We were bastards, my twin sister and I, born in 1964, when there was still such a thing as bastards. Our mother Vickie Hart was nine months pregnant and abandoned in Houston. She listed our father on the birth certificates only as “A.S.” and refused to speak his name. To her, we were Samuel and Sara Hart.
Our mother used guile and bluff and bare knuckles to keep us alive, the three of us a traveling circus of survival, constantly shifting from one pungent, roach-eaten apartment to another, masters of the perpetual rent-dodge. We skirted the edge of homelessness, but she always managed to pull us back by sharing both shelter and waitress jobs with a series of other chain-smoking, discarded women dragging colicky babies, raging toddlers, and sullen—sometimes dangerous—teenagers in their miserable wake.
By the time we started school, life was a runaway hairball of here-again-gone-again roommates, twenty-four-hour work schedules, go-to-sleep-here-wake-up-there dazes, and bus stop prisoner exchanges.
Gloria will put you to bed. Margie will walk you to the bus. Play quietly so Mommy can sleep. Agnes will be here till three. Wake up honey, I’m going to drop you at Helen’s on my way to work. Bella will pick you up after her shift.
Our mother never brought a boyfriend home that I remember, but all the other kids’ moms did. They ranged from crew-cut longshoremen to hippie moochers to druggie bikers in and out so quickly, we rarely knew their names. We learned to stay out of their way, or even better, out of their sight. Some of them didn’t want grown women. They roamed and hunted among the whirl of kids, the men like feral cats loosed on a clutch of hatchlings.
Sara figured out how to jackshit when the boyfriends showed up, and taught it to me. There always seemed to be a toddler around in need of a diaper change, and when Sara first learned this trick the easiest one to catch was a kid named Jackson. How it worked was you corralled Jackson (or whoever) and reached down the back of his diaper and harvested what you could, enough to share, and you smeared it around your neck. A thin smear under the collar all the way around. Unless the men were high or drunk, then you had to lay it on thicker. It didn’t always work, of course, but it kept some of them off you.
There was one guy with bad Elvis hair and a shaggy mustache who hung around a lot, smelling like cigarettes and gasoline. Sara and I called him Musty, though not to his face. He had a driller’s thick sandpapery hands, and his fingernails and the backs of his hands and forearms seemed permanently stained with burnt motor oil.
Musty was playful with the kids, and we loved it when he played grab monster. He’d get you in a chokehold, tight enough to thrill but not frighten, breathe his acrid breath down your cheek and tickle you crazy, around your nipples or inner thigh, way up high.
For the boys, there was an added feature: the pocketknife. While Musty had you in his grip, he’d take out an oversized Old Timer folding knife from a tattered leather holster on his belt, the handle lined with red-dirt filled cracks. He’d whip the knife between your legs and press upward—the blade closed, but in your kid’s mind you could never be sure, that was the kick—and he would say something like, “I’ll cut ’em off. You want me to cut ’em off?” He said this as playfully as you can say such a thing. Most of us shrieked with a strange confusion of joy and panic.
The game was best when Musty faked disinterest, sitting on the couch watching TV and waiting for a free meal. We’d run back and forth in front of him, hoping to be chosen. He’d ignore us a while before snatching a random victim. Then he’d put them in a headlock and rough-nuzzle and grate the back of their neck with mustache and three-day chin stubble. All this before applying the heavy-duty tickles. During one game, he ran his hand down Sara’s shorts. After that, she put him on her (jack)shit list, and told me to hide with her the next time he came. I should’ve listened.
He was drunk the night he grabbed me in what I thought was the usual game. Before I sensed something was wrong, he dragged me out the back door of our little shared rental house, and into an abandoned, half-collapsed garage, moonlight leaking in through a fractured roof.
Musty sat on a chair and bettered his grip on my neck. I gasped for air. Old Timer came out, open this time, the blade rusty and chipped. He thrust the blade into my crotch and said, “You pull them britches down or I’ll cut you for real this time.” I felt his chest hard against my back as he tightened the stranglehold.
“Don’t tell nobody, cause I’ll cut you and anybody you tell.”
I unbuckled my belt slowly, stalling to think, then thrust my neck backwards into his face, smearing jackshit across his lips and nose.
“Fuck!” he shouted, gagging and cussing. He shoved me to the dirt floor and I shot up and out the door. Sara had smeared it on me a little thicker than usual that night when she heard the distinctive rattle of Musty’s truck roll into our driveway.
