It was unprofessional—rina knew it—to take the call during a session with a client: the guy was slumped low on the couch opposite her, one hand clenched in a fist, a glass coffee table in between them, on it, a vase full of white stones, her iphone counting down the hour-long appointment; she was trying, without telling the client directly what to do since that was strongly contraindicated, to guide him to discover for himself the steps of the “roadmap” that might lead to a better life—a GED, a job, paying off debts. Her phone’s cracked screen lit up, superimposing in front of the timer a call from Central Booking. She had the number saved. She should have excused herself for the call but didn’t. It was hard to hear him at first, but it was Leon, his voice distorted by the ruptured diaphragm of the jail phone’s mouthpiece. Felony destruction of property. One thousand dollars bail. Leon was a friend, not some social work case. She told him to keep calm, to sit tight, she’d get him out of there. On the couch across from her, the client, listening in, seemed alert for the first time. She ended the session early, scheduled a follow-up, and ushered him out. Bluish light came in through the drapes in her office. It was barely March, still a chill in the air. She dug around to find something to put on over her thin gray cardigan. In the closet, a fake rabbit-fur stole that she usually wore for nights out. How had that gotten there? She wrapped herself in it and walked to where she’d parked her Kia Spectra, glad to have her license back. She took Charles Street north, away from the jail, then 25 toward Ivor’s banh mi shop in Hampden. Her shocks groaned as she made a quick, tight right turn onto West Thirty-sixth.
The Saigon Po’ Boy. She and Leon had been with Ivor the night he thought up the place. The three of them had taken pills while drinking at The Golden Bull and, long after bar close, stayed awake in some dark living room—no idea whose—and Ivor kept muttering about “scallions,” “high-grade meat,” “margins,” and “mark-up,” repeating those phrases in some kind of fugue state. She’d assumed at the time that it was a drug-fueled delusion—she and Leon had talked, trying to tune Ivor out—but when she’d gone in on opening day, the floors were spotless. The delusion looked pretty good. At times, when her caseload was light and her cash flow ebbing—which was often—ivor had offered her a few shifts on nights he was short-staffed, and she, thinking of her loans, had accepted.
What had happened with her license? Last winter, she’d been drinking with Ivor at The Dizz, and he offered to drive her home. They’d both had a few. The streets were icy. His car slid up an embankment, taking out a parking sign. The sirens got closer, but the wheels just spun. He needed his license for pick-ups and deliveries. Three thousand dollars and legal fees paid, he’d said, if she took the driver’s seat before the cops showed.
The bell above the entrance clanged as she walked in. Ivor, behind the counter, white apron over white T-shirt, smiled at her, which meant he didn’t get why she was there. She walked up to the register so that that was all that separated them. “Our pal Leon is in jail.” Ivor chewed his lip. “Who’s Leon?” This was impossible: he knew Leon. He and Leon had hung out dozens of times. “Leon,” she said again, shifting her intonation, as if it might help. “Who’s this guy to you? A client? Some pity case you’re dating?” Ivor and Leon had both rafted down the Potomac when she’d gotten a bunch of friends from the neighborhood together for a summer outing. “He’s my friend,” she said. It was her turn to be confused. “I thought he was your friend, too. He needs bail.” “Huh. What’s he gonna do about it?” Ivor turned away from her to flip a slab of pork on the grill. “I want to collect on last winter,” she said. So far, she hadn’t seen dollar one. There was a pop and a sizzle. “I can’t do that right now. Everything I have is wrapped up in this place. This fall. I should be in the black by then.” “I went to jail for you.” “You went to weekend jail.” “They made an allowance so I could keep my practice.” “You said it was interesting. You said you made friends.” “Six months. Six months, I walked to work.” A lie, of course. It was Leon who had been friend enough to drive her while her license was suspended. “I don’t know what to tell you. I just can’t pay you right now.” He walked over to the cutting board and started chopping cilantro, loud, to drown out whatever she might say. She tilted her head back, felt the rabbit fur rub against the back of her neck, looked up. “New ceiling,” she said when the chopping stopped. He smiled. “Pretty nice, yeah? Pressed tin.” He extolled the shift in the neighborhood. Not just the twenty-something bar-goers anymore.
