The old man, my grandfather, Junius T. Goodbody, died in the spring of his seventy-seventh year in our little speck-on-the-map town of Howling Gulch, Nebraska, and left me, at seventeen and green around the ears, holding the bucket. Of course he couldn't help it none, and I ain't mad at him for his passing. Cancer had eaten all his guts out. Ain't no shame in that, and he took it like a man. Never heard him complain, so you may think what right do I have to grit my teeth about this at all. It's just that the wolves came busting out of the woodwork with him gone, claws flashing like wild animals tearing at a carcass, cut clear down to the bone.
He had squirreled away a fair amount of money in his almost fifty-five years working at Staff of Life Wheat Refinery on the edge of town. Nobody but me knew about the money (and I'd forgotten exactly where Pa had said it was, being I was just a runty little twelve-year-old when he told me) until Martha Wilder came over to help me do some light cleaning before my kin all swarmed in for the funeral and the feeding afterward. It was there they would take stock of me and my pitiful prospects, just nosing around like usual. As Martha straightened up in the old man's bedroom and apparently underneath his bed, she come across a lockbox.
Well, she rushed down like a hound after a jackrabbit to tell me all about what she'd found on her hands and knees scouring the floor underneath the bed for dust bunnies.
Ummm-hmmmm. She thrust it into my hands, smiling to beat the band just like it belonged to her. I thanked her, and I meant that, because I really didn't know where my grandfather had put it. She hovered over me like a mama hawk over her baby. She hung around no doubt curiouser than hell about what was in that lockbox. I just looked at her and said thanks, looking her directly in the eye until she got the message it weren't none of her business anyhow. With a sigh like she was giving up untold riches, she turned on her heel, scrub bucket in hand.
Now, if I could only remember the combination he told me, but he didn't write it down, and he told me not to in case some "good-for-nothing drug-addled fiend" came in looking for a way to score. I decided to twist the padlock to each number in his birthday: 02-16-1933. And it worked. And I gasped. Inside, stiff and straight as a board was a hundred one hundred dollar bills. And even though I was bad at math, I knew that was $10,000.
Ten thousand dollars. A warmness filled me inside, but also a kind of dread. I supposed I should get ready for about a hundred new best friends once good old Martha got through blabbing to everyone she could about my money. Even though she had left before I even opened up the box, she'd probably made up some fool amount like fifty thousand dollars, or even a million.
Tucked away underneath all that money, away from Martha's prying eyes, was an envelope. When she'd left, I ripped it open and saw it was an insurance policy from Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company for $45,000, payable upon my grandfather's death, as long as I was eighteen, which I was, having entered the picture in 1984.
Well anyway, that lockbox and what was in it changed the picture considerably. I mean, it wasn't a bazillion dollars or nothing. I couldn't just sit on my ass the rest of my life, eating unlimited Snickers, grilling up T-bone steaks, and slurping down high-priced whiskey, but ten thousand plus another forty-five grand would get anybody's attention, especially if they lived in this dust bowl all their life. And it was meant for me -- Justus P. Goodbody -- even had my name taped on the box, so I knew what the old man intended. Taking care of me, as usual. True, there weren't no flowery-sounding note inside, no worn-out videotape telling me just exactly how he felt about me, but that was his way.
My thoughts flashed back to Mama and her call last night. After all, he was her father. That was the only reason for the phone call, wasn't it? Not trying to nose around and see what was in it for her? Well, I could tell her none of the money was hers, not one damn bit, and she'd be lucky if she got one thin dime from me. But she had her ways when it come to money and getting what she wanted. She made it sound like she was owed this and had a way of making everyone, especially me, believe it. She was a smart one, in her own way, she was.
And that was true -- she was smart. Sneaky smart, like no one would've guessed it. Even though she didn't go to no big, fancy college, or even graduate high school for that matter -- having dropped out in the eleventh grade on account of me being born -- she read all the time, and when I was a kid, read to me most every night in her comfy, warm voice. Except for the nights when she was blasted on junk, which was a lot of nights -- too many for me to count back when I wanted her -- needed her -- to read to me, to hold me, to love me more than that shit she was pumping into her veins.
