Story: The Comfortable Things
Randy leaned his head against the back window of the tow truck and tilted a bottle of Nyquil into his mouth. His daughter, Jillian was up the gravel driveway, swinging back and forth on the swing set he’d bought her, in front of the trailer he used to live in. Was it worth losing his job over? Towing his ex-wife, Sarah’s car would mean Jillian wouldn’t have a ride to school, the bus didn’t run this far out, and she would need him around. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t face another relationship with Sarah. It didn’t matter what he wanted.
He’d used the perks of repossessing cars to its dregs–a blow job from a woman in a gas station bathroom, a quick fuck while a child watched TV in the living room, all in exchange for keeping their vehicle. One more empty clipboard and he wouldn’t have a job. If he didn’t have a job, he couldn’t pay child support, he couldn’t watch from a distance, he couldn’t reassure himself that at least she had food on the table, and leave the rest to Sarah. Where was his child support going anyway? And, how could she possibly default on her car payment? He took another drink of Nyquil and put the truck in gear.
When he was in front of the aluminum-covered trailer with its intestines of PVC and copper piping exposed, he swung wide and reversed until the flat bed was in position behind the bumper. The Nyquil made him slow, and obscured his perception. The transparent-red-plastic-wrapped swing chain seemed to flex and undulate; more like an illogical power line than a swing set. Jillian’s swings slowed until she could drop from the seat. She ran to the truck and began hopping up and down, her face flashing into view and then disappearing below the window. He shut off the engine. The little girl put her arms around his waist, barely making it to his back pockets. As he squeezed her, the trailer door hit the side of the external wall and Sarah was half way down the detached steps. Her mouth was wide open and her dirty tank top barely contained her chest and stomach, bouncing with each of the remaining stairs.
“What’re you doing here?” She tensed her body and slowed down, moving her arms to compensate the balance lost with bare feet on gravel. Randy looked at her and then back at Jillian.
“Hey, are you deaf?” She stopped walking and leaned against the silver car set back-to-back with his truck. Randy didn’t look away from the little girl.
“Why haven’t you been paying your car note?” he asked.
His ex-wife was quiet and looked around for a minute, her hands on her hips, slowly turning back and forth. He watched her, and as she moved her stare back toward the trailer from the tow truck he met her eyes. The same eyes that met his when he walked in from the waiting room and picked up Jillian for the first time, the same eyes as when he slid a ring on her finger, the same eyes that met his and then held a kitchen knife to his chest and told him to get out.
“You let your car payment default,” he said.
She looked at him and then at his truck and dropped her shoulders.
“Don’t take our car. You know I need it–Jill needs it. How am I supposed to get to work and to the grocery store?”
“You don’t work.” He looked back at Jillian and let her go. She started walking toward the trailer, her hair was greasy and stuck to her neck. While she walked, she used both hands to move the hair from one side of her face to the other, its brown color lightened or darkened by the amount of oil that had gotten to the twisted tips. She turned toward the swing set and then sat in the grass. Her pink shirt was stained in the back and he wondered how long it’d been since her clothes were washed.
“Yeah I do,” Sarah looked up at a car throwing dust from the gravel road. “I’m working over at Gunther’s.”
“You’re full of shit. I get gas there once a week and I never seen you there.”
“No. No, it’s true.” She took a step towards him.
“Then why ain’t you paid your goddamn car note?”
Sarah pushed off of the car and when her weight was over her hips she walked over to him and leaned on the window of the truck and touched the name tag sewed to his shirt. She asked him to come inside.
He sat down in the living room, picking at the hanging threads from rips of blue felt on the couch. Sarah had her head out the front door telling Jillian to stay on the swing set, that she and daddy needed to talk. She closed the door and offered him a beer. He said no and she asked if he had any Nyquil with him–he said no.
“What do you mean no?” she asked, still leaning on the doorknob.
“I mean I don’t drink that shit anymore.”
“I’ve never known you going a day without drinking some Nyquil and you’re telling me you’ve gone and quit cold turkey? It ain’t been that long.”
He popped a thread off the couch, rolled it in his fingers, then pulled at another one. He told her he’d take that beer. It would cover the smell of the syrup, but it wasn’t smart to mix the two together. Maybe some people could do it, but nearly every time he drank Nyquil and beer he wound up on someone’s floor with a puddle of drool and snot hanging off his face. While she was in the kitchen popping the tops, he told her that he’d been caught with three bottles of Nyquil; one half drank in his seat, and almost got arrested for it, and if it showed up on a parole report he could lose any visitation rights with Jillian. She laughed, handed him a beer, and locked the front door. She leaned against the door and looked at him for a minute, then crossed the living room into the hallway.
