by Jonathan Rubinstein

When I was ten years old, my mother married for the second time. My sister, Lisa, and I were sent straight from the wedding in Brooklyn to Tennessee to visit my father, while my mother cruised through the Carribean alongside her new husband. Both the wedding and the cruise were courtesy of my grandparents. My mom had a lot riding on this marriage, and my grandparents weren't above spending a little to make sure it started on the right foot.

We had spent a week with our dad the summer past, a blur of theme parks and fast food. He lived with his wife, Jill, in a spacious duplex apartment with a fireplace and a spiral staircase. Jill was skinny and reminded me of a scarecrow, with long straight hair like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. She worked for the local government in Knoxville, in some stark building built in the sixties. The previous summer, we had gone with my father to pick her up and met her boss, a rail-thin man with weathered skin who'd had his larynx removed and had to talk with the aid of an electronic device. Lisa had cowered behind my father until we left.

My father stood on the back porch grilling steak and sipping Blue Nun while Jill talked to my sister. I fiddled with the antique slot machine, taking dimes out of the reserve in the back, dropping them into the slot in the front, and pulling the handle. I watched the old reels spin in front of me.

Jill was stirring a tall glass of iced tea with a long spoon. The ice clinked rhythmically, getting faster as she spoke. "You like that slot machine? Your Daddy bought it when we went to Las Vegas," she said. She had that singsong voice that people used when they weren't accustomed to speaking to children. "We've gotten all kinds of new stuff since you all were here last." She was nodding slowly. "New sofa. New television." She gestured to the kitchen. "We even got a microwave oven. You can cook an egg in about thirty seconds," she said. "'Course, you can heat up pizza, tater tots, just about anything."

I hoped Lisa wouldn't mention those things to my mom when we got home. I knew from listening to her talk on the phone that he wasn't caught up on his child support, hadn't been since their divorce.

Jill turned to my sister, who was staring up at her. "Your Daddy's so happy to have you here, you know that? He's been talkin' about it all week." Lisa put her thumb in her mouth, which seemed to make Jill speak more quickly. "The four of us'll have a great time." Her voice raised at the end of the sentence as though she was asking a question.

I looked up at her. "What're we going to do?"

Jill was still stirring the tea, and a bit splashed over the side. She ran into the kitchen and came back with a few paper towels. "Ummm, we'll go to the movies. And we can go swimming," she said. "They fixed the pool." It took me a few extra seconds to process everything she said because of her deep Southern drawl. The accents were all in the wrong places; the first time we'd come to visit, the previous year, my sister pretended not to understand a single word she said. My father and I acted as interpreters for the first few hours, Lisa repeating what'd she say? until Jill offered to buy her a new Holly Hobby doll if she'd promise to pay closer attention. Lisa had learned the Four Questions not long before in Hebrew school, and on the plane home, spent the entire time reciting them in a lousy Southern accent.

Lisa went and sat on the sofa, and I pulled the handle one last time, and walked outside to where my father was cooking.

"Hey, kiddo." He smiled at me, the worn skin around his eyes seeming more wrinkled than it should have, his patchy, hair revealing pallid scalp. "You know the secret to steak, right?" He put a cigarette to his lips.

I shook my head. The smell of lighter fluid filled my nostrils.

"You've got to marinate it," he said, exhaling a thick cloud, "Get what I'm saying? Put it in some wine, with garlic powder, salt and pepper?" He flipped the steak onto a white plate, and went inside. I stood there, feeling the warmth of the grill, watching the sizzling bits of fat that were stuck there. He called me from the dining room. "You hungry?"

"Uh-huh," I said, and I went inside and sat down.

Lisa sat down next to me, thumb still in her mouth, while my father sliced the steak.

"'Course, I have to work," Jill said, eyeing my father as he served us. She reached across the table and put a steaming ear of corn on my plate, and then one on Lisa's. "I already took all my vacation this year."

