Only way this goes
originally published in Juked Issue #15
Driving a buck ten in the Buick in Texas with the windows down, I chain-smoked no filter Luckies. I’d been at it forever, zigzagging across the South, tracking my wife. I called the credit card company every day from a payphone. If a new charge appeared I’d be off in that direction. Candace was in the panhandle now. Florida. I didn’t know what I’d say when I found her. Part of me hoped I wouldn’t have to say anything and she’d just come home.
She used to leave me sweet notes, tucked inside a shoe or taped to the bathroom mirror–clues to a treasure hunt. When I found her, we’d fuck. It led to us making it in all sort of strange places. I’d wager Jessy was conceived on one of those nights. And sometimes on a good hour I can convince myself this is just like that.
Southern nights feel like drowning– the darkness has a real pressure to it. The Buick’s dirty headlights only glowed a few feet ahead, but it was all I needed.
In those early years living off dope money, playing house with Candace, and watching Jessy learn how to be a human, it all felt like the start of everything. We lived in a garden-level apartment a rent break past Cincinnati. She had these tits so big she had to order special bras. At night when we watched movies, Jessy and I would both rest our heads on them. We were all kids, Candace and I only eighteen. We’d wait for little Jessy to go to bed before we got high. That’s how much we loved her.
Now the Buick charged along and my eyes drooped. I got off the interstate, drove down a dirt road, and parked beneath some sycamores. As I nodded off, my mind replayed the night we lost Jessy: the red velvet of her costume, the wide low moon, the drive to the farm, the jingle of beer caps in my coat pocket.
I woke up twisted in the backseat with the windows dripping. It was already noon but I wasn’t far from Louisiana, the air so thick you could drink it. The sky was low and dense and promised rain. My bad knee swelled in the humidity. I had to pry myself from the car, get the blood moving again.
I took a piss in the shrub and when I turned around there was a girl standing between me and my car. She was a boney thing, made of pipe cleaners, pale-eyed with skin so white she looked soaked in bleach. I wasn’t entirely sure she was real.
“The hell?” I said. She looked so young I was scared to get near her. “Where’d you come from?”
She pointed at the road. When I moved toward her she didn’t back away, and her not being afraid of me made me afraid of her. She asked for a ride.
“No way,” I said.
“I can think of a dozen reasons.”
She had this look on her like I’d already betrayed her. standing with her hand on her hip. She wore cut-off jean shorts and a white tank top, clutched a backpack under her arm that looked more like a security blanket: a faded and stained blue, frayed on the edges, the zipper broken so it hung open. I walked past her and got in my car. The dirt on the driver’s-side window made her look fuzzy and nostalgic.
I started the car. She slapped her small hands against the side of my door. “So, you’re just going to leave me here?”
I was. I was just going to leave her there. She looked away from me and pulled down her tank top, pressed her chest against the window. Her nipples were the only thing on her with any color: a flush of pink.
I rolled my window down.
“Let’s be clear. I’m not letting you in because you showed me those. I’m letting you in because you’re stupid enough to show me those. Don’t do that again.”
“You didn’t like it?”
“You’re a stupid girl,” I said when she got in.
I got us back on the interstate and drove with one arm out the window. The air was getting hotter and the sky hung low as it could without getting in the way of the treetops.
“Where are you going?” I asked her.
“Only place this road goes,” she said.
“What’s your deal?”
Abby ignored me and touched everything the car like a blind person. She ran her fingers along the dash, leaving stripes in the dust. She counted the pennies in the coin catcher and flipped through my CD book at her feet.
“That’s not what I meant. How old are you?”
“Fifteen.” Her words trailed out the open window and onto the hot air.
“I had a daughter,” I said and was surprised to hear the words. “She’d be about your age.”
“Had,” Abby said.
I didn’t dignify it and she noticed. She took the pack of cigarettes from the cup holder and lit two, leaned over the center console and parted my dry lips with her bony fingers and rested the smoke there. I didn’t stop her. But afterwards I warned her, “I’m married.”
“Sure,” she said.
“I am. I’m going to get her right now.”
“Where is she?”
“Florida,” I said.
“Florida,” Abby said, “is the kind of place you go when you don’t want to get found.”
