Barb Johnson worked as a carpenter in New Orleans for more than twenty years before receiving her MFA from the University of New Orleans. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Guernica, Glimmer Train, The Southern Review, and Oxford American, as well as in a number of anthologies, most recently Monday Nights. She is the author of the award-winning short story collection, More of This World or Maybe Another.
Beggars and Choosers
We’re changing the starter on the car that I told my brother, Calvin, I bought with money saved from working concession at the Blue Moon Drive-In a couple summers ago. He knows me well enough to doubt this story, of course, but he would never say as much. He’s the good twin. When we’re through fixing this thing up, he’ll get himself a license before he drives it. I’ll drive it without paper until something happens.
I want to tell him the real story, but he’s too tender-hearted. He thinks our father is dead. Anyway, who wants to hear about a father too lazy even to send a birthday card?
A while back I asked our mother how the old man died. As with most stories that would be helpful, this is one she has never told us. She said, “Don’t you worry about that, sister.” She said, “We’re better off without him.”
I don’t know about better off. I’m not talking about money or even love. I figured someone who runs off and doesn’t look back probably isn’t good with either. I have learned that my mother is not a reliable witness, though, so I began to watch her, to look for clues.
One morning while she was getting ready for work, she pulled something from her purse and put it in her top dresser drawer, then went on with getting dressed. She didn’t see me see her. That’s the key to success at our house, seeing things without being seen.
She unpinned the small gold buttons from one uniform and pinned them on another. She could get a whole set of buttons for a dollar and sew them on where they’re missing. She won’t do it, though. It’s like everything being broken proves something to her about what she’s due in this life.
I waited for her to leave so I could check the drawer. She’s always putting things in envelopes and hiding them under her lipstick tray. Always under the tray, always in that drawer, which is the opposite of hiding, I guess. Any time I find money, I leave it. I wanted letters, clues. I wanted to know the truth about things as they were. At my house, wanting anything at all, letting anyone know about it, that’s just asking to hear my mother’s sermon about how beggars can’t be choosers. Who wants to be the beggar in a story?
The envelope I found that day was the kind my mother puts money in, but when I pulled it out, it had our address on it, written in pencil, which was smudged like it rode around in a sweaty pocket for a while before it was mailed. A five-year-old postmark. On the back was an address hundreds of miles away, a crappy, nothing address, with a route and a box number. Someone lived in an even hickier place than the place we lived. Inside, there was a sheet of notebook paper, a fringe along the edge where it was pulled from its spirals. It was folded into a square, the way a kid who’d never sent a real letter might fold one. The paper was blank, but it was wrapped around a picture. On the back of the picture, also in pencil: Miss me?
On the front, a shirtless man in jeans squinted against the sun. His hair looked to be red or light brown or blonde, even. The guy was really lean, with those bumps on top of his shoulders that lean people have. Banana trees hovered nearby, casting happy, lazy shadows on the grass. Just when I thought a complete stranger had sent my mother this photo asking if she missed him, I noticed the hand on the narrow hip, fingers spread. I’ve seen it a million times. My brother stands just like that. I pulled my mother’s magnifying glass from her sewing kit and studied the man more closely. His eyes and mine were the same—a little too big with thick eyebrows over them.
Finally, I was going to know something.
I stole the photo. My mother didn’t ask about it. That would just start a conversation she’d not been having with us since the squinting man took off. I hid the picture in my algebra book, a place no one would look, not even me. Unlike my mother, I am an expert hider.
One morning while Calvin was watching cartoons, I went back to his bedroom. I pulled a roll of bills out of a hole in the fabric that covers the bottom of the box spring of his bed. That’s also where I stash the dime bags I sell behind the Blue Moon Drive-In.
Calvin is the kind of good that people can see right away. If the police walked in that room and found those dime bags and that money, they wouldn’t even think to ask my brother about it. They’d right away turn to me and say, “What do you know about this, girlie?” That’s what people see when they look at me. I’m not a bad person, but I will admit that I find it hard to follow all the rules. Who knows where I got this from? Maybe man-with-hand-on-hip.