A few days before we started fourth grade, Mom got us up early and the three of us walked to a Metro bus stop, the morning air as wet and hot as horse breath. We climbed on the bus, our tee shirts sweat-glued to our backs, Mom sitting between us and speaking softly, pointing and commenting about people and cars and billboards along the way. The bus jerked side to side, squeaking as it turned corners deeper and deeper into the Second Ward. When we got off, Mom held our hands and walked us to Casa de Esperanza, a children’s home. She sat with us on a bench near the front doors of the Casa and told us she had to go on a trip and it would be better and safer for us to stay at this place while she was away.
“Don’t go inside yet,” she said. “I want to wave goodbye from the bus stop.”
It took a while for the bus to come, so Mom did a few practice waves and Sara said, “Stop crying Sam. You’re acting like a titty baby. She’s just going to hunt for Daddy. She’s going to find A.S.”
The Metro came, and she took a window seat facing us and waved the real goodbye wave. Later, the police told the nuns who ran Casa de Esperanza what happened: Mom took the bus a couple of miles to Hidalgo Park and climbed a railroad embankment to the Union Pacific tracks leading downtown. There, she followed the rails a quarter mile to the rusted iron hulk of a swinging railroad bridge, swung open to let ships pass down the black waters of Buffalo Bayou, a hundred feet below. That’s where she jumped.
It’s our 50th birthday, a zero birthday, a big one. I’m barely out of bed and making coffee when my phone buzzes. I know without looking it’s Sara because of our birthday call ritual and sing-along. It’s a contest to see who’ll call first. She’s called me at 12:01 A.M. some years. During her Army years, we couldn’t sing on our actual birthday because she couldn’t call or be called in the backcountry of Kuwait or Bosnia or South Korea. But we always managed to make up for it, days or weeks later.
Since her return from the Army, we’ve never been more than an hour’s drive apart. I drifted from town to town, from bad job to unemployment check to worse job, but always managed to live close enough to Houston for weekend visits.
I answer my phone and Sara launches into “Happy Birthday.”
“Sara? Is that you? Or is somebody strangling a cat?”
“Oh yeah? Well you’re no Michael Bublé.”
“Happy damn birthday, Marshal Hart.”
After retiring from the Army as an M.P., Sara joined the U.S. Marshals Service and spent the last twelve years tracking down fugitives and bodyguarding federal judges.
“Actually,” Sara says, “I’ve given my notice. Margot and I are moving to Brooklyn. Well, Margot’s already here. Been up here a couple of weeks now.”
“Here? Sara, are you in Brooklyn now?”
Dread clamps my gut. I’m losing Sara again. Losing the sane half of me, the half with a candle and a map who knows how to find her way out of a shitstorm. We were inseparable as kids. Never lost touch as adults. Saved each other many times. Now what? Will I be lucky to see her twice a year in hurried visits, after a surprise “hey we’re passing through” call? Making do with a tin voice on the phone? Or the cold cardboard of a greeting card staring back at me, the very symbol of I’ve got better things to do?
“Yeah. Up here for a week or so this trip. The full move is next month.”
Dammit Margot. Dragging my sister off to New York. Of all the damn places. Sara and Margot met about two years ago, when Margot interviewed Sara for an Esquire piece about female marshals.
“This is the part where you act happy for us,” Sara says, shaming me out of silence.
“Wow. I’m just stunned. New York City. Big stuff.”
“Tribeca bought the film rights to Margot’s first novel. They’ve hired her to do the screenplay. Since the story is set mostly in Brooklyn and Jersey, she wants to be here on the ground—where she grew up—while she’s writing.”
“Sure. Makes sense,” I say, trying to break out of my daze.
Screenplay? Tribeca? Margot’s doing a movie while I pile up unsold paintings and half-finished sketches around my trailer between bouts of driving a concrete truck part-time, and cleaning the floors at Home Depot by night. Sara’s found what seems like real love (with a much younger woman) and I’m still trawling East Texas honky-tonks and Louisiana casinos, apparently invisible to all women under seventy. Happy birthday to me.
“Sam, fly up this weekend! We need to party. Five-Oh!”
“You know I can’t swing that.”
“Margot and I are buying.”
“I can’t let you.”
“It’s the cost of a plane ticket for heaven’s sake. Come on, we’ve got to do this.”
“It feels weird to me, Sara.”
“You need to get out of Texas for a while. What’s the name of that little backwater mudhole you moved to? White Horse?”
“How do you stay sane?”
“It’s not so bad here. We even have internet. It might be powered by a mule on a treadmill, but it still crushes your soul, just like in the big city.”
“Wah, wah, wah.”
“OK, I’ll come to your fancy damn hipster town. On one condition.”
“I get to meet Jimmy Fallon.”
