After burying his wife, Murphy waited two weeks,
then went back to his job. On the day he returned, Murphy took an
extra thirty minutes at lunch, and he left fifteen minutes before
five. The brothers who ran the shop where he worked had let all
the co-workers know that it would be this way. Murphy gets cut a
little slack for the next couple of weeks. Murphy will be leaving
early until he gets used to this schedule again. All of the
co-workers knew the score. They were understanding. Murphy's gonna
need some time to figure himself out, the brothers would say. Let
alone his schedule.
He did not know what to do with his extra
fifteen minutes, but Murphy decided to swing by the house and see
if Mr. & Mrs. Riley had changed anything. He figured they
would decorate the front porch and do some work on the yard. He
knew that eventually they would give the entire house a facelift.
They were old people, and Murphy figured they would do the things
that old people do to houses and yards. What old couples do, he
To get there, Murphy tried using a different
route. He had always taken a left on Sixteenth and gone up the
hill past the cemetery until he hit Lennox, where there is a
lumber company. From the crossroads at the lumber company, one can
see Green Lawn Estates, and his house was part of Green Lawn
Estates. Murphy got himself turned around on the other side of the
cemetery, though, and he had to re-run his route until he found
something familiar. There was a large church near the bottom of a
hill in Green Lawn and from that base, a cul-de-sac called Terrace
Path began. The house was in the cup of the cul-de-sac.
Murphy found the church and took his time up
Terrace Path. He enjoyed seeing the driveways and basketball hoops
and mailboxes he had not seen in a while, and he was growing
rather proud of his spontaneity until he saw the house. It seemed
smaller, but, for the most part, he saw things like they had been
before and did not notice any significant changes. He saw the
windows and he saw the blinds. He looked at the front door and he
saw the door knocker he had put up. He saw the door bell he had
put up with. He saw that the garage was open, and he quickly
looked away, looked at other things.
The green of the yard and the dead brown spot
near the tree. The chalky gravel lining the driveway. The
shrubbery. A thick hose with a sprinkler tossing crisp moisture
against the lawn and the side of the house. Holding his breath,
Murphy had completed the circle and was headed back down the
street before he looked at the garage in his rear view mirror. The
Rileys' Cadillac was parked in the dead center and there were
several boxes stacked high to the ceiling. There was writing on
the boxes. In the shadows behind a barbecue grill, Murphy saw an
old man in white shorts and black knee socks.
It was Mr. Riley.
He was waving his arms and scampered out of the
garage into the driveway. He was holding onto some papers, and
they were fluttering about in the wind.
Murphy slowed down for a moment and eyed him.
Mr. Riley kept jogging toward the street but dropped the papers.
They scattered about the yard and Murphy put his foot on the gas
pedal and did not look at the house anymore.
Aaron got home about six-fifteen and saw his
dad's car in the parking lot. It was backed into a spot, the rear
tire up on the sidewalk a little and Aaron laughed about that, and
then he felt sad. He rubbed out his cigarette in his Buick's
ashtray and tossed the butt into the grass near the pavement. It
was very muggy outside, and Aaron pulled off his shirt. He held it
up then he pressed it against his face. It was damp and sticky,
and he noticed that the Ford Garage patch was a little frayed.
Aaron laid the shirt against the hood of his car. He trusted his
neighbors and he trusted the rest of the crowd that hung around
his apartment complex. He trusted them enough to have a dry shirt,
Before heading to his building, Aaron swung by
the pool and bought a Pepsi and some crackers from the snack
machine. He said hello to some of the children and was pressured
into watching their acrobatic dives and cannonballs. He checked to
see if anyone was in the laundry room. He glanced at his car
again, and his shirt was still there. He decided to sit at an
empty picnic table and drink his soda and eat his crackers. He
watched the sun get closer and closer to the trees, just down the
Aaron figured now was one of those moments where
he should think about his dead stepmother.
Murphy had straightened up the living room
again. He had also lit a few candles and sprayed a can of Lysol.
The air smelled like potpourri and burnt wood. Aaron held back
tears and coughs as he walked in. He tossed his keys on the
television, but they fell to the floor. He stared at the bong
under his stereo shelf but paid it no mind.
"Hey, old man," Aaron said. The scent
was powerful. "The day is done."
