Nicholle, my newly minted serious girlfriend, hails from southern Alabama. The first time I meet her family, her brother, Dub, takes me to his swimming hole. Just before we splash in the muddy river he slaps my back and says, “Watch fer moccasins and snappers.” Sure enough, we’re neck deep under the hazy summer sky when I spot a black snake enter the water. I have no idea what kind it is, and I quickly lose sight of it. Dub, this crazy bastard, is unaffected by my update. I don’t want to be scared, but I’ve reached my breaking point, and hurdle myself toward the bank. There’s a ways to go and every water ripple grows a tail and fangs. Behind me I hear Dub laughing at my terror.
When it’s all done and I sit at the dinner table with Nicholle, Dub, and her parents, I wonder if there’s anything in my northern New Mexico upbringing that would scare Dub, and although I search hard, all I recall is a harmless bluegill fish attached to my pinky when I’m eight. I look across the table at Nicholle’s mother, a cheerful, plump lady who, if I unfocus my eyes enough, could be Nicholle in thirty years. Her father smiles approvingly at me, so at least I have that going. I’m nervous as hell, but I still feel for Nicholle’s thin legs underneath the table. She swats me away.
Dub scares me a little. His hair is cut at varied lengths and there appears to be a knife scar across his cheek. After dinner, he asks me if I’ve ever been waterboarded. I tell him no, and he says he hasn’t either.
“But,” he says, “I beat up a homeless guy. Dumbass didn’t even fight back, just laid there.”
“Thanks for that, Dub.”
“I’ve seen some shit,” he says. He’s out of high school, probably eighteen or so, but has an enthusiasm and weakness of intellect that makes eighteen hard to swallow. “Nicholle don’t know this, but I can count cards. I act broke, but there’s ten thou in my room. Swear.”
“Okay,” I say while fingering my chin, “cool.”
I have no idea why I say cool, can’t think of anything else, and even Dub looks at me curiously.
“You count cards?” he asks.
Actually, I do, but I’m not interested in where the conversation will go or what I’ll be invited to do. “You mean like gambling?” I say.
“Jesus,” he says laughing. He shakes his head. “Gambling.”
What Dub doesn’t know, and what I never plan on telling Nicholle, is that I do gamble. It’s not bad: local games with friends. I bring what I can lose and that’s it.
I do have the bad type of secrets. At the top of the list is a night in Los Alamos, New Mexico, just after dusk. I was late to a no-limit game across town, and I decided to cut through Woodmen Pointe subdivision. I was up to forty miles per hour on a straightaway near the end of a row of tan stucco homes. I never saw the girl scatter from the shadows, never heard her over the radio. I only felt the bump of her body, like running over a small dog. And before I could think about anything, the Jeep stopped, my fingers strangled the wheel. I closed my eyes. For a weightless moment only sound: Tom Petty, the idling four-cylinder, a slight breeze whistling the aspen. When I opened my eyes, no one was outside to scream and rush forward and finger me. No cars approached the other way. There was just a motionless child in my rearview mirror basking in the filtered red brake light. She wore torn pink sweatpants, and the soles of her tiny shoes were brand-new white. I saw my arm reach out and turn off the radio, then put the Jeep into first. My eyes swung back to the rearview mirror just in time to see her legs jolt once, then calm. Was she dead or just now dying? I drove away. I could still see her through the suffocating air, now quiet as a napping child.
Later that night I huddled in my shower replaying images of the jolting pink legs. I tried to convince myself that she’d live, that a doctor would find her, that she’d suffer a little—a lifelong limp perhaps—and there would be a recovery, but her death was on the news and in the paper the next morning. It was a hot story in Los Alamos for two weeks until the wildfires took over. Even the big station in Albuquerque carried it. On the telecast the anchors reported the event and begged people to call in with any information on the assailant. They showed her family huddled on their front yard in front of microphones, their faces falling apart.
I don’t know where my belief in a just universe comes from, but it’s there, and one day, be it snake or other ailment, I know my time will come. I can’t get it out of my head. The worst part is that it’s a waiting game, and so I wait and feel the possibility of justice hover over me, pausing until the time is right.
