’72 Skylark, 12

The laughter disappears from her face. She slumps. “You didn’t know him.”

“I bet your pop collected baseball cards as a kid without knowing who any of the players actually were.” There’s a lump in my throat; I’m angry, of all things. “I bet he trembled, looking at those cars, thinking someone might notice he’d been faking all that time.”

“Shut up,” Miriam says.

“I bet the same thing’s true about your brother. Still stealing Barbies because he never learned to do anything else. And you? I don’t know your story; maybe you just get off on thinking you figured it all out. That’s how older people get. You’re certain as a kid, then in your thirties you realize you’re dumb, and then a few years later you think you figured it all out again. Never admitting you’re just repeating yourself, again.”

She’s quiet, and I feel awful. No reason to, given what’s coming, but there it is, regret sprawling out in my guts. I used to think that being an alcoholic just meant the drink was omnipresent, that you couldn’t stand without a beer in your hand. But alcohol dependence doesn’t grant new immunities; it just makes you drunk all of the time. Stupid and careless stamped on your forehead.

“I didn’t blow out my knee in college,” I mumble, turning to watch the basketball highlights. A child dunks a ball, and the children in the bleachers all rise in unison.

Underthrow, 10

In the third grade, Miles and Travis sat together in social studies and fired spitballs into Sarah Teague’s ragged orange hair. Even then, he felt his neck hairs tingle when she turned to glare and stick her tongue out at them. In the sixth grade, the class took an end-of-year trip to the roller skating rink, but Travis was too nervous to ask Sarah to couples skate and played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the arcade with Miles instead, saving April the pretty reporter again and again. They only spoke at odd intervals after that, a quick hello in the hallways or a smile in the cafeteria line for mac and cheese lunches, but Travis always felt that helpless neck-hair twitch. It seemed, for a while, that the less he knew her, the more perfect she would become.

Then, when she applied to Subway in May and Travis saw her four days a week for three months, Travis laughed at her deadpan jokes and admired her easygoing attitude, and even though the sum total of words they shared over those months wasn’t more than all the passing words they had exchanged in high school, he fell in love with her a dozen times more.

’72 Skylark, 11

Then something happens that I’m not expecting: Miriam laughs. A belly laugh, rumbling slowly from her throat, with the weight of years on it. The frat boys stare at her as they pass, leaving for the night, probably planning to drink away the rest of their night inside a frat house full of busted memories and deep pockets of hidden mold.

The biker’s gone, too. Good. The fewer people here, the easier the next part will be.

I check my watch. It’s 11:58. He’ll be here any second.

“I don’t want to talk any more about my brother,” Miriam says, still shaking with laughter. “What about you? Why are you still in town, ‘Rick’?”

I sit for a moment, contemplating my empty beer bottles and the knife pressed against my hip, ready to be drawn when the time comes. The bartender washes the day’s mugs and glasses with quick sprays of water. I think I can hear the old man snoring from behind Miriam. On the TV, they’re showing basketball replays. Today I couldn’t even jump to reach the height of the shortest player on that court; a long time ago, I could have outrun them all.

“You’re wrong, about your dad,” I say, letting the drinks in me do the talking, now that it’s too late.

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t collect cars without knowing anything about them and stare at them all day because you appreciate the aesthetics,” I say. “You do that because you were afraid to admit, the first time you bought a pretty car, that you didn’t know anything. Then you bought the second one, and then the charade was habit. A cycle. Folks don’t break their cycles.”

Underthrow, 9

Subway, Thursday:

Travis wanted to tell Miles that, no, they couldn’t throw footballs whenever, not after this weekend, but before he could manage to say it without sounding desperate, Sarah Teague’s orange hair walked through the door.

“Yo, Stilts,” Miles said to her, chewing on the straw in his cup.

Sarah was a few inches taller than most of the girls in school, and, as if in response, her shoulders slumped over her wiry torso like a mild overbite. To Travis, the posture looked disappointed, always mid-sigh as if accepting personal failure, even though she was cute and freckled and had graduated third in the class with a merit scholarship to Johns Hopkins.

