She couldn’t understand why her parents didn’t like him. They were just mad because she ran away to Tennessee to live in his trailer and he didn’t always have a job and he’d been in prison for buying too much cough syrup, but what they didn’t know was that Rusty was a victim of the system, the cough syrup wasn’t even his, and once almost $2,000 had been taken from his truck! He’d also been beaten by his dad when he was a boy, which is why he sometimes lost his temper and lashed out at Karen, but afterwards he would always explain about himself, about the bad things that had happened to him, and as he spoke he flicked his fingers in the air like he was trying to get water off of them.
She listened every time, holding a bag of frozen sweet corn to her face.
He did impressions of old diabetic Hank at the gas station where he puffed out his gut and tucked his chin in his neck and said It’s gon’ raaiin until she laughed so hard she had to fold one hand over her crotch to keep from peeing herself. And he went down on her all the time and bit her earlobes in the special way that made the bottom of her spine tickle.
Her parents didn’t see these moments because they were private, and so when they begged her to come back home to Iowa, she would just say F No. She’d had enough of them! Enough years of Ritalin and counselors and flashcards. Rusty said that a lot of folks read backwards and no one judges them, but it’s people like her parents who are part of the system, with their Subaru and their white carpeting, they want the world to be exactly like them, they want everyone to read forwards and finish high school and become bone doctors who live in two-story houses in town. Well, she had no interest in being a bone doctor! Besides, she was eighteen, old enough to make decisions for herself.
Once, when Rusty was drunk, he told her that in high school, he knocked up a girl named Tracy, and for punishment his father made him sleep in the garage for a month. On the last day of the month his father came into the garage and held out a coffee mug of gasoline for Rusty to drink, just enough so that it wouldn’t kill him but he would always remember the consequences of his actions. Drinking the gasoline, Rusty explained, is what made it hard for him to think right, and why sometimes the ends of his sentences hung in the air like wet laundry. Plus, the coffee mug had Garfield on the side of it, which was why Rusty got angry that day that he came home from work and saw she had the funnies spread out over the couch, and he had to tear them from her hands and crumple them and scream in her face to Stop Stop Stop reading NOW.
Rusty cried when he told her this story about the gasoline, and her heart so exploded with love for him, her husband, her strong man, that she took off her sweatpants right there and let him do it to her in the way he’d been asking. Even if he did get rough. Even if it was freaking painful. But she concentrated on spelling the one word she always got right, forwards and backwards, until soon she was pushing back against him, filling with more and more L-O-V-E than she ever thought possible.
Rusty was also the one who figured out the trick of peeling the price tags from the 99-cent slippers at Wal-Mart and affixing them to anything they could carry—fishing poles, jackets, plates with flowers painted on them. The secret was to go at 3:00 in the morning and select “skip bagging” in the self-checkout lane. They ended up paying four dollars—max!—for shampoo, clothing, and once she got a birdhouse to send to her parents so they would see that she was doing OK without them.
Wal-Mart has billions of dollars, Rusty would explain, and it wasn’t even like stealing, especially not the times when they were buying food products necessary for their survival while they were unemployed, and any company who makes it so easy deserves to have things taken from them. This world, he said, was theirs for the taking. Then he licked his lips and looked at her in that way that indicated he would be reaching up her shirt in the truck and pinching her nipples until she cried out.
God, she loved him.
When little Jason Christopher was born, Karen marveled at how she could hold his whole skull in the palm of her hand. He looked up at her with a squint, like the world was too bright for him to handle. Rusty had a half-grin on his face when he picked him up for the first time and jiggled him, said, “Fresh out of the oven!”
The baby, he was like those dolls she collected when she was young—what were they called?—they had the shiny white faces and the eyes that rolled back in their heads if you tipped them upside down?—anyway, she had thirteen of them at one point, lined up around her bedroom. And her mother had set up a plastic play-kitchen area in the basement of their house, with plastic pancakes and muffins that smelled like strawberries if you scratched them. This baby looked perfect, like one of those dolls.