My father sat down across from me. "So what? Why don't you just take off for a bit? No one'll mind." He shook the ketchup bottle, watching a slow drip fall onto his plate.

"City don't run itself," she said. "My boss'd have a fit."

"You know what I think you should do?" my father said, furrowing his dark eyebrows. "Take away his box, he won't be able to bitch at you." My father laughed, hard, and then Lisa joined in, her high-pitched whine echoing off the white walls and tiled floor. I looked down, trying not to laugh. He put his arm around Jill and patted her on the shoulder.

Jill got up from the table. "I'm goin' to the ladies' room," she said, with a forced-looking smile on her face.

Lisa erupted in a squeak. "Pays to advertise," she said, and I had to laugh.

After dinner, we all sat in the living room watching television. My father had turned the lights down, and the room was filled with a blue glow as I pressed my cheek against the rough fabric of the sofa. My sister rested against his belly on the other end.

Carson started his monologue, and then my father got up and started upstairs. I looked up at him. "I'll be right back," he said. Jill sat staring at the set.

I pushed myself up off the couch and started towards the stairs.

"Wait a minute," she said. "Why don't you stay down here. Your father'll be right back." I looked back at her, sitting on the love seat, her tired hair pushed along the cushions like a dirty broom. "Just sit for a bit."

I kept heading towards the stairs. "I just want to go talk to him," I said.

"Sit down, Sid," Jill said. "He'll be back in a minute."

Teeth clenched, I trudged back to the sofa and watched Carson tell the rest of his jokes. I tried to force myself to sit straight, to display my displeasure, but I finally rested against the pillows. I stopped sensing the passage of time, feeling my head shake as it fell forward, dozing. I looked up, and Johnny was interviewing a guest. My father sat next to me on the sofa, eating from a bag of M & M's. He smiled at me, and I pressed against him, inhaling stale cigarette smoke and the sweet smell of chocolate. He kissed the top of my head, but all I could feel was the sandpaper of his chin against my temple. I fell asleep, vaguely remembering being carried upstairs and placed into bed, feeling the stairs sway beneath me as I rose into the air, spinning around again, until I came to soft rest.

Like the year before, Jill left early every morning before we woke, and my father took my sister and me with him from place to place as he ran his daily errands. He visited bars, mainly, where he'd joke with the bartender about serving his kids and then talk with florid men in hushed tones.

We stopped one morning outside a dark wood-shingled building, heavy curtains in the windows and no sign outside to indicate what it might be. My father turned off the car, and leaned around to the back seat of his '77 Thunderbird. He grinned at the two of us.

"I've got a surprise," he said. He pulled an envelope out of the inside pocket of his gold-buttoned blazer, turning around more fully on the bucket seat. He opened the flap of the envelope and shook its contents into his hand.

Two white passbooks dropped out.

"I opened accounts for the both of you." He smiled, showing his yellowed teeth. Without the air conditioning, beads of sweat had begun to form on his pale forehead. "Savings accounts, for college." He opened the cover to one and pointed to the typewritten words and numbers inside. My name appeared on the top line, with a balance of twenty-five dollars.

"Every week," he said, showing my sister hers, "I'll put two dollars in for each of you."

My sister looked confused. "Then what?"

He tapped the book with his forefinger. The nail was white and rough. "Then you'll always have money." He put the passbooks back into the envelope and then into his pocket. "For college, or whatever."

He jumped out of the car, and we followed him into the building. We stood in a dark room with a pool table. A big, bearded man racked the balls when he saw my father walk in, and my father took a cue off the wall and rapidly cleared the table. I looked at my sister, who was staring, openmouthed, at the golf game on the TV over the bar.

My father's friend shouted to me from across the room. "You want to give it a shot? Your dad's the best Jew pool player in the state." He took the shortest cue off the wall, chalked it, and handed it to me. "That's like being the most popular kid at Boy Scout camp. Don't mean much on a job application." He snorted to himself and wiped his forehead with a dirty handkerchief.

