Dagnabit! Something’s wrong with the car. Again. The front wheels wobble and there’s a spine-tingling screech. It’s a Ford Focus, so at least he won’t be able to blame it on not being American. Or maybe the Focus is one of those models made overseas somewhere that Ford just slaps its name on. The particulars of everything get muddier. She thinks it’s an alignment issue, but he’s sure it’s a lug nut.
It’s a lug nut, honey, he says. Something loose. Something crooked don’t sing. Crooked’s quiet till it kills ya. Crooked’s self-sufficient. What’s loose wants you to know it so ya can pay it mind. Ever been to the peep show?
He spits into a water bottle, though he doesn’t chew. He says it makes him feel a type of way—better, even though there’s no explanation for it, like a fellow who buys his porker the neighboring seat on his plane flight.
She doesn’t ask him what he means even though what he’s just said only demonstrates an approximate reason. She’s learned that if she keeps quiet, he’ll interpret it as having convinced her and shut up about the subject. Otherwise, he’ll hold forth till the cows come home.
They pull off onto the side of the road, nothing but brown earth and occasional violent-looking vegetation as far as they can see. He hands her the water bottle before he gets out of the car. She holds it tightly so it doesn’t spill. The slow-moving yellowish liquid at the bottom of the bottle doesn’t bother her. There are worse things a man can give you than his spit!
She gets out of the car after him and he already has his t-shirt off, stuffed into the back pocket of his baggy, grease-stained Dickies, as he always does when he’s convinced he knows exactly what the problem is and how to fix it. There’s a hot breeze blowing over the invariant land. She sets the bottle on the roof of the car and tugs her skirt down from where it’s crept up nearly high enough to show her undies. They take one day off a week together—he from his job at the bottling plant, she from the catering company. For a short while it was a cute system, but now it just feels like another day of work. She knew it would get like this, but still it surprises her how fast it comes. He doesn’t get angry like some guys, but once he gets an idea in his head, he won’t quit about it. He likes it when she wears skirts short as blasphemy so that when he’s out with her he feels like a Big Boss. He collects all his ideas about love from the movies.
Once, she was in the garage looking for an adjustable wrench to cinch off a drip beneath the kitchen sink. He walked in with a bag of overripe tomatoes and said he wanted to splatter her with them, then lick the mess off like a wolf at a knife. Told her to stand against the wall, but not to worry, since he wasn’t going to throw them hard.
Where’d you get this one from? she asked. You go to that arty theater with all the rich folks?
Just do it, he said, just once. You don’t have to get me a birthday present.
She rolled her eyes.
That’s expecting I would.
You don’t want things to get dull, do you? he said.
There’s all kinds of things I don’t want things to get, she said.
Just do it, Judy, he said grinning, lightly tossing a tomato to himself.
Dirty old men with cameras and they call it cinema, she said, but she was already undressing. She knew she was easy. It was something people had been telling her since she could remember. But sometimes it was easiest to be easy, especially with some people. They hurt you, but not so bad as when you tell them no.
Plus, she had to admit that sometimes what he came up with was crazy enough to pique her interest. He never paid mind to meeting her love needs anyways, unless she let him do things to her. She didn’t like that their concupiscence had a guilt component, but it was efficient. You don’t need church to know that most good things people do are on behalf of something else they’ve done that they feel poorly about.
After he’d emptied the bag of tomatoes onto her skin, she asked him if this was supposed to be tomatoes or guts and gore. He said if he was in it for the taste, he’d have squirted her all over with Heinz 57.
As he kneels beside the car to pop off the hubcap, she lights an already half-smoked cigarette and manages a single drag before the flame starts eating the filter. The gold watch she inherited from her dad catches the sun. It’s too big for her wrist but she wears it anyway, and it slides up and down her arm, yanking out hairs at the follicle. She hadn’t been particularly close with her dad, but he’d wanted her to have this watch and she’s doing her best to keep one less human feeling from disappearing like the rest of them unrequited into the ether. The light application of mascara she applied this morning runs from the corners of her eyes. It’s a scorcher of an afternoon for mid-May. Anytime a vehicle passes on the road, the forced air is a welcome momentary reprieve. Their car is leased, can’t drive more than 1200 miles a month and they live nearly 1200 miles from anywhere! Take it as a commendation or a slight, one thing’s for sure and it’s that Jackson likes a challenge. He isn’t a gambling man in terms of cards or horses, but he might as well be.
Is it glistening? he grunts up at her. He means his back. He’s quite vain. Trying to affect an impression of continual hard work, he flexes so frequently his skin is reddish with perpetual diastolic aggravation. He wears a faded buzzcut and thick colognes that remind her of dust and leather and prefers rap music about gunfights and lighting things on fire. Twice, a neighbor has slipped under their door a postcard featuring a glowing home nestled in a wintery woodland glade with the note WE’RE PRAYING FOR YOU! Both times this occurred after Jackson bought a new album and played it at full volume till well past midnight. People around here so rarely say outright what they mean. If they did, it’s likely you wouldn’t get the gist.
Jackson doesn’t do much, but when he does anything, he makes sure to take his time. He thinks time spent translates to quality and expertise. She doesn’t offer to help. He’d think she’s trying to rush him.
