Philip Gardner

Fiction

Phillip Gardner’s stories have appeared in Euphony, New Delta Review, Interim, The North American Review and LIT. He is the author of two story collections, Somebody Wants Somebody Dead and Someone To Crawl Back To (Boson Books).

 

Winner Take Nothing

I’m sitting on our ragged sofa holding my triple-aught Martin and experimenting with open tunings, looking for a kind of Keith Richards’ Start Me Up chord, when my girlfriend Beverly answers the doorbell. I’d written the lyrics for a song called We Both Loved You Best, but I had no music. I’m channeling Keith when I hear Beverly squeal.

She’s already dressed for work, Hooter’s T-shirt and those skintight hot pants, bright orange ones. And now she’s standing before the mailman doing this cheerleader thing where she goes up on her tiptoes and smacks her pompoms together just under her chin. The mailman, who’s getting a good eyeful, holds out a pen.

“No thanks,” I say to him.

“Sign,” Beverly says in this real breathy voice. “That’s what you do when you’ve won a contest. That’s how they verify the winner.”

“No thanks,” I say again to the postman.

“I’ve been entering every contest there is,” she says.

The postman looks at her chest.

“Then why isn’t it addressed to you?” The mail guy begins his impatient marching in place thing. “Thanks but no thanks,” I say. He starts down the sidewalk.

“What?” Beverly shouts. “This could be it for us, the ticket. You got no job.” Her whole body kind of vibrates. “You’re such a loser! Either—.”

When they say “either” what they mean is “or.”

“Hey, pal,” I call to the guy. He’s already in his little mail truck, but he waits for me and hands over the pen. I sign.

We sit on the sofa, and Beverly wiggles her behind against my thigh. She smiles a big one. “I have a feeling about this,” she says. She repeats the pompom thing.

“So do I,” I say. “Certified mail.” I point at the return address. “Lawyer’s office.”

“That’s how they do it, to make sure the winner is legit,” she says. “Open it, open it.” The letter inside says that I’ve been named in a paternity suit.

That was the end of Beverly. After she announced she was moving out, I hocked everything we’d bought together and a few items we hadn’t, enough to pay for a visit to a lawyer’s office and replacement locks on the house.

~

I held a finger under the number as I dialed, expecting a secretary, but I got a guy’s voice. “You’ve called the right man,” he said. “There’s a reason my name’s at the top of the list of Myrtle Beach lawyers.”

“Yeah, Alec Aimes, it’s at the top of the yellow pages.”

Aimes laughed. “You’re a smart guy, I like that.”

I read the contents of the letter into the phone. “What’s this going to cost me?”

“I don’t conduct business over the phone,” he said.

His office was not, as he’d led me to believe, in the heart of Myrtle Beach. It was a good ways south, between Surfside and Garden City, in a rusting 80’s strip mall. Aimes’s office was easy to find. There was only one car in the lot, a faded gold Mercedes, size of an aircraft carrier, its bumper and trunk charred black from diesel exhaust. I opened the only office door that didn’t have a For Rent sign posted next to it.

Inside, the dim office was all grays and tans and smelled of mildew and stale Freon from the single window unit. The curled edges of the carpet samples lapped the chair legs and filing cabinets.

After a false start, Aimes lumbered from his desk chair and waddled toward me, hand extended. He was a short, dark guy with thinning black hair, barrel of a chest and massive legs. He walked like a short fat guy on roller skates.

“Good to see you,” he said. His handshake felt like a big fat soft tit. I held up the letter. “Let’s take a look,” he said.

He collapsed into the chair and reached into his shirt pocket for glasses. The cheap prints on the wall behind him spoke volumes: Mallards like a squadron of fighter jets getting the hell out of town.

“Ummmm,” Aimes said. “Ummmm. Looks like you’re screwed.”

I stood. “Thanks.” I made for the door.

“That’ll be a hundred dollars,” he said.

“Screw you,” I said. “I don’t need you to lose in court.”

“That’s when you need me the most.” I stopped and turned. He lifted a magazine. “See this?” He read from its cover. “Time Magazine, dated May 30, 2011. That’s now, son. That’s the way things are right now.” He thrust the magazine toward me. The cover said, Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs?*. In the lower corner, beside the photo of a pig, in what looked to be about a three-point font was another * with the words No offense.

