I watched my wife return to the car, open the door, and sit in the driver’s seat with her feet still planted on the ground outside. I felt her watching me, as I approached and knelt down in front of her so she wouldn’t have to crane her neck to look up at me while we talked.
“Do you know what I just realized?” I steadied myself by placing my hands on the bare skin of her legs just above her knees and underneath the long, flowing material of her skirt.
“I want to respond by saying something funny or dirty about all the public sex we just got away with, but by the look in your eyes I know that I’d be wrong.” I could feel goosebumps beginning on the skin of her thighs underneath my chapped, papery hands. “What did you realize, my love?”
“I haven’t seen Lil’ Step since I got home. Where the hell is she?”
“I dropped her off at my sister’s house on my way to come pick you up from jail.” She dropped her eyes away from where they had been meeting mine, “I wasn’t sure what kind of shape you would be in, and I didn’t want her to see you bedridden and vacant-eyed, when I realized that’s how you intended to remain for a couple of days. I don’t think it would have been good for either of you. Are you mad?”
“No… of course I’m not mad. Why would I be mad? I wasn’t sure I wanted you to see me after I finally saw what I looked like in that mirror-window at the jail. That was good thinking on your part. Thank you for being so thoughtful.” I stood up slowly, and my knees popped painfully in the process. I was only thirty-six years old, but I suddenly felt as though my body was tired and twice that age.
“The only person I love more than you in this entire world is my daughter. I’m sure you know that,” she raised her head look in my direction. “She knows your home though. I think…” she hesitated, “well… I know she’s excited to see you.”
“What makes you so certain of that?” I leaned against the rear door of the car.
“She stopped asking about you after about a month of you not coming home. I think she got tired of how I would cry when I couldn’t make her understand. Fuck… I didn’t understand why you weren’t coming home, except maybe that you were getting high full-time. I did my best to explain it to her without scaring her… but I think when I would start crying she got scared anyways. She’s a smart kid, ya know? If something scares her or if she thinks something she does is upsetting to somebody, she just figures its best not to do it again.”
“Okay…. But you said that you know that she’s excited to see me. What changed?”
“Well, after I talked to you at the jail I made quick plans with my sister to keep her for a couple of days so I could figure out what to do about you. Then while she was helping me pack her bag she said, ‘I heard you talking to Steppy on the phone, mommy. Is Steppy coming home?’ Well, hell… I couldn’t help it… I love when she calls you that… and I started to laugh and cry at the same time right there in front of her.”
My wife’s daughter had started calling me ‘Steppy’ shortly after her mother and I got married. As far as I was concerned it was about the greatest nickname I had ever been given in all of my life. Sometime shortly thereafter I returned the favor by calling her ‘Little Step’… which eventually evolved into Lil’ Step as my hard northern accent adopted a more comfortable southern flavor. My proudest moment came nearly a year later, when a long-time friend of the family innocently called her by this term of endearment and was promptly informed of his mistake. She looked directly into his eyes and said firmly, “Please don’t call me that. Nobody calls me that except Steppy… and don’t let me catch you calling him Steppy either. He’s my Steppy and I’m his Lil’ Step.” That’s just how it was from that moment on.
“So what did you say?” I asked, continuing my line of questioning with my wife.
“Well, I told her that I was pretty sure that you were coming back home. I told her that I wasn’t sure if you were feeling well, though… so I hoped it was okay that I was going to take her to her aunt’s house for a couple of days until you felt better. She got pretty quiet for a couple of minutes, but she was smiling all goofy, so I asked her to spill the beans. Then she said, ‘Steppy’s in jail isn’t he?’ I told her the truth, and asked why she thought that was so funny. Do you know what she said?” My wife chuckled a little and slapped her knees.
“What smartass comment did Lil’ Step come up with?”
“She said, ‘Steppy’s probably not feeling good because he dropped the soap in jail,’ and we both laughed until we couldn’t stand it.” My wife’s laughter while she recalled this story was immediately infectious and I joined her with heaving laughter of my own. It was the first time in what felt like years that I had laughed so genuinely.
“Should we go pick her up?” My wife asked after our laughter subsided.
