TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 8

Adult Ed.

 · Fiction

At Lorden they give us smoke breaks as incentive. Read Martin Luther King for fifteen minutes and I’ll give you a Marlboro, the teacher says. Look up the word gentile in the dictionary before you sound like a dipshit. Quiz each other on the rules of long division. List your past work experiences: customer service, stocking oil filters, skills with a cash register, and then, I promise, we’ll light up.

Most of us are over eighteen, anyway, dropped out or kicked out of Public Ed. Why are we here? The Dura Plant accepts GED’s is what, and maybe if we moved out of Fremont in our lives, maybe got a job at a hotel in Vegas cleaning floors with lights in them like John Vandenberg, graduating from Lorden might actually mean something other than deciding to sell smokes or assemble gear shifts.

“Na. Johnny Vandenberg killed hisself,” Angel Rojas says. “He ain’t in no Vegas.”

We’re out on the picnic table by the half-dead tree. The Buick dealership where I applied last week sits across the street, and behind us the wet grasses sprawl for about three football fields until the trailer parks kick in. Angel’s belly stretches her dress. She says that’s why they kicked her out of public, for getting preg from one of the carnival workers at Old Fashioned Days last spring, but we all know it happened after she threw a straight punch into Debbie Woods’s lips at Cancer Corner, and then Debbie covered her face and instantly screamed crazy enough to make Angel stop punching.

T.J. Welch rubs Angel’s belly as she leans sassy against him like he’s as comfortable as a fishing net. “He ain’t in Vegas no more,” T.J. says. “He’s dead.” The baby in Angel’s stomach isn’t T.J.’s, but T.J.’s a white boy with freckles, works at the video store and hopes to move his way up the ranks to assistant man in charge. He’s the type where if someone loves him, like actually tells him every day of his life from the passenger seat of his truck, and even sitting on the picnic table — “I love you, baby,” Angel says and smooches — T.J. would love that person’s entire family, from grandmas to cousins, and have no problem feeding every one of them with his last skimpy paycheck.

“Na. Na. Wait a minute. I think you mean he was in Vegas,” T.J. says. T.J. ashes his smoke. “He came back and worked at Spanky’s Pizza. So, yeah. He was in Vegas.”

T.J. thinks he’s hot shit correcting our English, but most of us only knew John Vandenberg for a second or two, smoked some dope with the kid and saw him walking down Croswell on Sundays with his flannel shirt tied around his waist. It’s like he’d have walked to Canada twice over if he never turned around, and once, while I was in our barn buffing Bondo, I called him over, opened the cellar door and showed him my dad’s moonshine stacked in bell jars. The kid snuck bottles of Wild Turkey into his locker at public. I thought he might have gotten a kick out of the shine collection. “Smells like peaches” were the only words I remember the kid saying.

“Yeah. I saw him cleaning pizza pans, taking swigs from a bottle whenever I got breadsticks last summer,” I say. “That kid drinkin’ all the time.”

T.J. and Angel twiddle each other’s thumbs. I watch the grass stuck in my shoestrings. My dad gets quality smokes from the wholesale in Muskegon. They melt between your fingers near the butt. I burn my knuckle and drop it while cars pick up speed as the limit turns fifty-five past the Buick dealership.

Only Angel has to disagree. It might be her only skill, I’m thinking. “I don’t see how you don’t think shit wasn’t a suicide,” Angel says. When she doesn’t believe she moves her mouth like she’s digging at a piece of chewing gum in her throat. “I know that tree he crashed into,” she says. “We call that shit the witch tree cuz it be all gnarly. It the only one in that huge ass field. It be looking like witch fingers and shit.” Her cousin works for a candy factory. This cousin gets damaged boxes of protein bars and gives them to Angel. Every lunch she smacks on a power bar.

“The branches, you mean,” T.J. says.

Angel peels one of her bars open. “Yeah,” Angel says. “The branches.”