The night I call Nicholle’s father to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage he cries. Gravel dances in his throat. “I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I’ll let you talk to Karen.” There’s silence while he passes the phone, but his voice comes through again. “Two things, son.” It’s the first time he’s called me son. “One. I’ll only loan you money if Nicholle asks. Two. If you don’t have a gun, get one.” A pause. I smile. “Three. You’re a Tide fan when you visit. Four. I’ll give you a nickname which you probably won’t like. Just smile. Five. We’ve loved you for a while now. Good luck.”
After I ask Nicholle to marry me under a flowering dogwood, she makes me call Dub.
“Know where I been?” Dub says after telling me good job on the proposal. I tell him no, I don’t know where he’s been. “Riverboats man. Rivers are international waters. No rules, buddy. State, government, can’t touch ’em.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Should get married on a riverboat. There’s one called the Gypsy.”
“We’ll consider it, Dub.”
“Love you, man,” he says like he means it.
I pass the phone to Nicholle, who’s all smiles. “The Gypsy?” she says while I shake my head next to her. She gives me a look. It means that Dub is off-limits.
During our engagement Nicholle and I pick up books about marriage. We open our favorite one, The Questions You Should Ask Before “I Do,” whenever we Sunday-drive from Knoxville, where we both work. I learn that Nicholle would never adopt, thinks sex three times a week is enough, hates cats, wants to visit Mongolia (“Just to say I’ve been”), doesn’t mind if I have to travel for work, dreams of performing on Broadway if she could sing, is scared of getting her mother’s cheeks, and doesn’t like it when I say, “Ya know what I’m saying?” when trying to prove a point.
She learns a lot about me as well, at least the stuff I want her to know, but her face goes to stone when I tell her my number one pet peeve is when people praise God only for the good things in life. “If God is so great,” I say, “what the hell is up with cancer and dropped touchdown passes? No one points to the sky when a pass slips through their fingers.” We go at it pretty good when I think: “If you’re smart, you’ll never say these things again,” but I know I will. All this learning about each other is fine, but the great stuff comes out when we sit in a tan stucco courtyard on our honeymoon in Savannah. We are waiting for our food, sipping on red wine when Nicholle asks me the worst thing I’ve ever considered doing to someone else, even if it was just for a split second. I consider taking my hit-and-run and forming a hypothetical, just to see the reaction, but all that comes to me is the girl’s spotless white shoes. I feel my stomach clench and push the image away. I search my mental catalogue for relief, and it doesn’t take me long to sift through the feeble mock threats and momentary revenge wishes to a wooded mountainside near my childhood town.
I was twelve, cutting down dead white pine with my father in the backcountry. I took a break, leaning against the old red Dodge truck, and in a bizarre mental pulse I thought of taking the chain saw and hacking my father. I imagined the roaring saw, the blood and limbs mixing with the sawdust, the dumbfounded look in his eyes before the spinning hot teeth bit. Even in that moment I remember being ashamed and frightened of my own psychological capacity.
Now in the Italian restaurant courtyard, I hold the salt shaker in my hand and avoid Nicholle’s brown eyes. I don’t know if the words have come out right. Can those words come out right? “It’s crazy,” I say. I feel heavy and place my hands in my lap. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Ya know what I’m saying?” I steal a glance. She’s wearing my favorite sundress, a white number with small red and yellow flowers. She’s tan and has her hair pulled back. There’s a large party in the courtyard clinking wineglasses and talking over one another. We’re all visitors.
“Stealing a baby,” Nicholle says. “I don’t know where it comes from. But there it is. I’d planned names, escape routes from the hospital, everything. I didn’t care if it looked like me. I even thought it might be easier to take a year-old, not a newborn. They’d be eating solids.”
The food arrives. I cut the veal with my knife. I take another bite and watch Nicholle move her bare arms as she negotiates her utensils into her pasta, then grabs for her wineglass and gulps. We should laugh. I think of laughing.
“So,” I say. “I’m glad we’re the normal ones.”
