It was early Saturday and my son, Wesley was already at the park with his friends. Like everyone around Blythe, he started his October mornings when it was still cool, before the desert heat set in. Tanya, my wife, was in her garden doing the same. The house was all mine. I picked up the paper grinning about having the morning to myself. No honey-do’s, just me and twenty-four hours till the next football game.
Yesterday’s mail was on the counter next to the coffee machine. Under a refinancing mortgage flyer, there was a letter with Georgia on the return address. I didn’t dare touch it, but nudged the flyer away with my coffee cup. I hoped the letter was either a mistake or a bad joke because up until then I was having a good day.
It’s weird how things jump in my head. A bad pass interference call will make me remember I left a fountain pen in my favorite shirt. My home address written in my mother’s hand reminded me I’d hid a bottle of good bourbon in the garage two years ago. It was a gift from my boss, and I could give a million reasons why I’d kept it, but the truth was that Ten High was good liquor. I was taught to never throw things like that away.
Staring at the envelope made me sweat, so I dumped my coffee and poured me some of Tanya’s grapefruit juice. I didn’t want to touch the letter, but poked at it with a spatula like it was something that might bite. After flipping it like a pancake, I saw red lipstick where the ‘V’ sealed it shut. I knew those lips; I’d wiped the same imprint from my forehead and cheek a hundred times as a kid. Momma was big on kisses before school.
The juice didn’t help my sweat or the cotton in my mouth, and I figured I better do something before Tanya came in asking questions. It was dumb, I know, but I went to get the bourbon. Tanya nodded as I walked by. I hadn’t had a drink without her for more than fifteen years.
The bottle was in my tool box, somewhere Wes would never be without me, and somewhere Tanya’d only be if I died. It was a bonus from winning the company football pool, close to six-hundred dollars that went mostly to a BMX bike and pearl earrings. I bought socks and underwear for myself because you can never really have enough. My regional manager, Keith had tossed a lump of rubber-banded twenties on my desk and put the bourbon down next to the money. Enjoy it, you lucky bastard was written on a post-it stuck to the bottle. Keith was a good guy, but he was the dummy that bet Seattle every year. Him giving me the bottle made me realize no one at work really knew me. I thought about giving it away, but only real friends deserve quality and Tanya was my best friend.
I sat on my tool box and rested the bottle horizontal across my knee, whacking it on the ass a few times. I’d never liked the smell of liquor and took a swig without putting it to my nose. The heat in my stomach gave me courage I didn’t really have, and I went back for the letter.
Tanya barely looked up at me on my way back inside, so I hid behind a bush to watch her. Turning over top soil and clearing weeds was what she loved most next to me. She dug into the ground hard, stabbing into it like she’d been wronged. And then real gentle she spread fresh soil around her marigolds like she was putting on a band aid.
Her braided hair was away from her face and wrapped inside my old UC Riverside cap. We always joked that her two years there plus my two made us an educated couple. Standing there with the bottle in my hand was stupid because if Tanya saw me peeking around the bush at her, she’d have known something was wrong, even at a glance. I loved watching her though, especially if she didn’t know I was looking. Whenever she felt she was alone, her beauty was effortless, coincidental. Hell, maybe even accidental. I was never smooth with women, but when I saw her at The Getaway, the campus bar, nursing a Jack and coke with that all alone look, I had to talk to her. We both had a few more drinks, and I asked if we could do it again sometime. She leaned towards me and put her hand over mine, her smooth dark skin covering my pale knuckles. “I don’t think that would be a very good idea.” I couldn’t accept her saying no; I was hooked. Tanya claims she didn’t know it, but I’m sure she did.
It was hard a first: black guys looked at her like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ White girls glaring at me asking, “Why would you even do that?” Not Georgia bad, but it did start fights. We’d worked through a lot.
Seeing Tanya in her garden made me want to get on my knees beside her, bury the letter unopened, spray it with weed killer and wait to see if something beautiful would grow. If I’d had the courage to pick up the letter earlier, I might have done just that. But she’d smell the bourbon now. Her nose was a good as mine. There was a fight coming, but I didn’t want to have it just then.