“What does this have to do with me?” I said.

“What you’re looking at is judge and jury, pal. When they look at you, they’re thinking, Sex. Lies. Men are pigs.”

I tossed the magazine on his desk and turned again toward the door.

“Think about it,” he said. “What you won’t see, what you’ll never see, is this on the cover of Time: Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What makes women who chase powerful, married men act like cows? No offense.” His words stopped me. “Catch my drift, boy? This is the now: You can call a man a pig as long as in tiny letters you print, ‘no offense,’ but you can never call a woman—no matter who she is or what she does—a cow. Justice, it ain’t blind.” I took a deep breath and looked out the office window. In the parking lot, waves of heat coiled above the gold Mercedes.

“You better think about what it’s worth to minimize your losses,” Aimes said.

I handed him the hundred.

~

My attorney offered to drive up to Myrtle Beach, where we’d meet with my accuser, Tina Talbott, at the offices of Slater, Cross & Rugar. I took the passenger seat. My door didn’t quite shut all the way, and Aimes produced this little fake cough when he saw me staring at the duct tape covering the air conditioner controls.

“If it’s okay with you,” he said, “we’ll ride with the windows down. I’m trying to be environmentally conscious, you know.”

On the drive, he mopped the sweat from his face and questioned me about the plaintiff’s affidavit. “Do you remember Ms. Talbott?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “More than three years ago, that’s a long time.”

“Letter says your band performed at The Wave, a Rock club here. That correct?”

“Yeah. Before the crash, I played every club in the Southeast.”

“And you don’t remember screwing a waitress at The Wave?”

“Before the crash, I played every club in the Southeast.”

We stopped at a red light. The interior of the Mercedes filled with black diesel smoke. Aimes fanned his nose. “Stinks,” he said.

In the elevator up to the offices of Slater, Cross & Rugar, Aimes nodded at the brass trimming. “Impressive,” he said.

“Name’s Steven Slater,” the man in the Brooks Brothers suit said. He was tall, well tanned, one of those professionally handsome guys who could shave every fifteen minutes. “Have a seat,” he said in a theatrically professional voice. He gestured toward a chair.

“Nice place you have here,” Aimes said, nodding affirmatively as he rubber necked the spacious, elegant office. “Who’s your decorator?”

“Gentlemen,” Slater said, “we all know why we’re here. In a minute, my associate, Ms. Cross, will bring Ms. Talbott in. You can imagine how emotionally painful this is for her.”

“Yes,” Aimes said. He heaved a heavy sigh and nodded approvingly at the plush burgundy carpet.

“Where’s the evidence?” I said. “This is not exactly a vacation for me.”

“Shuuuuuh!” Aimes whispered.

“My ass is on the line here, pal,” I said to Slater. “I want to know the grounds for this summons.”

Slater passed a sheet of paper to me. Aimes tried to take it, but something about my look made him reconsider. Slater read from the copy in front of him.

“These are the dates your band performed at The Wave, where Ms. Talbott was working, correct?”

“If you say so,” I said.

He handed me a second sheet. “This is a signed statement from Ms. Talbott’s obstetrician, the doctor’s judgment of time of conception. There is some room for error, of course, but your band had a seven day engagement at that time, three days of error on each side of the doctor’s target date.”

“All this does is place me in the vicinity of a woman who got pregnant,” I said.

“That’s good,” Aimes said. He patted my shoulder. “That’s gooooood.”

Slater handed over a press kit photo of my band. “She pointed you out,” he said. He let me stew for a minute before he picked up his phone. “Yes,” he said.

The two women, a blonde and a brunette, held hands as they entered the office. Their eyes were strawberry red from crying, and the runoff from the brunette’s mascara had done that Alice Cooper thing down her cheeks. In their free hand each carried a fistful of tissue.

It was quite a damsels-in-distress performance, one likely repeated in a courtroom. As they entered, I didn’t know which woman was which. My question was answered as the two sat. Tina, looked away. Ms. Cross-with-the-Alice-Cooper eyes glowered. Slater allowed a long minute of sorrowful, petulant silence.

She was a beautiful woman, long sun-bleached hair, flawless tanned complexion, perfect features, green eyes. So beautiful I knew I’d never slept with her. She was a woman I would remember. But my feelings of exoneration were mixed ones. She really was sad, truly so.