You get irritated because kids die in two different ways, you want to tell them. They either wrap their faces around steering wheels or they bite down on the barrels of twelve-gauges. Maybe pistols. At least that’s how little Jacob Moon went after his dad held a nail to his ear, and then at public, football players stuck tacks to his seat, which changed over to choke holds in the locker room. Maybe when you see it happen you look at your dad’s rifle collection a little different when they refuse you a job at the Admiral station. You’d like to tell Angel and T.J. to leave it the fuck alone is all, but of course, at Lorden, people just keep talking and make heroes of the dead.

“It ain’t around nothin’ else,” Angel keeps saying, “and that part of the road my brother take his Trans Am. He goin’ like a hundred, it so straight. Johnny Vandenberg hit that big ass tree in the middle of nothin’,” she says. “How you do that and it ain’t suicide?” she asks.

“That’s the thing,” T.J. says and smokes. “No one knows but God.”

Through the window the big hand on the clock creeps toward the six. At public we’d have gotten written up, or maybe even suspended for showing up late from smoking, but at Lorden we take lunch. We light what we got. Then we stroll back when we’re done.

We walk in and Angel says, “I ain’t even read this shit.” She cups her belly like a basketball and I hold the door for her. T.J. stays out smoking and thinking about God. “Big Nick,” Angel says and hits me on the arm. “You read this shit?” she asks.

“Read what?”

“Right,” she says. “That homework.”

“I’ll give you three guesses,” I say. “And the first one don’t count.”

We’re a quarter way through the school year and I haven’t opened a book. My dad’s thinking about opening up an auto body shop where I do most of the Bondo work, sanding and grinding plaster and metal, but he says he doesn’t want any retards working for him. So here I am at Lorden. It’s been a school for maybe a hundred years, one room, and the timber posts holding up the slatted roof tell us the city stopped giving a fuck. Public has a computer lab and a gymnasium and an Olympic swimming pool and a new weight room with red Nautilus machines for football players: assholes who smoke just as much dope as we do. Thirty years ago some kid saw a family of fox peepin’ from the crick beside its parking lot. Now, my dad says, their mascot is the Red Foxes and not the Packers, which was like homage to the factory workers. “Fuck this city,” he says.

All’s we got at Lorden for a mascot is Earl Ashberry, a fifty-year-old farmer who’s been attending off and on for twenty years. Our computer lab is one yellow IBM with a broken printer on the floor. That’s where Earl sits and forgets things. The nice part, if you’re out of smokes, you can always ask Earl.

On the windowsill above the computer our general learning books with maps and maths collect mold. In my favorites the pages are missing. Earl gets up and passes them around, gives me one with a complete set of pages.

“Thanks, Earl,” I say. “You’re a huge help.”

The guy’s goofy and he says, “Anytime, Big Nick.”

He slaps one down on Angel’s desk. “Oh, hell, na,” she says. “I needs mine’s with all the pages. This baby ain’t gonna eat with me workin’ Shop ’N Save. Nuh-uh. My uncle says he can get me a job on the weldin’ line so I ain’t even fuckin’ aroun’ like that. Here, Big Nick,” she says. “This one yours.”

Next to the chalkboard is the teacher’s office — the only one. Through the wire-glass Mr. Andrews peeps at us. He wipes his mouth of pizza sauce. He’s giving us the one-second-lemme-eat-this-real-quick finger. Most of us know him from his being a school bus driver for public. Mr. Andrews is big guy, not as big as me, but he did some coaching for the wrestling team. He kicked T.J. off the bus a few times for spitting chew tobacco on the floor. But my eyes go tired thinking about old shit. It’s Tuesday, after all. My dad’s on disability, and on Tuesdays he piecemeals a Silverado from frame to fender. He’s hoping to make a quick fifteen hundred after I Bondo the holes in the tailgate. Mr. Andrews can eat a few more slices, I think.

Angel yaps at Earl and she says, “I don’t fuck around. I welded all day the other day. Get me a job doin’ that and I’ll be rich.”