I looked over at my father, who smiled, and I shrugged, and took the cue, standing there while he racked the balls. I stood at the end of the table, the cue resting on my outstretched thumb.

"Like this," my father said, and he put his hand on mine and adjusted it carefully, resting the stick on my small fingers in a way that felt right, like I was in control. I thrust the stick forward and hit the cue ball squarely in the center. I could see it fly forward, a blue chalk mark on its side, until it smacked into the arrangement of balls and bounced off lightly. It had barely dislodged the balls on the outer rows.

"Try again," he said. He placed the balls back into position and helped me arrange the cue on my outstretched hand. I focused on the cue ball in front of me and pushed the stick forward, surely, sending it solidly into the lead ball and sending the rest apart in different directions. I breathed in deeply.

"That's great," my father said, and then he left me to finish the game while he went into the bathroom with his friend.

"I have to go to Louisville for a day," he said as he poured himself coffee. It was Saturday, and Jill was home. "For business. I'll be back tomorrow morning."

I nodded and sat next to Lisa in front of the television watching cartoons until he came over, hugged us goodbye, and left. Jill stood in the doorway watching him go, and I turned away when I saw her close the door.

"You kids okay?" she said.

We both nodded, staring at the screen.

The house was nearly silent without him there, and I felt more like a stranger for the rest of the day than someone who belonged. My sister sat in front of the television until there were no more cartoons, and then stood in the kitchen holding her pink pilled satin edged blanket as Jill did the dishes.

I told Jill that I was going to ride my bike. She smiled a big gap-toothed smile and nodded, probably because my father had made such a big deal of it during our visit the year before. But it had rained throughout our entire trip then, and the bike sat unused until one morning my father woke me early, telling me the rain had stopped. I rode it in my pajamas on the slick asphalt, the pedals damp against the thin fabric covering my feet, while he stood in the doorway and drank coffee from a foam cup.

I got outside and ignored my bike, walking around the neighborhood, a landscape of American cars and trucks separated into painted rows. I wandered among them carelessly as the blood rushed to my head. I ran my fingers along the grooves between doors and frames, dragging them over the slick bumpers and hoods.

I stopped and looked down the road. Heat shimmered off the black pavement ahead of me and I became aware of my own sweat, soaking my terrycloth tank top, my flimsy shorts with the blue Adidas stripes down the side.

Jill woke me in the middle of the night. When I first opened my eyes, it was cold, and her face and straight, flat hair were backlit from the hallway. My sister stood in the doorway wearing her Holly Hobby pajamas and sucking her thumb.

"Get dressed," Jill said. Her voice was rough, like she'd been crying. "We have to go see your Daddy. In Louisville."

"Is he okay?" I asked.

She nodded. "There's a problem. It's not a big deal, but he's in jail. It's some kind of mixup, and we have to go there and help him make bail. We'll stay with my friend Louise," she said.

I looked up at her. "What did he do?" I said.

"He didn't do anything," she barked. "It's all a mistake." Jill paused, and patted my head softly. She smelled like a damp towel. "It'll be fine," she said, leaving me alone in the room.

I turned and put on the clothes she handed me. I went downstairs and got in the back seat of her Dart. The seats were cold vinyl, and I pressed my face against the window as Jill came out of the house carrying her matching Samsonite. My sister shuffled behind her, the feet of her pajamas scratching along the pavement.

Jill started driving, chain-smoking Kools and listening to soft rock on the radio. We reached the highway, and she looked in the rear-view mirror and saw that I was awake. "You'll like Louise, Sid," she said. "I've known her since I was your age."

"She lived here? In Knoxville?"

Jill paused, and shook her head slowly as though she had given it some thought. "Nope," she said. "I lived in Louisville. Until I met your Daddy," she said. "Never lived anyplace else."

Lisa rested against her blanket, breathing loudly through her mouth. Her thumb was wet and covered with pink lint.