But Karen tried not to think too much about things like the plastic food and the play kitchen. Whenever she did, she got a twisting feeling in her gut, like she had to go, like go to the bathroom, but Rusty said it was all in her head. And he was right. She’d sit on the pot and nothing would happen. Not even air.
Rusty eventually got a job as a cook at the steakhouse, but he got fired when they found out he was bringing home the tubs of salts and ketchups and butter rolls every night. And then there was the video store, and the car repair shop, and the factory that built giant wooden pallets for other factories, but for most of the time, there was no job. And Jason Christopher, he grew up to have a dimple in his chin like his father, but there was something about him, something strange and quiet, a sullenness that caused Rusty to have some bad flashbacks about his own father, and there were days that Jason Christopher had to run and hide in the cabinet under the sink, waiting for his mother to bring a bag of frozen peas.
Once, when Rusty caught Jason Christopher and his friend Andy playing No Pants Prison in the closet, he got so mad the whites of his eyes went red. He yelled a word Karen had never heard before, and: belt straps, belt straps, belt straps.
It was around then that Jason Christopher stopped making it to the bathroom on time. The first time was OK, an accident, not a big problem. But then it happened again. And again. Almost every day he was going number two on himself. Karen would try to get his pants off of him when he got home from school, before his father saw, but sometimes she didn’t make it to the sink before she heard Rusty’s boots coming up the trailer steps, and once he yanked the underwear from her hands and chased Jason Christopher into the bedroom, where he pinned him down on the bed and shoved them in his face. As Jason Christopher cried behind his closed bedroom door, Rusty warned her not to go in there, because the only way for him to man up would be to sit in there by himself and think good and hard about all of it. And she remembered the month in the garage, and the mug of gasoline, and she nodded and stroked his arm.
Some evenings when Jason Christopher was asleep and Rusty was watching TV, Karen would put on her headphones and listen to music and run through one of her stories—maybe the one where she goes skiing and at the bottom of the hill she sees a small child, his leg mangled, crying on the snow. She wraps up his leg and straps him to her back and when they return to the motel it turns out he is an unknown orphan and she offers to keep him and they say OK Sounds Good, and she takes him home and he grows up to be a muscular carpenter. OR the one where she is walking down a sidewalk going to the grocery store and she gets hit by a car and flies up into the air and mangles her leg and no one comes for days to help her and in this time she survives by meditating on a glowing light and it fixes her leg and all the websites run a story about her mysterious powers of healing. OR she imagines she is a karaoke star and they are begging her to sing this very song, right now.
Wal-Mart finally got smooth to the self-checkout tricks and hired a guy to stand guard and make sure no one tried any funny business. Rusty applied for that job, but word had gotten out about the salts and the ketchups, and they told him thank you but no thank you. Karen saw that it was hard for a man to face these sorts of disappointments and then come home to a wet-nosed kid who made diarrhea in his pants the second he heard his father’s truck scratching the gravel. Rusty lost his temper a few times, he threw a thing or two, and he paced around the living room of the trailer and screamed that the world had it against him from the beginning, that he had it in him to get out there and F the world, F the world good and hard up the ass.
Once she even called her parents, in the middle of the night, and her dad spoke very fast and said they would send a car or an airplane ticket for her right away if she would just give them the address. But she looked over her shoulder and saw Rusty slumped in the corner, whimpering.
“Don’t you leave,” he slurred. “I might go and do something stupid.” He nodded over to where he kept his hunting rifle in the closet. “I might figure I just can’t live without you.”
Her heart soared at this—he couldn’t live without her either!—and she hung up the phone. She cradled his head against her chest and he turned his head up and she could feel the hot air from his mouth against her neck. “Oh, baby,” she said. Things used to be perfect. Now they had a son who was constantly going in his pants and might possibly want to kiss boys forever. She had to fix it.