“Ms. Talbott,” Slater whispered. “We need for you to take a good look.”

She drew in a deep, deep breath and slowly lifted her eyes toward me. It was a sad but strong face. She tilted her head slightly. Her sad eyes moved over every inch of my face. I was the man in a lineup, the bright lights nearly blinding me. But at the same time, I wanted to touch her shoulder and say, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

She looked from me to Slater. “I can’t. I can’t do it.”

Instantly, Ms. Cross yelped and burst into tears. She stood, sopping her cheeks with tissue, and placed a hand under Tina’s arm in an effort to deliver her from the evil, but she didn’t move.

“Do you need a minute?” Slater said again in that Hollywood voice.

“No,” Tina said. She turned her dry eyes to Cross, who then sort of wilted apologetically as if this were the Oscars and she’d stood when somebody else’s name was called.

“I can’t say for sure it was him.” Glances ricocheted all around the room. “I was twenty-one years old. I was working in a nightclub, going to parties.”

Slater looked at me. “Will you agree to a blood test? DNA, if necessary?”

“No,” Aimes said.

“Yes,” I said.

“I’ll pay for the tests,” Tina Talbott said to me. “I want to know. I want to know for sure.”

Slater and Cross exchanged lawyer looks. Slater picked up his phone.

I stood and walked to the office window. Ten years ago, I would have been able to see the ocean. Not now. “What is it?” I said.

“Papers. For the tests,” Slater said.

“No,” I said looking at Tina.

“A boy,” she said. Her eyes did not leave mine. “He doesn’t look like you. He looks like me.”

Slater’s secretary brought in the legal forms.

“As your attorney, let me caution you,” Aimes said. “You should read that very carefully before you sign.”

I took the pen from the secretary and signed.

“No,” Tina whispered.

When I looked up, her face was streaked with tears. She turned to Ms. Cross and then to Slater. “It’s not him. It’s not. The guy…he was left handed. I remember.”

Downstairs, Aimes was dredging his deep pocket for car keys. I looked up at the clouds piled atop one another a few miles inland above Conway. A thin dark halo surrounded them, a threat of rain later.

“Here,” he said. In his meaty palm was the money I’d given him. “I really can’t take this.”

“What about your time?” I said.

“Take it,” he said.

“Let me pay for your gas,” I said.

“I’d rather have a drink,” Aimes said.

“Okay,” I said.

I slammed the door to the Mercedes twice, but it still wouldn’t shut all the way. Aimes fired up the engine. Exhaust shrouded the sunlight.

“The Showhouse?” he said.

“Make another selection.”

“You don’t like titty bars?”

“Do I have to remind you what it was that got me where I am today?”

~

The repeating chorus at the end of Third Rate Romance faltered above the thick salty air then wafted down the length of The Pier at Garden City. Under the giant gazebo out over the water, the band began its next selection, Don Henley’s End of the Innocence. Their song choices were clearly aimed at middle-aged family oriented vacationers. But since the crash, the tourists were few.

It had been Aimes’s suggestion that we have drinks near his office. And it wasn’t long before I knew why. After two gin-tonics, he was line dancing with drunk, sun-baked, Pepto-pink Midwestern housewives. He smiled this goofy, toothy smile and danced with the grace of a circus elephant as he sang, “I got friends in low places.” Sweat gushed.

I sat on a wooden bench that smelled of shrimp bait looking out at the calm, slate-colored ocean. I drank. The movement of the tide rocked the pier ever so slightly.

“I got to get going,” I said when the song ended.

“Okay,” he said. He smiled and bowed to the pinkies beside him.

“Byyyyye, darlin’,” the really pink one with black roots said, affecting a southern drawl.

The lights that stretched down the pier created a kind of dim tunnel as we headed back, and for a moment I felt that weird sensation of being an observer of myself. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve had that experience. But I’m walking beside Aimes down this long, narrow pier, and you’ve got to know that he’s huffing from dancing, pacing along on legs like tree trunks in this gunfight- at-the-OK-Corral swagger. And I’m thinking, Where am I? Who am I? Look at me. It was like I was both participant and observer to this pageant.

I didn’t realize Aimes was two-drinks drunk until we entered the pier’s arcade/gift shop. The cheap Vegas whistles and strobe lights startled him. He stopped abruptly and pointed at a large sign above a counter where kids were trading in tickets for trinkets, to the word REDEMPTION.