Our house was a modest three bedroom, most in Blythe are. Wes’ room is closest to the front door, but he’d never seen me take a drink and I aimed for him to never have to. The master bedroom was at the end of the hall, but it seemed a long ways off. The office was in between and the coolest anyway. His and her desks were pushed up against the walls. I sat the bottle on the floor next to mine in case I decided to try and hide it if Tanya came in. When the silver blade slit the crease in the envelope, I saw sweat beads racing down my temple in the reflection.
The letter was only one page. I turned it over and the back was white, blank. If there were words that could make up for sixteen years of silence, I knew damn well they couldn’t fit on a single page. The very first word was, Son, and it was the worst word to start with. I dropped the letter in my lap and took a good swig.
My parents never called me, Son. Hey You, maybe. Boy, I heard several times, but not a word that tied us together as family. Not since I showed up with Tanya and a wedding ring on my finger.
The third line said my father was alive, but doctors couldn’t say for how long. I don’t understand why, but I sympathized, a lot. I knew he was afraid to die. And neither one of us faced our fears very well.
There was a big ink splotch in the L of We Love You. The pen bled ink while they wondered whether love was the right word. Momma wrote it, but I knew my father was looking over her shoulder, dictating. She’d stopped, and then looked at him for approval. Who knows how long before he answered. I took my time, too, had a few drinks before reading on.
If you want to see him, it will have to be soon. The words were supposed to be an invitation. Leaving the front door open was as far as he was willing to go. I wasn’t sure how far I’d go. I put the letter and the bourbon in my lap. Looking at them, I couldn’t tell which was worse.
“Hun?” Tanya’s voice was still outside, but close. “You didn’t turn on the AC.”
One of the things I’d hated most about drinking heavy was that time slipped. Heat had invaded the house, and I was sure it was almost afternoon, but it felt like only minutes had passed. I hadn’t moved except to lift the bottle to my mouth. She was beating the dirt off her sneakers before coming inside, something neither one of us could get Wes to do regularly. I didn’t run, but I wanted to.
“You in there, Babe?”
I took one more good swig and capped the bottle; not much could have made the situation better and nothing could have made it any worse. Tanya stared at me from the doorway, her arms pressed against the arches like she was bracing for an earthquake.
She was asking whether she should hug or kill me. I blinked and she’d covered the ten feet from the doorway to my side. She snatched the bottle when I didn’t answer.
“My fathers dying,” I said, pointing to the letter. “Wants to see me.”
“We’ll send a card.”
Tanya had a way of closing herself off when things got bad. It was how she coped with her father’s drinking. Everything about her became rigid, stone. Nothing could penetrate and hurt her then. She’s a good cop because of it, but I swear I don’t know her when she gets like that. She knew she was hurting me.
There was no hesitation in her response, just a reaction, concrete bouncing back a rubber ball. She walked out with the bottle, and I heard her pour the rest in the toilet, flushing it twice, and then running water inside and pouring that out. Without the liquor, it was just a bottle. We both knew that.
“He’s my father,” I said when she came back.
“I’m your wife.”
I couldn’t explain what I was feeling. She saw the confusion in my face, sighed and left. I didn’t tell her that I was thinking about taking Wes with me. That was for the best; she’d have handcuffed him to the frame of the house.
Looking out the office window, across Seventh Street to the hard and hilly dirt where Wes practices his bike jumps, I saw the melon fields, honey-dew. I tried to think about something else, but couldn’t get away from the smell of alcohol on my own breath. The tiny skeleton-like trees beyond the melon fields made me think about sitting on my porch in Georgia, listening to my father. Funny how things pop up, huh?