T.J. thumps his boots back into the room. He slicks his hair under his hat, smells the brim and he says, “Angel can weld like a steelworker on speed.” He tells Earl about a baby crib, a real nice one from Angel’s foster mother, and how they want to keep it in the family. “But the damn leg was busted off from falling out a window,” he says. He nods, looks at his sweetheart, Angel, who’s eating up every word like it’s one of her power bars. He says, “She put on the gloves and those green goggles and went to town and put that leg back on sweet as cake.” He runs his finger along the air like a pencil. “Laid a metal bead like a razor. Those are skills,” T.J. says.

Earl’s the only one not at a desk. He grooves his head around to the beat of that talk. We’ve been at Lorden for over two months. We’ve got another four to go of this bullshit. It doesn’t stop Angel from asking every afternoon, “How about you, Big Nick? What you gonna do with your Good Enough Diploma?”

I look over at Earl, who’s giving me the wide-eyes. I say, “I’m going to live. Maybe I’ll fix some cars. Then I’ll die.” I pull an imaginary trigger at my forehead. “You know,” I say. “What God’s been asking of me.”

“Mysterious ways,” T.J. says.

It’s about this time I notice the orange insulation they’ve injected into the bricks seeps out like hardened, bubbling lava or snot. In the desktops you see Ricky was heart-shaping with Babs in ’94, and that someone named Ted thought a teacher named Mr. Strand was a real dick sucker and detailed it with stick figures carved into vanilla Formica. T.J. and Angel murmur into each other’s ears. They each have a hand on her belly. Real sweet. Maybe needless to say, it’s about the time I stare out the window.

Mr. Andrews comes limping from his office and shakes a stack of papers over his head. It’s assessment day, he tells us. “We need to find out what you’re willing to put up with,” he says. “Something you can do for the rest of your life without coming into work and shooting the people that piss you off with a bird gun.” He slaps down the stack, motions to Earl, who stands up, hikes up his carpenter pants and passes around the papers. Mr. Andrews pours coffee from a maker he’s got on his desk then. One morning we found a pint of vodka next to the coffee grounds. When Mr. Andrews sips he quivers. “Just answer the questions honest,” he says. He drinks his coffee and snickers. “And you’re not idiots. So don’t pretend to be.”

But as you can imagine, as every assessment goes in the world, we see the questions are for idiots. Are we comfortable spending an entire day alone? I want to answer, “If I have a radio and I ain’t doing Bondo.” How comfortable are you sitting in front of a computer screen? “As long as I’m home alone and can catch a look at porn.” Are you confident with hand tools? “If I can’t lose a finger I’m much more confident.”

“Do welders be scared of heights? I don’t fuck with no heights,” Angel says. “I had a cousin who fell from a silo and hit his head on the every step of the ladder. I ain’t doing no heights,” she says.

Earl taps the pencil to his lips and thinks. T.J. bites his cheek and asks, “What does it mean by ‘excessive change in temperature’?”

Angel says, “Welders are good with their hands, right. Bet they are,” she says. “Oh, shit. Then that’s all me.” She quickly fills in a couple circles.

Then Earl raises his hand. “Mr. Andrews. I need help with this,” he says.

“Just say it, Earl,” Mr. Andrews says.

Earl points at the air like he’s found something. He says, “Mr. Andrews. I’m a farmer. I ride on the back of a harvester all day with a pitchfork. I’ll do that shit in the rain and then smoke some dope,” Earl says. “What does it matter if I can” — he squints at the page and reads — “ ‘sort boxes at rate per hour’?”

“Earl,” Mr. Andrews says, “we’ve talked about this. It’s for the kids,” he says.

Earl murmurs something and goes quiet. On the sheets we fill in the bubbles. When we pass them up Mr. Andrews tells us they’ll go to a giant super-computer at public, and when they come back we’ll be given receipts on what best to do with the rest of our lives.

But T.J. speaks up. There’s a shine in his cheeks. He asks, “Did Johnny Vandenberg have to do one of these? What did Johnny get back?”

Mr. Andrews’s cheeks inflate while hot air blasts from them. “We do this shit every year,” Mr. Andrews says. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t have.”

It pisses me off. It’s one of those subjects people like T.J. won’t let go of.

