Adopted Behaviors

         I took up smoking, puffing Lucking Strikes. But I'm unlucky. And adopted.

Shouldn't bother me on account of my loving caring mother, she treats me like her own. But still, I'm unlucky.

         I lost my job at the Phoenix Reception Center. PRC for short. Out of the ashes I rise. It's on my letterhead. A wicked bygone premonition. My apartment burnt down to the ground and for some unreasonable reason I owe Dirk Welderman some loot and I promise him, "I'll make good, trust me," and he shouldn't on account of my loaded gun.

         "Good-goddammit," he says, "that's what brothers do."

         Dirk wants me to pony-up for a gambling debt he says I inherited.

         "Look," I explain, "I'm parked outside Rose Hall. I can't let just anyone approach me. This isn't the best of neighborhoods." I'm stalling, brushing damp pine needles from my waistband. "Can you give me something more to go on? What you're wearing?"

         He says, "No,"—Capital N, Capital O—and hangs up.

         He's got to be close. He's got to be watching the incarnation of me—the mom's travel-companion-dummy-me—perched in the driver's seat of Mother's navy-blue Lumina.

# # #

         Here's what I'm thinking: Karl’s birth was a miscarriage of justice, the adoption papers Mother's guarantee. "I love you both oh so much," she said. As if none of it mattered, as if I needn't make things right. And I'm a laid-off counselor. Imagine that. The irony. Rotten, rotten luck.

# # #

         There's one prickly-ass needle in my waistband. Gravity and the berm's incline must've coaxed it into the elastic. I loosen my belt, relieve the discomfort. I can hear the laughter of factory workers outside the Jeep Assembly Plant. My office is down there on Defer, parallel to Conner. I counseled delinquent youths in Detroit. The Youth Home sent us their best juveniles. Is there such a beast? Our motto: Teamwork makes the dream work. We placed under privileged kids in better environments. I know all too well about abandonment, self-doubt. Instead of going back to my childhood home first, I sought out my sister-in-law, played a game of kissy face, ended up here, under some Jack Pines, cold and scratching and wondering how to fix everything, how to redo each event, replaying what had happened earlier in the day.

# # #

         I had slipped into my sister-in-law Callie's house. She lives in the suburbs and is no longer locking her front door. She justifies the situation, "anyone who wants to break in will."

         I say, "Locked doors keep honest people honest."

         My arrival does not startle her. It should. She knew about Karl's addiction—but not about Dirk. She's in the kitchen. She says she's making soup, do I want some?

         "Of course," I say.

         It’s vegetable barley, extra salty. I’m grateful for the hospitality; I haven’t eaten a home-cooked meal in days.

         We agree to visit Mother. I tell her, "I'll meet you there."

         She says she'll bring me more clothes. "You've got to try on his sweaters, see if they fit."

         I tell her it's not necessary and follow her to the bedroom. She unbuttons my shirt and slides her hands over my chest, down and around my waist. "What's this?" she asks. I set the loaded gun on her nightstand. "Should I be worried?" Her nervous smile comforts me. We do what we’ve been doing lately.

         I pretend to crave a smoke. I rub my eyes and pull out a Lucky Strike and light it. I shield the match with my left hand, watch the flame die out. I puff and cough, puff and cough.

# # #

         I see her again in my childhood home. All of us are saddened by the loss. I remain stoical. I'm standing in Mother’s driveway. I say to Mother, "What about his shoes? You forgot his shoes." I have Karl’s seersucker suit draped across my left shoulder. I'm kicking ice off the front wheel-well. A hard muddy cake flecked with blue collapses onto the pavement.

         "No one's going to see his feet," Mother says. She's winded from running after me. I can see her breath. She hands me a CVS bag filled with personal items. Above her shoulder, framed in the kitchen window, I see Callie.

         "Mom," I say, "Callie wants me to order flowers and prayer cards. Did she tell you?"

         "No," she says, following my line of sight. Callie and Karl separated two and half months ago. Give her space, I told him. Give her an opportunity to miss you. I have a hide-a-bed. Turns out, Callie didn't want him back. I knew this. I have his clothes. I'm wearing his corduroys, his long sleeve shirt, his pullover fleece. Still, I'm cold. The berm and pine trees do not shelter me from the wind.

# # #

         I wish I had passed-out on that hide-a-bed. I wish it were my body, my debt lifted. I wish it were my hand dropping the cigarette, its lengthy embers igniting the rug, igniting the curtains. I wish it were Karl grabbing the cigarettes and fleeing.

# # #

         I see Dirk Welderman. He sneaks up, a jack-in-the-box over the front passenger fender of Mother's Lumina. He's taken aback, frozen in time—Mother's travel-companion-dummy's expressionless face and the bullet take him by surprise. I consider it a worthwhile gamble. I squeeze the trigger again.

         I stand up, relieve myself, and contemplate where I'll stay. I still need to go to the funeral home and deliver the suit. I light another cigarette. The phone rings. I answer it. It's Dirk Welderman cussing me out. He says, “You stupid, dumb, motherfucker. You are dead, hear me, DEAD!” I have more bullets. I'll make this right. For myself. For Callie. For Mother. I close my eyes, take a long drag from my cigarette, and for the first time taste the soothing tobacco as it enters my lungs.

James R. Tomlinson was deliberate, planned, only turned the wrong way and brought his mother pain. "He was breech," she'd say, as if that's how trouble begins. He teaches convicts in the Michigan Department of Corrections and has one sibling. His writing has appeared in Pebble Lake Review, NANO Fiction, Glass Fire Magazine, and Foliate Oak Online. He is a past recipient of the Judith Siegel Pearson Prize for Fiction.

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