You know that Nigra round over there got a piano in his house? People nowadays rather pay a monkey a quarter what they should pay a real man to do for fifty cents. My father was never happier than when he had someone to blame for something he’d done. He never kept any job very long, and the reason was always the same: Niggers. I loved him, but he was an average man. He couldn’t accept it and spent half his time pretending he was rich, and the other half making damn sure everyone knew he wasn’t as poor as a nigger. It made him drink. And drinking made him mean. I’d never told Tanya, but until high school when I got a job and saw how easy is was to keep it, I blamed them, too.
When I walked into the kitchen, there was an empty Jack Daniels bottle on the counter, probably a gift to Tanya from someone who didn’t know any better. I couldn’t imagine where she’d hid it, but I knew she’d been faithful and hadn’t drunk hers.
“What are you thinking?” Tanya said softly, rolling a baby tomato around the salad in front of her. She didn’t look at me, and I knew that meant she was giving me a chance to apologize for breaking our sacred vow.
“No brain cells left?”
I tried to walk out, but something hit me in my back. Not a big something, but an attention getter. If it wasn’t her wedding ring, it was a hell of a bluff. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“You don’t like it, I know, but I’ve got an obligation to–”
“You made a promise!” she screamed. “And you have an obligation to me, to Wes!”
I couldn’t get past not seeing my father before he died. I saw how much it hurt him when his father passed, saw how hard he drank and how it never helped. I owed him that much.
“I just wanna see him, okay?”
“Not okay. No drinking without one another,” Tanya said. “No Georgia…remember?”
“I know what I said, but try and understand.”
“Every mile of that three-thousand on the way back, I cried, and you promised. You swore.”
My father’d called Tanya things we never repeated. Tanya’d never been to the South, and I’d convinced her it wouldn’t be that bad; she believed me and wasn’t ready for it. The trip back from Georgia was rough. We didn’t really talk until the car overheated near Blythe, eight miles into California. In the seventy-two hours we waited for a new radiator, we went from being a zebra-couple to just Warren and Tanya: steak eaters, iced tea drinkers, good tippers, two polite and quiet people, that’s all. People stopped staring and started waving. The Gas Company and the city police were both hiring. We dropped out after the semester ended and moved. Blythe seemed like a good place, and we both needed someplace good.
I wasn’t sure what else to say, so I told her what I thought was the truth. “He’s still my Daddy. I love him.”
“He’s not worth it!”
For some reason, probably the alcohol, hopefully the alcohol, I turned and looked at her, hard. Everyone in my family knew how to look down at black people. The Hughes glare, my father called it; he said I had it better than most. I leaned my head back, so she had to look up into my nose, gave her an ugly sideways frown. Her eyes grew wide with pain.
“Don’t…look at me like that.”
I was wrong, but I was mad. And drunk. “Look at you how?”
“Like you just noticed what color I am.”
I’d broken through the wall her father and the hoodlums she arrested couldn’t get through. I’d hurt her with her defense up. My backbone went limp and all I saw was the floor. Tanya disappeared. It didn’t matter if I’d looked how she said. I’d hurt her. If I could have, I would have swallowed a match and burned from the inside out. Shame hurts, and I was as ashamed as I’d ever been from what I’d done. But I still wanted to believe that my father felt my kind of shame, not the shame forced onto you by other people, the shame that makes you sorry, makes you change.
Blythe isn’t an easy place to hide. Anybody can be found with a few phone calls and a description of what they drive, so I made the forty mile drive to Parker, Arizona. Keith sent me there two years ago to oversee the construction of a gas line. The crew always talked about a local bar called Bruce’s, and that regulars could bring in their own bottle. It was down the street from Quicker Liquor on the corner of Choctaw and Main. Funny how things come back.
The clerk at Quicker Liquor was a fat bald man, the kind you see buying alcohol, not selling it. I found what I was looking for and put it on the counter.
“Good choice,” he said. He held up the bottle like he was asking for an invite then slipped it into a brown bag. “Occasion?”
“Reunion of sorts.”
“Ahhh, catching up on old times, huh? Good memories, good times.” His voice was scratchy from smoking, but I could tell he loved to talk. I grabbed the bottle and walked out.