My mama, Earline Goodbody, told me one time years ago when all the sense I had could fit in a thimble that she gave me my name to remind me that it truly was "just us," alone in this world and that we would cling to each other like our very lives depended on it. And we did. Or I thought so anyway. She told me this in a way anyone could understand, holding me tight every time she told me the story. Me, being the little dipshit that I was, told myself she meant every word of it. Mama and me formed a little cocoon, holding on to each other like if we didn't, we might float away from each other, each of us to some distant, far-apart planet.
Usually after a while (it always seemed too short for me), she tore herself away and holed up in her room for days at the time, high on crank, singing sad-ass country music, old stuff like Loretta Lynn or Hank Williams. When she was in that state, Mama would match them old singers howl-for-howl. Pretty and tuneful, Mama's voice would always turn to tears after a while by the end. And then, when the music got to be too much, I suppose, she'd turn the CD player off and drift off to sleep for hours and hours. During those times, Mama's aunt Tammy who had no other family of her own would come and take care of me, me being barely old enough to wipe myself. She'd cook for me -- her chicken pot pie was so good, if a chicken happened upon it, he'd be the first to volunteer to be next, just based on the smell alone.
I remember one time when I was about six, I peeked in at her, face pale as a sheet, lips while she slept. I thought I heard her call out "Baby, hold me! Love me!" -- sometimes excited, sometimes sad. Sometimes, she would just yell out "No!" in a strangled voice like she was scared for her life. For years after that, I wondered what she dreamed about that would make her be in such a state. And who exactly was "Baby," anyway? I remember thinking, "I'm her baby, ain't I?". But even at six, I knew she must be mumbling about somebody else 'cause that was just plain weird. Ha! I really tripped myself up sometime.
But seriously ... sometimes, Mom would get a look on her face like the Rapture had just come, it was "a look of ecstasy and joy beyond understanding" as this TV preacher I used to watch, Bernie Langley, said just before he did his holy kick and slapped sick folks on the forehead and they went running around the stage right after, confetti coming down -- them folks having been on crutches hobbling around before they was smacked around. It was one hell of a show.
Anyway, before I could turn around good, she was gone, took off to Vegas with Jimmy Stallings, the bastard. As they got on the Greyhound, she said Jimmy and her would come back for me as soon as they got on their feet, which probably meant when they rung up three cherries at the slots, Jimmy being allergic to honest work. Of course, her being my mama and me a little kid, I took her at her word. I kept waiting and waiting for that bus to return with her on it -- I didn't care so much about Jimmy and his stringy, greasy-ass hair. Had a look about him -- a piece-of-shit look, always shifty-eyed, like he never wanted to look at you 'cause he was afraid you'd see the bullshit running out of his ears. Well, if that bus ever did come back, she wasn't on it.
She left me with her father, the old man, Junius Goodbody, a tall, tight-lipped man, with a mop of white hair blowing about in the wind always kicking up. One time he told me we got those yowling gusts of wind because we lived in the Great Plains and had no mountains around to catch them, so it just blew something fierce on a regular basis, and that was just our damn luck. As a result, dust storms blew through Howling Gulch on the regular, leaving coats of grime and dirt on everything. The things plain folk had to endure, my grandfather said, just another of God's trials, making us strong if we let it. He said this about the wind and, well, everything else, come to think of it, God rest his soul. As it was, we had so many troubles, the good people of Howling Gulch had to be some of the strongest folks around. Really, God, You can let up any time.
Um, where was I? Oh, yeah. About ten years ago, my grandfather stood at that bus stop, where his daughter was about to traipse away to Vegas, leaving him with me, a boy barely stopped pissing the bed, and when I had them nightmares, who the hell knew what else might come out. Standing straight as a church deacon, the old man looked right mean as he eyed Jimmy, layabout that he was. As a boy, I had felt I'd never see my mother again, and, on the off chance that I did, it wouldn't be no cause for celebration -- she'd either be in a coffin or too far gone and strung out for it to matter.
Years later while we were on the front porch watching the lightning bugs spark, in a fit of confession, he said he blamed himself for my mom's fall off the ledge. Didn't say why exactly, even though I think I know.