His dad appeared from around the corner.
"Hey, pal," Murphy said. He was toweling off his hands.
"Work all right?"
Aaron nodded. There were clean carpets beneath
his tennis shoes and clean cushions on his sunken couch. He also
noticed the US Highway road sign now hanging from his bathroom
door. It caught the light just right and flashed. It winked at
Murphy watched his son's eyes. "I brought
some stuff I had lying . . . If you don't mind, that is. This is
still your apartment and all that."
Aaron shook off blank face. "No, no,
Dad." He smiled. "Like I'd turn down a stolen road
"It's got bullet holes," Murphy told
him. "It's a classic, like the book says." He coughed
and struggled to clear his throat. "Like the book says."
"Eighty-three?" Aaron asked.
"Where's that run?"
"I picked it up in Nebraska," Murphy
answered. "Me and your grandpa. Few years ago, maybe. Your
Aaron went to the sliding glass doors and
cracked them, letting in some fresh air.
"Yeah. You'll probably need some fresh air
with that stuff I sprayed, I suppose," Murphy said. "I
probably sprayed too much. I'm not very good with that shit."
"No, no, Dad. It's fine." Aaron
stretched out on the couch. "This place probably stunk,"
Aaron said, and he thought about the bong. He relaxed his eyes and
folded his arms across his stomach.
"I did buy candles," Murphy said.
"Well, you can see that. I said that, didn't I? I did go
"I bought groceries," Murphy said.
"I had some free time this afternoon and I went shopping. I
figured you could use a little more if I was going to stay a
couple of days."
"You know I can help you out, money wise .
"Thanks again, Dad." Aaron had said it
"Thank you for letting me stay,"
Murphy said. The grocery bags were on the table between the living
room and the kitchen. Aaron stopped dozing and he turned on the
television. A sitcom had finished and the credits were rolling as
the theme music played. Aaron got up and looked at the bags.
Murphy said, "I bought some peanut butter
and some white bread. Let's see." He dug through the grocery
bags. "And cigarettes, I guess."
"You've decided not to quit?" Aaron
picked up the carton and stripped it, cracking open a pack.
"They're for you," Murphy said. Aaron
slipped one between his lips and nodded, raising his eyebrows, and
then he offered his dad a Camel. "And I think I'll probably
try quitting when I get back on my feet," Murphy said.
"Thanks for the cigarettes." Aaron lit
up and sucked in the smoke. Then he let it out. He offered his dad
the lighter but Murphy shook it off, just standing there, twirling
the cigarette around in his fingers. Aaron inhaled again, then he
sniffed at his armpits.
"I also bought some bottled water,"
Murphy told him. "So you don't have to drink out of that
nasty old pitcher."
"I sort of like my nasty pitcher."
"Well, so I don't have to drink out of the
nasty old pitcher," Murphy said, and he laughed. Aaron looked
at him laughing, smiled and thought about the moment longer than
the moment itself.
"Yeah, anyway," Murphy said. He put
the cigarette back into the pack.
"Fair enough," he said, and Aaron
started digging through the bags.
"You bought Hustler?" Aaron asked.
"I don't know." Murphy pulled a glass
out of the cabinet and poured some water from a bottle. He said,
"I also did the dishes I'd dirtied . . . but I saw it there,
the Hustler and well, it was there. It's been so long since I
bought one of those things, you know. I thought it was funny. It
was kind of a funny thing, you know."
"Yeah." Aaron flipped through the
Hustler and smiled at one of the cartoons. It showed one fag
jacking off into a condom while another fag watched. The caption
read, 'I'm packing you a lunch for your first day on the job.'
"Oh yeah, I brought some things,"
Murphy said, and he started to pace.
"Maybe, you like them. I don't really
Murphy said, "From the house. Things for
your walls or something. They look bare, I thought. The
"They are pretty bare, I guess," Aaron
said, not looking up.
"Not bad, though." Murphy sat the
water on the table and pulled out another cigarette. "You've
seen the road sign. That's about it. I put it on your bathroom
"I was gonna go by the house sometime and
pick up the rest. The boxes or whatever," Murphy started. He
was twirling the cigarette in his fingers again. His fingers were
moving really fast. "So I can--"
"Dad, I've got some buddies that can . .