She began to talk loudly from the bedroom about her new job and her new friends at the Kroger next to the McDonalds. He took a drink of beer and tried not to listen, looking for any fresh burn marks in the carpet. He’d gotten the carpets changed and the walls painted after she went to rehab. The meth was a trash-thick sinkhole that she stayed in until social services took Jillian when she was two years old. Sarah spent six months recovering, and then another six attached to a quiet sponsor. The blank television reflected his silhouette, and the window behind him set a bright ring around his head. He lifted the bottle to his lips and opened his throat, allowing a full gulp into his stomach. He stared at the obscured version of himself and thought about the two years he’d lived in this trailer–the three of them together watching American Idol and him and Sarah passing a joint back and forth over the sound of singing, calling in to vote for whoever Jillian seemed to like the most. Sarah called him from the back.
When he was inside the room she closed the door and sat on the bed. She asked him to sit with her and he did, trying to steady his balance as he walked and not seem as affected as he was. She didn’t look the way she did before Jillian was born, her stomach had been smaller and her tits didn’t hang so low then. In the mirror above the dresser, he remembered what it was like two shirt sizes before. She moved her hand across the comforter and let it sit on the crotch of his pants. He pushed her hand away. She stood up and went to the dresser and pulled a joint from the bottom drawer, lit it, and drew in the smoke. She came back to the bed and handed it to him.
After a while the room had a grey-green haze around the bed and to the ceiling. They were laid back against the headboard. Sarah, her knees up to her chest and his legs crossed at the ankles, leaned over and touched his nametag and exhaled smoke into his ear. It wasn’t that he wanted her–it was the bed, the home, the comfortable things. He moved his arm behind her and guided her onto him. He pulled her shirt over her head and skimmed his hands around her stomach, the joint lying in the ashtray and a thin line of smoke twisting up from the brakelight-orange tip.
When they were done he stood next to the bed, his bare stomach hung over his underwear. She crawled naked across the bed to the side where he stood and pushed up on her elbows so her face in front of his groin.
“Don’t take the car,” she looked up from her position.
He stepped back, “I’ll lose that job if I don’t take it. You brought it on yourself, it don’t make no difference what just happened.”
“Come on Randy. Can’t you just tell them I wasn’t at home?”
“No. That don’t matter. It would’ve been better if you wouldn’t have been here.”
She sat up quick, her breasts dropped in front of her as she sat back, her legs spread apart.
“Well, thank God I was. Plus, I know the real reason you’re taking my car.” She rolled over and pulled a blanket around her. “It’s cause you fucked them girls in town. The ones that said they’d suck your dick if you lied about not finding their cars. Now, you’re going to put your wife and daughter in a bad place. For what? Some dirty fuck?”
He pulled up his pants and struggled to get the button into the hole underneath his gut.
“Fat son of a bitch, I know you.”
He walked into the bathroom and looked into the mirror. He turned on the faucet and wet his hands then rubbed them through his buzzed hairs and onto his face. The water in the bowl of the sink was brown from the dirt that collected from his hands. On the bathroom floor there was a belt lying in the corner. It was thick leather with grease spots on the back and he wondered if it was one of his. Looked like the one he was wearing but he couldn’t remember wearing it before. He looked for Jillian through the dirt-lined blinds above the toilet. He could see her still swinging, tilting her head back and watching the sun each time she came down. He pissed without raising the seat, flushed it, and opened the door.
“I’ll leave the car,” he said, “but you have to give me time to find a job. Use whatever money you have, and don’t go reporting me about child support. Until then, I’ll go on unemployment and I’ll give you what I can. But, you better not be lying to me. If you ain’t got a job, if you whore yourself out, if you’ve started lighting up meth again, I’m going to come back here and beat the shit out of you. I won’t care if you report me about child support or parole, whatever. We’ll get out of state.”
“Where would you even go?” She pulled a t-shirt over her head and stood in front of the bed.
He pushed her onto the mattress and held her down with one hand, steadying himself with the other.
“Don’t fuckin’ push me.” He shook his head, pressed her deeper into the mattress, and then let up.
“Don’t fuckin’ push me.” She stood up from the bed, her face angled up toward his. They stood there for a minute then he turned away. He walked to the end of the room, picked up his shirt, and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the shirt pocket. He lit one and pulled the smoke deep into his lungs, exhaled, and finished dressing.
He struggled to keep his balance when he walked outside, but he managed to lift Jillian out of the seat and he held her against his shoulder. He kissed her check and she leaned back against his arm. She held his face with both hands and laughed. She was always smiling, always happy, and so skinny. Her shirt hung off of her little body. Maybe it was just that her shirt was too big. She hadn’t talked since he’d been there, and her knees looked so much bigger than her thighs. Just two big knobs on skinny sticks. Sarah walked outside, the door hit the trailer wall again and she started yelling at him to leave. Jillian began to cry and he set her down, her chin tucked under like she had no control. Sarah followed him to the truck. He opened the door, got in, and turned on the engine.