I leaned against the door and looked up at Jill through the smoke that surrounded her head. She drove on, and I fell asleep to the rhythmic pulse of the highway.

We got out of the car the next morning in front of an attached, brown and white house with an unpainted porch. A gaunt woman with skin the color of weak coffee looked at us from the doorway. There was a gust of wind, and the hem of her plaid robe shook.

"Louise," Jill called to her, running onto the porch and embracing her friend. They murmured back and forth about the drive and the weather, and I heard Louise say my father's name. Her voice had an edge when she said it, like she was talking about someone who owed her money.

It was a dirty house, full of newspapers and cats, dusty rattling fans and pictures of Jesus that moved when you looked at them from different angles. We went into the kitchen, and Louise sat me and my sister down at the metal table with a can of Hi-C and a plate of bacon. I looked up at Jill, and she stared into the air for a long moment, and then turned back and poured bright red punch into paper cups for us. They went into the living room, murmuring some more, and my sister took a piece of bacon and dipped it in her drink before she put it into her mouth and chewed noisily. Lisa saw me looking at her and opened her mouth wide. "Good," she said, her greasy face breaking into a smile.

We finished our food and sat in the kitchen while Louise and Jill talked. Flies buzzed around the windowsill, and it began to get hot. Lisa went into the living room, and I heard her start to cry, not stopping until Jill called my name.

I went in to see them. Snot covered Lisa's upper lip, and Jill was pulling Kleenex out of her purse. "Lisa wants to go. You ready?" Jill said, as she wiped my sister's nose.

Louise sat on the plush sofa. "I'll stay here," she said, her thin hand on Jill's arm. "You can stay here as long as you want, but don't you bring him back here. Not again."

Jill got up quickly, we left Louise sitting there and got back in the car and went to the jail. Jill and Lisa held hands as they walked down a long, linoleum covered hallway. I followed them, passing family after family, groups centered around a sobbing matriarch, dirty-faced children looking distantly at the paintings on the wall, Old Glory, stepping on the water fountain pedal again and again and watching the weak dribble.

We sat on hard plastic chairs with other families, waiting for our fathers.

My sister sat next to me in a frilly sundress, a miniature belle with saliva running down her chin as she sucked her thumb. She murmured to herself as she looked around, and I was about to tell her to shut up when my father's wife spoke to me.

"You're not mad at him, are you?" She was crouched in front of me. Her face was thin, foreign. When she spoke, I could see how crooked her teeth were. I wanted to tell her that my father could probably arrange to have her see his brother, the orthodontist, for free. But she spoke again before I had the chance. "This isn't his fault, you know."

I shook my head. "It's a mistake."

She nodded. "That's right," she said.

We sat across from him, separated by a thick piece of scratched plastic with tiny holes drilled through the center. The plastic went a few feet up towards the ceiling, seemingly to prevent us from passing him anything. I looked at Lisa, who was sobbing because she realized this and wanted to give him the Reggie bar she had made Jill buy for him out of the vending machine. I thought of throwing it over, to quiet her.

He looked older in his orange jumpsuit. It made his skin seem even more pale.

We sat there, my sister crying the entire time until he told her to save the candy for when he got home. This stopped the flow of tears, and she clutched it in her damp palm until we left.

My father and his wife spoke quietly back and forth through the holes in the plastic, talking about lawyers, my father naming people to whom she could go for money. After a while, he looked straight at me, his face obscured by the scratches on the plastic.

"There's nothing to worry about," he said to me. "Jill's going to talk to my lawyer."

"They should let you out," I said. "If it's a mistake."

Lisa interrupted. "You look like an old man, Daddy."

I tried to hit her with my elbow, but she moved away.

He smiled weakly. "I'm just tired, sweetie," he said. "I was up all night, thinking about you two. And the beds here aren't too comfortable," he said, smiling for a moment. "And they have me sleeping right under the air conditioner. I'll probably come home with a cold."