“With that ceiling, the right décor, families showing up, I can charge two dollars more per sandwich.” Ivor had his eye on the future. She looked around at the empty tables. So far, the future was a no-show, but it was a Friday, late afternoon, still early for dinner. How much had that ceiling cost him? “I know you’ve put a lot of work into this place,” she said, “and I know you have a lot going on, so I hate to press the point, but I need money to get Leon out. If I can’t come through with it, he’s going to be stuck there until his court date.” The bell clanged again. The front entrance grunted open: a couple, child-bearing age, though from the looks of it, they hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Ivor gave a broad smile, bellowed a warm greeting. It bugged her. Ivor: stand-offish to friends, friendly to strangers. The couple kept their distance from the counter, browsing. West Thirty-sixth had a dozen restaurants. “Ivor,” she said loudly, “why don’t you tell this nice couple how much speed you take?” His eyes popped. “Took. Took. Past tense, people,” but the couple had already exited. “Jesus, what the fuck, Rina?” She could see it in him. The long hours. Past tense, my ass. “If you want to pretend this is nothing, I can be unpleasant.” She had his attention. Now he wanted to play peacemaker. “Look,” he said, “you’ve been a good friend to me.” He scratched one of his sideburns remorsefully. “You’ve been a good friend to a lot of people in this town, and I’m just sorry that I can’t be that kind of friend for you today.” This was, at least, more like what she wanted to hear. Finally, some genuine regret. “Let me get you something for your trouble,” he said. She watched him retreat to the supply area. She’d been back there: bleached rags, rolls of waxed paper, gallon jugs of vinegar. Nothing that would get Leon out. “What size are you?” he shouted. He was bent over, rooting in a cardboard box. “What size of what?” she asked. She reached across the register, pressed the no-sale button, placed a hand behind the cash drawer so it wouldn’t ding when it opened. Some kids had pulled that one on her when she’d been working. She removed a stack of twenties. Ivor returned to the counter. “It’s a medium,” he said, a hot pink promotional T-shirt extended in his hand, “but they run a little big. Go ahead, put it on.” It hung off her in folds, puffed out only slightly by the gray cardigan, her office wear, beneath. Rina was short, thin, but she was a big presence and had a wide face. He wasn’t the first to mistake her size. “There,” Ivor said, appraising her, liking what he saw. “A pretty girl like you. A popular girl like you. A girl who knows everyone in the
neighborhood. With that on, you’re going to bring me business, and that, not bad-mouthing to customers, is how you’ll get your money.” Popular. Pretty. He was just trying to please her. Some nights it was hard just to coax friends out to the bar, let alone get them to fulfill the deeper, almost spiritual, duties of friendship. She wondered if these people, her friends, even liked her. She looked down at the shirt. “Thanks. You’ve done more for me than you know.” She turned to leave. “Now that you mention it,” Ivor said, “I do remember that guy, that Leon. He’d better straighten up soon, or he’s gonna be in a bad way.”
Who was Leon to her? Rina had met him three years earlier when they’d both been delivery drivers for a local wholesaler of vegan health snacks. It was, on top of her clinic hours, her summer job during her master’s. She and Leon had been assigned to work as a pair, taking turns driving, both of them loading and unloading. Even though she’d been rail thin, the lifting had been easy. Lots of foil bags of air-popped vegetable crisps, pita chips, nothing too heavy. One Friday after finishing deliveries, instead of returning the van to headquarters—all of the office staff had gone home for the day—she and Leon had driven to Ocean City for a weekend bender. They’d chugged vodka waist-deep in the waves after midnight, the sounds of the boardwalk growing more distant with each gulp. Ocean City was narrow, built on a peninsula. Leon had driven the delivery van down the main drag, Philadelphia Avenue. Along it, the party busses and fat-tired bikes felt more than ever like a slow-moving river. They returned the van without incident. On Monday, the sales office got a call from a first-time client for a large order, profitable. When the caller gave an address in Ocean City, the sales rep regretfully explained it was outside their service area. The caller was confused. Why then had he seen their delivery truck? Though management couldn’t prove anything, they suspected. GPS trackers were installed in the delivery vans soon after. She and Leon stayed friends after she returned for the fall semester of her MSW, while, at least for a while, he’d kept working as a driver. The two of them had become, in the years since, among other things, errand-running buddies: the thrift store, a Costco run. The two of them just staring out the windshield, talking about whatever. She saw her other friends at the bars, at parties—she often traveled in a pack—but Leon was the friend she hung out with one-on-one—even, despite their partying, the friend she hung out sober with the most, at least when they did their errands in the morning.