“Why don’t we try again,” she said, and put her hand on his belt buckle.
As he pushed inside her, she concentrated hard—she wanted a real boy, one who was manly and carried tools around for fixing drains… Please please, she prayed. I will never pray for anything else as long as I live, oh please yes god give me a baby so strong and brave and full of testosterone oh oh yes that he will be pleased OH YES.
Nine months later, Emily was born.
Emily was a month late. Karen threw up nearly every morning, swirls of hamburger and macaroni coating the toilet bowl. She stood in front of the mirror and marveled at the stretch marks that snaked up her belly like spider webs. I am getting older, Karen thought, over and over, until the words didn’t make sense anymore.
Emily came out fat, almost eleven pounds, and there was a bright red splotch that covered her forehead and grew bright as a tomato when she cried. The doctor said she was allergic to wheat, which meant that special food had to be arranged. Karen and Rusty opened a credit card, and then another one. It was like a dream—the credit card companies just kept sending them plastic cards with a 1-800 number on a sticker. Silver, gold, black, red. All they had to do was call the number, peel the sticker off, and bada-bing, bada-boom, they had five hundred dollars to spend, or a thousand, or once, three thousand five hundred. So they got Emily’s food, and a dartboard for the living room, an electronic one that announced the scores in a deep computer voice, and a cd player for the truck, and a riding lawn mower.
Jason Christopher started hiding his underpants under the bed until one night Karen found them and she was so mad she shook his shoulders and said WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH YOU WE CAN’T AFFORD TO BUY UNDERPANTS EVERY WEEK and she was hoping he’d look up at her and open his mouth and give a rational answer, something sensible, something that would make her just know exactly what a mother was supposed to do in this situation. But he didn’t. He cried until long strings of snot swayed from his nostrils, and he didn’t even wipe them off, he just let them hang there and it was so gross she had to go to the bathroom to compose herself.
“It’s the stress of having a baby sister,” she told Rusty that night as they lay in bed, her hand on his cock.
Rusty didn’t answer.
“I bet if I’d had a baby sister or brother when I was his age, I would have been jealous, too.”
“Not me,” Rusty said. “I’d have shown the thing what’s what.” He swelled and hardened under her palm.
She thought she saw them in Wal-Mart one night, near the gardening aisle. Her father was bent over a coil of garden hose, inspecting the copper end, and her mother was rummaging in her purse, her head bent over so that strands of hair fell over her face. It wasn’t them, it couldn’t have been them, but Karen turned anyway and ran before they saw her. She ran as fast she could through the aisles until she reached the bathroom, where she sat and moaned and nothing happened.
When Emily was five, she started wearing her brother’s old clothing, letting the baggy tee shirts and sweatshirts drip off of her like melted popsicle. She was an ugly kid, really, with a short temper like her father and a habit of going to the driveway with scissors when Karen wasn’t looking and hacking off large chunks of her hair under the truck, until all she had left was an uneven flattop-type cut, with bald spots around the ears. Christ, Karen thought, I look away for one second and suddenly I have a tiny Marine for a daughter, a Marine who now appears to be chewing on her pinky finger like it’s a piece of steak. Jason Christopher got better, but he still shat his pants occasionally, usually when he was walking home from school, and at some point Karen started noticing streaks in Emily’s underwear, too.
Once Karen was sitting on the couch with her headphones on, watching Emily swing a stick from her tabletop pool game into the side of the refrigerator like thwack thwack thwack. Karen was listening to a song about a man who grew up without a father, who was never taught right from wrong, and she started getting misty, thinking about the cup of gasoline. She thought about how different things were with Rusty before the kids arrived. She had a quick thought about her babies, one that she never said aloud, or even let her brain make into a full sentence—it was just a flashing feeling, and she switched the song real quick to something else, with a lot of drumming and beats to match the pounding in her heart. Some things, Karen knew, were wrong to let yourself think about, even for a second.
