Ahoy! Another short story by yours truly. Originally published by After Hours, a nice little magazine you should check out, buy an issue of, and submit to. Run by Roosevelt University alumni! Copyright, etc., etc. Lori Rader Day.
What You Don’t Know
So here we are. There’s this place I want to show you. I don’t know, I think it might be the place. But if you hang around this corner too long, you’re going to start hearing some things, and I guess you could hear them from me. You probably should hear them from me. I don’t know where it starts, so I’ll start with Joe.
We always called him Slow Joe, but then maybe we weren’t as creative then as we liked to think we were.
Slow Joe was eighty or one-eighty, nobody knew for sure. He was just there, always, in the background as we went along. He always stuck his arm out the window of his rusty truck, and people waved back. This place is the town everyone else knows only as a blurry word on a highway sign. Here, Slow Joe was the one who was watching, and the one you should watch out for, if every story you heard was true. Of course, where did you grow up, where everything you hear is true?
In a place like this, a lot of tales get told, and then even more get their start from the words people just thought they heard. The cottage industry of the small towns I know is always the coffee and breakfast shop where they get up before the sunrise and by nine they’re all in there: farmers and the other old men who might have been farmers, the men who compete for whose wife gossips the most, whose life is the hardest. They’ll tell each other stories they’ve all heard before, mull over names that always seem to need mulling over. They share troubles they’re having with Bobcats or the backhoe they just bought last season, but never the ones they’re having with their kids. If you’re not welcome at that table, forget it. Move to the city.
Here’s a story you might hear down at the local place on any weekday morning. I’ll do it like they’d do it. I’ll try to do it right. “Remember that boy who used to drag race through town? What’s his name, Peteson? Peterson? Anyway, I heard he put that hot car of his through a brick wall over in Crawfordsville. Yeah, right through it and into a house behind it. Family inside died, of course, but that motherlover walked away.”
That’s what they’d say. They’d say, “Ain’t that the way?”
That story isn’t true, of course. The kid’s name was Guntherson, for one thing. The true parts add up to this: His car was fast and he liked to prove it. The family did die, because people die when cars careen into houses at 93 miles per hour. The brick wall was more of a decorative element to the landscaping—it wouldn’t have protected anyone from anything, and certainly no jacked-up Trans Am. It’s not very impressive that the wall didn’t stop him. But Guntherson didn’t walk away. He won’t be running any five-kays anytime soon, to put it mildly. But you hear things the way you want to believe them, don’t you? That’s how we all are.
Here’s a true one.
Once, I followed a trail of bread back to this godforsaken shit-pot of a town. Not breadcrumbs, like some fairy tale. Perfectly sliced Wonder Bread in bags like you’d grab right off the shelf. It doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you about it some other time, when Joe’s not sitting over there, waiting to repeat it and get it wrong.
Fine, I’ll tell you. Just lean in. You tell me if you think it’s true.
The call everyone gets came in the middle of the day for me. I was at my desk, miserable after a working lunch where the sales guy and I had both had too much to drink, too much to eat, too little agreed upon, too much sexual tension to get much work done. Hey, you and I weren’t together then—don’t give me that look. Or maybe I imagined the sexual tension. Whatever. I felt as though I might call it a day if I could somehow think of a reason to get past Kerry, the girl who watched the front doors. I hadn’t been nice enough to that woman, and it showed up in moments like these. I was tired, knew I looked tired. Knew I needed a haircut and my roots done. Knew the extra 15 pounds I was carrying around were starting to pull at the buttons on my suit jacket. Long two-martini lunches were not helping. These problems weren’t big or small—they weren’t the center of my world but they were at the back of my mind all the time, like I should just start paying attention, you know? If I could just start paying more attention, I could get these worries off my list. Oh, that list was long, familiar, tiresome. I was looking forward to a glass of wine in place of dinner, a hot shower before bed, a pill at the hint of insomnia. If I had more energy, I might have chosen this night to move the TV from the front room into my bedroom and call it official: No chance of sex in here tonight, or ever again. No, really. I think I was almost eighty years old myself.
But then around two in the afternoon, the phone rang and it was some relative, someone I barely remembered, who probably barely remembered me. At work. I wasn’t giving that number out to just anyone, you know?