We move into a nice rolling subdivision in West Knoxville called Hawks Landing. Lo and behold, about a month into our stay two hawks make their nest in a giant ponderosa in our front yard. The place is spacious and we have privacy on almost an acre. The neighbors are fine, but there’s a guy around the corner who lets his dog shit in our yard. One Sunday morning, as I trim the flowering bushes in the front, he comes around with the dog and waves friendly to me before the dog scampers ten feet onto the grass and does his business. I don’t have the balls to say anything. I’m out-of-shape thin and believe there’s a hovering fistfight in every confrontation. He’s a big guy, brick shoulders, looks like he wouldn’t mind a fight, win or lose. Sometimes I see both him and the dog rolling around on his front yard when I come home from work. I stay clear. Besides that, life is great. Nicholle and I join a co-ed softball league, help clean up the local park, and make church about a third of the time. I like the routine. We break it up just enough to keep everything interesting. Nicholle steals four hundred dollars’ worth of tile from a local hardware store. Just walks out. It’s in our bathroom on a diagonal. I lie to my boss most days about where I am, the hours I put in, but I work hard enough that he never questions me. I’m a Tennessee fan now, but Nicholle is Alabama all the way, so we have one of those stupid house-divided license plates, half orange, half crimson. We have lots of friends and a few enemies, but it’s a healthy proportion.
Dub calls one night and talks to Nicholle for an hour. This is not normal.
“He needs money,” Nicholle says. My head is already in my hands. “Five thousand.” We don’t have two thousand dollars. “He’ll pay us back. He says he’ll pay us back. I know what you’re going to say. He wouldn’t ask unless he needed it.” I’m not going to say a thing. “He’s desperate and we can cash bonds if we have to. Say something. We need to be together on this.”
She’s near tears. It’s breaking her heart. She knows we’ll never see a penny back, knows we can’t afford it, knows I despise her for asking, and yet, here she is. It’s her brother. I tell her I want him to drive up so I can see him face to face when I hand him the check. Everyone agrees, but two weeks later Nicholle puts the money in the mail and talks to me about the price of gasoline.
Nicholle and I think we’ll get pregnant right away. We’re both healthy, but after six months she’s still not pregnant. We lie to the doctors, tell them it’s been a year, but they say nothing’s wrong. Nicholle and I fight and stress, and making love morphs into an exercise of hopelessness over the next two years. I change jobs and become a rep in a pharmaceutical company selling erectile dysfunction drugs. The money is good, but I’m on the road every other week. I’m outside a Taco Bell in Jacksonville when Nicholle calls me. I shift the greasy bag to my right hand and answer the phone.
“You’re going to be a father,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “Really?”
She loses it and I want to, but I can’t cry. Of all things, I imagine the drive home from the hospital with our newborn child in the backseat. I think of all of the new drivers, the drunk drivers, the red-light racers.
“We need a car seat,” I say.
“I love you,” Nicholle says through the sniffles.
I love her too, but I say, “Does this mean we don’t have to steal a baby?”
Four weeks later I’m outside the VA hospital in Charlotte when she lets me know the pregnancy is ectopic. It’s July, and dust swirls in the empty sky. I think of our growing child in Nicholle’s right fallopian tube, budding bigger and bigger, slowly killing my wife, but she says the doctors are going to take care of everything the next day, and they do. I fly home and sit in our living room, Nicholle’s head in my lap as she rubs at her legs. There’s nothing I can say, so we’re mostly quiet.
She says, “We have to wait three months.”
The ceiling fan spins above us, and Nicholle’s hair brushes at my legs. I study her body from her head down to her hips and bent knees and tucked feet. Very slowly, she uncoils. She hasn’t told her parents yet, but as she heads upstairs and closes our bedroom door I know she’s going for the phone. I hear her muffled voice through the ceiling. She’s not crying yet. There’s nothing her mother can do from that distance, but there’s a safety in that bond that I’ll never be able to join. The fan does little to help with the thick humidity. I wonder, is all of this part of my penance? A life for a life? Am I even with the universe? The pain of losing something sight unseen seems like an easy sentence. Is this just the beginning? I see the Los Alamos girl curled up like an embryo. My heart was exploding and my hands pounded as they shifted the Jeep into first gear and released the clutch. I pressed the gas. I named the girl long ago, and tonight I hear it in my ears: Courtney. It’s not the name said in the television reports in the aftermath, but I don’t care. I haven’t met a Courtney since. She’s the only one.