When he pulled into the impound office it was a little after three. He parked the truck and turned the engine off. He left the radio on and Merle Haggard’s Workin’ Man’s Blues was playing. He turned it up. He pulled an unopened Nyquil bottle from the glove compartment and worked his fingernail up under the plastic until it popped and he unscrewed the lid. It tasted like cherries and spoiled milk as it spilled into his throat. The taste was Sarah, and Jillian, and how he just fucked Sarah and how he didn’t put on a condom or pull out for that matter. What if he had another baby? Twenty-three with a five year old, divorced, and soon to be unemployed–that sounded awful. The bottle was a third of the way empty when he pulled it back from his mouth. He re-capped the bottle and picked up the clipboard, showing him there were three other cars that needed repossessing. He scratched lines through all of them. He took the keys from the ignition and tossed them into the seat.
Terri at the front desk smiled and asked him where he’d been and if he had the ’98 Taurus she knew was his ex-wife’s. He set a clipboard of blank paperwork on the desk and raised his middle finger to her and walked toward the back office. The wood panel walls in the hallway seemed to warp and turn as it led him to the office. He steadied himself on the wall below pictures of employees and of old muscle cars painted in flames and bright colors.
The slip said fired for failure to complete assigned tasks. He took all of his things from the truck and put them in the trunk of his car. He left the lot and went to La’s Bar & Grill. When he parked he unbuttoned his shirt and cut the nametag off of it with his pocketknife. He pulled a t-shirt over his chest, lit another cigarette, and put the pack and the nametag in his shirt pocket. He carried the work shirt in and set it in a trashcan by the bar. The girl behind the counter had on a tight shirt that made her chest look bigger but left the little fat that sat over her jeans uncovered. She gave him a beer and asked how he was doing. He told her he got fired and she gave him a whiskey neat and said it was on her.
He stayed there for a long time watching the crowd fill the bar stools after five then watched them leave when it got closer to ten o’clock. He drank every beer she put in front of him, ignored the attempts at conversations from factory workers, and asked her about Sarah. Had she been buying meth? Who was selling now? At eleven she asked him if he wanted a last beer before she closed up. He said yes and she opened it and set it in front of him. He paid his tab and left a few dollars behind for her. He walked outside holding his bottle that was starting to sweat.
The streetlights glowed orange and had a light film from the humidity over the town. As he crossed the lot a truck pulled into the spot next to his. The suspension was raised and there were wide set mud tires covered brown and white, a sort of stamp of where they’d been. He tipped the bottle up–eyes open, watching as the door swung open.
Randy’s leg hurt bad when he came to and there was a man standing over him holding the now broken bottle that he had been drinking from. He felt his jaw, it hurt too and his lip was bleeding, split on the side and blood running under his chin. The man’s shoulders were bowed up and Randy couldn’t remember how he got to his car, or how he was leaned against the driver’s side door.
“Sarah told me you fucked her,” his voice was rough and he spit between Randy’s legs. “She said you conned her into it, said you’d let her keep her car if she sucked you off and then you held her down and fucked her.”
Randy tried to get his eyes to focus. The man was moving from blurred to clear and all he could see was the man’s moustache when his chin titled towards the streetlight. The man thrust forward and hammered his fist onto the top of Randy’s head.
“Say something. Fat son of a bitch.”
He reached back his arm again and Randy put his hand up. His head hurt and his heart was beating faster than he’d felt before.
“If you’ve lived here long you know this town sort of eats you.” He rolled to his side and then back up to leaning against the door. “I don’t know if that’s how to say it but it sure feels like my soul’s gone. When I was eighteen,” He stopped. The orange streetlight pulsed with his breathing. “When I was eighteen I fucked that girl cause I liked her tits and got a daughter. I love Jillian, I do, but the bitch lied to the judge and said I threatened her life.”
Randy tried to stand, pushing on his car. He reached for the handle and the man stepped toward him. “Wait, wait man. Please,” he said. “Truth is she pushed a knife up to my chest and said if I didn’t leave she’d kill my kid and herself. But, what am I supposed to do? I’ve been to prison, hell, I’m on parole right now. Lost my job because I don’t got the balls to take a car from her. She could do it you know. Kill Jillian. I don’t know what to do. That must’ve been your belt in her bathroom yeah?”
The man stood, his chest rising and falling, heavy with lights bouncing behind him.
“You think she’ll be better for you? Come on. I’m gone now, but you’re a dumb son of a bitch if you don’t see that.”
The man took his hat off and swung the broken beer bottle into Randy’s head. Blood ran from the cut and he watched the streetlight fade to black.
The police pulled in. The bartender told them what happened. Randy laid there, his breath slow, his focus pulling and loosening. He saw his car from the ambulance bay, the windows smashed and his nametag lying in the road beneath his car. Don’t forget that, he thought. Don’t lose that.