“Johnny moved to Vegas,” T.J. says, again. He’s talking loud for everyone to hear. I swear he thinks he’s Martin Luther in freckles. “Johnny didn’t even need this shit,” he says. “When these papers came back I bet they didn’t say nothin’ about Johnny moving to no Vegas.”

Angel opens up her book to the pages she thinks we need. Her eyes go big. “You never know,” she says.

Mr. Andrews pours more coffee and holds a shrug, like the answers float somewhere in outer space.

I got on my Harley Davidson hat. When I’m scrubbing the brakes of an old Nova, or when I get pissed off, I turn it backward. So real smooth I turn it backward for T.J. to see. If you’d look outside in the parking lot, in the rear window of T.J.’s S-10 where Angel tells him she loves him, there’s a sticker that reads, “Tyler ‘Lightning’ Quick. Born ’78 — Died ’96.” When we were still in public we parked our Monte Carlos and begged each other for Pall Malls. If it happened to be November, that was T.J.’s time to get sad, a time for all the girls, Angel included, to sit inside T.J.’s truck and bring up the past as if T.J. had died, and they were nursing him back to life with their tits. “Tyler didn’t smoke these kind,” he’d say. “I remember once when me and Tyler went to Branstrom Park and spun donuts,” he’d say. Vroom vroom. Fast cars. All that shit. Whenever he spoke about the kid he became the authority on life and futures and what you should be doing with the present because, in T.J.’s words, “You have to stop caring about all the petty shit. You gotta love the people you know. Sometimes you have to chase your dreams because, in the end, will you be happy if you didn’t?” It makes you puke because T.J.’s big dream of living life to its fullest consists of chasing down late fees and stocking new releases at Grant Video. T.J. Welch. A real dreamer.

He puts his arm around Angel for everyone to see. “I’ll work the rest of my life at that video store if it means my baby’s safe.” Only that’s when I hit Earl on the arm and whisper, “Just imagine if that baby was his,” I say.

He doesn’t laugh. No one laughs. T.J. only smiles and takes it as a compliment to his future potential. Mr. Andrews gets set to teach us something when Earl says, “I got a confession to make, bud.”

“What is it now, Earl?”

Earl talks like he’s in pain. “This homework,” Earl says. His hand falls on the computer table. “I didn’t get it done, buddy.”

“I got a confession to make, too,” I say.

“Me, too,” T.J. says.

“Y’all all suck,” Angel says. She flips a page of her book. “I know where we gonna be next year,” she says.

“This ain’t no bullshit,” Earl says. “You know the Butts’ farm, right?” he asks. T.J. huffs and smells his hat. It’s an unspoken thing with Earl and Mr. Andrews because, for one summer, they worked at the oil change place together. Mr. Andrews got laid off from driving bus the same time Earl’s season ended at the carrot farm. At the oil change Mr. Andrews moved up, took people’s money and checked levels of washer fluid; Earl worked in the pits and got demoted three times over. They tried to pay him less than state minimum, and finally, Earl told the bosses to go fuck themselves for that. Not a bright move, Earl always tells us.

Earl picks at the keyboard of the dead computer while he keeps talking. “They’re building irrigation along that carrot patch. So it’s either do that, and then make some money, or do this homework on…” He leans over, looks at the page Angel has open, and before she slams the book closed on his nose, Earl says, “On, what was that…Magdalene?…or piss these guys off who’ve already paid me to lay pipe. And really. I can’t piss these guys off anymore.” He picks up the entire broken keyboard, looks at the bottom and sets it back down.

“The Butts?” Mr. Andrews says. “You’re still working for those fuckers?”

“I wasn’t going to,” Earl says. “But it’s a big job and they’re paying.”

Mr. Andrews laughs like it’s sad. He’s standing behind a metal desk from the sixties, rusted, and he flips the page of his Master book. “It’s Magellan,” he says.

“Right. I would have known if I wasn’t working for the Butts,” Earl says.

*  *  *

Mr. Andrews wipes his forehead with the bottom of his shirt. The hair on his stomach is wet. There’s not much conditioning inside Lorden, just a fan that blows hot air toward the ceiling, and if you’re lucky, every once in a while you can feel coolness touch the back of your ears.

