sandwiches slowly and when the waitress came over, Dawn ordered a slice of pie. She wasn’t a heavy set woman, but she certainly looked thick and one could tell she did her fair share of eating. Dawn sat crooked in her chair, keeping one of her feet elevated slightly. Matthew asked her what had happened. “One of the delivery trucks was dropping off some supplies and a piece of glass slide of the back of the truck and landed on my foot. No,” Dawn said, waving off Matthew’s look of compassion, “the glass didn’t break and it only broke a few bones. It happened years ago. Just hurts a little when I sit down in straight-backed chairs.” A few minutes of silence passed. They looked like an old couple Matthew thought. “So what did you come to set right?” asked Dawn, after she had finished the last bite of her sandwich. “You want my honest answer,” said Matthew, “then I guess it would have to be to see my sister again.” Dawn nodded. “I mean, I’m being honest. I didn’t expect to see you or even hear about you until my sister brought you up.” She held up a hand and stopped Matthew. A waitress came over and asked it they needed anything.
“Just my slice of pie,” said Dawn. The waitress left and Dawn continued. “I know you probably didn’t want to see me, but I thought you should know that I’m a big part of your sister’s family. So if you want to be part of it, you need to accept that I’m a part of it, too.” Matthew gave her a nervous look. “I didn’t come here to get into an argument. I know you’re a part of their lives. I just wanted to see them and maybe start visiting them occasionally.” Matthew stressed the last word, which seemed to relieve Dawn. The waitress came over and gave them the bill and Dawn her pie. Both reached for the bill, but Matthew pulled it away. “You asked me to pay. I will. And I’m not destitute. I’m not poor.” Dawn always loved a free meal. Running her own business, even before Matthew had left, managed to make her brutally efficient and cheap. She adjusted herself in the chair to prop her foot on a rung underneath the table. “Do you have the pictures?” she asked, with a look of suspicion. Matthew wondered when she was going to bring the photos up for discussion. “No,” he said calmly, “but would you like to hear why not?” Her wrath bubbled to the surface and then subsided. Dawn Bullock was a much different person than when Matthew had last met her. The wrinkles and pursed lips demonstrated it. Seeing her waiting, Matthew told her about the fire and how he had went into the find Donny, but lost the camera. Miraculously, she believed him.
“I thought you would have been home with Emma. I heard about it last night, but not much. I knew Joseph wasn’t there, so I figured no one was in the jail. Do they know what started it?” The waitress came over and took Matthew’s money. He paid in cash and left her a good tip. All bartenders leave good tips. Most of the time, when bartenders get paid, they go to other bars and spend half their tips. Matthew had avoided that habit the past several years, making sure to always have enough money—just in case. “Just old pipes and furnaces,” stated Matthew. “I knew it,” said Dawn, “Knew what?” “They’re short-sighted dimwits. The town leaders held a meeting a month ago to discuss the budget plans.” Dawn rubbed her foot and looked annoyed. Outside, the wind danced and tricked drivers into thinking the snow was still falling. “They approved a new addition to the school—that auditorium you were in last night was renovated as a part of the plans—and nixed everything else. Every iota of police improvements was cut. Only the minimum was approved.” “I guess then,” replied Matthew, “that they’re going to have to approve something or else there won’t be a police force.” He snickered and Dawn rolled her eyes. The waitress came back with Matthew’s receipt. Matthew looked at it and saw the waitress left him a thank you note. “Why did you take me to lunch?” Dawn proclaimed suddenly. At that moment, a large group of churchgoers walked in, noisy and cranky. The men had taken off their ties
and untucked their shirts. Matthew waited until they were seated to answer. “To see how you’re doing. I’m not trying to ask you out or rekindle our relationship, if that’s what you’re thinking.” “Good,” interrupted Dawn. “Just wanted to know how you’re business was doing. Maybe I wanted just to have some time to look at you.” He paused. “You’re still pretty as ever,” said Mathew. “Are you all paid up?” asked Dawn as she stood up. “Why did I say?” “You’re still looking for someone to hold you, Matthew.” He stood up, indignant. “You want to be forgiven,” continued Dawn. She stood up with Matthew. “You’re asking me to just forget about everything that happened. I’ve changed. You’re family has changed. Things are different. I sold the ring you gave me a long time ago.” Matthew knew her last comment was coming, but it still cut him like a knife dipped in salt. “Things don’t seem that different. Sure the buildings look new and there’s some new faces, but things seem pretty unchanged around here, if you ask me.” She rolled her eyes, but Matthew snapped at her. “Look!” he cried, trying to keep his voice low, “All I want to do is let you know that I was wrong. That’s it! I’m not trying to hit on you or ask you out on a date. I’m not trying to intrude on your life or with Emma’s or Jenny’s. None of that even crossed my mind. I just….” He trailed off. “Just…” said Dawn.
“Just trying to fix things. See my niece and her daughter. Give my mother one last prayer before she was put in the ground. You and I were close once. I wanted to close the wound that I opened on you. Maybe try and get it shut so it doesn’t bleed anymore. That’s it.” He sat down, but Dawn didn’t. The group of churchgoers was loud and had managed to keep the attention off Matthew and Dawn’s strident conversation. Dawn studied Matthew intently. She surveyed his face, making him feel hot as her eyes stared at him. She nodded her head slowly, without any hint of admonishment. “I understand Matthew. I liked having lunch with you. Hope your day goes well and you get back to California safely.” With that, she walked out into the cold, putting on her scarf. Matthew stared at the table as she walked out. “Thank you,” Matthew mumbled so that only he could hear. Afternoon “I’m sorry Matthew, but I need to take you down to the police station. You’re one of the few witnesses of the fire and I need to ask you questions for insurance purposes.” Matthew told Emma, Jenny, and Marie goodbye and left with Joseph, who was still in his church clothes, as were all the women. Emma’s car was parked in the garage; Matthew made sure to always park inside during the winters in Oak County. If one didn’t, the paint would peel off in the middle of July. After the long morning, Matthew was glad not to have Emma ask why he hadn’t attended church.
“Are you two staying here?” asked Matthew to Jenny and Marie. They both nodded. “We’re going to start making Marie’s next costume,” said Emma, her voiced sounding pinched. “They’re putting on a musical Hansel and Gretel.” Joseph shrugged at Matthew and the pair left Jenny and Emma to discuss church. As they got into the car, Joseph answered a call on his car’s radio. The caller on the other end rattled off a long number. The car wasn’t a police car, but it should have been. Joseph jotted a few lines on a report, clipped it to another packet of papers, and tossed it in the back. “What was that?” asked Matthew. Joseph told him it was a form for the station’s insurance. Joseph started the car and they drove to the station. The wind had died down, leaving the sun to shine, making it unusually warm for the time of year, though any water that ran onto the street still froze instantly. As they arrived at the station in the next town, Joseph asked how Donny was. “Emma told me you two were meeting this morning?” he asked softly. “I would call it a meeting, though not a very friendly one. We left it as it was. Not much changed, except he knows how I feel.” Joseph turned the car off and they got out. Matthew mentioned he had lunch with Dawn Bullock. “You don’t sound as if it went that well either,” said Joseph. “I don’t have the words,” he said. He shook his head. “I don’t know how we left it.” He stopped as they started to enter the station. “At least she’s talking to me. We left it on
speaking terms.” Joseph stopped, looked at Matthew, and spoke with a faraway—almost whimsical—air. “She’s finally part of the family.” “Yes,” said Matthew with a smile. His eyes gleamed. Joseph looked at his brother-in-law. He swallowed hard, enough so Matthew could see his Adam’s apple bob. “Did you leave because you couldn’t take the racism?” Matthew shot Joseph a look, though his eyes were already squinted in the cold. . “No,” began Matthew, “I left because I was a coward. I should have stayed, helped her out more. “But your parents would never let you marry a black woman.” Joseph looked warm and reddish. A few officers walked out of the station. They nodded to the two of them and gave Joseph a look of respect. “Don’t feel comfortable talking about skin color do you?” asked Mathew, leaning on the door of the station. “No,” retorted Joseph. “I just felt it necessary to tell you that we’ve welcomed her into our arms. We didn’t treat her like your parents did.” “My father was a fool,” Matthew said simply. “You’ve treated her well.” “Not much else to say,” replied Joseph. * * * Being on the other side of the cells amused Matthew. He sat while Joseph visited the station chief. There were a few makeshift offices set up sporadically around the lobby for the officers from Oak County. But the general layout was the same as the one which had just burned. To the left and right
were two hallways with offices. Uniting the two was a large lobby with a large ceiling window. Joseph’s station didn’t have such a window, but everything else seemed exactly the same. It was like suburbs thought Matthew. He imagined the engineers built the station like the cookie cutter homes in the sprawl of San Francisco. After a short wait, with one of his officers beside him, Joseph took Matthew into an interrogation room. Looking around, Matthew’s heart pounded. His hands shook gently but steadily. He glanced around side to side, his eyes darting at the walls. “I’m not a suspect am I?” he asked as the officer sat him down on an iron chair. The room was clean, however. It didn’t look anything like Matthew had expected. A table and two chairs were in the center of the room. There was a mirror on one wall, but on the other three were bulletins and even help wanted sections offering low paying jobs. The room offered jobs to those being questioned. “No, you’re not a suspect,” the officer told him. The man looked tired and worn down, but he smiled at Matthew. Matthew suspected he had earned respect by rescuing one of their coworkers. Matthew looked at Joseph with a sheepish look, trying to appear professional. “Thanks Bobby,” said Joseph. “Will you just make sure the tape recorder is on and then finish up that paperwork from last night?” The officer nodded. Joseph had a file in his hands. “He looks tired,” said Matthew. “Long night?”
“Let’s just say the father who took his child last night wasn’t happy. He shot one of my officers before I got there. But the child wouldn’t say anything except that it was selfdefense. So we had to let the dad go. He had partial custody, but the mother said her ex-husband was running away. I don’t know the whole story and the officer is in the hospital unconscious. He had a pretty good wound in his leg.” “You let him go?” Matthew’s eyes bulged. “I had to,” he said, his eyes dark, saying nothing more about the subject. “Look at me, would you?” He smiled at Matthew. “You’re fine Matthew. Remember I’m your alibi. No, I just need to get your story and ask you a few questions about Donny. Then we’re done and I’ll drive you home. I have a watch duty tonight at the hospital for my two officers. But Jenny and Marie are having dinner with you and Emma.” Matthew leaned back in the seat, but stopped because it was too stiff. He had only been in such a room once and that was when his father had beaten his mother. Back then, the police tried making him say things he didn’t want to say and they had succeeded. As a result, they had let his father go. The next day, he had run away. Mr. Teague had given him enough money for a bus out west. Matthew shook his head. Joseph was a better chief than the one thirty years ago. Joseph’s only loyalty in his job was to the law. “What about Donny?” he asked. Joseph told Matthew, “He’s a suspect. That’s all.” Joseph treated Matthew with a great deal of respect and the interview was over in less than ten minutes. Matthew told him
everything he knew. Matthew didn’t suspect Donny had set fire to anything. He told Joseph he had to unlock Donny’s cell, which probably meant Donny hadn’t left it. “It would have been pretty tough to set a fire in a prison cell,” said Matthew. Joseph told Matthew he didn’t suspect Donny either. “We’re just going through protocol. Donny picks fights, but I can’t imagine him being guilty of arson. It probably wasn’t even arson.” After the interview, Joseph left and brought back a tape. He labeled it and put it into the file in which he had been taking notes. They got up and left the awkward room. Matthew sat down in the lobby. As he waited for Joseph to take him home, he asked the receptionist where the bathroom was. “Just down the hall to the right,” he said. Matthew started and then stopped. “You’re not a police officer, are you?” The man said no. “Do they pay you overtime for Sundays?” he asked. The man nodded his head vigorously. From the look of him, he certainly was not a police officer but wanted to be. He looked too awkward in his suit and his face glistened from being overweight. He had muscular arms, but that was overshadowed by his belly that hung over a tightened belt. Matthew felt his own stomach while talking to the man. “They wouldn’t be able to get me in here if they didn’t.” They both laughed and Matthew walked into the bathroom. He wondered if the man was training to become a police officer.
He looked at himself in the small mirror. Remembering what Joseph had told him about dinner, Matthew tucked in his shirt and wet his hair. He pulled out a comb and ran it through his hair. Then he splashed some water on his face and dried it with a paper towel. He looked at himself again and then left the small bathroom. Joseph was waiting for him. “Ready?” Matthew followed his brother-inlaw out the door. The receptionist gave him a smile and wave. * * * “The dinner was excellent,” said Matthew, reaching down to undo his pants without anyone noticing. He felt his belly and reminded himself not to ask for seconds. “Well, I’m glad,” responded Jenny. “You can do the dishes since you managed to avoid helping in the kitchen.” She tried looking serious, but the gleam in her eyes told differently. “Sure,” he replied. Emma told Marie to help Matthew. The sun was setting against the winter sky. Every Sunday, the Kooper family always had an early supper. Matthew’s family was never extravagant, but it still managed to have expensive dinners once a week. His mother always had a plethora of meats in their basement freezer. That didn’t matter so much as Matthew grew older and his father grew more affectionate of the waitresses at the bars. But when he was very young, his mother and father made sure to eat together every Sunday night because Matthew’s father often didn’t come home until late. At least when he had a job, he came home late. When he didn’t, he didn’t come home until very early.
They finished the dishes and Matthew sat down with Marie. They played a board game together with Jenny and Emma. Except for Matthew, everyone had to get ready for work the next day. “I promise I’ll come visit again soon,” said Matthew as Jenny and Marie got ready to go home. “But you just got here Uncle Matty,” said Marie. Though she wasn’t crying, her eyes watered. Matthew thought children had a way of attaching themselves to any parental figure. He gave Jenny a quiet goodbye and a kiss on the check. Jenny gave Marie her keys and told Marie to get into the car. Marie looked excited. Emma went back inside, telling Jenny she would see her later in the week. Jenny took a few steps closer. “Promise you’ll come back for visits,” she said, nearly whispering. “Don’t come back for tragedies or magic. Just see my girl grow up.” “I will,” he said. Jenny said nothing more. She shot him a weak smile and left. As she backed out of the driveway, Marie waved to Matthew. He waved back and left so he didn’t have to see them leave. “Still in your church clothes,” remarked Matthew as he sat down on the couch next to Emma. She didn’t move, looking very comfortable. “You don’t go to church anymore?” she asked without looking at her brother. “Not really worth it,” he said, leaning his back. He closed his eyes, but remained awake. He still felt oddly smoky
from the night before. The smell hadn’t worn out of him, sticking to his skin like a sweaty shirt. “No?” she asked. “I don’t really have a god,” he said. “Sure you do,” she said, “or else you wouldn’t have come back.” Matthew opened one eye and shot a look at his sister. The television was blank. The wind had stopped along with the sunshine. There was no sound in the house other than their words. “I guess I’m just more of a mathematician, then,” he said through a chuckle. Despite the old house and the sun having set, the room still felt warm. Matthew had spent years at the kitchen table on Sunday nights, looking over schoolwork and figuring out how much money he had to make in order not to work past the age of thirty. “Now what does that mean?” asked Emma impatiently. Her anger and her curiosity wrestled with each other in her voice. Matthew hadn’t gone to church since before high school. “Not trying to be smart. I base my beliefs off math. There are four options on faith. Well, you either believe in God or you don’t. And God either exists or God doesn’t. And the only option that has a winning outcome is believing and that God exists. So what is the harm in believing in God and God not existing? None. All of the other bets are losers.” He felt Emma stir. The heater turned on in the basement, supplying a low, dull hum to the situation.
“That sounds like a foolish thing,” said Emma, her febrile voice rising, almost as if she couldn’t bear Mathew to talk like he just had. “It doesn’t sound very loyal or honest.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” Mathew shot at her. He sat up and so did she. Her eyes didn’t contact his, but he could tell she wanted to say something to him. “Are you making enough out there?” she said. It wasn’t a question. The wind, which had seemed endless when Matthew had arrived, continued in its silent protest. Though the night was still cold, the weather was surprisingly warm. It had been the entire day, even though it hadn’t been above thirty. Oak County was normally so cold that a lost child had once frozen to death in a matter of minutes. Matthew’s mother had discovered the child in the local grocery store parking lot. The police said she had sat down to rest and fallen asleep to death. “The truth? About how much I make?” “The truth,” replied Emma. She had turned to face him and had one leg on the couch. She gave him another icy smile. It looked crossed between forced and trying to pity him. “No, I don’t,” he said uneasily, as though he were treading on rocks. “I got some money from Teague, so that should ease up some.” She sighed and looked down. “We haven’t talked seriously for years. But I want you to answer me something. Are you clean? No drugs, no gambling. Stuff like that?” “I’m clean,” he said, his body going rigid and slightly indignant. He sat up a little straighter after answering his sister.
“But you haven’t saved up any money?” she asked incredulously. “Nope. Rent, food, cost of living. It all eats up my money. I don’t make that much to boot, either.” “Apartment?” Emma seemed to be playing mother than being a sister. “Sort of. I rent it by the month.” “How much?” “Too much,” said Matthew. “Tell me the truth Matthew. Earlier today, I had a conversation with Jenny about your plane ticket. She told me she helped pay for it. So how much trouble are you in?” Matthew stood up, straight-backed. The old smell of the house suddenly seemed much more pungent to Matthew. “I’m not in any trouble,” he sneered. But then he remembered the way his father used to sneer at him and stopped, scared of seeing himself in a mirror. His father, with his jet black hair, had been a short man with a sharply cut goatee. Whenever someone accused him of a wrongdoing, he would puff out his chest and deny it, even if the allegation was true. Matthew swallowed his scorn. “Yes, I had some trouble with betting. But it’s gone now, along with my money. Not that I had much to begin with, but whatever I had, went to creditors. That’s was a while ago, though. It’s over now. I don’t have any debt.” He shifted in his seat and rubbed his eyes. He had bet on several basketball games and lost far too much money. He had learned bookies don’t break your knees if they can’t get paid. It actually wasn’t like that at all.
They merely took everything that Matthew had. They weren’t violent or mean. They simply took it to make up the difference. They left Matthew with enough food and left his apartment in good condition. Matthew thought it was ridiculous when people talked about bookies hurting their clients. It didn’t make sense to him. No bookie would hurt a client because then the client couldn’t pay the debt. But Matthew didn’t have anymore debt. That much he had finally told his sister. What he didn’t tell her was that he didn’t have anything else. Only a few pairs of clothes that looked appropriate for a bartender and a few pieces of flatware. He was out of debt but without anything to show for it. “Would you like to stay here for a while?” she asked after several noisy gusts of wind decided to fill the silence in the kitchen. The question came out of her mouth slowly and after she finished, she went into the kitchen without waiting for Matthew to respond. She started making tea. Matthew walked over to his sister and stared. “What?” she told him as the wind died down. “I’m not a bum,” he said at once. He leaned against the countertop, his back still sore from the night before. He moved slowly, but sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. He crossed his legs and waited for Emma to say something. She put a pot of water on to boil and turned around to face him. She took a deep breath. “Can you really tell me you want to go back?” she asked. Matthew didn’t say anything. “I’ve had this entire house here, all to myself since Mom died. She left it to me. There’s plenty of room here. I know you don’t want to stay
here, but it’s something. Why not stay here? Do you have friends or family out there?” Matthew quietly told her he did not. “You could call your work and your landlord. Hell, Matthew, there’s only three weeks left in the month, so you could go back and get your stuff and then come back here. Come back home.” “I’d like that idea. But there’s one problem. I have almost everything I own here. The apartment out there came furnished.” “So what is stopping you?” “I don’t want to live here,” he told her. “Why not? Seems like you’ve been at least satisfied, if not happy, here.” “No, no,” he said. The water started to boil and Emma made them both cups of Earl Grey tea. It was the same tea their mother had always drunk. In the dead of winter, Elizabeth Kooper would give her children a big dinner and then put them to bed with a large cup of hot tea. Then she would wait for her husband to come home from wherever he was. Matthew continued, “I don’t want to live here. In this house. In that room. I haven’t sleep quite right since I came back. Last night was okay, but that’s because last night I would have sleep good on hot coals. I don’t want any part of this house.” “That’s good. Because I’m selling this place.” Dead silence. It filled the room. Matthew’s mouth sat hanging open. “Do you want to stay here? What about an apartment here?” Emma asked. “Or stay at Teague’s? He’s not married.”
Matthew laughed fast, holding up his hand at the deluge of suggestions. “Let’s go back for a second. You’re selling this place?” he asked in disbelief despite a smile. They both sipped their tea slowly, Emma putting lots of sugar into hers and Matthew putting lots of cream into his. His hair had grown messy, but he didn’t put any effort into combing it. He hated the house, the tomb. But now that Emma told him she was selling it, he felt out of sorts. He desperately wanted a cigarette, but resisted. “It doesn’t hold all of the memories I want it to,” stated Emma. Matthew’s smiled faded, replaced with a gnawing sensation in his stomach. “Our mother would never have wanted me to sell it. But there’s no one else to get upset with me. Dad is dead, mom is dead, Donald is dead, his wife is dead.” An image of Donny’s mother, Sheila Kennedy, popped into Matthew’s mind. She had died a few years after he had left Oak County. He’d gone to school with her; she was a few grades ahead of him and had married Donald right out of high school. Donald and Sheila were soul mates. Matthew was glad Sheila was dead. “But I thought you loved this place.” Matthew spoke softly, too stunned to be angry or bitter. His stomach felt hollowed out. “No Matthew,” she responded. “I don’t hate the house like you do, but it’s not my place. If I ever wanted to date someone, it wouldn’t be our home—it’d be mine. And it doesn’t have fond memories for me. Not terrible, but not worth reminiscing over while I watch a sunset with my
granddaughter.” She stared at him and let him remember again how he had left her without even a goodbye. He had told her he’d take her to work the next day. Emma then said the most pragmatic and heartless thing he had ever heard her say. “The land is worth more than the house. So I’m selling it to a developer for almost a million dollars.” “Where are you going to live?” Matthew asked her. His tongue felt like sandpaper. He took a sip of tea, but it did nothing to slake his thirst—or his confusion. “Wherever I want,” she laughed, shaking her head. Her thin body and black hair reminded Matthew how pretty she was. All of her features were chiseled. Though her nose was a bit too sharp, it was pretty in addition to a mind already clever and shrewd. Matthew reflected for a moment and realized she was correct. “But I’ll probably buy a small condo near Jenny and Joseph. That way I can take care of Marie and see them, provided they want to see me.” Matthew told her they always would. “I know,” she continued. “I just need assurance. I’m always afraid I’m going to lose them or they’re going to leave me.” Matthew said nothing. The wind picked up and then died down. The temperature was starting to plummet in the darkness. Matthew heard the furnace turn on. “Where are you going to live? That is, if you want to live here,” Emma said suddenly, drumming her fingers on the table. “You said you don’t have debt.” “No, I don’t. But I don’t have money either,” said Matthew. Emma finished her tea and Matthew washed their dishes and let them dry in the rack next to the sink. Emma sat
waiting for a response. The furnace continued to make a dull steady noise. The phone rang, abruptly breaking the silence that Matthew had no desire to see vanish. Emma got up and said to her brother, “You owe me an answer. Are you leaving tomorrow, going back to that place? Or are you staying here, where you might not have a wonderful social life, but there’s family. A family that still talks to you. Don’t go back there.” She picked up the phone. Matthew’s attention faded back to San Francisco. He remembered the man who went out and shot himself after leaving Matthew an obscenely large tip. He thought about Dawn Bullock’s face and how it hadn’t aged, but grown more radiant. Her arms were still strong enough to rip the roots of a banana tree right out of the ground. He wondered about her and what would have become of the two if he had stayed (or if he had asked her to go with him to California). They could have been successful, started their own company using their techniques for growing fruit in harsh and unrelenting climates. If they had had children, he knew Dawn would have been a wonderful mother. But another part of him sat there not thinking of his family or friends, but of the lack of them out west. His closest friend was the manager at the bar. They only talked with each other on their breaks. But the only reason they were friends was because they worked together. They were close to the same age. Otherwise, Matthew’s manager had nothing in common with his bartender. Whereas Matthew went home and slept, the manager went home and took care of his two
children. He made them French toast or omelets, depending on the day. He woke up his wife and occasionally, as Matthew had been told, made love before she went to work. Matthew never hung out with the man; they exchanged stories with the other and only a few minutes at a time. Matthew handed out the drinks and his boss counted the money. That was the most intimate relationship Mathew had. He didn’t know his neighbors and never talked with any women except for the occasional one night stand with women at his bar. He usually went to their place and left before the women woke up. The most in-depth conversation he’d had was with the man who went out and shot himself. They’d talked about what the world would be like if everyone avoided revenge. “Matthew?” called Emma. Matthew’s attention refocused on his sister. He blinked and stared at her. “Well? Can you?” she asked. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” “Can you take Marie to school tomorrow?” Emma asked. The exasperation in her voice had receded. She looked pale and stressed. “Sure,” Matthew said. “Yes, he will,” Emma stated into the receiver. “Anything else?” Emma paused. “I don’t know yet. Still waiting for his answer.” Another pause. “Love you, too. Byebye.” Emma hung up the phone and looked at the clock. “Early morning tomorrow,” Mathew stated. Emma told him Jenny and Joseph needed him to take Marie to school.
“They are both working. She has to go in early for daycare before the school day begins. Jenny has an important visit with the construction contractor for office.” Jenny always ran the important meetings for her concrete business. Jenny didn’t own the business, but she had enough shares in the company to have a small say. The majority owners had learned long ago, according to Joseph, to listen to Jenny’s suggestions. “Normally Joseph takes her in before his shift starts, but he had to go to the hospital tonight for one of his officers and won’t get off until late tomorrow morning.” “I’ll do it,” Matthew said. He was eager to see how Marie acted when she wasn’t around her parents. “I would do it, but I have the shift at the hospital and I figured you could do since you’ll be here.” Emma sounded as if she were pleading. Matthew forced a laugh. “I said I’d do it,” he said. “No big deal, okay? I don’t mind.” Emma’s narrow nose had turned bright red and her eyes looked watery. But she looked relieved. Outside, the wind had stopped and a small flurry of snow was falling. It fell in crescendos, small rolling waves of white spliced on the black drop-cloth of the satin night. Matthew walked to the front door. The streetlight at the end of the driveway produced a halo, making the thousands of flakes reflect as if gold. He opened the door and heard nothing. The snow muted everything. Even the wild animals that normally prowled the yard and the forest were conspicuously hushed. The coyotes no longer howled. The snow was already sticking
to the street. Matthew put his hand up and felt his fingertips go numb. He went back inside. “It’ll be okay for a morning drive,” Emma told him. “Can I take your car?” Matthew asked her, remembering he’d returned his rental. “That’s what I figured,” she said. “Joseph is going to the same place tonight. I supposed he could swing by tomorrow morning and pick me up. The hospital is not that far.” She started walking towards the stairs. “My offer still stands. You can stay here for a little while and then get a place somewhere in town. I’ll even give you the deposit. That’ll be my gamble.” She walked up the stairs, but Matthew called to her as she got to the top. “Emma?” “Yes?” “I’d like to stay here, if you don’t mind,” Matthew said. “Then make yourself at home. I’m putting the house on the market in the next few days. Once it sells, you’re going to have to find a place to live. But I’ll help with the first and last month’s rent.” “Thank you.” Emma took a few steps down the stairs. “Don’t thank me,” she smiled. “I’m buying something for it. You can’t leave and you’re getting a job. If you don’t do either of those things, I’m pressing charges against you as a landlord.” She spoke with a sparkle in her eyes. “Pretend it’s a bet I made in your favor.”
“Goodnight,” Matthew said. She said the same and went to bed. Matthew watched television for a few hours and then went to bed. He had a grandniece to drop off at school and a job search to begin. * * * Matthew got up in the morning and found Emma already gone. He put on a suit and shaved carefully. Emma had left him directions on how to take Marie to school, though he knew the route. Once ready, he took a corn muffin from the fridge, and got into Emma’s car. It had only snowed a few inches and the plows had long removed it from the streets. In fact, Matthew mused, the streets were in better condition in the middle of a freezing winter than any road he had encountered in California. He stopped in front of Jenny’s house and knocked on the door. He heard footsteps on the other side of the door. “Uncle Matthew? That you?” he heard a high squeaky voice. “It’s me Marie,” he said. The door opened and Marie came out with a tiny little schoolbag attached to her back and a lunch pail in her right hand. They got into the car and Matthew gave Marie’s house one last glance. When he and Dawn had been younger, they had looked at the same house. As he started his car, he had a vision of him leading his children out the door. There were two of them, a boy and a girl. He herded them into a minivan and drove them to school the same way he was driving Marie. In his vision he was thinner but had less hair. “Are we going Uncle Matthew?” asked Marie.