We said goodbye, and told him we'd be back soon, and Jill took us out to the car. My sister tugged on her sleeve as we stepped back out into the heat.

"They should give him a new bed," she said as she started to sob again. "It's not fair. He'll get sick."

My father's wife nodded as she started the car and told my sister that the lawyer would take care of it, as soon as he showed up. My sister nodded nervously, grasping the soft Reggie bar.

My sister and I sat on the dusty sofa under a Jesus hologram, watching professional wrestling. When you looked at the picture one way, it was just his face looking off to the side, like the pictures they take in elementary school. From another angle, his arms were outstretched and a group of robed people were huddled at his feet.

My sister was half-paying attention to the wrestling because Jill was sitting in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and talking to Louise, their voices obscured by a box fan propped on a chair between the rooms.

We watched between bursts of static, ugly men in tight outfits that emphasized their bulk. One raced across the ring while the other remained stationary, bracing for impact and then shifting to make his opponent flip into the air wildly.

"That's fake, you know."

I looked up to see a lanky teenager standing in the doorway. He wore deep blue pants and no shirt, and I could see the outline of his ribs against his dark skin.

"It's fake," he said, in a deep voice with a thick drawl.

I shook my head. "Did you see what he did? He flipped that guy right over." I stammered, surprised at the strength of my reaction.

My sister nodded and took her thumb part of the way out of her mouth to speak. "He knocked him over," she said nasally. The fan rattled in the background, then resumed its hum.

"You don't believe that bullshit, do you?" He sat down on the arm of the sofa next to me. His skin glowed with sweat, and I could see fine, sparse black hairs on his upper lip. "They fake the whole thing."

One of the wrestlers climbed up onto the ropes and jumped off, hitting the other man in the face with his knee.

"If they faked it," I said, smug, "why would that guy let himself get hit in the face so hard? That would hurt. Like hell," I added, looking to see if any of the adults had heard. They continued to talk in the kitchen.

He nodded. "Maybe it's not all fake."

I felt a surge of pride, and I smiled.

"But they know who's gonna win," he said. "And mostly it's about putting on a big show. That's how you know this is fake and boxing is real. Most of the time these wrestling matches last a while. Even though they hit each other so hard it should knock them out. They're holding back." He took a pack of cigarettes out of his front pocket and lit one with a Zippo lighter. He saw me look at it, and handed it to me. "Be careful," he said, and I flipped it open and spun the wheel to light it. It caught, the first try, and a orange-yellow flame shot up. I flipped it closed quickly and looked towards the kitchen.

He took the lighter out of my hand. "Boxing's different. Sometimes the fight lasts one round. People get mad, don't think they got their money's worth. But it's too bad, they know what's fair is fair."

He stood and went into the kitchen. I could see Jill give him a hug. James, I heard her call him through the fan's drone. Louise stood up, and he sat in her place and put his cigarette into the brimming ashtray.

That night, we ate something that seemed like hamburgers covered in gravy. It was spicy, and my tongue burnt as I ate it. My sister wouldn't touch hers, eating only mashed potatoes.

James sat between us, towering over the table as Jill and Louise sat in the living room smoking. He put an immense forkful of meat into his mouth and started to chew. "You ever eat this before?" I watched the muscles in his jaw flex as he ate.

I shook my head. "It's good," I said.

He nodded. "Better than matzah," he said. He pronounced it matz-oh. "I had some-a that in church. We were hearing about the Hebrews in Egypt, all that."

My sister chewed her potatoes, open-mouthed. A fly buzzed around the lone incandescent bulb that hung, bare, from the ceiling.

"How'd you know we're Jewish?" I said.

He shrugged. "My mom told me. It don't bother me, though."

I looked at him, puzzled. "Huh?"

"You two are going home tomorrow," he said, ignoring me. "Back to New York, or New Jersey, or wherever it is you came from."

