Randy had run out of cigarettes again, and it was killing him.  Not a goddamn one of them was working anymore; and the mother had died in the spring and left him, the oldest, with all this responsibility that he couldn’t handle, no fucking way.  He stayed in bed most of the time when there weren’t any smokes, but that was hard, too, after a couple days, just lying there like a sweaty glob of fungus on the dirty sheets.  There wasn’t anything left to eat in the house either except some stale bread and a jar of mayonnaise, yet somehow his two worthless sons were still able to scrounge up enough jack to shoot black tar with their girlfriends, nodding out and slobbering like dogs on the big bed upstairs while the one’s little baby watched and learned from a crib in the corner.

His younger brother, Wesley, was down to just skin and bones, but Randy was tired of taking care of him, and so he kept giving the poor bastard more and more medication to blot out the empty feeling in his stomach.  The last time he’d had a hunger fit, Wesley had chewed up all the coffee filters and the junk mail, and nobody in the house wanted to go through that again.  He’d damn near bit their fingers off when they tried to stop him. And on top of all that, another Ohio winter was coming on fast and not a sliver of coal left on the back porch.  Sometimes Randy couldn’t help but wonder if his mother had really been that sick when she said her last goodbyes.

It was awful, worse than death, worse than any time his ex-wife, Janice, used to take off and not come home all night, and Randy tried not to think about that shit, tried instead to recall the summer when he met her, back when he was young and working at the spring factory in Meade and owned that red Camaro for a while, the one with the stereo that played Frampton Comes Alive over and over again.  He hadn’t known her but an hour, hell, maybe not that long, when he nailed her from behind in the backseat out along the River Road, the moonlight filtering through the steam on the inside of the car windows and turning them both into pale, sweaty ghosts.  She kept singing “Do You Feel Like We Do” no matter which goddamn song was coming out of the speakers; and then the next night he went back for some more half-believing that he was in love, and within a couple months she was knocked up, just like that.  Christ Almighty, to think that those were the best days he’d ever lived.  He might as well have traded places with Wesley, been born the one with water on his brain.

All morning long he thought about her, the ex, took another spin on that same old sick ride again, the good stuff always leading back to the bad, until he finally got up off the couch and put his shoes on and walked across the road to a neighbor’s house and asked to use the phone.  He called Janice in town where she was living nice and easy with somebody she claimed was a real man and Randy told her that someone, some fucking person, even that real man sonofabitch she was always talking about, had to bring him some cigarettes, that he’d been a week without a smoke and he couldn’t do it anymore.  They were her sons, too, he said, the thieving dopeheads over there in the old house that his mother had left him and his fucked-up brother, lying around with bloody holes in their arms and no-account girlfriends and that screaming baby and why couldn’t she help out a little bit?  She hung up on him, but a couple hours later she dropped off two packs of Marlboros in the mailbox, and the whole gang gathered in the living room and smoked them up in less than three hours and Randy went back to bed and decided he wouldn’t get up again forever, though he did the next day around two in the afternoon.  By that time all the bread was gone and someone had left the mayo out all night and now it smelled like rotten eggs; and he stood at the kitchen window with tears in his eyes watching the first snow of the year begin to fall out of the gray sky, and wished that someone would just kill them all, every damn one of them.

And if things kept on, by God, he’d do it himself, he’d send them all to hell except the little baby, the little baby who didn’t know any better yet and so maybe, just maybe, deserved a second chance at this stupid thing that other people liked to call . . . life.

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Donald Ray Pollock

About Donald Ray Pollock

Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff, won the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Third Coast, The Journal, Sou’wester, Chiron Review, River Styx, Boulevard, Folio, Granta, NYTBR, Washington Square, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. The Devil All the Time is his first novel.