They’ve just dropped off Judy’s daughter, Moses, at her grandmother’s so they can go grocery shopping. Moses cries in the grocery store. Jackson thinks it’s because her underdeveloped mind can’t process all the colors.
She’s got a headache, he tends to diagnose.
I’ve ga-wut a headache, Moses agrees tearfully. She knows not to debunk Jackson. He considers cantankerousness a symptom of whatever it is he’s just diagnosed you with. He’ll unscrew the lightbulb and lock you in your bedroom if you talk back.
It’s for your own good. You need the rest. And the dark helps the colors disappear, he’ll say in defense of the forced quarantine.
She’s my daughter, I get to decide, Judy’ll protest.
Aren’t we supposed to be a team? Jackson returns.
Judy thinks Moses cries in the grocery store for all the things they can’t afford to buy. Not from jealousy, but despair.
Moses feels things deeply, she’s said to Jackson many times.
That’s just another way of saying she’s underdeveloped upstairs. She can’t handle things. Call a spade a spade, Jackson replies.
He’s convinced Moses is weak-minded because she sees a therapist twice a week. His reasoning runs counter to the usual accepted order. He doesn’t see this as an indictment of himself but an endorsement of his personal originality.
These days people just run off to doctors anytime the world hurts, he says. You don’t need a doctor to tell you which end is up. Give it time, you can teach yourself anything.
Moses is not Judy’s daughter’s given name, but Jackson doesn’t know that.
You know what I like about you? Jackson told Judy once. You don’t care so much that you named your daughter Moses. You don’t care about anything. You’re down for whatever. That’s what I like.
Jackson believes any semi-substantiated myth of Bermuda Triangle ilk. Disaster is his weapon against accusations of laziness.
Slow and steady never blew anybody up, he says. And then he’ll raise the volume on a song about a gang war in a city he’s never been to or thought anything about.
Moses sees a therapist because of a speech impediment that developed after a frying pan flung by her drunk, pill-popping daddy collided with her face, misaligning her jaw. It wasn’t intentional. He was so drunk he didn’t know it was daytime and that Moses had been out of bed for hours. He’d assumed the trajectory to the wall to be unobstructed. But it’s usually the accidental gestures that throw things most out of whack.
Judy knows a lot about misalignment, which is why she’s fairly peeved with Jackson and accordingly doesn’t answer his question about his back. Moses’ speech pathologist is a born-again who when they first started coming to the clinic told the girl and her mother about how the prophet Moses wasn’t well-spoken but still became the mouthpiece of God. She said this to cheer the girl up, thinking the speech problem likely made her cannon fodder for her friends.
I don’t have any fwends, Moses-before-she-was-called-Moses garbled. Neither she nor Judy mentioned that this was because of the sort of thing the therapist correctly assumed. At school, Moses was known as Lollipop because to her peers she sounded like she always had a lollipop in her mouth. Judy hoped things got better speechwise before kids wised up to crueler possibilities.
That’s a-okay, the therapist said brightly. Moses didn’t either. He was a murderer. He killed an Egyptian.
In the car home, Moses asked if she could be called Moses.
Ga-wud woks in mys-tew-ious ways, she said, quoting her therapist.
Judy shrugged. If a name change was the most significant fall-out from getting dinged in the face with a frying pan, that was fine with her.
Just don’t kill any Egyptians, she admonished her child.
I’ve newa met one, Moses assured her.
A few days after rechristening herself, Moses came home from school and asked Judy if they believed in God.
I think so, sweetie. I’m not really sure.
How do we know?
I think it’s just something we decide.
Who is he, Ga-wud? Is he a guy?
I’m not sure, honey. People like to think of him as a father, as a dad.
My daddy’s in jai-wuhl.
A really good dad. A dad who doesn’t go to jail.
Moses wrinkled her nose, skeptical. Judy tried a different tactic.
God’s someone who watches over everything.
Wike a staw?
Moses scowled. She hated it when anyone couldn’t understand her right away. Especially Judy. Judy felt her disapproval like a fist around her heart.
A sta-wuh! In the sky.
Yes, like a star, Judy smiled, relieved. But more like all the stars combined. God’s really big. He’s supposed to make you feel safe.
Sta-wuhs don’t make me fee-wuhl safe.
You don’t want to believe in God then?
I don’t know yet, but I sti-wuhl want to be cawed Moses, Moses said.
Jackson seems mystified that all the car’s lug nuts are in place. He grabs his spit-bottle from the roof of the car, drools a wispy strand of saliva into it, and swirls it around. Dissatisfied, he raises the bottle to his nose, pinches one nostril shut, and with the other adds a rocketed glob of green mucus to the bottle’s already varicolored contents.
One of them must be cracked, he says. He’s going to have to remove them all so he can check for faulty hardware.
A van full of Girl Scouts or some other uniformed club passes and the girls wave at Judy. She waves back. An invisible insect rubs its wings together in the ditch beside the road. Jackson smacks Judy’s butt on his way to the trunk for his toolkit. The filter of the cigarette still hangs from her lips and a fleck of dissolved rolling paper affixes to her cheek like gauze over a shaving cut. She doesn’t bother to brush it away.
They’d been arguing about whether to purchase celery at the supermarket when the car began to wobble. Judy maintained that it was a pointless zero calorie food. Jackson fixated on the point that it gave the jaw a good workout.