Oh, wait. See how Joe wears overalls? Like only people in movies or TV shows about country people wear? He usually has an engineer’s hat, one of those striped numbers that matches his Carharts and keeps the sun out of his eyes. Men like Joe, like my dad, don’t wear sunglasses. They wear hats with logos on them that keep their bald spots from burning. John Deere hats that they buy, like you probably advertised a Hard Rock Café once, my dad paid John Deere to advertise their tractors for them.
Joe must have been a good-looking man in his day. You can’t see it, probably but he has deep-set eyes that might be blue, or maybe gray, with eyelashes so thick that he could be wearing eyeliner. Has there ever been anything more coveted by women? Psychologists like to think we have penis envy, but really, those long eyelashes, the hair that curls around their ears of its own mind, these are the things we want. Joe might have been the kind of guy whose women ran their fingers through his hair, but it’s hard to tell now. As long as I’ve known who he was, he’s just been Joe. Slow Joe, but not because of any mental or physical problems. It was his driving habit. Up and down the grid of our roads as though he were mapping them himself. Just up and down, as slow as he can go in his truck without standing still, forever and ever in circles around the county.
Well, that story I promised you isn’t going to tell itself, is it?
I was driving from the airport toward my hometown to visit my father in the hospital and, as it turned out, say good-bye to him. I ran over a loaf of Wonder Bread on the highway. Yeah, you could see the polka dots. It scared me. How often do you hit a loaf of bread in the middle of I-65? I’d driven on that stretch of road ever since I could drive, or at least since I had been allowed to drive to the city on my own, and never had I hit any sandwich supplies.
Then I ran over another loaf.
I was still having a fit over the phone call, the one that said I had to come home, to come home now, and in my hurry to make it there in time—in time to sit around with all the other people who had been called in—I hadn’t been thinking very clearly in the last half day. The bread in the road gave me a sort of welcome jolt back into the moment. I realized I’d arrived at this spot, this spot where a second, no, wait, a third loaf of bread awaited me without paying any attention to traffic, to other people, possibly to the laws governing both this state and the one I’d left behind in a rush. I had been thinking, What will my mom do if my dad dies? And then, suddenly, I’m thinking: Was that bread?
I know, weird, huh? I allowed another loaf to pass under the middle of my car, picked up my speed a little. Somewhere ahead of me was a delivery truck with a significant leak. Over the next forty miles or so, I followed a trail of bread down the middle of the center lane. I passed over them wondering what the punchline would be, how this could possibly turn out. You’re wondering it right now, aren’t you? Ha. Wondering, get it? Don’t get excited, this is not going down the loaves and fishes route.
So, finally, when I caught up with the truck, I saw it wasn’t a Wonder truck at all, actually. It was some old farmer’s open-bed, half-ton truck loaded to the sidewalls with loaves of day-old. I should have known. You can take the girl out of the farm, you know? But then the girl’s traveling seventy up from the city, and the farm finds her. The farmer had one tanned arm out his window. He gave a little wave as I was passing him, because I was leaning into the passenger seat to take a look. He was going so far below the speed limit, I could have missed him. It could have been Joe, he was getting nowhere so damn fast. Well, there wasn’t much I could do to let this guy know that he was losing his hog feed at a pace of about one loaf per mile. I thought, later, when I was sitting in the hospital waiting room and looking around at the rest of the faces—I thought: He must have known. That farmer must have known. He knew he was going to lose some of the bread on his way back from the outlet store. He’d got himself a truck load of the dry stuff that even the thrifty shoppers wouldn’t buy, and you just know, with the open truck, and wind being what it is, that it doesn’t matter how slowly you inch along. You know, I guess, that you’re going to lose a few.
It probably seems like I’m giving some value to this story, but that’s it exactly. I’m the sort of person who does that. You should know this about me. But with this story—not really a story when you get down to it, is it? With this story, I haven’t given it any meaning yet. Once in a while, I’ll suddenly be reminded of that first loaf of bread—when I might have pictured some crazed mother smacking her kid for throwing groceries from the SUV’s window—and I’ll smile, because it was a weird thing to see. And then I’ll catch myself with the stupid grin still in progress. That damn bread is always snuggled up next to the reason I was going home in the first place, after such a long time of trying not to. I can ascribe all kinds of meaning to that fucking bread, but if you’ve ever felt grief, you don’t need me to tell you about it. When I got to the hospital, my mom leaned on me and sobbed. I thought: I will never forget this moment. Not as long as I live.