“Yes we are,” he said, allowing the family image to vaporize in the same way the vacant sun had disappeared behind dark and thick storm clouds. As they drove, Matthew realized he didn’t need any directions. He threw Emma’s piece of paper in the back seat, letting Marie tell him where to go. She knew every side street and shortcut. There was a short traffic jam, but she guided him around a few back alleys, saving the two of them several dull moments in the car—and possibly allowed Matthew to avoid swearing in front of his grandniece. Once they arrived at the school, Matthew had to accompany Marie into the daycare section, which was set up in the cafeteria. There were some games and Marie told Matthew the gym would open soon. She gave him a hug and then went to play with a few of her playmates. The picture of the minivan popped into his mind for a moment, but faded away as he started to leave. Matthew greeted a few of the adult supervisors and went outside. The sun was just starting to peak out behind the clouds, but it wouldn’t warm the air until noon. He shivered, resisted the urge to smoke, and got into the car. Off Days Matthew squinted as he walked down the street and into Teague’s bar a week later. His watch read half past two. He knew he wouldn’t make a lot of tips on a Monday, but Teague’s offer had been good. With Donny in jail, having charges brought against him for assault on a police officer, Matthew now had himself a bartending job on the off-nights
of the week. He worked all the nights except Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. He had taken the money from the bank and paid the first and last month’s rent on a small studio apartment on the same street as the bar. He’d moved in the day before, with the help of Emma, Joseph, and Jenny. He took the rest of the money that was in the bank and paid Jenny for his plane ticket, leaving enough for a few pairs of clothes. At first, Jenny hadn’t accepted the ticket. But Matthew wouldn’t allow her to refuse and neither would Emma. Emma thrived on making Matthew work for anything. “How are you Mr. Teague?” asked Matthew as he started to fix up the bar and prepare it for the night crowd. He left his coat in the storeroom in the back. He never left his jacket in the coatroom for fear of it being stolen. Matthew couldn’t wait for Thursday. That was the day when all of the factory workers got paid. “I’ve got a subpoena here,” said Teague, “from Joseph. Donny’s apparently going to plead guilty, but the prosecution wants to make sure he gives Donny enough time. Not too much though.” At that moment, Teague’s voice sounded cynical. He reminded Matthew of an old sitcom he used to watch, one in which the grandfather always talked about how good life was in the old days. “D.A. with a heart. That’ll be the day.” “I can’t believe they’re charging him with assault on a police officer,” said Matthew, beginning to put wax on the floor. It hadn’t been waxed in over a year and Matthew knew it needed to be done. The other bartenders were lazy, but
Matthew had long ago learned that if the bar was nice, then the tips were ever nicer. “What do you expect!” cried Teague. “Joseph is a police chief.” “I know,” responded Matthew, “but I thought Donny hit him because Joseph didn’t post bail for him. Shouldn’t he be charged with simple assault or something like that! I don’t like the guy. Actually I think he’s a piece of shit, but he deserves a fair shot.” Matthew put some wax on a rag and started to wax the edges of the bar. He just wanted to make sure he got every inch of the floor tiles and countertop. “He’s already had a fair shot,” said Teague, counting the change he had taken out of the pinball machine and jukebox. He sat in a corner, smoking a cigar. “The cops let him cool off over night in the cell after the scuffle you two had. That was the least they could have done. He’s been in so many bar fights, I lost count of them. I know for a fact that he was arrested at least twice for disturbing the peace on his days off.” Matthew started to protest, but Teague gently waved him off. “He’s pleading guilty, so that means he won’t get very long in jail. Hell, he may not get any.” Teague pushed dozes of quarters into a machine, which whirled while it counted them. Smoke curled around his head. Matthew stayed clear of it. He no longer had any cravings for cigarettes, though he frequently wished for one after midnight. Selfcontrol wanes during the night. “But,” continued Teague with the cigar stuck in his front teeth, “most likely he’ll get a few
months and then be out—and be stuck with probation for a long, long time.” Some ash fell from his cigar and onto the table. “It’s my fault,” Matthew muttered so Teague couldn’t hear. But the old man did hear his surrogate son. “It’s not your fault. I mean Donny getting put in jail was partially yours and partially mine. I’m the one who called them, remember? No, it’s not our fault. Donny’s stupid enough for hitting Joseph. He knows Joseph doesn’t take kindly to criminals, whether they’re relation or not. He wants to set Donny right, even if that means sending him to prison.” The rest of the afternoon Matthew worked quietly. He finished waxing the floor while Teague went in the back room to finish courting the money and balancing the books. After he finished, Matthew set up the bar and made sure they had all types of liquor to sell that night. Mondays at Teague’s bar were dollar drafts. Or, as Matthew had mentally labeled them, trough dollars. A draft—whether it was soda, beer, juice, or anything that one poured from a spout—always reminded him of a pig getting fed. Looking at the clock, Matthew opened up the doors and turned on the neon sign: OPEN. Unlike Emma’s house, the bar felt different, as it had been washed of all of the past memories Matthew had of it. No one came in for the next hour, so Matthew pulled out an application. It was the receptionist job at the proposed police station. The station was already being rebuilt; its foundation was laid over the weekend, less than four days after the rubble was removed. In a month, the foundation
would be dried. Because it was winter, the builder had difficulty keeping out the bad weather. As a result, they constructed a large wooden overhang with tarp around the sides. The local paper estimated the construction would cost nearly three million dollars. The mayor and the governor decided to make the new station just like the one in the next county. They were making it state-of-the-art. During Sunday dinner, Joseph had told them that the town should have just put in a new furnace system. He smiled as he had told them, eager for a new station. With the new station, came a new budget. Joseph had requested two more full time officers. The blubbery receptionist Matthew had seen was applying and had gone to become fully licensed and trained. So Joseph needed a new receptionist, whether it was at the new station or in the neighboring town. Matthew decided he would apply for the Friday and Saturday shifts. Sundays were his day off and his day to see his family. Whether it was nepotism or good luck, Joseph told him to apply and he would most likely get the job. Looking up, Matthew saw two of the waitresses walk in the front door. One was a woman named Jackie in college and the other was Lindsey, a townie. Both were thin and pretty and received good tips, no matter the night. Matthew was thankful that they at least partially shared their tips with him. They changed into their short skirts and began to fix up some of the food. There were no chefs, but the bar didn’t have entire meals. It had appetizers and a few small portions that could be a meal for a person looking to fill up on beer or wine. Teague told Matthew it was similar to bars in Spain.
After nearly completing the application, Matthew watched a small group of factory workers walk into the bar, many of them regulars who stopped by just for one beer. They all sat at the bar and took off their coats. They weren’t good tippers, but were in enough times and for short enough times that it didn’t matter much. Matthew served them drinks and they sipped their drafts slowly, talking about work. It was all they had in common with each other and all they really knew. Except for a fatter one named Barry. He rebuilt cars. They all listened to him while he told them about the dragracer he was building for the summertime. He waved and motioned his hands around his head, insensible to anyone around him. The story was his sole focus. Mathew ignored him and took the glasses of the men who were finished. They got up and left, needing their families. Matthew stood silently behind the bar, making sure there were beer nuts, occasionally asking the men if they needed anything. Soon a couple walked in and sat down. A little while later, another group of men came in. They were from the VFW wanting a change of scenery for their cards games. Matthew remembered they had been kicked out of their normal meeting place. A group of four younger adults then entered. They were two couples and sat at the bar. A little while later, two men walked into the bar and sat down next to each other. Three women also walked in, acting as if they had been freed from a household that didn’t appreciate them. The waitresses had their hands full, as did Matthew. More customers began to fill the crevices in the room. A little while later, the bar was filled to maximum capacity. Matthew felt his patience strained.
“How about another drink?” asked Barry. He was looking into his glass with a look of longing. His speech had slurred so much that he stretched out the end of his question. Matthew took the glass and filled it with water. “What’s that!” cried Barry. He was loud, but the entire bar had grown boisterous. Someone had turned on the juke box, making it spit the Beatles. The VFW men were chatting and swaying along with the music. “It’s water. It’ll make you feel a little better,” said Matthew. “I feel fine,” responded Barry. He tried crossing his arms, but had to put his hands back on the counter to balance himself. He put his head down between his legs but didn’t throw up. Matthew hadn’t expected him to be as drunk as he looked. He’d only had five or six beers. Matthew pushed the glass towards Barry. “Come, it’ll be better. There’s no charge for water,” he said, trying to lighten Barry’s mood without making him angry. He forced a smile. “It’s only eight!” Barry cried. He pushed the glass back towards Matthew so fast that it fell over, spilling the water on the countertop and behind the bar. Luckily a drain caught most of it and Matthew wiped the rest up with a spare towel lightning quick. He took the glass, which only infuriated Barry even more. Later in the night, Matthew would muse that the water probably cleaned the counter. “I want a drink,” said Barry, trying to calm himself while also trying to hold back a bout of hiccups. This time Matthew offered Barry an alternative.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, making sure to keep his voice low in order to avoid embarrassing Barry, “Leave and come back tomorrow.” Barry shook his head like a little child. “Come on Barry,” said a voice to Matthew’s left. “I think it’s time to go.” Teague stood at the bar end of the bar and was making the double-date four martinis. Teague only ever worked behind the bar when the crowds were exceptional—or when there was only one bartender. After Teague finished, he came over to where Matthew was standing. Matthew looked at him with shifty eyes. Making the martinis was an excuse to come out of the back room. Above all else, Teague had a knack for sensing belligerent drunkards. He could avoid them or confront them seemingly at will. “Or what?” Barry retorted. His voice was rising, but only a few people had noticed. Matthew knew that several of them were just ignoring the factory worker. “I’ll have to call the police,” said Teague. He shifted his weight from foot to foot. His old body, nearly seventy, was still stronger. Teague had a large chest. He made a fresh lemon spritzer and gave it to one of the waitresses. Matthew reflected that the bar was just like the one in California. Even when someone was ignorant and foolish, most customers ignored the ruckus, save for a few wandering eyes. “Just like you called the police on your former bartender?” asked Barry. Teague shook his head. His eyes bore into Barry, efficient and acute. “Or I could just ban you from this place,” he said. The ability to make threats were a necessary part of bartending
life. Matthew knew it as much as Teague did. Barry tried to sit himself up straight on his bar stool, but still had to hold onto the counter. Matthew kept quiet and had started helping the other customers. He wanted to avoid any mention of Donny in jail, waiting for trial. It wasn’t good for the mood or tips in the bar. Seeing a spot of drool starting to form around Barry’s mouth, Matthew gave him a handkerchief. Barry refused it. Barry didn’t take kindly to Teague’s last threat. He became ever more frazzled, angry that Teague would have the indecency to ban anyone from the bar, much less a regular like Barry. He began to mutter to himself and repeatedly dug a toothpick into his palm. Matthew winced as he watched. But seeing the serious look on Teague’s face, Barry stopped, stood up and went to the bathroom. Two men who had come in together looked relieved Barry had left. Matthew walked over to Teague and said, “He’ll be leaving for good soon.” The owner nodded in agreement, his eyes suddenly looking more inviting. Barry came out of the bathroom some time later. Matthew hadn’t worried about him, though. If he passed out in the bathroom, then they could just pick him up and put him outside for the police to take him. He gave Matthew a lousy tip and left without saying another word. The noise grew a few more decibels after he left. Matthew looked at Teague, who gave him a wink. Matthew could only shake his head at Teague’s influence. The rest of the night followed uneventfully. Matthew continued getting lousy tips and the customers kept drinking.
The crowds started to dwindle around ten. By eleven, only the VFW men were left, still playing their poker. A large haze had formed around them, a combination of cigarettes and cigars. The smell made Matthew want a cigarette. The men said very little to each other. The waitresses went home after cleaning up all of the tables except for the veterans. Once Teague was counting in the back, Matthew walked over to the men. “What are you playing?” he asked, trying to fill his time until midnight. There were only three of them. Less than half of them remained, tired of playing or just tired in general. Most of them looked in their seventies. None of the four that remained wore a wedding ring. “Bar closes soon doesn’t it?” asked one of the smaller men. He put out a cigarette. “Midnight,” said Matthew. “Well, why are you sitting here? Ain’t you got drinks to serve?” The man spoke with a southern drawl. When he spoke, little flecks of spit emerged from his mouth. Matthew looked at the man. He started to turn away, without saying anything, when the tallest man spoke. “Shut up Pete,” he said. He was a dark-skinned man and had a powerful body that hadn’t aged well. “Sit down here.” He said it with such command that Matthew didn’t know what to do. The third man sat smoking, looking at his cards, without blinking or losing his attention on the game. “Mark, he got Donny put in jail,” said the man named Pete. The more Matthew looked at him, the more he realized the man was small because he only had one leg. His body was thin. His bone white skin looked almost eaten away, like he
had some sort of disease. His arms were emaciated from atrophy. The man named Mark laughed a deep tenor-like chuckle. “No he didn’t Pete. Donny’s been getting himself into trouble. Besides, what’s your name again? Matt?” “Yes sir,” said Matthew, not asking Mark or Pete to call him Matthew. “Well, Peter,” he said, trying to make himself sound like a parent, “Matt here is a pretty good bartender. My drinks were all cold and my Manhattan was fantastic. Mixed perfectly, not watered down at all.” He paused and took a long drag on his cigar. “So I don’t see any problem with our new bartender. Let him play five card stud with us, eh?” Mark pretended to nudge Pete who rolled his eyes and kicked out a chair. “Come on then. I suppose you’re right, Mark. As usual,” said Pete. Matthew started to sit, but the third man looked up. “Stop,” he said. The other two went quiet. “Not you,” he said to Matthew. Pointing to Mark and Pete, the man stated, “I was talking to these clowns.” They watched the man intently. “My name’s Dan. Dan Patrick.” The name brought some sort of flicker to Matthew’s memory, but he couldn’t place the man. “Don’t remember me, do you?” the man said. He removed his visor. His balding hair and tanned complexion weren’t burned into Matthew’s memory—but the way he drew out his words certainly was. “Boy,” said Dan, “don’t you at all remember me from way back in the day? I remember a Matthew that ran away
from home when he was twenty-one. That was at the tail end of Vietnam. Pete, remember you wanted to serve, but they wouldn’t let you. Glad you didn’t get yourself killed.” Dan Patrick looked at Matthew intently. “Still don’t remember me, do you?” he asked. Matthew didn’t move. “Well I don’t blame you. It’s been…what…almost thirty, thirty-five years.” Matthew sat down. “You get a card in the mail, with my signature, once a year on your birthday. It’s got a fifty dollar bill on it. There’s no return address, but I think you still know who I am.” Mathew’s mind and heart sunk. Dan Patrick was his father’s best friend—as well being Matthew’s god-father. Dan lit another cigarette and smiled at his godson. Matthew stood up and started to go back to the bar. He hadn’t played any poker and vowed to himself never to play with Dan Patrick. “If you guys need anything else, just let me know.” “Sure thing,” said Dan. His voice was friendly. It made Matthew uneasy. The trio played a few more hands. Then Pete and Mark left, leaving Dan to pay the bill. He trotted over to Matthew, but didn’t sit at the bar. Dan put down more than enough money for the bill. It was a good tip. “Matthew, right. Not Matt. You liked to be called Matthew because it’s your proper name and people should be called by their proper names. Right?” Matthew tried avoiding Dan’s gaze, but was not able. Dan smiled understandingly—it gave Matthew an odd feeling of both reassurance and hopelessness. It didn’t make Matthew feel desperate but sympathetic and resentful of Dan’s desperation. He stood
slumped, crooked, with too much liquor in his belly, nothing at home. “Correct,” said Matthew. “Well,” began Dan, “I don’t like that you didn’t come home for your brother’s funeral. Donny was angry at you and I don’t blame him for it.” Matthew did not respond. “You don’t have to say anything,” continued Dan. “But I don’t blame you for not coming to your father’s funeral. And I don’t blame you for running away. You got all those fifties, right?” The way Dan said right made Matthew think of a game show host. “I got them,” said Matthew. “Thank you.” The surprise had taken away his heart. “Good. You look healthy and a little wiser. A little huskier, but that’s understandable.” He turned and walked towards the door. He stopped briefly and said, “You have a great night.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but didn’t. He balled up his hands into fists. With that, Dan walked out, leaving Matthew to close up the bar. * * * When Matthew awoke the next morning, he found a large package waiting for him in his apartment’s mailbox. It carried the rest of his clothes in it. His manager out west had been kind enough to send the clothes. Matthew was touched that his old manager hadn’t asked to be reimbursed for the shipping. It was an expensive going away gift. Inside, there was a thank you note and a hundred dollar bill from one of the waitresses with whom Matthew had frequently slept. They had a relationship that had been based totally on sex. Matthew
threw out the thank you card without reading it and tucked the money into his wallet. He looked over his secretary application while he sipped his morning coffee. After he finished the cup, he opened the case, finding precisely what he expected. There were four sets of clothes and enough socks and underwear to last a week. In the box was also a slip with a twenty dollar bill attached. The note had the word dry-cleaning written on it. Two pairs of sneakers and one pair of dress shoes also filled the bottom of the box. Matthew pulled them out and thought about what he should wear to the bar. His apartment’s buzzer broke the silence. “Hello?” he asked after walking over to the intercom. He was surprised. Few people knew he lived there and he knew even fewer people that would knock on his door at ten in the morning. “Come down,” said a voice. It was Teague. “Donny gets sentenced in half an hour. I want to be there.” “So?” Matthew said, biting his tongue not to damn the guilty with any words. One should never speak ill of the dead or the guilty. Matthew’s mother taught him that. “I want you to come along. Plus, Tuesdays are one of the days we pick up supplies. After today, the supplies are your job.” The intercom cut out, leaving Matthew alone. He put one of his nicer bartending outfits and walked down to see his boss, who seemed intent on saddling him with responsibilities. In the cold sunlight, Teague, who sat in the driver’s seat, looked elderly. The way Teague spoke always sounded
unsurprised and flat. But his voice never wavered or sounded old. In the cold wind, though, Matthew noticed deep groves in his mentor’s face. His thin lips pursed in the cold air. There was a deep crack that ran along Teague’s lower lip; it came from the biting cold. As Matthew approached him, Teague motioned for him to get into the passenger seat. Matthew climbed in. “Wanted me to ride along so I’ll say something to Donny?” Matthew asked. “Yes,” said Teague, coughing a bit. He sounded like he was trying to hack up mucus, but wasn’t being successful. They drove to the township building where the courts were held. “Besides,” said Teague slowly, “it doesn’t matter since he’s pleading guilty anyways.” “How long is he going to get?” “Don’t know. Haven’t talked to him, but I’m sure it won’t be that much. Plus, he doesn’t have a felony record. Just a few bar fights.” The truck smelled of smoke. Yet, the ashtray under the radio was empty and the floor of the cab was immaculate. Matthew realized that the truck was the same kind Teague had driven years ago. Except it was black instead of gray. “Like these kinds trucks, don’t you?” “Reliable.” Teague stopped at a red light and then patted his dashboard. “I’m having a Valentine’s Day party at my house,” he said suddenly. “It’ll be held the Saturday before Valentine’s Day. It’s still early to invite everyone, but I like to plan things ahead of time.” Teague had never procrastinated
since Matthew had known him. The light turned green and Teague drove on. “I’m not really a Valentine’s Day person,” said Matthew. In fact, he had never known anyone who was a Valentine’s Day person, except for the owners of flower shops. “Didn’t know you like the holiday.” “I don’t,” said Teague. “That’s why I’m having one. It’s nothing fancy. Just a good time.” He pulled into the parking lot of the undistinguished building. It looked like a doctor’s office. They stepped from the truck. Matthew stared at the courthouse. Then he said, “Are you going to explain?” Teague laughed a thick hearty laugh. “It’s a social event. Nothing sexual about the party. I’ll tell you about it afterwards.” The two of them walked through the metal detectors of the court and into the single courtroom in the entire judicial building. * * * After Teague and Matthew waited through four other cases, Donny finally walked into the courtroom. He was in a court-supplied suit. But he looked angry. His entire faced was pinched in, as though he were pouting for being inconveniently stuck in the courtroom. “Court is now in session,” said the gaunt old judge. He was thin and looked decrepit. Matthew could see the bones in the judge’s pale hands. “The defense will now enter its plea. Proceed.” “Mr. Kooper pleads guilty to two of the three charges, as agreed by with the prosecution.”
“And the prosecution agrees.” The judge sighed and sounded bored. He had been through too many cases that would never see a jury or need a judge. He was simply filler for the bureaucracy and paperwork in the building. The look in his eyes reminded Matthew of the workers he saw around town. “Yes,” responded the assistant district attorney. She was young and talked like a greenhorn. “The agreed upon sentence is four months in jail, with a parole review at two months. After release, Mr. Kooper will be on five years probation.” The judge then looked at Donny, ignoring both the attorneys. There were a few other older individuals who had snacks and looked as though they were watching a movie. “Mr. Kooper,” began the judge, “I want you to know you’re getting off with an easy sentence. Anyone who normally hits a police officer will get at least five years in jail. And the jail you’re going to is much more lenient than the one I could have sent you to. Remember that when you meet Chief Wheeler again. You owe him a thank you for bargaining your term down. Personally, I think you owe him an apology anyway.” Donny said nothing. His lawyer held out a hand to shake, but Donny left it, his jaw lowered. A guard came and led him away. Mathew was surprised how quiet Donny had been—only he realized Donny’s situation and understood his nephew’s newfound respect for the law. “That was quick,” said Matthew.
“I knew it would be,” said Teague. “I’ll visit him tomorrow. Any of your family going to visit him?” “Emma and Joseph were going to see him sometime,” answered Matthew. “Maybe in a few days or next week. They’re not in a hurry, though.” Both men stood up. A prisoner was being led in who was charged with robbing the local VFW. The ignored him and walked to the truck. “Are you going to visit him?” asked Teague as he opened the driver’s door. Mathew tilted his head. “I don’t know. Why do you ask?” “You had that look on your face back there,” said Teague. “Don’t make a spectacle.” “I won’t,” said Matthew. The way they spoke with each other, Matthew felt as though he had a father. A father that had not chased him away. Matthew wondered if he had not run away, what would have become of his relationship with Teague. He thought they probably would have grown apart, Mathew starting a family, Teague running successful business ventures that afforded him the luxury of self-pity. Teague was a friend, but he also inhabited a position of authority in Matthew’s life—a position that becomes filled as one grows older and independent. With Matthew having run away, they probably would have never had time to develop a friendship, much less lose one. “So you are going to visit him,” said Teague. “Yes.” Teague just nodded his head in acknowledgement that he understood. “So are you going to explain?” asked Matthew. “Explain what?”
“Why the party?” asked Matthew. They were pulling up to a warehouse that supplied the bar with its beer and its fancy liquors. Picking it up was cheaper than having it delivered. It was a drive-through station where commercial customers could drive their vehicles through the warehouse, literally. The workers would pile up the supplies, Teague would sign a bill, and they would be out in less than fifteen minutes. “I wanted to have a party that was away from my bar. It needed to be fancy and fun but at the same time, it needed to be wholesome. I live in a big house. Almost a mansion.” Matthew remembered hearing from his sister that Teague’s father had left him the house on the condition that he raised a family from its proceeds. Teague had never married, so he felt no need or privilege to sell it. “This party is supposed to allow my friends to see the house and maybe I can figure out who I want to give it to when I die.” Matthew gave him a look. “What kind of a reason is that?” “Stop it,” replied Teague. “It’s more than just that. I have too much money than I know what to do with. And I’m not in the mood to give it away. Not to you, not to my brother down in Florida, not to my cousins. The only people who get my money are the people to whom I’ve willed it—which means several charities will receive handsome donations from a private, unknown benefactor.” “Don’t shake your head like that. This party is classy. There’s going to be music. I’ve hired a live band to play the entire night. Even got heaters so we can spend time outside, in
giant tents.” The image of a circus appeared in Matthew’s mind. “I hope it is,” said Matthew. The workers finished piling on the supplies. Teague signed for the bill and told them he’d be back on Friday morning. They drove back to the bar and Matthew took in the supplies. While he rolled in the kegs, he saw Donny’s name scratched into one of them. He thought about Emma, who was trying to stay out of his affairs. In a few weeks, he’d have enough money to pay back the deposit she’d given him. Mostly, though, he desired to save up enough money to buy a car—and of course have enough money to move from his apartment above the grocery store. He focused on making tips while he unloaded the truck. He swore to himself as he worked alone. Bar “So what made you decide to buy the bar?” asked Matthew. He’d finished cleaning up the bathroom from the night before. Several of the VFW men as well as the factory workers had become sick. Barry had lead them. The only positive was Dan Patrick’s absence. “I wanted to build a place where workers could relax with their family,” said Teague, who sat smoking. “I really wanted this place to be a family-oriented restaurant. A clean place. I like clean places. It makes them more habitable. I imagined this bar being like a saloon in western movies crossed with fine dining in New York City.”
The Thursday crowd had started to pile up, even before the bar opened. The waitresses got to work early, unlike Monday and Tuesday nights. Though only four customers were waiting, Teague told Matthew the Thursday crowd would be huge. There was a second bartender who would come in around eight or so to help out Matthew, maybe even give him a break. He worked Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. “You’re off the few days, right?” asked Teague. “Yes,” said Matthew. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “Apply for a weekend job. And spend time with my sister and Jenny’s family.” Teague wished him the best of luck in getting the receptionist job and then told Matthew to open the bar. The early part of Thursday was busy, by any standards, but for an afternoon, it was so crowded that Matthew was tipped enough to pay for his plane ticket Jenny had paid for. Once the bar had been open for a few hours, several factory workers stopped by. It was a different group than the one that had been in on Monday. Since they were still wearing their uniforms, however, one knew precisely where the men spent their day. Around seven, the second bartender arrived, making Matthew’s job easier, but less profitable. Moments later, the VFW men arrived. Shortly after them, a dozen female college students entered. The night flew by until ten or so, after the factory workers and the early birds left. At ten, half the bar turned into Cinderellas. Even the VFW men were getting tired and
starting to cash in if they had any poker earnings. According to Teague, the slow period usually started earlier than on Friday nights. He had also told Matthew there were fewer problems with the Thursday crowd than any of the other nights. “They want to get to the weekend,” Teague said, sitting on a bar stool in the corner. During low periods in the night, Matthew noticed that Teague emerged from the back room. When it was especially busy, though, he frequently remained in his office. “That way when they actually get to the weekend, they feel fancy-free.” “You’re absolutely correct,” said Matthew, wiping several glasses dry with a white towel. He had a pen in his ear and felt he must have looked like a stereotypical bartender. Teague echoed Matthew’s thoughts. With the crowd thinning, the other bartender walked over. He extended his hand. “I’m Louie,” he said in a thick French-Canadian accent. Matthew already knew his name from speaking with Teague, but he shook hands with the tall man anyways. Louie looked average except for his height. He stood nearly six and a half feet tall. “And yes,” Louie said, answering Matthew’s previous question, “you do look like a perfect bartender.” “Thanks,” said Matthew, smiling and scoffing. “It’s always been a dream of mine.” “Sorry you can’t get Fridays or Saturdays,” said Louie. “If I or the other bartender Chris ever get sick or need a day off, I’ll let you know. That’s what we did for Donny.” He
spoke fondly to Matthew—though Matthew couldn’t tell if the tone was Louie’s natural way of conversing. “If you like,” said Matthew. He added that he didn’t want to get treated like Donny. He had an instant of fear, worried Louie might retaliate. Louie merely agreed and started serving drinks to a middle-aged couple that had entered. The couple looked red-eyed and flushed. Louie made sure to water down their drinks. A few minutes later, while talking with Teague in the corner, Matthew saw Dawn Bullock walk through the door. His heart stopped and he took the toothpick from his dry mouth. His hands trembled. “Why is she here?” Matthew asked his boss. It was late for a Thursday and he had never known Dawn to frequent a bar. “I don’t know,” answered Teague. “She’s never been here before.” Teague took a long drag on one of his vilest cigars. He let the smoke drift away from his mouth. He blew it in the opposite direction of Matthew. Matthew took a few steps away from the seductive smoke. “I suspect she’s here to see you,” Teague said to Matthew. Matthew didn’t respond. Instead, he walked over to the stool where Dawn now perched herself. “It’s good seeing you with a job,” she told him before he could even ask her what she wanted to drink. “Thanks D,” said Matthew. “What can I get you?” “Martini and one of those little pizzas you make,” she said. He poured her a Martini and went into the back to put the miniature pizza into the oven. Two of the three waitresses had
left so the service would be slow if Matthew had just left the order slip by the waitress station. He wanted to ensure Dawn didn’t have to wait very long. “What brings you here?” asked Matthew after he returned. “To see you, of course.” She spoke as though the answer were obvious. It caught Matthew off-guard, making his sweaty palms become clammy. “Well I’m here, doing the same thing I did in California. Tips are a little worse, but the clientele is more behaved. Rent is cheaper.” “And you’re closer to your family,” she responded. Matthew leaned against the bar, his feet tired from standing in one place. “That’s the reason I stayed,” Matthew said. “Wanted to be around my blood. Maybe restart a few friendships.” Dawn looked awkwardly down at her glass. Matthew went into the back to get her pizza. When he came back, Dawn was at the jukebox. She turned on a Sinatra tune and sat down again. It had been one of her favorite songs when they had been younger. “How’s the orchard business?” asked Matthew while he served her the food. “It was doing well until now,” Dawn stated. After taking a few bits, she said, “These next two months are almost at a standstill, except for Valentine’s Day. But in March, it’ll pick up and once we hit May, the tourists will start arriving and I’ll be swamped until mid-September, early October.”
