What I Found
People can try anything to fill an emptiness inside. Maybe that's no better than trying nothing at all.
The sun had set somewhere between Richmond and Roanoke. My mother stood on the platform of the Greyhound station, back to the wind. Cigarette smoke trailed away from her. The brakes squealed and bucked us to a stop. I wanted to get up and off, do what I'd come home for, but I stayed in the seat. Mom's eyes scanned back and forth and then back again, finding me. She waved with her smoking hand, palm parallel to the ground, raising and lowering, as if she were trying to keep something down that wouldn't stay. The ash of her cigarette blew off and rolled over a coat sleeve before evaporating into the whip of a gust. I waved back, my fingers shaking.
Mom pressed the cigarette between her lips, freeing her hands for a hug that came hard and quick. By the time I'd let my backpack to the ground, she had backed away and was running toward the parking lot.
"Come on, Tammy Jean!" she called over her shoulder. "This wind is cold."
The interior of her Nova was a clash of tobacco and air-freshening pine. The passenger's seat was littered with manila files, a pair of L'eggs and an empty milkshake container. Mom picked it all up as a bunch and tossed it to the back seat, scattering the paper contents of the files.
"Sorry about the mess."
I pitched my bag to the floor.
"That's okay." I smiled. "I don't even have a car to mess up."
"Mind if I smoke?" Mom lit another cigarette and then reached up to hit the dome light button. "Is that a rinse?"
"No, of course not!" I laughed and reflexively tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. "You're just used to seeing my hair lighter in the summer when you come to Philly."
"I don't remember it so dark. Whose side of the family do you get that from?"
Mom revved the engine and peeled out of the parking space, sending up a wild screech. Two white-haired ladies in matching sweat suits grabbed one another in fright and declined when Mom motioned them in front of us at the crosswalk.
"I can't believe we finally got you down here, city girl," Mom slapped my knee, accelerated, and laughed a smoky laugh. "To think, Tammy Jean Thomas returns to Virginia, of her own free will no less. If it takes me moving to get you down here then I'll have to do it more often." She coughed abruptly and took a drag. We were quiet for the ride home, and I watched the sooty shadows of the Appalachians race us off to the right of the car.
The American flag I helped Dad install one Fourth of July was still attached to the front door frame. The flag had faded to pastels now--pinks and baby blues, the colors of a child's room. Mom ground her cigarette into a planter outside, under the flag.
"I've stopped doing it in the house," she whispered. "Larry says the smoke'll kill him." Mom flipped on the entryway light and tossed her purse to the floor. A blusher compact slid out and clattered against the fake stone.
"Do you want a Tab, honey?" she asked, moving down the hallway toward the kitchen. "Are you hungry?"
"No, I ate tons on the bus," I lied, putting my backpack down. I'd only eaten a miniature pack of raisins given to me by a woman that boarded the bus in Aberdeen.
"Helping your mother move. Now, that's a tough one," raisin woman had said. "I did that a couple years ago when my mother had a stroke and had to go into a home. You know, you throw the stuff out, but..."
She didn't finish the sentence, but I knew what she meant.
Later, I watched her sleep, face forward and erect, like a Catholic school girl at attention, her top and bottom lip separated.
"If you have to pee, use the commode on the second floor," Mom called from the kitchen. "I broke the handle on this one down here."
The living room was hardly lit. A ceramic lamp my grandmother made in the mid-'70s flickered on its lowest setting. Cardboard boxes piled onto each other in one corner, but nothing was packed into them.
"I see you didn't pack anything yet." I took a tentative step onto the carpet. This had been a forbidden zone as a child, Mom's "entertaining" area.
"I was waiting for you, young lady."
Her sudden reappearance startled me. I backed off the carpet. Mom held out a glass of water and then clapped twice, fast. The overhead light in the stairway popped on.
"Isn't that great?!" Mom giggled, wrapped her arms around her middle. "Larry gave it to me last Christmas. It's called The Clapper."
Two decades of Thomas family photographs led to the second floor--my parents' wedding, everything in between, ascending to my junior year in high school. Mom had lost her interest in photographs after that.
I was in a first, fragile sleep when the front door jolted me awake. Uncle Larry's voice rasped, "Where is she? Where's my Jeanie-girl?"
I rolled onto my stomach. Mom's flip-flops slapped the soles of her feet, rushing to the entryway from the kitchen.
"Larry, please. She's trying to get some sleep." Then a more consoling try. "You'll see her in the morning. She's here for the whole week," putting the stress on whole.