From Hampden, she took 83 downtown. She counted the twenties at a stoplight on Monument. Two-hundred-eighty. Not enough for bail, but
a start. At the glassed-in cashier’s booth, she put the rest on her card, accepting the overdraft fees. Leon would have done the same for her, she thought, and then tried not to think too deeply about whether it was true. He looked fragile when they brought him out. She put one arm across his shoulders to guide him through the lobby. Under her hand, she felt the grid-like grain of the synthetic fabric of what had become known as Leon’s all-season jacket. It was a cheap down coat Leon had finally bought in November when it got too cold to go without. She’d been drinking with some people at The Golden Bull, eating enchiladas, that first night he walked in after buying it. Leon greeted them. When he took off his coat, he was covered in feathers. The down had already started leaking through the lining. It was Cal who gave the jacket its name, projecting that its feathers would shed at the ideal rate so that the thick winter coat would be a windbreaker in time for spring. And now, with the winter thawed, the jacket hung off Leon nearly empty. She could feel his bony shoulders. She opened the passenger-side door for him, and he collapsed into the seat. Once she was behind the wheel, she reached over to give him a side-hug. He’d smelled better. He thanked her profusely, which she enjoyed up to a point. She reached into a take-out bag stuffed into the e-brake crevice, handed him some napkins. He wiped his nose. “Thank you, Rina. I’m going to pay you back. I’m going to pay you back right away.” “The most important thing,” she said, “is you’re out, you’re free.” “Man, is it good to see you,” he said. Jail had rattled him. “You know what I was thinking as I drove here?” Her voice rose a little, trying to cheer him up. “I kept thinking, here I am on an errand: bailing you out of jail, and that that errand, like all errands, would be more fun with you in the car and now”—she squeezed his shoulder— “here you are.” The engine was starting to warm up. She opened the vents on the heater. Leon unzipped the all-season jacket, unveiling the paunch on his otherwise still strong physique. She’d been stunned over the summer when she and Leon had gone swimming out at Pretty Boy reservoir: his legs were thick with clumps of muscle. “You wanna tell me what happened?” she asked. The Mid-maryland 10K. He’d seen a poster for it the day before, and it had triggered an unpleasant sensation: disappointment that it had been ten years since he’d won it. Leon had lettered in track in high school, taken state. He’d talk about it sometimes when he was high. The race was out in Towson, where Leon was from. It was a fundraiser. For what, he couldn’t remember. The entrance fees went to something or other,
but the guy who won got a thousand dollars: 10K, 1K. The spring of his senior year, he’d been that guy, the guy who won. He told himself he was going to put the money toward college, but he’d never gotten it together to finish his high school credits. He couldn’t stop thinking about it after he’d seen the poster, about how he hadn’t done one thing he was proud of in the ten years since. He must have started drinking. In the morning, he woke up to knocking. He was only half-awake when he opened the door. The sight of two uniformed officers woke him the rest of the way. Someone had kicked in the windows of all the cars on his block. He didn’t remember it, but it had been him. “But for that? They set your bail that high for that?” Rina asked. He had a prior arrest, he said. When he was nineteen, he’d been killing time at a Sunglass Hut at the mall before work. He saw a fourhundred-dollar pair of Ray-bans that his girlfriend would like. Four hundred dollars. An insane price. He felt like, just on principle, someone ought to teach the store a lesson. He pocketed them, walked out, did a lunch shift as a busboy, put his sweatshirt back on, felt the Ray-bans in the pouch, knew it had been silly to take them, and walked back to the store. He handed the sunglasses to the cashier and apologized, but before he could finish, a pair of mall cops were on either side of him. It didn’t matter that he’d returned them. What mattered was that he’d stolen them. Warming up in Rina’s car, he tapped his foot on the floor mat at the absurdity of it. They’d been idling a while. It was night now. Dark outside the car. The lot charged by the half hour. It would cost them when they left. “Where do you want me to take you?” she said. “I want to go to Towson. The race is tomorrow. I’m gonna run, I’m gonna win it, and I’m gonna give you the money.” She almost laughed. She hadn’t seen this kind of determination in him maybe ever. It looked good on him. “Man, in the ten years since I last ran it,” he said, “everybody from my track team, from the teams we competed against, all those people have had kids and packed on the pounds. It’s like there won’t even be any competition. I can win this.” It was an amazing level of self-delusion. “What about the kids who are on track teams now? The kids who are the age you were then?” “Those kids? What do they know? I’ve seen things they wouldn’t believe.” “You’re crazy,” she said and shook her head, amused in disbelief. From school, she knew that regaining damaged dignity was the first step
