I’ve been in a writing drought for too long. I knew better than to try to trick the stories to come through. There was nothing to do but be patient. A few days ago the story of Cyndra and J.B. resumed. It is nearly finished. But I want to put it out to readers now, especially my readers who are writers. One of the hardest things a writer gets to do (unless s/he is in a war zone) is respect the timing of the writing. From the magazine, Glimmer Train: “I said to him, ‘I just don’t know who’s going to win, me or the story.’ He gave me a funny look. ‘Well, who is supposed to win?’ We looked at each other and said at the same time: ‘THE STORY!!'” — Gina Ochsner
Cyndra and J.B. are winning. There will be some clean-up, but here they are:
If she had known how completely crazy J.B. was, even before he shipped over to Iraq, she would not have married him. Even if she had been seventeen and him twenty-one with pale blue eyes, with shoulders that wouldn’t quit, with a manner of kissing that said “I completely respect you girl, and I completely want you.”
But it was too late to take it back. There was Kelli who was two and cute as a puppy; and there was L’il J.B. who was too l’il for anybody to tell whether he was going to be cute or not. Kelli was at her mom’s. L’il J.B. was attached to Cyndra’s left boob on which he was sucking as if his life depended on it. Which it did. Which was why it was too late to take back that dumb second when she had looked up into J.B.’s eyes and said, “I do. I surely do.”
Cyndra and L’il J.B. were in the front seat of J.B.’s King Cab on a Sunday afternoon in June. The air conditioner was blasting and Cyndra was squinting into the dashboard t.v. She could barely make out the picture because the King Cab was parked smack dab in middle of the Mojave Desert and the glare was like hell. J.B. was not in sight, but Cyndra could hear the bad boy roar of his dirt bike, even though the windows were closed and she had her earbud in so she could listen to a duet between Faith Hill and Tim Mcgraw that was causing her to sob and drip tears on L’il J.B.’s tiny bald head.
She and L’il had been stuck in the King Cab for two hours. J.B. would zoom up every hour or so and say, “How ya doin’, baby? I’ll just do this one last run and we’ll head in for pizza and home and who knows what.”
As if. As if all she needed was another baby boy nuzzling her boobs. As if by then he’d have sobered up enough to be able to do the deed. The t.v. flickered and went black. Her cell battery was dead due to her listening for an hour to her sister Tyra bitch about how there was nothing to do in this totally boring place. Which meant now there really was nothing to do. Nothing.
She had a pile of her mom’s magazines next to her on the seat because she had planned to leave them at her sister’s salon. She glanced down at the top one. “How to welcome your soldier hubby Home.” Right. There would be—she didn’t have to look—a recipe for The Most Outrageous Triple Chocolate Torte and a list of tips on how to lose weight. For your soldier hubby. Both of them so stupidly hopeless, the cake which J.B. would not eat because he would have slammed eight Dos Eq longnecks during dinner; and gorgeous skinny her if she was ever gorgeous skinny her again, because if J.B. did actually touch her, it would have everything to do with his boner, and nothing to do with respect.
Her sister’s salon? Three stations and an ex-biker chick who called herself an aesthatician coming in about once every six months to do some old lady’s toenails. Tyra herself was the sister from hell. No details thanks, except for how the bitch had managed to steal away Cyndra’s true love when they were teenage chicks. And, Cyndra all perfect boobs and butt and heart-shaped face and Tyra, the Tyrant ha ha, 200 lbs. with boobs that would be hanging to her knees by the time she was 23. Yeah, and now Cyndra was pushing 190.
L’il’s mouth had fallen away from her breast. She set him on the magazines and pulled down her blouse. She was a mess. She was a slobby mess. Once she would have wiped off the milk and tucked herself into the nursing bra. Now she didn’t even wear the nursing bra. She looked down at her top and saw the tiny star of wet spreading out.
If it weren’t for the air-conditioner she would…what…she would who knows. The last time J.B. had cruised up to the truck he had smelled like a brewery. He’d taken a 12-pack out with him strapped to the back of the bike. He was drinking every day, sometimes he’d already popped a few on the drive back from the Marine Base. And it seemed like the only time he ever wanted to fool around was in the morning when he had a hang-over woodie. Cyndra could not figure out why guys had to give such ugly names to the act of love.
Suddenly she had one of those lousy memories, the ones that made her skin crawl, the ones that she thought had gone away when she was first in love with J.B. Back then when he put his arms around her, she knew she had escaped her past. Everything was new. Everything was magic. Like normal people. Like normal love. Not like her mom and dad. And there it was – the friggin’ memory – her dad’s voice in her ears, even louder than it had been back in the trailer. Her mom was crying, not mad crying, but pitiful crying. And her dad was saying those ugly words. Who puts a roof over your head? Who puts clothes on the god-damned kids? Who deserves a little pussy now and then – not twice a year?
Cyndra cranked the volume on the I-pod. There was a new singer, a woman singing quietly with only a guitar behind her. She had no idea who it was. She’d downloaded a mix from a website. Cyndra had never heard it before, but the song was about making mistakes and running away and Cyndra wondered if it had been written for her.
She thought about just starting the truck and driving off, but she knew J.B. usually rode the damn bike till he was running on vapor. Pissed-off as she was, she didn’t want to kill him, which is what pushing a dead dirt bike back to where he could hitch into 29 Palms in hundred and ten degree heat would do. She checked the gas gauge in the truck. There was a good half tank left. But she turned down the air conditioning just to play it safe.
Seemed like that was all she ever did now – play it safe. Make sure J.B. and the kids ate more or less right. Try to watch her weight while she felt so empty all the time. Listen to her sister bitch about the salon – how Gennifer was a bitch and Margo was a bitch and D’wanne was nothing but a bitchy faggot – and never tell her sister what she really thought, that Tyra was the real bitch. And why couldn’t she just tell her that? Because sometimes, if Cyndra was realllly understanding, Tyra would offer to babysit and Cyndra could take a long luke-warm shower, go out on the patio in her wet t-shirt dress and sit in peace while the hot air evaporated the water from the dress and her skin, and she could pretend it was March in Phoenix, Arizona where she and J.B. had gone for their honeymoon. The air had been perfect. Soft. Little night breezes. If she closed her eyes the evaporation felt like that kind of heaven – or maybe even J.B.’s fingers all delicate on her face.
What had happened to wild Cyndra? What had happened to the girl who didn’t hardly drink or smoke pot, but who would walk away from the Luna Mesa Full Moon keggers on the BLM land, out into a silver desert where if she lined herself up just right with the big fat moon, her shadow would walk ahead of her? Or the girl who would run into the heart of a thunderstorm when one slammed in, like a miracle you could be terrified of and love how your heart pounded in your chest? What had happened to the girl who was going to be the first person in her family to go to college – right over at Copper Mountain College where she wasn’t going to get some dumb girl degree, but major in computer programming?
Gone. Vanished in the instant it took for her to welcome J.B. into her body and whisper, “I’m going to drive you crazy, bad boy.” Ten million years ago.
L’il J.B. snorted, whimpered and clutched his tiny hands in the air. Cyndra pulled him up to her breast and plugged him in. She heard the giant mosquito whine of the dirt bike. There had better be something new pretty damn soon.
“So how long were you stuck out there?” Tyra said. She had her “snooping for gossip but pretending she really cared” tone in her voice.
“Six hours all told.” Cyndra shrugged. “It wasn’t a big deal. At least I had my music. And I could just think for a while without somebody nagging me about something or other.”
“You need a break,” Tyra said. She had her gossip so she could afford to be charitable. “I sure do,” Cyndra said. She figured Tyra was going to offer to watch the kids for an hour so she could take her bath and sit on the patio.
“I’ve got a surprise,” Tyra said. “Tell J.B., you and me are going down into Palm Springs to get some stuff at Target. Call him so he doesn’t get shit-faced on the way home from work. He can watch the kids. He owes you. You deserve to have some fun.”