Don’t talk about my daughter, Judy warned. This morning she’d made him a cup of coffee that he dumped out because he said it wasn’t filtered properly. She tried again and he allowed that it was better but it sure wasn’t Starbucks. Then he told her he was planning on going halfsies on a pinball machine with one of his pals. She asked him about more pressing bills and he said he didn’t know when he’d gotten ball-and-chained.
And last night!—she didn’t want to think about last night—last night he’d joked to Moses’ grandmother over dinner that when Moses grows up and gets crabs, she’ll have her very own burning bush. Grandmother laughed so hard they had to hook her up to the oxygen tank she carries around with her for her emphysema. Jackson could do no wrong in Judy’s mother’s eyes, not since he’d left work and come roaring over to her house the day the snake crawled up out of the toilet while she was sitting on it. That snake scared her and Judy so badly neither of them could move. She’d been yelling for Judy who was in the kitchen, but Judy wouldn’t even approach the bathroom to look at the situation—the most she could do was dial up Jackson in a panic. When Jackson arrived, he calmly entered the bathroom, lifted the pants-less woman off the toilet, carried her to safety, and then marched back into the bathroom to grab the snake out of the toilet water with his bare hands and break its neck. Contrary to his usual bravado, Jackson never mentioned this event again. Grandmother, however, never forgot it and reminded Judy of it almost every time she saw her, telling her how she’d left her own sick mother at the mercy of the serpent when she was mere feet away in the kitchen and Jackson had to come all the way from the bottling plant, miles and miles, to save her. To Grandmother, Jackson was the good man Judy’d been waiting for her whole life.
What’s cwabs? Moses had wanted to know.
You’ll know em when you’ve got em, Jackson said. They’re one of those oddities that feel exactly like they sound.
Grandmother sucked at her oxygen tube like a desert traveler at a puddle.
They’re a visitation from the Lord upon sites of too much hum-diddly, she said, once she’d adequately livened her blood cells.
Good God, Mama, Judy said.
What, honey? she smiled innocently.
The point is, after this morning and last night, Judy was tired. When Jackson got his dander up about celery, she didn’t have patience for any of his holistic home remedies for Moses’ condition.
Keep my daughter out of it, she repeated.
Didn’t mention her, Jackson said. Adults need a jaw workout too.
Judy said of all people he shouldn’t be concerned about an atrophied jaw given his inclination for talk. He fired back that maybe she ought to give celery a try since her mouth had been ineffective of late.
How do I end up with these guys? she wanted to know. It’s my fatal flaw.
She wanted to tell him never to talk to her that way, but that’s when the car began to wobble. Judy asked if they’d hit something. Dripping with snark, Jackson replied that yes, they’d plowed over an invisible whitetail.
Pointing out that the wobble and accompanying noises seemed to be coming from the passenger side front wheel, he tittered, The proof is in the pudding. You must be packing a little more poundage these days. A zero calorie food’ll do you good.
Judy defended herself by suggesting an alignment problem.
But Jackson said he knew a sprung lug nut when he felt one.
Judy met Jackson two years ago at a VFW dance. Jackson isn’t a veteran, but in his words, he looks like one. He wore Timberland work boots and oversized tan fatigues he’d found during a green tag sale at the Salvation Army. The fatigues smelled like bleach, which corroborated their authenticity. Likely their previous owner had been soaked in blood! Most of the veterans in the area are missing an appendage or an eye or have been dipped in some skin-melting chemical substance. Grizzled fellows warped by sadness and total knowledge of their own limitations. Hardly anyone was dancing. There were very few women at the event and the few that were there had to dance by themselves.
Like his love ideas, Jackson gets all his notions about war from the movies and tried to buddy up with these hardened killers by asking them things like, What do you get when you scalp a dead baby? The punchline being an erection. If they recognized Jackson as an imposter, no one had the energy or interest in looking up from their pint glasses to confront him. An upstart was the least of their concerns.
He does look like the sort of gullible knucklehead they’d send to the front lines, Judy thought.
She was catering the event. At the time, she asked her boss to schedule her for all their military and police shindigs. She was sick of doing weddings and country club functions and besides, when Moses got whanged by the frying pan, an occasion which sent her already felonious daddy back to jail, a court psychologist told Judy it was time to try something new. The psychologist detected unhealthy patterns after Judy told her about the other men in her life prior to Moses’ dad—the things one threatened to do to her with grilling utensils, how another would bring home takeout dishes he knew she hated and call her ungrateful when she accordingly refused to eat what he bought her.
She interpreted the psychologist’s prescription of novelty as a directive to find herself a square. A law-abiding, principled citizen with a retirement fund and potential for a two-car garage. No more drifters, guitar-players, or itinerant mechanics. But she didn’t want a prissy accountant or a white-haired professor of botany. She wanted heft. She wanted to be embraced by arms that had done things so antithetical to the love experience as to make it an anomaly. She began reconnoitering at VFW halls and police unions in search for a reputable badass.
She’d been watching Jackson shoot his shot with the veterans all night to no avail. He was like a lost puppy and she felt sorry for him in spite of his antics. She was doing it again, she knew it. They were all lost puppies, the ones she brought home, and it was the lostness alone that melted her heart every time. She seemed incapable of considering why it was they were lost in the first place until it was too late.
