I ran into Dawn Reedy at the Big Lots in Beckley. We’d dated when we were teenagers but I hadn’t seen her since high school. I was buying canned pasta. I was buying fish sticks and bread. I’d just blown my nose into a napkin and stuffed the napkin into my pocket. It all sounded louder than I’d intended. Dawn was a lawyer with two kids, both young—one on hip, the other holding her hand. I saw them and recognized her and tried to bolt but she said, “Hey,” and waved so I smiled and changed direction. Adulthood is mostly lies and mistakes until the lies and mistakes become something else. I don’t know how I knew she was a lawyer. This was dinnertime but I’d just woken up. I was hungover and pretty sick with dope.
She said, “I thought that was you,” but more like handling her kids.
She wore a camelhair jacket or mohair or something in beige I couldn’t name. It looked like someone put a needle in her neck, removed all the fun, and replaced it with responsibility. I was jealous and wanted the same shot.
I breathed and imagined success and presented my face as such.
Dawn didn’t wait for me to start lying.
She said, “My mom watches the kids,” and paused. “I pick them up after work.” She said, “Work is up in Charleston. Our office. It’s near the DMV.”
“How is your mom?” I said.
“Still my mom,” she said, hiking one kid higher on her hip.
The older kid said, “Can I get this?” and held up an unblown punching balloon. His hair was long and styled with bangs like the wing of a blonde bird.
Dawn said, “What?” Then, “No.” Then, “Don’t touch things.”
The kid returned the balloon to the shelf without complaint.
I coughed into my hand and the cough sounded like a drowning victim.
She said, “You okay?”
“Wrong pipe,” I said, straightening the inside of my throat.
I picked up the punching balloon.
I said, “I could buy this for him.”
She said, “He’d kill his little brother.”
I put the balloon back. I mostly said stupid shit when I wanted to say the opposite. Trying to buy a balloon for a small child whose parent can obviously afford balloons and has rejected balloons is a rude offer. It was another reason to tilt my head to sobriety.
Dawn said, “But thank you. That’s sweet.”
I looked at the kid and nodded an apology.
The kid approached tears but still quiet.
The little one snuggled in, almost asleep.
I was trying to get clean and wanted to become a med tech. One of my pals moved to Pittsburgh to study nursing but I knew I wasn’t that smart.
Some of this involved the community college and some involved still doing drugs.
Dawn said, “Don’t have kids,” and faked a smile.
I nodded, not considering kids.
I probably wasn’t going to eat the fish sticks I clutched to my chest.
I liked to pick at the canned pasta, even if it stayed out on the counter.
She said, “You ever see…?” then she couldn’t think of a name we shared.
Dawn used to be a cheerleader. I wrestled but it was different. I rode a ten-speed bike I’d pieced together from parts. Dawn knew she’d get a car for her next birthday. She drank beer in bottles. I stole rotgut gin from the bar where my mom worked and mixed it with Doctor Thunder, Wal-Mart’s version of Dr. Pepper.
Once the games finished, after she ditched her cheerleading outfit for jeans and a rock t‑shirt, Dawn reached out to older kids to find ways to get loaded.
If she couldn’t score oxy or xanax or molly or weed, she huffed glue.
If no glue, she huffed gas.
If no gas, she huffed paint.
When she slurred, it was a love affair, and I put my ear into whatever she said because her words always sounded better than mine, the way she owned everything by telling.
When she huffed paint, a goatee of color formed around her mouth and chin. I never minded the paint on my shirt, the paint on my neck. Sometimes she fell asleep while we kissed and woke up and said, “Why aren’t you kissing me?”
I never wanted to be popular, let alone date a cheerleader, but I won on the mat and people I’d never noticed suddenly noticed.
It was like money you couldn’t spend, a bottle without an opener.
At the beginning of wrestling season, we attended the Sadie Hawkins dance, the one where the girl asks the boy. Dawn’s mom dropped her off. I lived close enough to the school and walked backroads to the tree where we planned to meet. My mom worked nights and drank. My dad lived in Alaska on a fishing boat. I’d bought a flower at the gas station, a single white rose. Dawn said, “How sweet!” She wore an oversized flannel she belted like a dress and checkered leather boots that looked expensive. I wore what I always wore.