“It is doing well overall?” Mathew didn’t know what else to talk about. But he wanted to make sure he said the right things. He ground his foot inside his shoe. The pizza Dawn ate was a genius move by Teague. It was imported from New York. Though Teague hadn’t managed to build a restaurant, he had made a name for himself among the tourist attractions. Matthew had been told that in the summer, Teague made the bar into a true tapas bar by hiring a band to play three or four nights a week. People loved it. Teague had confided that he hated having to turn it back into a regular bar during the winter. Like Dawn had said, all of Oak County changed for the warmer months. Its camping grounds grew crowded and the riverbanks overflowed with eager fishermen. Matthew remembered climbing on the various boats at night with his friends. They often went swimming in the lakes. When he was in middle school, he’d convinced Dawn— then in high school—to go skinny dipping in the middle of July. They had kissed for the first time. He had met several girls who were on vacation. Matthew dated most of them, but they left at the end of the summer. Dawn never left him, never went away with the salmon or the caravans of hunters. Ironically, it was he who had left, left in the fall, just before she needed his help with harvesting the orchard. “The orchards are doing fantastic,” answered Dawn, almost gloating. But there was something else. “A little too good,” she added. Matthew detected stress in her words. He stopped grinding his foot and looked at her again. His first look hadn’t been slow enough. He’d missed the dark circles
under her eyes. So focused on himself, Matthew had missed that she’s come in old trousers. “You just came from work?” Matthew stated. He looked at the clock on the wall. “This late?” he cried after she gave an affirmative headshake. “Yes,” she said. “There’s things to be fixed, walls to be painted, all sorts of things need to be done that couldn’t be done in the summer.” She finished the pizza. Matthew poured her a beer. “It’s on me,” Matthew said, almost pleading. His hands no longer shook. He felt ashamed for trying to say the right things to Dawn. She hadn’t come to the bar to see him, he mused. She’d come to the bar to relax for working more than half the day. “If it’s on you, I’ll take a glass of nice wine,” she said pushing away the beer. “Don’t you have help?” he asked her after giving her a large glass of wine. The bottle cost more than a hundred dollars—which meant no one ever drank it and Matthew felt comfortable giving it away. “I do in the summer,” she retorted. She sipped the wine and complimented Teague who was sitting on his stool, intently looking over paperwork. He nodded and went back to the papers. Matthew suspected they were order forms. “But not in the winter?” The rest of the place started to clear out and a few men walked over to Matthew and Louie to give them decent tips. The tips increased in size as the week went on. The customers continued to their exodus, including the couple that had entered just a little while before. In less
than fifteen minutes, the entire bar was empty except for Dawn. “They’re like lemmings,” Louie laughed as he wiped the counter. “Put the closed sign up,” called Teague. “Ms. Bullock, you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.” He went to the register and pulled out the drawer. He told the waitress to go home. Then he lit a cigar and told Louie and Matthew to clean up the bar. “I know it might be a pain, gentlemen, but tomorrow might be a big night. The post-holiday lull is over, so everyone might be out for a night on the town.” He walked into his office and started counting. He was the only bar manager Matthew had ever met who did not close his door while he counted the money. Matthew turned to Dawn who was sipping the wine slowly. “I can help you if you want,” he told her. Without waiting for her to respond, he said, “I’m not trying to have you hold me. I’d like to make some money, maybe do some work for your orchards. I have off the next three days.” He pointed at himself. “You want a job?” She wasn’t shocked. “I figure if you hire me, then I’m not giving you charity. And you don’t have to worry about getting angry because you’d be my boss.” Matthew knew she was too prideful to let him work for nothing. She’d think he was pitying her. She didn’t let anyone pity her, the same way she didn’t let anyone step on her business or treat her different because she was black. A bank had once declined her because the manager was a racist. Dawn slapped the bank with a court
order. They settled out of court. The loan was given to her at a lower interest rate. Matthew also suspected she had a little extra money in her account after that. “How much do you want to be paid?” she asked. “Whatever I’m worth,” said Matthew. “I’ll give you a hundred for each day. Want all three?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. Her voice was rock hard. “How about just Friday and Saturday?” asked Matthew. “Sunday dinner, right?” she said, finishing her drink. “Emma sometimes invites me over.” Her voice softened, revealing to Matthew how easily she differentiated between business and family. When they were younger, Dawn hadn’t been able to separate her feelings about her business away from her feelings toward Matthew. If she was upset with one, she’d be upset at the other. Now, though, Matthew found her stone-faced and gentle within moments. “Yes,” he said. She stood up and shook Matthew’s hand. Then she waved goodbye to Louie. “What time?” asked Matthew. “How about nine?” she queried. “See you then,” he said. She walked out the door. Matthew looked around and knew he was going to be tired the next morning. * * * Mathew picked up the jug and drank for several seconds. The cool water wet his dry tongue and filled his entire chest. The greenhouse was stifling.
“Ready for lunch?” Dawn called from below. “Yesterday we didn’t have lunch for a few more hours,” he called down. “But then we were outside and I didn’t want us getting warm until it was all done.” “I’ll be down,” he shouted, taking the glass from its frame. He left the section open, allowing cool air to flow into the greenhouse. He breathed deeply, feeling the freezing air commingle with the tropical air. Matthew had sweated all day on Friday and so far, his Saturday had been no different. Wiping his brow, Matthew descended from the scaffoldings. He walked to Dawn’s office. As he stepped inside, he felt relief. Her office windows were open. Dawn refused to have the office heated or air conditioned, which meant it was blazing hot in the summer, but fairly comfortable in the winter. The office was small, but large enough to have a table that seated four people. Dawn had told him she used it for business transactions. “You looked flushed,” said Dawn. “Make sure you drink enough water this afternoon.” She was sitting behind her desk, eating a hoagie. Matthew pulled out his lunch from his cooler. He had a large sandwich. “No hoagie today?” asked Dawn between mouthfuls. She ate fast, gulping down her meal. Matthew had noticed she ate fast while she worked, but slowly when she was eating at her leisure. Mathew ate in the opposite manner. “I’m almost finished with the windows,” Matthew stated. “We got a good head start yesterday.”
“I agree,” Dawn said. She’d finished her lunch and was looking over a few pieces of paper. Matthew looked around, noticing the thank you letters from various charities in the local area. Several were sent from an orphanage. Matthew finished his sandwich without talking to Dawn. They hadn’t talked much the day before, except about the repairs and Emma, Jenny, and Marie. Once he finished, Matthew spoke up, however. “How are you doing?” he asked. “Fine,” Dawn answered tersely. “No, I mean how’s life? Are you satisfied with this, with yourself?” “We’re never going to be close again,” Dawn stated quickly. “That’s pretty nasty,” said Matthew. A knife cut his heart. Sweat poured down his back. Dawn leaned back in her chair, biting her lower lip. She held the arms of her chair so tight that her knuckles were white. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she ventured. “It came out wrong.” “So what did you mean?” Matthew asked, his voice sounding more snake-like and angry than he had intended it to sound like. He leaned back in his chair. “It’s too long ago. We can be friends. I have no problem with that. But nothing else.” “Do you have a relationship?” he asked. “No,” she said. “I’ve had a few, but they’ve always taken a back seat to my business and Marie. Plus, they’ve hurt me. All of them.” Matthew stared blankly at her.
“That pile of papers,” began Mathew, changing the subject, “looks pretty thick. I could take some of those if you want.” He pushed his seat out and kicked his legs up on the coffee table. “It’s no problem,” said Dawn. “Just bills and some proposals to attract a new business partner.” Matthew closed his eyes for a few minutes. “Ready to get back to work?” he asked. “How far are you?” “I only have a few more windows to clean. Most of the hinges don’t have to be replaced, either.” Matthew stood up and Dawn followed him out into the artificial heat. For an instant, Matthew saw the greenhouse outside of himself. He no longer saw it as a laborer or friend of the owner. Rather, he viewed it suddenly as a tourist, fascinated at the massive structure. No other place existed like Dawn Bullock’s orchards for hundreds of miles. There were acres of apples and peach trees. One could almost get lost outside, among thousands of little routes. Even inside, he saw the tropical flower and fruits bloom with new eyes. His nose picked up the fresh scent of bananas intermixed with mangos. He couldn’t remember how old he was, but he hadn’t learned to ride a bicycle yet. His father had taken him out back to where the family had started a small garden. By the time Matthew met Dawn, the garden had long withered away. His father picked up a shovel and buried their dead dog. He had told Matthew nothing ever dies. The dog wasn’t unhappy; it was still alive, inside the plants. Matthew cried. It was the last time Matthew had a pet.
“Matthew?” said Dawn. “Sorry, D,” he said, blinking, his eyes stinging from the humid air. “What were you thinking?” “I was thinking about how we’re getting this place looking pretty good. It helps to have another person, right?” He smiled at her. She smiled back, unable to resist. “Two people make the work go by four times as fast.” Within the next hour, they finished the windows and had replaced the hinges so the window could be opened in the summertime. They moved on to stripping the paint on the plaster walls throughout the greenhouse. The work lasted past dinnertime. Dawn and Mathew worked in almost complete silence. However, the pair moved smoothly, managing to anticipate each other’s moves, helping one another as they stripped the paint. When they had finished, the walls were not longer white, but a dull plaster color. “Want to come back tomorrow?” asked Dawn as she locked the place up, arming the security system. It was dark and cold, but Matthew felt satisfied. He wasn’t happy. He didn’t feel proud—his back hurt too much. But he held his head high. He wasn’t trying to be disingenuous, but he stood straight with his shoulders back. The work was honest. “How about next weekend?” he replied, knowing his knees and back couldn’t take working for Dawn three days in a row. “I need a day off.”
“Sure,” responded Dawn. “Send Marie all my love. And tell the rest I say hello.” She knew he was having dinner with Emma. “Next Friday?” Matthew asked. She nodded. They got into their separate cars and drove home. * * * Matthew sat in his chair, his pen moving deftly over the paper clippings. With others, he often didn’t reveal his hobby. He wanted others to think of him as a fool; he was spurious in regards to his personal life. But the crossword puzzles put him at ease. His eyes moved across pages collected throughout the week. He had no time to complete them except on his days off. Working tired him out. It didn’t make him sore. Rather, it made him weary of companionship. Being around people, serving them drinks, smiling after he was left a meager tip wore Matthew down. What made the exhaustion worse was that it grinded him slowly. The same way sand wears down a canyon was the same way that the days wore down Matthew’s spirit. He hadn’t done very well in any of his studies. No one had ever expected him to go to college, but his mother had thought he would at least finish in the middle of his class. Instead, Dawn and Donald Jr. were forced to help Matthew his senior year in his geometry class. His father had beat Matthew numerous times because he had failed his history class. Emma helped him with the other classes. Thus, he succeeded to limp through his senior year of high school and started to work at the lumber mill after he graduated.
But in California, he’d become so isolated that he grew to become a master of a few petty talents. One of them was understanding when people wanted money. The other involved words. Matthew found he could spell nearly any word he heard, even the ones that had no clear meaning and were used in spelling bees. He’d bought crossword books, cut the puzzles out all of the newspapers, and kept them in a folder—which he kept in meticulous order. Occasionally, he even won a few contests. “Damn,” Matthew mumbled to himself, uncrossing his legs. He wore a bathrobe, but nothing underneath it. The puzzle from Thursday made him pound his fist on the table. He stood up and walked over to the kitchen sink. There he stopped and then scrambled back to the table, jotting down several words. He sighed, closed his eyes and then opened them. He walked out onto his patio overlooking the street. The cold wind buzzed around the corner of the building, but Matthew’s patio was cut into the building so it wouldn’t receive the brunt of the winter’s teeth. Reaching into his pocket, Matthew realized he had nothing to smoke. He’d thrown out all of his cigarettes and given his lighters away at the bar. He shivered and started to walk inside when he glimpsed down the road. Dan Patrick was walking slowly up the street. Using the buildings as a railing, Dan took several short breaks. Matthew thought about waving at him or calling to see if he needed help. A small voice inside of him, however, kept him from saying a word. He watched his godfather stumble down the road—on an early Sunday morning—trying
to work off the previous night. The way Dan walked reminded Matthew of the way his father walked. They both walked with their backs straight, even if they couldn’t walk in a straight line. The only difference was that Dan was thin as a rail. Dan’s skin looked tanned, almost red. Matthew looked away and started to go inside when he heard Dan’s voice. “Kooper?” Dan shouted. Matthew pulled his robe tightly around his waist. He walked to the edge of the patio so that he could see the old man. “What can I do for you?” he said, his ears starting to sting. Being voluntarily out in the cold made him feel like an acetic. He hadn’t experienced a winter as cold since he had last been in Oak County. His eyes watered. “Just wanted to come up and talk with you. I’m a little cold. I don’t think I’m in much condition to walk home.” Mathew agreed with the wispy man. He looked strong in some light. But the light on the Sunday morning was not favorable. “I don’t think so,” responded Matthew. His feet felt the fake carpeting on the balcony floor. It felt the much rougher than the grass on which Matthew had played with his family in the summers. Dan Patrick would often come by and break up the wrestling matches by absconding Matthew’s father to the bar. Time was a thief. “Come on, please,” said Dan. But Matthew wasn’t going to listen to his godfather’s pleading. “Learn to take care of yourself.” “I don’t suppose I could just rest inside for a bit,” said Dan. “Just a few minutes.” No one was on the streets. The small town was full of faithful churchgoers who attended mass
on Sundays as though they were going to work. A few of the heathens—as Matthew’s mother had called them—roamed about early on Sunday morning. As a result, Matthew became aware their voices were traveling. Dan’s sounded strained and horse. “Come up,” Matthew stated. He vowed not to help the old man. If Dan couldn’t get up the single flight of stairs, Matthew wouldn’t let him inside. After he put on shorts, Matthew walked to his door and opened it. Several minutes later, Dan can into view, holding on to either side of the stairwell for support. Matthew did not leave the doorsill. Once Dan reached the door, however, Matthew extended a hand and helped the man sit at the kitchen table furnished by the landlord. “Breathe slowly,” said Matthew. He went over to the sink and got Dan a glass of water. Dan tried drinking the water too fast and coughed, spilling a bit. “Slow down,” he said. Dan nodded in agreement. He said nothing else. They said nothing to each other. Matthew would have tried to start a conversation, but the bulging red eyes of his godfather warned him against doing so. The man wasn’t drunk as much as he was hung over and exhausted. The weariness was evident when Dan put his head down on the table and fell asleep. Matthew found his crosswords and, again, his pen began to move at a brisk pace. He looked out the window, seeing the sun rise. After letting Dan sleep for an hour, Matthew called a cab. The streets were starting to crowd with women in fancy dresses and men in ironed suits—the standard Sunday
morning crowd. None of them noticed Matthew putting Dan Patrick in a yellow taxi cab. Offers “I got a ride on Friday and yesterday I didn’t need it.” “But take the twenty anyways,” replied Matthew as he sliced a squash. Emma had so much food in her freezer that she reminded Matthew of a hibernating bear. Emma looked at her brother and put the keys into her pocket. She put the large chicken carefully in the oven. Then she sat at the counter slicing potatoes. Matthew walked over to her and put the money on the table. She took it spitefully. “I just want you to know that it wasn’t an inconvenience,” Emma said. “I know it was. Thanks for letting me borrow it anyways.” Matthew wiped his eyes. His fingers hurt from holding the small pieces of squash that would become the garnish on the chicken. “How is Dawn?” asked Emma. “She says hello and gives Marie her best,” said Matthew. He told Emma about the two days he helped Dawn fix up the orchard. Emma looked at him after he finished explaining. “You can’t do that,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t do what?” “You can’t just expect people to forget the past. The past has a way of haunting you, Matthew. The things you’ve done may seem minor—or you may have even forgotten some of those things. But I’m sure that there are plenty of people who haven’t forgotten. That old saying is wrong. Time doesn’t
heal. In fact, I’ve found it makes things worse. They—we— hold grudges and shout and grow vindictive. It boils until it makes you cry late at night.” Her voice trailed off and Matthew looked at his sister, calm and sorrowful, yet her face remained unmoved. “I’m not,” Matthew started, “trying to convince anyone to forget what I did. With Dawn, I’m actually trying to do the opposite.” Emma stopped and looked at her brother. She waited for a response. “I know Dawn’s angry at me,” said Matthew. “So I’m trying to make up for it. I know I’m selfish. I’d still like to try and fix things with her. And a few other people.” He finished cutting and poured the food into a large bowl. Then he added a few pieces of dill and a generous supply of olive oil. He left it waiting to be poured on the chicken and sat down with his sister. Emma was still wearing her church clothes. Matthew had put on his best shirt and pants. He looked underdressed when compared to Emma. “They’ll be here soon,” said Emma. “All three of them?” asked Matthew. “Yes,” said Emma. There was a knock before the chicken had even started to bronze. Marie scrambled inside, followed by Joseph. Jenny came in next, her eyes puffy. Matthew would later find out Marie had had the flu the night before. Marie had been up all night and so had her parents. Except Marie dumped the sickness on her mother.
Marie had a toy car with her and kneeled down on the hardwood floors. She pretended to drive it around, ignoring the adults. Mathew went into the kitchen and returned with an old plastic container. “It’s a garage,” he said, giving it to her. Marie’s eyes lit up as she became even more engrossed in the blue and pink car. “Can I help with dinner?” asked Jenny. “Matthew, we need to talk,” said Joseph. He words sounded carefully picked. Emma looked at the two men and understood the look on her son-in-law’s face. Emma and Jenny left, pretending to be interested in potatoes and squashfilled chicken. “Didn’t get the job, did I?” asked Matthew. He already knew the answer. Joseph shook his head. Matthew followed Joseph onto the front stoop after he motioned they go outside. After he’d closed the door, Joseph spoke. “No, Matthew, you didn’t get it. I’m really sorry.” Matthew fidgeted, unable to control his hands from shaking and his bladder from suddenly having to go to the bathroom. His life in Oak County suddenly became desultory. The icy air smacked him in the face. “I thought you said I had a decent chance of getting the job? I mean, at least I thought that it sounded good. Didn’t you put in a good word for me? Or how about that cop I saved? None of it means anything?” Matthew voice wavered, hysterical. It sounded almost sounded as if he might start to cry—not sad tears, but frustrated ones. His face contorted in rage, as if he was stuck in a traffic jam without end.
“Look, Sam is grateful for pulling him out of the fire, you know that. We all are. But that’s not going to get you a job. Our secretary job is probably going to go to a college graduate or someone with a degree. The interviewers do take my opinion down. I wrote a recommendation. That wasn’t enough, though.” “You wouldn’t do it for a friend or family?” interrupted Matthew, steaming. “That’s bullshit.” “What do you want from me?” retorted Joseph, his face turning red. He and Matthew had been growing steadily louder, until Joseph’s last comment was almost a complete scream. “Calm down,” said Matthew, lowering his voice as his waved downwards at the ground with his hands. “You calm down,” whispered Joseph. “Okay, I’m sorry. But they didn’t care about any of your advice? I find that hard to believe.” Joseph thought for a moment. “They wanted someone with more experience.” He paused and then said, “You have two citations for disorderly conduct and simple assault.” Joseph crossed his arms. On the porch, the wind couldn’t lash at the two men. It wasn’t strong to begin with, but the sunshine that suddenly poured onto the front of the house warmed them up. Despite the long winter months in Wisconsin, Matthew had a feeling spring would begin a few weeks early, perhaps even in March. Matthew watched the sun, low in the sky but still unyielding. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” said Matthew. “It made me look like a fool,” said Joseph calmly.
“I didn’t think it mattered.” Joseph snorted. “Come on Matthew,” he said. “I know how old you are. It didn’t cross you mind at all that working at a police station would depend on your criminal record? That’s the real reason, probably, that you didn’t get hired. I can’t be sure, but I’d put money on it.” “They were just misdemeanors, little more than petty assaults.” said Matthew. “Doesn’t matter.” “I’m sorry,” said Matthew. Joseph shook his head as if trying to make sense of something. He gave a deep breath and looked at his uncle-in-law. “What were they for? The one from your fight with Donny wasn’t recorded. So that means you’ve got some explaining to do for me. That much I deserve.” Matthew told Joseph he been in two fights. One was his fault and the other wasn’t. The one that wasn’t his fault was when a large group of men came into his bar in California and started a fight with another group. Matthew called the police, but had to settle things before they were out of control. And that mean he decided to pull out a shotgun. No one blamed him for that incident. It was even noted on the police report. It saved several men from going to the hospital that night. Matthew never had to pull the trigger. “What about the other incident?” asked Joseph. If Matthew had closed his eyes, he could have imagined Joseph in his uniform, holding a pad of paper and taking notes. He sounded professional, far too serious. He sounded like a police chief.
“A young kid, maybe around twenty, tried mugging me once,” started Matthew. “That’s not going to get you a violation,” said Joseph. “No, but tying the kid up and leaving him on the side of the street is against the law,” continued Matthew, “and it will get you a nice little fine along with some probation.” Joseph’s eyes were open wide. “You just tied him up and left him there?” he asked. “He only had a knife. That doesn’t scare me. So I knocked it out of his hands and went into his pockets to find his wallet. There was a pile of garbage with some wires. I pulled them out and wrapped them around him.” “That’s disturbing,” said Joseph. His face scrunched up in revulsion. “It was twenty years ago. I was young, stupid, and angry.” “The police record haunts you, doesn’t it?” “Same way it’ll haunt Donny. How’s he doing by the way?” asked Matthew. “Jenny and I saw him on Thursday,” said Joseph. “He looks fine to me. He’s calmed down a little.” Joseph saw Matthew’s eyes. “Yes he did apologize to me, if you wanted to know.” “Not that. Did he say thank you for you helping to bargain down his sentence?” “He didn’t need to. I didn’t bargain anything. I just choose for him to be charged with assault on a citizen rather than a police officer. The original prosecutor was charging him with aggravated assault on a police officer. So I just asked
a favor and it got changed. I didn’t do any bargaining. Not my style. Anyone who told you different was wrong or a fool.” “Is he allowed out for any visits or work duty?” asked Mathew. “No. Are you talking about February 11th?” Matthew nodded. “No, but he’ll be fine, even if he might collapse on that day. He’s in a minimum security prison where all the men are incarcerated for less than a year. Most of them aren’t there for more than a few months. Much like Donny will be as long as he keeps behaving well. Not many of them get into fights.” “They won’t let him visit her grave, though?” “No. It’s still prison. They’re still there, kept under lock and key.” Matthew asked Joseph if there was anything he could do. “You could visit Donny in prison. And you could put some flowers on his mother’s grave.” The door of the house opened and Marie popped her head out. “Dinner!” she cried. Matthew quickly told Joseph he’d take the suggestion. Then the two men went into the dining room and sat down. Jenny told the men their duty was to do the dishes since the women fixed the dinner. Matthew joked that he’d helped with slicing the squash. After dinner, they finished their conversation while the women sat in the other room relaxing. * * * “So it’ll let you do what you want?” asked Matthew. Emma looked tired, both from cooking and from her job. Being a nurse, particularly an emergency nurse, burns a person
out. Matthew often thought she never smiled at him because she despised him. The more contact he had with her, however, the more he realized she was almost a zombie. Seeing rape victims who would later become victims of murder weighed on her. The emotionless mask would tighten around her face when she put on her scrubs. The dark circles under her eyes showed that her desire to sit on the couch knitting was well deserved. “Well, I don’t know about that, but if the sale goes well, we’ll be on easy street,” said Jenny, holding Marie in her arms, rocking her daughter slowly. Matthew had never seen Marie move so little. He’d never observed her without energy. In his imagination, he pictured her as a perpetual motion device, supplying its own fuel, never running out. “If the company did sell, we might have to move,” said Joseph, directing his comment to Jenny more than to anyone else. “But that wouldn’t be for a while even if it did happen,” said Jenny. “Well,” Matthew finally said, “I think it’s great that you’re going to try and sell the company, Jenny. But are you sure they’d want to move the company or would they just want to move you?” There was silence. “What do you mean?” asked Jenny. “The company could keep the concrete-buying offices in Oak County. It’s closer to the Canadian border, which is where you get most of the raw supplies. And since you’re just middle movers, the office wouldn’t necessarily have to move.”
“Why would they want her though?” asked Joseph. At that moment, Matthew felt like his nephew-in-law needed a slap in the face or an earthquake to shake him. “She’s the company; they’re buying her.” Matthew suddenly felt old and realized how sore his back and legs were. The lower part of his back felt strained. Had he picked up a box, he felt his back would have surely ripped in two, like two guitar strings snapping from tension. Matthew continued, trying to ease his family. “She’s brilliant. They recognize that. So the company might not move. You might.” They didn’t talk much after that, except for discussing Teague’s party. Jenny, Joseph, and Emma were all invited, though Joseph couldn’t go because he had a shift on that Saturday night. “Every officer, even the chief, has to pull the graveyard on Saturday night every once in while. That just happened to be the straw I pulled from the hat.” They discussed it some more, wondering what entertainment the opulent Harold Teague had planned. A little while later, Jenny started to fall asleep, as did Emma. Matthew’s sister had had to get up earlier so she could catch a ride with Joseph. She’d sacrificed—granted not much, but still something—so Matthew could earn a little extra money and companionship with Dawn. “You’re right,” said Joseph, who was now holding Marie the same way a lioness holds her cubs. “I think Jenny is the reason why the company had interest in Top Concrete.” Matthew nodded. “Emma,” he said, touching his sister on her shoulder, “I think we should be going.” Emma’s
eyes were open but glassy and unfixed. At her brother’s insistence, she sat up. “I’m tired,” she said. “Giving me a ride home?” Matthew asked Joseph. “Sure.” Emma stood up and looked at her watch. It wasn’t much past ten. Matthew thought it odd how his schedule conflicted with his family’s. The bartending job kept him up late odd hours. Thus, even though he had woken up early, he still would not fall asleep for several hours. “How’s Dawn doing over there?” Joseph asked as they drove in the darkness. Winter darkness always seemed much less friendly to Matthew than summer darkness. “The place is coming along nicely,” he answered. “The summer’s looking up. I’m going to help her every Friday and Saturday. If there’s one good thing about not getting that job, it’s that I’ll have three day a week off and Dawn pays me pretty good for my labor.” “Teague told me you’re a great landscaper. Not very business savvy, but you work hard and the product looks decent.” “Thanks,” Matthew said. “I need to show you something,” said Joseph. Without waiting for a reply, he continued talking. “Dawn might be the only one who has a successful year.” “How’s that? This place is always booming in the summer. Even late summer, when it gets a little chilly in September, the town has a good enough tourist population.”
Joseph made a left downtown, driving towards the state forest. Matthew’s apartment was behind them. “What are you trying to tell me?” he asked. “In late August,” Joseph told Matthew, “there was a forest fire.” Joseph didn’t say much more. They passed Dawn’s orchards and started to enter the campgrounds that went unused in the winter. Joseph turned on his brights. They drove on, five or six miles until they saw a large creek start to follow them on the right. It fed a lake where tourists could fish. Even as a child, Matthew remembered how gorgeous the lake could be with the sun setting over it. As they rounded a sharp curve in the road, the forest graveyard came into view. “A large storm ripped through this area. There were lightning strikes, most of which we couldn’t control. Our fire service was inadequate.” Matthew saw the trees, each looking like a burned ashy finger rising from the ground. Almost all of the trees were gray and black. A few of the shorter trees and scrub bushes had escaped the fire, but they were few and far between. Joseph pulled of to the side of the road so Matthew could look at them more closely. Even the grass had been claimed. The brown soil could be seen in all directions. “Looks spooky at night,” said Matthew. It was all he could muster. The beauty had been stolen, raped by the storm. The forest elicited even more terror because the thousands of trees were still standing. Their leaves had been burned and the bark was falling off. Yet they remained upright, many gnarled with cracked branches reaching towards
the sky. The forest opened doors in Matthew’s mind, shuffling his memories. “Do you want to get out?” “Not now,” answered Matthew. Joseph started the car up and drove back towards the town. “How bad was it?” “My officers spent over a month surveying the damage. Over five thousand acres were burned. What’s worse is that amount may sound like a lot, but places in the southwest have hundreds of thousands burns, maybe millions. Our town won’t get any federal aid to reseed or clean up the camp grounds because the area doesn’t qualify.” Matthew shook his head, not knowing any other way to respond. Joseph drove Matthew to his apartment. In the back, Marie and Jenny slept, unmoving. As Joseph parked, Matthew turned and asked, “Why’d you show that to me?” “I thought you might need to understand that Dawn’s got a lot ahead of her. We all do. Those campsites need cleaning and without park rangers, it’s supposed to fall on the duty of my officers. Police officers cleaning up burned trees.” The last statement was more for Joseph than for Matthew. “How long will it take the trees to grow back?” “A couple of hundred years,” said Joseph. “That’s why we need saplings and seeds. If the forest is allowed to recover naturally, your great-great-great grandkids will be old—maybe dead—before Oak County state park will ever look the same.” “Then I’ll try and help Dawn out as best as I can,” said Matthew. Joseph agreed.
