Much of my life has been a daydream, a here-but-not-here experience. In 1983, as I’m remembering and re-creating it, these daydreams could roll over me like a tide. I’d forget myself and become part of the summer day with its haze and stillness, float slowly past the insect-singing trees, the sulfur-smelling creek sizzling in the sun, past the 7-Eleven and the strip mall and the car dealership (big july 4th sale-buy american), into the woods and out of the woods and into the woods again, then through the glassless front window of the apartment building being built in the next neighborhood over and out of the back opening where a sliding-glass door would one day be, landing in the churned-up, bulldozer-tracked dirt and stepping-boom-back into the flow of time.
I’d go looking for something to do.
One Saturday morning a woman wearing nothing but one of Bill’s T-shirts stood in the driveway of the brick rental house. She didn’t see me walking toward her because she was staring through the passenger-side window of a 1970s blue Ford Mustang. It had rust spots along the edges of the fenders, on the back bumper.
I stopped and looked down to make sure I wasn’t hovering.
“Man,” the woman said. She had bed-head, shoulder-length brown hair and a sleep-softened face. Her legs were long and fit, her breasts large and loose inside the T-shirt. I could see the shape of her nipples in the cotton, like pencil erasers or spitballs.
“What the hell?” she said, seeing me now as I stood stupidly in the scorched street.
“Mark here?” I asked, before she could chastise me for staring at her while she wasn’t looking.
Mark creaked open the front screen door, let it slam behind him. “Hey, idiot,” he said, jumping off the stoop, over the tall grass that grew high up against it. “I got this coat hanger we can bend,” he said to the woman. He looked at me. “We got a problem. We got a huge problem, man.”
“Yeah,” I said, though I had no idea what anyone was talking about. I assumed-and this could generally describe my childhood-that if I kept participating things would somehow become clear.
“Well, come on,” she said, pointing toward the car. “I got the baby. Come on. It’s me and the baby today.”
Bill came out next-creak, slam-wearing tight gym shorts and a pair of unlaced, sand-colored work boots, the tongues flopped forward. He was hairy-chested and muscled. He looked like Tom Selleck in Magnum PI-one of my favorite shows that year-if you sent Selleck into the forest on some kind of peyote-taking vision quest for a couple of weeks.
“I got to get going,” the woman said, a note of panic in her voice. “I got to get going.” She said “going” like my grandmother, who was from the flat farmlands of eastern North Carolina, like “go-in”: “I gotta git go-in.”
Bill said, “We’ll do this. I’m a lover and a car thief, baby. Right here with the hanger, Mark. I’m Steve McQueen. I’m Steve McQueen.” He mimicked an action-movie guitar riff with his mouth and quickly humped the air with a couple of hip pumps.
We all lined up and looked into the car, which was about 120 degrees inside, I’d guess. A set of keys hung from the ignition. The seats were blue pleather. There was a baby seat in the back. If there had been a baby, it would have been roasting by now. I thought about what I’d need to do-the emergency plan-if there was a baby inside. After a second, I decided I’d take a mossy cinderblock from beside the garage and smash the windshield, hoping that no shards of glass hit the baby, though certainly some would, so I’d have to contend with those injuries as well as the screaming and possible vomiting. The baby would be crying, panicked, so I’d have to work fast, jumping onto the hood, mustering . . .
“Man,” the woman said again.
Bill said, “Don’t worry.”
Mark swatted a mosquito on his neck.
The car, the heat, the bugs, the daydreaming-we were all lost for a minute. If you were above us, I mean way above us, looking down, you might have offered us your pity.
“Alright. Look out.” Bill started bending a small loop into one end of the now straightened-out hanger.
“Who drove?” the woman said, running her fingers through her hair. “I don’t remember. Did I drive, Bill? I’ve already got a drunk driving from once a while ago back aways like last year.”
Bill slid the hanger between the rubber seal of the door and the glass. He was contorting himself, doing a kind of pool-hall body English, as he turned it so the loop would lasso the passenger-side door lock. He stopped what he was doing and looked at her. “You drove, honey,” he said quietly. Pause. Faster, louder: “Yeah. You couldn’t wait to get here. You were speeding, if you know what I mean.” He kept staring at her, waiting for her reply.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said after a moment. She looked at each of us and then down at herself. She crossed her arms, suddenly noticing the fact that she was only wearing a man’s T-shirt, was almost naked in a front yard, in a suburban neighborhood. She looked at the weather-scarred house across the street, the door-less car on its wild lawn, the blue-tick hound in a circle of dirt and a pool of tree shade, its back against the cool of the chain-link fence. I could see now that her sleep-softened glow was really a half-conscious hangover. She went, in a matter of seconds, from being glorious to seeming like the victim of a minor accident.
Bill kept at the lock.
The day’s brightness had orders to incinerate us.