“I think it’s about time, don’t you?” I walked around to my side of the car and let myself in while my wife closed her door and started the car. As I slid the seatbelt over my skinny frame I asked, “Where the hell do you think that kid gets this shit?”
My wife dropped the transmission into drive and said, “Don’t look at me, buddy. She was a perfectly normal, sweet little girl before you showed up.” She pulled out from our hiding spot, and grabbed my hand out of my lap. “Despite these last couple of months, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I’m glad. Do you think we can stop and get something to drink before we leave town?” I was parched from the afternoon’s activities.
“Yeah… that’s a great idea,” she said while turning out of the park and into town. “I’m thirsty too. What are you thinking?”
“I would love some beer, and I’ll get you a bottle of wine. Head over to the liquor store on Mulberry Street.”
“You bet… but let’s wait until she’s asleep to start drinking.”
“Okay. I can do that.”
We drove to the tiny package store on Mulberry Street where my wife gave me a twenty-dollar bill, having decided that she would stay in the car due to her disheveled appearance. I got out of the car, and immediately noticed the familiar gray sedan belonging to Rhonda. I looked around the parking lot, and assumed she must be inside the small store buying her own beverages. I walked to the entrance and let myself in. The door closed quickly behind me, agitating a string of bells on the inside handle meant to alert the owner of an incoming customer. I scanned the aisles of liquor bottles to my right and the large hallway in front of the beer coolers to my left. The front of the store was empty except for me. I wandered towards the beer cooler wondering momentarily if I had been mistaken about the ownership of the gray sedan in parking lot. I finally saw what I was looking for in the very last cooler door, and opened it to retrieve a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. When I closed the cooler door I was startled by Rhonda who must have snuck quietly behind the foggy, glass door after I had opened it.
“Boo Motherfucker!” Rhonda hugged me quickly while I regained my senses.
“I thought that was your car out there, but nobody was in here when I came in.”
“Nah… I was in the back taking care of some business. What do you know?” Rhonda wasn’t really asking me anything, as it was a pretty common greeting around here. “Guess they did the same for you as they did for me, huh? Kept you a couple days in lockup and let you go after Bull told them we wasn’t doing nothing… God bless his heart.”
“They charged me with possession since I was holding the pipe when they showed up.” I responded.
“Well that sucks, but maybe it won’t stick. That’s a lot better than what Bull’s looking at, huh? Have you heard from him?” Rhonda was grinding her teeth while she talked, which was an obvious sign of being high… at least it was to me. My body began to tremble slightly under my baggy clothing, and I started to feel the familiar pains of being dope-sick.
“Yeah, but I don’t have a lot of time right now. My wife is waiting for me in the car outside. Can I call you later? We’re going to pick up my kid.” I started walking towards the wine rack close to the register at the front of the store. Rhonda grabbed my shoulder and turned me around to face her. I felt her hand reach into the loose pocket in the front of my jeans, and the cold familiar weight of the bolt stash I had traded to her over a week ago fell heavily against my leg. She patted the bulge of the bolt.
“I want the bolt back, okay youngster? But whatever is inside of it you can have. You deserve it after what we’ve been through. Call me when you can.” She walked away from me towards the door in the front of the store. With a loud jingling of bells and a brief wave to the owner who had appeared in front of the cash register, she disappeared. I continued walking towards the wine rack and picked up a bottle of sweet red wine from a local vineyard. It was one of my wife’s favorites.
I walked quietly to the register and had an awkward exchange of greetings with the owner while he rang my purchases up with his index finger. I recognized an almost unnoticeable trembling in his hand. He was grinding his teeth behind pursed lips when he gave me my total. I offered the twenty-dollar bill which he traded for two crumpled dollar bills and some change.
“You have a nice day.” The owner offered as I retrieved my beer and wine from the counter and turned around towards the exit and my lovely, forgiving, and patiently waiting wife.
“Well, I don’t know about nice… interesting maybe… but I’m starting to lose faith in the concept of nice.” I opened the door and left the store to the obnoxious sound of the ridiculous bells.
This work is the intellectual property of Jerome J. Panozzo