She had a point. Florida was the last place we’d gotten a solid lead on Jessy. Someone had seen her in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. Candace wasn’t there on accident either.
“What’s the plan?” Abby asked.
I said nothing. I wasn’t going to explain myself to this girl.
“Not much of a plan if you ask mem” she said.
“No one asked you.”
She curled up in the front seat like a cat all drawn in and wrapped around itself. She rested her head against the door and when she fell asleep she snored like she hadn’t had a peaceful rest in months. It made me worry about where she’d come from. It made me think about where Jessy ended up.
I stopped somewhere in Alabama for gas and called the credit card company. I was worried Candace had moved on. Every time she used the car I took it as a sign. I took it as her waving some sort of white flag, saying: Here I am, come and get me.
I’d figured out what Candace was doing pretty quick. She’d hadn’t just left me. She was visiting all the places there’d been sightings of Jessy, some kind of perverse reunion tour. She’d stay in these places a few days and then move on: the playground in Rolla, Missouri, the elementary school in Lawton, Oklahoma, the rest stop outside Phoenix, Arizona. Looking for what, I don’t know. There were charges in Vernon for the third straight day, which meant she was still there.
Abby went inside to pee and when I got off the phone I realized I could just drive away. I could just leave her and sure enough she’d figure things out. I told myself if she wasn’t back by the time the gas was done pumping I’d take off.
The pump clicked and Abby wasn’t around so I got in the car and felt relief and guilt in equal measure. I pulled forward and reached for a smoke, and I felt good, but just before I left the lot I looked into the rearview mirror for some dumb reason and there was Abby coming out of the door with a two-liter of Mountain Dew wedged under her skinny arm and hot dogs in either hand. I put the car in reverse and made like I’d been going to park the whole time.
We sat on the curb and watched cars pull in and gas up and pull out. The hot dogs were tough from rotating under a heat lamp for hours, but she’d covered them in mustard and raw onions. The afternoon was hot and muggy. The closer we got to Florida the less oxygen there was in the air. Pregnant clouds threatened to open up above us.
Abby sat with her leg stretched out in front of her and her knees touching. “What was she like?” she asked.
“What makes you think it’s okay to ask that? Don’t ask that.”
“Okay,” she said. She drank from the two-liter, holding it with both hands like a baby bottle.
The sky crept closer to us.
“We should go.” I got up from the curb and started toward the car.
“Who’d you call back there?”
Abby was on my heels.
“The credit card company.”
“Oh,” she said.
I pulled out of the gas station and moments later the sky opened and thick sheets of rain blurred the road in front of us.
“What’s your wife doing in Florida?”
“I don’t know.” I imagine her sucking off some trucker on the interstate.
We drove through the night and fell into a kind of rhythm the way people do when confined to small spaces for long stretches. She’d light the smokes and I’d steer the car. Once the rain stopped I rolled the windows down again and the whole world smelled like wet dirt and pavement. I pulled over and we both slept for a few hours on the side of the road just before sunrise and the Florida state line.
Candace and I use to dream about moving to Florida. The only water I’d ever seen was the Ohio river, but even that water was always going somewhere else. Even the name Florida felt magical, like the end of the earth– always hot and sunny and ocean on both sides. One winter Candace made what she called a dream board– Corona ads pinned to the corkboard near the fridge. But, once Jessy went missing, the whole idea felt like a bad premonition of something we hadn’t known was coming for us.
In Pensacola, with the ocean in sight, everything felt better. We stopped for gas and the sun came out briefly, turning puddles into mirrors.
Abby got out of the car and said, “Don’t think about leaving me here.” She went into the gas station and when she came out she was wearing this shifty-white sundress covered in pink flowers.
“It’s my Florida dress,” she said. “You like it?” She twirled and stepped in a puddle. “There’s an alien museum on our way, like an hour from here. I saw a brochure inside.”
“This isn’t a road trip.”
“Actually, that’s exactly what it is.”
She got in the car and sat straight, crossed her arms on her chest and wouldn’t look at me as I drove. I hadn’t seen Jessy into adolescence, and this made me imagine all the phases I’d missed with her. We drove for a while, well past the alien museum, before either of us spoke. The highway was lined with palm trees and the greens popped against the dark sky. The less Abby spoke, the more I wanted her to.