An hour passed. Shadows through the venetian blinds stretched and moved across the ceiling. Every once in a while I caught the ice-blue numbers of the digital clock change. Mom had not touched the room in ten years. The walls were still painted maroon like the seats of our old Pinto.
She tried to keep quiet a little while later, bolstering Uncle Larry up the stairs, but the wall beside my bed thudded and scraped.
"Lord, I have to quit smoking if this is going to keep up," Mom said. "Thank God we're moving to a rancher."
Their combined weight lay heavily on the floorboard in front of Uncle Larry's room, sending up a wooden whine. I'd always been careful to avoid that floorboard. I could hear Mom whispering instructions--your clothes, the lights, the alarm--and then good night. I turned onto my left side and watched the door, the knob reflecting the bare light from the clock. I hadn't moved when the doorknob jiggled quietly and slowly. Turn, stop, turn.
"Tammy Jean," Uncle Larry's breath rustled softly through the gap between frame and door. "Unlock it, honey. I want to see you."
I was still as stone. Five, ten, fifteen minutes.
"I love you, Jeanie-girl." His voice seemed to circle my room and I held an inhalation for a second. The floorboard creaked; Larry was gone. I exhaled.
Mom had a whole album of pictures taken at state borders. It was Dad's thing. We measured our progress as a family and in the growth of me and Jeff, my brother, in those photos. North Carolina 1967, Maryland 1970, Pennsylvania, Christmas 1972.
When I was ten, Uncle Larry became an addition to our everyday lives and our vacation pictures. Aunt Sheila had filed for divorce and sent my uncle on a drinking and drugging binge. When he lost his apartment, Dad took him in and joked that he'd wanted three kids anyway. Larry didn't appreciate the joke, but he appreciated the roof over his head and so laughed with the rest of us.
Dad and Uncle Larry switched places on the highway on New Year's Day 1973, driving home from Aunt Mary Ellen's. Dad was coming down with the flu and couldn't concentrate. Mom sat behind with me, reading The Stepford Wives, her panty-hosed feet curled up on the seat beside her. Jeff slept in a makeshift bed in the back of the station wagon. I watched the Maryland and Virginia state signs pass, but didn't say anything, returning the camera to my backpack.
Uncle Larry skidded out of control on an icy patch near Harrisonburg. Jeff was thrown through the back window glass, landing fifty feet from the car. Dad died from internal injuries four hours later. The rest of us got out of it easy compared to that.
The first birthday without my father was my thirteenth. He and Jeff had only been buried three months, but they were both withering for me. Dad's college friends stopped calling, the bills came in Mom's name, and their smells--in Jeff's room and in Dad's den--were disappearing into the carpet and walls forever. I took a Virginia is for Lovers t-shirt Dad had worn on road trips and stowed it under my bed. Mom cleaned one Saturday while I was at the mall and when I came home the shirt was gone, along with the rest of his clothing, to Goodwill.
"Spring cleaning," Mom said over the drone of the vacuum, not looking at me.
My birthday fell on a warm night in April. I lied to Mom and Larry, saying I was spending the night at Bonnie's house. I packed an overnight bag and pulled myself into a pair of hip huggers, saving the covert halter top I bought with my allowance for later, safely out of view of the house. I was in the bathroom, trying to straighten my hair with a comb and spray, when Uncle Larry arrived home.
"Going over to Bonnie's tonight?" he asked, a Slim Jim in hand, poised at his lips.
"Yeah." The comb jerked through a knot. I glanced at him in the reflection of the mirror. His overalls were smudged with grease from the garage where he'd been working as a mechanic.
"Is Bonnie a good girl?" Larry squinted his eyes and chewed. "We don't need our Tammy Jean hanging out with nasty girls."
"Uncle Larry!" I squealed and rapped his arm with a brush. "My friends are not nasty!"
Larry grabbed his arm in mock pain and I pulled the comb through once more, popping hairs out of my scalp.
"Well, good." He stepped up to me from behind and draped his arms around my shoulders. "That makes me feel better." Planting a kiss on top of my head. "Hey, want a Slim Jim?"
"I'm not hungry," I giggled and rolled my eyes. He knew I hated Slim Jims.
Later, Kenny, Bonnie's brother, drove us to a Roanoke College party.
"Look what I have, girls." Kenny tore off two Black Labels and threw them to the back seat. They landed between me and Bonnie, bouncing against each other on the vinyl. Just one of those little beers made me unsteady and we weren't even to the party yet.