After his wife Bernice, my grandmother who I never met, died of breast cancer at forty-one, my grandfather told me one day he just didn't know how to show love any more, 'cause all his had been taken away. And I think that's why Mom went to Vegas with Jimmy. It made me feel sad for Pa. I didn't know what to say, words and me never getting along so good, so we just sat there, sewed in by the dark. I'd never felt closer to him and farther away at the same time. He sat still as a stone, taking drags off his stubby little cigar, eyes staring away into nothing. I kind of think later on he blamed me in some way for making him tear the lid off some great big secret, even though I never brought it up.
Now, you might think me calling him the old man was a bit disrespectful, like I needed to have my manners slapped back into me, but if you'd seen him, you'd understand. He was undoubtedly the oldest person I'd ever known, even though I've known people with more years on them. His outlook, his bearing -- sober as a judge all the time, never a moment of fun, as far as I could see, unless sitting on the front porch, eternally whittling down a block of wood, into what I don't know, was your idea of a high old time -- made him look like he was from another century, made him the old man. My old man. Mine. Was. As in no more. All of a sudden, this house, this rambling, monster-of-a-house, loomed over me, every dark corner mocking me, saying, "You ain't gonna make it, boy. What the hell you gonna do with yourself, you weak-kneed piece of shit?" I knew it was just me low-rating myself, but still maybe the shadows knew the truth of it all -- that I ain't ready for this.
Two days after Pa passed, by and by, came Earline with no Jimmy. She'd called me the night before. Said she was coming to me in my hour of need. Hadn't heard from her in twenty forevers, but now she was coming to give me a shoulder to cry on. Well, hot damn. As far as Jimmy, they was over -- "kaput" is how she worded it. Said she never knew why she took up with him anyway. Oh well, there'll be another Jimmy in no time, because Earline needed a man like a newborn craved for its mama's milk.
Anyway, she came back from Vegas. Back to comfort me on my loss. Back to pay her respects to her father and no doubt to explain herself, coming up with some bullshit line on how Just-us became Just-me.
As I cooled my heels at that run-down bus stop for pretty near three hours, I saw all kinds of activity. It was always there if you looked for it, but I guess I never thought to look for it. A mama and her little boy walked by holding hands, him licking a cone of cream, her wiping his face of the ice cream that didn't make inside his mouth. She knelt down and turned her boy around and gave him a great big hug and mussed up his hair real good. The boy swatted her hands away like it was a bother, but he had the biggest shit-eating grin on his face. All of a sudden, my stomach felt weighed down by a sadness I couldn't explain -- not that I wanted to.
I watched all of that I could, then turned my attention across the street where a big, old mangy mama hound was suckling about six of her pups. Her seventh, runty and small, tried to get a mouthful, too. She growled at him and kicked at him like she wanted him to go on off and die. Hmmm, I wonder what that feels like.
By and by, Mama got off that Greyhound, hauling around one big-ass bag that held everything she owned, I guessed. She offered it to me and me being who I am, I took it from her.
"Ma," I said, nodding at her. Stay cool, stay calm, I reminded myself. Let her know that she's going to have to work to get back on the good side of my ledger. I ain't no pushover. Big talk for such a pussy.
She looked me up and down, holding my shoulders. Honest to God, she looked better than I remembered her. Maybe Vegas and that dry air did her good. Even her eyes looked alive and not all spazzed out. Her hands shook a bit, but I tried not to think nothing about it. Maybe she was nervous to see me again, maybe she was thinking about how she'd failed me, or maybe she was missing Pa, like I was.
"Ooh, let me just look on you, Son. My Justus, oh my Justus." She went on and on like that for a little bit. After a time, she got the hint from the other passengers after many throat-clearings and took this embarrassing display to the sidewalk so they could all get off and go to their dust-covered families. "So, I guess you're still living at the place, huh?" she said.
"Yes, ma'am." I looked her straight in the eye and began to feel a little catch in my throat. Damn. "Still there. Didn't have no place else to go. Living with the old man was ... well, living with the old man. Not much of a talker, but at least he made sure I had plenty to eat and a clean shirt on my back. And he cared for me in his own way." There, that'll cut her ...
Okay, well that was a big wad of nothing. No reaction. Maybe I got to say it meaner, a little more grit in my throat.