Cyndra thought of the heat in Palm Springs and the old people who all looked like they had never made a mistake in their lives. Plus a hundred and fifty bucks had disappeared from their savings and she didn’t want to spend money. “We’re almost broke till the end of the month,” she said.
Tyra laughed. “You don’t need money, baby sister. And we’re not really going to Target. I hit it big over at Morongo last night. I’ve got five hundred bucks free money and a postcard from one of those fancy Palm Springs casinos that’s good for two buffets, free drinks and fifty dollars in free slot play. We’re gonna get wild.”
“Play it safe” was hovering in Cyndra’s mind like Casper the Cautious Ghost. It smiled it’s cutesy-poo smile. She wanted to strangle it. Cyndra straightened her shoulders, looked her sister in the eye and said, “Pick me up at 7.”
“You won’t regret it,” Tyra said. “I left out the best part. I got tickets for Tim McGraw. He’s playing there tonight.”
“Without Faith. It’s some kind of benefit dealie. You put on that sparkly black dress, you know, the one cut down to your knees and we just might have to get ourselves in the front row and when you stand up to cheer, stick your chest out and he’s gonna’ tell Faith ‘bye-bye, baby!'”
“Like I said, pick me up at 7.”
“See you later, mamagator.”
On cue, L’il J.B. hollered from his crib in the kids’ room. Kelli raced in from the dusty patio and grabbed Cyndra around the legs. “Let me go, babygirl, I gotta feed your brother.” Kelli clung tighter. Cyndra pried her away and crouched down next to her. “I’m sorry, sugar,” she said. “Let’s get you an ice cream and then you come help me get him up and you can sit next to me while I feed him and you can have your ice cream. L’il’s gonna be all jealous of you.”
Cyndra never knew if Kelli really understood what she was saying to her. She just tried to keep her voice all momsy and loving. Kelli reached up and patted her face. “O.k. then, good girl,” Cyndra said, “let’s get it going.”
It was mid-afternoon by the time Cyndra got L’il back to sleep, the ice cream off Kelli and the couch, Kelli down for a nap and herself charged up enough to call J.B. He didn’t answer. He’d always been like that – blah blah no woman’s gonna be the boss of me blah blah. Cyndra dug through the back of the big walk-in closet and found the black dress. She hung it in the bathroom with the shower on to steam a few wrinkles out. When she tried it on, the zipper almost didn’t close. She sucked in her breath till it hurt and felt the zipper close. There would be no more ice cream bars. None.
When J.B. finally called his voice was all puffed-up and important. “What’s up? I got a short minute.” Cyndra rolled her eyes. She was so over almost everything about him. “Honey,” she said, her words racing to get everything in before he could say no, “I was hoping you could come straight home tonight. Tyra’s gotta see a doctor down in Palm Springs and she’s scared. I told her I’d see if you’d be willing to watch the kids so I could keep her company…see that way, she owes us and maybe you and me can get a little alone time on the weekend while she watches the kids back as a favor. You know, we haven’t had any alone time in too long.”
J.B. laughed. His voice softened. “You mean special alone time? Real special my-girl knows-what-I like alone time?”
Cyndra grabbed an ice cream bar from the freezer. She did it quiet so he’d never know. “Uh huh,” she said, “real real special alone time.” She took the phone away and ripped the wrapper from the ice cream bar with her teeth.
“I can come right home,” J.B. said. “You bet I can. You got yourself a deal.”
Cyndra bit off the first inch of the ice cream bar and damn near swallowed it whole. “That’s real sweet of you, baby,” she said. “Bye bye.”
She still couldn’t believe it had been so easy. J.B. had screeched into the drive, shoved open the door and stopped dead in his tracks. “Damn,” he’d said, “you look good. You look damn hot. You gotta promise me you’ll wear that dress when we have our real special time alone.” Cyndra hadn’t said anything. She’d just walked up to him real slow, pressed up against him for a second, backed away and grinned. Tyra had pulled up, beeped the horn and Cyndra was gone gone gone.
And now, right this minute, she was sitting on the most comfortable chair she’d maybe ever sat in. It had a seat that seemed to be made just for her butt, a nice high back and it was exactly the right distance from the glowing rainbow screen of a Cleopatra slot machine. She’d just bet forty nickles and three golden tiger things had bounced down in front of her and there was music playing and a bunch of free spins about to happen at THREE TIMES THE NORMAL WIN and her damn sister was tugging on her sleeve, saying “Come on, we gotta get to the seafood buffet while the crab claws are still there…plus Tim’s on in forty-five minutes. Come on!”
“Wait up,” Cyndra said, “just give me two more minutes…”
It should have been easy. It looked easy when Cyndra did it. Taking care of two kids, a baby and a toddler, not like the seven kids in his family, plus he kinda liked both of them. But, L’il J.B. was yowling and Kelli was tugging on his t-shirt, whining dadeee dadeeee dadeeeeeeeee and it was about 100 and f–k degrees and he hadn’t had a beer since the stashed one in his office at the Base. Which had been two hours ago, two hours that felt like two centuries. J.B. was not a happy boy.
He’d fed L’il J.B. He’d settled Kelli in front of the t.v. with a bowl of spaghetti-O’s which was one of the three things she would eat. He’d even nuked the bowl of tuna casserole Cyndra had left in the fridge and made himself eat it. He wasn’t used to solid food this early in the evening. He’d usually go for the three basic Food Groups: beer, beer and more beer. J.B. thought about putting the kids in their car seats and heading into Ranch Foods in 29 for a case of Food Group, but it was 100 and f–k and he couldn’t figure out what he’d do with the kids while he ran into the store. He wasn’t scared of much, but thinking of kids cooking in a car in the Mojave heat made him want to go back to being a hard-shell Baptist.
J.B. picked up L’il J.B. and held him close to his chest with the kid’s head on his shoulder. He’d seen Cyndra do that. “Hey, Mini-me,” J.B. said. “Give us one of those bad boy belches.” L’il kept yowling. There was a stink in the air. J.B. patted his baby’s butt. Yep. J.B. sank down onto the couch, hollered and jumped up. He’d landed on one of Kelli’s friggin’ Barbie Dolls – and a half-eaten bag of pork rinds. He held L’il out in front of him. “O.k., you little booger, I know what we’ll do. We’ll call mom!”
Kelli hadn’t let go of J.B.’s shirt the whole time he’d been standing and sitting and jumping up. “Momeeeeee,” she whined, “I want my momeeeeee.”
“You and me both,” J.B. said. That instant he saw Cyndra’s cell phone lying on the kitchen countertop. “What the f–k! You dumb b—h. Sorry, Kelli, daddy said a bad word – make that two bad words.” He swiped the Barbie doll onto the floor. Kelli shrieked. J.B. dropped down onto the couch with his daughter attached to his shirt. He tried to think of how hot Cyndra had looked as she went out the door. All it did was piss him off. That’s how she’d hooked him. That’s how he’d landed in Marine housing in the middle of hell, drier than the sand around him, with a piss-stinking baby and a sobbing little girl for company. “I’ll never have sex again,” he said to his kids. They just kept stinking and sobbing.
Cyndra vaguely remembered something about how they were going to see Tim McGraw and eat crab legs and celebrate Girls Night Out. It seemed like a dream she’d had a million years ago. Her life seemed like a nightmare she’d been living even longer. People said gambling was self-destruction. If sitting in front of a friendly slot machine drinking from a bottomless glass of diet pop and vodka was self-destruction, it suited her just fine. People ought to try living in a cheap shit two bedroom apartment with three whiny kids, your husband being one of them, in the middle of a scorched-out Marine base, if they wanted to know real self-destruction.
Tyra appeared at her side now and then. Each time they were both more loaded. The last time she’d showed up she’d just laughed and plunked herself down next to Cyndra. “Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” She shoved a twenty into her machine. “Look,” she said, “it’s all cool and spiritual.” Cyndra glanced over. There were Aztec pyramids and heathen gods. Tyra drove her nuts with all her back-dated New Age bullshit. And then, two moons and three suns popped up on the screen, Tyra shrieked, “Fifty free games!!” Cyndra watched the credits rocketing up and figured maybe there was something to the machine’s ancient powers.
