Bobby and Karen

       Later that same night the bedroom phone woke him. He looked at the clock. 2:12. Someone had run into a ditch on Steens Road.

Edvard Munch, Separation I
Needed a tow. He explained to them that after five, he only took cash. No checks, no credit. The guy on the other end told him no problem.

       Brenda rolled over, groaning. He pulled himself out of bed, threw on the same jeans and shirt he had on earlier, then reached around for his keys in the dark, trying not to wake Alice. The early morning calls were always a pain in the ass, but he got to charge twice what he normally did.

       “Turn that fucking light off!”

       He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand straight up. That female angry voice. She had wanted to snuggle after Alice went to sleep. When Harry Met Sally on Showtime. Meg Ryan faking her orgasm. Her hands on his chest. Pretend they belong to Karen. Not the same. Lie. Pretend. You could only lie to yourself so much. He could remember when the first move always belonged to him. He blamed it on the whiskey this time. No go. How many more times could he put her off? Fake it?

       “Sorry,” he called back to her, switching off the lamp.

       Climbing in the cab, he flipped to Leon’s number on his phone. Two rings and he picked up.


       “Leon, you drunk?”

       “I ain’t dizzah, man.”

       “You at a party? What’s all that racket?”

       “Mussin oven friens house.”

       “Forget it,” Bobby said, then hung up. No good to him now. Wasn’t the first time he had let him down.

       The roads were lonely, nothing but eastbound truckers headed for Alabama. He wondered if Karen was dreaming, and if he would ever be able to dream beside her some day. Maybe Jimmy would have to go out of town for something. Anything. Maybe he could arrange that. No. Jimmy never went out of town for anything. Trust. It wasn’t love anymore. Once love died, that was it. No going back. No fresh starts. Routine. Comfort. Get fat. Take happy pills. Don’t remember. Grow old. Miserable.

       Fifteen minutes later he spotted the car, a fairly new Buick, nose down in the ditch, hazard lights flashing. Five boys were hanging around it, smoking cigarettes and laughing. He pulled up next to them.

       “Hey now.”

       “You the wrecker guy I called?” one of them asked.

       “That’s me.”

       “I think the car’s ok, if I can just get it out of the ditch.”

       “Shouldn’t be a problem. Knock it into neutral.”

       He backed up, got out and put some slack in the winch. While he was dragging the hook out, he noticed the plates. Georgia. How the hell did they get his number? He glanced back. One of them had a bottle and they were passing it around. Probably why they wound up in a ditch in the first place.

       “Oh!” one of them shouted, “we’re in kind of a hurry, man!”

       “Hurry my ass,” he mumbled, tightening the cable, then easing the winch into gear. The Buick went sideways, then straightened, easing onto the shoulder, all four tires on the ground again. He dropped the hook and locked it down. Two of the boys stepped forward. Two of the bigger ones.

       “None of us have any cash,” one of them said.

       “I’ll take a check if that’s all ya’ll got.”

       “Ain’t got no checks,” the other one said.

       Bobby eased back a few feet, let his hands roam around behind the toolbox, then pulled out a Louisville Slugger. The bat was scarred from end to end, bits of wood chewed out from angry dogs, covered in black grease, grass stains, blood. He folded it under his right arm and stepped forward.

       “One of ya’ll is gonna pay me,” he said, leveling a stare at the shorter one. “I just came from a warm bed and a pissed off wife.”

       They stood in silence for a moment. The other boys in the car watched the scene unfold through the rear glass, yet made no motion to join in. The taller one folded his arms.

       “You plan on taking on all five of us with that thing?” he asked.

       “I’ll knock it down to two-hundred even,” Bobby said. “Otherwise, it’s coming out of somebody’s ass.”

       The taller one stepped forward. “I just might call your bluff on that one, old man.”

       Bobby positioned the bat in his hands with the larger end pointing out, shoved it deep into the tall boy’s gut, then his chest. He crumpled to his knees, attempting to suck in air that would not fill his lungs. The shorter one came forward, swinging. Bobby leaned back, tagging him in the side. He came at him again, fists juggling, his face red and twisted. Bobby aimed lower this time. Kneecap. He winced when he heard it shatter. He hadn’t meant to swing that hard, but there was nothing that could be done. The boy screamed, stumbling away. He got about halfway to the Buick, then collapsed.

       The taller one was still fighting for breath when Bobby spotted one boy exit the Buick to help his buddy, then another headed in his direction. It was a short, red-headed kid, probably no more than sixteen. He reached for something in his back pocket. Bobby charged him. He wasn’t two feet away when the boy held up his hands. A wallet.

       “Here!” he screamed, “don’t hit me!”