Dear sweet Angel of the Alcoholics, I need a drink, how about you? They don’t know a glass of red here, unfortunately, but the beer is the same as anywhere. See if you can catch the guy’s eye.
Why do I even think of Slow Joe right now? There are so many guys just like him in the towns near this one, like this one. I almost said “like mine.” You never get over that, I guess. Otherwise, I would have. The overalls, Christ. You’d think they didn’t sell anything else. You think it’s a decision based on fashion, or tradition, or maybe that’s all they sell at the Wal-Mart, don’t you? Well, that’s not it, not at all. The next time one of these monkey wrenches walks by here wearing a pair, let me know. I’ll show you why they wear them, why Joe still does.
No, but, why I remember Joe so well is that I always had a fear of him. He was kind of a bogeyman type, in the flesh, because of something my grandmother said once. He must have done some shady deals with my grandfather’s business or something, because my grandma was one blue-hair who didn’t fall for Joe’s charm. So my whole life, when Joe’s truck drives by at a pace you could probably walk and I see his hand give a salute, I think I’m a moment away from finding out where all the missing cats go. He was so quiet, too. You know, to a man, almost every one of the guys in here is from the genus strong, silent type. That one over there probably hasn’t had to say anything for a decade. The beer gets put in front of him until he shoves the glass away and then he staggers to his truck to drive home to his TV. What’s he have to say? Who’s listening? But Joe was silent in a way that made me wonder what he wasn’t owning up to. It wasn’t just me, though. One time this little girl went missing from our town. Poor kid was only about eight years old and completely disappeared from a town where everyone knows everyone else. The cops came from the county seat and talked to lots of people, but they talked to Joe a little more than most. He’s always driving all over, see, really slow. So either they figured he’s creepy, or maybe that he’s the best witness they could ask for.
What? No, they never did find her. She’d be something like 32 now, nearly our age. Some people thought the mother did something to her. They always want to believe it’s the parents. Like they want to blame it on something that can’t touch them or their kids. See, if you blame someone over there in that girl’s circle, then your circle is just a little bit safer. But she’s been gone so long, I bet they’re starting to feel like it was a real crime. Well, a crime one way or the other, sure. But more like something that happens on the shows they watch every Wednesday, like something they should have taken a little bit more seriously at the time.
No, I was just thinking about that night, when the little girl had gone missing. There were headlights coming up our road really slowly, enough that my dad kept an eye out the window. He probably had one of his guns nearby. He didn’t get much of a chance to pull one out for actual service. The truck pulled up and some guys I didn’t know came to the door. My mom made us get back so my dad could talk to them. When the search party left, my dad went along to help look for her. We went to the window to watch them drive away. We could see a couple more pairs of headlights on the next road over, and the county road a mile north. I remember thinking that the entire county might be lit up that way, by headlights inching over the grid of our dirt roads. I was old enough to know better, but I thought of Slow Joe. All those shitty trucks prowling the country roads, it just made me think of him. Later on, I said to my dad that I bet Joe had something to do with that kid, with all the trouble in the world, really. He just stared at me. Then he said, You shouldn’t say things like that, not about things you don’t understand, about what you don’t know.
OK, here we go. This gentleman on his way to the little farmer’s room. Can you tell by looking at him why he would prefer overalls to your basic jeans? Take a good look, it’s all there. Oh, give up, city boy. It’s the gut. Their bellies push down regular pants. They can’t keep them up. But the overall’s straps protect their modesty for them, and thank God for that. It’s all very logical, you see. All very practical.
Where did I leave off?
Have you ever been in the hospital? Not visiting someone else, not there as a bystander—in the hospital, at the mercy of quote unquote modern medicine? I have, once. This was right after I got out of college, before I managed to find a job and move away. Something mysterious knocked the shit out of me, and I got put into St. Vincent’s down in the city. Skipped right past the local shop here and into St. V’s, like a frigging overachiever. Since I’m sitting here in front of you, you can tell it wasn’t fatal. But we didn’t know it would go that way for a few days. I was on the oncology unit, because that’s what they thought I had. When my dad got to the hospital that night, I had to explain to him that oncology meant cancer. His face…he’d just paid for a four-year university education for his kid so that she could translate her condition for him: cancer.