“What’s that?” he said, slurring his words.

“Where you cash in,” I said.

“You ought to go to Sunday school,” Aimes said. “Redemption,” he said, “that’s where you cash out.”

I helped him down the two long flights of steps to the sidewalk. “Let me buy you a sandwich,” I said. We crossed to a burger/breakfast place, Sam’s Corner. I ordered coffee. He raised his cup, studied it for a second, then turned to me.

“It was a good day today,” he said. “Thanks to you, I got to dance.” He looked down. “Legs like these, you don’t get to dance much.” He thought for a second then looked up at me. “I’m a shitty lawyer,” he said. “When I was in college, I was a wrestler. Never guess it to look at me now, huh? I wanted to be a high school wrestling coach. Or I thought I did. By the time I got my degree, my body was a wreck. Look at me, I walk like a dwarf. I didn’t want to lead kids down that path.”

He was mostly sober when he dropped me off at my car outside his office. We shook hands.

“Thanks,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”

~

During the boom years, Myrtle Beach’s Hard Rock Theme Park symbolized promise for musicians like me, the illusion that a fan base existed to support our dreams and ambitions. Now abandoned, the park was a vast black desert of asphalt and sand spurs. And as I drove past the compound’s bolted gates, I considered the concept for its Hard Rock Café—a pyramid. Must have come from a true visionary: a tomb for the dead kings of Rock.

I checked my watch for the time. I was at that crossroads between driving home and stopping for another bourbon when I passed a Hooters Restaurant. Then the question was, Where will I have that drink? I’d drive north to the House of Blues. I had no place to go, no place to be, nobody to do that nothing with. That nothing was me.

These thoughts slammed back and forth like bad reverb inside my head.

And then I saw the sign for The Wave. It was dimly lit, and the V was missing from LI_E MUSIC! Not exactly a good omen. Inside, what had been the stage belonged to squatters, four pool tables. A Karaoke machine was tucked just behind the curtain. Randy, the former bouncer turned bartender, didn’t remember me or my band.

I asked him to check The House of Blues website to see who was playing. He opened his phone. Behind me, I heard a flat, distant voice. “Hey,” Tina Talbott said. “Feeling nostalgic, huh?” She was dressed in a thin white button down and black hot pants. She lit a cigarette.

“You’re still working here?” She blew the smoke up toward the ceiling, then looked back at me. “Somehow,” I said, “I just thought you’d, you know, moved on.”

She looked at Randy but spoke to me. “I’m constantly reminded of how lucky I am to still have this job,” she said. “Maybe one day that idea will sink in.” Randy slid his phone over for me to see.

“Another bourbon?” he said. He turned to pour my drink.

“You want to sit?” I said.

“How long are you going to be here?” Tina said. She looked around at the mostly empty booths and tables. “I’ll probably be cut by eleven or twelve if you want to stick around. You can buy me a drink for not fucking me.”

~

I pretended to watch a Braves/Giants baseball game on the screen at the end of the bar, but mostly I watched Tina in the mirror. She’d pulled her hair up, and the line of her neck accentuated the perfect symmetry of her face. I thought, She’ll be beautiful when she’s sixty. Randy smiled when he saw me staring at her.

For two hours, I was invisible to Tina. I don’t think she looked at me once, not even when she stood at the wait station at the end of the bar while Randy filled drink orders. She seemed perfectly at ease, but at the same time that look seemed rehearsed, like a model on the runway or the trained smile of a performer, real but not real. Participant, observer.

In the top of the eighth inning, I went to the toilet. Tina was sitting at the bar beside my drink when I returned.

“What will you have?” I said.

“Got one coming,” she said. “Mind if I smoke?”

“Huffing smoke, that’s a part of my job description.” I smiled.

“Mine too,” she said, indicating the scabby red carpet and cracked Naugahyde booths. “Long day, huh?”

“For both of us.”

“Yeah,” she said.

She glanced over to the far end of the bar at Randy, pose like a sentry, bulging arms crossed, pretending he wasn’t listening.

“You know, it could have been you,” she said turning back now. “You’re a lucky guy.”

I watched her lips work the cigarette. “At the minute,” I smiled, “I’m not feeling particularly lucky in any respect.”

“That could change,” she said.