My sister spat some potatoes out as she spoke. "Unh-uh," she said, shaking her head. "My dad's getting out of jail, then we're going back to his house." She swallowed the rest of what was in her mouth, holding her finger up to indicate she wasn't finished speaking. "He has a pool."

James shrugged. "Not what I hear." He ran his hand over his short hair, looking up and away.

I looked at my sister and shook my head. Her eyes were starting to water.

"He does have a pool," she said. "He does, too."

I decided not to tell her that she had misunderstood.

We finished our food in silence, my sister and I glancing furtively at each other and into the living room. I followed James out onto the front porch, past my Jill and Louise, where he lit a cigarette in the cooling dusk.

"He's going to be in for a while," James said to me quietly, expelling a thick cloud of smoke from his mouth and nose as he spoke. He leaned against a rickety porch rail that looked like it might give at any moment. "My momma said he was caught red-handed. Selling some drugs. No two ways about it, he's gonna have a trial, she said. Your momma's trying to find people to make his bail."

I shook my head. "She's not my mother," I said.

He shrugged. "Don't matter to me." He stood up from the rail and jumped down the steps. "Come on," he said. "Let's go get a pop."

I stepped behind him onto the cracked concrete, weeds pushing up between the broad slabs, fighting for space with broken glass and cigarette butts. He walked a few paces ahead of me, nodding occasionally to someone we passed but keeping me at a distance, like I had wandered into this neighborhood by myself. I worked hard to keep up with his long strides.

It grew darker as we walked down the road, past dilapidated houses with old men sitting on their porches, a rusted Ford jacked high up with two sets of unmoving legs sticking out from underneath, a broken baby stroller upended in the street. James looked like a ghost in front of me, a silhouette in the dimming light. I pushed myself, walking faster.

He came to a storefront decorated with beer posters, women in bikinis stroking a bottle. I followed him inside.

We stood in a narrow space with a concrete floor, facing a wooden counter topped by a thick plastic wall that rose to the ceiling. The plastic was covered on the inside by boxes, products for sale, prices. Aspirins, beef jerky, cans of Tab, Big Red. The clerk behind the counter reached above him and dropped a pack of cigarettes in the drawer that pushed out. He asked James if he wanted anything else.

"Gimme a Coke," he said. "And a Big Red for him." He pointed to me, and the guy behind the counter mumbled something I couldn't understand.

James laughed. "He wants to know if you need some rubbers for later." He pointed to a package of condoms taped to the inside of the window.

"Sure," I said, feeling my face redden.

The guy behind the counter said something again, and James snorted loudly.

"He said you can use them to make water balloons," he said, dropping his money into the drawer and taking out our drinks. He handed me the Big Red. "Don't drink it too fast, it'll come out your nose."

I unscrewed the cap as we went outside and took a long sip. It was cold, and tasted like some made-up fruit. "It's good," I said.

He nodded, and paused to open his Coke. "You should come down here some other time. Stay for a coupla days."

I looked up at him as he turned towards home. His shoulder blades jutted sharply out from his back. "Maybe I'll come next year."

He looked at the ground for a moment, and paced quickly down the dark Louisville road.

My sister and I got up early the next morning and sat on the porch waiting for Jill to take us to see our father again. It was another hot day, and we fidgeted and poked at each other while she readied herself. I steadied small pebbles on my knee and flicked them off with my fingernail, sending them into Lisa's bare arms.

The smell of fresh asphalt filled my nose, from a truck parked halfway down the block. In the bright daylight, I could see the store that James had taken me to. The bold advertisements on the front window seemed old and faded in the light and distance.

After a while, Jill came outside and told us to get in the car. We climbed into the stifling back seat while she talked to Louise on the porch. The windows were electric, so we sat still with the back doors open waiting for her, hoping for a faint breeze. The hot vinyl clung to the backs of my legs.