Once a week at La Casa de Esperanza, the potential adopters and fosters would come by and inspect us like appliances on a showroom floor, something they needed to complete their kitchen or laundry room. Sometimes, they moved on to the next store, hoping for better inventory. Maybe something in a different size or color. Some kids got carted off and never came back, but many revolved in and out, a little more damaged by each boomerang cycle.
Sara was always the right size and color. Everyone wanted Sara. Why not? She was whip-smart, calm and pretty. She was respectful of the nuns (to their faces) and attentive to the browsers, quick to chat them up as they kicked our tires.
Nobody wanted me, though. I was a moody kid who wouldn’t make eye contact or talk, and if I did speak, no one could understand my sparse, faint words. I was the boy who wouldn’t stop drawing and coloring even when the nuns took away my papers and pencils. When that happened, I kept on drawing in my head.
Of all the bad Esperanza days, the showroom floor days were the worst for me, the days when Sara would be taken. I knew when it was about to happen because Mr. Kirkland the janitor would appear, stinking of piss and Lysol. Kirkland would arrive and shadow me. That was my signal to watch for a nun coming from the girls’ hall with Sara’s bag. When I saw the bag, I’d sprint to Sara, screaming, and latch both arms and legs around her.
Sara never cried during these separations. She did her little girl motherly best to console me, “Sam, it’s OK. Don’t worry. Maybe they’ll let me call you.” These were the words she wanted the nuns to hear. But no one could hear Sara’s whispers to me, her lips pressing my ear, “It won’t be long. I’ll be back. Promise.” Sara didn’t cry because she had a plan. I cried because I feared each time would be the time her plan didn’t work.
Kirkland’s job was to help the nuns pry me off my sister, carry me back to my bed in the boys’ dorm and block the door. Sister Marina explained it to me one time when Sara left, why I couldn’t go with her.
“These things are the result of prayer,” she said. “Sara is the answer to that family’s prayer.”
“I’m not an answer?”
“Sure you are. You’re just the answer to a prayer no one has prayed.”
Then she gave me my drawing stuff back.
Sara brought herself back to me every time. Some families taking her were good and some were bad, but even the bad ones were a vacation for her, if they had the pleasures not allowed at Esperanza, like television or junk food. Or schools without nuns. Sara played along with each new family for a week or so, then she would monkey-wrench something. Scissor the curtains. Key a car. Steal money. Boomerang, we’re back together.
One of the last families to take Sara on a trial run were the wealthy Teasdales, from Austin. She was gone too long and I panicked. The plan clearly wasn’t working. I spent every minute the nuns would allow watching out a window overlooking the front driveway to Esperanza, hoping to see my sister step out of a Mercedes or Cadillac and rejoin me in Nunland. All that month, no Sara.
Her stunts to get kicked back to Esperanza weren’t working, Sara explained later, because the Teasdales were too damn nice. They were gentle and kind to Sara, and very generous. They lived in what Sara described as a mansion next to a big park, with its own duck lake and tennis court. Deer grazed in front of the house every morning. She had her own bedroom, and also a connecting room, almost as large as the bedroom, for toys. A room only for toys!
When Sara decided it was time to come back to me, she went to the greenhouse with a pair of scissors and clear-cut an entire pallet of rare orchids Mrs. Teasdale had spent years cross-pollinating. The woman cried over her lost treasures, but hugged Sara. “It’s OK honey. You didn’t know how important they were. Let me explain it to you.”
A few days later, during a backyard pool party, Sara sneaked into the house and pulled the drain plugs on a giant aquarium in the study. The fancy carpet was soaked with stinking water by the time Mr. Teasdale found the mess, his exotic fish scattered and gasping. Sara walked in and handed him the plugs. He never raised his voice or hit her, just told her to never touch the aquarium again without permission, then sent her to time-out in her bedroom and toy annex. At that point, Sara said, she thought she might be stuck there.
But Sara was the grandmaster of Plan B. One morning before school, she took a razor blade from the crafts room, and sliced an “S” into her inner forearm. She let it get good and bloody before going down to join the family for breakfast. That move backfired, because instead of a return trip to Esperanza, she landed in the office of the best child shrink in Austin.
Sara’s therapy didn’t last long. Soon after the “S” on her arm, she took a pushpin from the kitchen bulletin board and cut a “T” into the belly of Tylee McCallum, the toddler from next door. The Teasdales drove her back to Esperanza the following afternoon.
The nuns figured Sara out after a while. One kindly nun, Sister Isabel, took pity and tried but failed to push us as a “package deal” to several couples, hoping to defuse Sara’s return-to-sender ploys. It never worked. No one wants a racehorse, even a prize one, if it has to drag a mule around the track. Besides, Sara’s bait-and-switch reputation caught up with her, especially as she got older, so there were fewer and fewer takers anyway.