“That’s what’s bothering me.”

Randy called to her and the two of them disappeared behind the walk-in cooler. She didn’t seem like the type to say goodbye. I finished my bourbon and then watched the final out, a swing and a miss. I looked around to pay my tab. Tina was alone behind the bar pouring us both a drink. She took her seat beside me.

“So,” I said. “What’s next?”

“You mean after-Community-College-slash-fulltime-work-slash-single mom? Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m just not sure what those measures are.” We both drank.

“Mind if I ask you a personal question?” I said.

“I’d say you’re entitled.”

“Why did you wait so long?”

“Denial. Fear of my mother’s guilt trip. I had a choice. I could have gotten an abortion.”

“No. I mean why wait this long before tracking down the father?”

She lifted the pen from her pocket and slid a pad in front of me. “Make a list,” she said. “Names of all the women you’ve slept with.” I looked at her. “When you can’t even name a number, how are you going to name names. You can’t, I can’t.” She lit a cigarette. “Times are hard for a lot of people. There are some desperate people out there. I happen to be one of them.” She seemed to go off someplace in her head. Then she came back. “What are you?” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Guitar? Bass? Drums?”

“Guitar,” I said.

She touched my hand. “It could have been you.” For the first and only time she smiled. I’ll never forget that smile.

“So,” I said, “what’re you going to do?”

Again she indicated the bar. “Looks like this is it.” She smoked. “You know,” she said, “I did think about an abortion before he was born, but I guess I intentionally waited too long to get one.” She squashed the stub of her smoke. “Now, I can’t remember a time when I had choices.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “That you regret not doing it?”

“No, I never think about that. What I mean is – let’s say you are who you are, only you’ve got a kid. What would you do?”

“I never thought about it.”

“But it could be you, right? Beginning tomorrow, it could be you.” She looked over at Randy, who had suddenly reappeared. She bumped out another cigarette. “It’s all I think about.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’d do.”

“Sorry, but that answer is not an option. You have a three-year-old boy, okay? What would you do? He’s three years old.”

“I guess I’d do whatever I had to do, you know, to see that he’s taken care of.”

“And what are the limits of what you would do?” She looked away, blowing the smoke from the corner of her mouth, then looked at me for an answer.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I don’t either,” she said. “Walk me to my car.”

Raindrops the size of quarters strafed the parking lot. Tina turned as she opened her car door. “Follow me,” she said. “I owe you.” I looked into her eyes, but I couldn’t see anything there. “You’ve done the time,” she said. “You may as well do the crime.”

~

It was dark and the liquor kept moving the key away from the lock. We were both soaked by the time we got inside Tina’s 60s-era apartment. In the kitchen, she switched on the light and reached for vodka and bourbon from the cabinet. Her blond hair was dripping. She turned. The white transparent shirt stuck like cellophane. She was arrestingly beautiful. “Make us a drink,” she said. “I have to put Charlie in the crib.” I’m not sure what she saw on my face, but she said, “Don’t worry, I’m on the pill.”

“And you weren’t before?”

“I was on everything before,” she said. Her words made her suddenly uneasy or maybe embarrassed. She looked away and, drawing a deep breath, raised her hand as if to explain, then dropped her arm limply at her side. Just as quickly, she lifted her head and she was herself again. “If I don’t put him in the crib, he might, you know, sometimes in the middle of the night he crawls into bed with me, okay?” She turned. I could see the boy’s open bedroom door, his bed, and the crib against the wall.

“Who’s been with him? He’s been here alone, hasn’t he?”

Tina sort of lunged for me. Suddenly her mouth was on mine, her body pressed hard against me. “How’s that?” she said, her frightened eyes darting up to mine. “Okay?” She attempted a smile. “You like that?” She waited for an answer I didn’t have. Then just as abruptly, she walked away. “No,” she said. She stopped and turned, pulling a crescent of wet hair from her cheek. “I could never do that. The sitter, she was here until twelve. I told her I’d be home at twelve. The bitch won’t wait five minutes. I’ll be right back.”

I watched as she neared his bed. She must have whispered his name because his arms levitated up toward her, yet he was still asleep. He was a big boy and the lifting was not easy. She stopped at the doorway, where the light from the kitchen slanted over the two of them. He was blonde like his mother, and his profile was hers. A beautiful kid. “I told you,” she said. “He looks like me.” She laid him in his crib.