She got in, finally, and we drove to the jail. She was silent throughout the drive, even ignoring my sister when Lisa asked if she'd be able to give him his candy. Lisa repeated the question several times and then miraculously fell quiet.

Jill asked us to wait this time while she went in to speak with our father. We sat on the plastic chairs, watching huddled families in tears, old people still sweaty from being outside, waiting in line for the pay phones. A pink-skinned young woman in a floral print housedress fed her toddler from a lustrous Happy Meal box as he sat in his stroller.

She came to get us after a little while, and we followed her into the room we'd visited the day before. My father sat quietly behind the same scratched plastic.

"You having a good time?" he asked. His voice was flattened by the divider, its intonation removed.

My sister nodded vigorously. "We had mashed potatoes," she said.

He looked at me. His eyes seemed dull, the lids half-open. "How about you?"

I shrugged. Jill sat behind me, and she put her hand on my shoulder. It pressed down slightly, and I brushed it away. "I'm okay," I said.

We talked quietly for a few more minutes, about how hot it was, how long it took us to get there. My sister asked him if he had been cold the night before. He paused before he answered. "Cold?"

"Did you have to sleep under the air conditioner?" Her mouth remained half-open when she stopped speaking.

He shrugged. "Yeah," he said, "but they gave me another blanket."

He nodded to Jill, who told my sister that he needed to talk to me alone. Lisa started to cry, and Jill put her arm around Lisa's shoulders and took her out to the waiting area. A guard held the door for them, looking straight at the wall as they passed.

"What about you, kid?" My father's voice had become more rough suddenly.

I shook my head. "I'm okay," I said. "Did you have to wear handcuffs?"

He rubbed his wrists to show me. They were mottled with bruises. "Yeah," he said. "They were really tight." He smiled at me. "You should work on your pool game when you're home. Next time you come visit, we'll be a team."

I looked down at the ground. The white linoleum was spotted with black streaks, from countless shoes. "Why can't you come home?"

He breathed out heavily. "I have to come up with the money for bail. Then I come back and have a trial."

"But it's a mistake," I said. "So can't your lawyer just tell them to let you go home while they figure out what happened?"

He looked down. His fat chin flattened against his neck. "It's a mistake, sure," he said. "But I don't know if I can prove it." He looked up at me, his eyes wide open. "Listen, I just want to make bail, then I'll figure the rest of this out."

I looked up at the clock. It was missing its hour hand, and the minute hand was on the number four. "This sucks," I said loudly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guard staring at me. I spoke in a loud whisper. "Just tell your lawyer to call the judge, tell him what happened. Tell him we're on vacation," I said.

He sat straight up. "Your mother could have helped, you know," he said. "It's costing us a bunch of money to send you and your sister home so quickly. The airline doesn't care what happened. I have to spend bail money to send you back."

My gut wrenched. I sat there, silent, looking at his wan face. A high-pitched baby's squeal came from the hallway, a sharp echo off the linoleum. I bit my lower lip. "You can have the money in my bank account," I said quickly. "You can pay it back after everything is over."

He shook his head deliberately. "It's not enough. It won't help." My father leaned in, close enough that I could see the pores on his sweaty forehead. His voice became quiet. "We're gonna have to write this trip off, Sid. Have to pick up where we left off, next year." He paused, breathing through the holes in the divider. "You understand?"

I nodded, listless, and he got up and turned away from me.

I pushed back the stiff-backed chair and stood, watching as he was escorted through a heavy, steel door with a wire-reinforced window. I turned and walked past the guard, to where they were waiting.

My sister and I sat that night like we did the night before, eating chicken and green beans in the kitchen, watching moths fly around the hanging bulb. Jill and Louise sat in the living room, smoking. I hadn't seen James since the night before, and every time I heard a noise my heart raced, thinking it was him.

After a few bites, I pushed my plate back and looked over at my sister. She was eating noisily, holding the chicken in her hand, her face covered in grease.