." Aaron put his hand on his dad's arm for a moment and felt
the hair and hot skin. The hair was prickly and rough. He pulled
away his touch and offered his dad the lighter. "We can take
care of that later. You don't worry about it. There's no need for
you to go back over there, you know?" Aaron said.
"Well, we can talk about it, though."
Murphy looked like he was sweating. He said, "Don't think
that I won't be able to talk about it, right? If you need to talk
about it, right, she was important to you, too--"
"Dad, I'm fine," Aaron assured him.
"But if you need to talk--"
"No, listen for a second." Aaron was
scanning over the Hustler again.
A woman was on a beach and her cunt looked like
a explosion. Then Aaron looked at the sliding glass doors, and
then he looked at his dad. He said, "I've got buddies that
can help me move some of that but-- Well, do you need to
Murphy took the lighter and lit his cigarette.
He paced about the room again. He blew smoke circles, and he blew
half-circles. He said, "Just little thoughts, I suppose.
That's all my head works like now. That's what I've got. I've got
these little thoughts."
"Stupid shit, Aaron." Murphy was
sweating. He wiped his forehead with his thick wrist. "Not
things that will solve anything or mean anything, I suppose,"
"Stupid things," Murphy said. "I
thought about it going to work this week. It was the first time,
this week, you know? And I thought about taking a shower here and
how you let me stay here, god bless you, and cramp your style . .
"You don't cramp my style," Aaron
said, and he laughed when he saw that his dad was closer to
laughter than he was to tears. "My friends don't give a fuck,
and I mean that." Aaron laughed some more.
"No, no, I'm serious. I'm not gonna go
cramp your style," Murphy told him. "You've got your
friends you need to be with. And that little waitress, what's her
"Shelly, that's right. She seems like a
nice one," Murphy said.
Aaron watched a commercial on the television
screen. "She's fine, I guess."
"Damn right, she's fine. You can bring her
over here, you know. I can leave--"
"Dad, it's cool. Okay?"
"Yeah. All right."
"You were talking, though." Aaron
looked away from the television and considered looking his dad in
the eyes. Aaron said, "You were saying about stupid
"Stupid things or something . . ."
Murphy pulled the cigarette away from his mouth
and he looked at his hands for a long time. "That's right . .
. Stupid things, though. What I was talking about. Taking a shower
here, you know, on Monday before that first day back, right?"
Murphy blew smoke from his nose. "I sat at my chair and it
was my office and all. It was our annual July sale and it was
hectic as all hell, as it is. But it was like my skin was
different and the only way I could think of it was how I took the
shower over here. My surroundings before I went to work were
different, maybe, and it changed me or . . . well, I don't really
"I know, Dad." Aaron ashed in a
Styrofoam cup. It sizzled.
"You followed all that shit?"
"I don't follow, I guess. But I know,"
Aaron said. "If that counts."
Murphy said, "It counts." He smiled,
and then he disappeared into the bedroom for a while.
By nine, Murphy was asleep on the sunken couch
and Aaron turned off the television and left, locking the door
behind him. Shelly had called earlier to say that a few people
were over and to say that she wanted Aaron to come over. She told
him she had a surprise for him. Then the phone had rung again,
just as Aaron hung up with Shelly. It was Mr. Riley and he told
Aaron that Murphy had some mail at the house. Aaron looked at his
dad and watched him breathe, then he told Riley that he would come
by and pick up the mail.
Riley asked some questions, too. The typical
things. Aaron did not like the questions about typical things.
Aaron did not like Riley, and he could not place why.
Aaron stopped at a convenience store and bought
some Seagram's before he got to Shelly's complex. He bought a new
lighter, too. He hustled up her stairs and knocked on her door. He
tried to peer in the window but the blinds were drawn. Several
voices told him to come on in.
There was a lot of smoke in the room and the
television's volume was a little loud. WGN was running a
late-night feature, an action picture with Steven Seagal and Laura
Langley. Shelly's mom was in a recliner and her bare feet were on
a stool. Billy and Krystal were on the couch, close to each other.