“I just love this,” she said. She and Tyra watched the bonus round spin gloriously. “You know,” Tyra said, “when you get the little thingies that say you hit the Bonus round, it’s just like the seconds right before a guy you want to kiss comes forward to kiss you. You just know all you gotta do is sit back and EN-joy!”
The three golden lions dropped into place on Cyndra’s screen. Bonus round! She remembered the first time J.B. had kissed her, and watched the memory wash away in a rising flood of credits – at a nickle a credit! “I don’t ever want to go home,” she said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Tyra stared at her slot screen. “That says a lot for romance, doesn’t it?”
It had to stop. It flat out had to stop. Yes, the kids were finally asleep. Yes, J.B. had logged into his favorite Girls Gone Wild site. Yes, he’d had two nice intimate experiences with the girls. Yes, for once Cyndra wasn’t nagging him about something. But, it was 1:30 a.m. and no Cyndra. More important, he hadn’t had a drink since the last hit of Nyquil, which had finished off the bottle. The crappy supermarket stopped selling booze at 2 a.m., meaning that if Cyndra didn’t get her butt home in the next ten minutes, there was no time to head into town for a beer or twelve.
1:31.59. 1:32. 1:32.01. J.B. logged off and checked on the kids. They were both sound asleep. He considered the deep crap he’d be in if he left to buy some beer and Tyra brought Cyndra back and they both walked in to find the kids alone. It wasn’t like he’d never been in deep crap before. But Tyra had a voice like a chainsaw and as ragged as his last nerve was, he didn’t need that.
He stepped out into the backyard. He loved that damn Mojave sky. He hated all the rest of the friggin’ desert, but he loved the big black above him, the way the stars looked like diamonds, the way the flares from the bombing runs to the north burst orange like alien spaceships. Without thinking, he locked the back and front doors, climbed in the truck and headed into town. The kids would be o.k. He’d be a hot fifteen minutes to the store, five minutes grabbing a couple six packs and 15 hot minutes driving back. No way any tragedy would happen. Especially since he’d busted his ass at the job all day and been a real sweetheart about Cyndra taking off.
Cyndra slid the card into the ATM. The message flashed. “Funds unavailable.” Tyra looked over her shoulder. “You hit your daily limit, sistuh. What is it?”
“Five hundred bucks,” Cyndra said. She stared down at the card. “WTF do I do now?”
“You borrow a few bucks from me,” Tyra said cheerfully. “And we just hunker down for a little longer.”
“But, what if…?”
“No “what if”, you been losing so long on that machine, it’s gotta hit.”
The beer run had gone smooth. Market open, the cute Philippina chick at the register. J.B. popped a brew as soon as he’d cleared town. That big sky was grinning down at him. Desert wind poured through the truck windows. He slid a Merle Haggard CD in the player and cranked it up. Life was sweet again. Then he saw the flashing red and blue lights.
J.B. checked his speed. Five miles over the limit. He grabbed a rag off the seat, shoved it into the beer and dropped the can on the floor. He saw the future like you were supposed to do when you were drowning. The cop’s face in the window. The faint whiff of brew in the air. The bust. Cyndra and Tyra storming into the house. The end of his life – as crummy as it too often was. Merle was singing The way I am don’t fit my shackles. Merle, J.B. hissed, what do I do now?
“I’m going out to the car,” Cyndra said. Tyra looked up. Her eyes were like Night of the Living Dead. “Huh?” she said. Cyndra slowly stood up. Her feet were numb, her legs shaky and there was a hot-cold lump in her stomach. “I’m going out to the car. I don’t have any credits left and I think I might have died in front of that machine and this is the after-life.”
“Whoa,” Tyra said. “You are such a Drama Queen. Take this.” She handed Cyndra a handful of twenties. “Sit down! You’re not leaving me here. Besides, it’s still body temperature out there and if you open the windows, the midges from the pool will eat you alive.”
Cyndra couldn’t remember the last time Tyra, or anybody else, had given a flying fuck about her comfort. “O.k.,” she said, “but it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t feel my legs and I think I gotta pee, so I’m going to go to the john. Save my machine.” Tyra tilted Cyndra’s chair up against the machine. “Woo hoo,” she said, “I just hit another bonus.”
There was nobody in the Ladies’. Cyndra sat in the Handicapped stall. She felt handicapped and all of a sudden she’d felt like she never wanted to be closed in anywhere every again. She opened the stall door and rested her head against the tile wall. It felt sweetly cool and when she peed, she decided that peeing when you were about to explode was possibly the best feeling in the world – except maybe seeing the five gold pyramids drop into place on the slot screen. Which they had. About six hundred bucks ago. Which they might again. As the drink girl had said when she brought the last round of free pop and vodka, “If you don’t play, you can’t win!”
“I’m dead meat.” J.B. realized he’d said it out loud. Who the fuck was he talking to? The sky? His pal, the open 12-pack on the seat? It sure wasn’t god, not the god of his childhood, not the god he’d stopped talking to when the IED took out Jackson and Martinez and Mr. Strak, Christopher Morgan Benson, the Third, himself.
Something was listening. The blue-red dazzle zoomed by. He watched the cop’s tail-lights fade into the dark. He wondered if you could have a heart attack at 23 even if you were nothing but muscle and beer. “Thanks,” he said to the god he didn’t believe in and headed home.
“Hey.” The voice was familiar. “Hey. Wake up.” Cyndra jolted out of a dream of spotlights and sequins. Her head rested against her machine. Tyra shook her again. “We’ve got to go. It’s four a.m.”
“Holy shit, we won’t be back till morning, Cyndra said. “J.B.’s gonna kill me.”
“Undoubtless,” Tyra said. “Has he called you even once?”
“The phone’s on the kitchen counter. I left it there on purpose.”
“No worries. I got it figured out. Come on, let’s get outta here.”
Cyndra checked around the machine. There was nothing there. All she’d left behind was eight hundred and sixty-five bucks. She patted the machine. She’d seen other players do that. “I’ll be back,” she said. “I don’t get mad. I get even.”
“Dad-DY! Dad-DY! Wake up. Little phone ringing.”
J.B. pulled the pillow over his head. Tiny evil fingers poked his stomach. Poked again. It wasn’t the dream he’d been having that had been a whole lot like some Hobbit-nightmare. It was his real life. “DAD-DY!! Mommy’s on the phone.” J.B. peeked out from under the pillow. “Ha ha,” Kelli giggled, “Daddy play hide a seek. Here.” She handed J.B. Cyndra’s cell.
“What?” he said.
“Oh hi, Cyndra, gee I’m glad you’re o.k., honey. Glad nothing happened,” Cyndra said. “Weren’t you even worried?”
“Worried about what?” J.B. checked the clock. 6: fuckin’ 10. “Where the fuck are you?”
“We’re o.k. Tyra’s tire went flat out in the middle of who knows where. She had to take a short-cut home which just happened to go by this guy she like’s house up on the mesa. Of course he wasn’t home so then we got lost. There wasn’t any phone reception. We’ve been sitting in the car waiting for somebody to come along since about ten. Finally, some old rancher drove up on his ATV.”
“Jesus,” J.B. yelled. “Can you just cut to the chase?”
“No yell, Daddy. No say bad word.” Kelli climbed up on the bed and snuggled next to him.
“I’ll be home in a half hour. Can you get the kids breakfast?”
J.B. pressed the cool phone against his forehead. It was already ninety-fuck in the bedroom. He felt like he’d been boiled. The cool spot on his forehead felt like rapidly fading hope.
“Yep,” he said.
“You’re not mad?” Cyndra’s voice went little girl.
They said goodbye. “How the fuck,” he said to Kelli, “could I be mad when now I’ve got time to clean up the living-room and haul the bottles out to the desert?”
“No say bad word,” Kelli said.
Tyra pulled into the driveway and leaned her head on the steering wheel. “Oh! My! God! That was soooooo much fun. Just leave me here for a few minutes. I’m not going home. I gotta get to the spa by 8 and set out my stuff.” Cyndra picked up her purse from the floor and grinned. “We have to go back, you know that? I told my machine I don’t get mad, I get even.”