toward ego rehabilitation after a traumatic event, such as an arrest. Hope itself mattered, more than its practicality. She should be supportive. “We’ll stay at Garrett’s place,” he said. “I need to go out there anyway. The suit I wore to his wedding is there. He had it dry-cleaned after what happened. I need a suit for my court date.” Last she knew, he and Garrett weren’t on speaking terms. “Are you two cool?” “It’s probably better if you text him.” Friendships always ended over the dumbest things. She hoped he and Garrett would get over it if they just saw each other face to face. She got her phone out and saw she’d missed a call from Ivor. No doubt pissed about the cash. Well, whatever. He didn’t have the guts to call the cops, not with that DUI between them. He didn’t have much moral high ground to speak of either. She could see it already: he’d suck it up, and in two weeks, he’d be asking her to fill in weekend shifts again. She texted Garrett to let him know she and Leon were headed to Towson and would need a place to stay the night. Maybe the friendship could be renewed. Leon slumped against her, and she pushed him back upright. “I thought you might be tuckered out after what you’ve been through. Take a look under your seat. There’s a little Tang for you.” He dug around on the floor between his legs, pulled out a pill bottle, rattled it, and uncapped it. Inside, down at the bottom, two pastel orange pills lit by the panel lights. “Aw, you shouldn’t have.” “I thought you might need a little pep after what you’ve been through. Go ahead.” He shook them into his palm and offered one to her. She waved it off. She’d taken one before her morning session. He slid one pill back into the bottle, slapped the other into his mouth, and swallowed. “Saving the other for the race. I run fast on this stuff.” And it wasn’t just talk. Rina had been hanging out in front of The Golden Bull after close on a Saturday night, standing, talking, and smoking with Cal, Ivor, and the rest of the crew. They’d seen Leon zip past them, just a blur, racing down West Thirty-sixth, jabbering to himself in what sounded like some invented language as he trailed off into the distance as if pursued. She got back on 83, headed north, took the parkway to 45. An overpass’s steel girding flipped by overhead. The sky above was black. At the edge of the headlights’ glow, trees and tall grasses whipped past along the edge of the highway. She’d driven this same route in the summer. The lush jungle quality of the East Coast had been all around. A reminder that people had originally settled here, not for the now-closed factories, but because the land was so fertile.
Her cell buzzed. One hand on the wheel, she fished the phone out with the other. Garrett’s reply: “!”
She’d met Garrett through Leon. The two of them had grown up together in Towson. It was Garrett who’d gotten Leon the job as a delivery driver, and the three of them worked together that summer. She and Leon had invited Garrett to join when they drove out to Ocean City, but Garrett said he’d pass. At the end of the summer, he was promoted to management. Even after that, he’d join them at the bars sometimes. Between Cal and Leon’s often-crass humor, Garrett’s relative silence was broken only by reserved wit, one-liners. He got engaged to Denise not long after. Apparently, Garrett had been the wild one when he and Leon were growing up, but she’d never seen that side of him. By the time she met him, he was already half-tired of Leon’s antics, and before long, she found herself closer friends with him than Leon was. Garrett took a job in logistics for Sysco and bought a house back in Towson, a place safe enough to raise a family.
She made the turn into the subdivision, the Spectra’s headlights panning across the stucco boxes and perfect green squares of lawn; the houses cut identical silhouettes against the dark sky. She pulled up in front of Garrett’s and let the engine idle, headlights still glowing. She stared, tried to give the neighborhood the benefit of the doubt. The trees were evenly spaced along the blocks with a robotic precision, but the spreading of their leaves and branches still had an unpredictable organic quality; same for the clouds that hung suspended above them. She killed the engine, unbuckled, and turned to Leon. His eyes were peeled back wide. The Tang’s effect was apparent. His voice was tense. “The cookies are homemade, but the kids are store-bought,” he muttered. For someone who’d asked to be driven here, he didn’t seem glad to be back in his hometown. She did the first round of knocking. Then the second. Leon shifted from foot to foot. She dialed Garrett on her cell and that, at last, brought his footsteps down from the second floor. The door opened. He had a burp cloth over his left shoulder. “Hey, I was just putting the kid down.” Garrett gave Rina a tepid hug and extended a hand toward Leon for him to shake. Leon dropped his head and flung his arms around Garrett, pinning Garrett’s arms to his sides. Garrett took a whiff. “Time to hit the showers, kid.” He ushered them inside, handed Leon a towel from the linen closet, and sent him upstairs to the guest bathroom. Garrett led Rina to the kitchen: dishwasher, blender, toaster oven, that stuff, shiny and new. He got out a loaf of sliced bread, cold cuts,