“I’ll see you next Sunday, then?” Joseph shook his head. Jenny was going to the buyers in Chicago and NYC. So for the three weeks Joseph needed to take care of Marie by himself. He asked Matthew if babysitting was in his future and Matthew responded with a mixed answer. “So when’s the next time I’ll see you?” Matthew asked. “It’s the middle of January? I may not see you until Teague’s party.” “I’ll try and see you before then,” said Matthew. “After all, we have your number pinned on the wall at work.” Joseph laughed. “I’ll stop by for a brew sometime,” said the police chief. Matthew woke up his niece and told her to have a good trip. “Love you,” said Jenny and rolled over in her seat. Marie didn’t stir. Matthew got out and watched the car roll away. He found his eyes staring at the forest. No one told him the campsites had burned. He shivered, thinking of the dead trees, still sticking out of the ground like a thousand fingers calling out to be cut down— and put out of their misery. * * * Dawn entered Teague’s bar on Thursday night. With Jenny out of town and Joseph busy, Marie needed a place to stay. Dawn’s house ended up being that place. Dawn had arranged a play date and it turned into a sleepover. Matthew wished he’d had sleepovers on school nights. “So you want to come over and spend some time with your niece?” asked Dawn as she nursed a large pint. Her
skin looked ashy and cracked. Matthew watched her hands move, noticing the deep groves that laced in and out of her knuckles. “Is that an invitation to take the two of you out,” replied Matthew, “or is it a need for a babysitter?” He was drying several mugs with his towel. The bar hadn’t changed in the slightest. A large group of VFW men had just left, taking the thick cloud of smoke with them. Dan Patrick remained in the bar, as he had the previous two nights. Teague was thinking of banning the man. He’d get drunk and try to drive home. The previous Saturday night, Teague had taken away Dan’s keys while Dan was in the bathroom. Dan’s drunken walk made sense to Matthew after that. With the veterans gone, Teague had sent the waitresses home early again. Matthew didn’t mind. Since Louie had called in sick, his tips would be even larger. With the waitresses gone, he knew the last few people would tip him generously. “Either or,” said Dawn. “Having you baby-sit her would make my Saturday night much more enjoyable, though.” “Then I’ll take her. Joseph wouldn’t mind, I don’t think.” “Joseph,” said Dawn, “is working overnight, so he won’t be home at all. I told him you might take care of her and he didn’t mind. I mean, Joseph could just drop Marie off and she’d go to bed in a few hours.” A group of five or so young women walked through the door, all in overalls, though their blonde hair and thick
makeup revealed they were out of their element. They all sat at the bar, waiting to be served. Dan Patrick got up from his table where he’d been playing poker with his peers and sat down at the opposite end of the bar. He leered at the women’s chests. Teague got up from his corner and whispered something in his ear. Afterwards, Dan’s eyes focused on his beer. Matthew got the women their drinks, disregarding their conversation about trying out local bars into of driving into the city. He didn’t like the group. They gave him an eerie feeling. He went over to Dawn, who had finished her drink. Upon her request, he gave her another. “I’ll call Joseph and tell him to drop Marie off at my apartment,” said Matthew. “Thanks,” replied Dawn. “Are we still on for tomorrow and Saturday?” “Still paying me the same?” “Yes,” said Dawn. “Then I’ll be there. What time?” asked Matthew. “How about nine?” Matthew agreed. He went over to Dan and told his godfather the only drink he could have was water. Then he went back to Dawn. But Matthew kept his eyes on Dan, nervous the old man would say something to him or Dawn or the women sitting close to him at the bar. Secretly, he hoped Dan would say something to them—that way, he could throw Dan out and the women would leave. “Joseph also told me to ask you a favor.” He waited and Dawn continued. “He wants you to visit Donny. Not a
long visit or anything. It doesn’t even have to be soon. But he’d like it to be before the anniversary…” “Of her death,” said Matthew, finishing Dawn’s statement. “I don’t understand why they seem to make such a big deal of her death. It was expected. Cancer is cancer.” “That’s a harsh way to put it.” Matthew started to speak, but Dawn cut him off. “It may be the truth, but you weren’t around for her death. It hit everyone hard— particularly Donny.” Teague walked over to the women and offered them drinks. They each took another round. Dan started to say something, but saw Teague and went quiet. He stood up from the bar, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and went outside. Teague sat down besides Dawn. He kept his eyes on the women. “Jenny told me once Donny fell apart after that,” Matthew told his ex-fiancé. She nodded and stated, “Donny never liked his father much. Now, he tends to glorify him, but there’s not much to glorify. Joseph is a man to glorify. Sticks by Marie and Jenny. Works hard—works a little too much, but then again he’s a police chief. No. Donny father was as bad as your father.” “Even worse,” cut in Teague with a low voice. “At least your father talked to you. Donny’s father beat him incessantly. That man should have never been born. For Donny’s sake.” Teague paused. “Let me talk to Dawn, would you Matthew? Summer stuff,” he finished, waving his hand towards his office. Dawn smiled. They went in and Teague shut the door.
After the women became tipsy, Matthew called them a taxi home. Dawn and Teague had still not emerged from office. No one else entered the bar since, so Matthew put up the closed sign and turned of the neon light a little early. Dan Patrick, the only one left, noticed. “Why are you closing up shop?” he accused, pointing to his godson. The slur that had been in his speech had vanished. His eyes were alert and aggressive. “No one’s around, Dan. Except you,” Mathew added. He went around to each of the tables and wiped them down. Then he took all of the women’s drinks and started to wash them. “I’m okay,” he replied, trying to answer an accusation that didn’t exist. “I can see that. But it still doesn’t change that you’re still full of beer. If you leave without giving us your keys, then I’m going to call the police.” “When Donny was the bartender, he never called the police.” “I’m not Donny.” “That’s right,” Dan said, standing up. He walked quickly, much more adroitly than Matthew would have thought a man who had drank almost a dozen beers could maneuver. “I’m not drunk,” he said, approaching Matthew near one of the booths. “I know,” Matthew said. “But you’re still not a hundred percent.”
“I didn’t say thank you for last weekend,” Dan told him, lowering his voice. Matthew thought the man was trying to ingratiate himself. He said nothing, however, because Dan surprised him. “Those birthday cards weren’t for a payment or because I felt guilty for having wild times with your father.” “So what were they for?” shot back Matthew. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest. “They were for a promise that I made to your parents. I’d always stay in contact with you, even if that contact was on rough terms.” Matthew grew hot; he didn’t need to be mollified by an eighty-year-old drunkard. Matthew had vowed long ago to never accept any apology or favors from Dan Patrick. The money he received was merely perfunctory. There was no affection or love behind it, no desire for friendship. It was blood money, sent to Matthew because Dan Patrick had a guilty conscious. “Are you going to say anything?” asked Dan. “What do you want me to say? Thanks for helping rip our family apart? Thanks for taking my father to bars? Or how about for taking him on road tips to sleep with whores? You know what last weekend reminded me of, Dan? It reminded me of forty years ago, helping my dad into bed at five in the morning after I’d held his head for an hour so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit.” Matthew didn’t add that while he put his father to bed, he’d received two black eyes. “You remind me of my father.” The last comment made Dan’s face wince. “I’m sorry,” said Dan after several moments of silence.
“What have you done to make up for it, though?” spat Matthew. Dan just shook his head, his gray hair tumbling over his ears. “Your right. I’ve just been sitting around here.” He went back to the bar and left Matthew a large tip. Matthew wasn’t stupid enough to return the money, but he did want the man’s car keys. “Give them to me now!” stated Matthew loudly after Dan refused. “They’re mine. You have no right to take them,” Dan cried, his voice rising like an adolescent teenager. He kept his hand in his pocket, jingling the keys. “Give him your car keys, Dan,” said Teague, who had left his office. The old man strode over to the belligerent man and held out his hands. “County law tells me I have every right to take them if I feel you may pose a threat behind the wheel.” As Dan started to protest, Teague said, “Or maybe you’d like to deal with the police. I didn’t call them last week. But if you cast the right spells then maybe they’ll show up.” Dan gave Teague the keys and left the bar without saying anything more, though he slammed the doors as he walked out. Tossing Matthew the keys, Teague opened up the register and pulled out the cash drawer. Dawn came out of the office, folding up some paperwork. “You were gone long enough,” Matthew told Teague, but was really talking to both of them. “You handled it,” Teague said simply. “We had a few dealings to do,” said Dawn. “We’re just making sure everything is settled and set for this summer.
We’re both going to try and advertise for one another. Do each other favors. That sort of thing.” “Are you a lawyer?” “No,” responded Dawn, “but our lawyer is actually the same man. Just down the road. He’s the same guy who was your mother’s executor. Helped your sister figure out what to do with the house too.” She looked at her watch. “Matthew, I need to get going, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She made sure to remind him that he’d be taking care of Marie on Saturday night. “That’s two Thursdays in a row she came in here looking for you,” said Teague from within his office. Matthew pulled out a broom and started sweeping up the cigarette butts and cigars that had fallen to the floor. Matthew smiled, glad he no longer had cravings for tobacco. He was breathing easier, despite gaining a few pounds. The exercise at Dawn’s orchards and working the other fours days would keep him thin. He made a vow to try and lose some weight. Not much, but enough so his stomach would no longer be strangled by a seatbelt. “Apparently she came here to see you,” said Matthew. “No. She could have come over anytime. Mornings, before the bar opens would have been a good time to do our business. More professional. The night visits are for you. She’s still got a soft spot for you.” Teague paused. “Not as soft as it used to be.” Matthew didn’t respond. He made sure to get the dust and ash from under the tables. Then he swept up the grunge and put it in the trashcan. He went back
into Teague’s office and sat in the seat. Teague looked up at his employee and inhaled a large cigar. The sides of his cheeks had deep rivulets in them. They’d grown deeper since Matthew had been back. “Is she coming to that party you’re having?” “Yes,” answered Teague. “Then I’ll be there. Consider that my RSVP.” Teague shifted in his seat, moving the cigar around from one corner of his mouth to the other. His thin lips looked cracked. “Things you do for love,” said Teague. “I call it friendship” “How about companionship?” “That works,” said Matthew. Teague asked Matthew how long it would take to close up. “Not long,” Matthew responded. Teague told him to get to work. Once Matthew finished, Teague stepped out of his office almost simultaneously. “The bills and money are all set. Take them to the bank for me tomorrow morning.” Matthew told Teague he would. “Deliver it by noon.” Matthew held the door for his boss and locked the door after both had exited. The cold picked up and Teague’s frame seemed buttressed by his large goose-feather jacket. “Let me give you a ride home,” he said, noting the temperature was cold enough to freeze the water on the sidewalks. “It’s not long, just a few blocks. And it’s out of your way.” “Get in,” said Teague decisively. Just a few minutes later, Teague pulled up besides Matthew’s apartment building.
As Matthew started to get out, Teague stopped him. “Could you work a few more nights?” he asked. “At the bar? Sure,” Matthew said, caught off guard in addition to being tired. “What about Louie and the other bartender?” “Well the other bartender, Chris, is still going to be around. But Louie is engaged. Has been for quite some time. And his fiancé is ready to move on. She got a job south of Chicago, so he’s going with her pretty soon, maybe in the next month.” Matthew started to say something about getting Friday tips around the springtime, but Teague held up his gloved hand. “Louie is getting ready to move, so he asked for time off.” “I’m not told much,” observed Matthew. “You’re told plenty. Louie asked to work only one night a week. So I gave him Sunday nights, which are actually busy this time of year. I expect you can cover Friday and Saturday?” Matthew didn’t need to give Teague an answer. The money was too good to pass up. “You want me to work tomorrow?” asked Matthew. “No, you can start next week.” Monitored Visits They stared at each other intently for several minutes. Matthew hid his hands in his lap. His heart pounded, making his ears feel as though they were vibrating. Donny would not speak first. He crossed his arms and planted his feet. “I’m going to visit your mother’s grave later this afternoon,” Matthew told Donny, giving in to the silly game. With Teague’s Valentine’s Day party on Saturday, Matthew
decided to visit Donny on Wednesday. Jenny had arrived home the previous Sunday and made her uncle promise to visit Donny. Not much else had happened in the previous three weeks other than Dawn becoming a regular at the bar. “Why would you do that?” asked Donny through the glass. There was no phone with which the men spoke. Instead, there were slits around the edges of the glass, allowing sound. Donny looked tired with dark circles under his puffy eyes. He looked as though he had just woken up, despite it being late morning. The guards had told Matthew the wakeup call was six am. Donny wore long sleeves and pants, all a drab gray color. “I feel I owe it to her,” Matthew stated. He had flowers in the car. There was a little slot to Matthew’s left. Through it, the two men could pass items to one another after they had been inspected. Matthew slid a card through the slot. The room couldn’t hold more than ten or so pairs. If there was a person talking next another, the conversation became garbled. Matthew had chosen a good time to visit. Only half the room was filled up. After the woman on his right left, Matthew could easily hear Donny. The entire place was still cold concrete. It felt damp and without proper lighting. The room wasn’t well heated either. Matthew could almost feel the wind inside, making the room like ice. “What is this?” asked Donny. “It’s an apology card.” “I don’t need it,” said Donny. Matthew noticed he exercised more restraint. Whether the prison walls had
changed him or whether the glass prevented Donny from throwing punches, Matthew couldn’t glean. Whatever it was, Matthew liked the patient Donny that now sat in front of him. “Good. It’s not for you.” With the last statement, Donny raised an eyebrow. “It’s for your mother,” Matthew continued. “My mom?” Donny said uneasily. Matthew nodded. “Can I open it?” Again Matthew nodded, noting that it wasn’t sealed. Donny’s hand shook as he read it. “Do you remember what she looked like?” he said after he’d put the letter back in the slot. “Honestly, I can’t remember much about her. At least not what she looked like. I don’t have any pictures of her. I don’t own any pictures.” “Me neither,” Donny responded. “I think we need to rely more on our memory,” he paused and tapped his forehead. “We rely too much on pictures, which won’t last. Thinking about the person will.” He didn’t sound convinced. “I’m the same way,” said Matthew. Donny smiled at him. It was the first time Donny had truly smiled, not a snicker or a mocking jeer, at Matthew since he’d moved back to Oak County. “This is the first time we’re in agreement,” he said. They both laughed, a little nervously, but it was laughter nonetheless. After they’d stopped laughing, Matthew said to Donny, “I do remember a lot of things about your mother, though.” Donny leaned back in his chair, waiting.
“I remember at your parents’ wedding, your mother threw salt over her should, but she threw it too far and hit my mother in the eye. She still had the arm of an all-star softball pitcher.” Matthew saw that Donny was waiting for more. “A few years after that, when you were just a baby, she put you in this nylon suit so you could play in the snow. But you fell over on your face and ended up getting a big gash in your forehead. She didn’t have a car, so she called me. I took you both to the hospital. She paced back and forth until they told her you’d be fine. Just stitches.” Donny felt the large scar on his forehead. “After she found out you were fine, she made her way around the pediatric section. She wanted desperately to hold you, but they wouldn’t let her. They wanted to keep you over night because you were no more than two or so. Not old enough to talk, save a few words. She read that night. To all of the children. You slept in your little bed, hooked up to monitor while she read all sorts of fairy tales to them. I left a little while later because your father got there. But he told me the day after that she read to them as if they were her own children. Her voice was the perfect part for reading to kids.” Donny uncrossed his legs and leaned forward so his elbows were on his knees. He had tears building in his eyes, only he wouldn’t let himself cry. “I remember her reading me stories when I was younger. All of the standard ones. Nothing out of the ordinary. But her voice was so soft and real that it brought me to the pages, made me feel as though I could actually smell the castles and princes and princesses in the stories. She made them so real my dreams were more
realistic.” Donny stopped talking. He winced as he talked about his mother. Matthew could tell the stories hit a soft spot. Matthew knew that just like Dawn held a soft spot for him, Donny held a soft spot for his mother. “Guard!” called Donny. “May I have a pen?” he asked. The guard gave him a pen. Donny took it and wrote his name next to Matthew’s signature. “They don’t let you have pencils in here because it’s dangerous,” he said, giving the pen back to the burly guard. The guard went back to his post. Donny sent the card back through the slot. “Are things going alright in here?” “You know.” “Yes. What can I do to make it up to you?” asked Matthew. “I’m trying, so tell me what you want.” “That card is a start,” Donny said. “Got any cigarettes on you? I’ve been dying. A pack costs an entire day’s work. Eight hours of folding the laundry or cooking and all I can get for it are cigarettes or a magazine that’s a month old. Sometimes you get outside food.” “I quit actually,” Matthew said. Donny told him that hopefully Joseph and Jenny would come visit him. “They bring me a package every time they come,” he said. “Food, magazines, and a carton of cigarettes. Hell, I’d sell them, but no underground market exists in this place. They keep things pretty subdued—at least for the most part. It makes sense when most of the guys in here are in for parole violations or white collar crimes. Every once in a while you
get the drug dealer, but they’re usually nice guys. Nicer than the fraudulent bankers.” A loud buzzer rang. “Time!” called a guard. The two men looked at each other. Donny stood up, looking muscular. Joseph had told Matthew Donny had started lifting weights, but Matthew didn’t see any difference in Donny until he stood up straight. His shoulders were wider and his chest bulged out slightly. “I just started exercising again,” Matthew told him, standing up. “Me too,” he laughed. “So where does this leave us?” Matthew asked. Donny stopped chuckling and shot him a serious look. “Leave my mother a wreath, would you?” Matthew told him he would do so. “Then we’ll see where we go from there. I’m up for parole in a few weeks.” Matthew knew. “Give me my job back at the bar and we’ll be okay.” “Louie’s moving away, so Teague expects you back.” * * * Her tombstone read Casey Virginia Kooper. The next day, she would have been dead for twenty-one years. Matthew wrapped his coat tightly around his waist and pulled up his collar. He looked at the flowers and wreath he’d placed on the massive tombstone. The granite was simple despite it large frame. Virginia had not been Casey’s middle name. Rather it was her maiden name that she refused to give up upon her marriage. Donald Kooper, Jr. was not buried next to her as most spouses in Oak County. She died so much younger and
her body riddled with cancer that Casey’s own family, not the Koopers, buried her on their own plots. Next to her were her brother’s and parents’ tombstones, the same dark granite. The graveyard was almost horrific in size. Because it was the only one in Oak County, the graveyard had a storied past. Every family that had been living in the area for any sort of time owned plots. There were veterans of every war since the Civil War, though not many from that era. Then Oak County had only been a trading post with little more than a dirt road that split apart a hotel and general store. Most of the people in that time were hunters or fur traders, either going north to Canada or coming south to sell their wares. Matthew dropped to one knee and pulled out a handkerchief. He wiped down the front of the tombstone, which had grit and dirt stuck to it. As the wind blew around him, he thought it odd that the tombstone was, in a way, dusty. Once finished, he stood up and ran his hand over the top of the granite. Unlike the face, the top of the headstone was rough, unchanged from when it was taken from the ground. The way Matthew’s sister-in-law used to smile had faded from his memory. All he could picture was her throwing a softball. It didn’t do her justice—the same way dying of cancer didn’t do her justice, the same way being a housewife didn’t do her athletic talent justice. The cancer might have eaten at her body, but it didn’t matter if she couldn’t throw a ball while chewing tobacco. He patted the top of Casey’s tombstone and drove back to Teague’s bar for his night shift. * * *
“Glad I bought the truck, aren’t you?” Matthew asked. Matthew’s visit to the graveyard was still fresh in his mind. “It helps with moving all this lumber and stuff that needs to be taken to the junkyard,” answered Dawn. The back of the pickup truck was full, so Matthew pulled the tarp over it. He pulled off his gloves and got into the driver’s seat. Dawn hopped in the opposite door. They drove to the dump in silence. Dawn showed the owners her special commercial dumping permit. Finding a small alcove, Matthew and Dawn started to unload the tuck, throwing the garbage without care. Most of it was old. The lumber was rotting. It sometimes broke in their hands as they tried to pick it up. A few bugs and worms fell on the ground as the pilings snapped. “Have you seen Joseph lately?” asked Matthew as he was bent over a large apple tree that he’d cut down. Lightning strike had struck it, making it look like its fellow trees from the state park. “Not since a few days after you watched Marie for me,” Dawn replied. Matthew wrapped both his hand around the trunk, bringing the tree in close to his body. He stood up, bear-hugging the tree, walked off the dirt road that wound around the landfill, and dropped it. It made a six inch indentation in the soft clay. “When’s the last time you saw him?” “We had dinner together on Sunday night,” he stated. Matthew pulled out a broom and swept the bed of the truck, noting that the used truck hadn’t so many scratches
when he’d bought it the previous week. The down payment of the vehicle had been made with his tips from his first weekend working Friday and Saturday nights. The tips were fantastic, particularly since he didn’t have to split it with another bartender. Chris had called out sick both nights. He had strep throat. The pressure had almost gotten to Matthew, but he was well rewarded with over a thousand dollars for both nights. Matthew told Dawn about the tips. “That’s pretty good for bar in the middle of tourist country, don’t you think?” said Dawn. Matthew nodded his head vigorously. “The VFW men come out in hordes. Those women you’ve seen on Thursday nights—you know the regulars— they come on Friday nights and stay till closing time. They’re from the city. The new shifts are great.” The waitresses also got a bonus from Chris not attending work. Dawn asked if Louie couldn’t have come in that night. “I didn’t want him to. Those two nights were stressful, but they were worth it.” He made a fist and stuck his thumb out like a hitchhiker. Then he motioned to the truck. Once Dawn had checked them out of the landfill, she turned to Matthew and suddenly said, “I don’t like those women. The VFW men are scum, old and dirty. But those city women seem to be out of place.” “They’re coke heads,” he said as he drove on. Dawn looked at him. He didn’t take his eyes off the road. “They’re in town to try and get away from the cops in the larger cities.” “How do you know?” asked Dawn.
“I can tell. They don’t want the trouble of Chicago.” Matthew thought back to calling the bouncers when he needed help in California. “I can’t imagine going to a bar in Oak County is a good substitute,” she said. “They don’t drink that much,” Matthew said. “They’re in this bar and they like it. It’s clean and well-lit. And for the most part, they don’t get hit on by old men.” “Except for Dan Patrick.” Matthew thought about Chris but said nothing. “There’re a few bad apples in every bushel,” he said. He didn’t say much else about the women. He couldn’t stop them from coming to the bar unless they became trouble—and thus far, they’d been exceptionally well-behaved. But both he and Teague knew the women were coke heads. Matthew parked in the orchard parking lot and they both went inside. They had welding to do that afternoon around a few of the fences on the orchard’s perimeter. Dawn wanted to get it done while the air was still cold. Some chores couldn’t be done in the winter, like trimming the trees and mowing the fields. Others were better accomplished in February wind. First, however, they had lunch, in the same office. It’d become a ritual. The two of them, Matthew staring into space, saying nothing and Dawn pawing over her paperwork. They often said very little to each other during their break time. Their tacit agreement had come to be understood without any words. They didn’t feel the need. Dawn was no longer irascible. She’d learned to tolerate Matthew’s company.
Matthew knew that his meticulous and diligent labor alleviated most of Dawn qualms with him. Once they finished lunch, they loaded the welder and pipes on a forklift and went around to each of the larger posts in the fence. Every four feet there were posts. Every fourth post, however, was a larger post made from stainless steel instead of pressurized wood. Dawn had told Matthew the metal posts had been driven three or four feet into the ground, nearly double the depth of the wooden posts. The fence kept animals out of the orchards. In turn, that meant the harvest from the orchards were always plentiful. “It was more expensive to put in the steel posts,” said Dawn, “but I only have to repair the fence every three to five years rather than every single year.” The winter played a role in decimating all structures and Dawn’s fence was no different. The wooden posts were starting to rot, but they would be okay until the next winter. “I get to baby-sit Marie this Monday night,” said Matthew. “Are you going to get her a pizza and take her to a movie again?” asked Dawn, in a voice that was both disapproving and joking. “No, I’ll probably make her do some schoolwork.” “Jenny and Joseph didn’t ask me to watch her,” Dawn said. She looked slighted. “Would you have been able to watch her?” asked Matthew. “If you want, you can take her for the night. I mean, I don’t want to get in the way of your relationship.”
“No, Mathew, it’s not your fault,” she pleaded. “I don’t know,” she continued, “I probably wouldn’t have been able. You could take her to school in the morning if you needed and wouldn’t be burdened. I know you now have Sundays and Mondays off for the most part.” She paused and then said, “It’s just that they didn’t ask me to watch her.” “It’s only for a few hours,” said Matthew. “Joseph and Jenny just wanted a date-night for themselves because they haven’t seen one another for so long.” He remarked silently to himself that he hadn’t had a real date in years. Matthew thought about how Jenny and Joseph were lovers. Passionate to the point of being violent, they were that rare pair of human beings that needed each other. Most couples, after weeks or months, begin to grow used to the idea of having the other. They adapted and began to understand the other without having to speak or even act. For Jenny and Joseph, their relationship was still new, even after years of companionship. Matthew had observed it at dinner the previous Sunday. They sat next to one another and held hands under the table. Joseph made sure he gave Jenny the first helping of stew and Jenny served Joseph dessert first. Their love for each other even trumped their love of Marie—a rare and not always positive quality in parents. “Weren’t you dating that nice guy up by the police station?” asked Matthew. “Not anymore. We’re just different people,” said Dawn. Matthew didn’t ask anymore questions and turned on the welder.
Dawn gave him a piece of flat steel. He wrapped it around the midsection of the first post, which had quarter size holes that looked like a woodpecker had decided to nest in a metal tree. A few moments later, he finished and Dawn took a hammer to make sure the support was properly connected. Matthew removed his fireproof mask and took a gulp of water. Even in the cold weather, sweated poured down his back. He told Dawn her suggestion for welding in the winter was clever. “Thanks,” she said taking the mask. They were going to rotate, taking turns on who was to weld and who was to check how well the support was attached. They went to the next post. As Dawn was about to finish, she stopped and stood up. Quickly she took off the safety mask. “You bastard, Matthew!” she cried. “Why’d you have to run away?” She wasn’t crying. “We could have been together, friends, more. Something. You and I could have turned this place into a success!” “It’s already one,” responded Matthew, waving his hands at the apples trees. They waved back at him, unaware and uncaring of the two people beneath them. Dawn calmed down a bit and said, “It took years. Long years.” She put the blowtorch mask back on her face and said, “But it doesn’t do any good to complain.” She knelt down and soldered the piece of steel onto the post. It looked like an animal had chewed on the base of it. “Say, you have a date for tomorrow, don’t you? Teague’s party I mean. You are going, right?” asked Matthew as he hit the piece of metal to make sure it was attached properly. Earlier in the day, Matthew had asked her how much
money repairing the fences herself cost and she had responded that a service would make the cost double. “I could always pick you up and we could go together,” he said. His voice didn’t sound like a question. It was a statement Dawn could either take or leave. She pulled off the mask and took several drinks of water. Her dark skin reflected in the sun, despite the cold. The winter had died down a little. Enough of it remained so that Dawn’s hair swayed a little, almost dancing in her hair. Her powerful body, which stood in equal height to Matthew’s, was a work of sweat and hunger. She was ravenous for success. It drove her—one day it perhaps would drive her into a dark well—to overcome and leave others behind when they refused to follow. When Dawn was out of school and Matthew was still in high school, they met in the waning afternoons. They would run out to the state park and climb up the trees. Some of the trees, all of which were now dead, stretched upwards of more than four houses stacked on each other. Dawn would climb up, with Matthew following her. That’s not where Matthew would lose her. He’d lose her at the top, when she would refuse to come down. At the top, the branches and trunk were thin and supple. Dawn would stay up and watch the sun set or look at the herds of deer and elk. Matthew would always start back down as soon as he reached the top. Dawn would always pause, momentarily. Only then would she return with him. “Ready?” Dawn asked, ripping Matthew from his trance. He blinked and stared at her. “Did you hear anything I said?” Matthew told her he did not. “I said are you asking me on a date?”