When he approached her station to fill up his punch glass, she resolved to give him the cold shoulder. She owed it to herself not to corral any more of these losers.
She looked at the stars-and-stripes printed plastic tablecloth, but she felt his heat like he was a cathode ray blasted right at her. What is wrong with me? she thought.
I like your eyes, sister, he said as he ladled his punch. You got eyes that have seen the world.
I’ve never been anywhere, but I’ve seen plenty. And I’m not your sister, she fired back.
Jackson laughed and straightened. Well, I should hope not, he said. I don’t like to go rooting in my own garden.
You have your principles and I have mine, Judy said, unconsciously filling herself a punch glass. How’d you get in here anyway?
Two tours of duty in Baghdad, he said.
Really? she snorted.
He smiled, his teeth crooked, but surprisingly white.
Old Troy over there’s my uncle, he said, pointing to a cluster of chain-smoking, salt-and-pepper-bearded men in olive green vests hunched over a table playing cards. He’s incontinent, Jackson whispered. Took some shrapnel where it hurts back in Gulf War One. You ever changed a colostomy bag?
She shook her head despite herself.
Let’s just say it’s not one of those things you ever get used to, he said.
His obnoxious insensitivity wasn’t without its charm. It was the sort of spiel she typically fell for anyways. She felt it was her destiny. Her own father, God rest his soul, had been so guarded and reserved he wouldn’t take a crap if anyone else was in the house. He died of colon cancer, probably from holding it in all those years.
It was hot in the VFW hall, metal ceiling fans ticking and whirring. The punch bowls sweated, their condensation pooling on the tablecloth in miniature lakes.
He asked her if she’d ever seen the movie where the woman performs a C-section on herself to free the extraterrestrial spawn inside of her.
I’ve never, Judy said, spinning her punch glass inside its ring of moisture on the tablecloth.
You look like the girl who cuts the alien out of her in that movie, he said. You could be in the movies is what I’m saying.
I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.
Don’t you want to hear about where I’ve been? he asked, almost pleading. He had green eyes and tanned skin and his forwardness was that of a plastic bag that gets blown up against your leg on a windy day. Judy knew better but convinced herself that he didn’t know what he was doing. Why not play along? She hadn’t had any fun lately.
Not particularly, unless it means you’ll leave me alone after, she said.
You don’t really mean that do you? Jackson said, crestfallen.
Nope. For some reason I don’t, Judy said.
Jackson brightened and took a big swig from his punch glass. He swallowed a chunk of floating melon and sneezed immediately. Opening and closing his jaw in rapid succession, he set the glass down on the table and pumped each of his ears with the palms of his hands to suction out the pressure.
Cantaloupe, he coughed, allergic. A slurping squeak issued from his ear audible over the ceiling fans and Toby Keith on the sound system. She looked at him, incredulous.
He shrugged again and showed her a patch sewn to his fatigues. It depicted a demented-looking girl’s face plugged with bullet holes. In circular script outlining the image was written the moniker Leadhead Betty.
What does it mean? Judy asked.
It means there’s things out there that happen that maybe only a few people know about. Maybe even no one, Jackson said sagely.
How would it end up on some pants if it’s something nobody knows about? Judy asked.
Jackson paused, thinking. He grinned.
You stumped me, lady. I’m Jackson, he said, extending a hand.
Judy took it, reaching over the punch bowl.
I’m Judy, she said. And I’ll take lady over sister almost every time.
He grinned even wider.
They hung out a few times. Went bowling, went fishing. Jackson said he didn’t plan to be at the bottling plant much longer.
I’ve done everything, he said. Soon as I get bored at work, I go find something else. There’s no point in being miserable your whole life.
She wanted to ask what would happen when he got bored with her, but she didn’t because she figured she already knew the answer. She told him she stayed on at the catering business even when she didn’t like it because she got a little insurance to help pay Moses’ doctor bills.
He didn’t rush her into bed. She didn’t even know about his proclivities and strange fantasies till they’d been together for several months.
Soon, he bought Moses a baby doll with a heavy mechanism inside its rubber skull that enabled the doll to stand on its head. They named the doll Leadhead Betty. Jackson told Moses that it looked like a toy, but was really something else.
If anyone comes after you with a frying pan again, you smack em with Betty, he said.
If anyone comes after you with a frying pan again, rip his pecker off, Judy said.
We’re sure going to make it, aren’t we? he said.
An hour later, they’re still pulled over on the side of the road. Sweat pours from Jackson’s body, a greenish halo. A pink flush in his shoulders signals the onset of serious sunburn.
Two farmers in nearly identical F-150s pass and offer to help, but Jackson waves them off saying it’s only a lug nut issue that he can fix in a jiffy. Bored, Judy rolls up her sleeves and lies down on the hood to get a tan. She draws up her legs because the metal threatens to melt the backs of them. Jackson doesn’t find any cracks in the lug nuts on either wheel on the passenger’s side, so he decides they must’ve felt the wobble and heard the screech wrong. Now he’s working at the driver’s side. He says nothing about how this affects his formerly stated hypothesis regarding Judy’s weight, nor does Judy bother to question him. Hardware and tools are scattered all over the shoulder, catching sun like pools of water or flung jewels.