and a block of cheese, and started grilling sandwiches on the stove: the circular rim of the ham extended beyond the edges of the square slices of bread. Not too different from the jail food Rina remembered, the food Leon had most recently eaten, but warm at least. “How’s business?” Garrett asked her. “Steady,” she said. She told him how the better-established therapists in the office where she rented space had been giving her their spillover referrals, clients too annoying for her esteemed colleagues to take on— though she didn’t mention that last part. “Steady, huh? That why you’re wearing a Saigon Po’ Boy T-shirt?” He knew she’d taken some shifts there. “The sandwiches are great. Next time you come to town, we should get a bite there.” He hadn’t, as far as she knew, hung out with the old crew in Hampden in quite a while. “It’s really good to see you,” she said. “People miss you.” “People miss me,” he echoed flatly. He had a spatula in his hand and wasn’t looking at her. “Cal was just saying the other night that he wished he saw you around more often.” “Cal? You still hang out with that guy?” She shrugged. “Sure. He’s my friend.” “After what he said to Pilar?” She hadn’t heard. “She was at The Golden Bull, surrounded by lady-friends, just getting a grip on things: winning the civil case after losing criminal, and you can imagine that feeling of weirdness—getting paid off without receiving justice. She told me that something about it almost made her sick. Cal was in The Golden Bull, too, unaccompanied, just for his nightly drink or whatever pathetic rituals that guy carries on. He sees what looks like a table full of available girls, pulls up a chair, and asks what’s up to one of her people. She tells him and he gets this big smile. ‘Whoa, two hundred thousand dollars. I’d let a cop rape me for that kinda money.’ Pilar’s lady-friends pretty much had to push him away. Not even worth explaining that the whole point was that, for Pilar, it hadn’t been a choice. That guy. You’re still friends with that guy?” “Cal and I have been friends for years. I’m not gonna cut him off over one dumb comment. He was probably drunk.” “I’m sure he was.” Garrett flipped a sandwich. “Because for me, when I heard that, I just thought, I’m done. I’m done with that guy.” “Well, then we should get a drink with Pilar sometime.” “Pilar and I talk on the phone. I don’t need you to broker a hang-out session between her and me.”
She eyed the rounded tines of a baby’s eating utensil on the sink divider. It surprised her to hear how angry he was. “I mean it’s not like that, like what you described, every night. I think if you just came and hung out you’d see that. Just because you’re married and have a kid, doesn’t mean you’re a prisoner.” “I’m not a prisoner. I’m just taking care of what matters.” She considered it. “You’ve always liked your alone-time. I always thought of you as an introspective type.” “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone’s an introvert or all their friends are just assholes.” He plated the sandwiches and extended one of them to Rina. “I’m not hungry, but I bet Leon might want both of those.” Garrett huffed. “I just want to make it clear, I’m letting him stay the night as a favor to you. Not cause of any residual bond between him and me.” They heard Leon coming down the stairs. He walked into the kitchen, unaware he was the reason for its silence. “Still fits,” he said. His paunch pressed against the front of the suit. It was a black satin thing, clearly tailored for nuptials, not court. Leon looked down at it approvingly. “Dress up like an adult so you won’t be scared,” he advised himself. Sounded like second-hand wisdom from one of his many friends, including herself, who’d survived a court date. Maybe he’d even heard it from Rina. He gave himself an affirming squeeze. “You weren’t acting like an adult last time I saw you in it,” Garrett said. He gestured at the sandwiches, still on two separate plates. “Leon, those are for you.” Leon, in his tux, sat down at the kitchen table, his chair pushed back at an angle, and took a bite from one of the sandwiches. He made a warm, pleased sound. “Unh. This is good,” he said, still chewing. A cry came from a white box on the table with a speaker in it, a baby monitor. “Rina, can you help me set up the baby’s room? That’s where the two of you are going to sleep.” She followed Garrett up the carpeted stairs. Soft cries came through the door as he opened it. In the center of the room was a crib. He reached in and lifted up a bundle. The baby leaned away from him at first, then, opening its eyes, nestled into Garrett’s shoulder. He had his sleeves unbuttoned and rolled up. His biceps, through the fabric, were thick from baby-holding. The workout regimen of parenthood. He’d gone gray since the summer she’d met him, but he was in better shape than her friends in Hampden. She inched closer. The baby had a round face and a wide nose, forearms lined with chub. “Aw, it’s cute,” she said.