Other things that might be inherited: shitty reading skills. Calvin and I got left back in first grade, Calvin because he couldn’t read, me because I’m his twin. I don’t blame him that I had to stay back with him, but he blames himself. He also thinks getting left back drove our father away. Like a grown man would run off because a first-grader couldn’t read. That’s what I mean about Calvin being too tender-hearted. Wouldn’t he be happy to meet a father who can’t read for shit, either, to know where the trouble came from, the real story?
I stuffed cash in my pocket and slipped out the front door while Calvin was in the kitchen getting more cereal and the cartoon sound effects were blasting. I headed for the highway just down the block. Nothing, really, in either direction. Rice fields, horse pastures, oil wells. Half a mile down, the Blue Moon, which had been closed for two years, was rotting away, though not nearly fast enough. I walked across its white shell parking lot. On a sunny day like that, it would burn your eyeballs up if you looked right at it. It’s one of the things that keeps people from studying it too closely. Good people, anyway.
There’s a caretaker’s shed behind the screen. That’s where I sell the dime bags. That’s where I keep the books I can’t bring home. I can read just fine, but I don’t like to rub it in Calvin’s face. Late at night, I read by flashlight and it’s peaceful, the oil wells banging out their ka-chunk, ka-chunk. Sometimes the guys who come for weed think they ought to get a little something extra, a little thank you for their patronage. They tell me I look hot, like that’s the key to something. I keep a switchblade in my boot to help them understand what’s what. Once people know what you’re about, they know how to act, but you’ve got to lay the groundwork.
In daylight, the parking lot is the best place to hook a ride because while the good people are pointing at something across the road as they drive by, everyone else is looking for trouble, and the Blue Moon is the place to find it.
So I stuck my thumb out. Soon enough, a guy pulled up in a beater with dual exhaust that made the car sound bigger than it was. His name was Jimmy. I knew that because Jimmy got busted for some weed I sold him. It’s pretty hard to get busted for weed, but with just the right amount of stupidity it can be done. Jimmy didn’t rat me out, so he thought I owed him a little something.
“Girl, what you doin’ out here?” This was the question Jimmy yelled over the hair band that was playing on his tricked-out sound system. He had that Owe Me look he’d been wearing since the bust. As if, I thought. I could’ve said it right out loud and Jimmy wouldn’t have heard it, but inside your head is the absolute best place to hide anything.
I told Jimmy that I was going to the bus station.
“Pretty girl like you could get into trouble hitch-hiking,” Jimmy informed me. A compliment and a threat all in one. It’s depressing how some girls go limp at the word “pretty.” How some girls would think Jimmy was looking out for them.
Jimmy’s car is an automatic, but he was pretending he had a stick shift. He put it into low gear and then high gear like we were on some mountainous terrain and not flat-ass swamp land. Every time he finished a round of low gear/high gear, he flipped his hand over, palm up. It took a few times before I realized that he was inviting me to hold hands. Like we were in junior high. I looked out the window.
The car turned away from the direction of the bus station. This was the trouble Jimmy was talking about.
Jimmy was playing air guitar and shifting and flipping his hand out to be held. The repetition made it seem urgent, like Annie Sullivan tapping secret letters into Helen Keller’s palm. I wasn’t all that interested in what Jimmy was trying to teach me, though.
“You got any wine in here?” I yelled over the music.
Jimmy looked at me. He said, “I could arrange for there to be some wine in here.”
I said, “Good, it relaxes me, you know?”
Jimmy did know. He smiled at what he knew. When we pulled up to the Pak-a-Sak, he put the car in park and went to take the key out. “Oh, leave it,” I said, tapping his hand. “I love that song!”
Jimmy left the key in, the music blasting. I watched him make his way to the cooler in the back of the store. When he squatted down to hunt for the strawberry wine, I hopped in the driver’s seat and popped it in reverse. I didn’t peel out. I didn’t hurry. That’s a mistake people make when they’re trying to get away with something: they hurry and draw attention to themselves. I pulled off like I was on my way to church. When I got on the highway, I went the speed limit.
I ditched the car at the bus station. Realizing it was there would be a little test for Jimmy. Was he listening to me at all?
I bought a ticket at a little window. I bought some Neccos from a machine. On the bus, I offered Neccos to my neighbors, who in turn offered me a toot from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. The people in front of me had chicken, the good kind that a grandmother made.