“This can’t be happening,” the woman said half an hour later, when it was clear the unlocking wasn’t going to be easy. “Momma doesn’t even get up until noon. She doesn’t know the routine. She doesn’t know how to do breakfast or get Alex ready for the sitter and she should be already at the sitter’s. I can’t believe I drove. I drove? Alex is up. I know she is. Should call, but Jesus, I don’t want to call and hear all about it if Momma answers with a crying toddler and wants to start talking at me like I ain’t a grown-up cause she wasn’t no prizewinner herself, I can tell you that much. I’m going to go out, you know what I mean. Or . . .” She looked at Bill’s back, at Mark and me. “I need to go in and use your phone, Bill. I’ll be back. Are you getting it? I’ll be back. You gotta get it. Come on, McQueen. Help me out here.”
The temperature was climbing through the mid-nineties. Bill sweated, beads like blisters on his skin, concentrating on the metal lasso and the Mustang’s door lock.
He stopped what he was doing and looked at Mark and me once the screen door slammed behind the woman. “Jesus,” he said. “She don’t even remember who drove. I could have told her we came here in a police chopper.” The lasso slipped off the lock as he talked. He cursed, went back to work on it.
Mark looked like he was going to say something. He had on a pair of flip-flops and blue corduroy Ocean Pacific shorts, which every cool kid wore back then. His arms were crossed. He shook his head, did a little annoyed roll of his eyes. “She’s a prostitute, man,” he said quietly. “Some kind of gutter slut.”
“Hey,” Bill said, stopping what he was doing, looking hard at Mark. “Watch your mouth, boy.” He looked toward the house, back at Mark. In a low voice: “Watch your mouth. Don’t be rude at my house. This girl ain’t half-terrible.”
A few minutes later Bill finally got the lasso securely on the lock, pulling it up with a pop.
“I-am-good,” he yelled. “I’m a car thief. I got a future.” He did the mouth guitar riff and had his way with the air again. He pulled the hanger out, wiggling it past the window top, then straightened up, tall and muscled, and stretched his back and arms, which gave off a few clicks and cracks. Then he got in the car to unlock the other door. Whenever I saw him, when I really looked at him, which I only did if he was looking away, I stared at his muscles, the way his skin moved over them.
Hearing Bill, the woman hurried out-creak, slam-dressed in a denim miniskirt and a white blouse. “Well, I got her on the phone and she’s in tears. Been calling around to the hospitals.” She carried white hoop earrings around one wrist and red high-heeled shoes in the other hand. She toe-walked quickly through the grass and weeds and dandelions. This heat, the stretch of her shirt, her hair quickly combed: She really was beautiful.
“I got it,” Bill said, waving the hanger. “Popped it like a pro.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “Thank the Lord. Thank the sweet Lord Jesus. I need a cigarette. I would kill a puppy, man, for a cigarette.” She stopped on her way around to the driver’s side, looked at Bill-not because she wanted to, or I don’t think so anyway, but because it seemed like the only thing to do after waking up in a stranger’s bed. “I, I had a good time,” she said. “I had, you know, a real good time and all.”
“You did,” Bill said. He smiled. “We did, I mean. We surely did.”
She looked at Bill’s sweaty face, probably really seeing it for the first time, then tentatively got up on tiptoes and kissed him, just barely, on his bearded cheek.
When she had driven off, turned the Mustang around the corner down the block and was gone, Bill looked at Mark, who was still standing by the driveway, arms crossed. “What are you sulking about, boy?” he said. “Don’t give me a rash. Don’t do it. I’m telling you, do-not-do-it. You can go live with your mom if that’s the way it’s going to be. Thirteen years with one woman. She did the leaving. I’m a free man.”
Mark stayed where he was.
Bill walked toward the house, then stopped and turned around, putting his hands up. “Come on,” he said. He looked around the yard, as if what he needed to say to his son was out there. “Let’s go get breakfast. Go to IHOP. I need a cup of coffee. I’ll buy your buddy here breakfast, too. What’s your name again?”
I told him my name.
“I’ll buy you breakfast, too,” he said, smiling.
As Mark walked past him, Bill grabbed him in a headlock and squeezed his neck.
Mark said, “Hey. Quit. Stop.”
Bill let his head go and pushed him hard enough to almost knock him down.
Mark caught his balance, squared up to Bill. “I . . . man . . . Don’t.” He was almost crying.
Smiling, Bill said, “Wait until you’re a man, tough guy. Wait until the bar lights and the nights filled with skirts.”
We went into the house, which was dark and even hotter than outside, like the inside of someone’s mouth. Bill went to get his wallet. Mark went to put on a shirt. I waited in their front room, which would have been the living room for other renters, but for them it was a place for Pepsi cans and Wild Turkey bottles, a place to put boxes and sweat-stiff laundry, a place to plug in the beige rotary telephone with the cracked receiver and set it on the stained blue carpet in the corner. The T-shirt the woman had been wearing was folded neatly over the back of the only chair, a dark blue recliner with a torn armrest. I stared at it. I leaned over and smelled it. I smell it now.
Copyright © 2008 by Greg Bottoms from Fight Scenes. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.