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