After everyone shared what they wanted to share, we all slipped back into our private selves. I put a single earbud in and listened to Gregorian Chants. The sound of all the strangers’ conversations on the bus went in the other ear. It was like the talk reached the middle of my brain and was turned into music from the Middle Ages. The Walkman was a present from Calvin last Christmas. I could’ve bought one with what I made at the Blue Moon in an evening. It took Calvin months to save the money from riding fences on our neighbor’s land and selling Christmas trees on the side of the road.
I stole the tape of Gregorian chants from my music appreciation class. The class is for the stupid kids and the bad kids, a holding tank that keeps us away from the teachers who hate us. No one ever thinks we might actually appreciate the music, but some of us do. I have learned that Gregorian chants have eight modes. Modern music has two. Like Jimmy’s exhaust system, modern music sounds like more than it is.
The bus took the milk route, stopping at so many places I lost count. It was early morning by the time we pulled into the station of my father’s little town, and I was disoriented and jittery. The bus station was like a living room set up in the back of a little store, the kind that sold the regular stuff—milk and beer—but also carried aluminum pots and pans and machetes, too. The whole place and everything outside, all of it was butt ugly. I could only imagine that my father had come here to punish himself for leaving his family.
At the counter, I bought some gum. I pulled the picture from my pocket and showed it to the clerk, an old man with suspenders and a field tan. “Do you know this guy?” I asked him. He looked at me the way people look at you when they’re deciding what you’re up to. He shook his head for longer than seemed necessary, like maybe he was listening to his brain slide back and forth inside his skull.
I knew that man-with-hand-on-hip might have left this place. Maybe he’d never stayed anywhere very long. Who knew? It isn’t the kind of question my mother would answer, that’s for sure. When you have to get your own answers, there’s always more legwork than you’d like.
In the parking lot, a lady in a long skirt, the kind that has to do with religion, asked if she could help me. Her hair rose up and up, like the steeple on a cathedral, nearer my God to Thee. I showed her the envelope with the pencil address. I didn’t give her a song and dance. I didn’t tell her a secret story. I provided a clean, biological fact: “My father,” I said.
She looked at me and made a face that said she knew all about missing fathers, then pointed down the road. “About two miles,” she said. “You’ll see the mailboxes across from the trailer park.” When she lifted her arm to point the way, she launched a cloud of fuzzy powder puff smell. I remembered to say thanks.
All the way down the road, there was nothing to look at. Some dust and a ditch with weeds. Houses that hurt my eyes, they seemed so lonely. With the fancy Gregorian chants playing, the scenery just about killed me. I came to a tree with a sign nailed to it. GET RIGHT WITH GOD, it said, as though anyone could know what that meant. Beneath the tree was a row of mailboxes, and, just like that, I had my answer: one of the boxes had my father’s name on it. It occurred to me that if it had been my mother I was looking for, and she’d gotten married again, I might never have found her. She’d have a new name and be gone for good.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to ask for directions to my father’s trailer. A couple of trailers down, a man was staring into the dark engine of a stalled car that was half in a gravel driveway and half in the road. One hand on his hip, fingers spread, his head cocked as though the silent car was about to confess its secret pain. It seemed just about right that of all the people in this place who might’ve been my father, mine would be the one with the effed up car.
The heap he was trying to heal was even more of a beater than Jimmy’s. He was wearing a Piggly Wiggly smock, this man. When he took his hand off his hip and reached under the hood, he left behind evidence: five greasy prints. Several times the hand moved from the engine to the hip, and each time it landed right where it had the time before.
I was wishing for a father like my friends’ fathers. They’re pipefitters or the men who sell things to pipefitters. They drive gigantic gasoline trucks up and down the highways. Those fathers roll up their short sleeves to show off the curves of their biceps. I call them Mr. This. Mr. That. Which is what I had always called my own father. But this father—my father—he was a man who had quit trying, his bright red Piggly Wiggly smock like a target for bad luck. My mother’s uniform is red, too. I will never work a job with a red uniform.