The bills were getting worse. The envelopes were turning red. Day after day, Karen scooped them out of the mailbox and brought them inside. “Honey, I thought you paid these?” she asked. “I mean, I thought we paid them?” And Rusty snatched them from her hands and say he did pay them, he paid them over and over and over, and now he had half a mind to call a lawyer and sue the companies who were lying to them and taking all of his hard-earned money.
For her birthday that very same year, they drove the truck down to the lake. It was almost October, but not cold yet, still just warm enough that Emily and Jason Christopher could wear their hooded sweatshirts. They were five and thirteen, so that meant—Karen counted, tapping her fingers against the side of her jeans—that meant she and Rusty had been together for fourteen years. What a number! And her parents said it wouldn’t last. She’d shown them. She tried to taste this victory, which she had promised herself so many years ago, but the air was flat by the lake, and everything smelled like worms and dead fish.
Rusty stayed in the truck. Karen waved at him through the windshield.
“Come on, honey,” she coaxed. “Come get your feet wet.”
“No, thanks,” he said. He pulled his hat down over his eyes. This was how he’d been for the last six months—like a zombie from a movie. He’d gotten a job working for Hank at the gas station. He hated it. The customers stared at him, he told her, and once this guy came in to buy a lighter and sent Rusty a message with his mind that said he wanted to take money from the register, so Rusty shoved him out the door and shouted for the police until Hank pulled him back inside.
It was the gasoline, Rusty said. The fumes were too strong.
Karen watched the kids from a bench. Jason Christopher’s arm flopped across his little sister’s shoulders, her arm securely wrapped around his slender waist. That was pretty cute, how they did that. She was amazed at how early these little people developed personalities of their own, made their own decisions and wanted to wear the things they wanted. It reminded her of a song she heard once, the lyrics went everything is what we don’t expect, yeah everything EVERYthing.
“Look, Mom,” said Jason Christopher. He picked up a dead fish from the ground. There was a cigarette butt on it, and he carefully picked it off. Emily clapped her hands and squealed.
“That’s so nasty, J.C. Put it down,” Karen said.
He turned the thing over in his hands delicately. “I think it’s kind of pretty,” he said. Emily tugged on his arm and he lowered the fish to where she could see it. “It’s like a million little diamonds.”
“It is not, J.C., it’s a flat old dirty fish. Put it down. You’re going to get fish gunk on your hands.” Karen looked back at the truck. Through the smeary windshield Rusty was looking at them with that dead look Emily sometimes got when she was sleepwalking. Karen lifted a hand and waved. He pulled his hat back down.
“Come on, kids, I think we better go. Your dad’s tired.”
Jason Christopher and Emily stood very still and gazed at the dead thing in his hands. They looked like they were praying. Karen was about to get out her Mean Mom voice, but Jason Christopher lobbed it back into the water, under-handed.
When they got home, Rusty said he had a headache and went right to bed. Karen tiptoed around the trailer all day, peeking in on him and dabbing at his forehead with a wet washcloth. She called Hank at the gas station to let him know that Rusty would be out for a couple of days. Hank made a snorting noise and said, “You tell him to man up next time.”
“I will,” said Karen. She looked in the mirror and shook her head with a wacky cartoon face as she said it. It was almost funny. She hung up. “Happy birthday,” she said to her reflection with the same distorted expression on her face.
Rusty lay in bed for two days and hardly moved. Every time Karen looked in on him, he looked like he was sleeping. He started to smell like old socks and macaroni cheese. Then on Tuesday he got up and went back to work. He came home that night reeking of beer and slept on the couch, one leg draped over the side. He woke up briefly and took his boot off and threw it against the refrigerator, where it left a black scuff. Then he lay down again.
She thought about calling her parents, but she remembered she was mad at them about something from a long time ago. What was it? Well, she wouldn’t give them the something. The satisfaction.