"Well, he was always a good provider, God rest his soul," she said. "Don't worry, Justus, he never talked much to me neither. Don't take it personal. Always been that way, tighter-lipped than a boy sucking on a lemon -- even when Ma was around. He just got worse once she died. Did a number on him, that did."
"Yeah, it sure is tough when somebody you love more than anything just up and leaves." That'd get her. Tears would be streaming down her face like them big waterfalls up in New Jersey. But damn if her cheeks wasn't dry as the desert. Well, whatta ya know?
"Well, why are we just standing here?" she said. "Let's get something to eat. What suits you?"
I shuffled my feet and looked down at the ground, wishing the earth would swallow me up.
"I tell you what," she said, "is the Pork Factory still open?"
"Yes, ma'am." Oh, shit. I looked her in the eye. I just knew she'd sense exactly how much I missed her, and how mad I was at her for leaving me.
Then again, maybe I was wrong. She just looked at me all matter-of-fact like she was a stranger running the streets looking for somewhere to grab a hot meal.
"Great! Let's go! I always loved their Brunswick stew. When I was a young girl, I always thought it was funny how they called it 'Possum Stew' right there on the menu. Old Junius, being the joker that he was, told me it wasn't real and stop making a damn fuss about it. I knew it wasn't true, but that's what made it funny."
I just took her word for it. If she said it was funny, who was I to say different. I sure wasn't no king of comedy. So after hemming and hawing around for a bit, we walked on up to the Pork Factory, grabbed a menu, and sat down. And sure enough, there it was -- 'Possum Stew.' Ain't much ever changes around here.
Then she grabbed me by the hands and looked at me all wide-eyed.
"Boy, it sure is good to see you. You got no idea how much I missed you."
Nope, sure didn't. And I wasn't gonna make this easy. I just narrowed my eyes as mean as I could.
She frowned a bit. "Well, I guess you picked up some ways from the old man, huh? Not much of a talker, are you?"
Well, I guess I'm outta practice, lady, for the past decade. You didn't need to talk to me then. Why would now be any different? Just 'cause you blowed back into town? But, I bit, dammit.
"No, ma'am. Pa wasn't what you'd call a windsack, either. Thank God for him, though. Don't know what I would've done, that's for sure. Some people really come through when you need them. And some don't." I drawed that last part out real slow, hoping she was smart enough to figure out I was talking about her.
Well, she must have figured out what I was saying because she looked for a second like she'd been stung on the face by a wasp. Just for a second. Then she rearranged her face and put on her plastic smile.
"Well, I get that. I do. I really do, Son."
I nodded my head slowly, not in agreement, but in, yeah, I call you on your bullshit.
Then, the waitress walked up to the table and got her waitressing pad out. She looked over that pad at Ma and me real close.
"My God!" she shrieked at us. "Earline Goodbody, is that really and truly you?"
Ma looked up at her, and her eyes lit up like firecrackers. "Well, if it ain't Maxie Braswell." Ma got up, stretched out her arms, and gave her a hug, like it's what everybody expected. It was as if old Maxie was her flesh and blood. "Still workin' here, huh?"
"Yeah, well, I married the boss." She called out to a stubby man, older-looking than Mrs. Braswell, sitting idly behind the register. "Hey, Shane, look here, it's Earline Goodbody." He threw his hand up and grunted. "You remember her, don't you, hon? I used to talk about her all the time."
"Yeah, you did. Boy, did you ever." He smiled at us a little crooked, the beginnings of a laugh stuck in his throat, and Maxie looked at him a mite sharp. He cleared his throat hard like a piece of bark was stuck in there. "Well, let me get back there and check on the meat. Good to see you, Earline," Shane said, throwing his hand up, the words sliding out of his mouth. He walked toward the back and stopped about five feet from the kitchen door and turned around. "I was sorry to hear about Junius. Last of a dying breed."
"He was that for sure," Mama said, her voice cracking just the teensiest bit. For show, I was sure.
"Aw, hon," Maxie said, holding Mama's hands. "He was a good man, 'bout as good as they come."
"He sure was. Yep," Mama choked out.
Maxie's eyes flitted around, and she gulped hard a time or two. Her eyes centered on me, and she looked relieved to have something else to talk about.
