The day Lynette asked me to be her tenant, we’d worked together for some unlucky number of shifts. It was traditional work—tag sewing, button wedging, seam finishing and such. I didn’t smoke, but at the factory I’d often take smoke breaks to be out in the clean air. I’d approach smoking coworkers, clad in the denim-blue jumpsuits that management demanded we wear, and I’d ask their names and who they banked with, as we stood there on the asphalt and watched the conifers on the edge of the parking lot. To the east was a belt of highway, and to the west was an entrenched creek. I was new around town, I told my coworkers. Who did they use for banking? Some said Wells Fargo. Others, skeptical, said some version of, “I don’t trust them goddamn banks, counting money in their towers,” or else, “I don’t trust them goddamn banks on account of they took my sister’s house, leaving her with nothing,” statements like that. Eventually, I sensed that people became annoyed with my questions about banking, or else suspicious, and so they started taking their smoke breaks closer to the creek, hoping to avoid me.
In truth, when I asked after banks, I was introducing myself. I was nervous in my new home. But then one day Lynette introduced herself, and I wasn’t so nervous around her. She had a way of making one feel at ease. “Name’s Lynette,” she said to me on my third day of work. “God gave me this name,” she added. We were eating in the factory cafeteria, the sky outside a gray lure. “I ain’t have no mother, no father,” she said, probing her mashed potatoes with a spork. “I raised my own self up and it was God who gave me the name of Lynette, basically.” I told her that was interesting, though I wasn’t a believer myself. She laughed and said it was stupid of me not to believe when there was so much evidence that God existed, and I replied, “I guess it is strange of me when you frame it like that.” After a moment of silence, I asked her who she banked with. She stored all her money in jars, she said, and that was something I noted in my mind.
Two days later, Lynette asked that I live with her. I didn’t have anywhere else to go—I was staying at the Sunny Days Inn near the airport. In fact, I’d often sigh as I clocked out and say, “Well, guess I’d better head back to the Sunny Days,” a habit that I could tell was beginning to irritate people.
“What’s that you’re saying?” I yelled at Lynette. I could hardly hear over the industrial sewing machine that stitched the company’s tag onto the ass of each jean. The jeans themselves were assembled in southern Italy. Our factory added the accents.
“I want you to live with me,” Lynette shouted.
“You’re saying you want me to live with you?”
Helmet on, she bent over. She was in her mid-fifties, white of skin, short of hair. Generally speaking, she was obese. “Not in any freakish little un-Christian way, Robinson, if that’s where your mind is.” I knew our supervisor was watching, a cheerless middle-aged man named Jason. Jason liked to tell us, “I see everything. Just when you think I can’t see you, that’s when I’m the closest.”
“Here’s the main thing,” Lynette said into my ear, “every stupid beautiful day of work in this-here jeans factory, as you clock out, Robinson, you say so that everyone around you can hear it, ‘Well, I’d better head back to the Sunny Days.’” Quoting me, she made her voice woefully deep. “I have to say, Robinson, I’m sick of that self-pitying crap. So is everyone else, if you have to know, and they’re sick of you coming up to them and asking who their bank is. I’ll go ahead and tell you that much. You come on down and live with me, now, before you start causing problems.”
“Okay,” I said, agreeing mostly because I was tired of trying to be heard over the machine. I knew I could be annoying, so what she said didn’t hurt very much.
Then I spent my final night in the Sunny Days Inn. I fell asleep around nine, trying to pray. It didn’t work. “Forget me please,” I prayed to the supposed divine, but I was confident there was no God. There was a man (me) in an empty room, and there were the despairing words common to prayer, but there was silence where one of the many (infinite in number) voices of God should have replied—trembling that one of His subjects should pray to be beyond Him—“That just isn’t on the table, Robinson,” or some similar threat that, though I might never be forgotten, I would never be alone. But again there was nothing. He rejected even my plea to be rejected, a tyrant in His silence, omnipotent in His absence. So it was out of this doubled sense of rejection that I then turned on the hotel radio. As I did each night, I listened to a local show on 106.6 FM (the Q), called “The DJ Hank Hour.” It was called this despite the fact that it lasted for four or five hours in total.