Within two hours we'd been picked up for speeding and ended up at the Catawba police and fire station. When asked how much I'd had, I couldn't answer. I heard Bonnie say "four" and the officer filled in a blank space on the report.
"Where is she?" Uncle Larry's voice had an edge of frantic in it.
"Just relax, Larry, she's fine," Ronald Bupp, Bonnie's cousin and the Catawba deputy, said. "She's back here."
I pushed my palms against the chair seat, out of my slouching position, then casually folded my hands in my lap. There was no pretending I wasn't drunk, though. Larry said nothing, but I felt myself lifted under the armpits. I leaned close to his chest as he carried me to the car.
"I hate you," Bonnie hissed at her cousin as we left.
"I have a headache," was the first thing I said after arriving home.
Uncle Larry led me to the rec room couch and turned the lamp to a low setting. I groaned and hid my face, horrified by the embarrassment of being drunk in front of my uncle, terrified of what Mom would do to me.
"That was a stupid thing to do," he said finally, sitting on the edge of the couch. I accepted a mug of Nescafe from him. "You could have been killed. They clocked you all at 78 on Trindle Road."
I put the mug to my lips and tested the coffee. Too hot. "I'm sorry, Uncle Larry. Mom's going to murder me."
Larry leaned forward, lifting my chin gently. "You don't have to worry. I won't say anything. Not this time."
"You mean, you're not--"
Larry put a finger on my lips to quiet me. "We all have secrets," he said. "And it's important to trust someone. I know your Daddy was important to you and I know you miss him." A brief well of sadness pulled up in me. "I miss him, too," Larry continued. "He helped me out of a lot of trouble--took a chance on me. He and I shared a lot of secrets."
"Mom never talks about him. It's like he didn't even exist."
"It's a peculiarity," Larry sat back. "People deal with things in funny ways. We both lost someone, though, you and me. That puts us in the same boat." Bitter steam wound up out of the mug, under my chin and nose. "This isn't what you were wearing when you left the house." He fingered the shoulder strap of my halter top.
"I didn't think you'd let me go out in it." For my drunkenness, I could feel blood rising in my face. "I think I left my coat at the party."
Larry leaned into me close again. "Your mother won't know any of this. You're growing up fast into a woman. It's natural you'd want to look like one. Just be careful of the guys who would take advantage of a mature girl like you."
"I can handle them, Uncle Larry." I managed a grim smile.
He laughed. "I'm sure you can." He wrinkled his forehead thoughtfully for a moment. "I'll tell you what. Since it's mostly you and me here alone in this house with your Mom working the night shift, how about if we make a deal?"
I crossed my arms, anticipating one of his jokes. "Okay. What?"
Larry held up one finger.
"First and foremost, we have to trust each other. So I promise I won't keep anything from you." Another finger. "And you promise to do the same. No secrets, and it all stays between you and me." I said nothing, but leaned forward for a hug. "Just say you'll always take care," he breathed warm on my neck. "It'd kill me if anything happened to you."
I slept for four hours that first night home and woke with a cool shower just after dawn. I've never been a good sleeper, having lost the ability as a teenager, and every night I looked forward to morning and light. I stood naked in the mirror after the shower, watching water evaporate off my skin, crossing my arms across my breasts when a chill came through the window. My legs were taut, the thigh muscles sinewed and strong, the lower part of the quad making a defined arc over my knees. I had taken up running in the past year at the suggestion of a clinic co-worker and it had removed any hint of baby fat I may have had left.
"You should wear skirts, Tammy," she said to me on a jog through Fairmount Park one morning. "You have great legs and you hide them like they're the crown jewels."
Two weeks later I took a skirt into the dressing room at Wanamaker's. It was a light cotton blue, cut several inches above my knee. It was a strange vision of myself and my body--"laid open," I remember thinking. With no warning, I burst out crying.
"Are you okay in there?" a clerk rapped the door.
"Fine, thank you." I fished for a Kleenex in my purse. "Fine."
Mom's pens were in the same drawer they'd always been, mostly red ones lifted from work, wherever that happened to be at any moment. I wrote a short note saying I wouldn't be long, and took the keys.
Mom had been making a decent living--her words--as a temp for eight years now. Good enough for a down payment on a new rancher five miles away. She was leaving the home she'd bought with my father, but hanging on to it as a rental investment. When she sent a letter saying she'd be moving, I wrote back that I would help her. If she was surprised at my easy willingness to suddenly return home after so long away, she didn't say.