"Well, now. Who is this handsome young man?" I looked over my shoulder to see who she was talking about. Suddenly, it dawned on me that it was me she was talking about and that didn't happen every day, for sure. The only one ever called me handsome before was Katie Beeman, a girl at my school. This was a couple of years ago. But who knows, really? I mean, everybody said she made out and did lots more with Pinkie Foreman, so who the hell knows. And that boy's about as plain as a dirt road. Maybe she took pity on him. But with me I don't know. I ain't saying we had no earthshattering romance, but sometimes -- every now and then -- when I look in the bathroom mirror at just the right angle in just the right light, I think, well, you don't exactly make me want to puke sometimes. Well, I had that on poor old Pinkie, anyway. So I straightened up like maybe Mrs. Braswell saying that wasn't so outrageous after all.
Mama waited for a second and a half, like she was trying to think of an answer. "Maxie, this is my son, Justus. When he was born, I named him and spelled his name 'Just-us' like in 'just us. I was gone away from him for a little bit, but now I'm back.'" A little bit? Hers and my definition of "a little bit" must be different. She acts like she was just gone to take care of her old aunt Maudie before she passed. As she said this, Mama reached down and mussed my hair up a good bit. Then she looked at me all deep and meaningful. "And now it is 'just-us'-- again." I guess Mama'd had plenty of time to get that introduction down right. Still, she sounded like she meant it. Maybe she'd practiced it real good on the way back from Vegas.
"Well, ain't that sweet," Maxie said, her lips pulled down just a bit like she saw straight through Mama's bullshit that maybe, just maybe, wasn't complete bullshit. You could never tell for sure with Mama. She was cagey that way. "Hello, Justus. It's nice to meet you. Yours and Jimmy's?" Maxie's lips twisted up into a grin.
"Hell, no. Sorry for the language, Justus." Like I ain't never heard worse than that coming from her bedroom when I was a little kid, and she was with --. Well, who the hell wasn't she with? Now she's a nun all of a sudden. "Girl, don't saddle me with all that. Ditched that bony bastard as soon as I could." Didn't mention she went to Vegas with that bony bastard and stayed near 'bout a decade.
"He's got pretty eyes," Maxie said, looking deep into my eyes. "I've seen them eyes before." She held focus a little bit longer than normal and then got a look on her face like she was reliving old times. And then a smile like 'I done figured you out.' "Hmmm ... you sly thing. Yep, that's him made over. Always wondered about that." Mama got a look on her that I'd never seen before, like how some of those rough girls at Cade County High School got when they're about to fight with another rough girl and they say, 'Imma cut a bitch!'
Either Maxie didn't see Mama's look, or she didn't care because she still had that crooked smile.
"Well, I'd better take y'all's order, or Shane'll be pissed." She laughed with just a little purr underneath that sounded not so friendly, just kinda mean. Mama just glared at her. "So, what y'all want to drink?"
"Coke. I want Coke," Mama said.
Maxie cut her eyes at Mama, smirk on her face. Mama just looked back at her, knives gleaming. "'Bout you, Justin, I'm sorry, Justus?"
"Sweet tea, ma'am."
"Now don't you call me ma'am. All me and your mama done gone through, I might as well be your aunt. Anytime you want something hot and fresh, you come on in, and I'll take care of you, you good looking young man, you." She winked at me, her flirtiness filling me up with a lightness I ain't really never had before.
"Tell you what, Maxie," Mama said, almost whispering through her teeth. "So you won't have to wait around for us to order when you get back with our drinks, the boy and me'll have a barbecue sandwich for the both of us with a side of possum stew a piece and two baskets of corn nuggets. And bring us a couple of slices of that strawberry shortcake that your mama makes so good. You can bring the main course and the dessert at the same time. Don't want to make extra work for you." Mama smiled one of her dangerous smiles, one of those smiles that seemed like it should come complete with a shotgun ready to blow somebody's head off.
"Alright, then." She looked at me. "It sure was nice meeting you, Justus. Hmmm ... Justus. Peculiar name, but I like it. I do."