I could hear the motorcycle engines growling to life in front of Flesh, the strip club that operated next door. These engines roared repeatedly—and sometimes (as now) the bikers would key their bikes on and off and ride in circles around Flesh’s parking lot, braking and switching the engine off and then revving it again in a kind of stubborn and angry game whose rules were unclear even to them, a game the aim of which seemed to be nothing beyond prolonging the game through the bikers provoking each other into more engine-revving and braking and more circling of the lot. And so to drown out those bikers, I turned up DJ Hank. “Hey there, sinners,” he was saying, “before I start playing some of that music you all love, I wanted to give you all some of my investment tips,” and then he proceeded to give investment advice and (to be honest, fairly common-sense) tips for saving money, such as placing your money in a savings account. As always, he interspersed his tips with memories of his infant son, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome gone now for two years. Also as always, he talked so long that he neglected to play a song before having to go to break, and then when he did play a song it was the same song he would play each night—“Take Me Home Immediately Please, Jesus”—as soon as he quit talking long enough to play a song (always saying, almost without fail before he played the song, “Here’s a new one for you,” never making it clear whether he was joking or not—whether he did or did not realize it was the same song he had played every hour of every other evening). And then anyway, I tried to fall asleep but it wasn’t any use. I kept thinking of the past, and not only of the events of the past, but of the landscape I had loved and grown up in.
As the bikers circled around the parking lot of the strip club, I imagined that past. I thought of the days I would end in Dani’s trailer, removing my uniform, dutiful in the bedroom, carting her father to dialysis before daybreak. I worked in warehouse logistics, saying “supply chain” throughout the day softly and melodically. I would cross the catwalk as the wind blew my long silken hair through the inset windows the company had been legally obliged to install, and which they had left cracked after a forklift operator fainted one afternoon in late May. The wheels of the forklift had crushed crates of toy construction sets and then a lawsuit had set irascibly into motion, sort of like the wheels of that very forklift which had done the crushing. I remembered the forklifter who finally testified in court two months afterward saying, “One second I’m behind the wheel, operating the forklift, and I’m sweating like a swine in my jumpsuit and the next minute—or second, sorry—I’m passed out and crashing into these well-packed boxes ready to be shipped out to California for the busiest toy-buying season, outside, of course, of Christmastime. Late spring and early summer are going to be your biggest toy-buying season, on account of kids hustling for distraction in the empty drift of the summer, the long-feeling—at first, of course, until it’s done—the long-feeling heat of that summer season. Everyone starts to hate that heat, but one day it’s gone and they wish it was back.” And so, because of this testimony, the logistics firm was mandated to install windows that admitted the wind, which would ruffle my hair as I crossed the catwalk, feeling a tiny bit like a supermodel as the hair twined at the base of my neck, and while I would never say this to anyone else, I would sometimes say aloud to myself, as I carried my clipboard and crossed the catwalk, “Robinson, you’re like a supermodel right now,” careful not to utter it loudly enough that another of the managers crossing that catwalk would hear.
Back then, I would often rob people in Dani’s trailer park—it was a large park—and I’d mostly approach them wearing a stocking over my face. I’d pitch my voice into a kind of whispery squeal as I shook a pocketknife in their direction, asking for cash. Sometimes, when I didn’t feel like talking, I’d simply break in and take what I could. Once I got caught in the trailer of some couple, and when they asked what I was doing there—understandably upset—I said I’d been sent by the landlord. “Okay, well why you wearin’ lady garments on your face?” the husband asked as I set down the television, and I said it was because I was ugly. “God gave me a crazy face,” I said, using my piggish whisper-squeal. “This is what I wear.”