Driving in daylight now, the neighborhood had a barren quality I didn't remember. The sidewalks were empty of people and rust edged the siding of several houses I passed. Trees planted during the '60s had stunted and were barely blossoming now in the early spring. In cruel contrast, the mountains in the distance were already green with new growth. When we'd moved there from a smaller house near the city, the houses were shiny, the lawns still dirt and seed. Behind our house had been fields of corn and soy on alternate years, stretching to the edge of Jefferson National Forest and Brush Mountain beyond. When I looked out my bedroom window this morning, I couldn't even see fields anymore. A sea of bi-levels rose and fell instead.
The car bucked up over Clifton Hill, my foot a little quick on the clutch after all the years away from the wheel. The Clifton Hill Lutheran Church came into view, with a considerably expanded parking lot--but today, Saturday, it was empty.
The dewy ground squished under my sneakers as I wound up one row of graves and down the next. Daddy had been in the last row, but time had passed and the cemetery went deeper now. By the time I found them, morning moisture on the grass had seeped through my canvas sneakers. Tiny pools of water sat in shallow grooves of the headstones. Jeff's said "Just sleeping..." and Dad's, simply, "Beloved Husband, Father, Friend." Uncle Larry had written the epitaphs when Mom couldn't bring herself to do it.
"Hey, Daddy." The stone was cold on my fingertips. I plucked a couple twigs off the top. From here, there was nothing to interrupt the view, though there would only be a few more years until the developments stretched to the church boundaries. A southwest breeze came off Brush Mountain, on it the moist odor of oak and elder. Hot, humid summer would be here on those winds soon.
"Not a bad place to spend eternity, right, Jeff?" I tossed the twigs to the ground in front of my brother's grave.
I squatted in front of my father's plot. The carved dates were as deep in the stone as the day they were made. I ran my fingers over and around them, the sharp bottom-curve of the J in January, the tragic, trailing end of the 2 in 1972.
A car door closed in the parking lot and I glanced back. Uncle Larry stepped onto the grass, waving. My runner's legs tightened, ready as at the beginning of a race, five seconds before the starting gun fires.
He stopped a few feet from me, tears in his eyes. His hair had moved back on his forehead since I'd seen him, losing some of its sandy color along the way. The grooves under his eyes were deeper and darker in the daylight.
I smiled toward him, but my eyes looked past. I wondered if tears would come. They did not. Blood pounded suddenly through my temples.
"Good God almighty," he drawled slowly and took a half-step closer. "You are alive after all."
But he had his arms around me, mine momentarily useless at my sides. His hands on my back held me close into his denim jacket. He smelled like car oil and wood. His pulse raced through the fabric, against my cheek. He was high.
Mom was unpacking groceries when I got home, thirty seconds ahead of Larry.
"There's little Miss Mysterious." She folded a paper bag. "Where'd you go?"
"Good morning," I said and went into the bathroom. I locked the door and sat on the bathtub edge, pacing my breathing, practicing the relaxation techniques I had been teaching at the clinic.
The front door opened and closed.
"Where were you?" Mom was standing outside the bathroom. "Tammy, you can't flush that one."
"I found our Tammy at the Clifton Hill--" Larry started.
"I went to see Daddy and Jeff." I opened the door and slipped past my mother.
Larry hung his coat on a rack in the hall. Mom followed into the kitchen on my heels, agitated.
"I don't see why you have to upset yourself with only a week here." She slid Coffeemate across the counter. "Besides, there are living people that'd like to see you. Your uncle obviously couldn't wait."
I pushed the Coffeemate away. "I'm not upset, Mom. It was just a visit."
"How are they?" She crossed her arms and looked incredibly young for a moment, her bottom lip curled under the top.
Larry popped the top off a beer.
"They're fine. The church has grown a lot, though."
Mom returned to the groceries and resumed unpacking with a new energy, slamming cans of vegetable medley onto the table. When she looked up again, there was a tremor that tore across her face.
"You could have asked me if I wanted to go, too."
"Sherry, you never went even--"
"I'm not talking to you, Larry," Mom cut him off. "And you're never here." Slam. "When I let Mary Ellen take you to Philadelphia I didn't know you'd never come back. I would have thought better otherwise."
A can of snow peas hit the table. We stood in a silent triangle, the coffee machine drip-dripping behind me. I poured the contents of my mug into the sink and watched a woman quickly swat her daughter's bottom once in the next yard. A wail went up.