       Bobby opened the wallet, took what he thought was fair, then handed it back to the boy. “Tell your friend I’m sorry about his knee. Put some ice on it.” The boy was silent. Bobby made his way back to the cab, put the Louisville Slugger in its place and drove away. He watched in his rear mirror as they helped the two boys into the car.

       “Probably sue me,” he mumbled to himself.

       He drove around for another hour, trying to calm down. Finally he pulled over at an all night store, dug out the fifth of vodka he’d stashed behind the seat, went in, picked out some orange juice, a bag of ice, and some Sprite. The store was empty, save for the lone clerk. Hair streaked grey. Moving slow. Probably in his sixties. Grinning at something. Bobby put his things on the counter.

       “That gonna be it?” the clerk asked.

       “That should do it.”

       “Getting a jump on the morning?”

       “It got a jump on me.”

       “Business been good?” he asked, nodding to the wrecker.

       “Steady,” Bobby said. “Give me a pack of Marlboro Lights, too.”

       He paid with part of the money he had taken from the red-headed boy and walked out. Tearing the cellophane off the pack, he lit one with the chrome Zippo he usually carried around with him as a personal trophy for kicking the damn things two years ago. It tasted good and he let the smoke settle into his lungs nice and deep before letting it back out. Old habits.

       Back in the cab, he tore open the ice, splashed some vodka into his empty coffee cup and cut it with the orange juice and Sprite. As he brought the drink to his lips he noticed that his fingers were trembling. He drank it down quickly, then made another. The old clerk was staring at him through the front glass.

       “Piss off,” he grunted, starting the engine.

       The roads were still vacant, dew wet black strips that led into the coming morning. He drove along with the windows down, savoring the dreamy quiet, gliding past barns where farmers were already up and steering tractors into vast soybean and wheat fields. September. Harvest time. They’d be busy for weeks. Make a little money if they were lucky, if the dry spell hadn’t done much damage. Rest. Do it again in the spring. He hoisted his coffee cup to them.

       His cell rang. It was Brenda. He took a hit straight out of the bottle, then pressed the green button.

       “Where the hell are you?” she asked.

       “Taking a car to the yard,” he lied. “Be home directly.”

       “You woke Alice up, now she can’t get back to sleep.”

       “I’m sorry. Give her a Benadryl.”

       “We don’t have any.”

       “Nothing’s open yet. Give her some Nyquil.”

       “She’s got school in a few hours, I’m not going to drug her up.”

       “Figure something out.”

       Silence. She hung up on him. Hell hath no fury. He glanced at his watch: 4:10. The sun would be up soon, then the temperature would start to climb. He wondered if Jimmy was at the station yet. Sometimes he did go in that early. He also wondered if Karen was still asleep. Why didn’t she want kids? She didn’t have to work. Maybe she just didn’t want to have any with Jimmy. This made him smile.

       He turned onto the highway, falling in with the early morning commuters. Matching Styrofoam coffee cups in hand, brushing back shower wet hair, tuning radios into their favorite morning show. News. Weather. What day was it anyway? Karen’s lips. Fingers in her hair. Kneecap surgery. Alice wasn’t sleeping well anyway. Probably got that from him. Brenda could sleep on airplanes. He’d close his eyes and almost get there. Something always yanked him back. A random noise. Head filled with swirling thoughts. Fears. Regrets.

       The station wasn’t far. He took a long loop around the block, creeping by the front. There he was, leaning back in that piece of shit chair, reading the paper. Bobby felt a smile cross his face. He made sure the radio was on. Picking up his cell, he scrolled down and dialed.

       “Yeah,” a sleepy voice answered.

       “It’s me, can I come by.”

       “He just left.”

       “I just saw him. He ain’t going anywhere.”

       “Sure, come on by.”

       He hit the lights and floored it. On the way, he tried to remember the times Brenda would wake up and ride with him to an early morning call. It was after Alice was born when that stopped. A lot of things stopped. He kept thinking that perfect little girl would bring them closer together. A bond. A growing promise for the future. Of course, he’d wanted a boy. Less trouble. Easier to relate to. Brenda got really depressed afterwards. There was a name for it. Books had been written. Not many with answers.

       Pulling into the driveway, he killed the lights and went on inside without knocking. She was at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, smiling. All that amazing woman just waiting there for him. He sat the portable radio on the table. She got up and he put his arms around her. There it was. Everything he needed. Wanted. All in one neat little package. Love came easy sometimes.

       She took his hand and led him into the bedroom. The sheets were still warm from her sleeping and he wondered if her dreams ever contained him.

Keith Wood has successfully escaped from Philadelphia and is now living and working in Austin, Texas. He sends most of his stories and poems to Underground Voices and Cherry Bleeds, and hopes that his mom isn't isn’t reading any of them.

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