We had an unspoken pact: better to live a crummy life together than for only one of us to escape. This pact doomed us to Esperanza. And doomed Sara to dragging a mule.
One predawn morning, shortly after turning fifteen, I went out a window on the second-floor of the boys’ dorm with some survival items in a book bag, and fire-poled down a drainpipe to spongy wet grass. Sara waited for me at the bus stop across the street, the last place we’d seen our mother. From there, we left Esperanza behind, running to—well, we didn’t know where—all we knew was we were doing it together.
Shoplifting kept us fed. Abandoned buildings and empty houses sheltered us, as long as we kept moving. We learned how to cheat at street games of dice and cards without getting stabbed. We met a junkie called Birdie who was always good for twenty bucks or so, especially when she had the shakes and couldn’t focus. When Birdie was like that, she couldn’t catch Sara switching the dice when it was time to pluck her. Being twitchy and loopy made Birdie insanely hopeful, rolling the bones over and over. Never winning but always hoping.
Birdie was friends with Cal, a middle-aged ex-con who ran the biggest chop shop operation in Houston. At first, Cal came across more like a country preacher than a violent criminal. But as you got to know him, his soft voice and constant smile did little to hide the thug within. And he always stared at Sara. I hated the way he watched her, the way a lion watches a zebra.
Cal didn’t do dice, which was great because nobody would survive cheating him. We were too smart to try. But we weren’t smart enough to say no when Cal recruited us to steal cars. He taught us the skills, and paid fifty bucks for “choppers” (the ones they dismantled for parts) and anywhere from a hundred to two fifty for “shippers,” depending on value. Shippers were high end cars worth more whole than in pieces, so Cal’s team reprocessed them with new VIN numbers and fake papers and rolled them onto ships bound for Mexico or South America.
It was easy money for a couple of rogue teenagers. We could snag two or three cars a night, which got us away from sleeping in condemned houses and into an apartment (with Cal’s help as our “Dad” signing a fake name to the lease).
And the risk was low because back then nobody had a telephone in their pocket. If a guy comes out of a strip club after midnight and his hot Trans Am is gone, he’s got to go back inside the club or find a pay phone somewhere. By then, Sara and I would have his car parked in a warehouse behind another warehouse somewhere in the boonies of the Houston ship channel.
I’m late landing at LaGuardia, so instead of meeting Sara and Margot at their apartment in Brooklyn, I take a cab to the restaurant for our birthday dinner. It’s a French bistro called Savourer. This has to be Margot’s doing. Sara would’ve gone Thai or Mexican. The place is small and casual (thank God) but classy, and located near the Theater District, wedged between a pharmacy and a coffee house, and directly across the street from a bookstore.
The bookstore occupies all four floors of a black brick building, with large bay windows framing the entrance at street level. I’m here at dusk. Soft golden light pools out the bay windows into the street. A rusty sign—shaped like a sperm whale—hangs across the entrance between the windows: Ishmael’s Books & More.
I spot Sara and Margot at a sidewalk table. Sara waves.
“Sam! Over here.”
“Sorry about the plane,” I say as we hug.
“No worries,” Margot says, and offers a hug. I don’t like to hug Margot because she’s gorgeous and when she touches me a jolt shoots through my bones, and I have to suppress the impulse to picture her naked. We pantomime a hug, barely glancing shoulders.
“How are you, Tex?” Margot asks.
“Oh, I’m fine. Jersey Girl.” Margot grins and soft punches me in the chest, and we laugh as a petite server with pigtails approaches. Her nametag reads “Zena.”
“Merlot, sir?” Zena asks, hovering the bottle over my glass.
“Sure.” I take a sip and glance across the street toward Ishmael’s. A taxi stops curbside and a woman with two young children get out and skitter under the whale and into the store. Then another taxi, this time three kids and a nanny pop out.
Zena sets the wine bottle down and refills Margot’s ice water.
“Whoa,” I say. “Margot. No red? Don’t you usually have a glass or three?”
“Early meeting tomorrow. Gotta be sharp.”
“Movie stuff?” I ask.
“First round of script notes from the producers. I’m scared as hell.”
After dinner, over birthday cake delivered tableside by a guy on a Vespa (thank you, Margot), Sara reaches into a bag beside her chair and hands me a shallow box, gift wrapped in random comic book pages.
“No,” I say. “You know we don’t do this. We swore a blood oath.”
“I know, I know.” Sara says, letting a little too much East Texas accent leak in, her letter “I” coming out “ah.” The two of us are on the outer edge of buzzed. One more red will likely push us over.
I tear through pages of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spiderman until I’m down to a bare manuscript box. Sara chuckles and does a little Merlot sway. Margot holds Sara’s hand and nuzzles her cheek, and they giggle like first graders in devious anticipation. I half expect a frog to jump out.