“He,” Garrett reminded her. “Tavish.” The baby put a tiny finger to its mouth. “Why would I drive into town when I have this little guy right here?” He let her admire the baby for a bit, then directed her to get some sheets and a pair of quilts from the linen closet. He didn’t have any padding for the floor. Tavish, when Garrett set him down, squatted into a seated position, legs folded out in front of him. Garrett took the toys out of the crib. He held one side of it, Rina the other. The thing collapsed easily and they pushed it over by the dresser with the baby monitor on it, against the far wall. Tavish would sleep in Garrett and Denise’s room that night. He turned to her. “So he’s running the race tomorrow? For fun? I didn’t know he was still into that.” Without a car, Leon walked all over town, but that was about the extent of it she’d seen. “He wants to win,” she said. “He seems determined. It’s nice to see him set goals.” “He needs the money, doesn’t he?” Garrett shook his head. “Why do you feed his delusions? There’s no way in hell he’s going to win this thing.” “Oh, come on, he might. Anything’s possible.” “Sure. Leon might win that race. The Knicks might pick me as MVP. You might get named Social Worker of the Year. Anything’s possible.” She didn’t like that he’d lumped in her chances of professional acclaim with his improbable NBA ascension. “You don’t even play basketball.” “He’s not going to win.” “You shouldn’t talk like that,” she said. “Are you going to talk that way when that little guy,” she gestured at Tavish, who was running a hand through the thick carpet, “goes out for Little League? When he has a tough math test? You can’t be like that.” “I just don’t understand why you still hang out with these people. You’re a together girl. You hold down a career-track job in a town where not many people have them. You wouldn’t even have a record if it weren’t for Ivor. So my question is, why do you spend time with Leon?” “He’s my friend,” she said. “He’s your friend, too.” His eyes flared. “I’ll decide what he is to me.” Garrett extended a hand toward Tavish, who, holding onto it, was able to raise himself up. Garrett helped him balance as they walked to the top of the stairs and assisted him as he slowly climbed down them. Garrett made a quiet sound effect, boom, each time Tavish landed on a step below. The dishwasher was humming and rumbling. The toddler trailed behind Garrett, and she followed them into the kitchen. Leon was seated at the table. The sandwiches were gone. He had crumbs on the front of his tuxedo and was holding a beer. He clinked the bottle
against the baby monitor on the table. “‘No way in hell he’s going to win this thing,’” Leon mimicked. He’d heard every word. “What would you know about track?” He jutted his face at Garrett. “I lapped you.” “In tenth grade.” Garrett didn’t even bother to be appalled that the baby monitor had broadcast his bad-mouthing. “I move so fast, you can’t even see me.” Jesus. Leon was ripped. Garrett gestured at the bottle with his free hand. “Nice of you two to show up with a six-pack.” Leon picked up the bottle, looked at it. “This is from your fridge.” “I know. Wishful thinking.” Basic etiquette: bring a loaf of bread or something to the home of the floor you’re crashing on. A foreign concept, likely, to Leon, but she should have thought of it. Leaning against the dishwasher, she felt it shift gears. Its vent exhaled steam, moistening the back thighs of her office slacks. Tavish, still holding on to Garrett’s hand, took a few steps out from behind his father’s legs. “Well, here’s the man himself!” Leon said, his voice rising with a sense of occasion. Tavish reached toward Leon with the hand Garrett wasn’t holding. Tavish smiled, revealing a pair of bottom incisors. “He likes me,” Leon said and poked a finger into the toddler’s mouth. Rina winced. Something unhygienic about it even post-shower. “Kid looks like me.” Leon grinned, flaunting the gap where his tooth was chipped. “Maybe he’s one of mine,” he said and laughed at his own joke. “Not likely,” Garrett said. He squatted down, picked up Tavish, resting him on his shoulder, away from Leon. “Denise was irate when I told her you were on your way.” “Where is she anyway? It’d be good to see her.” “She doesn’t want to see you.” Garrett’s wife had a knack for social graces. The blunt comment was his, not hers. Rina, though never a huge fan of the marriage, pictured Denise descending from her upstairs hideout to smooth over the situation, still in the white dress Rina had last seen her in. Playing hooky meant the woman had no intent of wasting those interpersonal skills on her husband’s surprise houseguests. “Look, I understand about the wedding. Some feelings got hurt.” Leon brushed the crumbs off his lap. His greasy hands left smears on his pant legs. “I understand that. I can tell you’re still angry. I want you to know that long ago, in my heart,” he gestured at his chest, his fingers glistening with grease, “I forgave you for being mad at me.”