"Thanks, ma'am. It's always nice to meet some of Mama's old friends. Reminds me of who she is." Usually, when I mean to cut someone, it's pretty obvious, but that cut was so good, nobody knew it was a cut. I think, though, that it cut me way more than it did Mama. I bent my head down and studied the fake wooden swirls on the tabletop. After a few seconds, I looked back up, and Maxie was still there gawking over us, no matter what Mama had said earlier. It appeared that Maxie liked to live dangerously. Mama was about to boil over and making that whistling sound that sounded like a pot of tea steeping, the whistling coming through the gap between her two front teeth.
"Well, Earline. Handsome and polite. Don't see that much these days. Most of these kids today act like they got their mouth glued shut. Me and your mama was joined at the hip at good old Cade County High." Maxie bent down and whispered to Earline like she was trying to keep a secret, but that it was one of them secrets that she didn't really care if anyone found out about. "Them boys sure wanted to get on them hips, didn't they? And, oh my God, in between 'em, too. Ain't nothing horny like a Nebraska farm boy, ain't there?" It was refreshing to hear someone talk English worse than me.
Earline reddened a bit around the ears and looked at me, kinda like she wanted the Pork Factory to fall down around her, crushing her to death, letting her out of her misery. I mean, I really didn't see the big deal. Once I got old enough to do the math, I figured out right quick that there was a possibility she wasn't no blushing violet. None of the men I seen her with exactly went for the churchy type. Sunday School spinsters don't go to Vegas with strung-out, low-life bastards, leaving their eight-year-old at home with her pa, quieter than a stone, whittling on a block of wood to all eternity. Still, I don't guess I should complain too much. She was here now, swapping sex stories with her slutty high school friend. Damn, I'm lucky, ain't I?
"Yeah, we sure do," Mom said. "Out of all them boys you had, I remember one that really got you. Whatever happened to old Justin Hankins? Huh? I thought you two was meant for each other. Always hangin' on each other. No offense to Shane." Something in Mama's voice was different, less teasing, more reflecting.
"Last I heard, he was working construction down in Lincoln. My God, just imagine those muscles now rippling in the sun. And I seem to remember you was a little sweet on him, too. Didn't y'all go out for a little while?" She jabbed Mama on the shoulder and winked at me. I shifted my gaze downward. "I think that's what we called it back then."
Mama didn't say nothing but had kind of a far-off look in her eyes for a second, like she was looking at Maxie, but not looking at the same time. Some sort of unmentionable pain was alive on her face. "Yeah, we went out for a bit. I know you remember that. He was wild as hell in all the ways a girl wants a boy to be wild -- sorry, Justus. Our nights together. Damn. He was wild but sweet and could say the nicest things sometimes. We kind of lost touch when he went off to Lincoln to play football. I went up there one weekend. One of the best weekends of my life." She touched me on the arm like she was trying to send me a message. I had no idea what, but, hell, a lot of what she said and did made no sense to me. "A couple of months later, we decided it was best to go our separate ways. Ain't seen him since." "Well, shit if that ain't the saddest damn story I've heard lately. As you know, lots of things don't work out how we want."
"Yeah --" Something in her eyes tore my heart out. Regret? For me? Or something else entirely?
Then, her face changed into stone, Mama spoke to Maxie in a voice colder than a well digger's ass.
"Well, my friend, thanks for the ride down Memory Lane, but me and Justus got to take care of some business, so ..."
"Sure thing." And she left and looked back at me as she was going, with a look on her face like she could just eat me up.
"God, what a slut. Hope that Shane's got her pussy clamped tight. Sorry, Justus."
"Mama, don't keep apologizing. It's who you are." I couldn't help getting a little wet around the eyes. "I spent the last ten years imagining who you are and what you were doing, I just want to get to know you and help you figure out what we're going to be doing."
She looked like she was about to lose it and spray tears and snot and boogers all over the partly-cleaned table.
"Oh, Justus. I don't deserve you." I always thought I was the one who didn't deserve her, and that's why I didn't have her. She wiped at her eyes, and I handed her a handkerchief that old Junius had given me before he died. In one of the only extras he allowed himself, it had a monogrammed "J" in the center. She blew her nose in it and gave it back to me. That was okay, even though it was kind of gross. She was back, Mama was. I balled it up and put it in my pocket.