I open the box and I’m stunned because it holds the only ember of true joy from our time at Casa de Esperanza. It’s one of a short series of comic books Sara and I made together. Sara wrote the stories and I did the drawings. We made only four or five issues because it was too hard hiding them from the nuns.
“Issue #3,” I whisper through a fog of wine and the shock of being sucked back in time. I lift this treasure gently from the box. Sara’s done it up right. It’s in a clear envelope like they use for rare, valuable comics. I tilt it into the streetlight for a better look with one hand, and wipe tears with the other.
“Ass-Man #3,” Sara says. We named our protagonist Ass-Man. He started out as A.S.-Man, after the mystery father initials on our birth certificates. But we were kids, so naturally we went vulgar and A.S.-Man turned into Ass-Man. I drew his head as a pair of bulbous butt cheeks with big googly eyes, and a little round pink mouth. Right in the middle. He had the required tight-fitting suit, and a cape emblazoned with “A.S.” He even had a catchphrase when he launched into flight: Ass-Man Forever!
“Where on earth, Sara? Where. . .?”
“I stored a footlocker at Ft. Hood before my first deployment. When I came back a year later, it had been shipped off as unclaimed property to a warehouse God knows where.”
“We got a letter from the DOD about a month ago,” Margot says. “Somebody decided the old lockers belonged to dead soldiers. So, they traced the names to return belongings to the families.”
“And abracadabra,” I say. “Ass-Man returns to us. Best birthday ever!” I look around for Zena, to order champagne I can’t afford.
“Actually. It’s not over,” Sara says before I can locate Zena.
“Not by a long shot,” Margo chimes in, and shifts back in her chair. Zena emerges from inside Savourer and Margo signals for the check. A limo arrives at Ishmael’s, ferrying two couples and another gaggle of kids. Other parents with children are pouring in on foot, from deep inside the Theater District proper, from back towards Times Square.
Sara stands and bobbles before stepping around to my side of the little table and crouches next to me. She cradles my arm in her hands and presses her face into my shoulder for a second.
“A.S. is here. Ass-Man is here,” Sara says.
Her words stupefy me. Have we hit our Merlot limit, because I’m thinking Sara must be drunk? What the hell is she talking about? I turn to Margot for a clue, squinting at her in confusion, but she pretends to check her phone, avoiding me.
“What do you mean, Ass-Man is here?” I say, giving a confused, nervous half laugh. “From our comic book?”
It has to be a prank. I scan up and down the sidewalk and over my shoulder. Have they hired some caped costume guy to show up and sing happy birthday? But Sara’s never done a prank, and her face is as straight and serious as a gravestone.
“Our father. A.S. from the birth certificates. He’s there.” Sara points at Ishmael’s. I’m shocked to see tears creeping down her cheeks. I haven’t seen Sara cry since our earliest days at Esperanza.
“Sara, you’re not making any sense,” I say. “What? Who? I don’t understand what’s happening…” I fumble with my words like a dimwit.
“I found our father,” Sara says, wiping her face.
It’s a sucker-punch, numbing me for a minute, so much blood surging into my head I can barely hear the outside world. It’s hard to say what hurts most, hearing our sorry father is still alive, or being duped by Sara.
“Why the holy fuck would you do that?” I don’t wear anger for Sara well. It feels like a borrowed funeral suit, something sad and ugly and ill-fitting.
“That’s what U.S. Marshals do. We find people.”
“She worked hard tracking him down. For months,” Margot says.
“He works there?” I spit the words, jabbing a finger toward Ishmael’s.
“He’s doing a reading there tonight,” Margot says.
“A reading? What the hell?” I say.
“Your father . . .” Margot begins.
“No! Not our father!” I shout at Margot.
“…he—the man over there who’s about to read his new book—he’s Jules Louvette,” Margot barks back. Like I’m supposed to know who that is.
Louvette, Louvette. That name is somehow familiar. Then I flash on it. Of course. The kids. Why so many kids are streaming into Ishmael’s.
“You mean the guy who writes all the children’s books? And the TV specials? Ralph the Reindeer every year at Christmas?” I’m incredulous.
“And Betsy the Bat at Halloween,” Margot says.
“Betsy the fucking Bat guy is our father? Lord God.”
“Those specials have been running over twenty years now,” Margot says. “He’s the narrator. And executive producer. Top ten in ratings every year.” These facts seem to delight Margot. I glare at her, my face pinched and hands raised in disgust that she knows so much about this jerk.
“What?” Margot says, wagging her phone at me. “Google.”