“You forgave me for being angry,” Garrett said. “You realize that logic is insane?” “Look, if you want to stay mad, I can’t stop you.” “I’m letting you stay at my house, and I think that’s being generous enough.” “How many times do I need to say it? I’m sorry.” Garrett rolled his eyes. “The number one hit single. Play it again. Here’s the deal: you can sleep upstairs in the kid’s room, but I don’t want to see you come out of there.” He turned to her. “Rina, get this guy to bed.” Leon was her charge, her responsibility. In Garrett’s formulation, she was chaperoning Leon. Her idea that the visit would patch things up unveiled its idiocy.
Who goes to sleep at eleven on a Friday? Parents, apparently. Leon could feel the Tang still coursing through him. Impossible to sleep. Overhead, a mobile—ducks and airplanes—dawdled in a dull arc. Stuffed animals piled in the corners. On the wallpaper, two patterns, one of giraffes, the other of clouds, intersected busily. He could feel the chemicals kinking up his legs, tensing and cramping his calves. Rina was beside him, out cold, her breath warbling lightly. Her mouth soft and open. She looked different without her makeup. The quilts weren’t quite long enough to cover either of them. At the bottom, her feet poked out, socks on. At the top, the pink collar of her Po’ Boy T-shirt. She’d worn it as a nightgown, nothing on underneath. He remembered her body from the time they’d hooked up. Ocean City. Her navel notched high in her stomach, a keyhole. He’d been unable to get hard. Afterward, she hadn’t been into him like that. Overhead the mobile gusted with renewed energy from an unseen source. He thought about rubbing one out. Sometimes it helped him to sleep when nothing else did, but, looking at the stuffed animals, he pulled his hand out from the band of his underwear. The blank space that’d been there when the cops came to his door now returned to him in flashes: his right leg kicking high, the bone swiveling in his hip socket, the sole of his black Converse ramming against a side window. It had been fun in a way: the wildly alive feeling of alcohol in his nerve endings. Some of that same kinetic thrill he’d had running track. It’d been ballsy, amazing, dumb. Afterward, inmates in his cell, having eaten the sandwiches the guards brought them, had slurped on packets of mayo. Still hungry for the extra calories. The compressed foil sleeves hanging from their mouths. Purple juice had come in these clear plastic pouches, like a Ziploc but without an opening. You were sup-
posed to chew off a corner and suck it through. A mess. Adults—thirty of them in a cell with only one bench—sticky, with no way to get clean.
He was still awake when the alarm went off pre-dawn. Foxy Brown, tinny from Rina’s phone. She reached over to silence it. When she opened her eyes, she shuddered, seeing him staring at her. They put on their clothes from the day before. His pants itched. Downstairs in the kitchen, he ate bowl after bowl of cereal: Cheerios for the baby. He felt the milk and the slight sweetness building up inside him. Rina stopped at just one and sat there while he finished. Denise and Garrett, audible but not decipherable through the ceiling, talked quietly in their bedroom above the kitchen, but neither came down to send him and Rina off or to wish him well on the race. From his seat in Rina’s Spectra, he watched the mist rise off the fields that stretched between Garrett’s subdivision and the high school. The sun was coming up. His eyes stung and his jaw ached. He fingered his teeth. A pain in there from grinding during the night. Rina pulled her car into the parking lot by the high school. A scoreboard, through the car window, loomed over the athletic field that the race led off from. Positioned on the grass oval at the center of the track, the tops of football tackle dummies were just visible over the heads of registrants waiting their turn at the sign-up booth. She turned to him and gave him an affirming look that seemed designed for a person other than who he felt himself to be. “You’re gonna be real fast, buddy.” He reached under the seat and unscrewed the cap on the pill bottle. She squeezed his shoulders like some kind of boxing coach. “You’re gonna win this thing.” “Me and Tang are gonna win this together,” he said, chewing the pill before swallowing. He shed his jacket and left it in the car. He and Rina found their place in line behind a pair of women, already jogging in place, in Day-glo pink shorts and athletic shoes with neon-yellow piping. Him in the same clothes he’d had on in central booking: black denim pants, a sweatstained T-shirt, and a pair of Converse. He asked her if he could borrow the registration fee. Fifteen dollars. She could, he figured, hardly turn him down now. A teen volunteer inside the booth handed him his change— her change—a racing number, and safety pins. Rina attached the number to his back while he faced away from her, and he didn’t watch as she left him for a seat on the bleachers. His attention turned to the competition. A lot of young heavyset mom-types. The youth turn-out seemed low. Maybe home on their devices. The men gave off a middle-management vibe. Sort of small-business-owner dudes with their thinning hair shaved