“If that’s what you want to call it,” Matthew started, “but it doesn’t have to be anything. You can do whatever you want.” “Pick me up tomorrow around nine?” “The party begins at nine,” said Matthew. Dawn told him they would be fashionably late. “Okay, then. That means work tomorrow?” “Of course,” she smiled. Dawn drove the forklift back to its garage. The two of them left the metal sheeting and welding tools where they were. If they worked for ten hours, Matthew estimated they would just barely finish the perimeter of the fence. He understood why the contractors wanted so much money. Fixing the posts was a boring, repetitive job. It was reminiscent of the odious work Matthew had done when he cleaned the park bathrooms when he was younger. The mess tourists left occasionally made him vomit. “If I could change it, I would,” Matthew said after they both finished drinking water. Matthew took off his sweatshirt and saw his chest had a large wet spot on it. Dawn handed him a dirty rag on the control panel of the forklift. It had several oil stains, but Matthew was going to take a shower anyways. He thanked Dawn and dried off his torso. “But you can’t change the past, can you?” asked Dawn. Matthew wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to answer. “When we were little, things were different. I’m not holding that against you. It is what it is and always will be.” “I’ll pick you up at nine?” asked Matthew as he headed towards his truck. “Tomorrow night should be fun.”
“Sure,” said Dawn. “Should be interesting,” added Matthew. “There might be some handsome men for you to meet.” “I’d rather just listen to the music and talk with you.” “Well, if you get bored, we could always skip out and fill out crossword puzzles.” They both laughed. * * * After a shower, Matthew went to Teague’s bar and helped Chris prepare for the night’s crowd. Chris made sure to clean every item at the bar. All the glasses, mugs, and shot glasses were dried and arranged. Matthew made sure to clean the windows and scrap the gum from the bottom of the tables and bar. Even though they’d been working together for a few weeks, Matthew had yet to find out much about Chris. He spoke little, except to the women in the bar who didn’t wear any rings. He was nearing his thirtieth birthday and had never graduated high school. Except for Fridays and weekends, he worked at the natural gas plant. The tips he earned helped him pay child support on his daughter. His wife had divorced him for infidelity. Chris was a thin man, but moved like a fat one. Even while he served drinks, he tried to stay in the same spot. Teague told Matthew Chris had once tried to put a chair behind the bar, but it didn’t fit properly. He often made attempts to have customers come to him under the ruse he couldn’t hear very well. His torpor seemed a disease with which he was glad to be infected. But he was always agreeable with the customers. If they needed a drink, he was always
willing. He managed to be polite even to the intractable VFW men. “So she says to me that she needs a thousand dollars a month,” Chris said, ranting. “But I took her to court and the judge set the child support at four hundred.” When he said the words child support, he held up both his hand to make quotation marks in the air. “Don’t get me wrong,” Chris continued, “I love my daughter. I even want custody of her instead of visitation rights every other weekend. I mean she only lives a few miles from here. But my ex-wife don’t need a thousand dollars a month for clothes and groceries, unless their eating filet mignon every night and my little girl is wearing gold plated pants and shirts.” Teague walked out of his office. He had a cloth envelope in his hand. “Which one of you wants to run this to the bank?” he asked. Chris volunteered. It was only a short walk, but Matthew usually didn’t want to walk in the cold. As Chris went to take the envelope, Teague said, “Are you sure you’ll be alright tomorrow?” implying that Chris had to take care of the place by himself. Chris answered with an affirmative grunt. Teague raised an eyebrow. “You can close early,” stated Teague. “I can read the sign that’s been up for two weeks,” he said. “We’re going to close at midnight instead of two in the morning.” He sounded like an advertisement that had been played too many times. Matthew had the night off, but Teague said he’d be at the bar a little before closing to count the money. Teague was leaving his own party early.
Chris left the bar and Teague turned to Matthew. He had a twinkle in his old eyes; he looked like he had thirty years ago when they’d started building the outdoor stone fireplace on Teague’s estate. “Are you excited?” beamed the old man. “Hoping it’ll be a good time,” said Matthew. Teague scoffed. “I’ve got two live bands coming to play. One’s going to be on the lawn and the other will be inside in the foyer.” Matthew always forgot how large Teague’s mansion was. “Won’t it be cold outside?” Matthew couldn’t believe Teague was having a party outdoors. It was absurd. “Sure will,” answered Teague. “That’s why I’ll be having two bonfires roaring. That fireplace you built it still standing too, so that’s roasting a pig. There will be massive heaters inside the courtyard, under massive tents.” Teague sat down on a bar stool while Matthew checked the taps of the bar. One of them had broken the night before and he replaced a piece of plastic tubing. Lighting a cigarette, Teague said, “Lots of women will be there.” Matthew’s mind was still focused on the fact that Teague was heating the winter. “I have a date already if you want to know.” Teague raised an eyebrow, his tobacco stained teeth gleaming. “I’m taking Dawn Bullock.” Teague laughed. “You two ever going to get married? Christ, you spend more time together than most married folks I know.” Teague looked at his watch. “It’s time to open when you’re done there. Happy hour and then amateur night begins. Maybe
those young ladies will be in—it’s the only thing that keeps Chris happy.” Teague didn’t sound happy as he mentioned the cokeheads. Matthew finished the seal on the beer tap and flicked on the switch to let the customers know they were open. It was just after four. A few minutes later, Chris walked in, followed by several men from the factory. An hour later, they had left, wanting to get back to their families. Jackie and Lindsey came in at five. “So the tips were good last weekend, weren’t they?” Chris asked Matthew while they were both behind the bar. A few of the VFW had wandered in, but were being served by the waitresses. Soon the bar would be packed. “Fantastic,” said Matthew. “I’m sorry you got sick.” “I had antibiotics. I just wasn’t allowed to be around anyone.” He laughed a little and mentioned that he’d had a few of the women over to his place. “Helping them find what they need?” “What’s that supposed to mean?” accused Chris. Matthew did not make eye contact. Instead, he kept looking at the VFW man dealing cards with one hand. “I’ve been doing this longer than you, Chris, and most coke whores attach themselves to something, someone. They stick around feeding off their supplier until its all gone. Then they split.” He turned and looked at Chris. Lowering his voice, he said, “Have you been giving them things they don’t need?” Chris looked away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“If you bring shit into this town—anything—and I find out about it,” Matthew paused and nodded his head towards a curved knife under the bar, “I’ll gut you.” Chris started to say something, but Matthew cut him off. “Don’t bring those drugs to the bar, either.” “You’re safe, okay?” Chris pleaded. He pleaded the same way Dan Patrick begged to be taken off the Sunday morning street. “Are you going to say anything to Teague?” Matthew thought for a moment. “Are those girls tourists?” “Kind of,” answered Chris. “They here on their winter break.” “They’re only in college?” Matthew stated, his collar becoming hot. Chris said most of them were only twenty-one. He reassured Matthew they were all of age. “Why are they still here?” asked Matthew. “Shouldn’t they be back in school by now? “They’ve had some problems and needed a break. A couple were failing. Most of their fathers are rich and don’t know about it.” They reminded Matthew of summertime tourists. Matthew cut Chris off again and said, “Tell them to get home. If they come in tonight, then I’m asking them to leave. If I see them again, I’m calling Joseph.” “For what?” “Suspicion of drug use. Joseph will get them tested and if they fail, he’ll contact their fathers or someone who’ll come get them.” Chris said nothing.
“You got me!” Matthew hissed, keeping his voice low. “I’ll make sure you never see them again,” Chris said. “They might be here tomorrow night, but you’ll be at Teague’s. After that, they’ll be gone.” Matthew sighed, but capitulated. Matthew left and went into Teague’s office. He told the old man what he thought of Chris and his suspicion about the women. Teague sat smoking a large cigar. “I always wanted to change this place into a restaurant. A place where families can go and eat dinner. Fancy, good food that’s expensive but not too expensive.” “Will you tell him?” asked Matthew. “Send him in here and I’ll tell him those girls have to go. I don’t allow cokeheads or any other fools in my place.” Matthew walked out. Teague motioned for Chris. Chris looked at him and went into the office. Teague closed the door. A few minutes later, he came back out and said quietly to Matthew, “I never gave them any drugs.” The look on his face was that of man scolded by a pastor. “That’s why Teague didn’t fire you,” said Matthew. “He was going to fire me and make sure no one in town would hire me. He’d make sure I’d have to leave and see my daughter less than I see her now.” Matthew looked at Teague’s office door and saw a cunning bastard. “Good motivation,” Matthew said simply. * * * “Phone call!” shouted Teague. Matthew went into the office to pick up the phone. The noise in the bar was at its
zenith. The early crowd had not yet left and the late crowd had just settled in. Only an hour before the witching hour, Matthew thought. He smiled because he already had a hundred dollars in his pocket and many of his customers hadn’t yet left. “Hello,” he said, holding a finger in his other ear. He closed the door a little, making sure not to close it all the way. He wanted to keep an eye on his customers to make sure none of them skipped the bill. Teague’s bar was the nicest in town, but free beer was always a sought-after commodity. “It’s Emma,” said the voice on the other end. “Matthew, I literally just found out from my realtor, but I sold the house!” Excitement danced on her breath. Matthew glanced away from the customers to inside the office. It was plain, brighter than whitewall tires. “Good for you,” he said. “Who’d you sell it too?” “A developer wanted the land and he gave me some hefty money for it.” “A developer?” “And he’d tear down the house,” Matthew stated. “It’s okay by you, isn’t it?” “It’s your choice,” said Matthew. “Mom left it to you. Not my house.” He tried to picture his family’s house no longer standing. In his mind, he bulldozed it, but it kept rebuilding itself. The bricks never hit the ground in Matthew’s mind. The building was impervious in his imagination. “I thought you would like it,” said Emma. “I do,” Matthew said. He hated the house. Yet, in a way, the house united his grief. It kept him focused, allowed
him to concentrate on a single object. “How much did you get?” “Let’s just say that I can buy a new house and lend Dawn some money if she ever needs a loan again.” “That much?” The crowd had grown louder and Matthew had to focus to hear his sister. He was starting to hear the VFW singing along with the jukebox. “I’ll see you tomorrow at Teague’s party,” she said. He told her he would be there, but she’d already hung up the phone. Teague’s Ball Matthew smiled while he yawned. Dawn sat next to him in long, multicolored dress, with red, yellow, and black streaks running through the mauve background. The streaks looked like lightning running across Alaskan tundra. Mathew made a feeble attempt to compliment her, but she kept her face impassive. “I’d rather go to the bar. Or pet my dog.” “We could go back to the greenhouse,” replied Matthew. Dawn didn’t flinch. She shook her head, resigned. “I’d rather do this,” continued Matthew, “than just keep working, aimlessly. The welding is done.” Dawn yawned, which in turn made Matthew yawn again. “We shape up pretty good, don’t we?” Dawn commented. Without taking his eyes off the road, Matthew agreed. He knew the party had already started, but he wasn’t in any rush to get there—despite what he said to Dawn. “I like your suit.”
“Thanks,” Matthew said. “It’s only the second one I own. Bought it on clearance on the after holiday sales.” The suit was a dark purple with black pinstripes. The purple was so dark that it appeared black except in the brightest light. The day had been unseasonably and frighteningly warm, allowing the two of them to work outside in little more than sweatshirts. For a short while, Matthew wore a t-shirt. The warm weather prompted a quicker pace. Before the end of the day, the entire fence was finished. Their fervent work, however, only resulted in each having far more time to prepare for Teague’s party than either needed. Matthew pulled up Teague’s long curving driveway and told Dawn they could park far away and walk or park closer. “How many people are going to be here?” “Half the town,” answered Matthew. Dawn said they should get out and walk. “I can’t believe he invited so many people,” Dawn cried as they walked up the long and tortuous driveway. Except the driveway was a stopped freeway. In the distance loomed Teague’s mansion. It had been in his family for six generations. Teague would be the last one to live it in however. Without children or siblings, he had no one to leave it to but his servants. As they approached, Mathew saw hundreds of silhouettes inside the mansion. They move about, fancy free. Dawn put her arm inside Matthew’s. He felt a tremor in her wrist, so he squeezed her arm tightly. “I’m okay,” she said.
“Yes,” Matthew retorted, “but I’m not.” Dawn, in turn, squeezed his arm. Matthew knew the sheer number of people made the pair nervous. He was, however, also awestruck by the spectacle Teague had created. He heard violins scraping in the night, their tune resonating somewhere from behind the mansion. The sounds were distorted somewhat by the large trees and fountain that sat in front of the house. Inside, Matthew could hear a piano playing along with several saxophones and trumpets, heralding the coming of songs Matthew had never heard before. As they approached, Matthew saw a man dressed like a butler greeting everyone by the entrance. The front doors were made from oak and looked as though they were over eighty years old, from before prohibition. On the other side of the entryway were two men, the taller of which was playing a double base. The short, skinny man was playing a flute. All of the jingles mixed with one another, unable to be separated into their proper places. Matthew couldn’t believe the men were actually outside, playing in the cold. The butler asked them their names and then checked his list. He gave them a grin and let them pass. Matthew caught a glimpse of the list and told Dawn. “Perhaps he wanted to make sure there was a proper way of getting into the party?” she replied. “I don’t think so,” said Matthew. “Everyone’s name was on that list. All of the people in Oak County.” He held onto Dawn’s arm tighter as they walked past the large ballrooms and into a glass patio that was as tall as a theater.
“Teague wanted to invite the whole town without inviting the general public.” Dawn shot him a questioning look. “He invited certain people by word of mouth and let everyone else just show up.” “How many people did Teague actually invite?” asked Dawn. Her face contorted as she spoke. “A fair amount. Not everyone who’s here though.” The band stopped playing for a moment while the leader singer hopped down and drank a glass of wine. The audience quit dancing and chatted. “And the rest just showed up,” Matthew commented to himself. “They just ended up Teague’s door,” observed Dawn. Matthew looked around, finding truth in her statement. The mass of people conducted themselves the way one acts at a small, intimate party. They all talked about nothing in particular, and drank Teague’s liquor and ate from the buffet. Matthew overheard a squat pale-faced women talking about how everyone loved Teague’s annual party. “I simply love it how he changes what holiday he celebrates,” the woman said, her upper arms so fat that they looked like they were going to split the seams on her red and white dress. Her escort nodded in approval. Everyone at the party was talking about Teague, about the fortune he had made by selling the lumber factory, the successful bar he ran, and of course, the party. Everyone acted properly, though most obviously drank far more wine and liquor than one normally would. Matthew noticed how everyone expected the grandeur of the party and had come dressed accordingly. There was
something about Teague’s family mansion that inspired the ostentatious to meld with the tradition of the massive oak doors. The guests acted as though they were in a ball with famous celebrities as well as their own family. The glass patio exploded with heat as the jazz band began to play even louder. Matthew saw Emma walking out of the room and outside on a veranda. He tugged Dawn’s arm and she followed quite willingly. Outside, Emma and a few other patrons watched another band play a few dozen feet below. The cold air had started to flow across the yard. Warm air from Teague’s mansion, however, counteracted it, allowing most of the partygoers to feel almost comfortable as long as they did not stray too far from the house. “Emma!” called Matthew to his sister. She turned around and forced a smile. Her hair looked matted. Matthew noticed her gray hair seemed to shine much more noticeably in the white fluorescent lights Teague had strung up through the yard’s gardens. “Matthew,” she said, “so good to see you. Good to see you too Dawn.” The two women hugged one another after Matthew and Emma had finished their embrace. “Haven’t you met up with Joseph and Jenny?” Emma told them she couldn’t find anyone in the madhouse. She hadn’t even seen Teague. “Well,” Matthew proclaimed, “since we’re here, we should, at the very least, dance.” “I’ll give Emma the first,” said Dawn, leaning against the stone railing. Matthew sighed, already tired from people bumping into him and saying “excuse me.” He felt constricted
and the only place besides the balcony that wasn’t overly crowded was the dance floor itself. Matthew lead Emma onto the dance floor and the two started to casually dance to the upbeat jazz songs. Emma, who had taken lessons as a child, danced well. Matthew, on the other hand, found he was outmatched by another man his age. The man was tall and handsome, with features that looked cut from granite. His green eyes bore through the other dancers on the floor. Matthew’s clumsy and heavy feet were no match for the tall man’s well-rehearsed moves. The man asked if he could cut in and Matthew cheerfully obliged him. Soon, the band stopped playing on the stage and came into the crowd. Only the trumpet player remained on stage, making sure the speakers still blared. From the side of the dance floor, Matthew watched the tall man and Emma outlast everyone. Their feet skipped lightly on the waxed floor. The tall man’s graceful movements accentuated Emma’s own talents as well as vice-versa. As the dance went on, there was less and less restraint between the two, their twists becoming more majestic. They twisted and turned, two moths dancing to an imaginary flame. The harmony between Emma and the tall man extended itself when most of the other dancers had exited, leaving the pair to showcase their talents. Cheers went up as Emma put her hand up and left the tall man to find another dancing partner. “How was it?” Matthew asked. His sister was sweating.
“Fantastic!” she cried, her lips pulsing into a smile. She looked as though she’d experienced faultless splendor. “The only thing I couldn’t do was let him lift me up.” “And why not?” accused Matthew. “My back hurts too much,” Emma replied. Matthew had forgotten how old his sister actually was. While she was on the dance floor, she could have been a twenty-year-old gymnast, untouched by time or injury. The primary colors in which Teague had decorated his mansion faded in comparison to Emma’s exhibition. “Thanks,” Emma said, taking the handkerchief Matthew had extended her. “You were magnificent,” he told her. The two of them made their way back to the porch where Dawn was talking with Teague. The porch was warm as the mansion. “...It’s a shame, but I understand,” Teague was saying as he leaned on the balcony’s railing, watching fireworks that had just started. “They’re lovers and tonight is their night to be with just each other.” The fireworks exploded, launching high into the air. “Are the fireworks close?” asked Matthew. Teague turned around and smiled. “Dawn told me you were here, but I didn’t believe her.” Another firework exploded, leaving a long red streak across the eastern sky. The evening had grown colder, but the harsh fluorescent lights fended off the night. From inside, Matthew could hear several Spanish and Mexican waltzes being played in the massive, heated tent. The guests were starting to clap,
slowly at first and then with increasing speed. The other individuals who had been standing on the porch went inside, wanting to get closer to the dancing and music. “Well here I am,” Matthew pronounced to Teague, pointing at his chest. Teague was about to respond when the tall man found his way out of the crowd and onto the porch. “Miss,” he said to Emma, “would you still like to dance?” “I’m a little tired,” Emma said as she sat down on a marble bench. Teague looked at her, as did Matthew. She stared back at them. “But!” she called as the man smiled and turned around, “I would like to perhaps dance a little slower.” The tall man, who introduced himself as Nick, took her hand and the two were engulfed by the suits, guitars, and singing of the glass room. Matthew turned his attention to Teague. “Fancy place you have here. I don’t remember it being this massive. It echoes now.” Teague laughed. Out of the corner of his eye, Matthew saw Dawn rub her temples. “I’ve expanded the place since you’ve been here.” Teague opened his arms wide, as if trying to hug his mansion. “It’s a family heirloom. I need to keep it up to snuff.” “But I’ve been here,” said Dawn. The two men sat down on either side of her, watching the fireworks continue. They’d become fewer in number, though the ones that went up exploded with far more vivacity than the ones at the start of the show. Teague mentioned they would go off periodically throughout the night. “This place looks different,” Dawn continued. “That whole room, with the glass and the gardens,
weren’t built last summer.” Matthew felt the heat coming from the open tents. The money Teague could throw around amazed him. “No,” answered Teague, “they weren’t. I had to build them so the house could accommodate more guests.” At the last comment, Matthew looked at his mentor. “How many of these people do you actually know?” he asked. “All of them,” stated Teague. Matthew shook his head at the answer. Inside, shouts and murmurs began and people began to pair off for a slow dance. The music changed, becoming more rhythmic. The singer of the band lowered his voice, revealing his ability to change between a tenor and bass. As he started to sing, Matthew noticed how much better his voice fit singing a steady pace. His words had far more feeling and depth as well as distinction. The voice trailed into the gardens, even making the band below changed its tune. “You can’t know all of them,” Matthew said. He cut Teague’s protest off. “It doesn’t matter. They might know your name and you might know theirs. Hell, you might even know things about their personal lives, maybe even know some secrets. But you don’t know all of them.” Matthew shivered and buttoned his suit coat. He tried putting his arms around Dawn, but she told him she wasn’t cold. In fact, she looked utterly comfortable. “True,” admitted Teague, “they’re not all my dearest companions. I have two of those sitting next to me and they’re having fun.” He stopped and then looked into Matthew’s eyes.
“My family is supposed to have all this old money. I’m the only one of that family. I need to hold these parties—even if it’s only to get rid of the money I made from selling the factory.” “Harold Teague,” Dawn said gently, touching Teague’s knee gently, “you don’t have to do all this just to prove something.” At first, Teague looked like he was going to stand up, but he thought again. “I know I don’t,” Teague said. “But look at all those people in there.” He waved his hand at the couples that were dancing in unison. “Isn’t that worth something?” The cold wind cut through the mild air, knifing Matthew’s face. “That’s different,” said Dawn. Matthew smiled as another firework exploded. Dawn and Teague had never been close, but Dawn could make most people understand themselves a little better. “If you’re doing it for them, not wanting a thank you or appreciation, then I don’t have a problem. If you’re doing it for those people buried in your family crypt, then you need to rethink things.” “You’re right,” Teague said simply. He stood up. “Would you like to see the rest of the party? I’ve got two other bands.” “Sure,” said Matthew. Dawn nodded too. “How about if it’s inside near some food? I’m starving.” At Dawn’s mention of it, food overtook Matthew’s thoughts. He hadn’t eaten much and the two of them had worked more than a day’s shift outside in the cool weather. Teague told them to follow him and they walked to the other side of the mansion, through a long hallway with
several buffet style carts lining the walls. Matthew snatched a few appetizers and Dawn stole a glass of red wine along with a few chocolate covered strawberries. Several hired workers moved about, silently replenishing the liquor and food supply. “I went and saw Donny today,” Teague said as Matthew and Dawn followed him. “When he gets out, I’m going to give him his old job back.” Matthew mentioned to him that he thought it was a good idea. “I did it on one stipulation, though,” Teague stated. “I want the two of you to work together.” Matthew stopped. “It’s okay with me, but you might want to check with Donny,” said Matthew. “I already have. And if he wants the job, then he’s going to tolerate you. I made him agree to it.” Matthew was reminded of Teague’s threat to Chris. “Then it’s settled in my opinion,” Matthew said. A short, stocky man with wire rim glasses walked over to them and starting talking to Teague. He was old, very old. The man’s eyes were wide, like an owls’—but his thick glasses revealed he could barely see. He spoke so fast, Matthew could barely understand the man’s words. He said something about the quality of the party and wanted Teague to meet someone. Teague excused himself and Matthew watched him follow the little man into the room. “Lord,” cried Dawn as she saw the room to which Teague had led them. It wasn’t large, though its ceilings were higher than three stories. There were paintings and book shelves lining the walls. They were not, however, what Dawn
was staring at. Instead, her eyes focused on the massive cake that stood in the corner. It was over five feet tall and looked as though it were a wedding cake. Matthew thought it actually looked like several wedding cakes put together with red, black, and silver icing. On its top was a large heart with an arrow through its center. Upon first glance, Matthew thought it was fake, put on for show. As he followed Dawn to get a closer look, he noticed there were hundreds of paper plates and plastic forks that had been placed on the table next to it. Matthew reached out and touched his index finger to the icing. “Stop it,” Dawn hissed at him when she saw him put his finger in his mouth. “This is extravagance,” stated Matthew. Dawn shot him an annoyed look. “Why would he want such a tacky creation?” observed Dawn. For a moment, Matthew glanced at it again and noticed it looked as though coated in plastic. “Matthew! Dawn!” called Teague from their right. He walked over to them and apologized. “That was just one of my father’s good friends. So what do you think?” Teague saw the look in Matthew’s eyes. Matthew felt his collar grow hot. “Too much?” “It’s just a little big,” said Dawn, trying to appease the old man. “True,” replied Teague, “but it’ll feed the entire place. I say let them eat cake!” Teague laughed at his own joke. He looked at his watch and said, “I do believe it’s almost time for cake anyhow.” With that, he walked up on the stage
and whispered into the band leader’s ear. The singer stopped and announced the cutting of the cake. Teague walked over to the waiters and told them something Matthew couldn’t hear. They left hurriedly, going off in the direction of the other ballroom. Teague walked back over to them. Soon, the entire ballroom was full of guests, all clamoring for the cake to be cut. Matthew felt uncomfortable. He looked at Dawn who had the same look on her face. Like Teague, the pair was trapped near the gaudy cake, with the circle of partygoers growing continually. Dawn leaned in on Matthew’s shoulder and whispered, “Remember when I was younger and those boys at your graduation threatened me?” Matthew cocked his head at her, raising an eyebrow. They’d harassed her, calling her names and telling her she should get her skin bleached. She could have reacted. Instead, she refused to dignify the boys’ taunts with a reply. Later that night, the quartet had gotten themselves liquored up and three of them were killed. “Yes,” replied Matthew, “I remember them.” Dawn had been sitting in the audience during the graduation, watching Matthew. He couldn’t remember what they had looked like, but he remembered the way their voices rang out in the parking lot after the graduation. Matthew’s parents, who didn’t approve of the relationship, had said nothing to him about the incident. With her family dead, Dawn had only Matthew and his sister for support. “There’s the one that lived,” she said. She squeezed Matthew’s upper arm so vehemently he asked her to let go.