“You can say anything you want, but you can’t say nothing,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Abby said. “I don’t want you to think I’m not thankful for all this.”
“She was nine when we lost her. Jessy. My daughter. She was a really happy kid,” I said. Abby rested her hand on mine until we pulled into town.
We arrived in Vernon late in the afternoon and took a room at the only motel, a low squat building with a dirt parking lot and Christmas lights despite it being July. Abby reiterated that we needed a plan. I needed a shower. I’d spent weeks looking for Candace but her being near made me nervous. When I got out of the shower Abby was lying on the bed watching television.
“You know I don’t remember the last time I slept in a real bed,” she said.
I rubbed my neck like it was sore. I looked toward the window where the blinds were drawn, knowing full well I should say something.
“This movie is about some family where the dad’s I the military. They’re living on a boat, I think someone is looking for him. It’s terrible,” she said.
I sat on the edge of the bed and watched a little with her.
“My wife used the card at the diner, we should go there first,” I said.
Abby got up and started changing in the corner of the room and I looked the other way.
“Should I be worried about you?” I asked.
“Not anymore,” she said.
“No one’s looking for you?”
When I turned around she was standing in her underwear combing her hair out with her fingers and watching TV again. There were bruises and bite marks on her pelvis and the insides of her thighs, some of them small like thumbprints and others the size of sand dollars, overlapping, forming Venn diagrams of dental impressions.
“Jesus,” I said.
“Sorry,” she said, and put on a blue dress from her backpack. She tied her hair into a ponytail. “Let’s go.”
She had this shapeless quality about her. It scared me to see her morph in front of my eyes into different kinds of people. She was impossibly young in the car and now the girl had fallen away and she was more young woman than anything else. I followed her out of the motel like it was she who brought me here.
Vernon was an empty place with dirt roads and washed out corners. Boxy houses sat on cluttered lots, patched together with trailers and tarps. Bed sheets covered the windows. The only people we saw were a young woman pushing a stroller with her baby and a young man doing yard work, his forearm missing below the elbow. His own good arm snaked around the wooden handle of the shovel. Abby walked close to me. Something was burning nearby and the smoke had a chemical to it, plastics or tires.
The world hung low and wet and made the inside of the diner feel forgotten. We hunkered down into a booth and I ordered us both eggs and sausage and black coffee. Abby asked the waitress for crayons and one of those placemats with the mazes. She colored every cowboy and pony shades of blues and greens until the crayons had been worn to stubs.
The waitress came and dropped off our food. I could tell she could see something in me because of the look in her eyes. I knew that look. She wanted to reach out and touch me like I was something holy because of my loss. Abby started shoveling food into her mouth with her hands, picking up the eggs so the yolk dripped down her wrist and forearm.
“Can I get you something else?” the waitress asked.
“Yes,” I said. “We’re looking for my wife. She used my credit card here a few days ago.” I took the photograph of Candace from my wallet, smoothed is against the table, and showed it to the waitress. “You seen her?”
She wiped her hands on her apron and took the picture, turned it over between her fingers. “I’ve been out sick,” she said. “Can’t say I have.”
There were three men in coveralls and dirty T-shirts sitting at the countertop eating hash browns and bacon. All three had turned to listen and stare.
“What about you guys?” Abby said to the men. “You mind taking a look?”
The waitress gave the picture to the men who passed it between them and gestured to one another. It made me anxious knowing they had the power to keep things from me.
“Look,” I said, “we drove a long way.”
Finally, the oldest one answered. “I’ve seen her,” he said. “Not in here but I seen her in the bars. Lone Spur, Davey’s Locker, and not always alone I’m sorry to say, young man.”
“Check the bars,” another one of the men said. And they all turned back to their food.
After dinner, a new storm moved in and we ran through town to The Lone Spur. The bar was made out of cinderblocks, no windows, and only one door in and out. The inside was lit with neon beer signs and a few men played pool in the corner. Besides them the place was ghostly.
Abby climbed onto a bar stool and started ringing out her dress, peeling it from her thighs and leaving puddles on the wood floor.
The woman behind the bar waddled toward us. She was a thick thin, looked built of cinderblocks too.