He isn’t frustrated, just flummoxed, and he’s taken to calming his nerves by whistling. When he whistles, he inhales instead of exhaling, and consequently gets bloated with gas. Ripping belches interrupt his melodies. Judy swats at a persistent fly. The sun throbs like an inflamed lymph node.
Her cellphone rings, a famous classical tune remade with synthesizers. It’s Moses.
Mama, can you take me to the poo-wuhl? It’s awmost Seen-yo Swim.
Moses is fascinated by the wrinkled bodies of geriatrics. Senior Swim reminds her of Matzo ball soup, which her class ate once as part of a social studies ethnic food festival. She thinks the participants’ frames are held together by the spandex of their bathing suits and their rubber swim caps. Apparel is the only thing inhibiting their brittle bodies from becoming waterlogged and disintegrating. For younger, sturdier generations, she considers swimsuits superfluous. In fact, she’s been kicked out of two pool parties—events of the variety in which everybody in the birthday girl’s class is invited so that no one feels left out—for attempting to demonstrate this very premise.
Judy sighs. She’s groggy from the heat. Her t-shirt, which has kept her back from searing to the hood, is drenched with sweat.
I’ll have to ask Jackson. He’s driving.
Moses moans. Jackson doesn’t care about Senior Swim. He doesn’t care about anything except beer and video games, and he isn’t even her real dad, even if he did save Grandmother from that snake. Rarely does Jackson come through in Moses’ favor.
Judy relays Moses’ request to Jackson. He grunts that he still hasn’t fixed the wobble.
Why can’t we fix the wobble at home? she asks.
Because the wobble’s here. Right now. Where we are.
He wipes the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
And we aren’t at home, he concludes, pointing at the parched earth.
Judy tells Moses there’s a wobble.
Wobble-de-wobble-de-wop, Moses chants the improbable lyrics to a pop song.
Jackson tells Judy to tell Moses to get her butt over here and help him find the faulty lug nut.
She’s good at these kinds of things, he says.
It’s true. Moses does have a knack for the peculiar. She can eat an entire banana in one bite (in spite of or because of her jaw predicament, they remain unsure). She can do twenty-seven one-arm pullups, which she says is more than enough to qualify her for the Marines.
Judy tells Moses that Jackson is in denial about the issue being alignment related.
Exasperated, Moses whines, C’mon Mama. What if Mwisses Gwanduh-son’s stwaps come woose and huh awm faws off?
Judy thinks it best to humor a child who’s absorbed a frying pan wielded by her very own daddy with her face. Moses learned far too early that there’s not much to believe in. Judy’s fine with whatever corrective measures her daughter’s still-nascent psyche needs, no matter how extreme.
She reminisces about Moses’s daddy. That incorrigible man with his predisposition for hemorrhoids! In fact, he’d been disposed to lewd growths of all kinds. He even had an enlarged left testicle! But he sure could pick an angel’s tune on a guitar.
God forbid Mister McGillicudy loses his swim cap, Judy assents.
Yes, Mama, yes! Moses cheers.
The groceries can wait. Jackson can pick them up tomorrow after he gets off at the bottling plant. They can order pizza for tonight’s dinner.
How’s Grandmother? Judy asks.
She’s upsta-wuhs in the attic, Moses answers.
Judy rises from her makeshift sunbed with the flatulent squelch of damp flesh lifting from a manufactured surface. The attic is where her mother used to hide when Husband Bill, Judy’s dad, came home after the few times a year he got drunk. The past few times she’s watched Moses, Judy’s mother has wound up in the attic. Judy doesn’t know what it is about Moses that reminds her mother of Husband Bill, but she’s worried about both the psychic and filial ramifications. She looks at the time on Husband Bill’s old watch.
I’m calling a cab, she says.
Moses whoops with delight.
There is a single operational cab in the region. The driver’s name is Soo-Yung. His cab reeks of the seaweed snacks he incessantly munches on, and it is not really a cab. It’s an old police car he’s painted yellow. The paint is splotchy and in places the original blue and white peeks through spitefully. There’s a defunct spotlight mounted above the driver’s side mirror, and the place on the top of the car where the red and blue lights used to be is discolored and rusty from once-trapped moisture. Like most things in the area, Soo-Yung’s occupation is a wishful interpretation of successful enterprise elsewhere, and accordingly it is not without its acknowledged, yet unavoidable pathos. Soo-Yung’s Shuttle Service appears in boxy script on both the driver’s side and passenger’s side doors above a logo of three intertwined S’s that looks vaguely Masonic. Also printed on the car doors are the names of the two biggest towns in a fifty-mile radius and the regional air strip. Without exception, Soo-Yung speaks to his occasional customers in buzzwords his tone suggests are capitalized: Progress, Expansion, Demand.
Soon we’ll have a Fleet, he says.
Judy is hard-pressed to provide an address for pick-up, but Soo-Yung is surprisingly patient.
Looking for a car on Route 17 with all wheels removed, he repeats after her in his focused staccato.
Technically only two wheels are removed at the moment—Jackson has the driver’s side propped up on the portable jack—but she doesn’t correct him.
Twenty minutes, Soo-Yung promises.
Judy calls Moses and informs her she’ll soon be there to pick her up.