“Right,” Mr. Andrews says. “Which one of you geniuses did do the homework?”

Earl folds his arms. Mr. Andrews looks to us. “I gots mine,” Angel says and lies. T.J. tips up his nose at her books. “And I got T.J.’s right here,” she says.

“Wow. Great,” Mr. Andrews says. “A single point of view.”

Above the chalkboard he pulls down the map of the world, which is a ripped nylon roll. “This is the path of Magellan,” he says. He’s got piece of chalk in his hand and he starts at the top, and while working his way through the ocean we hear it: “I don’t know why he thinks it wasn’t suicide. That fucker stupid. He staples his arms, cut hisself. If that ain’t a sign,” she says, “what is?”

Mr. Andrews closes his eyes. You can tell he’s pissed by the way the chalk hits the tray like a bullet ricocheting from a plumbing pipe. “Every fucking day,” he says. His arms slap his legs. “What do you want to do?” he asks. “Nick? T.J.? You two don’t have many chances left. Actually, I don’t think you two have much of any chance in anything, to be perfectly honest.”

From my dad picking me up at the police station for having knives in my pocket, or from my boss at my last job washing dishes, it’s a line that keeps reoccurring in my life. T.J. murmurs something into Angel’s ear. “Seriously,” T.J. says under his breath.

“Seriously,” Mr. Andrews says. “What are you two geniuses discussing?”

“Me?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “The proud parents,” he says.

“My back be hurtin’,” Angel says. She gets up from the desk like there’s a thumbtack.

“We were talking about Johnny Vandenberg,” T.J. says. “You know. A dead person? I’d say that’s pretty fucking important.”

“Uh-huh. Sure,” Mr. Andrews says.

T.J. talks like he’s curing things. “Angel wants to know what happened. One minute the kid’s in Vegas and the next he’s back here. It’s fucked,” T.J. says. “And then he’s dead. It’s a good question, babe.”

“It ain’t even that,” Angel says. “It’s like…” she sticks out her face and her mouth goes sideways. “It’s like what the fuck,” she says.

Mr. Andrews throws up his hands, goes over to his coffee pot and grabs it up. He heads for the office to sit.

Earl says, “Buddy. What are you doin’? Buddy. I thought we we’re going to get some learnin’ done today. I took off work.”

“Sorry ’bout it, Earl,” Mr. Andrews says. We know it should be quiet time now. At least at public it would have been quiet time until we shut the fuck up, but at Lorden, when the teacher tells you to fuck off, the rest of your life, let alone the rest of the day, is up to you to fill in. We sit there. We see the vodka bottle on the office windowsill next to Mr. Andrews’s coffee pot. He’s not shy about it anymore and mixes a drink.

“He was working at goddamn Spanky’s Pizza,” Earl says.

In unison T.J. and Angel both say, “WE KNOW! GOD!”

“Jesus. Don’t bite my head off,” Earl says. He mutters. A rumor about Earl is that he stole cinder blocks from the back of 84 Lumber, climbed scaffolding to reach the highest bricks, and when Earl wasn’t looking, his brother dropped a forty-pounder straight on Earl’s head. Now when he gets frustrated he mumbles. It takes some listening but I hear him.

“Fuckin’ kid was my neighbor,” I hear. “Worked like sixty hours at a goddamn pizza joint.” His eyes widen. “PER WEEK,” I hear. “Vegas ain’t no place for a lonely man trying to make a man. And then we gotta learn. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” Earl says and throws the computer keyboard.

“Earl,” I say. “Did you just say the kid was your neighbor?”

“Fuck,” he grumbles. “What? No. I don’t know what I just said. I say all sortsa shit.” He flits his hand in the air. “My memory’s all fucked up.”

Something breaks in the teacher’s office. A chair falls. “Fuck it,” we hear. “You kids wanna learn. We’ll fucking learn.” Mr. Andrews limps into the classroom. He goes back into the office and then comes back out with a set of keys. Instead of a school bus Lorden has an ’86 Chevy van in the parking lot. “Let’s do some investigating if y’all are so intent on finding out. We’re going out to that goddamn tree,” he says. “Let’s go.”