Matthew followed Dawn’s eyes and saw a man about his own age standing near the entrance to the doors. His hair was gray and the skin on his cheeks looked tight as though cosmetic surgery had rid his face of wrinkles. His lips were thin and looked as if they had been painted on with a fine brush. The man wore a hat. “He doesn’t seem very happy, does he?” observed Dawn. She’d put her hand back on Matthew’s arm, though she was careful not to squeeze. “No,” replied Matthew, seeing the man drink a glass of wine in one quick swallow. The man leaned against a wall, watching Teague. “Ladies and gentlemen,” started Teague speaking into the microphone, “I’d like to welcome everyone on behalf of my family and on behalf of our great town.” The audience clapped at his last statement. He took the microphone off its stand and made his way through the crowd to the cake. The entire room was starting to heat up from all of the bodies. Matthew could see people standing in the hallway. “Now,” Teague said, holding up a pie server, “allow me to say to everyone: have a wonderful Valentine’s Day and I hope you all have a great time.” With that, several people cheered and everyone else clapped even louder than before. The entire room, despite its high ceiling, echoed in thunderous approval. He cut the first piece and gave it to Dawn. Then he handed the job of the cutting the cake to his waiters. Teague motioned for Matthew and Dawn to follow him, but so many of his guests wanted to speak with him that he told Matthew he’d see them later. “In a little while, say an
hour, meet me at the front doors,” Teague said. Unlike Dawn and Matthew, Teague seemed to revel in the crowded area. Like Emma, the party seemed to make Teague grow younger, his eyes becoming polished. An older couple started talking to Teague and led him off to a side room. He disappeared inside. “It’s pretty good cake,” said Dawn. “Want a piece?” Matthew nodded and took a slice from the waiter. After that, Matthew decided he’d had enough of the overcrowded and stuffy room. Dawn agreed and the two went to the hallway. Matthew saw the man from high school. He watched the two carefully, making Matthew feel warmer than he had in the ballroom. He looked away as the man walked towards them. Matthew had long ago forgotten his name. “Hello,” he said. “Do either of you remember me?” His eyes looked torn, dreary and watery, as if he were having an allergic reaction. “I do,” said Dawn. Matthew gave the same reply. His mind seemed stuck on a thorn again. “I was told there was a party tonight. Wasn’t sure who’d be here. Thought maybe I’d see some of my old school mates.” He talked slowly and his voice sounded as if it had a slight British accent. “I’m not going to say anything to you,” said Dawn bluntly, refusing to back down. The man shifted awkwardly. “Please just leave us alone,” Dawn stated. “I’ll leave you alone. But I’ve only just come back to town for a little while. My mother’s in the hospital and she wanted to see me before she gets worse.” He coughed and looked at his dirty shoes. Matthew started to say something,
but the man cut him off. “I only wanted to apologize,” he said with confidence. “I shouldn’t have said those things or gone along with those boys.” Dawn stared at him, unblinking. “That’s it,” he said. He gave them both a weak smile and tipped his hat to Dawn, who stood with her mouth open— though no words came out. “Charles,” Matthew called out, finally ripping the mental barb from his mind. The man turned around, instinctively responding to Matthew’s exclamation. The hallway wasn’t crowded. “I hope your mother gets better,” Matthew said. Charles again tipped his hat and turned away. “That was nice of you,” said Dawn after Charles had walked away. “He only apologized because of guilt,” said Matthew. “I deal with belligerents everyday,” replied Dawn. “Everyday.” She refused to make eye contact. “What do you think?” “I don’t know,” said Matthew. “Does it matter?” he asked after a moment. * * * The pair met up with Emma at the base of the mansion’s main stairway, which was roped off. Dawn mentioned the upstairs was far less colorful and ornate. Teague decided to wrap up his house like an old couch. The cover made it appear new. When Matthew asked Dawn how she knew what the upstairs looked like, her answer caught Matthew by surprise. “I took care of him when his father got sick.” She flicked her
wrist in a circle, as if trying to encompass the whole estate. “None of these people helped him then, during that time. Only me, Emma, and a few of the regular customers. Dan Patrick stopped by with meals. Never cooked them, but it was still the thought that counts.” “I suppose that’s why I’ve never liked these parties until now,” reflected Emma. “But you had fun with that man, didn’t you?” stated Matthew. “Nick? He’s marvelous on his feet. I only get to dance like that around New Year’s and maybe on the Fourth of July.” Matthew leaned against the molding of the stairs. Hardly anyone was coming in the front door, though the two musicians continued to play their tunes vivaciously. “Either of you like to go outside and see the band in the tents?” asked Dawn, who sat in a high-backed chair, making her sit much like a queen from the Renaissance. “It’s gotten much colder out,” Emma said, looking at her watch. Matthew peered at his own and saw it was already past eleven o’clock. Matthew didn’t want to leave either. He wanted to make sure Emma still had a good time at the party. Emma gave in. The rings that normally circled her eyes were gone. The grave nurse’s demeanor had not faded, although she still looked primordial, inquisitive about the things she had only heard discussed in the emergency room. Once outside, the trio realized there was no need for coats. Teague had done the remarkable. Near the edges of the garden, which were not lighted well, were large space heaters. Above them was a large white tent. Matthew had never seen
such things before, except perhaps when he had visited a carnival years ago and seen the ringmaster blowing up the tent. “It’s nice,” stated Dawn. The garden wasn’t warm, but it was barely below fifty degrees. Matthew thought the whole scene was surreal. In the middle of winter, even on a mild day, Oak County nights could be bitter. Yet, he was standing outside, watching a lovely band and a very talented drummer, wondering how warm Teague could get the garden. Teague had indeed worked his magic, as he had done with coercing Donny to work for him, as he had done with making a fortune, and as he had done with helping smooth Matthew’s transition coming home. The tune wafted through Matthew’s head, leaving him smiling. Dawn swayed, almost dancing, though she resisted the urge. After they’d finished dancing, the band announced that was the end of the their set. Without the band, the heaters were turned off, suddenly making Teague’s magic seem pithy. The garden became complete at the moment, no longer intruded upon by the artificial warmth. The spotlight was turned off, allowing the darkness to transgress and creep upon the stage. Cold wind blew. Normally verbose, the lead singer told the succinctly that they should go inside. Once inside, Dawn and Matthew found Teague at the front door. Chimes signaled the start of the witching hour. As Matthew watched the mass exodus—for everyone was leaving at one time, streaming out the door like members of a congregation—he heard several of them talking about having
to go to church the next morning. Hearing the mention of church, Emma gave Teague a kiss on the cheek and followed the rest of the guests out the door. “It’s a shame she doesn’t go to a later service,” said Teague. “She likes to run a bible-study group after the priest finishes up,” replied Dawn. “And the one she runs starts right after the early mass.” “You go?” asked Teague. “Occasionally,” answered Dawn, a hint of indignation in her voice. “Not often, but I like the singing and the geniality while I’m there.” The man wearing the wire-rimmed glasses stopped to congratulate Teague on another “swell” party and told Matthew and Dawn they should attend the next one. “They just keep getting better, don’t they Teague my boy?” “Certainly,” answered Teague, swallowing the “my boy” comment despite Teague’s obvious seniority. The man tipped his hat the same way Charles had done. He pulled a scarf around his neck and stepped into the bitter cold. Teague turned to them again, his old body having grown younger as the party progressed. He looked again at his watch. “I wish you all the best,” he stated to the pair. “Thank you,” replied Dawn. Matthew echoed her words. Matthew tried giving Dawn his coat but she refused. “I’ve always admired you,” Teague told Dawn. “I’ll see you on tomorrow night,” said Matthew. Teague nodded.
“I’ll follow you out,” he said. “They,” he said pointing towards the waiters, “are getting things ready. I want to make sure Chris is acting appropriately.” He walked them outside and to Matthew’s truck. The last of the other guests were pulling out of the driveway, the quality of their cars revealing the stark contrast between the indigence in which they lived and the life which Teague lived. Then “Teague died a few hours ago.” Matthew’s legs crumbled beneath him. He hit the kitchen tile with a thud. The shirt fluttered to the ground, catching on the kitchen chair. Matthew sat on the floor, his back propped against the kitchen cabinets. After a few moments, he relaxed and let himself fall to the ground. He lay there, unmoving, holding the phone near his head. Joseph talked quickly trying to explain. Matthew wasn’t listening. He heard nothing, except his pulse. It had not grown any faster. In fact, it grew slower, beating rhythmically and methodically in his ears. The cold tile pressed against his skin. “Matthew?” said Joseph. “Matthew?” Another pause. “Matthew, say something.” “I’m tired,” was all Matthew managed. The words seemed far from eloquent. “I’m getting into my car now. I’ll be there to pick you up.” Matthew didn’t move, not even when he heard the buzzer in his apartment sound. The kitchen, his bedroom, everything, all things, seemed slurred, blurry, and unremarkable.
The buzzer rang again. Matthew heard a shout from outside. He went and let Joseph inside. Joseph started to say something, but Matthew only went and sat again on the kitchen floor. “Come on, let’s get you out of this place,” stated Joseph. “It’s as good as any other,” replied Matthew. “Come on, let’s go to the station,” pleaded Joseph. Matthew’s head rolled up to look at his nephew-in-law. “Dead?” he said. Joseph nodded. “Dead?” Matthew repeated. Joseph nodded again, revealing a patience that only doctors and police possess. It was the skill of letting one come to grips with themselves. “Dead.” Joseph held out his hand after dropping to one knee. Matthew kept leaning against the cabinets. He wasn’t crying and certainly had no desire to do so. The loss for Matthew had not yet registered. He felt his bladder try to let go, but he resisted. “Come on,” said Joseph as Matthew decided to take the extended hand. “I’ll be right back,” Matthew stated flatly. He went into the bathroom. After he’d finished, he stared at himself in the mirror. His eyes were puffy and unfocused. Splashing cold water on his face, he again looked at his face. It was unchanged. Matthew dried his face and changed. Then he joined Joseph. Together the two walked to car police car, which was flashing red and blue lights. The morning sun had not yet risen. “We’re going down to the station?” asked Matthew.
“No. I’d like you to go to the hospital. Then we can go to the station,” Joseph said in a robotic fashion. Joseph drove the two of them in silence. Once they’d arrived, Matthew looked to Joseph. “Go inside. Wait in the lobby while I make a few calls.” Joseph spoke like a parent speaks to child. Matthew felt hot, but realized Joseph was treating him like any other shock victim. He went in and several minutes later, Joseph strode in. “Come on,” he said, walking into an elevator. “I’m not in shock,” said Matthew. The last hour seemed to have moved too quickly. Too much information. Matthew’s temples throbbed. “I’m not taking you here for shock,” said Joseph, pushing the basement button marked MORGUE. Matthew had expected him to push a button for one of the top floors. The doors closed and Matthew waited for the silence to be broken. “They need someone who will identify the two bodies,” continued Joseph. “I can identify both, but they need someone not in the police force. When you’re done, I’ll fill out the report with a statement from you.” Matthew gave Joseph a careful, measured look. Joseph’s face was almost blank, save for a slight twitch in his cheeks. There were two bodies. And Joseph did not need Matthew to identify the bodies. Joseph wanted Matthew there with him. “Two people?” Matthew asked, feeling dumb for not picking up the word sooner. The doors of the elevator opened and the two of them exited.
“Two people,” answered Joseph, again sounding as if he were programmed. Joseph stopped in front of a black door. The white hallway looked pristinely white. Opening the door, Joseph beckoned for Matthew to enter. At first he did not want to enter. After he saw the inside of the room, however, Matthew entered. The entire place was spotless. A large piece of glass, much like the one-way mirrors used in a police lineup, was fixed in the center. On the other side was a short female coroner tending two bodies. Joseph brushed past him and went up to the glass. He pushed a button to the right and said, “Mary, please stand back.” The woman gave Joseph a confused look as did Matthew. “I thought you said you already knew who they were?” Matthew asked, voicing the coroner’s concerns. “Be quiet,” hissed Joseph. “She might be able to hear you.” The woman looked at them and then turned around. She picked up a clipboard and starting scribbling. “If you want to get yourself kicked out, then keep screaming. If you want to see Teague, a man who loved you,” Joseph’s voice continued to rise, “who might have been the only one until a month ago, then keep your damn voice down.” Joseph had lost the police mentality and stared wildly. “I’m sorry,” Matthew replied, nearly whispering. “You can talk normally. I brought you here because you should be the first to know. No rumors or lies. You’re here because I want you to be here. With me. And with him.” Joseph pointed at the body farther away from the window.
Matthew walked up to the glass and stared. He put his hand up to the glass and saw the shriveled husk of what had once been his most loyal, though certainly not his most jovial, friend. Teague’s face had a large laceration stretching so far that Matthew couldn’t see its end from behind the glass. A large set of stitches ran up one of Teague’s arms and his torso had several massive contusions. Yet, Teague’s naked body remained in one piece. It was empty and appeared no larger than a dog or monkey—but it was still there, all of eighty years old, bloody yet intact. The dream of Teague’s restaurant, his bar, his mansion, and massive cake floated in the air. “What happened to him?” Matthew asked quietly. He had not removed his hand from the glass. Tracing an outline on the glass, Matthew felt tears form in his eyes. Not because the old man had died. Matthew’s tears were because so few people in the world had met him. “Joseph?” Matthew said again, looking over his shoulder quickly. He waited for an answer. The woman moved in front of the bodies, obstructing the men’s view. “You’re not going to like it.” “Tell me,” Matthew demanded. “Let’s leave first. Just for the official report, you identified the closer man as Harold Teague.” “Yes.” “And who is he man further away?” Matthew looked closely. The body was Dan Patrick. Matthew vomited. Joseph grabbed Matthew’s side and said, “Let’s get out of here and find a place to sit,” said Joseph.
“Anywhere but here,” Matthew agreed. They left, leaving the coroner to finishing cutting up an old drunk and an even older man that had spent his last hours entertaining an entire town. * * * “Tell me.” The men sat in a small diner across the street from the police station that Joseph now called his own. The papers had said construction of the Oak County station had to be delayed because the warm weather was melting the snow. Traditional construction normally happened in the summer. The winter construction had been an exceptional case and the local mayor decided it would be best to delay the station’s construction until at least March when the ground was warmer. Matthew blinked. Teague’s death seemed almost fake, an illusion that allowed other thoughts to enter Matthew’s mind. “Do you want to order anything?” “No,” said Matthew without any emphasis in his voice. “How’d it happen?” There was a long pause and then Joseph told him the story. “We don’t have all the details. But apparently, Dan Patrick and Teague hit each other in a head-on crash. Neither was wearing their seatbelts. They weren’t thrown from their vehicles though. Teague braced himself and hit the inside of the windshield. He was killed on impact. Dan Patrick, because he was drunk, slid to the floor of his car. Knocked unconscious, he died from smoke inhalation as his car burned.” Joseph took a sip of his coffee.
“Both men died before two o’clock this morning. I got the call maybe twenty minutes later and was on the scene within ten.” Taking another sip, Joseph said, “I was enjoying a nice romantic evening with Jenny. Marie was at a friend’s house.” A small twinge of anger irritated Matthew. “I knew as soon as I got the call, something was wrong.” The hatred in Matthew subsided, washing away in commiseration with Joseph as the police chief rather than as a nephew-in-law. “Holidays like this and a call that late are a recipe for tragic things.” Joseph kept his voice low and steady. Matthew remembered the racist boys. They’d wrapped themselves around a tree and Matthew had only smiled when he read the story in the newspaper. The twinge of anger resurfaced but now it had a different feeling. Certainly, Matthew had not gloated over their deaths. The funerals were well attended and everyone in the county sent sympathy cards to the families. The small tourist town was united in its grief. Even Matthew’s father had sent a card, along with a basket of fruit and chocolates. Matthew had not signed the card, however. He felt no guilt or remorse for the boys’ death. He shed no tears nor did he feel any sense of loss. Teague’s death, however, made him want to write a sympathy card. A desire to write the old man’s obituary took hold of him. Those young boys only had themselves to blame for their deaths. Teague was killed by a man who should have been thrown in jail for taking up space. Matthew winced at the thought. Dan Patrick was a fool but he didn’t deserve to suffocate to death. “Where’d it
happen?” asked Matthew after minutes of silence broken only by Joseph sipping his coffee. “I don’t all the details.” Joseph pulled out a small notebook and glanced at it. “A few blocks from Teague’s bar, they collided. Dan’s car had no skid marks on it, meaning he didn’t slow down. Teague slammed on his breaks and tried swerving. It didn’t work.” Joseph gave Matthew no response. “Dan was coming from the bar,” stated Matthew, understanding finally what had happened. Joseph sipped his new cup of coffee and coughed. “Too hot,” he said. “Yes, Dan was coming from the bar,” Joseph stated as Matthew bore his eyes into the police chief. “No one took his keys.” “No, Chris didn’t take the keys. He isn’t required to take them.” “But he should have,” Matthew said without emotion. “We arrested him anyways. He was in possession of cocaine. He kept saying he took the drugs from a group of girls.” Matthew asked Joseph if the girls had been in the bar. “Yes, actually they were. We went there because that’s where we’ve picked up Dan Patrick before. So it made sense he probably came from there. Why do you ask?” Teague’s threat to Chris entered Matthew’s mind. “No reason. Is Chris in prison?” “Yes but you’re not going to see him,” said Joseph. A large family entered the diner, dressed in their church clothes. There was a father and two daughters as well as a son. The older daughter, around twenty, looked familiar.
Matthew saw no mother and there was no ring on the man’s finger. They placed their orders loudly and the older daughter appeared exhausted. “You shouldn’t have snuck out to that party,” the father told her crossly. “I’m surprised they let you in.” “Everyone was invited. It was a real party, Dad. Had bands and everything. Your name was on the list.” “That Teague is just a spoiled brat. Doesn’t deserve the money he has, not after selling his father’s factory to the highest bidder.” Matthew stood up and walked over to the man. Joseph stood up but couldn’t stop Matthew. “He was a rich man,” Matthew proclaimed. “And it was his father’s factory. But it was his factory too.” The man, still slightly groggy, only stared at Matthew. “She’s right. You should have seen the party.” Matthew walked to his table and put down a large tip. He left and Joseph followed him into the cold air. The mild weather had vanished, leaving only the cold February air to bite the men’s faces. “Why can’t I see Chris?” Matthew demanded. “You’d try and hurt him.” Matthew crossed the street and stood in front of the police station. “So why’d you bring me here?” “So you could see him.” “You just said…” Matthew began. “I know what I just said,” Joseph cut in. “Are you going to try and hurt him?”
“Are you going to charge him?” Matthew asked, his arms crossed indignantly over his chest. The cold wind tossed Joseph’s hair. The sun now shone brilliantly on the faced of the station. The clock above the entrance reflected the light so much Matthew couldn’t look in its direction. A bird flew overhead and into the direction of the sun. It honked loudly, signaling its belated departure. Matthew admired that it stayed so long in the cold weather. The goose had conviction. Matthew thought that perhaps the bird was arriving early. “If he was holding the drugs, he’s in possession of them. It’s his fault.” “Teague made him promise to swear the drugs off,” stated Joseph. They walked into the station. “Not quite,” said Matthew. Joseph, knowing when to leave a subject alone, led Matthew to the same waiting room he had been in a month before. Joseph told Matthew to sit and left him alone. Matthew crossed his legs and leaned back, resting his head against the wall. No receptionist sat at the desk. A few blearyeyed officers took little notice of Matthew, though one of them thanked him again for acting bravely in the fire. Another passing officer avoided eye contact with Matthew. A large patch of soot covered his pants. Tired and sweaty, Matthew couldn’t remember the words with which Dawn had said goodbye. Both had been tired and said virtually nothing to each other. Matthew had invited her to dinner with Emma, but Dawn declined. She had once refused a dinner invitation before. She and Matthew had been dating. Matthew wanted to take her to meet his sister and
brother. His parents found out and Dawn cancelled, saying she had to help her father with the orchards. Matthew thought about the bar and realized he had to count the money. He wondered about the bar and whether the VFW men had simply left or had starting hitting on the waitresses after Chris was hauled away. Most the veterans were upstanding men. A few, though, were reprobates, well entrenched in their ways of womanizing and bar fights. Matthew hoped the waitresses had closed when Chris was taken away—but if Teague was driving that late, then they probably stayed open all night. “Come on,” said Joseph, appearing in the doorway. “I woke him up.” “Did you close the bar down after you brought in Chris?” asked Matthew, standing up slowly to stretch his legs. “We locked it up,” said Joseph. “The bar was pretty empty when we arrived. Not a problem, is it?” The bar was open far later than it should have been. “No. Thanks for doing that,” replied Matthew. He didn’t ask how they discovered the cocaine on Chris. “Sure.” Unlike the police station in Oak County, this police station had unfamiliar hallways. Joseph walked through a metal detector. A guard sat, reading a paper. He looked up, past the two men, to see if either was carrying anything of danger. They weren’t and he went back to reading his paper. Ahead of them was a large steel door without any windows. A small latch, much like a mail slot, was positioned at its center. “He didn’t seem to care much about me,” Matthew said.
“The guard? You’re with me, Matthew,” Joseph answered. Matthew chuckled at his own ineptitude. Joseph slid his key into the door’s lock and entered a password into a keypad above the lock. Matthew heard a hiss of air and the door opened. The cells themselves looked no different than the ones in Oak County. They were plain and drab, with standard bars that an occupant could lean against. There were only four cells. The station wasn’t a prison. Chris sat on the bed in the last one, leaning against the wall, looking the same way Matthew felt. “Matthew! You’ve got to tell him!” Chris cried once he saw his fellow bartender. “Those girls just asked me to hold it for them.” Matthew eyed him with venom. Chris stood up and walked to edge of the cell. He rested his elbows on a crossbar. Joseph went to the far end of the room and sat down. “Were they in the bar?” Matthew’s voice snaked around the room. Chris refused to look away, though his eyes already pronounced the answer. The cells were cold, nearly as cold as outside. The air was still, damp, and musty. Matthew stole a glance at Joseph, who was watching the two men like a hawk. If Chris hadn’t been behind bars, Matthew would have been tempted to throw a fist directly into the younger man’s face. “You broke your promise to Teague.” “They were gorgeous, Matthew. You saw them. I’m single.” “Did you know?” asked Matthew. “Dan still had his keys. He’s the one who hit Teague—who was coming back to give you a tip himself for working last night.” The last
statement was a lie. Matthew only knew that Teague was going to the bar to close up and count his money. For a brief moment, Matthew reflected that Teague worked every night of the week. He shook the thought off, however, when he remembered Teague sitting the bar, doing very little work and then deciding to have a Valentine’s Day party while smoking a cigar. “Why didn’t you take his keys?” Matthew stated blandly. Chris gave no response. “Why didn’t you take his keys?” Matthew asked again, his voice rising. He had the sudden urge to reach through the bars and grab Chris by the throat. “I was serving so many drinks I didn’t see him leave.” “You lie!” snarled Matthew, walking towards the cell, pointing at Chris. Chris backed into the cell, looked fearful that Matthew night break down the bars to reach him. “The police told me there were hardly any people at the bar! Hell, most of the town was with me at Teague’s party.” “Ok. There weren’t that many people,” responded Chris. “I didn’t notice him leave though. Honest. The girls…the girls distracted me.” Matthew took another step forward, his teeth grinding in anger. Joseph watched them. He told them to calm down and behave. Matthew was glad for the bars. If they had not separated the two men, he realized Chris would be in the hospital and he would be locked in a cell. He breathed deeply. Matthew could tell Chris was both scared and amazed at Matthew’s violent transformation.
“You broke a promise,” Matthew stated quietly. “I did,” said Chris. “And you’re going to pay for it.” Chris tried protesting but Matthew cut him off. “Doesn’t matter whether those drugs are yours or not. Doesn’t matter whether you were required to take Dan’s keys or not.” “So you’re not going to help me?” asked Chris, who had begun to grow angry. “You’re going to go through a lot,” Matthew stated, avoiding Chris’ question. “Maybe you can work for someone else in this town. I’m holding up Teague’ promise.” For an instant, Chris’ eyes appeared murderous. But the look dissipated into remorse. “I understand.” “You have my phone number. Give me a call if you need me.” Matthew’s offer ended the conversation. He turned away from Chris and asked Joseph to let him out of the room. They left Chris sitting in his cell, waiting for the week to begin and charges of drug possession to be filed against him. * * * Matthew sat in the darkened office, counting money. There wasn’t much in the drawer from the previous night. Joseph was right. The bar hadn’t done much business. Matthew glanced at his watch and picked up Teague’s phone. Matthew had decided to close the bar until the caution tape was removed a few blocks down. Dan Patrick and Teague had hit one another just a few hundred yards from the bar. If either man had been off by a few seconds, they would not have hit one another.
As he dialed the number, Matthew looked at the walls in Teague’s office. They were the same as they had always been, cards from various holidays taped up. He didn’t like sitting in Teague’s chair. “Hello?” said Emma over the telephone line. “Hey, it’s Matthew.” “I’m sorry.” “He meant a lot to a lot of people,” said Matthew. “Harold Teague meant more than that to you,” she said. Matthew heard her banging pots on the other end of the line. On Sundays, she only went out of the house to go to church. “How was church?” Matthew asked. She sighed. “It was good. I was a little tired waking up, but I managed to get through the bible study without slurring any of my words. Not used to going to bed so late.” Matthew chuckled at the comment. He had gone to bed early the night before and Emma had managed to get home an hour or so before him. The life of a day-shift nurse differed, to say the least, from that of a bartender’s. “I won’t be coming over for dinner tonight.” “Matthew, I don’t think you should be alone. Marie would like to see you again. She always talks about Uncle Matthew and all the games you played with her. I don’t think even her parents paid as much attention as you did that night.” “It’s easy to take care of a child for a night. Just play board games with them and give them plenty of dessert.” Emma laughed, agreeing with him.
Matthew continued, telling her he wasn’t trying to avoid people. “Someone needs to take care of the bar. It’s my livelihood as well as our waitresses. They might be young Emma, but it’s an honest way of making money.” A stream of light reflected off the mirror behind the bar and into the office. Matthew squinted and turned to face a wall. “I need to do this. Maybe I’ll stop by later tonight, but don’t count on it.” Emma hesitated and then said, “I understand. Maybe we can see each other later in the week?” “We’ll see each other one way or another,” Matthew said, trying to choke back tears. “When are the funerals?” “Teague’s is Wednesday. I don’t know about Dan’s. I think I heard Joseph talking to one of the officers before we left the station. Dan’s brother and sisters are coming over from Montana and Idaho. Maybe Thursday or Friday. Perhaps earlier.” “Are you going to Dan’s?” Matthew paused. “I don’t want to.” “What are you going to do until Teague’s funeral?” “Make sure the bar is run properly. Hire another bartender until I’m told otherwise. I don’t know who’s going to own the bar. There aren’t many relatives they’ve been able to contact. So I’m probably going to have a busy couple of days.” His voice accidentally sounded dismissive. “Good luck then,” said Emma. “I’m sorry Emma. I didn’t mean to sound angry at you.”
“It okay. I understand. Give me a call if you need anything. Take care Matthew.” “Thanks Emma,” said Mathew. He rested the phone on its receiver and stared. Matthew thought about Emma’s offer. He needed a lot of things, but his sister couldn’t provide any of them except for maybe a good meal and space to breathe. Matthew opened one of the desk drawers and found a series of bills for the bar’s rent. They were all paid on time, occasionally ahead of time. The drawer below had a large stash of cigars. Matthew picked one up and lit it. He coughed as he tasted the smoke. His lungs didn’t like the tobacco, though certainly his taste buds did. Opening another drawer, Matthew found an unmarked folder. He took it out and looked inside. A collection of recipes were bound in the folder, all of various ethnic origins. There was a recipe for shepherd’s pie from one of Teague’s Irish relatives and even Indian dumpling recipes that had Teague’s name as the author. In the front pocket of the folder, Matthew noticed there were several budgets worked out for starting a restaurant. Most of them didn’t work out; they all ended up losing money. The way Teague had calculated the budgets, the restaurants all seemed to lose money in the winter and spring. At the very bottom were a few budgets for restaurant construction that appeared to make money, though they were scratched out by pencil. Putting the folder back, Matthew opened up the last drawer. Only a picture was inside. It showed a much younger Teague and a vivacious pale woman. They were both smiling
wide, sunlight refracting off the whites in their eyes. On the back, a love note was written but it was unsigned. Matthew put the picture back and left the office. As he started to sweep the floor, he began to cry. He walked outside of the bar. He sat on the bench that the drunks slept on when he kicked them out. The sun was starting to set, bathing the buildings and sidewalk in a glow, making everything appear glazed with gold brushstrokes. Matthew gazed down the street and stood up. He walked down the block to where the caution tape was blowing in the cold air. Most of it had fallen down. The police had blocked off the section for most of the day. They were gone now and the occasional car sped past Matthew. It was a poor memorial. Matthew hoped Teague’s gravestone held more attention. “I heard there was an accident last night,” a voice from behind him. Gossip spreads quickly in Oak County, thought Matthew. He turned and saw the man with the wire rimmed glasses. He sidled up next to Matthew and gave him a pat on the back. “Harold Teague died,” Matthew said, watching the yellow tape clutter in the golden light. Another car drove by, kicking up caution tape. “That party sure was something. Maybe we should remember that about him?” Matthew turned and stared the little man. “Did you ever go to his bar?” asked Matthew.
“Oh lord no. Don’t get me wrong, old boy, but I just think Teague should have invested in something else. I heard he made a lot of money off that bar, though.” “So I’ve heard.” “It’s not that it was a bad place, just too many people there that I didn’t get along with.” Matthew sat on a bus bench. The man sat next to him. “Did you like Teague?” “I didn’t know him that much actually. Liked his parties though. Showed he had class.” The two men stood, watching the wind blow the tape on the ground. The caution tape fluttered. Matthew wanted to slap the man across the face, but he resisted. There was no point. His thoughts instead focused on Teague. When Matthew had first met Teague, Teague’s family still owned the lumber mill. Teague was much younger then, though he was still in his forties. Teague himself, though, was famous for the business he’d started in landscaping. Dawn Bullock’s family hired him several times even. The success Teague had when he first started his business came from his family name. Everyone trusted the name. As they learned what good work he did, they started to hire Teague on his own merit. Eventually, Teague hired Matthew, who was always hanging out at the various parks in town. Teague needed a young boy to climb trees and trim shrubs. After Matthew graduated high school he worked in the factory. But he kept working the landscaping job on the weekends.
Matthew’s most vivid memory of Teague was before that, however. Matthew was still in his early years of high school and helped Teague out after school and on Saturdays. Teague had just started a job to fix up an old woman’s front yard. The town passed an ordinance that trees couldn’t come within ten feet of the power lines that ran alongside the road. As a result, the woman needed three or four trees cut down. The massive trees were easy enough to cut down but Teague and Matthew had few ideas on what to do with the large maples. At first Teague had wanted to take the trees to his family’s factory and make some extra money. But Teague’s father refused the offer because he did not want to transport the trees. Not knowing what else to do, Teague and Matthew cut them into logs small enough they could put them in the back of a pickup truck. But the timber never got to the landfill. Instead, the cars passing by stopped, seeing the piles of logs. They continually asked for the wood until Teague starting giving bundles away with his business card. Within the next month, nearly every day was booked up, including Sundays. From that point on, Harold Teague no longer needed to rely on his family name. “He got himself drunk, didn’t he?” said the owl-like man. “He got hit by a drunk—he wasn’t drunk himself. They just collided.” Matthew watched the sun set, burning in his eyes. The February air pierced his lungs like a fall day.
The man next to him shifted and gave a curious look around him. “You’re probably right,” the man remarked. “I don’t think I saw him having any libations at the party.” Silence followed for the next several minutes. “Well, my lad, I do believe I must be going.” With that, the man stood up and walked away without looking back. The rest of the night, Matthew cleaned up the bar. Several customers came to the front door, but Matthew turned them away. The waitresses didn’t even come; they called in to make sure the bar was closed. There was also the phone call from Joseph saying a lawyer would see Matthew soon. Around ten, Matthew thought about going to Emma’s house. He decided against it, knowing she had to rise early. Instead, he walked past his apartment and to a small river that ran through the town. Matthew could see the water flowing fast. He took a cigar from his pocket and tossed it into the blackness of the river. Meeting “I’m being let out in the middle of March,” said Donny, who seemed to have gotten over his shock about Teague’s death too quickly. “I can start then.” “I don’t know if the bar will still be there,” responded Matthew. The glass between the two men was cold. Donny leaned over and put his head between his knees. “Are you doing okay?” “No,” Donny said, laughing. He sat up and smiled. “I can’t believe he’s just gone. Just like that.” As he spoke, Donny snapped his fingers.