Moses hurrahs and says, You’d wather be with me anyways.
Judy agrees. Moses is her last defense against Jackson and the world of men in general. One night, soon after Judy started seeing Jackson, Moses had trouble sleeping and came to her mother’s room in search of solace. Judy was buck-naked, slick with sweat, her legs tied to her arms behind her head with nylon tethers as Jackson painted what he called runes on the backs of her thighs with molten candle wax.
Whimpering, Judy hadn’t noticed Moses’ entry to the bedroom until the girl called out, giggling, Mama, fawt in his face!
She’s often impressed with Moses’ gumption. Judy herself tends to be mute when she most needs to speak.
When Soo-Yung arrives, he gestures out the window at Jackson.
Is Jimmy coming too? he frowns.
Somewhere, Soo-Yung got it in his head that every white man’s name is Jimmy and Judy isn’t sure she disagrees.
Oh no, Judy says, not without condescension. He’s the mechanic. He’s got a big task at hand.
She gets in the cab without telling Jackson goodbye and she’s forgotten to roll her sleeves back down. Soo-Yung points this out by admiring the starfish tattoo on her left shoulder through the rearview mirror.
You like the beach? he asks.
I’ve never been, Judy says, gesturing at the hard, brown, sunbaked landscape.
You have a starfish on you, Soo-Yung says proudly as if celebrating his powers of detection.
I like the idea of the beach, Judy admits.
Ideas can be very lonely, Soo-Yung says and for the first time Judy looks up at him, making eye contact in the rearview mirror. He is a sad-looking man, with slumped shoulders and greying hair.
We have to pick up my daughter. We’re going to the pool, Judy sighs.
The pool is close to the beach, Soo-Yung says hopefully.
No, it isn’t. Not really, Judy says.
Soo-Yung is quiet as he drives them along the flat empty road cutting through the listless grasses and stony arroyos. He turns on the radio briefly and then flips it off again. He seems to be struggling with something in himself, or more likely something Judy brought into the car. She is aware of this but feels too exhausted to lighten the mood herself. She’s paying for this experience after all.
It might storm later, Soo-Yung warns, the radio man said it.
Doesn’t look like it, Judy replies.
Just because it doesn’t look like it doesn’t mean it won’t, Soo-Yung says.
Judy offers no response.
It makes you feel clean, swimming, he says after a silence.
Not the pool. At the pool I feel like I’m swimming in everyone else’s skin, Judy says.
Soo-Yung grunts at this.
Some people eat starfish, you know, he says.
Crunchy? Judy asks in a bored monotone. She still hasn’t rolled her sleeves back down.
Oh no. You don’t eat the skin. Just what’s inside.
Unexpectedly, Judy is angry, aware of a flaw in the logic.
Where the fuck do they get starfish out here anyway? she practically screams.
Soo-Yung laughs nervously, attempts a joke. Same place they get a person like me. Imported, he says through gleaming teeth.
Soo-Yung idles outside the long blue shotgun house as Judy goes inside to fetch her daughter. The stench of her mother’s potted greenery leaks out the front door like a miasmic cloud. When the tension dissipated after that snake came up through the toilet, Jackson joked with Grandmother that it was because the snake thought it had found itself a jungle.
Moses is jumping up and down just inside the door, chanting an excited jingle of victory. She’s already in her bathing suit, a pale, knock-kneed girl with a brown pageboy and goggles so tight they make her cheeks puffy. The goggle lenses are tinted reddish to resemble the eyes of an angry amphibian. In her getup, Moses looks a little bit extraterrestrial, and Judy recalls Jackson’s remark about the woman giving birth to an alien in some movie.
She tells Moses to hang tight while she goes and gets Grandmother out of the attic.
Huh-wee, Mama, huh-wee! Moses exclaims.
Judy swats her way through drooping yellow palm fronds. The attic’s sweltering in a way that makes it hard to think. Her mother has lugged her oxygen tank up in a backpack like a mountaineer. Surrounded by cardboard boxes, she sits on an overturned bucket—probably the receptacle from some ancient leak. She’s flipping through photo albums. The pages stick and come apart with a ripping sound. Judy sees piles of toys and clothes from her childhood and makes a mental note to come by soon and get rid of this stuff.
Mom, what are you doing up here? she asks.
Her mother’s breath is nickels in a shook can.
Your daddy used to get tipsy, I’d come up here and look at pictures, she says.
Her typical chemically buoyant hair is flat and matted to her forehead, her housedress soaked through with sweat and clinging to her craggy body. Moses tries to get her to come swimming, but Grandmother says she doesn’t want the boys seeing her like this.
How long have you been up here? You’re like a puddle in stockings, Judy says softly.
He wasn’t a bad man, your daddy. He just didn’t ever get the life he wanted.
He didn’t have a monopoly on that experience, Judy says.
I used to look at pictures of myself and think about all the things I’d wanted to be, she says.
What did you want to be, Mama? Judy asks. It’s rare that they talk like this. Usually, it’s just her mother recounting her glorious rescue from that snake.