Angel puts her lips in an “O” shape. It’s as if someone had told her that baby of hers was T.J.’s and not the carnival worker’s she had the hots for. “We can’t be doing that, Mr. Drew,” she says. “You been drinkin’.”

“Bullshit,” Mr. Andrews says. “This is Lorden. We’ll do what the fuck we want.”

*  *  *

In the van the seatbelts are stretched out. Earl is smiling in the back seat while T.J. and Angel fold their arms and pout. “This is like desecration,” T.J. says. “This ain’t right.” We joggle down the gravel road, half swerving from Mr. Andrews situating his coffee, and for about five minutes he’s been clearing the goldfish from his throat like the country air gives him tuberculosis. We go by the apple orchards, where migrants wrestle giant wooden crates within the tree trunks. “Right there,” Earl says and puts his finger to the window. “See all those irrigation lines.” As the rocks tinkle against the fenders we see giant sprinklers in a distant field like the bones of pyramids. “That’s what I’ve been working all week,” he says. He rubs at his arm and winces. “I get a pain in my arm that wakes me up at night,” he says. “From digging. We’ll dig all day long and hit rocks and roots, and it shakes your damn bones ’til they feel like splintering.”

“Damn,” Mr. Andrews says. “Better you and not me, Earl.”

“Thanks,” Earl says.

Angel’s face is dead. “I better not go into no baby labor out here,” she says. “We’re so far from the hospital this is stupid.”

“This ain’t right,” T.J. says and shakes his head.

I’m simply along for the ride, I think. What goes by is this, corn and more corn. On Base-Line Drive a dead car, a Plymouth something with a historical license plate, sinks into muck like a slug. We keep going over washboard gravel. We turn onto dirt when Angel points and says, “The fuck is that?” In a mud patch the tops of engines seep from the ground: V-8’s. Their rubber cords are garter snakes and the valves peep out in gulping tubes. A farmhouse with the remnants of a barn, the timber posts painted with oil, remind me of one of the pictures I’ve seen in one of our general learning books. Then T.J. says it. “Stonehenge,” he says. Mr. Andrews drinks his coffee and slows down. Earl laughs. “No. I don’t know what the fuck Stonehedge is, but that’s Cloyce Webster’s.”

“Who?” I ask.

“Cloyce Webster’s,” he says. “That’s an old store where those posts are. It’s underground.” He tells us that an old man, Cloyce, I guess, got real scared during the fifties. He took engines from tractors and trucks from the war and buried them so as to stop erosion, and also to have parts if shit hit the fan and the Russians came. “When that didn’t happen, he made his barn basement into a little general store,” Earl says. “He’s got bananas and Cokes and laundry sheets and canned goods. Canned goods for days.”

“He gets business?” Mr. Andrews says and peers at the house. “He sell booze out there?”

“Probably,” Earl says. “But that’s where I get my lunch meat.”

“Grody,” Angel says. “I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ that come from an old burned-down barn.”

“I don’t think about that stuff,” Earl says. “Hey. It’s a fuckin’ livin’.”

T.J. huffs at that. We keep treading 8th Avenue until we find Croswell again and the crumbling asphalt. A straight enough go. “Look.” Angel positions her belly against her thighs. “There that witch tree,” she says. “I tole you.”

About a mile down the road, which isn’t much of a road for yellowed farmland, we see the tree’s branches hanging over the shoulder. It’s the only tree that someone’s ancestors left standing when they decided this shithole was a great place to grow carrots. Ten foot down within the long grasses lays the roots. It’s as if pirates braided rope together for centuries, hundreds of them, a rope for each man, and set the whole as a monument for sailors who’d died for getting drunk, and now, at the top and bottom, things have become tangled and frayed.

“Pay attention,” Mr. Andrews says. “You wanted to come down here, so now you can’t stop blabbing about.” He wipes his forehead with his shirt. “I must be fucking drunk,” he says.