In early September, just as we find our voices again, we watch television clips from New York City of people jumping from the buildings. I’ve never considered choosing between flame and gravity, and later, when the photos come out in magazines showing the bodies falling to their deaths, I am certain gravity would be the answer if given the choice.
After another miscarriage, Nicholle becomes pregnant. She’s seven months along, a big, beautiful belly with a dark line bisecting her bulge. We ride in a bus. I can’t stop touching her. Across from us sit four men that resemble the plane hijackers. I’m educated. Logically, I know these aren’t terrorists. They ride the public bus downtown. They’re happy and joking with one another. They speak a mix of English and something else. But one of them looks over at us, looks at Nicholle, at her belly, and stares. His brown face goes slack, his entire countenance trancelike. Am I due? Will this be it? The man will make a move toward us. His friends will hold me down while he struggles with Nicholle. I may survive this attack, alone. When that image passes I imagine him flying a plane, a little single-prop Cessna over our neighborhood. The hawks are up and circling high in the sky. He brings the plane into a dive, tears up the birds, heads straight for our shingled roof, but before I can complete the daydream, Nicholle reaches for my clenched hand, unfolds it, and intertwines hers. The man stares unflinchingly.
“Soon,” Nicholle says to the man, tilting her chin up. “Two months left.” It takes a second for him to realize that she has spoken to him. The man breaks his stare. “Soon,” Nicholle repeats.
The four of them become quiet. The man taps his brown shirt above his heart, taps his forehead, and circles his hand toward us. “Girl,” he says.
The magnolias I planted bloom large white blossoms. I stare at them with a cup of coffee one Saturday morning when the neighborhood jackass brings his retriever by. Nicholle’s parents are in town, and her father stands next to me as the dog unloads one on our driveway. I’m near my limit with no plan. He gives me enough time to say something, and when I don’t he asks, “How often, Slim?”
“I only see them on the weekends,” I say.
“That’s not what I asked,” he says and looks at me as if I’m a whiny child.
Later in the week Nicholle’s dad tells me the jerk works the mid-shift, that he must walk the dog when he gets home. I don’t ask how he knows this. He steps into the den and calls someone on his cell phone. When he returns he says, “You’ll have to help.” He asks me to wait in the parking lot of the store, and comes out with a plastic bottle of antifreeze. Sparks fly around me, and before he gets in the car, I assign the guilt to him: his idea, his purchase. I can’t take on this one as well. I’ve decided I won’t say no as long as he pours it into the dog bowl. Nicholle’s father sits with a heavy exhale.
“Dub’s done this a couple times,” he says. “Says to mix in a little vinegar, helps it go down.”
“That’s what he says. He sends his love. Wanted me to tell you.”
The doctor makes me grab a leg before he tells Nicholle to start pushing. Emma arrives early, only three pounds, two ounces. This is what family means. Three days later we come home. No man could endure Nicholle’s schedule of no-sleep, all-go patience. Emma has my blue eyes, and even though many children are born with blue eyes, hers are my blue. I see them under the oxygen mask she has to wear to keep her lungs full.
Eight weeks later Emma has some neck control. I’ve just returned from Lexington. She rests on my chest when I get a call.
“Kevin has died,” Uncle Norv says.
Kevin, my cousin, died while trying to escape Paddy’s Pub in Bali. After the call, I do a little research until I know the scene inside the pub: a small explosion flashed out of a backpack amidst the music and drinks and sweat. Kevin joined the frantic swarm into the warm night only to be greeted by a white Mitsubishi van loaded with explosives. It left a crater more than a meter deep. Later, as I consider the incident, I like to rewind to a minute before the backpack detonation; where, in his mid-twenties, Kevin swayed and bounced to the band in pure bliss; where, the dream-like Bali became real under a mix of alcohol and moonlight; where, for Kevin, time slowed just enough to pause.