Matthew had told Donny about Teague’s death and that Dan Patrick hit him late Saturday night. Though gossip traveled fast in Oak County, it had not penetrated the prison. After Matthew told Donny, there had been silence between the pair, each reflecting on his interactions with Teague. “Makes you wonder,” Matthew stated, starting blankly at the guard standing behind Donny. “Makes me think about things a little more. Like between you and me. Between me and Teague. Between lots of people.” The funeral services were to follow in the next few days, though Donny would not be allowed to attend. Prison had a nasty way of inconveniencing the living. The weather wasn’t warming up, either. With the weekend gone, the mild weather vanished. In its in wake, snow was falling. A foot of snow was already piling up, with more to follow later in the week. In the afternoons, it would hardly get above freezing. “How are you doing in here?” asked Matthew after another inmate and guest walked by to an adjacent cubicle. “It’s still the same. Nothing really special, except that cigarettes will cost you an arm and leg,” answered Donny. “That’s not what I mean.” “That’s what you should mean. Every day is the same, just like the one before. I haven’t changed, except when I get out I just won’t want to go back in. You don’t get healed. You only want to avoid getting caught.” “Can I rely on you?” Matthew asked, trying not to overhear the conversation between the two lovers to their left. “Of course.”
“I want to bury things between us.” “You’re going to Teague’s funeral…” “And Dan Patrick’s,” Mathew said, finishing Donny’s comment. “In my view, we’re equal.” With that Donny stood up, looking uncomfortable himself. As Matthew stood up, the two men smiled, thinking the conversation in the next booth should be kept private. Donny called for a guard but looked like he didn’t want to go. “I’m sorry for not coming for your father’s or your mother’s funeral,” Matthew said quickly, before Donny was led away. Matthew’s nephew looked at him. “Me too. You’ve got a long way ahead of you. Teague told me that my father wasn’t a great man. But my mother was—that I know for sure.” Matthew told him he was right. “So I’ll see you in a month or so?” Donny said. “Absolutely,” said Matthew. “Maybe we can even change the bar’s image.” The guard whistled to Donny, waiting impatiently. Donny turned to go, but stopped. “Hey, would you tell Joseph and Emma to visit me again. I’d like to see Marie, maybe.” Matthew nodded and left Donny telling the prison guard to calm down. * * * As he pulled in front of the bar, Matthew saw a man outside, apparently waiting for him. He wore a pinstripe suit and was nearly bald. He looked grossly overweight, with a potbelly so large he appeared pregnant. He stood up from a
bench as he saw Matthew, extending a chubby hand with short fingers as thick as sausages. The snow stopped falling, though the cold air had only recently moved in. The man held his collar up high, though he was so fat, Matthew didn’t see how the man could possibly be cold. “Matthew Kooper?” he said. “I’m sorry sir, but the bar isn’t open yet,” Matthew replied, declining the man’s outstretched hand. He stole a glance as his watch, noticing it wasn’t even past noon. The man pulled a briefcase from under the bench. Matthew thought about the drunks who slept on the bench and vomit that was often left underneath it. “My name’s John Crawford. I’m actually here to talk to you about this bar,” he said jovially, patting the leatherbound case. “It’s not for sale,” Matthew said. His eyes were tired and, despite the overcast sky, he squinted. “I’m actually Harold Teague’s lawyer,” the man stated. Matthew realized why the man was there and told him to come inside. He pulled out his keys, which he supposed were now the master set. Teague’s keys were mangled in the car crash, leaving Matthew and Chris with the only remaining sets. Joseph had confiscated Chris’ set and given them to Matthew. “Why don’t we sit down?” said Matthew as the two men escaped the cold. The lawyer sat down in one of the booths after taking his coat and scarf off. Matthew sat across
from him. The bar seemed much cleaner than it had. One day closed and it already seemed devoid of smoke. The lawyer put his briefcase on the table and opened it. A garrulous nature seemed to emanate from his pale skin. He pulled out a yellow folder and handed it to Matthew. “I can’t sell you this place,” Matthew said, sliding the folder back to the lawyer. The man shook his head, chuckling. “No, actually that’s yours, Mr. Kooper.” Crawford seemed to like the word actually. He pronounced his words with a slight Boston drawl, though he seemed to avoid emphasizing the accent. “What is it?” Matthew asked without opening it. “It’s your half of this bar actually!” He slapped his hand on the table, his double-chinned necked bobbing up and down as he laughed. Matthew opened it up and read it. Written in a dense legal language, he couldn’t understand it until he saw his name and that he was co-owner of the bar. Teague had left the other half of the bar to Donny. A copy of the deed was in the folder. The leather stuck to Matthew’s sweaty back. His hands trembled. The folder was more valuable than his truck. Far more valuable. The real estate alone would buy a mansion like Teague’s. “Now as you know, Harold Teague was a very wealthy man. Actually, he was the wealthiest in this county— most of the counties in the state to be honest. Do you mind if I smoke?” Matthew shrugged his shoulder and pointed to the ashtray. “Excellent!” cried the lawyer, muttering words about
the public ban on smoking. He rolled a homemade cigarette and lit it. Dense curls of smoke lingered around his head. “He left this bar to you and Donald Kooper III. You and him own it straight down the middle.” Crawford took another drag. He gave Matthew a look with his beady eyes. “Teague had this in his will for the past twenty years or so years. Teague was always changing what he was going to leave you, but it was always something big. But he called me up a month ago and told me you’d just moved back to town. So he made sure he left you half the bar. Nice present for someone who I’d only met on paper.” “I was gone for a long time,” replied Matthew. “Must’ve been gone for years.” “Thirty,” said Matthew. The lawyer whistled and then took another drag. “If you don’t mine me asking, you and Teague must have been good friends. Hell, I never met you and I’ve been living here for ten years. Teague’s previous lawyer told me he never met you either.” Matthew stood up and poured himself a cup of instant coffee. The lawyer asked for scotch and something to eat. Matthew threw an appetizer in the oven. Outside, snow started falling again. The sky grew even darker. “Teague and I go way back. Before he owned the bar—back when he had a landscape business.” “Really? I still get people asking me if Teague the landscaper is my client. Funny—I never thought much about him being an outdoor worker.”
“At one time he was,” said Matthew. He handed Crawford the drink and sat. “I would work for him after school and on Saturdays. Sunday, though I couldn’t work for him—my mom always took us to church.” Crawford nodded in understanding. “Lots of churchgoers around here,” he said, waving his hand in a circle. He sipped his drink and took another drag of his cigarette. Matthew laughed. “So one Sunday,” began Matthew, “after church, Teague had a real big job. I mean, the two of us were working on it for two or three weeks—and at that time, our jobs didn’t last much longer than a few days. An old couple owned three or four acres and wanted it cleared and mowed. Well, we couldn’t mow until we cleared it. Clearing it was like pulling teeth. Tree stumps, tall trees, bushes the size of cars, all sorts of stuff.” A buzzer went off and Matthew paused to get Crawford’s pizza. He brought it back. The small pizza looked minuscule in the lawyer’s fat hands. Crawford devoured it, praising the flavor. Matthew told him Teague made the sauce himself. “Anyways,” Matthew continued, “so one Sunday in the middle of August, Teague comes by in the middle of the afternoon. Now he knows I can’t work, but he makes up some story about taking me to a late lunch. My mom, suspecting he wanted my help, started to refuse him. But he promised he would take me to lunch. So she let me go.” “And what happened?” Crawford asked, bemused.
“Well, he took me to lunch—he just happened to get our lunches to go and we ate while we removed one particularly large cedar tree. It was so big, that he needed my help—hell, the two of us chopped at its roots for an hour. Then we eventually pulled it out by attaching the tree to ropes and hauled it out with his truck.” Matthew shook his head in part laughter, part memorial. Crawford rolled another cigarette, listening to every one of Matthew’s words. “Now,” continued Matthew, “the only problem was that he hadn’t planned on me getting sweaty and dirty from ripping the tree out. My back was covered in dark sweat. I didn’t know what else to do, so I had Teague spray me down with a hose.” Matthew again chuckled. “That didn’t work well, either. I came home and tried to sneak upstairs, but my mother caught me—she could hear my shoes squishing against the carpet.” “What happened?” “Well, Teague felt so bad that I got in trouble that he came back that very evening and took my entire family—my parents, my brother, and my sister—out to dinner. It cost him a pretty penny, but my parents at least forgave him.” Crawford smiled at the story. He raised the drink to his lips and sipped slowly. Then he put the glass on the walnut colored table. “So I need to take care of some business,” he stated. Matthew nodded and Crawford lost the jovial manner, becoming serious and overtly professional. Crawford took out the rest of several papers and told him nothing needed to be signed yet.
“You can get your own lawyer or have someone look over these papers. But they are fairly straightforward. When you take over as co-owners, you will of course be liable for taxes and customers. You own the building now too.” They talked for the next hour or so, with Crawford leading the discussion, advising Matthew several times to make sure Donny and him could co-exist as owners. As Crawford put his coat and scarf on, Matthew asked him, “Are there any requirements for me to take over the bar?” “None,” the lawyer stated. “There are no prerequisites stipulated in the will.” They said good-bye to each other and shook hands. The lawyer ducked out into the light snow. Matthew watched him go, holding the deed as if it were glass. * * * Matthew finished getting the bar ready for that night. He was going to open it after all. He felt since he was part owner, he ought to honor Teague’s will. Lindsey and Jackie showed up mid-afternoon. They were early. “Thanks for keeping it open,” they both said when they arrived. He nodded, thinking that he should have kept the bar open the previous night. He went back to making several orders. Teague hadn’t left him any instructions, though he knew he needed beer, wine, and liquor for the weekend. Tempted to smoke the cigars in the office, Matthew chewed on a bit of gum instead. He glanced up, finding the waitresses staring at him. He looked at his watch and saw that they weren’t supposed to open for another half hour.
“You both look like you want something,” Matthew stated. “What’s up?” “Thank you,” they both said simultaneously. The pact between them was signed. A little while later, after the bar had opened up, the phone rang. Though he was the bartender that night, he was also the manager. He realized as he picked up the phone that until he got a second bartender, just answering a simple call would be difficult. He refused to let Chris come back. “Hello,” Matthew said. “Why don’t you call it M and D Bar? For Matthew and Donny? What do you say?” Donny was on the other end, sounding giddy. “The lawyer pay you a visit?” Matthew asked. Matthew saw from his office a pair of men sit at the bar. They both wore suits under their coats. Snow covered one of the men’s hair; the other was bald and thin. Both were so pale their skin looked grayish. Their eyes had the pained looked of staring at a computer screen for hours. Jackie got them each a beer. They thanked her and went over to the jukebox, arguing what kind of jazz was better. “Just putting me on hold?” Donny said over the phone when Matthew returned. “No,” replied Matthew, “I’m just making sure our business has satisfied customers.” Donny mumbled something about bar hounds not being customers. “It’s fine. So Crawford saw you?” “He called me. Told me I own half the bar. He’s not pulling some sick joke?”
“It’s the real thing. I have the deed right here. And it has both our names on it.” “So how much is it worth?” “Well, since he owns the building, I’d say it’s worth a fair amount. Plus, the building’s mortgage is all paid off.” “So how much?” Donny asked eagerly. “A couple of hundred thousand each.” “Amazing.” Donny sounded happy to have anything, let alone a large hunk of money. Matthew hesitated and then said, “I thought we could keep it going.” Donny started to protest, but Matthew cut him off. “Just hear me out. Teague wanted us to work together. He left us the bar. I think we owe it to him to at least try and make it work.” The two men started blaring a song from the fifties and Matthew asked Lindsey to run the bar. Nodding as if Matthew should’ve asked before, she poured a few more beers. Matthew put Donny on hold and closed the door. He picked up the office phone again. Donny started talking almost instantly. “I don’t know Matthew,” he said, continuing the conversation without missing a beat. “I’ve only bartended. I’m not much for that business side of things. Teague always took care of it.” “I can take care of that,” Matthew said. “Dawn’s real good with that stuff. Her orchards are one of the few successful things around here. I’m sure she’d help me.” Donny didn’t respond. An image of Teague chopping down trees popped into Matthew’s mind. Matthew pushed it away.
“You still there Donny?” said Matthew. He opened the drawer with the recipes in it. He pulled the file out and opened it on the desk. Some of the recipes and notes were faded, with the black ink looking blue. He ran his fingers over Teague’s handwriting. “Yeah, I’m here. Just thinking.” “Do you want to do it? Join me, be a bartender, be co-owner with me?” Matthew heard the jukebox change songs and Jackie tell the men their drinks were ready. “Sure, why not? I’m in jail, with nothing to lose. Frankly I don’t give a damn.” With that Matthew saw his chance. “I have another proposition for you.” Matthew knew the query sounded serious. Though Donny was his business partner, they were not yet friends. “What is it?” Donny’s voice went lower and sounded as if he were looking over his back. Matthew closed the file and heard Jackie laughing with the men in the bar. He leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes. “I wanted to turn it into a restaurant.” Silence followed. “Donny?” A long pause followed. “Isn’t that what Teague always wanted to do?” Donny said at last. Matthew told him it was. “For all the time I worked there, I remember Teague having all those cooking magazines. And those little appetizers—odd for a bar, but they worked. Made tips bigger and people loved them.” Matthew knew Teague had stolen the idea from tapas bars, but didn’t
tell Donny that. “I remember him saying he would have started a restaurant except that it wouldn’t be successful.” “What do you think?” “I don’t know.” “What if we changed it to a restaurant this summer and see if it was successful?” More noise emanated from the bar. More people had arrived. Jackie poked her head into the office and nodded to the front. Matthew nodded back and waved her away. “Teague always said it probably wouldn’t work,” replied Donny, almost as though he were having a debate with himself. “What if it did?” Matthew asked. Funeral On Wednesday, both Harold Teague and Dan Patrick were buried. Neither was to have a wake. No one in Teague’s family requested one and Dan Patrick’s family denied such a request. Teague was to be buried early in the morning and Dan in the afternoon—in different graveyards. Matthew woke up and put on a black suit Joseph had lent him. He ate little and went to the funeral by himself, though he met Emma, Joseph, and Jenny there. The Protestant church was white compared to the gray sky. Dawn arrived shortly after Matthew. They were all appropriately dressed in black as well. Very few other people showed up. Not even the owl-eyed man came. In fact, only a dozen or so came, including Matthew and his family. Most of them looked tired and weary, having traveled a long ways, from what Matthew was told, to see a relative many had never met. The grass
crunched under their feet as they walked to the burial plot. Matthew pulled his suit close to his sides and stared at the ground. He asked Jenny where Marie was. “We left her with a babysitter,” she said, walking beside him. “She didn’t know Teague well and she shouldn’t have to sit through one of these. At least not yet.” The priest ended up giving a passionate and Christian burial, even in spite of Teague’s absence from church. He praised Teague’s generosity and his love of children, noting that Teague gave large contributions to the local orphanage. “May he rest in peace. Amen,” the priest stated as he finished. The undertaker had done an excellent job of preparing Teague’s body, making it appear marvelously unscathed. The preacher signaled Matthew to close the casket. Matthew did and the mahogany coffer was slowly lower into the ground. The sun shone brighter than ever. They went inside the church, Matthew holding Dawn against his shoulder. Joseph looked like he was going to cry. Matthew saw him force back tears. Emma didn’t even look stone-faced. Dawn sat down in the church’s lobby and pulled Jenny close. The two of them wept. Emma walked over to them and buried her head in Dawn’s dress. Joseph walked over to Matthew and patted him on the back. They stared at each other and sat down on the pew-like benches. The seats were hard and straight-backed. Joseph looked at Matthew and said so only the two could hear, “Chris was released yesterday. We couldn’t hold him on anything.” Matthew nodded, expectedly. He wasn’t
surprised Chris couldn’t be held accountable—for the drugs or Teague. “Where is he?” “He told me he’s leaving town.” “Good,” said Matthew. His view grew blurry as he looked at his sister and niece. Joseph gently touched Matthew’s shoulder and asked, “So what are you going to call it? The restaurant, I mean.” Matthew shrugged. “I don’t know.” “I hope it works,” Joseph said. Matthew heard Teague’s family members outside, getting into their cars to go to the funeral’s lunch. “I hope it works, too,” stated Matthew. He looked at Dawn, who stared back at him warmly. She smiled and nodded, still holding the other two women. Matthew put his head on Joseph’s shoulder and cried. * * * “So you’re not going?” Emma asked, having just finished lunch with the rest of Teague’s relatives. They were nondescript, a family obligation, nothing more. Teague’s funeral arrangements called for its attendees to be treated to lunch. With the food gone, the relatives were leaving too, many of them discussing their flight arrangements to return home. Matthew watched them leaving, a vile taste forming in his mouth. “I don’t think I should,” Matthew said at last. “He was your godfather,” Emma replied.
“He was also responsible for killing a man and being a drunkard. Hell, he didn’t change in the thirty years I was away. Just like our father.” Emma looked at him. Matthew rarely, if ever, mentioned his father. “He still was your godfather. Not mine. And he wasn’t an evil man. Misguided perhaps.” Emma, having been born first, had a wonderful godmother who had died years before. Matthew and his brother Donald, however, were given the luxury of Dan. “You’re my sister, Emma, not my mother. You didn’t tell Dawn or your daughter to go to Dan’s funeral.” Matthew’s voice rose. “I mean, you’re not even going.” “I’m just saying you should go, if only out of respect for his family. You don’t need to respect him. But it would be a good gesture to them, even if they didn’t know it.” With that, Emma kissed Matthew on the cheek and walked quickly over to her car. She waved and pulled out without waiting for a response. Matthew stared at her, muttering to himself. He got into his car and started the engine. He looked at his watch and swore to himself. Matthew went to the church and sat in his car until he saw a congregation of people starting to pile into the graveyard. Like Teague’s, Dan’s casket, as Matthew assumed correctly, was already outside. He saw the VFW men get out, many of them looking clean-shaven without liquored eyes, some with. He followed them, keeping a fair distance between himself and the rest of the funeral party.
As the funeral began, Matthew noticed how many people were in attendance. He stood away from the casket. Few people took notice of him. Those who did gave him a nod of respect. But many did not look at him. In fact, the funeral was so well attended that the ushers kept having to assure people they would be able to say their last goodbyes after the service. More than fifty surrounded the casket itself, many of them older men. There were a few women. Everyone was dressed in black. As the priests finished his speech, which told the group to pray for Dan Patrick’s soul, a tall man stood up in front of everyone. He had powerful shoulders and a thick goatee. He looked in his mid-twenties. “I was asked to say a few words about my father,” the man said. “I would have to say, first, that I’m sorry about what happened. This past weekend was a tragedy.” The man, whom Matthew had never seen, looked directly at Matthew. “But I would like to focus on my father’s life and some of things I remember about him. He would always take me to the zoo when I was younger. He’d pretend to feed me to the bears, though he always said he’d fight them off if they ever got too close.” The man paused. “He would take me fishing. We never caught anything, but just sitting on that boat.” The man stopped and cried. Matthew nudged a bystander and asked her who the man was. “That’s Dan’s only son, Terry. The mother had him out of wedlock. Dan and her never lasted, but Dan always took care of that boy.”
“Must have had the kid late in life,” remarked Matthew quietly. The woman nodded, and whispered, “But Terry’s mom was young compared to Dan.” Matthew nodded. They went back to listening to Terry’s speech, which had become cliché by its end. “…In closing,” continued Terry, “I just wanted to say that Dan Patrick was a good man. Forgive him. God bless you, Dad. I love you.” Several of the standing people clapped their hands. Matthew clapped to keep his hands warm. He looked around at the crying faces. As Terry walked away from the casket, Matthew saw people start to file past. At Teague’s funeral, there hadn’t been enough people to form a line. Matthew saw the owl-eyed man walk past Dan’s casket and say a prayer. Disgusted, Matthew left. * * * Three weeks later, Matthew sat in Emma’s new house, a small cookie-cutter rancher. The kitchen window was open, letting in a gust of cool air that seemed to herald the coming of an early spring. The remnants of the early Sunday dinner sat of their plates, with Marie still trying to finish her chicken. Matthew looked at them and realized the time he had put in as owner of the bar were both long and instantaneous. The hours were long though the days were short. “I’m sorry you have to work tonight,” said Jenny. “Tell Joseph I’m sorry he had to work today,” replied Matthew, waving his hands in dismissal of her comment. “Working during the day is worse than working at night.”
“I have an announcement I’d like to make,” said Emma, just coming back from her kitchen carrying tea. She sat down and poured three cups of Echinacea tea. “And?” said Jenny. “I turned in my resignation on Friday. I’m retiring from the ER,” she said. Matthew and Jenny stared at her, dumbstruck. “I thought you loved working there,” said Jenny. “I did,” said Emma, finally sitting down and having a small sip of her tea. “But it was too much. Too long, too many things I saw that I didn’t want to see.” Jenny and Emma started discussing what Emma was going to do. Matthew looked out the window. He stirred some sugar into his tea and looked around at the small house, which wasn’t big enough for more than two people. By herself, however, Emma would have plenty of space. Matthew looked at his sister and saw that the dark circles under her eyes had shrunk. Matthew felt his own puffy eyes. The previous two weeks hadn’t been kind to him. He hadn’t been able to find a suitable bartender, which resulted in him working hours after the bar closed, counting money. The waitresses had to work longer hours too. Though short on workers, Matthew found he was still making a large amount of profit although he didn’t have time for anything else. Even the time he devoted to searching for a chef yielded nothing. No one wanted to work at a restaurant that could go out of business in a few months. Plus, Oak County didn’t attract respectable chefs.
He’d even cut out his time working with Dawn. While she understood, Matthew missed seeing her and he missed working around the greenhouse. Counting money and pouring beer had little appeal when Matthew had the other option of working in the dirt with his hands. He was glad that Dawn visited him at the bar, telling him her various predictions for the summer’s outlook. It wasn’t looking as bad as the tourist businesses had first thought. There was, however, certainly going to be a downturn in business. Matthew’s mind faded back to helping Teague in the summer with landscaping. The tourists always wanted their vacation homes to look like castles or country cottages from a fairy tale. Teague always made sure to make them satisfied— not always happy, but satisfied. “You’re awfully quiet, Matthew,” stated Jenny, who held her cup of tea gently. “Just thinking,” he replied. “About what?” asked Emma. Matthew looked to each of the women and then to Marie, who was playing with her chicken rather than eating it. “About you leaving the hospital? If it’s what you want to do, then I support it. Hell, you’ve worked there for years. Most people can’t last a year in an emergency room. You deserve a break. You can pull your pension right?” Emma nodded and told Marie to eat her dinner. Quick as lightning, Marie shoved the last four bites of chicken into her mouth. Jenny laughed and pronounced that everyone could be excused.
“So what’s to debate?” said Matthew, rising with the other women to clear the table. “You do what you want to do, right? And I think it’d be great.” They left the dishes in the sink and sat on Emma’s enclosed back porch. Marie went inside to play. The three of them sat on the porch in white plastic chairs, looking at the backyard. The trees still had no leaves so one could look through what would eventually become dense foliage in the heat of the summertime. The yard was small and was covered in green grasses from the melted snow. Matthew looked through the trees. Emma’s new house sat on the top of a hill, overlooking the forest graveyard. In the distance, Matthew could also see the gas factory that Teague owned—or had owned. The house was no longer in a crowded neighborhood. Many of the original houses that had been built in the fifties were being torn down and replaced with summer homes. The tourists wanted houses near the lakes. As a result of the newer houses, Emma’s own cookie-cut house actually looked unique. “So how do you like living here?” asked Jenny. “It’s better than living in a house that was your mother’s,” said Emma. “At least it’s almost spring,” stated Matthew, watching the sun start to spark the sky with flames. He glanced at his watch, knowing the bar was waiting for him. “Doesn’t feel like it,” said Jenny. Her young cheeks were pink. The gray in Emma’s hair danced with the mild wind. “I’d rather it be summer or winter, not one of these inbetween places.”
“Going to make more costumes for school plays then?” said Matthew to Emma, ignoring Jenny comment. He smiled at his sister, who looked at the dead forest that began only a few hundred yards away. “Have to do something right?” “I was actually thinking of running for the school board in November,” replied Emma. Jenny turned and stared at Emma, a twinkle of pride in her eyes. Matthew clapped his hands three times and congratulated Emma. Jenny kissed her mother. “That’s good,” said Jenny, sitting back in her seat. “Someone needs to spend Harold Teague’s money wisely.” Everyone agreed to that. The past week, the local newspaper announced that Teague’s factory and home were to be auctioned off, with the profits going towards children’s charities and the school system. Besides leaving Donny and Matthew the bar, Teague left everything he owned to charities. Every reporter in town had been calling Matthew and Donny, leaving messages at the bar and at Matthew’s apartment. Donny had even called the bar to request the reporters stop calling him in prison. “What made you decide that?” asked Matthew after Jenny left to get a glass of wine. “I guess I was just inspired by Teague,” Emma answered, looking at the scarred trees. Her eyes were focused. “Are you sure it just isn’t fear?” “Fear of what?” “Fear of dying before you do the things you want to do,” said Matthew. Emma kept her eyes straight ahead.
“Either way, I still want to run,” said Emma, nearly whispering. “If you need anything, let me know,” Matthew told her. He hoped she would win, but he knew she would probably not. Jenny came back and sat down. She said, “Need what?” “I was just offering Emma help with her campaign is she needed it.” Jenny took hold of her mother’s hand and offered the same assistance. Emma, for the first time since Matthew had returned home, blushed. Matthew looked at his watch and stood up. He told them he needed to go. As they led him out, he kissed Marie, who was engrossed in her toys. He kissed each of them and told Emma, “I think Teague would be thrilled at what you’re doing.” “The same to you,” Emma said. Stress “You will?” asked Matthew. He held the telephone so close to his head that his ear began to sweat. The man on the other end was a chef named Pierre Raquelt. He had once been the top chef in California, cooking in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. The previous few years, though, he had become burned out and tired of living in a city. Matthew’s offer of the free apartment above the bar and the small population of Oak County convinced Pierre to come cook for the summer. Matthew promised him if the restaurant was successful, he would bring Pierre back with a larger salary.
“Absolutely. Your previous manager said you were hard-working and dedicated. I look forward to seeing you in April. Then we can discuss the menu—in a place without skyscrapers.” Matthew heard the phone go dead. Pierre sounded happy to be leaving sooner rather than later. “Sounds like it went pretty well,” said Jackie while she was mopping the floors. “Well he took long enough to call me back. I gave him a call the day after Donny and I agreed to turn this place into a restaurant.” Matthew threw up his hands in celebration. “Hey, at least something went right this week.” Pierre was the first chef who had given him a return call, let alone willing to work for Matthew. Getting ready for Thursday night, almost a week after Emma had told him she was quitting her job, Matthew found was the hardest. He had to make sure everything was ready for the next three nights, but also be prepared for a big crowd that night. Every Thursday wasn’t busy. It was a hard night to predict—sometimes the customers were easy to handle while other times they were rowdier than the Friday night crowd. “Oh, come on, Matthew,” said Lindsey from the back room. “Every night has been good. Plenty of business. They like that you’ve lightened up this place.” Matthew thanked them but knew the regulars wouldn’t appreciate the new light fixtures and glass windows if they found out the improvements were the beginnings of turning the place into a restaurant. Matthew knew they were correct, though calling over fifty chefs from around the country in the past week tired him
out. Most of them liked the places where they lived. Even those who were willing to move didn’t want to move to Wisconsin. They had families and Matthew could understand their hesitation. Pierre, luckily, was a bachelor and had known Matthew’s boss in San Francisco. A great chef of French and German cuisine, Pierre wanted to live by himself and have at least two days a week off. Matthew promised him both of those things, including free rent. Pierre took the bait and would arrive in less than a month. Lindsey walked up to Matthew and said, “Just to remind you, the upstairs need to be repaired. The apartment is in pretty bad shape.” “More money, right?” “Hey, you offered that chef a place to stay. I think you should at least make sure it’s nice for him. After all, Oak County probably isn’t much compared to where he’s been living.” Matthew mulled over her suggestion and pulled out his keys. He walked to the back room and up the stairs. At the top was an apartment door. He unlocked it and walked inside. Matthew instantly sneezed. It was still furnished, though it looked as though it hadn’t been touched in half a decade. There were only two rooms, one a bedroom and the other a sitting area spliced with a small kitchen. There were no cobwebs. It smelled like wood but had somehow managed to avoid developing a musty smell. Matthew had been up in the apartment years before. Then it was a room where the previous bar owner gave the drunken men a place to dry out over night.