“Last shift,” Sarah said, pointing to the sky.  “Thank God.”

Travis waved to her, but forgot to put his chopping knife down, so for all he knew the gesture might have looked like a wild death threat.

’72 Skylark, 10

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Your dad had a whole collection of cars, right?” I sidle closer, slumping my elbow toward her drink. I want her to think that I think I’m being clever enough to be seductive. “Your brother manages to take everything, which means all the other cars, but not that car?”

Miriam smiles and stares into her scotch as she drinks, but she says nothing. It’s working.

“What’s so special about that one?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she says. “It’s what’s inside the car that’s special. My father left… something in the trunk for me.”

Bingo. I feel a twinge of thrill and regret at the same time. The latter surprises me. Shouldn’t have let her talk about my sob story, damn it. We’ve been talking for, what, ten minutes? Twenty minutes? No connection; just trying to get to the part where I get paid. “And you’re giving what your father gave you back to your brother?”

She shakes her head and begins to slide a finger around the rim of her glass. “My brother has always been hateful. He stole Barbies from me when we were children. Not to play with–he’d just hide them from me, laugh at me as I cried. I was older than him; I figured he’d grow out of it, but he never did.”

“People don’t,” I say, but I catch myself from saying anything else. Let her talk.

“He wants everything. I’m only now realizing it’d be easier just to let him have it.” She finishes off her drink in a single, final swallow. “But I don’t have to give him what he doesn’t know about. What my father gave me is still in the trunk,” she declares, not realizing that she’s signing off on the final line of her death certificate, “but I’ll be taking that with me. He just gets the car.”

Underthrow, 8

The game, two days later:

After twenty minutes, drunk on exhilaration, Travis sees Miles open on another deep route. He throws the ball before he sets his feet, without turning his hips, without his shoulder pointed. The ball wobbles and hangs in short flight. His brain bloats with helium and hot shame; Travis knows he has made another mistake.

’72 Skylark, 9

“I don’t like people knowing about that,” I say, but I’m glad she’s interested. Gives her a good reason to keep talking.

“I was at State, same year as you,” she says. “Before I transferred. I heard what happened to you, but only because my brother told me. Where’d you get ‘Rick’ from?”

“My uncle had a horse named ‘Rick,’” I say. “They had to shoot him when I was twelve.”

Miriam blinks, takes another sip of her drink, and laughs again. “Middle-aged men are such poets.”

“Says Miss Cars-are-art,” I reply, trying to get us back on track. “What was that all about?”

“You were pretty good, right?” she asks, smiling. Talking about college gives her eyes the naive light of freshman’s eyes. Or maybe that had been there all along, and the smiling just helps me notice. “I never saw you play, but I heard you were good.”

My mind wanders briefly to trophies and deep kisses, wild cheers that felt tinny and synthetic in my ears, and the ache of an overthrown arm on Sunday morning. “I was fine,” I say. “Blew out my knee junior year. Wasn’t very good after that.”

“Sorry,” she says. I wish she sounded less genuine saying it.

“Forget it,” I say. Time to make my final push. “Why that car?”

Underthrow, 7

Travis recalled earlier pool parties from middle-school summer days, when smaller groups of true friends really swam in the pool, trying to dunk each other underwater or contorting into UFO shapes off the diving board. Miles always invited Travis, but lately the sprawling Harris home held the friends Miles had made in the college-prep courses Travis never wanted to take. Travis could drink and enjoy himself fine with anyone, but those old memories lingered better than the hangovers.

“I thought we could play football on Saturday,” Travis replied. He could hear Vin humming along to the salsa music.

“After last time, Trav?” Miles filled a cup with lemonade from the soda fountain. “You should’ve played basketball with us this summer, man.  Everyone thinks you banned yourself in shame.”