"I'm sorry, honey." Mom came up behind me, leaning into my shoulder. "I got my period this morning."
Mom worked the late shift at Red Lobster for four years after the accident. Back then, Uncle Larry would get home after five and we'd eat leftovers, the two of us, that Mom had brought home from the night before. Sometimes we ate in front of the television, Larry reclining back in Daddy's La-Z-Boy, letting the effects of a joint take hold, laughing at the shows. I was a quick study in inhaling, but Uncle Larry always made sure we had Cokes just in case I started coughing.
In warm weather, we lay in the yard to watch the sky, perpendicular to each other, my head on Larry's stomach, him running his fingers through my hair.
"We're not alone," he'd say in his spookiest voice. I'd laugh and close my eyes, the weed spinning me tenderly. "And if there is someone else out there, we'll be taken first to that extraterrestrial paradise, because we believe and we'll be the only two, like Adam and Eve."
"You're crazy, Uncle Larry." I moved closer to him for warmth.
"Crazy about you, little girl," he said always.
Mom was still a regular at Red Lobster, even now. She'd gotten a taste for popcorn shrimp that nothing but a trip down the pike would satisfy. We went to dinner there my second night home. She walked in ahead of me, passing out hugs and blowing kisses, waving to someone at the salad bar.
"Hey, Sherry," they all said.
"Smoking," she said back. Mom led us through the main dining room to a booth, giggling when the night manager told her she was keeping mighty trim. "It's my Salems that keep me slim, Troy," she said, flirting, "because I have the appetite of a horse."
"Amen to that," Troy, a smoker himself, replied.
Uncle Larry took our jackets to the coat rack and then headed toward the bathroom. Mom already knew what she was having, so she chattered while I skimmed the over-sized, laminated menu of shrimpboat variations and seafood lover's platters. I hadn't eaten anything since the raisins, twenty-four hours earlier.
"He's snorting up in there," Mom said and nodded in the direction of the bathroom. "Glass of chablis, please," to the waitress. "Oh, hey, hon. I didn't even recognize you with that short hair. You look great."
"I'll just have a coffee." I handed the menu to the waitress.
Uncle Larry's good old boy laugh carried over the tops of the booths as he returned from the restroom. He was teasing a waitress who said, "Larry, you are sooo baaaad," drawling it out in flirtatious emphasis.
"Well, he should come back with some energy." Mom rolled her eyes.
"How long has it been since he's been off the wagon?" I turned slightly to see if he was getting close.
"Since you started calling again," Mom said in a hushed voice, leaning across the table.
"Sherry, you know I hate cigarettes," Larry said, lowering into the booth.
"Oh, Jesus, Larry, relax." Mom tipped her ash onto the bread plate. "If you can..." Her voice trailed off as she inhaled deeply and blew smoke sideways out of her mouth, away from us. "Never mind."
Mom drank four glasses of wine through dinner, and Larry had six beers while I sipped first coffee and then a Lipton tea. They were telling stories about growing up in Asheville, laughing and arguing over who knocked who out of the front yard tree and who was responsible for breaking Grandmommy's heirloom vase. Mom finished her shrimp and pushed the basket away, letting her head rest back against the seat, eyes closed.
"Mmm, those were the days, weren't they, Lar?" she sighed and pushed a fountain of smoke straight up in the air.
Larry reached across the table and settled a rough-skinned hand on my arm. His fingers trembled on my skin. From the drugs, I told myself.
Mom sat up all at once. "Larry!"
Larry jerked his arm back, knocking over a beer. "What? What?" in rapid succession. "Shit, you scared me."
"Nothing," Mom said, watching me for a moment then grinding out her cigarette. "I think it's time to go home. I'm feeling dizzy."
"You better drive." Mom tossed me the keys in the parking lot before I could even answer, and headed to the passenger's side. Uncle Larry caught the rabbit's foot chain with his right hand and my forearm with the left, turning me toward him. Mom was already stepping into the back seat.
"I've missed you something fierce," he said low, across the top of the car as we got in on opposite sides.
"No games," I said back.
Mom prattled from behind during the ride home, down and around darkened, bumpy roads to Catawba. I cracked my window a half inch to breathe. Her voice filled up the car, filled it up with nothing. I felt like every bit of oxygen was being sucked outside. I was suddenly a teenager again, sailing over quick rises and around edgy curves. I hadn't driven these country roads sober, probably ever, but I knew the way home.