Jason was on the floor. Aaron thought he saw someone else but it
was a stand-up of James Dean. He did a double-take. He sat the
Seagram's on the counter near the microwave. There were several
empty beer cans in various places. Krystal was drinking something
from a cup, and her eyes were glued to the television. Billy was
trying to hold a conversation with both Shelly's mom and Jason and
he seemed relieved when Aaron came in through the kitchen.
"Hey," Billy said. "Hey
Aaron nodded and smiled. Jason said
"hey" without getting up. Krystal nodded and took a sip.
Shelly's mom continued to talk, but her voice trailed off and she
looked up at Aaron.
"Hey there, kiddo," she said. Shelly's
mom was almost drunk, but, as always, she was polite.
"Hey there, Ms. Campbell."
"Now don't even start that Ms. Campbell
shit, Aaron," she told him. She patted Aaron on the knee.
Shelly appeared from her bedroom.
"Mom," Shelly started in.
"Who's that?" Ms. Campbell looked at
her daughter and smiled, and then she took a sip from her
Budweiser and looked at Aaron with puppy dog eyes.
"I'm sorry, Anne," Aaron said.
"That's better, kiddo." Ms. Campbell
winked at Aaron and looked at the television. She said, "My
daughter hates me, Aaron." Then she started talking at Billy
"Mom, I love you," Shelly said and
gave Aaron a hug, and he kissed her forehead. "And I think
you should stop bothering my friends before they all hate
"Your mom is the fucking bomb,
Shelly," Billy said, and he went back to something Jason was
"How's pappa?" Ms. Campbell asked,
looking at Aaron again. He seemed startled. Shelly went to the
couch and asked Krystal if she was going spend the night. There's
a fold-out bed in couch, Shelly told her.
Aaron said, "What?" He watched the
television and the scenes from the action film, but he shook free.
He looked at Ms. Campbell. "I'm sorry . . ?"
"How's your dad doing?" Ms. Campbell
Jason yelled at the screen. Billy applauded.
Aaron said, "Really, well, a lot
better." He knelt beside the recliner.
"Thanks for asking," he said.
Ms. Campbell said, "It's gotta be
tough." She offered some undivided attention between sips.
She was also nursing a cigarette. "Tough, tough
business," she repeated. Shelly smiled at Krystal and kissed
her on the forehead, and she walked across the room, hurrying in
front of the television. Jason and Billy thanked her haste.
"Yeah, I think," Aaron said. He
checked his pockets for cigarettes.
"But thanks, you know--"
"Come in here for a minute," Shelly
called at Aaron from her bedroom door. She was smiling.
"Hold on, Miss Shelly," Ms. Campbell
told her. "We're talking here."
"Don't hog my friends, Anne," Shelly
Ms. Campbell looked at her and laughed.
"Not Anne, baby."
"I'm either twenty-one, or I'm a
baby," Shelly told her.
Ms. Campbell said, "You're my twenty-one
year old baby." Ms. Campbell talked with her arms, and she
looked like she was adding up the twenty-one years in her head.
She continued, "Anne? That's something your friends call me.
That's for your friends. That one's not for you, Miss
"Don't hog my friends, Mom," Shelly
said. She snickered a little.
Krystal remembered something and got up. She
stepped over Jason and almost tripped.
"No, no, it's fine," Aaron assured
Shelly, who'd started discussing something minor with Krystal.
There was a joke on television. Jason and Billy laughed really
"Fuckin' asshole. What an asshole,"
Jason shouted at the screen.
"Guys," Shelly said. "The
neighbors, guys," she said.
Billy laughed quietly and Jason tried to find
another beer. He asked where he had put his wallet.
"It's like everything is new to him,"
Aaron told Ms. Campbell. "Again, I guess."
Ms. Campbell nodded.
"And this is one of those times in life
where he didn't need any new things," Aaron said. He stood up
and stretched out. He looked over the room like he had never seen
"Mom, you've stolen my apartment, are
"Take him, child. I think we're
finished," Ms. Campbell said. She patted Aaron's lower back.
He mouthed the words, "thanks again."
"Tell your dad I'm thinking of him,"
Ms. Campbell added.
"You know my dad?" Aaron said. He
started backing toward the bedroom and almost bumped into Krystal,
who had fixed herself a new drink. It had blue Kool-Aid and vodka.
Aaron cleared his throat. "I didn't know if you knew
him," he said.