“Mark’s supposed to heal up okay, right?” Travis asked. Mark Stetson still had his football scholarship, but he had been on crutches since July. He had ordered from Subway a few weeks back, but never spoke or looked above the floor while Travis made his sandwich. Whether that meant Mark was embarrassed by his injury, exhausted by rehab, or furious at Travis, Travis couldn’t know. He assumed the latter.

Miles shrugged and jammed a straw into his drink. “He’ll redshirt,” Miles said, which meant the team would sideline Mark for his freshman year and let him recover, but that didn’t really answer Travis’s question. Miles loved to dodge awkwardness. Anything to accelerate toward the next joke.

“Basketball’s lame, anyway,” Travis said, trying to sound casual. “Let’s play football.”

“Pool party,” Miles said. “Last sunny day etcetera. We can throw footballs whenever.”

’72 Skylark, 8

“Who are you?” I ask Miriam, genuinely curious for a moment.

She doesn’t respond; she’s laughing at the old man, like they’re old friends now.

I take stock. No one new has come in since Miriam. The biker’s either gone or in the bathroom; he’s left a scattering of crumbs in his wake. The frat boys are solemn, hunched into each other, perhaps having reached the time of night when they reveal their darkest secrets about having sex with each other’s girlfriends, or masturbating on the top bunk, or whatever other secrets feel like burdens when you’re too young to be carrying any weight.

I check my watch again. Ten minutes.

“That’s a nice watch for a washed-up drunk,” Miriam says, and I realize later than I should that she’s sitting next to me now, reading the label on one of my empty bottles.

“Washed up?” I ask–despite myself, because I know by now that she knows.

“You’re Brett Garland,” she says, a little too loud; the bartender, who by some miracle hasn’t yet collapsed into a pile of his own drool, cocks his head. “You played quarterback at State. Legend among boys a couple decades ago. Your busted nose looks even worse than the papers made it sound.”

I expect, for a moment, for the whole bar to rise up and point at me, chanting or cursing. That’s what I always expect, even though no one’s cared in a long time. No one but Mom, maybe, but she’s not here, so aside from the suddenly fond look in the bartender’s eye, the air in the room doesn’t change much. Not for anyone else, anyway.

Underthrow, 6

At Subway, twenty minutes later, Miles howled at one of Vin’s jokes in progress as Travis came in to start his shift.  Miles rubbed the blonde stubble on his cheeks and laughed while Vin cupped his hands around the air in front of his chest.

“I know that chick!” Miles cried, collapsing into a hitching laugh.

The Subway’s half-dozen booths and tables congested the narrow walkway that led to the bathrooms and broom closet.  Vin kept a radio turned to salsa music that hummed beneath every shift.  Oils from the baking breads would soak into their uniforms for days; Travis had learned to separate his green polo and khaki pants from the rest of his laundry, to avoid pushing the stink into other clothes.  Travis didn’t mind anymore.  Those oils were a steady detail of his work environment, like coffee breath in an office of cubicles.

“What are you doing Saturday?” Travis asked Miles, wasting no time as he walked behind the counter and pulled a pair of rubber gloves from the tissue-box dispenser next to the meats.  Vin chuckled and left for the back room, to operate the vegetable-slicing machine that looked to Travis like a post-apocalyptic office copier.

“Pool party,” Miles said, wiping tears from his reddened eyes.  He’d been outside earlier, Travis figured, smoking pot with Vin in the side alley.  “It’s my last sunny Saturday in Elmswood for a while, so we can’t waste it.  You in?”

Miles’s pool parties, for the last two years: wearing bathing suits on the Harris’s patio furniture, pulling icy Bud Light cans from a garage refrigerator stocked by Dr. Harris, who permitted his son’s drinking because he assumed that it kept Miles flush with friends and, supposedly, clean of harder substances.  A pool party meant beer bongs, beer pong, and a tacit understanding that semiconscious teenagers should remain on the Harris’s side of the backyard fence.

’72 Skylark, 7

“He a big car guy?” I ask.