"There used to be a farmer's market there," Mom tapped the window with a red nail at the fleeting, black landscape. "They're going to build a Wawa. I guess it'll be more convenient for milk and soda on the way home."
Larry sat silently, buckled in beside me. I only caught his face by accident, when we came to a stop sign and I had to look right for traffic. His hands gripped his legs as he watched the road pass under the headlights, early spring bugs careening toward us.
Uncle Larry suggested the color for my room, the dark red. We had driven to the Home Store on a Friday night, smoking a joint on the way, Larry squeezing my hand to keep me from laughing wildly at the other customers. He negotiated a custom color, a mix of red and brown. We waited twenty minutes while a clerk mixed three gallons.
It was sundown when we got home with the paint, brushes, and mixing sticks. I ran ahead of Larry, skipping steps, and flipped on every light in my bedroom. The juvenile yellow that I'd loved as an eleven year old was garish all of a sudden, unbearable in a moment. My father had picked out that color for me. I wanted to get rid of it.
"Let's throw the paint on!" I pulled a gallon from Larry's hand.
"You smoked a little too much." Larry nipped at my cheek with his thumb and finger and then wrapped his arms around me, tripping us onto the bed. We fell, laughing. "Here. I have something that will focus you," he said.
The plastic bag was small enough it sat in his shirt undetectable from the outside. He extracted it slowly, like a magic trick, and he was savoring his audience reaction.
"Cocaine," I said.
Larry cut it with a new razor and I did my first line of coke on the marbleized formica of the bathroom counter. He went first, demonstrating how to press on the left nostril and draw the powder in through the right, using a straw from Red Lobster. The first line was like a ricochet. My eyes teared bitterly and I couldn't stand up straight.
"Are you okay, baby?" Uncle Larry supported me, his hand on my back, as I crouched over the sink.
I held my nostrils together and inhaled through my mouth for a minute. My forehead resting on the edge of the sink, I was hit with a clear energy that I'd never known before that moment. Larry had a vague, concerned look.
"Let's paint, goddammit," I said.
We took a break every half hour to get loaded up until midnight. I was a natural. Larry ran out for a case of beer and I did a line on my own.
"You're getting sloppy," Larry said later when I dropped my paint brush.
It was true. I leaned into my roller for support as I painted.
"Here. Come on." Larry took the tools away from me and placed them on the newspaper we'd spread over the carpet. He led me to the bed, where I sat momentarily and then allowed myself to lay back. The ceiling seemed closer than I'd ever noticed.
Larry lifted my legs onto the bed. His finger, rough on the end from the constant turn and grip of mechanic's tools, drew the edge of my ear, and an evening air hovered over my bed from the window. Someone had mowed their lawn and I could just make it out, mixed with the newness of the paint. I counted in my head the remaining days of my sophomore year--fifteen.
"I think I found a treat you like," Larry said quiet, almost in a lazy way.
"Yeah." I was exhausted.
"Does that feel good?" He massaged my head lightly.
"Feels great. Dad used to do that while I watched TV. He'd play with my hair."
I awoke at 5 a.m. in my jeans and t-shirt. Someone had turned off the light. I rolled to my right side and propped up to the window. Mom's car sat in the driveway. I felt heavy and it took a moment to get myself up off the bed.
The carpet was cool under my feet, crossing to the bathroom. The light flickered on and I closed the door so Mom wouldn't hear the shower. White residue covered the counter. I ran my finger across it and tasted, bending to pull off my right sock. Bitter.
I slipped under the covers naked, after drying off and pulling my hair into a ponytail. I watched the digits on the clock change for a half hour. At 5:42 the door knob turned.
"Jeanie," Uncle Larry whispered into the dark. "Are you awake?"
"I just got out of the shower," I whispered back.
Larry ran his hand along the freshly painted wall, coming to the bed, and stepped into the pale blue light of the clock.
"I want to talk to you."
He tasted like an orange when we kissed that first time. The next morning I found rinds on a plate outside my door. He told me he'd been waiting all night, thinking of what and how to say what was inside him--if he even should.
I pulled the covers over him and he buried his face in my chest, kissing my breasts, nipples, saying over and over, "I love you, Jeanie-girl, I love you."
I was not a virgin, but it was the first time that I let someone in who loved me.
Mom was still drunk when we got home from Red Lobster. I sat on her bathroom counter and watched her puke. She'd only gotten her blouse and one shoe off when the urge hit. I'd been lying on her bed looking at a photo album and watched her run past me.