“As if!” Tyra said. “As if we wouldn’t go back again. I’ve still got food comps and a room comp, so next time if we perhaps underestimate our enthusiasm and all of a sudden it’s 3 a.m., we’ll just crash in our room.”
“If we make it to the room,” Cyndra said. “I could play slots forever. I think I just found a reason to go on living in this hellhole.” She opened the door and stood. The sun was already cooking all living anything out of the air. “Want me to leave the door open?” Tyra sat up. “Naw, I’ll head out. I’m o.k.”
J.B.’s truck was gone. Cyndra let herself into the apartment. It was such a shack. You walked right into the living-room/dining-room/kitchenette and if you moved too fast, you were then heading out the back door into the patio which was dirt, more dirt and one shriveled creosote bush. There were two beer cans under the coffee table – “Heh heh, should call this a beer table!” was one of J.B.’s favorite jokes. A crushed bag of Doritos poked out from one of the couch cushions. There was, of course, no coffee brewing in the maker. There were no kids. There was a note on the kitchen counter.
Welcome home, party girl. I took the kids to Sally’s. She doesn’t have to go to work till 1:00. Try to get your fat butt over there before she leaves.
Cyndra laughed. Once upon a time, once upon a verrrrry long ago time, like yesterday, the note would have hurt her. No more. She made a pot of coffee and heated up a couple waffles. Then she sat at the breakfast bar in her fancy dress, drank three cups of coffee and ate a whole box of waffles – with butter AND maple syrup. “I’ve got my own thing now,” she said to the empty apartment. “Nobody’s the boss of me anymore.”
A month later, somebody decided to be the boss of J.B. He had stashed a four long-necks in the locked drawer in his desk for emergencies. Monday had seemed to be the start of a week of boring and stupid. He figured that qualified as an emergency. He tucked the beer into his duffle bag, went into the john, locked the stall door and slammed down the brews. They barely wet his brain cells. No matter, there was a 12-pack in the fridge at home.
He didn’t really want to go home, but Cyndra had some dumb mommies’ meeting so he figured he’d better be a good boy. He signed out and headed for the gate to drive home. The guard at the gate looked at him funny when he pulled up. J.B. smiled. The guard smiled.
The guard asked to see his ID card, nodded and said politely, “You been drinking tonight?” Before J.B. could answer, the sentry told him to pull his car over to the search lane. “Please get out. We’re going to take a little test here.”
J.B. knew better than to do anything but shut up and wait. The sentry made a call. Ten years or ten seconds later, another MP arrived and put him through the Sobriety Test. The guy shook his head, “Sorry pal, gotta cuff and stuff ya.” The MP van pulled up and J.B. was on his way to a holding cell.
It had happened to him. Not him. Not lucky J.B. who’d skated when his buddies had gotten nailed. Later, after the Sergeant Major had showed up and the real shit-storm had started, after he’d been given his one call, after Cyndra had said, “Fuck you, you can rot in jail.”, and after he’d been told a shit-storm was ahead, he had a little chat with God. “You win. Get me out of this, pal, and I’ll stop drinking for a while.”
It was a late Sunday afternoon. J.B. was slouched down in the couch, channel surfing. “Shit. Crap. Shit. More crap. Why the fuck did we even bother to get cable?” Cyndra heard him through the screen door. She sat on the back-stoop. The kids were in bed and she was watching heat lightning flicker in the west.
J.B. groused on. Cyndra dug her toes into the cooling sand. She almost wished he was still drinking. Sober, he was more evil than ever in that feeling-sorry-for-himself that guys were so good at, as though she could fix it, as though it was her fault. Her cell jingled. She checked the number. Friggin’ Tyra. She got ready for a bitch bitch bitch session.
“Hey, sister. I got some interesting news and I got an idea.”
Cyndra knew the interesting news would start off with ‘I think I met a man.’ and the idea would require Cyndra to meet Tyra some friggin’ where which would involve leaving the cooling air of the backstep and the almost hypnotic ripple of the lightning over the mountains.
“So I think I met a man.” Tyra paused to let the full impact sink in. There weren’t many single guys in 29 and, over full-figured as she was, what ones there were weren’t interested or even desperate for a blow job.
“Come on, don’t be a bitch. I’ll tell you all about him while we drive down to Palm Springs for a little shopping.”
“Shopping? I’m broke.”
“You know what to do. Go on a jacket safari. I’ll spot you forty bucks. That’ll give you enough to play for a while. Then, you’ll hit and have your stake.”
Cyndra’s mouth went dry. Her heart jumped. “You know, I gotta watch it. There’s J.B.’s fine and plus he has to have money for his alcoholic meetings even though they don’t charge anything.”
“Get off the phone, off your butt and start going through your jacket pockets. Tell J.B. to get his ass off the couch – I know he’s there, I can hear the stations switching. Look down between the couch pillows and tell him to give you twenty bucks. He’s all guilty now. You got some leverage.”
“I’ve got a jar of nickels and dimes. Let’s stop at Von’s on the way over. I’ll run them through the Coinstar.”
“Fine. Get moving,” Tyra said. Cyndra knew just how she felt. There was nothing better than strolling out of the Mojave inferno into that cool smoky air and hunkering down for that first beautiful bet.
“Yes, ma’am. But first, is the guy married?”
“For chrissakes, Tyra, your new punch.”
O.k. He’d been sober for five whole months. Cyndra was gone off with Tyra for one of their Palm Springs runs. She’d come back with some useless crap from Target and be all relaxed and cheerful. But, what about him? What was J.B. supposed to do?
Kelli climbed up in his lap and smeared pbj all down the front of his t-shirt. L’il whimpered in the bedroom. It was seven p.m. and nothing but bad t.v. and whiny kids lay ahead of him. What possible harm could come from a couple beers? His brother owed him a baby-sit and there was the twenty bucks he’d stashed underneath the creosote bush.
“Honey?” he said. Kelli pouted. “You go out, daddy?” Christ, she was already turning into her mother. She had the same belly on her. “How about you go over to Uncle Fred’s and play with Amber and Shayla?” Kelli slid down off his lap. “I put on my dress-up, okay?”
“Sure, honey,” J.B. said. “You do whatever you want to do.”
Cyndra thought she would go crazy right in Von’s. Once you decided to play, you wanted to be walking in the casino door that second. The line at the Coinstar machine was damn near out the door. A half-starved couple pushed a shopping cart with a little boy in the toddler seat. The sides of his head were shaved. His Mohawk had been dyed orange-red. A four hundred-pound woman in a tropical print muu-muu rolled her motorized cart up to the kid. She ran her hand over the top of his hair. The kid giggled. The gotta-get-some-soon anger on his parents’ faces did not lift. Three teen-agers with skin the color of skim milk slouched in behind the fat lady. They were your standard Morongo Basin tweakers, all gothed out and pitiful.
Actually everybody must have been on vikes. You couldn’t have moved slower without being dead. People dumped coins into the machine out of a knit cap, a nickle slot bucket, plastic baggies, a back-pack with a faded Cardinals logo. Some of the nickels and pennies went in the machine, some fell on the floor which meant the person had to take forever to pick them up.
Cyndra knew the story. The weekend was almost over. The money was all the way over. The kids were hungry. You were thirsty. The jacket-pocket safari yielded enough loose change to make the trip to Coinstar worth it. A couple quarts of Old Mil, a box of mac and cheese for the kids, maybe a box of ice-cream bars for a treat. You’d pulled Sunday night out of the crapper and, who knew, the next week might get better.
Dawn gleamed in the duct-taped window of the Midnight Mission. J.B. opened one eye, moaned and rolled away from the glare. There were voices near him. Chick voices.
“Omygod, that’s Cyndra’s hubby.”
“Is he dead?”
“I don’t think so, but the way he smells he might be.”
J.B. curled himself in to a ball. His shorts were wet and there was burrito-puke down the front of his t-shirt.”