Sometimes Judy can’t remember if she ever wanted to be something. Probably phases of wanting to be a singer or dancer, something where everyone’s always reminding you how special you are and what you mean to them. But mostly she’s felt that life is just people trying to make something out of nothing. The truth is, she doesn’t always remember a whole lot about herself. Especially certain things, the unspeakable things. They aren’t unspeakable for her only because they aren’t polite, but because it’s almost as if they happened to someone else. To speak about them is to engage in a gossip of sorts. They are rumors, lacking in the meat of the particular. Ghosts of her own mind, she can’t see them, but she knows they’re there. They’re guiding forces and she hates them because she doesn’t like to be propelled along by what she can’t see. Sometimes, she scarcely knows who she is.
It doesn’t do any good to think about it, her mother says sadly. Life doesn’t care much for what’s in your head.
I guess it doesn’t, Judy says. There are tears in her mother’s eyes. Judy wants to hug her, but she’s afraid that if she moves she’ll puncture their mutual bubble of longing. Besides, it’s humid as an armpit! In the hallway below them, Moses stomps around, yelling.
I always came around to looking at photos of you and remembering what did happen, her mother looks up at her bright and clear.
Oh Mama, let’s get you downstairs, Judy says.
Her mother heaves herself up from her bucket and cracks her head on one of the rafters.
Dog splooge! she curses furiously and the sentiment evaporates.
She rubs her bruised skull and hollers down at Moses to shut her mutated trap.
She’s a pistol, Mama, Judy says.
I swear it, Judy. One of these days that pistol’s going to go off.
At the pool, nosy old Mr. McGillicudy approaches Moses and Judy wearing his old-fashioned striped full-body bathing suit. Saggy breasts polished to a sheen with sunblock struggle against his shoulder straps. He’s carrying a snorkel and flippers.
Mrs. Granderson, Moses’ favorite, sits on the edge of the pool, her back a rotten banana of sunspots and lesions. The blond-haired lifeguard cheers her on inanely from an elevated chair as the old woman drags herself inch-by-inch towards full immersion. Judy imagines the skin shorn from the backs of her varicose legs leaving streaks on the textured concrete pool deck like oversized slugs.
The cheering section has arrived, Mr. McGillicudy says.
Moses has the t-shirt Judy made her wear in the cab as a coverup half over her head and Mr. McGillicudy gives the muscle of her arm struggling to free itself a brief squeeze.
Ouch! Moses yelps, yanking away.
Not much of a throwing arm, but it’ll do for waving pom-poms, he says.
Judy rolls her eyes. She’s bent over setting up a beach chair, but she straightens to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. She was acquaintances with Travis McGillicudy’s oldest son Davey back when they were both in high school, but then Davey became an Air Force pilot, crashed his jet into a Florida swamp, and burned up.
Moses finds a pool noodle and twirls it in the air till she accidentally catches Mr. McGillicudy in the knee.
Hey! he barks.
Sah-wee, Moses says, dancing out of reach.
Judy sees a group of kids approximately Moses’ age playing under a water feature, a big bucket that fills until it tips and spills its contents on anyone gathered underneath.
Honey, go play with your friends, Judy says.
The-wuh not my fwends, Moses pouts.
Birdlike, Mr. McGillicudy swivels his head to observe Moses more closely.
Why’s your face crooked? he peers at her suspiciously.
I’m the mouthpiece of Ga-wud, Moses explains.
She had an accident, Judy interrupts.
Mam-uhhh! Moses wails. She doesn’t like people to know the real story. Usually, they make a big deal of feeling sorry for her and then turn a critical eye on Judy. She doesn’t know she needn’t worry about Mr. McGillicudy, at least in terms of him feeling sorry. And everybody in this town knows everything already anyways. They just like to hear it repeated so they can pass judgment all over again.
How is he anyway? Mr. McGillicudy asks, confirming Judy’s theory.
How’s who? she says. Something twangy plays on the pool’s sound system. She slumps down into the still mostly upright beach chair; she’ll wait till this creep is in the water to turn it into a recliner.
Her father, Mr. McGillicudy says.
We don’t see him much, Judy says.
I’ll swear I’ve seen you around with some fella.
That’s just Jackson.
You do get around, don’t you? he says.
Aren’t you supposed to be swimming? Judy says.
Moses thwacks horseflies out of the air with her noodle.
You’re just plugging a dam with your thumb, young lady, Mr. McGillicudy tells her.
Judy lights a fresh cigarette. She’d made Soo-Yung stop at a gas station on the way so she could buy a new pack. He hadn’t said anything about the cigarettes, though she’d thought he might.
Mr. McGillicudy doesn’t show the same restraint. I wouldn’t do that, he says. Those things kill.
The way he says those makes Judy think of how Jackson refers to things he distrusts or finds stupid with the qualifier That. That politician. That Bible-thumper. She wonders when she’ll become a That. He already speaks about each of his exes as That girl.
Which one? she’d say, not merely contentiously but out of a simultaneous twinge of empathy for the nameless girls and genuine curiosity about the other suckers who’d gone in for him.
You’re a pretty lady, Mr. McGillicudy says. As if prettiness itself is a reason to keep on living.
A loudspeaker interrupts her moment of contemplation to announce the commencement of Senior Swim. Moses yodels and brandishes her noodle in triumph. Mr. McGillicudy plops down on a beach chair next to Judy and bends to tug on his flippers. Not quite surreptitiously, he stares at her legs.
Judy’s phone rings. It’s Jackson.