Deeper in the trees, in a patch of dying jaggers and dead berry bushes, Dawn reached around until she found two six packs of beer. She dusted off the bottles and pulled a joint from her purse. We smoked. We drank. The beer was so warm. The taste broke my tongue so I kept swallowing like my mouth was a tunnel. We stopped to kiss then smoked and drank some more. Alcohol helped with weight loss, how it dehydrated you. The whole wrestling team loved to get loaded and run around in plastic garbage bags, sweating, trying to shrink without shrinking. I hoped I didn’t get the munchies. The munchies were a problem when I smoked. I often dreamed of corn chips and woke up with crumbs on my tongue.
Dawn said, “I can read your mind.”
“You won’t get the munchies.”
“I will,” I said, but I hit the joint again.
Dawn apologized for the temperature of the beer.
She said, “I tried to get my mom to stop for ice.”
“We should have gone to my place,” I said, knowing my mom always kept ice and mixers and occasionally eggs but not much else.
I sometimes lived on ice water and eggs.
I sometimes stirred sours mix into my ice water and called it lemonade.
Dawn said, “That woman is the devil,” about her mom, but not seriously, or teenage seriously, or maybe seriously, while I nodded and drank and smoked and tried not to dream about French fries dipped in milkshakes from McDonalds.
I said, “I dig your mom.”
She said, “You want to bang her. All the boys do.”
I didn’t want to bang her mom. I’d just learned to bang Dawn. The pressure of banging an older woman, one with money and confidence, ached in my stomach until I remembered it wasn’t my responsibility. I worried Dawn thought I fucked poorly.
I said, “Your mom is pretty.”
Dawn said, “Try living with her.”
I pictured Dawn’s kitchen, her refrigerator. I wanted a refrigerator like that, not brushed nickel or whatever the color, but one with Boar’s Head lunchmeat and leftover soup and cheese in blocks and cheese by the slice. I would have eaten it all and wrestled heavyweight and I would have been happy to lose every match.
Food matters when you’re poor.
A sandwich is a dream.
Dawn had two older sisters. One had an abortion when she was a senior. The other one attended rehab down in Florida and their family called it college. Her dad never looked at me. Once he said, “You the guy?” and I shrugged, embarrassed. He walked off before I could say something humiliating. But her mom fed me and gave me hugs and asked about wrestling, if I hoped to get a scholarship. I shrugged and thanked her and waited until she slept so I could go down on her daughter. Dawn pulled a pillow over her face when she came, muffling the sounds.
Once, after sex, she said, “We fuck like adults.”
I hoped she was right and I trusted her experience.
It was weird growing up around kids with rich parents, kids who could pass through mistakes and phases without consequences, because their future always looked like a starting line. I only knew how to shoot and take down and force boys onto their backs, hoping I made it cool, hoping I looked less poor because I finished on top.
Standing in Big Lots, even with her kids, even exhausted from arguing cases, Dawn looked rich as a castle, a place you’d see in a picture but never visit.
I coughed again, less wet.
I didn’t care that she had stuff.
I cared that I didn’t.
She said, “It took a couple seconds but I was pretty sure that was you,” a repeat from earlier.
“It’s me,” I said, thinking of a lie, some career I could pull off.
Once, later in high school, after we’d drifted, she said, “You need to bury my soul.”
I said, “What’s that mean?” but sweetly, intimidated by her even when she sounded the opposite of intimidating, even when she sounded like she’d matured in reverse, even when she wanted me to love her or tell her she deserved love. I hugged her and wanted her to kiss my neck.
Now she looked at her kid, the older one, still eyeing the balloon.
I looked towards the door, planning.
I turned back to Dawn.
The kid looked away.
I said, “My fish sticks are probably melting.”
She said, “You still eat fish sticks?” sounding shocked and grossed out, then caught herself and added, “This one,” meaning the sleeping kid, “loves fish sticks.”