"Well, I know you. And your dad, well . . .
us sad, middle-aged people all kind of know each other," Ms.
Campbell said. She gathered her thoughts. She looked like she was
thinking of something. She said, "So yeah, maybe."
She said, "And you know that I'm thinking
"I'm sorry about that." Shelly shut
her bedroom door and left the lights off, and Aaron sat on the
waterbed. The television from the next room seemed louder. The
bass on the soundtrack thumped against the wall. Shelly said,
"She's on a typical Campbell bender, right?
They cut her off at the sports bar. On my shift."
"It was nothing. She said, well, some good
stuff, I guess," Aaron said.
He went back and rested on his elbows. The bed
tossed. Through the dark, he could see Shelly's night stand. It
had a small reading lamp and a framed picture of her two children,
Kyle and Kelly. They were cute. Twins. As usual, Aaron leaned
forward and put the picture face down. Shelly never said she
"Did she say something important?"
Shelly asked. "She gets on these things that just don't go
anywhere, sometimes," she said.
There was an adjacent bathroom, and its light
clicked on. Shelly had stripped to only her bra and panties, and
she was a silhouette in the door frame. She slipped into a night
shirt, and Aaron admired her body, he admired the flaws.
"She's a smart lady, Shelly." Aaron pulled off his tee
shirt and kicked off his tennis shoes, but he left his jeans on.
Shelly brushed her teeth.
"She might have her moments," Shelly
mumbled over running water and through gobs of toothpaste. She
spit. "Maybe. But you don't have to live with her."
Aaron smiled even though she wasn't looking at
Shelly rinsed out her mouth and shut down the
water. "Okay, you ready?" she asked.
"Ready for the surprise, honey."
Shelly came to the bed. She left the bathroom light on, and she
was holding a wadded baggy and a small mirror. She said, "Two
Shelly sat beside Aaron. "I think there's
an expired bank card or something in the night stand," she
told him, and she began emptying the coke onto the mirror.
"You can check and I'll take care of surprise number one . .
Aaron watched her dump the coke and grinned.
"Fucking disco," he said. He went through the night
stand and found the NationsBank card. "You weren't kidding,
fucking surprise," he said.
Shelly chopped it, then she cut a couple of
lines and let Aaron take them. His eyes watered for a few seconds
and he shook out the cobwebs. It had been a while, and the dope
tasted like chalk in his throat. It was dry, and it was like
paste. He looked at Shelly and she was still smiling, beautiful
but she was staring at the overturned picture of her twins. She
was silent and dumped some more coke.
Aaron took the card and cut these lines. "I
love surprises," he said, docile. Then he stammered as if he
should say something about the picture. "I can--"
Shelly shook her head, "no," benignly,
and she pushed in a nostril. She leaned close to the mirror and
sniffed. She smiled and kissed Aaron. They did more lines and
tried making love in between. They did a few more lines.
Aaron went to shut off the bathroom light and
Shelly stashed the bag under the papers in her night stand. She
peeled off her top and slid her panties down around her feet. She
left the bra on, and she started sucking on one of Aaron's nipples
when he got back to bed.
He kissed her on the top of the head.
Later in the night, the television was still
blaring in the living room.
Aaron could not sleep anyhow, and he got out of
bed and went to turn down the volume. He opened the bedroom door
and light cracked the bedroom, and he stared at the bed and stared
at Shelly as she slept. He stared at the way her lips were and at
the way her feet were uncovered. Her toe nails were painted.
Billy and Krystal had fallen asleep together on
the couch. Aaron saw his bottle of Seagram's, opened and
half-empty, on a near-by coffee table.
Jason was passed out in the floor, and he had a
dumb look about him. Shelly's mom was not in the recliner, and it
seemed really empty without her. The balcony door was open,
though, and Aaron could see her in a lawn chair, watching the
traffic, feet on the ledge, covered with a yin-yang throw rug.
Aaron lit himself a cigarette, zipped and
buttoned his jeans and he stepped out onto the balcony. Ms.