“We should say his name, see if he’s conscious. What’s his name?”
“Hey, numbnuts,” she nudged him with her foot. “Numbnuts, you conscious?”
“Numbnuts? That’s his name?”
“That’s what Cyndra calls him.”
J.B. wondered if he could exert ninja control and stop his breathing long enough to die – or at least look like he had. He held his breath and heard a third voice.
“Move along ladies. There’s nothing to see here.”
It was the creep cop, Arlington. The wimpy punk the guys called Darlington.
“Exhale pal,” the cop said. “Then suck it up. You’re one more step on the slippery road to the end of your glorious military career.”
Cyndra was hot. She couldn’t lose. Sun Moon handed over five hundred bucks. Cleopatra told her she was a rascal and gave her three hundred. Tiki Torch was being a little coy, but then she jumped her bet to Max and watched the credits take off. She almost missed the cell ring. “Oh shit,” she muttered to Tyra, “it’s J.B. I gotta take it in the Ladies Room.”
She looked at herself in the john mirror. Her face was flushed, her eyes glittering like a speed freak. She hit Answer.
“Babe,” J.B. said. “I got bad news.”
“The kids?” She leaned on the counter and closed her eyes.
“Nope. They’re fine. They’re at Fred’s.”
“What are they doing at Fred’s? Hang on, what time is it?”
“It’s seven a.m. They’re at Fred’s because I needed a break. And, where the fuck are you?”
“Nope,” Cyndra said, “you’re not putting it on me. What happened?”
“Look,” J.B. said, “I can’t talk long.”
Cyndra heard a metal door clank somewhere behind J.B. “You’re in jail, goddamn it,” she said. “This is your one phone call, right? Tough shit, pal. You can just sit there.”
“What what?” Cyndra said, “I’ll be home in forty-five minutes and pick up the kids. You figure this one out.”
J.B. leaned his head against the cell wall. There was a little cool spot against his skin. He knew he should have talked different. Said a little lovey stuff, said he was sorry, said he was going to up the alcoholic meetings. He’d been a dumb fuck to think Cyndra was going to buy his bad boy talk. He’d been an even dumber fuck to think a couple beers would have nicely taken the edge off things.
It had been better lying on the scummy sidewalk in front of the mission. At least, the stink had been his own. J.B. tried to inch away from the guy who had taken a dump in his pants. The guy grabbed J.B.’s ankle. “Motherfucker. Jive-ass racist motherfucker. You too good to sit next to a Af-ri-can A-mer-I-can?”
J.B. sat tight and kept his mouth shut for once. It has been supposed to be a short relaxing evening and here he was sitting on the concrete floor of the 20 Palms men’s holding cell, stinking of piss and in the grip of a big-ass nigger with only two front teeth.
“Thass better,” the guy said and fell instantly asleep, his huge fingers still tight around J.B.’s ankle. Where the fuck was Cyndra? She’d come down to bail him out. She had to. He figured it was later in the morning. They’d taken his watch and none of the other guys in the cell had a watch – not because the cops had taken them, but because the guys were either nuts or sleeping on newspapers homeless.
J.B. bowed his head and tried to rest his forehead on his knees. “Do not move, motherfucker.” The Af-ri-can A-mer-I can didn’t so much as open his eyes. J.B. heard footsteps outside the door.
“Bartlett.” It was Darlington. “I got somebody here to see you.”
J.B. wondered if he could swallow his tongue and choke to death before the footsteps got any closer. It was his C.O. In ten seconds he was going to be pinned by the anti-bullshit stare of the man who was about to screw up his entire life.
The Mexican leaning against the toilet looked up. “Ai, pendejo, you screwed the chihuahua, brother.”
J.B. dropped to the floor and sat. “I truly did, my friend. You got that right.”
Cyndra tucked L’il into her shoulder and stepped out into the patio. “Kelli, you get on out here right now.” The sun had finally dropped to just above the mountains. The house threw a blue shadow over the sand, over the pile of Barbie doll parts, the deflated wading pool and the busted gas grill. Cyndra hooked a plastic chair with her foot and pulled it into the shade. “C’mon baby, come sit with me and L’il. Mama’s tired. She didn’t get any sleep last night.”
“Don’t want to. Want my daddy. Where’s my daddy? Where’s my funny daddy?” Cyndra pulled down one side of tank top and plugged L’il in. Kelli sniffed. “Don’t start,” Cyndra said. Kelli thumped down on the steps. “I want my dadddddddy.”
Cyndra pulled her cigarettes and lighter out of her shorts’ pocket and one-handed lit a smoke. “Daddy’s o.k.” she said. “He’s nice and safe.” I bet he’s thinking about you.”
Kelli butt-scooted down the steps, crawled to Cyndra and grabbed her leg. L’il snuffled. The blue shadow stretched out toward the wire fence. Blue. Dress blues. What a crazy thought. How am I going to get out of here? And if I can’t, what are we going to do if J.B. has gotten himself booted out?
L’il’s mouth fell away from her nipple. She wiped his mouth and buttoned herself up. “Kelli,” she said, “How’d you like to go back over to your uncle’s?” Kelli perked up. “Babygirl,” Cyndra said, “here’s an important true thing: when the going gets tough, the tough go gambling.”
It was six by the time Cyndra pulled into the casino parking lot. She felt strange without Tyra, a little like one of the lonely old ladies they’d see there every time, always by themselves, never talking to anybody, tapping and rubbing the screens of their slots for luck . Plus, there was a weird light over everything. The sun was copper. Dust had blown up from the Anza Borrego, the guy on the radio has said. A crazy storm out of nowhere. Palm Springs was coated with grit, cars in the parking lot sand-blasted, the high rollers on their cells, probably to their insurance agents.
Cyndra headed for the gleaming casino doors. The big Indian security guard stood in front of them, his arms spread wide. “No. No entry,” he said. Cyndra paused. “Not you, lady,” he said. A lean-muscled woman in a tank top and shorts sat on one of the big fake boulders.
“Fuck you, chief,” she said. “You gotta let her in. And when you let her in, I’ll be past you slicker then snot.” She turned to Cyndra. “Chief here 86-ed me. Just because I took a forty-two cent pay-out slip that was on the floor under Wheel of Fortune.”
“We’ve got our rules,” the security guard said. “Not just for you, Mickey, for everybody.”
Cyndra shivered. She’d never seen anything mean like this. The waitresses and pay-out guys were always friendly. She wondered if it was bad juju. Maybe a sign this wasn’t the night to play. She started to go back to the car. “Come on in,” the guard said, “me and Mickey go through this about every day.”
Mickey looked up at Cyndra. “Yeah, honey. Don’t mind us. Besides, I left five hundred bucks in Sun Moon for you. I seen you playing it yesterday.”
The five hundred bucks never showed up. Neither did any of the thousand Cyndra slid into Sun Moon, into Magic Mermaid, into Cleopatra and, finally, in a suicidal gesture of optimism, into the five dollar machines. It was 3 a.m. by the time the ATM told her that she’d exceeded her daily limit. She thought about using her cards without a PIN, but the money guys charged ten bucks a hundred for that privilege. She might have been a loser, but she wasn’t a fool.
The parking lot was nearly empty. A skinny moon glided down toward the mountains. The lights of the casino and Palm Springs shone up into the sky like a reverse Milky Way and washed out the stars. Cyndra leaned on the truck. She didn’t feel so good. The thousand bucks was a hole in her gut. By the time the ATM machine 86-ed her, she hadn’t had a decent hit in four hours. She’d had to make herself keep punching the Max Bet button.
She climbed into the truck and fanned the five last ATM receipts out on the front seat. There must have been something wrong with her eyes or the machine. The balances didn’t seem right. They were way too low. She tried to remember how many times she and Tyra had gambled. Twenty, maybe, forty, could have been since they were heading down the hill a couple or three times a week.
She turned on the truck and checked the dashboard dials. There was just enough gas to get back up the hill and over to 29. Damn good thing. Her eyes felt sandpapered. She couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t hungry. The last thing she’d eaten had been a bag of Doritos driving out of Yucca Valley. Even more, she couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t worried about J.B. The only thing she was a little worried about was where she’d get the money for her next gambling run.