I said, “I didn’t think I’d see you here,” which was not an answer.
She said, “I didn’t think I’d see you here either,” but friendly.
Near the flour and the off-brand sugar she looked like a successful lawyer too busy to consider a drink, let alone a bag of glue. But she looked the same too. A lot of guys took what they learned from wrestling and headed to college. I took what I learned on the mat and headed to parties and got loaded and sometimes took down men who were years older than me then bashed their faces until they quit saying whatever was meant to be an insult.
You can’t imagine how many rich young people love drugs and live in dumpy apartments and need to be punched in the head.
Dawn said, “You were a really good wrestler.”
I said, “You still cheer?”
She laughed and caught the laugh to not startle her son.
“Yes,” she said, “I pompom.” She said, “In the mirror.” She said, “Cheering for myself.”
I said, “I’m glad your mom is doing well.”
She adjusted herself while adjusting the sleeping kid. She looked at the shelves and picked up the balloon and handed it to the older son who muffled his excitement to not wake his little brother. She shooed him towards the front of the store.
She said, “Meet mommy at the counter. I’ll be there in a second,” and waited while he walked away, clutching the punching balloon. Then she turned back to me and said, “It’s good to see you,” and made her face curious.
I knew not to speak.
Then she said, “Honestly, I heard you were dead. This was a while ago, I think.” She paused. She said, “I may have heard it a couple times. I may have heard you killed someone.” She said, “I didn’t believe it.”
I replayed her lines in my head, my head which was filled with needs and dreams and leftover whiskey and a couple lines of crushed oxycontin. I looked at her purse, dangling, and imagined all the textbooks I could afford. Then I imagined drugs. Then textbooks.
Then I stopped imagining.
I wanted to help people.
No one anywhere, not high school or the community college or my drug addict pals or even my parents, mentioned that helping was a way to go into the world.
Now I wanted to be a med tech, to lift and comfort.
I was sporting a Nirvana t‑shirt, jeans, and old Converse sneakers.
I dressed like I forgot to grow up.
Dawn adjusted the collar on her coat.
I touched the snot rag in my pocket.
Dead would have been more expensive but I would have paid for it if I had the money.
She said, “I forget who I heard it from, but it was definitely dead.” She said, “I’m glad you’re not.” She said, “I never believed you killed someone.” She clutched the back of her sleeping kid’s head with great love or maybe great protection, which made me feel worse. She said, “But whoever said it made it sound exciting. The dead part.”
“It’s not,” I said.
“Dead. It’s not exciting.”
She said, “Where do people even go around here?”
I think she meant for drinks. I think she may have been asking other things. I think she may have thought I was still a good fuck or remembered that I listened more than I talked. I looked at her purse again, dangling, and imagined all the textbooks I could afford. Then I imagined drugs. Then textbooks. Again and again, every millisecond. It’s an addiction, imagining money. But also survival. So I stopped imagining. I bet her husband came home exhausted and furious and never wanted to talk, let alone listen.
I said, “Are you really a lawyer?”
She said, “Really am,” and smiled.
I said, “Then why are you shopping at Big Lots?”
She looked like I’d said something mean and I had.
I’d hoped to hurt her then thought of all the people I’d hurt.
The thing with hurting people is it’s always too many or not enough.
I ran into lots of people when I was failing at being sober, which is much different than being an addict who doesn’t realize their addiction. I ran into those people less once I became a med tech and moved away but I came home often, mostly to help my mom who decided she wanted to get sober after forty years of drinking. I never minded seeing the people who’d fallen or who had lost what little they started with, mostly because I saw my face on their faces and wanted to provide comfort and some respect.
Prayers don’t work until they do.
The thing about wrestling is the rules, which look a lot like facts as you get older.
The rest is blurry and you usually have to cheat.
I’m still not religious.
Sometimes, I kiss the dead on their foreheads.
Sometimes, I hold their loved ones up when they hear the bad news.
Dave Newman is the author of seven books, most recently The Same Dead Songs. He lives in Trafford, PA, the last town in the Electric Valley, and teaches at Pitt-Greensburg.