Campbell unfolded another chair, and Aaron was going to offer her
a cigarette until he saw one between her fingers. He sat there
with her in the chilly summer night and they were silent for a
while. The highway was close, as were a couple of late night hang
All the pretty cars were quick and their
headlights swift but the sounds were muted, and it was all a
little out of sync. Ms. Campbell spoke first and Aaron thought
about how he enjoyed her voice. He thought about enjoying moments
like these. He felt safe. He thought of Shelly in the bed. Krystal
in Billy's arms. Jason like a retard.
"Shelly told me that your dad's holed up at
your apartment," Ms. Campbell said, laughing. "Never
will get rid of us, huh, kiddo?" she said.
"It's too not bad," Aaron told her,
grinning. "It is weird, though. I wish I had better words but
that's all I've got. Weird. Strange. Different."
"Well," Ms. Campbell started, coughing
up something rather nasty. "At my age, at your dad's age, we
can get a lot out of 'strange' and 'weird.' We've learned to make
do with words like that."
"Yeah," Aaron said and tapped off his
ash in Ms. Campbell's tray. "It isn't mourning, I guess. It's
just re-evaluation. I keep having to change the way I think."
"That never stops, honey," Ms.
"Yeah. If you're still alive, it's supposed
to make you stronger," Aaron said, letting the smoke go out
of his nose. "Like these bad boys," he said, motioning
to his cigarette.
Ms. Campbell said, "Don't let it give you
up, or . . . don't you give it up." One of the late-night
restaurants shut down the lights. Its large neon sign went cold.
Ms. Campbell swatted at a mosquito, she smacked against her arm.
"Whatever way I meant that to come out."
Aaron looked at her eyes, and he stared at the
bags and the lines. They were over and under. He said, "When
I was six years old, or five, or whatever it was, I figured my mom
and dad would be together forever. They divorced when I was in
sixth grade, whatever age that makes me . . ." He thought
about it for a moment but continued. "And I realized that I'd
just figured wrong. No forevers," he said.
Ms. Campbell started in but stopped, and she
adjusted the throw rug, covering up her legs.
Aaron said, "I'll assume that creating
children takes a lot of love and I'll really understand it if two
people can't make babies and stay together forever. Forever is for
something else, maybe." Aaron thought he smelled body odor on
himself but acted normal. Maybe it was Shelly, too. He said,
"I figured that his second marriage, well, that's all about
love and that'll last forever. But--"
"Honey," Ms. Campbell started.
"The word's still out, but I think I know some things. The
most important? Well, I know that you know some things. And, well
. . ." Aaron was nodding. She said, "And you know . .
He said, "I do. Sometimes freaky shit
happens. High-speed collisions, accidents, I know all that."
He said, "But forever, I don't know for sure."
"We've come a long ways, kiddo." Ms.
Campbell had a big, sad smile.
"I love your daughter, Anne."
Ms. Campbell put her hand on his knee. "She
loves you, honey."
"I don't think I'll tell her, though."
Aaron stood up and yawned. "I don't want us, me and her, to
have to worry about forever," he said.
"That may be good," Ms. Campbell said.
She put out her cigarette.
"Maybe, and it will keep me on my toes.
I'll be in love, I guess, but I'm just gonna be wary," Aaron
told her, and he bent over to give Ms. Campbell a hug. It felt
awkward and then it felt right. He started back inside.
"Stay on your toes," she told him.
"I will," Aaron said. "Don't stay
out here too long, Anne."
"I might just sleep out here, honey."
Ms. Campbell winked at him. "But I'll stay on my toes, too.
Like the book says, 'always follow your nose and always stay on
Aaron stopped and looked back onto the porch.
Ms. Campbell was watching the highway. For a moment, he followed
the car she was trailing and watched it go red. Another business
called it a night. Aaron went inside and left the sliding door
cracked behind him. He stepped over Jason and went back to the
bedroom. He stepped out of his jeans and slid under the covers,
pulling close to Shelly. He felt her breaths against his neck.
Then he turned, pulling her close, and he glanced at the night
stand before shutting his eyes. The drawer was closed. The picture
of the twins was upright. Aaron fell asleep against Shelly's
breast. Kyle and Kelly watched over them.
Josh Capps lives in Springfield, Missouri, where
he’s a creative writing student at Southwest Missouri State
University. His fiction has appeared in Type Magazine, and
he has a story forthcoming in The Moon City Review. He runs
marathons, studies film and plays basketball. His email address is