I robbed to relieve stress rather than out of any melancholy. Income-wise, for a single male, I did all right. Though at the time I believed I would marry Dani and she would move into my apartment and I would no longer be tempted to rob.
Then, one week, in the thick of the Florida spring, my father spread the lie that I was no good. He was the owner-operator of a used furniture depot. He was also well known as the aggrieved star of its commercials. In these ad spots, he’d wear a loose fawn suit for the camera and spread his arms, his words undermining this gesture of welcome. “You come on down to Pa Robinson’s Refurbished Furniture Depot or I promise you’re going to be sorry,” he said in one commercial, standing in front of a lamp standard and vaguely threatening the audience with some punishment to come if they didn’t visit his shop. His commercials would flash in strung-out colors during daytime television, interrupting applause-heavy talk shows and news segments about health studies. “You come on down today or something bad’s going to happen,” he announced in one of his more frustration-laced ads. Ever since starting the store and naming it what it was named, he had been called Pa—“There goes Pa,” folks would say about my father as he drove in his low-slung Cadillac, scheming and greeting bystanders, puffing his cigar and tipping ash out the window—but his given name was Frank. It’d been bewildering at first, this father called Pa across the region but as I aged, I realized “Pa” was nothing but a couple of letters, a sound rather than a sign. It was his way of breaking the consumer, returning him or her to a newborn episode of dumb, lowing noise: that cattle-stare in the mirror, the bare connection between parent and tantrum and need. “Our perfect customer is needy,” he would tell his salesmen. “He is full of need.” He thought of his generic customer as male, but most visitors to his store were women, wives or girlfriends entrusted with the budget for a floor lamp after, say, their old one broke in an argument, or for a sofa after a long night of board games with friends and laughter and wine and then the inevitable spill. Myself, I called my father Dad, although after a while speech between us was uncommon enough that I had no name for him anymore.
The county had a sense of respect for him. He had done something with his life. He appeared on TV, even if it was the TV that played as women folded clothes and layabout sons rested on the sofa. Even that TV was still seen. It was still something.
So yes, one day Pa spread a rumor. “He’s no good, that son of mine,” he started to gossip. The first step in my exile was this: he appeared at the warehouse and started telling the foremen and managers, “I want to warn you about that son of mine. Boy’s no good. Robs and cheats,”—he pronounced robs as “rubs”—“lies and scams. Doesn’t have a conscience to speak of”—he pronounced conscience as “conscious.”
In the wake of my father’s words, I was fired. I walked to work the next morning, carrying my Tupperware lunch. I waved to the warehouse pickers spilling out of trucks, buttoning their jumpsuits in the central-Florida heat. My manager stood on the grass frontage, clutching a clipboard to his stomach as trucks sought the loading dock. “Hey there,” I said.
“Can’t let you in, Robinson, after the rumors I’ve been hearing,” he said, scratching at his beard.
“Well, this is where I work,” I said. “You can’t stop someone from going to work.” I had always gone to work. Why would they keep me from being useful?
“Rumor is you’re no good, and I can’t have someone like that on premises,” said my supervisor, “someone who has no conscious, rumor goes. Someone who robs and steals.”
“But this is where I work,” I tried to explain. It was when he summoned security on his two-way radio that I left, walking two miles to my apartment complex. I stood in the parking lot and faced the so-called medical condos opposite, across four lanes of highway. These medical condos—no one was sure what a medical condo was, but that’s what the developer called them—were a sun-drenched tower of tempered glass and steel. I had seen these condos thousands of times, but now that I was unemployed, it struck me that I could cross the road (juking, of course, to avoid the cars and minivans and log trucks) and enter the tower. Or I could rob the patients struggling through the acre of pavement, the old bodies creaking on the dark tar, seeking their specialist in a flicker of sun, and yet (I imagined) smiling once they reached the complex’s crisp interior. Sort of like Dani’s father, when I would take him to dialysis and he would smile as we waited for the technician and say, “Well, this is what you have to look forward to, Robinson,” and then he’d slap the arm of his plastic seat, bouncing a little as he issued the slap, smiling despite the fear and hatred I knew he felt for dialysis.