The place seemed much smaller, however. The coffee table that sat in front of the couch was covered in a thick covering of dust. It was so thick that it didn’t come off when Matthew ran his finger over its surface. Rather, he had to use his nail to peel off the dust. The table seemed to have grown skin. Matthew decided he could clean all of the furniture except for the bed, which would need to be replaced. The walls needed painting and floor needed carpeting. The kitchen was easily fixed. A large gap between the sink and the dishwasher, a gift left by the previous tenet, told him the apartment also needed a new fridge. Matthew went over to the windows in the sitting room. The bedroom had no windows and neither did its tiny bathroom. Opening the window, Matthew felt a cool breeze lick his face. Only two weeks before, with Teague’s lawyer, Matthew had watched the last of the snow fall. Since then, the weather had steadily grown warmer, though at night the temperature plummeted. A fire escape sat underneath the windowsill. Matthew remembered once seeing a man try to get Matthew’s father to follow him out the fire escape. They had been drunk and wanted to get away from Matthew—who had brought his mother with him. Below the fire escape was the front of the bar. Matthew saw a large group of factory workers enter. Then he saw a pair of men walking down the street. They both wore clean sweatshirts. One had a cooler and the other carried a fishing pole. They were the first tourists of the season.
“Hey Matthew,” called Jackie, her high pitched voice traveling up the stairs. “It’s starting to get a little crowded. Come down soon.” Matthew went to the other end of the room and opened the window that overlooked the back alley. The wind connected and created a breezeway, forcing fresh air throughout the apartment. Matthew sighed and went back downstairs, not so concerned about the weekend as he was about the expenses that a restaurant required. On the stairs, he said quietly to himself, “I hope Teague was wrong.” * * * Just like every Thursday, Dawn came in around ten. She had come in every Thursday, even the day after Teague’s funeral—a night when people seemed to forget that the bar was open. Earlier in the night, happy hour packed the bar. As the night went on, the bar’s population thinned until the only people who remained were the VFW men. Since Dan Patrick’s death, their tips had increased quite a bit. “I came at a good time, didn’t I?” said Dawn, sitting down. She ordered a scotch on the rocks and took a small sip. “That looks cute,” she said, pointing to the towel slung over Matthew’s shoulder. He told her bartenders always needed a towel. “You don’t look too happy,” Dawn said. “I just have a lot on my mind,” Matthew replied. She looked at her watch and said, “I’ve got two ears and plenty of time.”
“I’m just worried about trying to get everything set.” He gave a pair of manhattans to Lindsey and turned his attention back to Dawn. “But with Donny getting out soon and trying to start a restaurant and trying to make sure I have enough money to pay the waitresses and getting a chef….” Donny was being released early due to excellent behavior. Dawn held up her hand. “You need to learn that,” she stated. “Learn what?” “To relax,” Dawn snapped, though the smile never left her face. “I just want to see if I can make Teague’s dream come true,” Matthew said, wiping down the counter after a couple left. Matthew couldn’t understand how they’d managed to spill half their beer. “What do you want?” replied Dawn. Jackie came over to Matthew and asked if she could leave. She had to go to a doctor’s appointment early the next morning. Matthew told her to go, insisting he didn’t mind. “Answer my question,” Dawn said as Matthew turned to pour another drink for the VFW men. They were engaged in a poker game worth upwards of three hundred dollars. The puffs of cigars and cigarettes emanated so furiously that Matthew saw smoke curling at the opposite end of the room. Matthew turned and shot her a glare. “I want to make sure people remember him. I want to do for him what he did for me.” His lower lip trembled.
“So what are you doing this weekend?” asked Dawn in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “Working here,” Matthew responded. “Not much else. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help you lately.” “It’s not a problem,” Dawn said. “Though I did like spending that time with you.” She blushed and quickly said, “You’re a good worker.” “Thanks,” he said. “What are you doing?” Dawn laughed. “I’m hiring high school and college kids to work for me in the summer and early fall. I’m hoping to try and coax a few of them to start in the spring. Most of them just want to get paid and don’t care about making sure things work right.” “That just means you have to pay them enough so they care,” said Matthew. One of the VFW men who wasn’t a regular stood up and threw down his full house. The rest of the men groaned. The game was over. Matthew was surprised at the night. He’d made a decent amount of money and would still be able to close early. “I’m also watching Marie this Saturday night,” she said. “Jenny and Joseph were going to ask you to watch her, but they knew you’d be busy.” Matthew started cleaning up the bottles and glasses, putting them into the industrial dishwasher. There were a few plates that had held remnants of appetizers. Matthew threw those in as well. “No they wouldn’t,” said Mathew. “You’re her godmother. Damn it Dawn, I know how much you love that girl. She’d great.”
“I just…” stammered Dawn, “…if I couldn’t baby-sit her, you’d be the next one they’d ask.” Matthew nodded, knowing Dawn spoke the truth. They were quiet for a few moments, Matthew thinking of the bar and the VFW men. Knowing nothing else to say, Matthew said, “I wish I had more time.” “Me too,” Dawn agreed. “The days just keep getting faster and faster, like a roller coaster that’s broken.” Her words reminded Matthew of when he and Teague had first done landscaping for her father. Those days had gone by slowly. Not anymore. “Would you like to come to Sunday dinner at Emma’s?” Mathew blurted. He couldn’t help himself. Dawn hesitated. Matthew quickly tried to explain himself. “You know you’re always invited. I know you’re busy and all, but I’d like to see you a little bit more.” “Matthew, I don’t want to date you,” said Dawn, almost sighing. “I know, I just thought that…” “Matthew, I’d love to come over to dinner with your family, see my goddaughter. But not just to see you.” She gave him a smile. The VFW left, grumbling about a rigged deck. Preacher Warm weather arrives in various forms. It is hard to identify at which point winter ends, spring begins. Matthew sat in his truck, watching the sun. It was straight overhead, but it couldn’t warm the cool air. He pawed the cigarettes in his hands. Donny had asked for them. The day before, Matthew
scrubbed the salt off the bottom of his truck, a sure sign of spring. Matthew got out of the truck and waited outside the fence. “Seems like an awful lot of security for my nephew, doesn’t it?” Matthew called to the guard. “It’s just standard procedures,” the guard said with a surprising amount of grace. It was incongruous with his thick neck and five o’clock shadow. The two of them stood, waiting, not saying much until Matthew felt he had to break the silence. “So…this is a minimum security prison?” stated Matthew. “If it was maximum security, your nephew wouldn’t have lasted very long inside. He kept out of everyone’s way and didn’t make many friends.” “Isn’t that a good thing?” asked Matthew, shifting his body weight from foot to foot. He didn’t know what else to do. “Not usually. People need friends in there. Some of the convicts are pretty violent men. I don’t know if your nephew realized that.” The guard saw the expression on Matthew’s face and reassured him. “Don’t worry. Donny’s the one getting out, right? He was fine. Hell, that’s why he’s getting out so early. You could tell he didn’t belong.” “No, he didn’t.” They heard the sound of metal scraping against metal and the door opened. Donny stepped out, wearing the same crisp suit he had worn on his court date. He looked at Matthew, then to the guard, and then back to Matthew.
“I’m ready,” he said. Donny tilted his head up to the sky. “It feels a lot different to look at the sky without walls around you,” Donny state. “I’m sure it does,” Matthew replied. “You wouldn’t know,” Donny said. It wasn’t meant as a nasty comment. In fact, it was a statement. They got into the truck. Donny had nothing else on him, besides his wallet. “Tired? You want to go to your apartment?” asked Matthew. “Not right away. Let me see the bar first.” He gave a flicker of a smile and then leaned back in the passenger’s seat. He opened the window, which let the afternoon air inside. It was no longer frigid, though the breeze was still cold. Over the past few days, the mild weather had moved out, leaving the normal April weather in its place. Matthew shivered as the air passed over his face, despite his thick coat. Donny, on the other hand, took off his suit jacket and unbuttoned his collar. Donny closed his eyes and Matthew drove. By the time they arrived in the parking lot, Donny had yet to speak again. In fact, he looked asleep until Matthew turned the truck off. At that, he sat up and jumped out of the vehicle in one swift motion. Matthew exited himself and walked up to Donny. “Well, I know it’s not much different, but you’ll notice the insides have changed. It’s still a work in progress.” Matthew motioned to the bar, which was totally empty, even the parking lot. The bar’s lot was no more than fifty spaces, including the side lot that wasn’t always safe at night.
Matthew didn’t let the waitresses park there. Donny turned to Matthew so they were within a few feet of one another. Looking calmly at Matthew, Donny punched him in the stomach. Matthew doubled over and literally saw stars. The parking lot, which Matthew had only ever briefly observed, suddenly seemed alive. The details were totally unexpected as he fell to the ground. Matthew stared at one of the hundred potholes that dotted the lot. Some were so large they seemed like craters. Across the street was a tiny little bistro that was only open mornings. Matthew had only seen its owner once— once when he was particularly late leaving the bar, he saw the owner as the sun rose. They had waved to each other, nothing more. During the early afternoon, however, the block was a ghost’s shadow. Matthew rolled over on his side, trying to avoid throwing up. Donny was quicker and stronger than he had been months earlier. His neck looked thicker and his midsection looked trim. His potbelly had vanished. The uneven asphalt, still cold, felt welcome on his suddenly hot skin. Donny took another step towards him and Matthew tried scrambling backwards, but couldn’t. The punch had not hit him directly. Instead, Donny had managed to land his fist a little to the right, punching the kidney as well as stomach. Matthew moaned and tried kicking Donny. He couldn’t remove his hands from clenching his sides. Donny knelt down next to him.
“Now we’re even,” he said, pulling out his handkerchief and drying the sweat pouring off Matthew’s forehead. Matthew didn’t speak for the next few minutes. Mathew sat up coughing. The punch no longer hurt. Rather, it dully throbbed. As the two men looked at one another, Donny smiled at Matthew, who sighed and put his hands on the ground. “What was that for?” Matthew asked after taking another deep breath. “Like I said, now we’re even. I spent two months in jail and you’re going to have to ice your side for the next two days.” The change in Donny’s expression was miraculous. He wasn’t engulfed in rage nor were his eyes bloodshot, like they had been when Donny and Matthew had first fought. Instead, he was placid. Donny held out his hand. Feeling weary, Matthew took it. Donny pulled him up with surprising force. He pulled Matthew’s left arm and put it around his shoulder. Then he walked Matthew to the bar and the two men went inside. Donny put Matthew in a booth and got him some ice. Matthew leaned against the wall and put his legs on the booth’s seat. “Why’d you do that?” asked Matthew. “Prison is a bad place,” Donny called from behind the counter. Matthew could hear him scooping ice. “I needed some sort of revenge.” “Was it worth it?” “No,” replied Donny, “but I had planned on doing that for so many weeks now that I couldn’t resist.” He walked over and gave Matthew a small trash bag filled with crush ice.
“Put it on your side. You might have some pain when you go to the bathroom.” He looked around and complimented Matthew on the redecorating. He sat down across from Matthew, looking as though he wanted to discuss the bar. But Matthew wasn’t going to let his side ache without some answers. “Damn it, why’d you do that?” “Because I couldn’t do anything else.” He pronounced the words as though they were valuable. The ice was cold against Matthew’s stomach. It felt as though a sticky tongue was running over his side. Matthew faltered and Donny spoke again. “Look, I’m going to try. No more booze. No more fights. Just trying to help out our family. Maybe help out my cousin with Marie. Help out Aunt Emma with trying to get elected.” For an instant, Matthew thought about Emma and Donny campaigning together and thought it was a funny picture; a sixty year old woman and a thirty-yearold ex-con trying to help make sure the schools got enough money. “Try,” said Matthew. “I’ll succeed.” The bar was exceptionally bright during the afternoons. For the rest of the afternoon, the two men talked with each other. Donny told Matthew about prison. The meals weren’t too bad and they had cable. But the worst, according to Donny, was that everyone there felt as though they needed to be a part of something. “Join a gang or else you got threatened a lot,” Donny said. But Donny had not joined one.
Instead, he avoided everyone, electing only to lift weights, do his work in the laundry room, and read in his cell. “What’d you read?” Matthew asked. “The Koran,” said Donny. Matthew raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I’m Muslim.” “Didn’t know you were religious,” replied Matthew. Donny shifted in the leather seat and shrugged his shoulders. “I met a few men who helped me with a few things.” “Did they tell you to hit me?” “They told me to embrace you as an uncle.” Matthew still waited for an answer. “No, they told me not to hit you.” “So why did you?” “I needed to. I’m sorry.” “Apology accepted,” said Matthew. Donny told his uncle about learning various passages of the Koran. Matthew, who was never religious, found it fascinating that his nephew found God. Matthew assumed Donny would find God with Emma. “So what have you been up to?” asked Donny. “I mean, anything you didn’t tell me over the phone?” Matthew shifted his back to the booth’s leather covering and took a shallow breath. The punch was starting to throb sharply, forcing Matthew to take short, stopped breaths. Matthew told him about Pierre and the loan he was going to take out in a few weeks. Both men were going to have to sign. Donny was persuaded in a moment. The loan was not large. Even more than that, they knew if they restaurant were to fail, they could easily change it back to a bar and continue to make money.
“The issue isn’t money,” said Donny. Matthew looked at him and stood up for the first time since he’d been punched. “What is the issue?” asked Matthew. “Making a dead man’s dream come true.” Matthew pointed at the clock and both men started getting ready for the evening. * * * Donny and Matthew bartended that night. Donny’s arrival seemed to bring out the healthy tippers as well as nearly every man from the VFW. Several women came in, looking for Donny. Matthew was amazed as the speed of gossip. It traveled like a freight train, calling everyone’s eyes towards it—even if it was ugly. “Who are these women?” asked Matthew in a whisper as the bar began to overfill. Lindsey and Jackie were darting from table to table. Matthew could see they were in good moods, particularly when they pocketed their tips. “They’re friends,” said Donny. “Really. Most of them are regulars.” Then he lowered his voice even more and said, “Are any of these those girls the ones Chris was…paying attention to?” “No,” Matthew answered shaking his head. “I haven’t seen them since the night before Teague’s death.” Donny quietly continued serving drinks. Several of the VFW had ordered the most expensive bottled beers. There is something about bartending that brings out the talkative and closeness. It harkens back to a time when pubs were the social network of all activity. Matthew knew
this. He didn’t particularly care. But sometimes, he wondered why it had to be bartenders who were the center. He wondered why it couldn’t be someone better, more responsible, more appropriate. Yet, that way the world worked and Matthew certainly accepted the tips. Matthew watched over others when others resigned. They drank, they felt, and occasionally they fell. Matthew would be there to pick them up. Matthew continued serving the customers on his side of the bar. His mind was far away, pondering the whereabouts of Chris. The former bartender hadn’t been seen in Oak County since the Thursday after Teague’s death. Chris’ jacket still hung in the back room, next to the carbonation tanks. Though he could not bring himself to hate Chris, Matthew nonetheless was glad man was gone. Matthew served the drinks with a quiet smile. A little while later, Donny walked over Matthew, snickering after talking with a few of the VFW men. “They all seem to gravitate towards you,” Matthew told him. The pain in his side had subsided, though there was an odd stinging pulse that came in waves. “You should ice that later,” remarked Donny as Matthew winced slightly. Donny knelt on the ground and pulled an expensive bottle of vodka from the drawer. He tossed the bottle in the air and the clear liquid sloshed around inside. “I treat them like veterans—with the respect they deserve,” he replied. And then he lowered his voice. “It fattens the wad of money in my pocket.” “Go on, ask him!” called Barry to Donny. He was leaning over the counter, his belly untucking his shirt.
“I told you, knock it off or else I’m going to ask you to leave,” Donny told him, smooth as the ice he was pouring into the screwdrivers he was making. The whole bar was noisy, with every barstool filled. Every booth was filled except for the one directly next to the restrooms. “Hey, Donny, ask him!” Barry called again. As he shouted, he slipped off his stool but managed to catch himself from falling onto the bartenders’ side. He knocked his pint off the edge of the counter. It fell to the ground and broke in half. It didn’t shatter or make much sound. No one else besides Donny and Matthew seemed to notice the breakage. Barry sat back in his seat as Donny marched over. The men around Barry looked down at their beer. Matthew watched the whole scene unfold from the other end of the bar. Donny leaned against the countertop and said something that Matthew couldn’t hear. Barry looked at the door and said something back. Donny pointed at the door, looking serenely calm. One of the men on Barry’s left started to protest but Donny said something else to him and then pointed his thumb towards the back room. Barry and the three men stood up and walked out. As they did, one of the VFW regulars walked over to Donny and said something. Donny whispered in his ear and the man nodded, looking both disgusted and annoyed. Donny cleaned up the men’s glasses. Four people took seats at the newly vacated barstools and Donny poured them all drafts. “What happened there?” asked Matthew as he walked over to his nephew. He took a glass from Donny’s hands and
dried it. Donny poured out more peanuts into a small bowl and placed them on the counter. “Nothing. He was just drunk and being an ass.” “I know he was drunk,” Matthew retorted. “Now what were you supposed to ask me?” Donny glanced away, but Matthew grabbed his arm. Gritting through the pain in his side, Matthew held onto his nephew’s arm tightly. There was a knifing sensation. Matthew leaned against the countertop, but didn’t let go of Donny’s arm. “Take a seat, Matthew,” he said, raising his voice as the jukebox was switched from jazz to sixties rock. “I’m fine,” Matthew said—which was true. The wave of pain subsided. He knew he was going to have a colorful bruise the next morning, but he would be fine. He stood up, tall, though he was still the same height as Donny. “Tell me.” Their eyes met. Donny nodded his head and called over Jackie. He told her to watch the bar for a few minutes. Matthew followed Donny into the office, where he closed the door. Donny appeared upset, lifting his face and throwing his hands towards the ceiling. Matthew stood, hands on his hips, waiting for a response. “Speak,” he said. “Don’t just throw people out of our bar without a reason.” “They asked to see your nigger woman,” Donny said, leaning against the wall. There was something about the way Donny spoke, the hysteria in his eyes or the ways his eyes dilated that caught Matthew off guard.
“Don’t you care?” Donny responded, spit forming around the corners of his lips. Matthew walked towards Donny, ready to start another fight. As Matthew held up his fists, Donny apologized. “That’s not what I meant. I know you care.” “So what did you mean?” Matthew asked. Outside the door music blared. In the narrow corridor that led to the office, Matthew could hear a couple arguing. “They shouldn’t. About Dawn I mean. It’s not right. For years, I put up with it.” Donny took a breath. He had been screaming the entire night, trying to be heard over the patrons. His voice was starting to go hoarse. Donny continued, saying, “Those men never spoke that way unless they knew Harold Teague was out of earshot.” Matthew now understood there was another reason for Dawn visiting the bar so much. Everyone has their own agendas. Matthew looked at Teague’s chair and then peered at Donny’s face. They exchanged an intimate look. “I put up with that chatter for years too,” Matthew said. “Dawn managed to shake it off. I managed to shake it off.” He paused. “I seem to remember,” continued Matthew his voice rising to a growl, “you and your father calling her a nigger plenty of times. My own dad, damn it even my own mom, called her things even more spiteful than that.” He pulled himself straight up. The pain in his side throbbed but he ignored it. The pain wasn’t worth trying to fix. Most pain isn’t worth getting rid of—it’s worth embracing. Donny closed his eyes and sat down in Teague’s chair. “I am racist,” he said after a moment. “Least I kicked
those guys out and told them not to come back. We don’t need their business and when we start up that restaurant, we’ll be fine. Barry and his crew don’t know anything. They’re fools who only want trouble.” Matthew sat down in the chair across from the desk, feeling like he was again talking with Teague. “What happened in there?” Matthew asked. “In prison?” replied Donny, putting his hands together and resting his chin on his knuckles. Matthew nodded. “It’s not like church or funerals or having a drunken father who needed to be taken home late at night.” As Donny spoke, tears welled in Matthew’s eyes. There was something between the men that went unsaid, despite their conversation. Inherently, as if by necessity, Matthew he had a child. Matthew was now a father. “It wasn’t even maximum security prison, Matthew, and I can’t believe it.” There was a knock on the door and Jackie peaked inside. “Are you guys going to be much longer. They’re getting rowdy.” Matthew turned around and she saw both of their faces. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “We can handle it. Just come out when you’re ready.” She closed the door and Matthew turned back to Donny. “Did they beat you?” asked Matthew. “No. But they didn’t have to. Plenty of guys wanted me. But they hated me because I hated them. I gave to them hate for free.”
“There was one guy though. A follower of Mohammed. He wore a crescent moon, a Star of David, and a crucifix. He was in there for hauling off and beating a man so badly that he’s a quadriplegic. He’s in the seventeenth year of a twenty-two year sentence. Great behavior, but they wouldn’t let him out on parole—he sold drugs two years before he assaulted the man and the judge ruled that since he violated parole that he would never be eligible for it again. So they ended up moving him to a minimum security prison because of the reform program he set up. In fact, on Sundays, he traveled to Chicago to visit the death-row blocks.” “They called him the preacher, even the guards. Everyone respected him. He hated violence. Except everyone in the prison somehow knew he was capable of it. Yet, I never saw him raise a hand. In fact, a Klan member socked him in the face and the preacher told the man that God was with him.” Donny seemed to stare through Matthew, who felt his nephew was weighing him in some way. “Anyways, the third day—the third damn day—a group of black men tried beating me for calling them niggers. I don’t know why I said it. I guess I did it because I was angry. At who? I don’t know. Myself. You. Teague. My father. Joseph. I blamed everyone but myself.” The couple outside the office stopped arguing. “The preacher stopped them from kicking in my skull, though I still have scars on my back and chest. The preacher asked them to stop. Not told them to, but he asked them to. And they did.” He paused and then said, “After that, he took me under his wing, teaching me things from the Koran
and a lot of other books. He taught me stuff that applies to everyone, not just Muslims. He taught me how to stand up to myself. Not for but to.” Donny’s comments reminded Matthew of how youths often change their personalities. If a child is hopeful, then when time takes its toll, that child becomes a cynical adult. Matthew had seen it a hundred times. Matthew had never before seen a change like Donny’s. Even as a boy, Donny hated most other children. He saw his father hit his mother. Yet, in front of Matthew’s very eyes, the thirty-year old sat exuberant. He wasn’t taking the abuse of Barry, as he would have. The previous months had not imprisoned Donny—they released him. He had ended up on other side of skepticism. “Are you going to go to church with Emma at all?” asked Matthew, after Donny seemed to be waiting for a response. “No. I’ve found that attending church or mosque is a waste of time.” Matthew raised an eyebrow. “I’d rather do something in the world than do something about the world.” The noise from the bar had grown extremely loud. Matthew could tell there weren’t enough people getting served. Donny quickly stood up and held out his hand. Matthew waved it off. “There are drinks to serve.” Now “How’s your side?” asked Donny as he got into the car. Matthew noticed Donny had shaved and had a new haircut from the night before.
“It’s fine. Doesn’t hurt much, though there’s a large bruise. Haircut?” “Got one this morning. The barber opens up around eleven.” Matthew looked at his watch and saw it read nearly noon. Emma expected him there between noon and one o’clock. He started up his truck and pulled out of the apartment complex. It was one of the few places in Oak County where young adults gathered. Those who lived near Donny were far too old to be in school and too young to have families. “You look clean shaven,” Matthew told his nephew. Donny gave him a nod. “So I know you told me last night that Dawn was going to be at Emma’s today. How are you two doing?” Matthew stopped at a red light. “Just like I told you last night, that’s between me and her.” “I’m only asking. How is her business doing?” “It’s been pretty good. I tried helping her as much as I could with the winter repairs. She helped find a couple of salesmen to help buy new things for the restaurant. We owe her a couple of free meals.” Donny leaned against the truck door, watching the sun. He put the window down, letting in cool air that smelled like wet lumber. “Don’t mind, do you?” Donny asked, leaning his head in the wind so that his hair whipped backwards. Matthew smiled a bit and pulled the sleeves of his sweatshirt to cover his forearms. The wind blew the sleeves of Donny’s t-shirt up,
revealing a thick muscular arm. It had several veins running through it, making Donny’s arm looked tattooed. Donny continued looking out the window as they climbed up the hill towards Emma’s new house. Matthew noticed brush and tall wispy grass had begun growing at the base of the dead burned trees. At one point, he saw a chipmunk scurry across the road and into the hollowed section of a blackened maple. Donny watched it all without taking his eyes off the horizon. “You sleep alright?” asked Matthew. Donny was nervous about seeing his aunt and Joseph. Matthew pulled up to Emma’s driveway and parked. Dawn’s car and Joseph’s truck were already there. Donny slinked out of the truck. Matthew got out of the car “We’ll have fun,” Matthew said, trying to read Donny’s mind. They walked up Emma’s driveway. Donny seemed to admire the large bushes that inhabited the yard. “And if I don’t?” Donny asked at they stood on Emma’s stoop. “Then we can just say we need to leave early for the bar.” Donny liked the idea. Matthew knocked. The door opened and Emma’s eyes lit up. “Thanks for coming,” she said. Marie peered around Emma. Matthew saw her and held out his arms. She smiled and moved in front of Emma to give her great-uncle a hug. Matthew gave her a peck on the forehead. “Hi, Uncle Matthew,” Marie said. She turned to Donny. “Hey Uncle Donny!” She gave Donny’s waist a big
hug. “Where have you been?” Her voice squeaked especially high. They walked into the house and saw Joseph, Jenny, and Dawn sitting on the back patio through the windows. “We’ve just been sitting outside,” commented Emma. “It’s a bit chilly, but the sun’s out and the day is starting to warm up.” The house was warm and smelled like turkey. “Smells like Thanksgiving,” remarked Donny. “We’re having turkey and mashed potatoes,” said Marie, who had sat herself directly on the floor in the living room where the television was. She went back to playing with a large doll and a stuffed animal that looked like an alien. “We’re not eating outside, are we?” asked Matthew. “No,” said Emma. “Would either of you like a drink?” Both men shook their heads and followed Emma onto the back porch where the other three sat. They all stood up and Donny hugged Jenny and Dawn. He shook hands with Joseph. “Well it seems that you don’t look worse for the wear,” said Dawn, sitting back down in her seat. Everyone else sat down too. “With Joseph’s help, I did okay in there.” They talked with each other for the next hour, Donny talking the most and answering their questions. Matthew could tell he felt uncomfortable, though Donny’s patience had grown. “I heard your bar is starting to look pretty nice,” said Joseph as he sipped his bourbon. Matthew gave Dawn a look. “It’s gotten much better than it was,” replied Matthew.
“And that’s saying something,” said Dawn, “because it was already one of the nicer bars in town. I think they’ll be okay. Did Matthew and I tell you? I’m going to supply them with some of my fruit and vegetables to serve as part of their meals.” Donny glanced at Matthew, looking intrigued at the process. “Donny and I had a talk last night and we’re going to call the restaurant Red Horse Orchards,” said Matthew. Jenny tapped her glass and raised it. “I’d like to propose a toast,” she said. Glancing at each one of them, she said, “These past two months have had some of the saddest moments I ever experienced. But we’re still here and I think it’s great what Matthew and Donny are doing. To the new restaurant!” “And to Harold Teague,” said Matthew quietly. Joseph nodded with a gentle smile. “To Harold Teague,” they all said in unison. Donny glanced at the sky, squinting. He was somewhere else, somewhere he wanted to be. “So when is the new police station going to be finished?” Matthew asked Joseph. The two had not seen each other since Teague’s funeral. “At the end of April,” he said. “Not still looking for that receptionist’s job are you?” He had the smile still, already knowing the answer. “Nope,” Mathew replied. He looked at Donny. “My partner and I are a little busy.” “Well, I wish you both the best of luck,” Joseph said to Donny and Matthew. Both men thanked the police chief.
“Well, who wants to help with the dinner?” asked Emma. Everyone volunteered. Donny was up first. As they walked inside, Dawn pulled Matthew aside so they were alone. “Everything go okay with him last night?” Dawn asked quietly. “Donny?” said Matthew. He thought about Donny kicking Barry from the bar. The bruise on his side throbbed. “It went good.” “I’m looking forward to this summer,” Dawn said. “Me too,” Matthew told her. The two stared at the burned forest. A lark flew into a thicket of bushy milk thistle. A strong gust of wind moved the grass, making it sway at steep angles. The sun grew stronger, warming the air. Rain clouds sat on the horizon, though they were not creeping closer. Inside, Jenny and Joseph called them. “We should go inside,” Dawn said, turning towards the metal door. Matthew stopped her. “Ever think we can be more than friends?” Matthew asked. “No,” Dawn replied, their eyes boring into one another.