“His real name is Alvin Scraggs,” Sara says. “He’s seventy-five. Born and raised in Kilgore, Texas. After he abandoned Mom in ‘64, he ended up in Europe. Changed his name to Jules Louvette.”
“Well, you have to admit, Alvin Scraggs is not the most artsy name,” Margot says.
“I know what’s going on here now,” I say, stabbing my steak knife through the cardboard box holding leftover cake. “We’re sitting on a sidewalk in hell. All this time, I thought we were doing a little birthday, but no, we are actually sitting in fucking hell. There’s really no other explanation.”
“I know it doesn’t make sense to you, but I want us to see him,” Sara says, red-eyed, her makeup ruined. She rakes through her purse for tissues.
“Sam,” Margo whisper-shouts at me. Then she lips the word “please,” cuts her eyes at Sara and jerks her chin toward Ishmael’s.
“No goddamn way,” I say, struggling to keep my voice down and my words slow and measured. I’m furious at how Sara and Margot have played me. They knew I’d never come to New York if they had been honest about their plans. I bolt from my chair, the metal legs sparking across the concrete before it crashes over backwards, almost hitting a hipster and his date as they pass by. He shouts asshole at me, so I give the chair a defiant kick in his direction as I stalk into Savourer, looking for the bar.
By the time Sara finds me sulled up in the bar, I’ve downed one bourbon with another coming.
“That was a shitty trick,” I say to Sara, trying not to look at her as she sidles in. The overly muscled bartender delivers my second bourbon and Sara orders an IPA.
“I thought it might help us,” Sara says. “Help put a lot of crap behind us. You know. Face the dragon. Put that final nail in the coffin of our childhood.”
“I left all my wooden stakes and silver bullets at home.”
Sara leans around to look me in the eye, so close I can smell her perfume mixed with garlic from the snails she and Margot shared. I stare straight ahead, but she takes my face in both hands, her hands as cold as the granite bar top, and she gently turns my head until we’re eye-to-eye. Just the way she did when we were kids, and I was lost and overwhelmed and needed retrieving.
“I’ve got a badge and a Glock in my purse,” she whispers mischievously, grinning. “I don’t need no stinking silver bullets. I got hollow points.”
The tears come to me now, goddamn it. I shake and slump and Sara steps off her stool and wraps me in a bearhug. The bartender swings by and descreetly slips a short stack of bar napkins in front of us. I take one and wipe snot, then clench my jaw and try as hard as I can to stop crying in public.
“Margot’s pregnant,” Sara says.
“I knew it!” I say. The tears ebb, and I feel the first flush of forgiveness for Sara’s sneaky trap.
“She skipped wine!” I shout. Sara nods and laughs.
“Margot never skips wine, come on!” I say. “And she ate at least five thousand calories tonight. Oink.” Sara pounds the bar and guzzles her beer.
“It’s great news, Sara. A real family!” I hug her neck.
“A real family,” she says. We click glasses, the last thirty-six hours making a little more sense now.
“Is this why you tracked down Ass-Man? Some newfound maternal drive to dig up roots? Connect with ol’ Grandpappy? I doubt any good will come from it, Sis.”
“Good or bad doesn’t really matter,” Sara says. “My life has been police and military. My sworn enemies are loose ends and missing puzzle pieces. I can’t walk away tonight knowing he’s just across that little, narrow street. This close,” She holds her thumb and forefinger a fraction apart in front of my nose. “We’ve got to see what’s there. Otherwise, I’ll never sleep again.”
I fear Sara’s looking for a speck of connection or acknowledgment where none exists. It’s probably a bad idea, but we’ve survived bad ideas before. As a team. I can’t let her do this alone. I owe her too much.
“All I know is cops need backup. So, I’ll let you drag me over there. But not because I give two shits about this guy. I’m doing it for you. Only for you.”
The last night I worked for Cal, I went out alone because Sara was sick in bed. One of Cal’s guys dropped me in a suburban neighborhood where I jacked an F-150 Ford pickup parked in front of a nice home. F-150s were always in high demand for their parts. But this one had a bad tail light. I was within ten minutes of the drop location when a highway patrol car eased up behind me on I-610 and flipped on its lights.
If Sara had been with me, she would have told me to pull over because she was cool under pressure, curvy and smiley, a real snake charmer. She would have spun some BS story about joyriding. They might have detained us for a while, but no real harm done.
But when I saw the cop’s lights, I gunned the F-150. Got up to almost a hundred and zigged around an eighteen-wheeler. Then tried to zag around another one, lost control and hit a car on the shoulder where two men were changing a tire. Killed one of them.
I was an adult for criminal purposes in Texas, and was convicted of several crimes, but the worst was manslaughter in the commission of a felony. That got me seven years at the Hornby Unit of the Texas prison system.