"So," she said, clearing her throat. "I thought that after the funeral and all and a decent amount of time to mourn the old man and take care of his business, we'd go on up to Lincoln. Maybe try to find a job at the University or somewhere else. Whaddaya say?"
My senses were pretty much tingling with -- excitement, but also with something else too awful to be named, a gnawing doubt. Made me feel kind of guilty, so I just said --
"Of course, you would finish up school here since the year's almost out. Maybe stay with my Aunt Bernice for a couple of months. I'll visit you on weekends and come to your graduation, and then we will be gone. Just you and me."
Aunt Bernice? Shit, she always smelled like a can of snuff that's been open for a week. "Yeah."
"That way, I can look for a job up there in Lincoln, and I can get us somewhere to stay, make us a home." Hmmm, why Lincoln all of a sudden? As I remember, when I was a little kid Mama had no particular good feelings about it. Too much construction, she said. Gave her a headache. Oh ... what was that Maxie said? Muscles rippling in the sun -- some guy named Justin. Said my eyes were pretty just like his. Shit.
Maxie came back with the drinks and all the food, her tray loaded down. Seemed to give Mama some pleasure to see her struggling so.
"Looks good, girl. Think you gave us enough?" I think she was kidding. She patted her stomach and said, "Bye-bye, figure." I didn't think she had nothing to worry about right away. She was still skinny as a scarecrow. Maxie smiled back at her, but her eyes were like live ammunition.
"Let me know if you need anything. I'll come back to check on you."
"Ummm-hmmm. Just bring us the check. We'll be okay other than that, hun." Something in the air had shifted between Maxie and Mama. Even a dunderhead (that was one of Pa's favorite words, when he did speak) like me could see that.
Maxie slinked on back to the register where she pouted.
Mama moved a little in her seat, weight moving from left to right. "So, did old Junius leave you anything to remember him by?"
Here we go. This sounded a little too much like familiar territory. "He left some money."
"I always heard rumors that Dad had some stashed away." He's "Dad" now. "Not that I ever needed any out in Vegas. Damn expensive place to live." I concentrated real hard on the blob of ketchup pooled up by my fries. "How much?" Could she be any clearer?
"About ten grand in a shoe box under his bed." And something else in an envelope. No need for her to know about it yet, until I knew her intentions. I gulped down a bite of my barbecue sandwich with a healthy side of phlegm that'd stored up in my throat and worked its way into my mouth. I hoped she wouldn't see the lie in my eyes. Damn it, Ma, please don't meet all my expectations.
"That old fart always lived in the past, like it was still the Great Depression." She laughed, a sharp bark. "God, he hated banks. Called 'em bloodsuckers."
"I might've heard him mention that a time or two." I gave out a small grin, even though I was crumbling inside.
So we finished eating, and Maxie even picked up the bill (said it was out of remembrance of Pa), and we hotfooted it out of there after Mama left a tip I thought was a bit puny -- a buck fifty. I had three dollars on me and started to toss it on the table. She slapped my hand aside -- not hard, exactly, but I got the message. She looked around making sure no one had seen it.
"Boy, don't embarrass me. I said I was treating, and I am. Besides, she's married to the owner. She ain't exactly working for tips."
"Sorry, Mama. I didn't mean nothing by it."
"I know. You're a good kid." She hugged me warm and soft around the neck. "Come on, Son. Let's go back to the house."
So we headed toward Pa's old truck, the Rambler as he used to call it 'cause of the way it got out of alignment so easy and went here and there all over the road if you weren't careful.
I noticed the petunias by the restaurant starting to bloom. Wouldn't be long till we hit seventy-five every day. I was glad of it. It'd been a long winter.
We slung ourselves into the truck, me on the driver's side. Humph, me driving her around, who woulda thought? I puffed up a little bit, still with the sense that the air might be let out at any time.
But in that moment, the most glorious one I'd had in a while, with the sun shining, the engine roaring, Mama laughing, I thought maybe it's time I lift up my head a little bit and do some crowing of my own. I mean, I had money in my pocket, enough to be right comfortable, and Mama back around, none of her shitass men folk hanging around, leeching -- yet. Life was good. Well, it was okay. Which was still better than average for me.