Cyndra didn’t see one other car between the turn-off from Palm Springs till she crested the top of the long hill into Morongo Valley. She hadn’t played any music, just let the soft air blowing through the window calm her down a little. Driving alone always did that. Even when she was a teen-ager.
29 was quiet, Ranch Market closed for the night. It seemed like a year since she’d stood driven west through the town. She pulled into her driveway, walked slowly to the front stoop and sat down. She wasn’t ready to go in. The house would be an oven still and maybe sitting under the huge uncaring sky would make her feel better. It wouldn’t give her shit about all the money she lost. It wouldn’t tell her she was a loser.
The stars glittered. There was nothing out here to wash them out. She kicked off her flip-flops and dug her toes into the sand. If J.B. saw her he’d call her a fool. “There’s rattlers out here and scorpions and those frickin’ camel spiders. You get bit and that’s it. You lose your foot, it all turns black.” For the hundredth time he’d tell her how they had those camel spiders in Iraq, how he and the guys would put two camel spiders in a box and bet on them.
Guess we’re both gamblers, Cyndra thought. Guess I got my thing now.
Meeting 12, only 168 meetings to go. Some spaced-out chick had her first sober birthday so there was cake and everybody was going to have to sing. J.B. slouched down next to his sponsor, Jackson and pulled his hat over his eyes. Jackson poked him. “Sit up straight and take your hat off, friend. You can at least look like you want to be here.”
J.B. did what he was told. “Good,” Jackson said, “you’re making progress.” J.B. had to kind of admire the guy. He was career Marine, with a scrumptious wife – even if she was at least forty, and some kids who actually liked him. Jackson had arrived in the alcoholic rooms by way of a lost two months in San Diego.
He’d told his story at J.B.’s first meeting. “So finally one morning I woke up in somebody’s backyard with a bottle of Captain Morgan’s between my legs. There was an inch of rum sitting right there, waiting for me to start the day. I was broke. I stunk. I looked at the booze and knew there wasn’t enough to fix my head. I poured it out on the lawn.” People in the meeting had groaned. “Oh yeah,” Jackson said, “you better believe I regretted it the second I saw it soak into the grass. But I knew. That was it. I got my ass out of that stranger’s backyard and called AA. That was seven years ago and I’m still here.”
J.B. had thought I’m not that bad. Maybe I can just do this kind of casually. Then after the meeting, Jackson had told him that he’d had a chat with the CO and they were willing to give J.B. this last – as in final – big break. 180 meetings in 180 days, twice a week talks with a rehab counselor and daily phone calls to Jackson. Then, maybe, just maybe, J.B. could still wear green.
The door opened. Blast furnace air seared the room. A big guy was silhouetted against the last glare of the setting sun. The guy stepped in. J.B. froze. It was the Af-ri-can Am-er-i-can from the joint. J.B. started to slide down in his seat. Jackson poked him in the ribs. J.B. scribbled on a meeting list, “Jackson, that guy is gonna kill me. I gotta get out of here.” Jackson grinned and whispered, “At least you got another hour to live.”
J.B. was off at his meeting. He was always off at his meetings. Cyndra put the kids to bed and turned on the t.v. There was nothing. She checked her email. Nothing. Cell. Nothing. It was too hot to sit outside and she’d already had three showers. She checked the freezer. Even the box of ice cream sandwiches didn’t look good.
It had been twelve days since she’d crawled up the hill with a thousand dollar hole in her gut. The ATM had not been broken. There was nothing left in the credit cards and only enough in the credit union to cover the bills. Cyndra logged on to a free slot game. It held her for about three minutes. She slammed the mouse on the desk. I’ve got one thing in my life that makes me happy and now I can’t even do that.
She saw the future slogging ahead of her. J.B. would come home. At worst he’d be cranky. At best – and it was hardly best – he’d tell her some corny thing he’d heard in his meeting. He’d flop on the couch and watch t.v. till he fell asleep. L’il would whimper. She’d plug him in. Maybe she’d take her fourth shower and sit on the back stoop. The worse part was that tomorrow would be exactly the same.
“When the going gets tough…” she muttered, picked up the phone and called Tyra.
“Hey, baby sister,” Tyra said. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much. J.B.’s at his meeting, the kids are asleep, I’m about to climb out of my skin.”
“What’s wrong? Is your big baby being himself??
“There’s that, but mostly I just need a little break. Want to run down the hill?”
There was a long pause.
“I gotta slow down a little,” Tyra said. “Business hasn’t been great. You know so many folks are losing their jobs and things won’t pick up till the winter tourons get here.”
Cyndra hadn’t heard Tyra be this serious ever.
“Yeah, but we can win a few bucks. That’ll help.”
There was another long pause. “Girl, when was the last time you made a few bucks down there? I hate to say it, but seems like whatever juju we had going for us is jujued out.”
“What is wrong with you, Tyra? Is that new guy making you be all practical and boring?”
“He’s long gone,” Tyra said, “I’m just watching what’s happening around here, all these people out of work, losing their houses, one of the girl’s works at the salon is sleeping in her car. I will not let that happen to me. You don’t know how it is. You got J.B.”
They both laughed. Cyndra remembered one of her dad’s sayings. “He’s about as useful as tits on a boar hog,” she said.
“Less,” Tyra said. “You want me to come over?”
“Well, actually,” Cyndra said, “how about if I borrow a couple hundred bucks and go down by myself? I can stretch that out a good long while. I’ll hit, come right back home and pay you off.”
It seemed to be the night for long silences.
“I can’t do that,” Tyra said. “I’m sorry. I just can’t do that.”
“I get it,” Cyndra said, “But I guess you can be a bitch.”
“How many years you been waiting to say that, Baby Sister? ‘Cause you said it now and all I want to say is ‘Goodbye.’ Tyra hung up. Cyndra stared at the phone. She felt like her one single lousy life-line had been cut.
She thought about calling Tyra back, but she knew how her sister was. There was going to be a long cold-ass silence for a while. With Tyra, it was one thing for her to say all kinds of shit, but if somebody dished it out, she was all the princess and the pea.
There was only one thing to do. Modern times, you couldn’t just write a bum check. Computers had ruined everything. Cyndra opened the freezer and stared at the ice cream sandwiches. They weren’t going to do the trick, but they were going to have to do.
J.B. was on closing coffee duty. He dumped the old coffee in the sink, put the creamer, sugar, cups and spoons in the file cabinet they used for storage. Jackson would turn off the lights and lock the door. J.B. walked out into the soft desert night. He didn’t feel too bad. The big Black guy had left right at the end of the meeting. With any luck, the van from the treatment center had picked him up.
As usual these days, there was no luck. The big guy sat on the low wall at the back of the church. He saw J.B. and stood up. “’Scuse me, whiteboy. Can I have a word with you?”
J.B. considered walking calmly toward Jackson’s car or back into the meeting room. He looked away from the guy. “I know you,” the guys said. “You was in the joint with me, right?”
J.B. thought of the old movie he and Cyndra had found one night on the late night channel. Dustin Hoffman. An old Indian guy. J.B. had liked the part where Dustin Hoffman had to sleep with three Indian chicks. What was it the old guy had said: “It is a good day to die.”
“Yeah,” J.B. said and walked toward the guy. “I was there. What’s up?” He hoped he sounded kind of casual and serene.
“You here?” the guy said, “at this alcoholics meeting CO, right?”
“You’re a Marine?” J.B said. “You mean CO like commanding officer?”
“Naw, motherfucker. I mean court ordered. Whoa, sorry about that motherfucker. I didn’t mean no disrespect.”
“No disrespect taken,” J.B. said. “Yeah, I’m CO. I gotta do 180 meetings in 180 days or I get kicked out of the Corps.”
“Whoa, you a Marine?”