My conviction crushed Sara. She came to Hornby on the first visitor’s day after I arrived. She forced a smile through the scarred plexiglass, but only her sadness and fear reached me. I was in no shape to lift her mood. I was terrified.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I’d fucked us up and the shame overwhelmed me. I couldn’t look her in the face without tears, and the animals at Hornby had already marked me as a weak bunny. Crying would make it worse.
“I’m talking to Cal,” Sara said. “Trying to pull enough money together for a real lawyer. Maybe get a reduced sentence.” She was pale and drained, in need of a month’s sleep.
“No. Forget Cal,” I pleaded. “For lawyer money, you’ll have to do a lot worse than jacking cars.”
“I can do that,” she said.
I shook my head, looking away. Sara was pretending, for my sake, that she didn’t know the full truth about Cal. He was into a lot more than paying teens to steal cars. Birdie told us things. He had cartel connections and was trafficking girls.
“Listen to me carefully,” Sara said, tapping the glass. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get you out.” Her hard, resigned look scared me cold, like she was ready to nut-kick the devil.
“No. Fuck no,” I said. This was Cal’s opening to swoop in, banking on her being panicked and worried about me. He’d be full of ideas for her to raise cash.
“Don’t make me say it,” I said.
“Cal wants to fuck you, that’s what. Then probably pass you around to his partners.” The thought of it roiled my guts, like shards of glass boring their way out.
“You don’t think I know that? I can use that,” Sara said, poker-faced.
“God no, Sara! You want to help me? Then I’m begging you. Get away from him.”
She stared into her lap, hair falling over her face. Silent.
“I’m begging because I’ll die in here unless my head’s right. And I can’t get it right if I spend every day worrying about you tangled up in Cal’s shit. Promise me, Sara.”
“And go where? Do what?”
I didn’t have an answer. But her getting away from Cal seemed like the only way to save us both.
“You’ll think of something. You always do.”
A guard told us to wrap it up. Sara mouthed “I love you” and hung up the handset. I wasn’t sure I’d convinced her. I was never entirely sure with Sara. As she walked out the door, I wanted to run and cinch my arms and legs around her like all those times at Esperanza. I wanted to hear her secret whisper: It won’t be long. I’ll be back. Promise.
Three days later, on our eighteenth birthday, she joined the Army. Two years after that, she was guarding captured Cuban soldiers in Grenada, and I was recovering in the prison hospital with a splintered leg (twelve pins) and a shattered skull (metal plate) after a skinhead named Lonnie Lee Wray piledrove me into a concrete pillar. I owed him a juice.
We enter Ishmael’s and follow the chatter to the reading room at the back of the first floor. We’ve missed the reading, but not the book signing, and take our place at the end of the line.
Margot is the first to get a good look at him.
“Dear God,” she says. “He looks just like that beer guy.”
“Beer guy?” I ask.
“You know, ‘The most interesting man in the world.’ The original guy in those Dos Equis commercials? Very, very handsome. Too bad they dumped him for that younger, douchey guy.”
She’s right, dammit. He could be the beer guy’s better-looking brother. Thick pewter hair, swept straight back. Trim, Van Dyke beard and precision-cut suit. I don’t always abandon my family, but when I do, I become a fucking multimillionaire.
The wait is long, but we’re on a mission and finally make it to the table where Ass-Man is signing books with an assistant by his side. Ishmael’s has strung a fifty-foot banner behind him: Jules Louvette: The Voice America Grows Up With (Time Magazine).
I want to puke. Where was he, I wonder, when Sara nearly died of a sniper wound in a dirty, fucking Army tent in Kuwait? Maybe sipping a Kir Royale somewhere near the Louvre? And then, when Lonnie Lee Wray was slapping his fat cock across my face at the Hornby Unit? Maybe lunching with a fellow artiste on roasted squab or some such shit?
Sara and I step up to the table.
His assistant readies a copy of his newest picture book and asks, “How would you like it inscribed?”
I’ve been running the words through my head during the long wait in line.
“Make it out ‘To my little bastards,'” I say. “And have him sign it ‘Alvin Scraggs.'”
Ass-Man whips off his reading glasses. “What did you say?” he asks.
“Vicki Hart. Houston. 1964,” Sara says.
“Ring any bells?” I ask.
“Do I know you?”
“We’re relatives,” Sara says. “From Texas. Can we could talk a few minutes?”
Ass-Man stares at us a long moment, then tells his assistant to give us some privacy. Margot follows the assistant to the front of the store and feigns browsing. Without asking, I drag two folding chairs over and Sara and I sit across from him at the signing table.