Bruce’s wouldn’t let me in with the bottle, but someone at the bar gestured to go around back. Five people, three old couches, one big cactus and a steel barrel bonfire was all it was. But it looked like a place cops tolerated rather than disturbed. I sat down on an empty couch and made the mistake of pulling my expensive bottle from the brown bag. It drew the attention of an old Indian woman, a mustache above her lip and what looked like a five-O’clock shadow.
“White man,” she said, pointing. “Give Crazy Lucy some. You drink on my land, you pay tax!” Drinkers like to talk, but drunks like to be left alone. I was surprised this drunk didn’t know the rules. “All of this,” Lucy said holding her arms up and spinning around, “is mine. Mine!” She held out a Styrofoam cup. I looked at a man and a woman sharing a cigarette for what to do, but they minded their business. After I poured her about three fingers, she gave a toothless grin and danced away. It reminded me of my father’s drunken dance and how at times, he was good.
I don’t remember driving home, but I woke up parked in front of my house. It scared me to think that driving drunk was something I couldn’t unlearn, a stain. The moon’s glow lit a brown-bearded face peeking into my car window.
“You okay?” It was Juan from next door. He had a dog leash in one hand and a cigarillo in the other, an average night for him. “Want me to get Tanya?”
I shook no, and he walked away. The alcohol was wearing off, and my back was killing me. I couldn’t have gone back to sleep in the car, not without another bottle. I had to face Tanya.
The porch light was out, and I got the feeling I wasn’t welcome because at night it always glows. The house was pitch-black, but Tanya wasn’t asleep. She snores something awful, and the only sound was the big oscillating fan rattling the blinds in the living room.
I checked on Wes. He was asleep, but he’d left his TV on again. I’d told him about the electric bill as many times as Tanya’d told him about washing and not just rinsing the dishes, but I smiled turning it off. He was a good kid. I tip-toed in the bedroom.
“If you start drinking heavy, I’ll divorce you. I swear to God!”
Tanya’s father was Jack Daniels man before he died. She hated being close to him. Even in the hospital right before the end, she said she could still smell it on him. In the dark, Tanya probably saw her father, not me. Since we’d been together we only drank with one another, and never too much, wine at a friend’s party, a beer a piece watching the Super-bowl. It kept both of us sober. We called it ‘really small group therapy’.
I sat on the bed and used my feet to peel my shoes off, hoping the silence would last. But cheating’s cheating. I didn’t blame her for being mad.
I was facing the wall, and she came up behind me and hugged me tight. The shame I was carrying was too heavy, and I had to let it go.
“In junior high I was suspended for throwing a rock.”
“Her name was Kenya.” Tanya didn’t stop hugging when she heard the name, but I felt her grip loosen. “I didn’t know it was a girl. I just saw black. Daddy’d been saying all week how it wasn’t right…integrating my school…”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Walking home I couldn’t think about anything else but how I’d done wrong. Mama always told me to never hit a girl. But Daddy was so happy. Waited for me on the steps with a bottle in one hand and two small Dixie cups in the other. Held out the bottle to me and said, ‘Well, spank that som’ bitch. You drinking wit’ me or not.’ I hit the bottle; he laughed. I hit it again, and he laughed harder. We sat on paint cans by the garage and got drunk.”
“Warren, I’m not sure this–”
“And then he was good…for a while. Kept a job almost a year. We played catch in front of the house. He kissed Mama before breakfast and after dinner. He told me he loved me all the time. ‘Proud’ he said, ‘damn proud.’ It ain’t right, but a lot of stuff ain’t right.”
Tanya was still hugging, but I could tell she didn’t know what to do. I turned around, looked her in the eye and rubbed her cheek with my hand. “I know I made a promise,” I said. “But I’m making another one right now. Two days and I’m coming back.”
She kissed me soft, and I felt her relax in my arms. “You better.”
“I will, Darling. This city, this house…this is home.”