“I just wanted to say something to you, brother. I’m here for now, see. These alcoholic people are good folks mostly. But, I know I’ll drink again. That’s just how I am. But, when I seen you in the meeting, I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry for my foolishness when we was in the joint. See, I was…” He stopped and grinned.
J.B. laughed. “You were drinking, right?”
“You got it, whiteboy. And I’ll drink again.”
Jackson locked the door and walked toward them. “Good to see you at the meeting, Roland,” he said. “You need a sponsor, give me a call. J.B.’s got my phone number.”
“Thanks,” Roland said, “I was just telling J.B. here about my situation. I’ll be honest with you. I did the crime. I’ll do the time. But then, I suspect I’ll be in the wind.”
“I know how that is,” Jackson said. “See you tomorrow night.”
He and J.B. walked to Jackson’s truck. “No real harm in that man,” Jackson said. J.B. nodded. He wondered what it was like to be as mellow as Jackson. He wondered if he had real harm in him. He wasn’t going to know for a long time.
Jackson took J.B. out for coffee, then drove him home. The house was dark. J.B. wondered if Cyndra and Tyra had headed down for one of their shopping trips. He unlocked the front door and walked into the living-room. Cyndra sat on the couch in the dark. It didn’t look good. He had something he had to tell her she wasn’t going to like and it wasn’t going to help that she was either feeling sorry for herself or ready to make him sorry.
“You okay, baby?” he said. He turned on the light and opened the blinds.
“I hate that glare,” Cyndra said. “Why’d you do that? It was all nice and peaceful in here.” She launched off the couch and stood in front of him with her hands on her hips. “How come everything’s got to be the way you want it to be? You could have asked me if I wanted the light on.”
J.B. ducked his head and glanced away. She knew that look. It pushed her buttons every time – her pissed-off buttons and her poor baby buttons. It was the Don’t-get-mad-at-me look a little boy gives his mom when he knows he has to say what he doesn’t want to say and he knows it is going to send her postal.
J.B. flinched. She was already mad. Whenever she said “What” flat like that, he was in for days of one word sentences and nights of nothing at all.
Cyndra narrowed her ice-blue eyes.
“O.k. O.k., I shouldn’t of called you sweetpea. I’m sorry. Jeeze, baby, oh fuck I didn’t mean baby…”
She folded her arms across her chest. Everything to quiet, real quiet for about ten thousand years. J.B. wished that for once in his sorry –ass married, Daddy live, that one of the kids would wake up and holler.
Cyndra nodded. She had this cold smile on her face. “What.”
“My shrink says it would be a good idea if you came to a session with me.”
Cyndra laughed. “What fuckin’ for?”
Bad as waking up in jail covered in puke had been; bad as knowing he was one fuck-up away from being booted out of the Corps, bad as dry hour after loooong dry hour was, that moment standing in front of his wife who had turned into Cruella De Ville was worse. Plus if he came back and said no way was Cyndra coming in, the doc was going to go off into one of her endless spiels about how the alcoholic (“and addict of course, Mr. Randall”) was only the symptom of a “broken family”. And she was going to want to visit “the family” in its “natural setting” which would most definitely hang him up to dry even more. He could see them – all those quotation marks around the words the doc used when she was being professional. She needed a professional.
“I said,” Cyndra said, “what fuckin’ for?”
J.B. needed a beer. He needed a case of beer. He needed a case of beer and his truck and the road running east back to West Texas. He was ready to dump the Marines and get the fuck out of 29. The only problem was that Cyndra had the truck keys and the nearest beer was a two mile walk away.
“The doc says,” he muttered. “it’s our whole family is broken.”
There was a long silence more terrible than the last long silence.
“That fuckin’ snotty cow,” Cyndra said. “We’ll see what’s broken. I’m calling the bitch right now.”
J.B. just stood there looking past her toward the window.
She poked him in the chest. “Are you listening to me? Hey! What are you looking at?” She turned and looked out the living-room window. “What’s out there? I don’t see anything. Are you tripping? Did Chaz sneak you some dope or something?”
J.B. watched the tops of the mountains outside the window turn pink.
“What’s that color?” he said. “How can a mountain be pink? How come I never saw that before. I don’t know, babe, you were talking and all of a sudden those mountains were pink.”
“For chrissakes, J.B., it’s just the sun going down. It’s a reflection or something. Don’t change the subject, Nature Boy.”
J.B. watched the pink turn to gold. He wanted to tell Cyndra he hadn’t meant to change the subject. He wanted to tell her that the mountain and that glow were nothing he could remember ever seeing.
But her mouth was set in a straight line, so he said, “I’m sorry. I’m a little weird these days. I don’t know. Things look different sometimes. Sharper, maybe. Colors or something.”
Cyndra sat down on the coffee table and hugged her knees. “Weird these days?” she said. “The only weird thing these days is you’re not drinking or smoking dope and we are supposed to be happier, right? We’re supposed to be getting to know each other again, right? We’re supposed to be getting back to normal. But how can we get back to normal if there wasn’t any normal to begin with?”
She looked up at him. “What are you grinning about? What’s that stupid look on your face? Seriously, are you high? Stop it, I’m scared.”
The grin seemed to have taken over J.B.’s face. It wasn’t a doofus grin or the grin of a kid getting caught. He didn’t know what it was. Then, he laughed.
“Nothing normal to begin with…you got that right. Remember the time we were at that kegger fooling around and the lizard climbed up on my bare ass and fell off ‘cause I was going at it so hard?”
“Oh shit,” Cyndra said and giggled. She ducked her head so her hair fell over one eye. “This is crazy. What are we going to do, honey? This is a straight-up fucking mess and now all I want to do is laugh. Or something. I miss you so much.”
J.B. crouched next to her. She grabbed his hand. They giggled as though they were stoned to the eyebrows. She started to laugh and cry, her face wet with tears.
“Oh my god,” Cyndra said, “there’s nothing we can do. It’s like we fell down one of those mine shafts and there’s no light and nobody knows where we are and we gotta get out because if we don’t, Kelli and L’il will be orphans. Plus we’ll be dead.”
J.B. leaned in and put his head in her lap. He was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe. She set her hand on his head. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that.
“Plus,” Cyndra said. Her voice was a little girl’s. “I got to tell you something. You are going to be so mad. Baby, you’re not the only fuck-up here.”
J.B.’s heart jumped. He wiped his eyes on her shorts and looked up. “Who is it?” he said. “Who is it? I’ll rip his package off.”
Cyndra leaned her head back on the couch and closed her eyes. “It’s not a he, or a she, or a them. It’s the five thousand dollars we had in the Credit Union Golden Days Vacation Plan.”
J.B. sat up. “What the are you talking about? You gave the money to your boyfriend?”
“I told you – there’s no boyfriend. I gave the money to the Indians.”
“The Palm Springs Indians, whoever they are.”
“The shopping trips,” J.B. said. “Your bitch sister, Tyra. She dragged you down there. Five thousand? All five thousand?”
“More. You know our credit cards?”
“We have credit cards?” J. B. said. He’d never used a credit card in his life.
Cyndra laughed. “That’s what you get for making your wife handle the money just like your mom did for your deadbeat dad. Yes, we have. We had credit cards. They’re dead now. No use at all.”
“You maxed them out, right?”
“Chase, $5000; Citi, $2500., BOA, $3000., credit union, $5000. Gone. Dead. All we’ve got is your paycheck.”
“And me,” J.B. said, “right on the edge of being let go from the one thing I know how to do good.”
J.B. stared down into the cup of alky coffee. He’d never been able to figure out why the coffee at the meetings tasted like shirt and even more, why he kept drinking it. It was meeting 150. The white-haired dinosaur in the Pilot truck hat had been talking for at least six months. Everybody else was trying to look as though they were listening. J.B. checked out the tits on the newbie. Either it was colder in the room than he thought or she’d caught his stare and was attracted to him. Man, he loved those clingy tank top things.
Finally, the old guy reached the obligatory last two sentences of his monologue: “So, when people ask me how the 12 Steps work, what do I say? I say, ‘Just fine.’” J.B. saw Motormouth Mona winding up to talk. He jumped in.