“I’ll have a Black Velvet neat. She’ll have a Pepsi.”
“Sure thing. You passing through?” the woman asked as she poured me four fingers.
“Yes,” I said.
“We’re looking for someone,” Abby said. “He’s looking for his wife.”
“And who might you be then?” she asked Abby.
“Abby.” She sat with her elbows up on the bar, her knees on the stool.
Two crippled men walked into the bar. One was missing his left hand, a nub just at the wrist. And the other man had his pant leg pinned up: he was missing his foot, most of the shin as well. He walked with a particular unbalance because of it. They came and sat at the bar right next to Abby. I felt suddenly responsible for bringing Abby to a place like this, as if somewhere along the way she’d become my charge.
Abby was staring at the men and I elbowed her to stop, offered her a sip of my whiskey. The cinderblock bartender came near and asked about who I was looking for. I took the picture from my wallet again and smoothed it against the bar top and handed it to her. She stared at it while pouring me another drink.
“What happened to your arm and your foot?” Abby said to the men. Her back was turned to me.
“Abby leave them alone,” I said.
“It’s alright,” said the man. “No problem,” said the other.
“I’m Abby,” she said.
Perhaps Abby being albino and sometimes hard to look at, they felt akin to her and entertained the conversation a lot longer than I thought they might.
The man held up his nub and started as if he’d just noticed the hand was missing at all. “I sawed it off,” he said. “Table saw.”
“Mine got shot off,” said the other man.
“I once had a brother who died in a hunting accident,” Abby said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
The cinderblock woman came back with my photograph od Candace and set it on the bar top. “I seen her,” she said.
“She’s most likely at Davey’s Locker. Been hanging around with those Thomas brothers, don’t know which one specific. Doesn’t really matter I guess with them.”
Abby was sitting on her knees talking to the men, her Pepsi in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. The men got up to play a game of pool.
The bartender leaned over the counter and said to us, “Wasn’t no accident. A whole bunch of men around here maimed themselves for insurance settlements.”
“Why?” Abby asked. She had the same curiosity in her voice she got whenever she asked about Candace and Jessy. She had this way of collecting the world and it wasn’t my place to stop her.
“A lost limb is worth more than working, every day, till they die, and then some. Three figures attached to the elbow. Kids were starving.”
“Well, I get it,” I said. “How far to Davey’s Locker?”
It’s a mile or two out of town,” she said. “Don’t go taking her in there. Not the kind of place to be taking her into.”
We walked back to the motel and got in the car. Abby insisted I let her drive. She drove in a casual way like she’d been doing it all her life: with one hand on the wheel and the other out the open window, her cigarette glowing in the dark Florida night.
Davey’s Locker was outside of town, tucked into the wood. Abby pulled into the dirt lot, the wheels of the car spinning in the mud. She parked, turned off the lights, and asked me, “Now what?”
But I didn’t know what.
We could hear music leak out of the heavy doors. The windows were all fogged-up. We sat there for almost an hour, just watching the bar and smoking. Crickets sang in the woods nearby and Abby sat with her knees drawn up and pressing against the steering wheel. She touched my hand, my arm, now and then, and I didn’t stop her.
I think she could tell I was afraid to go in. “You know it wasn’t always bad,” she said. She wasn’t looking at me. I think it made it easier for her to talk. “When I was little we were normal people, before Rodney died hunting, before my dad left me and mom, before her boyfriends, before all that we were like, really normal people you see at the store.”
“I get that,” I said.
“The last boyfriend liked me more than he liked her and I didn’t like him at all.” She flicked her cigarette butt out the window and it stuck in the mud. “It just went sour. It’s the same thing that happens to everyone.”
“God, I hope that’s not true.”
Just then, Candace walked out of the bar and stood beneath a dirty flood light and lit a cigarette. She’d cut her hair off so it sat thin and close to her chin, but the way she moved and stood and exhaled I knew her instantly. I slid down in my seat and onto the floor crouched in the footwell of the passenger seat. In all the driving and the planning and the conversations I had with myself, I had never gotten further than this in my head.
“That’s her,” I said.
“Jesus, she can’t see us in here,” Abby said. She was leaning over the steering wheel trying to get a better look. “She’s pretty.”