Miriam shakes her head. “Neither am I. If I were, I still wouldn’t like it.” She takes another sip of her watery scotch. “It’s an ugly boat, and it drives like a horse buggy. My father arranged it so that I got to keep that car, even when my brother made sure he’d get everything else.” The lilt in her voice when she says father makes me think of a country club. “My father loved it. He loved cars. He didn’t know anything about them, but he collected them for a long time, just so that he could look at them. That was the kind of man he was.”

I snort, accidentally, but I roll with it. “The kind who buys expensive stuff and doesn’t learn anything about it? So, a rich guy, then?”

“The kind who appreciates aesthetics in the abstract,” she says. She’s turned to me again, but my wisecrack didn’t stick, and she’s not looking in my eyes; she’s drifted somewhere far afield, and she’s barely a full gulp into her drink. “Say you walk into an art gallery, and you don’t know Da Vinci from a hole in the ground. You’re still going to feel something in there, right? If the art’s any good? Every choice that artist made in stroke, touch, color, content, whatever — all those choices are crucial, but if you’re just some drunk from small-town nowhere, you wouldn’t recognize a single one of those choices — but if the art does its job, it shouldn’t matter. You’ll still cry; you’ll still feel a drop in your chest. Right?”

“I once saw the Mona Lisa!” croaks the elderly man behind Miriam.

Underthrow, 5

Thursday, two days before the game:

Travis, wandering through the closed park before his morning shift, watched an old man in a red raincoat walk a golden retriever along the park’s edges.  The dog stopped every few feet to dig frantic holes into the dirt and the weeds.  Most of the County looked like that, Travis thought: careless holes dug into rugged earth.  In his freshman year, his parents’ supermarket had been an empty field of grass.  Years before that, Elmswood was a wild range of corn and tobacco farms.  Tobacco barns still sat along Route 4, but hollow and dry, dead for generations.  For years Travis had heard his Uncle Maury’s rants about how pavement had eaten all the fields; even if Travis hadn’t seen the County pristine, he wanted to share that righteous anger.

Still, even now, Travis could ride his bike down Old Reed Road, which peeled away from the shopping centers to old homes bunkered under hanging treetops and, after winding miles, vast farmlands blemished only by red barns and shimmering ponds.  Half a dozen miles east, Travis could visit his Uncle Maury’s peeling wooden shack of a beach house on the Chesapeake, to sit on an unsteady dock with crab pots set in the water, five at once though two was the legal limit; as a child he had helped his father and Maury cast lines for croakers which would flap on the dock planks and die for an hour before Travis was allowed to take a knife to them, making extra bait for the pots.  For Travis, the far side of Elmswood Park, with its unkempt fields, represented an echo of that proud old county: the story of his home.

’72 Skylark, 6

I’ve done jobs miles and miles from here, surrounded by mountain peaks and sludge water and sandy beaches, redwoods and pines. I get around; I only come here, home to the dying trees and the crumbling roads, when it pays well enough. But no matter where I go, there are always would-be expats brought back home and hating themselves for not reaching escape velocity. They don’t realize there’s no escape velocity at all–just gravity, pulling in reverse.

“What brings you back this time?” I ask.

“Family and business,” Miriam says, and the smile’s all gone. She lifts her hand, holding her glass but pointing a finger toward the exit. “See that car out there, ‘Rick’?”

I turn, trying to ignore the waggle in her eyebrows as she speaks my fake name. She’s pointing at the car she parked outside. Glad she brought it up before I had to; makes things easier. The car’s old, but polished; red, but with a thick, black racing stripe down the middle, like she stole it from a drag racing museum. It’s all nose, headlights sticking out so far past the front tires I’m amazed the front bumper wouldn’t drag into the dirt. “Pretty. Yours?” I ask.

“My brother’s, soon,” she says, which is interesting; I don’t usually get the chance to talk to my marks about my clients.