We squeak to a park. Mr. Andrews drinks his spiked coffee and plays with the seatbelt buckle. As we get out I’m sure we look like a bunch of welfare cases cleaning trash from the side of the road, me in my Harley Davidson Hat, T.J. lighting up two cigs at once, one for him and the other for his pregnant girlfriend.

“This is like a decoration of the grave,” T.J. says. Angel steps from the van, he holds her back. “Yeah. We ain’t goin’ down there.”

One of my problems in life is that I can never find pants that fit. My dad says I was born with mechanic’s ass. That makes it hard to get down the ditch in my high-tops. I guess I look for tire tracks, bottles or a murder scene in the dirt, but the only sign of people in the world on 8th Avenue are gray silos behind distant power lines.

“See anything?” Mr. Andrews yells.

I swipe the grass with my hand. “No,” I say, and I say it because winter had come and gone, as well as most of the summer wind to cover up the growth of tread marks. I remember Johnny Vandenberg drove an old Buick that sat leaking oil in Lorden’s parking lot. I kick at the grass again and kneel down. I feel a lump in the earth where I think the tires gouged in. Other than that the tree has bark missing, a smooth area about as big as an iron shield, and by the looks of it, the left headlight and radiator hit first. Probably knocked the rearend into the air, bent the frame and Johnny behind the steering wheel before settling and smoking.

Earl kicks at the gravel in the road with his work boots. A car goes by, swerves and honks at him. He mumbles something. From what I remember of him saying is that Johnny worked at that goddamn Spanky’s Pizza, but I didn’t know it was sixty hours per week. They have a closet where they scrub deep dish pans in the dark. He probably took phone calls, and then scrubbed more pans until three a.m. That was his life, I think. He probably went to Vegas because he knew he didn’t want to deal with that shit. He might have found a job at a casino, not an Indian one my dad goes to on weekends and loses fifty per week, but a real one with dancers and pink lights and water fountains shooting up like geysers. Maybe Johnny met a woman, I think, not like Angel whose dream is welding, but maybe that woman had a dream of owning her own place in Tahiti somewhere. Johnny could have been her partner in crime when tourists and losers tried their luck at happiness.

Angel sits in the shade of the van with an ugly look on her face. She bitches about the baby kicking. “It feels like an alien,” she says and pokes it. I touch the tree, the smooth part where the bark is missing, and think about how Vegas didn’t work out for Johnny Vandenberg. He probably went broke where his only hope was to come home, scrub pans and start attending Lorden — that dream.

In the ground I find a piece of headlight. Nothing big. Not necessarily from Johnny’s Buick, either. A corner of a lens is caked with dirt. I head back to the van with it.

“Are you happy, now?” T.J. says to me.

“Me?” I ask. “I ain’t the one who wouldn’t shut the fuck up about it.” I show him and Angel the headlight lens, and then Earl, who swears and says, “Goddamn, that baby’s sharp,” and then warns me that, if I plan to keep it as a shiv, be careful not to stab it through my leg. He’s done shit like that, he says.

“It don’t prove nothin’,” Angel says. “He killed hisself and now we seen right where it happened.” She quivers, throws a stone in the field that expands into the next county. “It’s like you can feel that shit out here.”

We hop back in the van. When we head back to town everyone has finally shut the fuck up other than a few little hums coming from the backseat. Angel moans about a pain in her back and how she can’t find a comfortable space between T.J. and Earl. We see the smokestacks of the Dura plant over the trees. The car dealers where yellow, blue and white flags flit in the wind. And for some reason, it’s strange how I can feel that baby in the girl’s belly behind me. Its presence gives me goose bumps. “Seven more weeks,” Angel says and rubs it. She snuggles up to T.J.’s chest, puts her ass against Earl for comfort. Mr. Andrews takes easy the turns off gravel roads. We go by the Admiral station, the video store, the grain mill where guys stack bag after bag of cornfeed fifty per week, and as I reach for a smoke I think how that’s probably all we need in this town: another little Angel in the world.


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