“My wife is driving me crazy. You know how it says, ‘…became powerless over alcohol and my life became unmanageable.’? Well, it should say blah blah, my wife became unmanageable.”
He saw a couple of the middle-aged guys roll their eyes, but he didn’t care. He had to get it out. If he didn’t, he was going on the drunk of all drunks. And, it would be one thing to lose Cyndra and the kids, but a total nuther to lose the Marines.
“No, seriously,” he said. “I’m gonna drink if I don’t get this out.”
The older hippie chick was looking at him. She drove him nuts. She was always so fucking calm and she had a way of looking into his eyes as though she could see right down to the bullshit. He’d tried to flirt with her once and she’d just laughed. He’d figure he’d soften her up, but no damn deal.
“So. I am bored to death with my wife. We never have any fun. It was different when I was drinking. Then it didn’t matter. But now? On top of being a chick – sorry, ladies – she’s gotten all Alanon plus she stopped gambling so she’s all the time yacking about understanding what I’m going through being almost a year sober. I am sorry. Only an alcoholic understands what it’s like being a year sober.”
The hippie chick grinned.
“So, here’s an example. My wife doesn’t like to do anything I like to do. I flat-out love to dune-ride. You know, nature and all that. Right before I got popped the first time, I took her out so we could be together dune-riding. At the last minute, she decides she can’t take the baby to the sitter, so she brings him along.
“We were out near Cadiz. It was sure enough hot, but I figured maybe I could rig some shade and she and the baby could just chill out, drink some pop, wave at me now and let me show her some of the fancy tricks I know.
“Oh no. I get out and haul my bike outta the back of the truck. Next thing I know, my wife has rolled up the windows, turned on the air-conditioning and is sitting there with the baby in her lap. ‘Hey,’ I yell, ‘open the window.’ She flips me off and locks the doors.
“So I take off. I’m so pissed-off that it isn’t that much fun. I come back every half hour maybe, try to get her to open the windows so we can talk, but do you think she’ll even try. We’re out there probably three hours. Each time I come back and take off again I get madder. Finally, I’m so mad it is fun. Like I’m doing my thing no matter what.
“See? See what I’m trying to tell you? It’s like my wife, my wife Cyndra just won’t get out of the truck. She never gets out of the truck, not when she’s in the truck, not when she’s outside of the truck.”
The older hippie chick actually laughed. J.B. said, “What?” The chick shook her head. Steve, the 12 Step Nazi said, “No cross talk.”. J.B. felt like he was drowning. If they didn’t get it here, who the fuck was ever going to get it?
“Wait,” J.B. said, “give me a minute more.” He looked down at the table. For some reason, he wondered how come his hands looked so young compared to everybody else’s. “See, I love the girl to death, but…”
Mona nodded, “But she just won’t get out of the truck.”
Jackson, looked at J.B. and raised his eyebrows. “Yeah,” J.B. said, “I’m done. Thanks for letting me share.” Jackson closed the meeting. They held hands and prayed. J.B. was still on coffee clean-up, so he unplugged the pot and started to dump the left-overs in the sink. The older hippie chick put the creamer and sugar away. “You want to know why I laughed?” she said. J.B. ducked his head. He didn’t want her to see he was embarrassed.
“Global warming,” she said. “All I could think of was how when you were out there and Cyndra had the truck running, massive chunks of ozone were hanging over your heads.”
“Oh jeeze,” J.B. said, “don’t start.”
She grinned. “Just another perspective, friend.”
So here Cyndra was, J.B. was in his alcoholics meeting, her and L’il in her sister’s old Neon. J.B.’s truck had been repoed. It seemed like a thousand years since J.B. had driven the truck into the driveway and called her out to take a picture of him and it.
“Things are going to be different, honey,” J.B. had said, kissed her cheek and climbed out of the passenger side of the Neon. “Pretty pony,” he’d said and patted the front fender. She’d wished he touched her like that and she’d taken the picture.
Maybe it wasn’t a thousand years since then, maybe it was a million. She thought of J.B. rubbing her back the night before and smiled. Things were still tricky, but they could have been worse. It had been almost a year since she’d waked up with her head on her slot machine. They were crawling out of debt. And, it was August which meant the Season of Hell was almost over.
L’il was asleep in his carseat. The windows front and back were open. You could smell rain in the air though a thunderstorm was miles away. Kenny Chesney was going full blast on the old car stereo. Cyndra watched lightning flicker behind the far clouds to the East. Twice she saw ghost eyes in the cool shimmer.
Two of the older ladies in the alcoholics club walked out the door. The light behind them was yellow. They were just like black paper cut-outs, but Cyndra could hear their voices. She knew who they were a little bit – Mona who had to tell you every little detail of everything, and the old lady who still dressed like it was the Summer of Love.
The hippie senior hugged her friend. “…what’s that music?” The words came right in between “Keg in the Closet” and “What I Need to Do” which seemed like a miracle to Cyndra. She’d made the tape the old-fashioned way after the truck with the big sound system had to be sold and her sister took both her and J.B.’s IPods in trade for what Cyndra owed her. Of course, the tape was called “What I Need to Do” and of course it was songs from Kenny LIVE. Those songs again. She’d never told J.B., but Kenny looked almost like a twin of him. Even more now.
The ladies went their separate ways. The hippie senior headed for her old truck, stopped in the middle of the street, looked up at the sky and walked straight toward Cyndra.
Cyndra’s jaw went tight like it did when she figured she was in trouble. She thought about scooting down but the lady was too fast. “Hey,” the lady said, “it’s you. J.B.’s lady.”
“Yep,” Cyndra said, “It’s me.”
“I loved hearing that music, especially on a night like this. You know. How the air is getting cooler, that moon up there. Kenny makes it like a movie almost.”
Cyndra felt her jaw relax.
“Hope you don’t mind,” the lady said. “I can’t remember your name.”
“That’s o.k. It’s Cyndra.”
They were quiet for a second.
“I’m just watching that,” Cyndra said. She pointed toward the lightning.
The lady smiled. “I love that too.”
“I’ve seen a couple faces already up there.” Cyndra almost put her hand over her mouth like she’d said a little too much.
“In the lightning?” the lady said.
“Yeah. Like ghosts. And how the clouds make eyebrows…maybe hair.”
The woman and Cyndra looked away from each other. Not impolite or embarrassed but because the lightning was out there and they had to see what came next.
“You know,” Cyndra said, “most people never get to see stuff like that.”
“We’re pretty lucky,” the woman said. “Back up northeast where I was born, we could see those northern lights. You know?”
Cyndra didn’t know but she figured she’d keep her mouth shut and wait.
“All green and pink,” the lady said. “You ever seen them?”
“Nope,” Cyndra said. She watched the lightning and imagined if the colors went from silver to green and pink.
“You can find those northern lights on the internet,” the lady said.
“We don’t have one of those,” Cyndra said. “We did, but we had some financial troubles and had to cancel it.”
“Well then,” the lady said, “this is even better. Mind if I sit with you till your man comes out?”
“Sure,” Cyndra said and laughed. “I bet he was talking about how I won’t ever get out of the truck, right?” She climbed out and opened the stuck passenger door. The woman laughed.
“You know,” she said, “what we say there and what we hear there…”
“I do know,” Cyndra said. The woman settled into the passenger seat. “Here’s the deal,” Cyndra said, “he might not have told you but I got so far out of the truck I almost didn’t find my way back. I go to a different kind o meeting.”
“Your old man just came out the door,” the woman said, “can we keep that story for later?”
“You want to meet up some time?”
“I do.” The old woman took out her phone. “Give me your number. I’ll call. I promise I’ll call.”
Cyndra watched J.B. walk toward the car. His shoulders were squared as always. He still had that cocky walk his grampa had. He saw her and waved.
“720-634-9951,” Cyndra said. The woman got out of the car and walked toward J.B. They high-fived in front of the Neon. J.B. got in the passenger seat and leaned out the passenger window. “Hey,” he said to the woman, “I’ll tell my wife about the global warming, okay?”
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