The Rambler roared up, and we headed over to the house. I was just breathing her in. Still wore that lilac-scented perfume. I remembered that smell on her when I was only a child, one of the first scents I could remember as she hung over my bed washing me with her good night kisses, and I could smell it on her still when she and Jimmy left me for Vegas. Made me wonder, which Mama was it now? Well, you big old dope, she was back, wasn't she? Was she -- back?
Then a drawing in of breath from her. Almost impossible to hear, but easy to tell it was there if you've known her as long as I have, or at least the dream of her. That same pause had come before every bad thing she'd ever told me. It was like she was searching for the way that'd hurt me the least, but she never did find it.
"That $10,000? Let me ask you something. Did he have insurance -- life insurance?"
My hands clenched tight to the steering wheel, making my fingers turn pale. I held my breath till I thought I would pass out.
"Nah." I hoped she couldn't read the lie clear on my face. "He told me several years ago that if he went before me, I wouldn't have to worry about his pine box. He'd have it taken care of. So, yeah, he did. Pa wasn't someone to spill out his heart, but he took care of me in his way. Took good care of me. He said he left that money for me because he didn't believe in no insurance."
Silence in the truck for a good minute or more.
"So, what's your plans? You being a young man and all with ten thousand bucks. Only a couple months of high school left."
"Ain't really thought it out that much. I imagine I'll find a job somewhere. I was always interested in mechanics. Working on cars. Pretty good money in it. Maybe take a few courses at the community college over in Hanson."
"Hmmm, that sounds like a fine plan. A damn fine plan." She cackled a bit, kind of like her nerves had been stretched to their breaking point. Like a laugh that wasn't exactly a laugh but was trying to cover something up.
She made a show of rooting around in her purse and pulled out a brochure from some place called the First National Bank of Nebraska.
"Son, I really want to talk to you about the future, our future. I think it's about time we became 'Just-us' again." Her hand showed just the barest twitch. "I'm off the junk, been clean about three months now. It's been hard, but I'm ready to step up for you. Ready to be a mom for real. I got an interview on Monday --" She thumped the brochure. "-- as a teller. But when I get the job, I don't plan to stay a teller."
My stomach tightened up but good, and my nerves were on fire, like bacon sizzling in a pan.
"I just need some money to make us a life. That money Pa left you could set us up real nice. I swear to God, I won't blow through it. Remember, after everything is said and done, I am your mother. Ain't nobody else can lay claim to that." The muscles in her hands shook like they was about to explode through her skin.
"How much you had in mind, Ma? All of it? Huh?" I kinda barked this out at her. Oh, God, please strike her mute right now, I prayed, so I can't be proven right. I'd never wanted to be wrong so much in my whole life.
"Well, I done scoped us out a nice house for rent close to the bank. We could get in there for the first month for about three grand," she said, breath held in till she looked like a balloon left to bust.
"Yeah, he wants two months' rent for us to be able to get in. Plus deposits, hooking up utilities. The bare minimum I'll need to get things going. Groceries. I think eight, nine thousand would be enough to get me started. I should be rolling by the time you graduate. Then, you'll come up and live with me. Who knows? Maybe you'll even become a big shot Husker instead of that community college. I know that's always been your dream."
I focused on the stop sign coming into view, closer and closer. My dream? The University of Nebraska. My dream? Hell, I just wore the shirt to cover my scrawny chest. But my dream? No. That wasn't my dream. This was my dream -- I wanted a mama to tell me every shitty thing in this world was going to be alright. I wanted a mama that wasn't blasted on smack every other week. I wanted a mama who was actually able to take her own head out of her ass and look out for me. Very selfish of me, I know. Sorry, Ma.
I sat still at the stop sign, quiet as a chicken just got his neck wrung. Me and him got a lot in common. All the while, people piled up behind, blowing their horns. They could've blown them 'til kingdom come. I didn't give a damn.
"Sounds good, Ma. Sounds good." Make sure you leave me your number, bitch. Yeah, okay, she didn't have to know about nothing else that was left to me. I smiled up a storm to make it look good. At least it left me a grand -- for now. Sometimes, that was the price you had to pay.