Then I pulled my phone from my pocket, hoping to call Dani, but a voicemail from her was already waiting. Beginning to listen, I felt excited: maybe she would say something nice in my time of excision. “Rumor is you ain’t got a conscious, baby,” she said, “About ten minutes ago, I got a knock at my door and there’s that father of yours, in his old-fashioned brown suit, wringing his little old hands. ‘That son of mine is no good, Dani,’ he told me. I’d never met him before, but he somehow knew who I was, Robinson. And anyway, there is a tone a man can have where you know he is telling the truth. It is the tone of faithfulness, of not wanting to fail you, of being too full of the truth and now it is spilling out of his mouth. Like he didn’t want to tell me but he felt it was his duty, and there is something noble about that, something like the knights in the Middle Ages you hear about. How the folks in the Middle Ages lost their faith in the church clergy and so they put it, faith, in those beautiful shiny knights instead. The foundation of love is faith, Robinson, not trust. Trust comes after faith. And if you ain’t got no conscious, out there robbing and stealing like your father promises you are, well, I can’t love you. Ain’t no one can love you. But this accountant I met, Jerry—I’ve been meaning to tell you that I met him a couple weeks ago at one of these dance clubs, and we’ve been text messaging—he’s nothing but faith, this man. Jerry prepares taxes for a living. He reads the stocks every morning. He’s regular, he’s good. He’s the kind of love I need. So I’ve decided I’m going to be with him now,” she said, causing me to crumple, to wither and dry out, and threaten to fade there as I heard her voicemail, standing in the lot of my apartment building, facing a suite of medical condos and imagining the greasy tax-form fingers of that accountant brushing the sex of someone I would love even when I was dust.
So exiled, I robbed my way up the state, breaking into tract homes, slashing the mesh of screened-in porches and pools. Once, I entered a Spanish-style mansion that gave onto a lake. I opened the rosewood door, sneaking in as the family watched football around a couch, the father and firstborn son winching upward and clapping as their team managed an interception. “Interception!” they shouted, “Interception!” And in the chaos that rippled outward, the family Labrador climbing onto the couch and whining as the father and son applauded, the mother trying to convince the dog to get off the couch, the football player on TV dancing in the endzone, invincible and alone—in the chaos that followed, I stole a credit card from the marble counter and then left, emerging into a cul-de-sac and happening upon someone’s unlocked Mazda. Its model year was newer than the cars I liked. The younger a car was, the more learned its security system. But once I got an idea, I couldn’t fight it. I pried the wire bundles loose from the steering column, brushed the starter to the ignition and battery, causing sparks to leap from the unraveled ends, and then the engine was on. And I drove. I drove for fifty miles and abandoned the car near Panama City, freaked out by its GPS. I liked stealing Mazdas—I knew where to find the wires—but the technology on that one was fearsome, the GPS speaking to me every few minutes, asking, “Where to?” in a friendly enough way, and then I would try to turn it off. But it would always turn itself back on after a few more miles, the generic male voice of the device asking again as it awoke, “Where to?” It was just terrifying. I couldn’t turn it off. So I got out and walked up the interstate, sometimes hopping the guardrail, passing meadows and bored-looking horses, sometimes striding up the rumble strip. Then I reached the Georgia border, got my job at the jeans factory, and moved in to the hotel.
Which was where I was lying the night before I moved in with Lynette.