I consider the end often. I always have after the hit-and-run. I tell Nicholle that if we played the percentages I’d go before her, most likely some kind of cancer. It’s probably already started somewhere deep inside my slippery body. Sometimes I worry Nicholle might go first. When she’s late getting home from a mom’s night out, my mind allows about a thirty-minute cushion, and then begins the murmurs of what-ifs. The whole scene flashes by: the dreaded call—auto accident, funeral, insurance money, my baby girl growing, me dating or not, the guilt of either, moving (would I have to move? yes, definitely), different career, Emma’s wedding—but then the garage door grumbles open and Nicholle saunters in because, in the end, there’s absolutely nothing wrong.
I’m back on the road now: a week away every other month. When I’m gone I call home at 6:30 their time every night. Emma has just finished her bath and Nicholle puts the phone up to her ear so she can hear my voice. Emma’s only eight months old and already she plays with her first steps.
Whenever I’m in Memphis I play cards a couple blocks off the strip in a brick basement where there’s a password. It’s a thrill. I know most of the participants. We aren’t thugs. When we lose money it hurts. We have polo shirts and mortgages. This time I have a flush and a story starts up around the table about a guy who had his dick put in a vise. He owed money to the wrong people, the regular story. There’s laughter. I stare at my spades, organized and lethal. I reach for chips.
“Named Dub,” says Nick, the organizer of the game.
“Dub?” someone says. “Deserved it.”
Jordan, a baker with nervous hands, asks if you could die from that—a dick in a vise.
A new guy, Alec, quiets everyone with his monotone. “Yes,” he says. “If you leave ’em there, eventually, they die of hunger.”
How many Dubs can there be? I think of what I’ll say to Nicholle. What do I ask? Water moccasin Dub, snapping turtle Dub. I see him laughing in the muddy water as I dry off on the bank, still unable to quiet my knees. I wait until the next day. It’s 7 p.m. I’ve whispered to Emma, and Nicholle explains how she’s considering going back to work, just part time, over the summer. She’s having trouble losing the last ten pounds of pregnancy weight.
“When’s Dub going to come visit his niece?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. “He’s not coming with money.”
Dub rolls his truck eight times on a Monday morning at 3 a.m. He’s drunk and his face and chest are mashed up good. Nicholle’s parents call. Her mother asks for our prayers. We pray. It’s close for a few hours, but Dub pulls through. Nicholle’s mother praises God and His mercy and His comfort. It’s all she talks about. Dub drank a bottle of Jack and got behind the wheel. He forgot to put his seat belt on, was ejected from the rolling vehicle, and landed on his back, his eyes looking up at dizzying stars. I want to ask Nicholle’s mother if buckling in is the Devil’s work, but I never will.
Two months later, Dub shows up at the house one evening twenty pounds lighter, hands shaking. He smells like boiled cabbage and urine. He says he’s been in the same clothes for a week, sleeping during the day, driving at night. He’s out of money and in trouble. Says it’s the kind of trouble you don’t wake up from.
“Got to stay out of ’Bama,” he says.
Before I can wrap my head around the situation, Nicholle has invited him in, and shown him to the guest room. He showers upstairs while Nicholle and I cuss and stomp. Before the water turns off we’ve come to a compromise. He has two weeks. After that, he’s on his own. I know Nicholle won’t kick him out at the deadline, but it’s something.
A month later I make the morning hospital rounds in Little Rock. I’m not supposed to leave until the following day, but I think of changing my flight to get back to the girls and Dub that night. I hustle back to the hotel. I pick up the ringing hotel receiver just before I leave for the airport. It’s Nicholle’s voice, nervous and quick. She says there are two men, a tall one at the front door, the other standing at the side of the house. She’s ignored them, but the man at the front door had stopped knocking and peers into the long, narrow window to the left of the door. Emma sleeps.
“Am I crazy?” she asks.
“Just wait a minute,” I say. “Deep breaths. Are they in uniform?”