I watched the man go back and forth between clanking around under the hood and jumping behind the wheel to turn the key. He was not the lean man from the photograph with knobs on his shoulders. He was a puffy man trying to start a crappy car. I didn’t know what he’d been doing with the money he hadn’t been sending us, but for sure it had nothing to do with cars.
I tried to think of what to say to Mr. Piggly Wiggly, how to start the conversation. All I’d learned from my mother about talking was how to make it stop. I studied the mailboxes, the highway, the tree with its mystery sign and decided to bring my father the Good News. He looked like he could use a transformation and quick.
I borrowed my opening from those preachers with the evangelical hairdos. The ones on TV with floppy Bibles. Walked right over to the beat-up car where the man was staring into the crusty engine. “Have you heard the Word?” I asked.
“I do not need to hear the fucking Word just now,” the man said. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve. “I do not want to hear about Jesus if it’s okay with you.”
This attitude made me feel hopeful.
“There’s no need to blaspheme at me,” I told him. “A simple no thank you will do just fine.”
“Uh-huh,” he said without looking at me.
I could’ve told him who I was, I guess, but that didn’t seem like the kind of thing a daughter should have to do. Was it possible that people could make children and not be able to pick them out of a crowd?
My father clanked around a little, then lifted his head and stretched. He put one hand on his fleshy hip and swiveled side to side, arching his old man’s sore back. He had all his hair, which was light brown. That much was like the picture. I tried to study his face, but it blended into the landscape: dusty, empty, sad. He pulled the Piggly Wiggly smock off. His upper arms were flabby and soft as an old woman’s. His undershirt was pink with dark red blotches that made it look like he’d been shot.
“I could turn the key for you,” I told him. “Then you wouldn’t have to go back and forth.”
I could tell he wanted to say no, to say Scram, sister, but I could also tell he was weighing the advantages of my offer. Finally he nodded toward the open car door. “Have at it,” he said.
The dashboard was crammed with papers, bills mostly. There was a book, too, a collection of essays by Henry David Thoreau, a pencil cradled in its open pages. He was a reader, my father, maybe dyslexic, but maybe not. I felt sad for Calvin. And then I felt really good for myself. My father read Thoreau, who was my hero because he knew how to go his own way, how to follow a greater vision. When I picked up the book, the back cover came loose. Several pages followed, spilling their wisdom on the filthy seat. I leaned out the open door and studied my father. I tried to imagine what greater vision could’ve brought him to this dump.
“Sometimes there are signs,” I said. I meant to store this observation in my mind, but it pushed out like anything wanting to get born. I held up the book and wagged its pages slowly.
“Signs?” my father asked.
I wagged the book again.
“Thoreau. What a loser,” he said, which was a funny thing to hear from a man wearing a splotchy undershirt.
I pulled the book back inside the car, looked away from my father, so he wouldn’t see what was in my eyes. I concentrated all my thoughts on a puckered cigarette burn in the splitting dashboard. I wanted to pick at it, pry up the dead skin. See what was underneath.
My father tapped his wrench on the car’s body to get my attention, made a motion like turning the ignition. Come on, come on, the motion said. He wasn’t looking at me. It was like he couldn’t see me the way maybe nobody can see anybody who is close enough.
I turned the ignition and the car coughed hard, like a drunk man coming to. “Why was Thoreau a loser?” I asked, and my father heaved a sigh.
“For playing at being poor. For acting like being broke was some kind of enlightened way to be. Dreamy little fucker could’ve left out of those woods any time he wanted, but, no, he had to commune with nature.” My father wiped sweat from his face with the back of his greasy hand. He said, “Nature is for those who can’t afford to get out of it.”
I wanted to tell him I didn’t think that was the point of those essays, but he buried all his attention under the hood of the car as though that was where the problem was. I saw he and my mother were on this earth to put all their energy into hopeless, broken things, neither of them ever looking up to see what else there was.
“Jesus,” my father said when the engine wouldn’t turn over after a few more tries. “Fuckfuckfuck.” He didn’t want to be late for his Piggly Wiggly job, I guess. I went to high school with boys who blew off their Piggly Wiggly jobs every other day.
I got out of the car. I pulled the last of the roll of candy from my pocket. “Necco?” I asked. That was when he looked at me. Really looked. Squinted like there was sun in his face, but there wasn’t.