“You know Vicki Hart?” he asks. It’s obvious we got his attention with our name-dropping.
“Our mother,” Sara says.
“Vicki, my God. So long ago. How is she?” he asks.
“Not so good,” I say.
“Dead,” Sara says. “Four decades now.”
“Oh. I had no idea.” His face drops a shade of tan.
“Is your father alive?” he asks Sara.
“We believe so,” Sara says. “We believe we’re looking at him.”
“We?” he says, leaning back in his chair.
“We’re twins,” I say.
“Hmm,” Ass-Man says, fingering his fancy signing pen and thinking.
”Money!” he says at last, dropping the pen and bringing his hands together in a silent clap. “That must be it, you’re looking for money. How many people have claimed to be my children over the years? A common scam with men like me.”
“No money,” I say.
Ignoring me, he begins gathering his things to leave. He thinks he can swat us away. He’s wrong. Sara scoots her chair forward and leans on the table.
“You lived in Houston in the early sixties,” Sara says. “You were an art student three blocks down from the bar where our mother worked as a waitress. You and Mom dated in sixty-three and four. The owner of the bar remembers you and Mom together and her getting pregnant. Our birth certificates record the father as A.S. Your real name is Alvin Scraggs.”
His eyes fix first on me, then on Sara, examining our faces.
“Look, I’m not going to acknowledge anything here,” he says and tugs on his little beard. “Maybe Vicki was pregnant from our relationship. Or maybe not.”
Sara squints at him and cocks her head.
“And maybe you two are just a couple of redneck grifters,” he says with a brief smirk.
Sara shakes her head no, but I explode.
“You’re the only phony here, pretty boy!” I shout. “I bet if I jerk that eight-thousand-dollar suit off your ass and shake you real good, we’ll see some East Texas red dirt come falling out your butt crack.”
Ass-Man looks at me the way I imagine a condemned man looks at the noose. I’m standing over him, but I don’t remember standing and my voice seems to be coming from somewhere outside myself, like I’m hearing some unseen stranger losing his shit around the corner.
“She’s a hero,” I say, lowering my voice a notch but still too loud, pointing at Sara. “She’s going to be a mother soon and her kid is going to look at her and see a goddamn hero. No one is ever going to look at you or me and see that.”
Shaking, I sit. Elbows on my knees, head in hands. Please God no one call the police. Sara reaches over and gently strokes the back of my neck.
Ass-Man raises a single finger above the tabletop. “A one-time payment with no admission of anything by me,” he says. “For you to go away. You’ll have to sign a non-disclosure. Absolutely no press.”
Sara bows her head and briefly closes her eyes. Her quiet tears cut into me.
“We really didn’t come for money,” she says, her voice cracking.
“No? What then?” He raises his voice, pushing us, looking to end this bad evening. The three of us sit in a long, boiling silence.
Sara needs something to come from this. There’s a showy display of Louvette merchandise nearby: tee shirts, coffee mugs, ball caps and overpriced trinkets of all kinds. And books, shelves and shelves of Louvette picture books. I walk to the shelves and run my finger down a long row of narrow spines, picking one at random: Pixie the Pig.
I hand it to him.
“Read us this.”
“Just read the damn book. Then we’ll go.”
“Really? You’ll go?”
“Forever,” I say. “Can’t wait.”
He pauses and fans the book’s pages, his face a mix of surprise and puzzlement as he mulls my offer.
“Deal,” he says finally, and lifts a palm in agreement and relief.
He admires the book’s cover a moment and begrudgingly holds it up for us to see. I want to hate it more than I want to breathe, but his art is magnificent. Two human-like pigs, an adult wearing a church-lady hat holding hands with a juvenile, walk along a winding path cutting through dark undergrowth. The forest is intricate and Paleozoic, a riot of fronds, limbs, branches and leaves, rendered in emerald, olive, turquoise and teal and other shades of green I’ve never seen, accented with silvers and grays and blacks. The pigs are plump and curvy, Rubenesque. And so shockingly pink, pepto pink, they blurt off the page.
Ass-Man clears his throat and sips some tea and wraps his honeyed TV voice—The Voice America Grows Up With—around the story. Sara leans in, but not me. I drift away. Drift into the never-was. Where Alvin never left and Mom never went to that bridge. A place with bedtime stories. A place without jackshit.
Jim Roberts lives in Miami Township, Ohio and works as a consultant and data scientist. This is his first published work of fiction. He is busy finishing a collection of short fiction titled Of Fathers & Gods, and is researching his historical novel Ezekiel’s Airship, based on a purported “first flight” in rural East Texas that predated the Wright Brothers. Read about his writing projects at jimrobertsfiction.com.