Tina crossed from the boy’s bedroom to the other one. When she came out, it was pleasantly apparent she’d tossed the bra. Her shirt was unbuttoned half way. In one hand, she held a guitar.

“I didn’t know you played.”

“I don’t. People are always leaving things here. The place is a regular lost and found.” She offered the guitar. “How’s about that drink,” she said. I looked at her kid’s bedroom door ten feet away.

“How’s about not,” I said.

“Just one. Then a love song? One that tells a really, really big lie? One that has the word ‘forever’ in it.”

“It’s been a long day,” I said.

~

Tina’s ringtone woke me the next morning. I sat up on the sofa as she stumbled into the bathroom, the phone jammed against her ear. I must have dozed because when I opened my eyes, she was standing over me, one towel cocooned around her, another drying her hair.

“I need a serious favor,” she said. “See, I have this job interview and I’ve got to go for it.”

“Where?” I said. “What kind of job?”

“A good job,” she said.

“What about your sitter?”

“She’s a bitch. I’ve got to go to this interview.”

“At seven in the morning?” I said.

Tina dropped down onto the sofa, her hands knotted at her chin.

“You have to help me,” she said. “Look. I’m in trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I’m not in trouble now, but I’m gonna be in trouble. I’ve got to make plans and provisions for Charlie. I’ve got to do some serious groveling at the feet of my mother, see?”

“Why?”

She looked around for cigarettes, but there were none. “I got a call from this friend. They’re making a string of arrests, you know, a sting, this morning. I don’t have much time.”

“Drugs?”

“Ecstasy.”

From the kitchen window, I watched Tina’s car pull onto the street. As she drove away, I thought of how the camera imperceptibly pulls back at the end of a movie. Then she was gone.

I found the flour above the dish drain, a mixing bowl down below, and a cast iron frying pan in the oven drawer. There were eggs and milk in the refrigerator.

I sat on the sofa and stared at Charlie’s bedroom door. About eight-thirty, I heard him stirring, and a few minutes later he was singing to himself, The Wheels on the Bus. I waited until he called for his mother. And then I waited until he called for her again. He was standing in the crib when I opened the door.

“You’re not Randy,” he said.

“Do you like pancakes?” I said.

I turned on the TV. I watched him as I cooked.

Taking turns, we built a fort with wooden A-B-C blocks as we watched TV. We read a few books and watched TV. When he asked to go outside, I picked up the guitar. It was an old Yamaha, not expensive but well made. The action was too high and the intonation needed work, but the strings were fairly new and the instrument’s resonance told me that it had aged well. We sang This Old Man and Old McDonald. I affected the voice of Donald Duck as I sang Three Blind Mice, and Charlie’s eyes widened in delight. “Wait! Wait!” he said.

He slid off the sofa and sprinted into his room. He handed me a small black photo album filled with pictures of a not so sober Tina holding Charlie, taken, it appeared, at various parties. “That’s my mommy; that’s me,” he said. Then he’d turn the page. “That’s my mommy; that’s me.”

I made banana sandwiches and chicken noodle soup for lunch. We watched TV. Charlie fell asleep on the floor. I lifted him then stretched him out in his crib. He slept for a long time. And sometime between three and four that afternoon, I suddenly realized that Tina wasn’t coming back.

~

I dialed the number for The Wave. I heard a man’s voice.

“Hello, Randy?” I said.

“Who’s calling, please?”

I told him.

“Let me see if I can find Randy. Hold on.”

I held for a long time.

“I can’t seem to find him. What’s up?”

“Is Tina there?”

“Tina Talbott?”

“Yeah, is she there?”

“Can I have her call you back. She’s a little busy now. Where you calling from?”

“Her apartment, I’m calling from her place.”

“Her apartment?”

“That’s what I just said. What’s going on?”

“Good. Hold the line, please.”

There was a knock at the door. “Wait, let me check the door,” I said. “Maybe that’s her at the door.”

“Yes,” the man said. “That would be a good idea.”

Although I offered no resistance, the two police officers threw me to the ground and slammed the cuffs on me before I could speak. Then I was offered a phone call.

~

Charlie was standing on the sofa looking out the window. One of the cops held a precautionary hand at the boy’s back. The other cop sat in a kitchen chair facing me, taking notes as I answered his questions. He had taken off the cuffs when he saw that Charlie and I were the only ones in the apartment.