Jill called to us from the living room. Lisa looked at me, her mouth open, a half-eaten drumstick in her hand. I nodded, and she put it down. We walked around the fan into the next room, where Jill and Louise sat on the sofa. An ashtray was on the coffee table in front of them, piled high with butts. The room was nearly dark, except for a single lamp with a weak bulb shining from the table next to them, and the hazy glow of the television.

"I'm taking you two to the airport tomorrow," Jill said.

Louise nodded in agreement.

"It's going to be a little while, but I can't have you two sitting here with nothing to do." She smiled. "You're supposed to be on vacation," she said.

A curl of smoke rose from the ceramic ashtray.

"I could hang around with James," I said. "He wouldn't mind."

Jill looked at her friend, who smiled sadly and spoke directly to me for the first time since we'd met. "You should go home, son. Won't do you any good to hang around my boy."

I looked up at the wall, where the picture of Jesus flickered in the soft light.

We got up early the next morning, and Jill put us into the car and drove us to the airport. I had looked for James before we left, but he was gone.

"It's just gonna be a couple of days," she said, her drawl more languid than usual. Her hands clutched the steering wheel, her thin fingers wrapped tightly around the vinyl cover. "Until the money comes through. I'll send the rest of your things along as soon as I get home."

Lisa breathed loudly through her mouth, tears starting to drip down her face. "Can we come back?"

Jill checked her rear view mirror and then stared at the road ahead of her. "Soon, honey. As soon as he's home."

A wave of panic hit me, and I started to feel nauseated. "Who's picking us up?"

I squeezed my fists tightly as she paused. I could see the airport tower in the distance, a boxy, high castle. Long, white planes lumbered along the hot tarmac.

"Your mom, honey. She came home early to be with you," she said brightly.


Jill looked in the rear view mirror again, and our eyes met for a brief moment before she looked ahead at the road. "She cut her honeymoon short," she said.

I closed my eyes for a moment. An image of my mother and new stepfather flushed into my eyes, waiting for us at the gate with painful smiles. A sharp cramp formed in my stomach, and I opened my eyes and stared out the window.

Lisa pressed the button on the car door, and the window started to lower with a whine. A loud rumble started to fill my head, replaced by a screeching roar as a plane flew low, over our heads, to land. I watched the landing gear go by, air shimmering around the engines. I thought I could smell the jet fumes, gagging as I felt them float into the back of my throat. I swallowed and breathed through my nose.

Jill pulled into the short term parking lot and found a space next to a pearly blue Impala. I reached for the door.

"Wait," she said, turning to face us. Her hair was pulled back behind her ears, a pale part running down the center of her scalp. "I'm sorry that your trip wasn't so good." Her voice had that cloying, singsong quality she'd used before. "I just want you to know how bad I feel. How bad your daddy feels. Even though it's not our fault, we just hope you understand."

Lisa nodded quickly. "It's okay," she said. "But we can come back, right?"

Jill smiled in response. "Of course." She looked to me. The skin below her eyes was dark and worn. "You understand, Sid? Sometimes things just don't work out the way you want them to."

I shrugged, looking down at the stained carpet. "It's okay," I said, and I got out of the car and stood on the hot pavement. My legs felt rubbery against the ground. I stared at the car window, a fixed point, to steady myself.

Jill opened her door and started to stand. "Let's go, then," she said.

The terminal building sat ahead of me, long and squat. I pulled my bag from the back seat and took a deep breath of the heavy parking lot air. "You can just walk us to the door," I said loudly over the deafening scream of a plane, trying to bear the heavy weight of the bag without showing my effort. "You don't have to take us to the gate."

She looked down at me and shook her head. Her dirty hair refracted the bright sun, sending a dappled, trembling light into my eyes. "That's silly," she said. "The two of you are just kids, after all."

Jonathan Rubinstein's work has recently appeared in Akkadian. He's also the author of a novel, Talent. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.


All contents copyright © 1999
The Blue Moon Review, All Rights Reserved.

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