“No,” she says. “Why? Did you schedule something?” But she doesn’t let me answer. “Because it’s been far too long, they’ve been here five minutes.” She tells me that she can see the one at the front door glancing around, not into the house, but around and at the other houses in the neighborhood. I hear Dub in the background.
“Put Dub on.” I wait for his voice and the pause stretches. I force myself to breathe.
“There’s some shit,” he says. “Damn. Damn. Nothin’s gunna happen, man. Trust me.”
“You son of a bitch. Handle this, Dub.” There’s no reply.
“Hello?” It’s Nicholle. “The one on the side moved into the backyard,” she says. I picture the spacious yard, the towering ponderosa and medium dogwoods. It is 3:15 my time, 4:15 there. “Dub left the damn truck in the driveway. Listen to me. Something’s not right here.”
I stand in the small hotel room, packed suitcase at my feet. “Go get Emma,” I say.
Nicholle breathes heavy into the phone and she says, “My God.” I trace her path in my head, down the long second-floor hallway, through the white door into the baby’s yellow bedroom with pink block letters above the crib: emma.
“I’m back in our room. Emma’s . . . They’re in—,” she says. “The other one is on the back porch and the man at the front door, he’s knocking again.”
“Lock the door and call 9-1-1,” I say. “Do it now.”
“Don’t hang up, damn you.”
“I don’t hear Emma.”
“He’s down there. They’re screaming.”
It was twenty bucks a month for the alarm whose wires probably dangled disconnected. I picture its white box under the stairs. Then the blue safe under our bed.
“Get the gun,” I say.
“I’m putting the phone on the bed.” Over the line I can hear Emma’s labored breathing. It sounds like she’s trying to put the receiver in her mouth. She was born at thirty weeks, the size of my forearm.
“I have it,” Nicholle says. “Okay, I have it.” A pause. “They’re fighting. God, they’re fighting.”
“Like we practiced. Put the magazine in. It should have rounds in it.”
“Pull the hammer back,” I say.
“What? What’s the hammer?”
“I mean the slide. Shit, the slide. We’ve practiced this. The top part, throw the slide back.”
“It’s sticking. On the stairs now.” She whispers. “Up the stairs.”
“Yell out to them, ‘I have a gun.’” She does. “And again,” I say. She says it again. “And I will shoot you.” I hear her say it, and she says, “Motherfuckers.” Emma cries.
“It’s sticking,” is all she says to me.
“Do you remember?”
“Yes,” she says. “I know what to do but it’s sticking.” Her pitch rises. No one is on their way to them.
“Got it,” Nicholle says. Then, “They’re talking on the stairs.” And her voice lowers even more. “They said, ‘Dub.’ My God, they know us.”
“Say it again.”
“The gun,” I say.
“I’ve got a gun,” she yells.
“If they open the door you shoot until the gun stops firing and then load the next magazine.”
She must hear the finality in my voice because she says, “No.” I hear it right before I hang up and dial 9-1-1. I sling information as fast as I can to the operator, and picture the safety on the gun Nicholle holds, turned down, the red dot hidden. My sight goes wavy, the ceiling lowers on me as I think of the locked trigger. I hang up, call home and the metallic tone pulses off and on until the answering machine engages. It’s her slow morning voice: “You’ve reached Nicholle and Keith Bailey,” and my voice in the background, “and Emma,”—she’s laughing—“We’re not in right now, but please leave a message and we’ll get back with you. Thank you.” I listen to the entire thing and hang up and call back. She won’t be able to hear me, no matter what I say into the phone. When I get the message again, I hang up immediately and call back. This time I let the whole message play and sit with the phone in my hand, a beam of light from the hotel window now in my eyes. I close them. The silence through the line is muffled. It’s recording me listening, and I think there’s a chance, if I’m loud enough, Nicholle might be able to pick up one word, through the drywall and beams and carpet, past Dub’s body, through the locked bedroom door, past the men with outstretched arms.
I breathe and scream, “Safety,” over and over and over, until there are no more words, just a machine recording my empty lungs.