“160”

Not many people knew what I knew about my brother and his wife. I knew it all. The booze, the opioids, the fights—all of it. And here I’d been summoned, yet again, to get her out of that house.

I sat idling in my mother’s Lincoln, piano playing low on the radio, maybe blues, maybe soul, some strange station her late husband, a black man, liked to hear—something out of D.C. I could glean every third or fourth note, piano keys struck hard.

That’s when she threw their door open. Slammed it shut, standing sideways, nineteen, pregnant, but I kind of already knew that that was the case. She slammed it again. Then she moved in my direction, quicker than you’d think.

I pushed the car door open, said hey.

“Fuck ‘hey.’ Drive.”

I drove. Said nothing. Had seen her this way many times.

“Your brother is a motherfucker,” she said as we tore down the road.

I glanced over, caught the red mark on her cheek. “Told you.”

“You should’ve told me twice.”

“Told you three times. When we were ten that time at the park, and you said ‘who’s that man?’ Then at the end of middle school that day he picked me up—the day my father died. Then at your wedding.”

“I was pregnant,” she said, something yet again I already knew. She looked at my pants leg and reached over to brush tiny dog hairs off the denim—my mother’s new dog, a lap sitter for lonely widows.

We hit the stoplight at the end of town. There wasn’t much to this place—maybe four streets, a couple dozen houses, a dollar store with gas, this light. It didn’t even have a name till maybe fifty years back, when someone tagged it after the road that ran through—and kept right on running, like it knew not to stick around.

The light changed. “Well?”

“Reservoir,” she said, so I turned left.

We drove 160, the mountain part. The leaves—dry, raspy—clung to the trees like faltering breath, or Christmas decorations in January, or both. She lit a cigarette. Sucked it in. Keened her ears. Blew.

“Tell me, Duane. What is this shit you have on the radio?”

I turned it off. Said, “Mom’s.”

She snorted. “Your family. If they’re not dropping dead or beating someone, they’re spreading bad taste.”

“Well I like you well enough,” I said.

“Case in point,” she said.

At the top of the rise, near the clutch of oaks, she made me stop. It was 4:00 in the afternoon. The sun was gleaming off the water tower, big and blue.

We got out. Surveyed. Surmised our isolation.

She held out the pack to me.

“Quit.”

“When?”

“Eighth grade.”

“Bullshit,” she smiled.

“That the only thing you use nowadays?” I asked.

“Only this,” she said, waving her cigarette between her fingers.

She walked over to the tree where people carved names. Her mother’s name was there, with the year of her birth; beneath that, the year of her death. I’d helped her carve it two years before. She ran her fingers over the numbers.

“Up here’s the only part of this shithole town I like,” she said.

“It is beautiful,” I said.

“Just woods, and a big fucking tank.”

I got through two lines of a Frost poem before she turned to me, that cheek of hers gleaming in the sunlight. She looked at me like she didn’t know me. Like I was some strange attraction she might see at a county fair.

“What is it you’re studying to be again?”

“Psychologist.”

“Right,” she said, recollecting. “See me when you’re done.”

“Because you need help?”

“I need help all right. That’s why your brother got me. No. I mean so I can see if you’re more full of shit by then.”

“I’m full of shit?”

“Fucking straight. What happened to your accent?”

“I don’t know.”

“Bullshit. You changed it deliberately. Your brother is starting to hate you. He can’t even understand you anymore.”

“I’m complicated.”

“I mean your fucking accent! Stay focused.”

She stubbed out her cigarette against her mother’s name. Then she looked right at me, screwed up her lips, told me he killed my dog.

“What?”

“He killed Jenkins.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe it, Pistol Pete.”

I thought back to Old Jenk. One day he just took ill and died right in front of me. I buried him out back of the house, beneath the pines.

“Yep, that brother of yours was feeling low the other day, and I was dumb enough to ask why. You know, one of his guilty days. He gets those. Seems one time Old Jenk had bit him, and it just plain pissed your brother off. Know what he did? Went out to the garage and got some anti-freeze. Poured it all over Jenk’s Gravy Train. Said, ‘Here, boy. Come on, boy.’ Said Old Jenk lapped it up like there was no tomorrow.”

I could see his dish on the floor of the kitchen, gravy-filled and fluid-sweet. There Jenk lay, beside it, eyes barely moving.

“Fuck me,” I said, more out of lament, but she took me at my word. We did this. I couldn’t tell you whose baby she was carrying, but that’s how it went. She smelled like cigarettes and the Old Spice my brother used. And all at once the sky got dark, the wind tearing through, just a big rush of it. Everything whirled yellow and red. That stomach of hers astride me, she rode me harder, harder, harder, harder, till it was done. She smiled. Squeezed. Said, “We’ll keep it in the family.”

I knew then I’d never be back. I didn’t want to see that smile again, not ever, nor look at my brother, that guilty bastard, who’d probably killed Jenk just like she said. I’d write my mother long letters from a distance. Say I never liked either one of her dead husbands, not my father or the one with the nice car. Say my brother was a dog killer and a wife beater, something she ought already to know. Then point that letter right at her, get to the root. Ask why she had so many husbands, so many children—so many dogs. Say one and done would’ve been for the best every time.

But there I was at Christmas. And there she was, almost due, me driving her to the doctor for one last check. Outside the clinic she told me it wasn’t mine. When I asked how did she know, she said she knew. “I just don’t like him,” she said, “that’s how I know.” I could see my nephew’s whole life before him, and I wondered, as I helped his mother out of the car, if every road we ever took had led us straight back to this.

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About Michael Cox

Michael W. Cox is the author of two books of fiction, both published by MAMMOTH: Against the Hidden River and The Best Way to Get Even: A Novel. His stories and essays have appeared recently in Weave, Kestrel, Atticus Review, Midwest Quarterly, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He serves as creative prose editor of Pennsylvania English and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.