to stubble. A couple cops were picking up some easy overtime doing security. Feeling drug-edgy, he steered clear as he moved into the crowd. People were pressed in around him on all sides. A thin muscular couple in tight performance wear stretched near the starting line, shaping their bodies into triangles, and he took his place beside them. He could feel the drug coming on, his pulse surging before he’d even started running. The sound effect of a starter pistol played over the loudspeakers. All of the feet shuffling behind him sounded like echoes of his own. His muscles released into the movement. He ran alongside the super-fit couple, using them to measure his exertion, as the crowd disarticulated into front-runners and the rest. The path wound through houses on the outskirts of town. The smell of cut grass, gasoline. Lodged into a well-kept lawn was an old hand-plough: a relic of a time when the land had meant something else. Old men sat on folding chairs inside a garage, shouting encouragement to the female runners. To him, they shouted, “Nice jeans!” He turned his head around to look, but veins pulsed through his eyes, fissuring his view. As he ran, he was beginning to feel outside of his own body, beyond it, apart from it. The couple was gone. He had passed them. He was no longer pacing himself against them. He was pacing himself off of nothing. He was pacing himself off the limitless horizon, not comparing himself to anyone, just running toward an infinite endpoint. He was out in the countryside. He’d left all the other runners behind. Up ahead was a distant folding table. On it, paper cups of water. The flat soles of his Converse hit the road again and again, the sound carrying across the surrounding fields, interrupted by his ragged breaths. If he thought about it, he supposed he could feel the insides of his jeans clinging to him, sticky with sweat, and that his feet stung from slapping the pavement through the thin bottoms of his shoes. He supposed maybe his muscles, his limbs, ached if he wanted to consider it. But much more than that, he felt a hot engine inside him that wanted, more than even he himself did, to go forward, to race, to win. To analyze the drive was to risk destroying it. It would break if he paused to hazard to possibly think about the fact that he was winning. But he was. He was winning. He was going to show all of them, show them what he was made of, and show them exactly who he was: a winner. He grabbed a cup as he passed the water station and, even with his throat stinging, he didn’t drink it—no, he tossed the water in the air and ran beneath it as it fell—because moving was what he did. His job, his duty, was to move always onward. He felt in his body the twist of the route as it began to loop back toward the high school, the finish line. His lungs were burning from the exertion, the drug. His heart banged. He
thought of a railroad worker pounding in a spike—that’s who he was, that’s what his heart was: the hard-working, forgotten, downtrodden builder of things. He was pure muscle. His heart was pure muscle. But his heart was so fast. Not a muscle, a machine—a mechanized hammer, a pneumatic hammer. The hammering was so fierce he thought his heart’s valves might burst, that it might explode through his chest. Just as his anxiety began to tighten he rounded a corner and saw the tackledummies, the scoreboard. He could see, up at the top of the bleachers, Rina’s Day-glo pink Saigon Po’ Boy T-shirt. She stood. He heard her cheering him on. “Leon! You’re doing it!” No one else was even close. An electronic sensor, as he stepped across it, chirped, acknowledging him. The man standing beside the track clicked a button on a stopwatch. “I won!” he shouted, barely able to breathe. Rina was climbing down from the bleachers, ready to celebrate. Volunteers, in a cluster, moved toward him to congratulate him. He threw his arm around one of the elderly volunteer’s shoulders, pulled the man toward his sweaty armpit, noogied him, and released him. He clasped one of the high school volunteers close and felt her body through the permeable barrier of his damp shirt. He held her there until she pushed away. He thrust his burning hot arms deep into the ice trough full of sports drinks from a sponsor. He pulled his arms out, dripping and glistening. He held a bottle in each hand and hucked them into the air. “I won!” The crowd that had been rushing toward him shielded themselves from the bottles, falling. Everyone else had gotten fat and stable, raising children and holding down jobs. He’d stayed lean and strong and tough, and he’d seen so much more than them, and he’d won. From the ice trough, tipping it over, he grabbed another fusillade of sports drinks. Volunteers surrounded him. Good job. Calm down. Stop it. A hand clasped his elbow to tug it behind his back, to restrain him. For a moment, they had his other arm pinned back as well. He worked free of their hold and his hand, attempting a fist, instead slapped the face of one of the thinning-haired shaved-headed small business owners. “I won!” His mouth was so dry. His lungs were heaving. Something barreled into him. Sprawled out on the grass oval at the center of the track, he looked up to see a short-sleeved black uniform. They pulled his arms behind him and he felt a knee in the backside of his ribs. He twisted his face to look toward the bleachers as one of the cops planted a palm against the base of his skull and pressed it to the ground. He saw Rina’s sensible shoes coming toward him, and he wanted to shout her name.