“That car!” Charlie shouted and pointed. “It’s on fire!”

A black cloud hovered above the gold Mercedes as Aimes shut his door. Inside the apartment, he spoke with the cops, then called the detective in charge—the guy who had answered when I phoned The Wave.

Aimes gave me the lowdown. Randy and Tina had been dealing Ecstasy. When the cops showed up at The Wave with an arrest warrant, they saw that the bar had been robbed. Randy and Tina weren’t answering the detective’s calls.

“What about the boy?” I said to Aimes. Charlie was turning the pages in the photo album, pointing, whispering his name, his mother’s.

“Well, given the result of the paternity suit, he’ll go to DSS.”

“What about Tina’s mother?”

“There is no Tina’s mother,” he said. We both looked at the kid.

The two cops were outside. One was on the cruiser phone, the other stood nearby carefully concealing the cigarette he was smoking.

“I’ll see what I can find out,” Aimes said. “Soon, they’ll need a more detailed statement from you, of course. But I don’t think you’ll have to stick around. Sometimes it takes the folks from DSS a little while to get here. They’re pretty shorthanded. I’ll stay with the kid if you need to get back home.”

I watched as Aimes padded down the steps toward the police car. Behind me, Charlie said, “That’s my mommy; that’s me.” Only he said it like a question.

~

It sounds like a clichéd country song, but it’s true. Sometimes music is the only thing to reach for when you feel you’ve got nothing else to hold onto. I picked up the Yamaha. “You want to sing something, buddy?” I said.

Charlie held his finger on a photo. He shook his head no. I watched him as I played a little, just random chords. There was no song, at least none I’d learned to play, none that spoke to the moment.

“Why do you do that?” Charlie said.

“I like the way it feels,” I said. “You want to hold it?”

He nodded then slid down from the sofa. He set the photo book at my feet. I pulled him up on my lap.

Aimes opened the door. “They got DSS on the phone again,” he said, looking down at his watch. “Someone should be here by now.”

The Yamaha’s body was too tall and thick for the boy to reach over and touch the strings, and I thought, If I had my Martin triple-aught the kid would stand a better chance.

“Is this the way it feels?” Charlie said.

“Yes,” I said.

“You can go now,” Aimes said to me, nodding at the boy. “I’ll wait on them. You’re done here.”

Charlie pushed the guitar to the side and shimmied down from my lap.

“No.” I said. “Let me show you how it feels.” I held the guitar at arm’s length and pulled him up so that he fit snugly against my chest. “Here’s what you do,” I said. “You hold the body of the guitar tight against your body. Like this.” I wedged the boy against me. “Then you play a big ole open G chord, play it full and clean. The sound inside that guitar, you see, it goes round and round, like a tornado, until the box can’t hold it, and that feeling moves through that box and into your body. It fills up your body,” I said.

A van with a city emblem on the door pulled to a stop at the curb. “Close your eyes.” I played the chord. “Do you feel it?” I said. “Do you feel those vibrations moving through you?”

“Yes,” he said. Eyes shut, he raised his face to the sunlight, resting the crown of his head against my throat. “Do it again,” he said.

I played the chord.

His eyes were still closed. “Again,” he said. I felt his small body breathing against me. I played the chord, full and clean. His face was soft, serene. “I feel it.” he said. He pressed his palm to his chest. “Here,” he whispered. “Do you feel it?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”

Nancy Gibbs’ cover story for Time’s May 30th 2011 issue had it all: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, a rich, powerful old white man is charged with raping Nafissatou Diallo, a 32-year-old African immigrant chambermaid in his $3,000 a day hotel room. You have to admit, all the elements are there. As far as story goes, it’s perfect, right? It’s so simple. Readers don’t have to think and their emotions are prefabbed.

And that’s the problem.

I received my copy on May 25th and started this story the next day. What struck me, aside from the magazine’s offensive cover (featuring a baffled pig), is how much is left out of that ‘perfect’ narrative. When I began ‘Winner Take Nothing’ I knew just one thing: The story would be a tale of misdirection and reversals, which to my mind is how most of us arrive at whatever truth we might find. My hope is that this is not a simple story. My hope is that it brings out something authentically human in readers.