"Shit! That was an expensive meal." She leaned forward and across the toilet bowl to flush. I handed her a Dixie cup of water and a folded section of toilet paper for her mouth. She rinsed and spit into the toilet before flushing again.
Mom put her hand, fleshy and cool, over mine as she walked by, and squeezed. I followed back into the bedroom and we both lay on top of the bedspread. It was the same cover she'd always had. By now its seams were loosening and the flower print had frayed. Mom pulled up against a pile of pillows and sank back, her face relaxing into a half-smile. Her red hair matted around the ears and hairline, with cold, puke sweat, but she was fine now.
When she opened her eyes again, she said, surprised, "Well, Lord, look at me there. I must have been thirty years old at most."
I'd left a photo album sitting open at a trip to Luray Caverns we'd taken. There was one of her, diminished in front of a stalagmite, a quarter mile underground where everything glistens orange. I had taken the picture, Dad behind me, bent over, his arms around mine, demonstrating the proper method. Jeff just barely made it into the right edge of the frame, his back toward us, listening in on another tour group off-camera.
Mom pulled the album onto her lap and lifted a page to the light from the nightstand. "Your father was so handsome." She ran a finger over the page. "Sometimes I forget. You remind me of him."
"Really?" She'd never said this before. "In what way?"
"Well, you have his skinny butt." She studied me for a moment and then looked at the photos. "The same squared-off chin. And you're both stubborn as you are smart." She closed the album and pushed it toward me. "You should take this back to Philly with you. It's good to have something from home. Besides, I already have enough to pack around here."
Mom turned, squinting, to the bedside lamp and clicked it off, leaving half of the room dim.
"Why'd you come home, Tammy Jean?"
"What?" I raised myself up on my elbows and looked at her. She was sunk into the pillows again, expressionless, so peaceful she could have been asleep. I wondered if maybe she hadn't really said anything.
"Why'd you come home? Really, I'd like to know. You volunteered yourself, come down here for the first time in eight years. And you haven't said two words while you've been here but I still get the feeling there's a whole lot you want to say."
I put my face to the pillow. Mom's hairspray had gotten into the cotton case and it conjured a life I had almost forgotten. Sitting in the backseat behind Dad, picking at the scab on his elbow; his arm resting over top of the seat, fingers brushing Mom's shoulder while she read; the Appalachians trapping us in on both sides of the highway; the scent of her hair drifting backward, Jeff's sweaty head on my lap.
I squeezed my eyelids together, refusing tears. It wasn't what I had come home to do. I'd come to help my mother move.
"I came to give you a hand packing."
"No, you didn't come back here for me," she said, opening her eyes now to regard me straight on and firm, like she had when I was younger. "I don't need help getting out of this house and you know it."
I held her eyes for a moment, looking for the answer she wanted.
"If you came to tell me about Larry," she said, "I don't want to hear it." A weariness passed her face. "Your father and Jeff were all I could handle. I hope you can see that and try not to hate me."
Through the summer of 1976, Uncle Larry and I still shared secrets, mostly one between the two of us. I told Bonnie, just after the first day of eleventh grade, in a note written during study hall.
"You're sick," she wrote back. Not long after the rest of my group pulled away, too.
Larry was fired from the garage in October, passing cars for inspection while he was high. At least his boss didn't turn him to the cops.
"I'll just take vacation for awhile," he said. "It'll give me more time to think about making you happy."
In March, I was sent home from school with a letter that I would be required to repeat a grade due to "poor academic performance and excessive absenteeism." I needed the signature of a parent or guardian on the return slip. That's what they got when I went in on Monday with Larry's signature, Lawrence T. Fasbender, scrawled in black ink across the bottom.
"This'll be our secret," he said. "No use upsetting your mother."
"No use," I agreed. I was as tired as I'd ever be, with no energy to care one way or the other, really.
On the night of my 17th birthday, I took Larry for a drive.
"Holy shit," he rebel-yelled out the window as all four wheels momentarily left the ground. "You are in control!"
My hands gripped the wheel at three and nine. The car lifted and dropped, scraping bottom over the sudden dips and subtle rises of Peach Glen Road. Blackness streamed faster on either side of us as I pressed the accelerator. The wind helicoptered through the interior and I screamed. Not anything, just screamed as loud as I could out the window. The speedometer was at 80.
"Okay, okay! Tammy, that's enough!" Uncle Larry had an edge of panic to him. "Fuck, Tammy! Slow down!" He reached over and grabbed the wheel, but I pushed the pedal further. "You're going to fucking kill us!"