“Maybe we should just go,” I said.
“Like hell. Come on now. Here’s your chance. Go do or say whatever you drove down here for. If you don’t get this out it will rot you. Come on.”
But I was frozen, frozen in my own body and watching Candace alive inside of hers. I could see on her the winters we’d spent together, young and hungry, and the hot summer days lying in the park drinking beer before the world got scary and complicated. I could see on her the morning Jessy was born, her eyes tired and hair sweat-slicked to the side of her face. I could see her hands shaking in the kitchen the first time we’d gone home without her. It seemed unimaginable how many ways I’d known this woman, and yet how much of a stranger she felt in that parking lot.
Abby got out of the car and started walking toward Candace. I couldn’t move quick enough. The mud of the parking lot was slick beneath my sneakers, the world a warm and hazy place. Abby glowed a bright white under the floodlights. I couldn’t hear what she’d said but Candace was looking into the dark where I was. I came forward.
“You followed me here?” Candace said.
“I found you,” I said. I wanted it to be romantic, maybe endearing that I’d gone through such a thing, but I couldn’t read the look on her face. I didn’t know this expression. A terrible cover of a Kid Rock song played inside the bar and colored our situation less serious than I wanted it to feel. “I followed you everywhere, the leads and the tips, all the places they’d seen her. Some road trip you’re on.”
“And who the fuck is this.” She pointed her cigarette at Abby.
“Abby,” I said.
“It’s not a road trip. I left you. I needed to see those places for myself so I could stop imagining them,” Candace said.
“Okay, so you saw them. Let’s go home now. You can’t stay here.”
“Florida seems right to be the last place. Like maybe we’d somehow picked it out for her.” Candace was looking off into the dark night.
Abby spoke up, “Look he came a long way to talk to you. To talk about Jessy.”
Candace’s head turned so fast at the mention of Jessy’s name it scared me. She was pointing at Abby again and it bothered me. She moved closer to Abby as she spoke, the smoke hanging between them in the humid air. “They found her in a swamp down here. So dead and gone we had to identify her by her dental records. She’d just gotten braces. So, you think, he wants to talk about her now?”
And then she turned to me, her words sharp and pointed, each landing perfectly. “What, is that your replacement daughter? You figured out another way to pretend like it never happened?”
“No, that’s no this. We’re here to take you home. Or anywhere. We can go anywhere, baby,” I said. I could hear the desperation in my voice and I couldn’t pull it back. “We can keep going south. Go down to the Keys and lay on the beach and eat pie.”
“We?” Candace said.
“We can still have everything we wanted,” I said. “I love you.”
“Well, I can’t help you with that,” Candace said.
And just like that the lines and veins, which tethered us together for fifteen years, were severed, gone.
The metal door of the bar opened and two men came out looking like two different versions of the same person. One wrapped a thick arm around Candace and pulled her near, kissed the side of her head like they had their own world together. She was crying now.
“That’s my wife,” I said to him. The other man got in my way, set his body like a roadblock between us.
“Suppose it’s time for you to go,” he said. And the whole scene was so beyond rotten.
Abby pulled on my arm, “Come on,” she said.
All I could do was laugh, a wicked laugh from somewhere deep in my, a tired and hateful place I’d been afraid to go to. Because my Candace had her face buried in the T-shirt of a strange man, and his lookalike was moving toward me with his fist raised, and a wayward albino girl was tugging on my arm in the panhandle of Florida.
I didn’t fight back because it felt good to get hit, like something actually came from all this. I was on my back laying in the mud taking small sips of air, the wind knocked out of me and blood in my mouth. Abby stood above me, her white skin glowing in the moonlight and cigarette smoke circling her head. She took my hands and helped me up and by the time I got to my feet, Candace was gone, back into the bar, like she’d never been there at all.
Abby got me into the backseat of the Buick and she drove us out of there. The night was dark around us I couldn’t tell if we were actually moving. My mouth tasted like copper, metallic and smoothed with warm blood. I spit on the floor of my own car. Abby kept on looking at me in the rearview. She got us back on the interstate and I rolled down the windows so the hot night air circled around the backseat, moving my hair into my face. The ocean was somewhere near. I could feel it.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Only way this road goes,” she said.