Then, just like that, presto change-o, he was all right. He came home one night after having been gone for two days, and he took her in his arms and pressed his lips against her cheek. His whiskers scratched her, and he smelled like beer. “We’re going to be all right,” he whispered. “I have everything.” His eyes were shining.
“You have everything what?” she asked.
“I just. Have. Everything.” He licked her neck.
He kept this mood up for a few days, even complimenting her on the iced tea she made and sweeping all of the credit card bills off the table into a garbage bag. He tied the bag and took it out to the trash, whistling. Then, on Saturday, he insisted she go out by herself that night. “Take a break, get out of here for a couple of hours,” he said.
Karen was not used to this. “Where would I go?”
“I’m sure you’ve got an errand you can run.” He smiled at her, his dry lips cracking in the middle.
“I guess I could get something at Wal-Mart.”
“Do it, then.”
“Leave us here,” he said.
“I can take the kids.”
“Don’t take the kids,” he said. He lit a cigarette. “Leave us here.”
So Karen took her purse and slung it over her shoulder. She walked out and got in the car. Through the windshield she saw little Emily tugging at Jason Christopher’s sleeve. Oh, how cute those kids could be, cute when they weren’t being so disappointing, and when she saw them framed on the front of the trailer like that, she thought, this is one of those moments where it’s like a picture. It’s a picture, is what it is, and she squinted to see if she could see what they might look like grownup, but she squinted too far, and it all just went black between her lashes.
My, it had been a long time since she’d been alone! Driving alone was fun. She could sing to the songs on the radio and talk out loud to herself about why certain songs were better than others. It was so nice of Rusty to give her this break tonight, so nice of him to think about her feelings and let her have this time in the car all by herself. He was a good man. She turned up the radio louder.
Oh, this song. This song was the best song, the lyrics were like this: david something something about the lord, but you don’t really care for music, do ya? She liked that line. Of course she couldn’t imagine a person who didn’t care for music! But she liked the pull of the end of the line: doooya. This song reminded her of a feeling she had once, while watching a movie about a man and a woman, a swelling in her chest—there was a word for it, certainly. It had a d in it somewhere, swimming in the middle.
Endurance? No. Incredible? No. No, it started with an R, maybe.
She went into Wal-Mart and bought toothpaste. For their chompers! Cinnamon swirl, just like Jason Christopher liked. He was an OK kid, maybe they could get him to join a sport, or go to church—that’s it, they should all join a church, start praying. They could go on Sundays, and maybe get donuts afterward like her parents had done when she was young. And she’d buy Emily a dress to wear, something with blue in it to match her eyes. And her hair would grow out long so nobody would even notice that some parts were shorter than the others. And Karen would hide the scissors really good, like up in a cabinet or on top of the refrigerator, and she would only tell Rusty where they were, in case he needed them.
“Cash or charge?” the checkout lady asked. Her mouth drooped down sleepily in the corners.
Karen was still feeling the swollen feeling from the music (Reduction? No.) and she gave the lady what she felt to be her most kindest, softest smile. “Charge,” she said. She held out a plastic card, the gold one.
Outside she stood in the parking lot and looked at the still night. McDonald’s, gas station, sewage plant. She pictured the four of them lined up in a church pew, hands folded, the ruffles of Emily’s dress cascading over one another and spilling over the edge of the seat. Jason Christopher next to her, wearing a clip-on tie. Rusty. What would Rusty wear? She squinted, but again all she saw was black.
There was something about the quiet night air that made her uneasy, something about the way the stars were shining that made her feel like she was under a spotlight. She wanted to go home, she realized, and the swelling feeling from the music earlier returned to her chest. As she reached into her purse for her keys, she saw an ambulance and a police cruiser shoot by, zooming through a red light. The sirens cut through the air, and she felt her heart rising into her throat like—
Redemption, that was the word she was looking for.