Pain shot through my leg as the heel of his boot dug into my shin, knocking my foot off the pedal. His foot searched for the brake and I turned the wheel hard right, propelling us into a field. Dust, dirt and fertilizer swept over the Malibu like a wave on the ocean. I hit the steering wheel, losing my wind violently. Larry smashed into the windshield and fell back to the seat, halfway on the floor.
"Oh my God." He groaned and I gasped for my air back.
Thirty seconds passed in eerie, utter silence. The headlights skimmed the newly-planted field of soy beans. A million particles of earth swam in front of us.
Larry pulled himself up. His forehead had opened and blood dripped off the square of his jaw onto his sweatshirt.
"Are you okay?" he asked, distracted and amazed at his bloody hands.
I didn't answer, but instead pushed the door open and stepped out. Standing in front of the car, in the headlights, I looked at Larry. The windshield was shattered where he'd hit but hadn't broken through. My arm was throbbing. I turned away and started to run.
Overnight, no one knew where I was. I walked the eight miles to the Coast-to-Coast Motel and paid the room with a twenty Mom had given me as a birthday gift. I watched TV until the manager asked me to leave the next afternoon, or at least pay for another night.
Aunt Mary Ellen took the situation in hand, as she'd like to say in the years following, when describing that day. She'd gotten on a commuter flight from Philadelphia to Richmond to Roanoke first thing in the morning. Mom searched my room while the police took a description of me, looking for a reason to explain a suicidal car ride, or tearing off into the warm, Virginia night. She found it in a tin in my nightstand.
Mary Ellen called in favors to a good friend at an Ardmore clinic and arrangements were made. The clinic even sent down a car to pick us up, at great cost, my aunt (who paid) never forgot to remind me.
"This would never have happened if your father was alive," she said
I slumped into the back seat with a migraine, between her and a nurse, for the long ride to Pennsylvania. I almost laughed when she said it. No one but me and Larry knew the half of it.
I sat on my old single bed in the dark, waiting. The floorboard outside Larry's room whined. He's slipping, I thought. The door opened, almost soundless, my uncle an outline, black on black, in the shadow.
"Jeanie," he said, and took three steps into the room, close enough that I could see his wired eyes, dancing with cocaine and anxiety. "Will you talk to me, baby?"
Larry moved to the bed, beside me. The mattress springs creaked when he sat down, inches away. His breathing was short and uneven, and his palm held a cool sweat that he touched to my wrist. He pressed my palm to the feverish skin on his chest and for a second we existed in the past. The cagey desperation and addiction were there with me, like they'd never been gone, like I'd never been cured of him. He lifted his other hand to my cheek and in my memory it was my neck, my breasts, between my legs.
"Jeanie, I miss you." I couldn't see his lips move. "I've been waiting so long for you to come back. I would have come to Philadelphia but your mother refused me every time I asked for you."
"She was right." I barely said it. I had no breath.
The light shifted almost imperceptibly when the digital clock changed to 1 a.m. Ten minutes had passed with silence, except for the gentle whoosh of a passing car.
"I love you, Jeanie-girl," Larry said finally. "I almost died when you left. Your Mom told me you were clean so I got clean, too. I figured I'd do whatever you were doing and we'd stay connected that way and when you came back things would be even better."
He kissed my lips.
"Don't say you don't love me anymore, Tammy Jean. You didn't come down here after all this time to tell me that."
Hang-up calls I'd placed to Virginia, a thousand of them over the years, letters that turned into scraps before I had the courage to send them, had said everything over eight years. That I was drawn to his strange comfort like cocaine. That he was a drug I'd finally flushed out of my system.
"I was fifteen," is what I found.
Larry got to his knees on the floor, his head in my lap. I ran my fingers through his hair the way he used to do to me.
"I'm sorry," he sobbed, and I knew I was breaking him.
I left him on his hands and knees in my bedroom, shivering and sad. It took two hours for the cab to come, but when it did I was waiting by the front door with my coat on. A note for Mom was on the kitchen table, a box of Kleenex at one corner to keep it from blowing away.
The driver got out to take my bag and opened the rear passenger door for me. I turned to get in and looked up at the house. Mom, standing almost concealed, halfway behind a curtain, lifted her hand to her face and blew a little kiss. The end of her cigarette made an arc as she let it go.
Greg Durham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of online at a large publishing house in New York. He'd like to write more fiction if he can ever get out of the office at a reasonable hour.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Greg Durham.