He said, “Neccos, huh? I didn’t know they still sold those things.”
“In bus stations, mostly,” I said. Which might’ve been true.
“You been to a bus station lately?”
“Near enough,” I said, and I moved from the side of the car to the front and dropped a Necco in my father’s oily hand.
He popped the wafer in his mouth. His hand went back to its spot on his hip. His head hung down a little, and he studied me out of the corner of his eye, no recognition on his face. I probably looked a lot different than I had in first grade. And maybe without Calvin I didn’t look like anything that man would know about.
“What if Thoreau wasn’t happy being a rich kid?” I asked. My father had turned his attention back to the assortment of parts under the hood. I said, “Being rich sounds great, but what if it didn’t feel great to him? What if he was just trying to find a place where he fit in?” My father did that squinting thing again.
“Is that what you’re doing?” he asked, looking over at me.
I squinted back at him. “I’m not a rich kid.”
“I meant the other,” he told me, but before I could get into it, he motioned for me to get back in the car.
In fact, I had recently begun to wonder how it was that people got away from the places they didn’t belong. It wasn’t a thing I could tell Calvin because Calvin loves the world and the world loves Calvin. And my mother had settled into her place in the Beggar camp. But this man with his red smock and his book and his very bad attitude, anyone could see he had run up against a lot of uncertainty. He knew there was more out there, and it dogged him.
He bent over the engine, watching me through the gap at the bottom of the raised hood. The way he was looking at me, I thought he was going to say something at last, maybe the kind of thing a man in a movie would say to his long-lost daughter. You look just like your mother when she was your age. Anything. Either he had no idea who I was, or he was a good hider just like me. Whatever he was thinking, he kept it between his ears.
I turned the key again, spanking the door of the beater. Giddyup. The hot, Bondoed body rattled with the misfiring engine, then went still in the middle of the dirt road.
My father straightened up and wiped his face with the hem of his undershirt, showing a soft belly, like something a predator would bite into on one of those programs about wildlife. “Aren’t you late for church or something?” he asked. Go away, was what he really meant. I want to be alone with my crappy car. My smock. My stinking abandonment of my children. Who wouldn’t want to be alone with those things?
I said, “I believe I’m in the Church of the Broke-Ass Car right this minute.”
My father found this funny. He laughed a little then rubbed at one of his eyes. I do the same thing when I laugh or I’m about to laugh. I had maybe just done it because my father looked at me with something different on his face. He knew. He knew exactly who I was and leaned under the hood to hide that knowledge. He really went at it then, wrenches clanking, lots of swearing.
When I turned the key, the engine sputtered, caught, coughed. It coughed harder when I gave it some gas, like it wanted to die and be done with it all, but I wouldn’t let it.
Once the engine was going, my father sprang out from beneath the hood, and I could see that younger man, the one with the knobs on his shoulders, the happy, hopeful man in the photograph. “Ha!” he yelled, punching the air, smiling. “Ha!” He looked right at me, pointed: you, you, you. For a second I thought he was going to say my name.
He dropped the hood, and POW! it slammed shut. I hoped he would say, “Let’s go for a drive, kid. Let’s go see what’s out there.” What he actually said was, “Keep giving it gas, would you? I’ll give you a ride back to the bus station after I clean up.”
Before I could say that I didn’t want to be dropped off at the bus station, he turned back toward his trailer, where he disappeared into the dark interior.
I counted to thirty, then put the car in gear. I didn’t peel out. I didn’t hurry down that gravel lane. I passed the entrance to the long, empty interstate highway and headed toward the road that runs along the Gulf of Mexico. They both go the same place, but the scenery along the Gulf shifts from dirt to clay to sand. Palm trees everywhere, the water glittering like something worth looking at.
It might be that I won’t get to keep this car for long, that my father has phoned it in, and Calvin, while driving out to his new job with his new license, will get pulled over and go to jail because he would never point a finger at me. It might be that Thoreau was a loser, that Calvin and I are meant to be beggars. But it also might be that my father will show up here one day, his red smock long gone. If he ever looks up from what he’s doing, that is. If he was listening to me at all.