Did you know there are about a million diseases that cause your body’s systems to attack themselves? That’s what I really had. Not cancer. A self-destruct switch. Now that I think about it, I might have survived about fourteen of those diseases. The disease that causes you to shatter all the relationships you’ve ever had. The one that leads you to ruin your life in small ways. The one that lets you delude yourself for years, forever, that you know everything, that you’ll always have enough time to fix it all.
There’s no cure for the illness that sent me into the hospital. There’s no cure for any of those others, either. Except coming back here. No one’s left to tell it to, except you. But coming back is the cure. Telling you all this is the cure.
When my dad was in the hospital, now, there wasn’t any antidote for it but to go through it and see who was left standing at the end. He was the kind of guy that everyone wanted to see off, so the doors kept swinging open to reveal some new face, molded from an old face I might have known if I’d ever paid attention. I might as well have been the one in the coma for all I had to offer them.
Same at his funeral. The door kept opening. They filed in, they filed out, and what did I have for any of these strangers? Then Slow Joe walked up to us. He was wearing clothes I’d never seen, a jacket, a shirt so white it had to have been bought for the occasion. He hadn’t managed a tie, but compared with his uniform of last six, seven decades, he was really putting on the Ritz. His face was sunburned, except for a semi-circle on his forehead where the engineer’s cap usually sat. His eyes were just as astonishing as I’d remembered, but they were bloodshot. I thought maybe he’d been drinking. While I was thinking about that, and trying to come up with something worth saying, Joe began to cry. He reached into a pocket for a handkerchief. It was one of those washed-out red rags all the mechanics around here use in their shops. But clean. My dad used to carry them. Without knowing how I got there, I was suddenly on my knees in front of Joe, crying and heaving with all the regrets you’ll ever have in one lifetime. Joe is the one who picked me up. Before anyone else could get to us, he said, Your dad was a brother to me. I didn’t have another one.
His voice was low and scratchy. Strained. I shook my head at him. I did. I was trying to release him from whatever he thought chained us together. But then some of the cousins surrounded me and Mom, blocking Joe outside of our circle. When I think of it now, I wonder how you get to have these circles. You’re born into them, you break them. Some of the ones you count on disintegrate on their own. You create new ones.
But they’re circles for a reason. All things lead you back.
So what do you think? The church I want to show you is just a few miles out of town on the way to our old house. Do you have a place like this? Not the bar, sweetheart. A home, I mean, that’s your home, no matter where you try to go? I’m warning you, I’m about two minutes from talking you into moving here. When you see the house, you’re finished. You’re going to love it, city boy. You’ll want to buy a beat-up truck and drive up and down the roads at fifteen miles per hour.
Yeah, of course, he still does it. That’s what he does. He’s been keeping my mother company. It makes all the other ladies in town seething jealous, but I don’t know. He checks on her when I can’t get here, brings her little treats at the home. I’m not sure I’d call it a romance. She doesn’t know who I am, so—of course she’s known him longer, I guess. So. Not a romance at all. It’s more like a promise he’s keeping that only he knows about. I’m glad he’s there. I’m glad you’re here.
You know, the problem with the bread story is that it doesn’t mean a damn thing to anyone else but me. And now here I am trying to explain what a loaf of bread looks like in the middle of I-65. A commercially wrapped loaf of bread, you understand, with the circus-colored dots on the side. At least a hundred loaves, and not a single one of them smashed into the asphalt. They were perfect, they were perfectly safe. Almost a straight line to the horizon. Almost a straight line, all the way back.
Fine, let’s get going then. Just a second, though. Joe’s still over there. Maybe he still has that jacket and white shirt. Maybe he doesn’t mind walking me down the aisle to you when the time comes. Well. He’s who I have. The circle is a little close right now. Plus, as slow as he moves, he’ll do just fine.
Wrote this in 2005, the first fiction I’d written in about five years, just to prove it still felt good. It got me into my MFA program, at least.