Underthrow, 4

When he wasn’t practicing, Travis worked shifts at Subway, where he and Miles had been employed since sophomore year. His parents had no money to send him even to an in-state university, and for now Travis didn’t have enough interest in school to try community college or federal loans. College was a given for most of his friends, whose parents put tuition on the same checklist as the groceries, but Miles and the others never harassed him for being the exception; they hardly noticed, in fact. High school kids who weren’t attending college usually lived in one of the county’s swampy trailer parks; to be working class was a rarity in Elmswood, so Travis’s presumed wealth had shifted invisibly upward over the years, even as his parents waved hello to his friends between the supermarket aisles.

For now, Travis told himself, he’d remain patient with a job that had grown comfortable over the years. Soon he could be like his shift manager, Vin—or, at least, Travis could earn as much. Vin was a stumpy, thirty-something goateed man with a wife and two kids, who claimed that his arrest for possession left Subway as his only career choice. Vin grew up somewhere east of Richmond; he considered the County the punch line of a bad redneck joke.

“Half the houses are mansions, but a Walmart’s the best shopping for twenty miles,” Vin liked to say. “Welcome to the County.”

’72 Skylark, 5

I shrug and shake my head. “I don’t know.” I check my watch; it’s about quarter to midnight. Keep asking questions until the important question sounds natural. “Maybe if you tell me your name, it’ll jog my memory?”

“Yeah, I know you,” she says. The smile half-fades into something sad, and I believe her. She turns away and folds her fingers around her drink. “My name’s Miriam.”

“Miriam.” I twirl a finger in the air in front of me. “I’m Rick. Maybe I do remember you. Were we lovers?”

“We’re all lovers,” Miriam replies. Smooth. I imagine a trail of cigarette smoke pouring from her lips as she says it. “When did you start calling yourself Rick?”

“Not fair,” I say, leaning forward. We’re both coming at this guarded; we both figure something else is going on other than our words, but words are the only way to pry. “Clearly you know me well, but my memory’s still hazy. You from around here, Miriam?”

Miriam nods and takes a slow sip; the silence floats in front of me. If I had the stomach for it, I’d order seltzer water and do these jobs with a straight head. Oh well. I never had the stomach for many things. Grandad took me fishing once, and I threw up twice off the side of the boat before he could explain how to cast a line. I cried when dad hit the dog pulling into the driveway, and I was nearly an adult then; I cried more than my baby sister when that happened.

“Born and raised four miles south of this dump,” she says at last. “I try not to come back too often.”

Underthrow, 3

Early June: Travis had thrown without setting his feet.  Mark Stetson, six foot three and a born athlete, had been running at top speed but slowed to locate the ball.  Mark found his legs tangled with Preston Kelly’s and tried to sidestep a collision, only the studs on Mark’s cleats pinned him to the dirt.  From where Travis stood, he could hear something inside Mark’s leg twist and pop like bubble wrap.

Then Travis and the others knelt in agonized silence for ten minutes until an ambulance came for Mark Stetson and his screaming mouth.

’72 Skylark, 4

I try not to move. If she runs, I’m ready. A buried part of me walks me back into the calmness of open air. Three breaths, always, before reacting; three breaths before you pull a trigger. One. Two.

She exhales and speaks: “Tastes the same to me anywhere. But I’m sure my palate’s not as refined as the guy drinking the one-dollar specials.” She waves toward my collection of empty bottles and turns her neck slowly until her eyes settle on mine. She has tractor-beam eyes.

I laugh, an old, rapsy cackle that makes the frat boys glance over with worry. “I like to buy in bulk,” I say with a shrug. “But I can spare a few for your next drink.”

Her nose crumples, but she doesn’t look away.

“Or not,” I say, surrendering my hands to the air. “Just making conversation.”

The bartender drops her two glasses in front of her and moves toward the door behind the bar, too careless to watch whether the woman pays before she drinks. She throws down some cash, still looking my way, and lifts the glass of water. For a second I think she’s going to make a toast, but she tilts the glass and lets a splash drop into the scotch.

“I think you’re allowed to ask for ice in that one,” I say, still trying the drunken flirt routine.

“I like it better this way,” she says, and now she’s turned her shoulder my way, keeping her posture rigid so she towers over me with the distance. But she’s smiling like we’re old pals. “Do I know you?”