Seems like we’ve got an alignment issue, he says matter-of-factly, as if he’s made a great discovery and is attempting to mask his pride with the briefest of explanations. He doesn’t wait for a response.
We didn’t get groceries. What’s for dinner? he asks.
Celery, Judy says. It’s the first thing she can think of. She hangs up.
Do those wok? Moses asks Mr. McGillicudy about his flippers.
Most e-ffective synthetic invention since latex prophylactics, the old man says. To Judy, his thin, white, hairless legs do seem precariously joined to his body. Almost as if you could pull them apart like fried chicken.
What’s pwo-fee-tactics? Moses wonders.
Can’t rely on God to teach you everything now can you, Mr. McGillicudy winks.
Suddenly, the group of kids runs over from the giant bucket and pushes Mrs. Granderson into the pool. She sinks with a gigantic sploosh. Laughing madly, the kids jump in behind her and surround her as she returns to the surface flailing helplessly like an obese overturned beetle. Operatic shrieks come from deep within her gasping chest. Excited by the commotion, a dog formerly lying by its owner’s chair begins sprinting up and down the pool deck barking frantically. The lifeguard’s whistle shrills again and again and a voice over the loudspeaker intones, Seniors only! All guests under the age of fifty-five, please vacate the pool immediately!
The warnings have no effect. The children laugh and scream and splash around a terrified Mrs. Granderson as if the whistle were the soundtrack to their game.
Mr. McGillicudy smiles.
This is why I call Senior Swim Sink-or-Swim. It’s a last-ditch effort, he says.
Outraged, Moses charges to the side of the pool, shouting at the children. Her abnormal voice casts a spell. Transfixed, the children in unison cease splashing and swim to the wall.
Weave heh-wuh a-wone! Moses shouts with conviction. Excited, her impediment worsens. Her tiny body thrashes as if possessed. She smacks at the churning surface with the noodle. She fears the tidal wave summoned by her peers’ mischievous wriggling bodies will be too much even for Mrs. Granderson’s hypertension-inducing outfit. The incredible prospect of ancient, detached limbs floating in that crystal expanse fills her with a righteous wrath.
Can’t you see what yo-wa doing? she seethes.
Watching intently, Judy speculates where her daughter inherited this assertiveness.
The entranced children exit the pool and crowd around Moses. The dog comes up to them and sniffs their butts, sneezing as he inhales water from their swimsuits.
Barkley! Barkley! the dog’s owner calls.
What a stupid name, Judy thinks.
Say airplane, a dark-haired boy challenges Moses.
Ehwa-pwane, Moses spits, refusing to back down.
Say herpes, another boy suggests.
Hehwa-pees, Moses obliges.
The children laugh. It’s clear that their trance is waning.
Judy rises from her beach chair and flings her cellphone. It’s the only thing at hand with any potential as a missile. It catches a blond-headed boy in the arm before clattering to the pool deck.
Go home! she yells. She’s right you know. Why can’t anyone just think for a moment?
Overcoming a brief bewilderment, Moses beams at Judy.
Moses’ therapist said she thought that when Moses’ speech patterns were clearest, they conformed to Judy’s. Stress, rhythm, intonation. Now Judy can’t help but feel as if she’s trying to match her daughter’s language. She feels a little silly, a little ineffective, and remembers anew what it’s like to be a child trying anything for the first time.
The kids flinch, begin to dissipate. The boy hit with the cellphone rubs his arm and kicks the device into the pool.
Crazy ole bitch, he says, glowering at Judy.
She’s not a crazy ole bitch, she’s my Mom! Moses says with perfect clarity, her tongue suddenly freed from the stipulations of her twisted jaw. She swipes at the lingerers with the noodle. Shivering with passion, she begins to cry. Judy herself shakes with an unfamiliar feeling as she looks at her daughter, astonished.
Poor baby, the kids taunt, but they back away from Moses’ whirling weapon. They know they’ve been licked, and their insults and protests are just attempts to save face. Judy predicts some of them won’t return to this pool the rest of the summer, if they ever were there at all. Sometimes she feels like a lone soul inside a simulation overrun by cyborgs! Mrs. Granderson treads water with a look of constipated grievance, as if still deciding what judgment to pronounce.
Shameful! Shameless! I don’t know what all, she finally croaks to the duo of zinc-nosed lifeguards crouched at the pool’s edge to attend to her needs.
Mr. McGillicudy cackles before slipping into the pool. Judy pulls Moses to her, taking into her arms the quivering fullness of the world. A world suddenly definite to her in shape and scope. A wind has kicked up, blowing dust out of the horizon, a great red rolling cloud, and she wonders if the storm Soo-Yung forecasted really is on its way.
It’s going to rain, she tells Moses, who silently and sightlessly nods her acceptance into her mother’s shirt. The lifeguards look at the sky now conferring whether they’ll get to close the pool and go home early. Oblivious, ears submerged, Mr. McGillicudy makes off down the lane with incongruously even, graceful strokes.
Mama, what if someone needs to caw you? Moses asks, her voice muted by their embrace.
I guess they better hope the fish can help them, Judy says.
Moses giggles against her. Judy watches the old man swim. She thinks of Jackson indignantly dialing her submerged cellphone. The smirk on her lips widens to a full-blown, triumphant smile.