The rumble of bike engines died away, and I could cease thinking of the past and sleep. I could cease dreaming—that was what it was, a kind of conscious dream—of the spread of home, the palm fronds billowing in the wind, the gulls floating over Tamiami as I drove to see my grandmother in Tampa, the wetland cattails and the busy gas stations. I heard DJ Hank as I faded, his voice sending me to sleep. He was saying: “The thing about investing in real estate that most people don’t realize is you have to have patience. You can’t go into it expecting to cash out next year and make a million bucks. Now—and believe me, I’m about ready to play some music for you all, but I’d like to say a bit more about this—I remember with my first property, I had this tax assessor coming by, and this was a mean guy, this assessor, riding up in his Harley Davidson, wearing a tight little Hawaiian. (Hawaiian shirt, I mean.) And I’m young, maybe thirty-five years old, and I’m frightened as you-know-what, and my wife rests her hand on my arm and she says, ‘DJ Hank’—of course, she calls me Hank, not DJ Hank, but whatever—‘DJ Hank,’ she says, ‘I’ve seen you deal with your firstborn son’s death from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome’—and I know the station doesn’t want me talking about my firstborn anymore because they say it’s depressing to people, but whatever—and she says, ‘I’ve seen you deal with that and the feeling of it and the feeling like nothing in the wake of it, DJ Hank, so you can deal with some mean old you-know-what tax assessor.’ And you know what? She was right. Like always, she was right. But she’s always right,” he said. His voice helped me find rest.
The next afternoon I left the Sunny Days. I signed my bill and was given a complimentary pen by the front desk, its side—that is, the side of the pen—advertising a restaurant called Carraba’s. “The Sunny Days chain was acquired by the holding firm that runs Carraba’s,” the desk attendant explained, a wiry man who had salt-and-pepper hair. He continued, “Corporate said, ‘It’s time to phase out the Sunny Days pens,’ so that’s why the side of the pen says what it says. The Sunny Days pens—those were beautiful little pens. I used to go home and hand a fresh one to my daughter to draw with and that made everything okay, to see her lying on the carpet and drawing, spending that hour with her before bed (always too fast, that hour), the ceiling fan spinning and the TV talking, cheap glass of beer in my hand. Of course, that was years ago.”
I walked the interstate to Lynette’s chain-link precinct. During the trek, one truck driver shoved his door open, penis tufting his blue jeans. Because of my long hair, I suppose he thought I was a woman. I waved him off, dismissing his long-billed cap and Eisenhower jacket as the sky signaled rain. Meantime, he realized what I was, bellowing into the thunder and engine racket, “Well shit if that isn’t a man carrying a garment bag up the interstate!”, for I was these things. I kept my life in that garment bag—coconut-scented conditioner, denim-style jumpsuit for work, and the radio I’d stolen from the hotel.
By the time I reached the suburb, it was night. There was a splinter in the cloud cover through which the moon slipped, lighting shingles and satellite dishes. I saw weathered sidings and national flags whipping on porches. I watched a homeowner try to hoist his up the pole, shouting, “Goddamn flag! You get up there!” The same man had a larger flag already flying for the Georgia Bulldogs. I’d heard that the area rioted after the Bulldogs won a month back, men mounting cars and giving lyrical speeches. After half a mile, I found Lynette’s house. It was flagless and some of the paint was scraped off her James Hardie siding.
Five minutes later, I was in the living room. Lynette was telling me about her ex-tenant’s death. “You’re inheriting a dead tenant’s bedroom. Don’t ask. It was drugs,” she said as I sat on the flowered couch. When Lynette was at home, she liked to wear a Walmart vest from when she worked as a greeter there. She’d been fired—she’d told me during our first conversation—because she would greet guests by saying, “Hi, the name’s Lynette. God gave me this name,” instead of saying anything about Walmart or welcome. The vest was covered in buttons. “Well, I’ll tell a little about his death,” she said. “Phil was always in that room taking them damn drugs. You know what them drugs do? They take the pleasure centers of life, fill ‘em up so the regular pleasures—looking at old photographs on the Facebook, grabbing a pack of Newports at the gas station—they’re stripped naked. Stripped of anything that made ‘em anything, and they ain’t shit compared to that cocaine traveling up your arm, straight to your brain.”
“Well, Lynette, that’s interesting. How about some TV?” I asked.
“Most the shit I watch is on the computer,” said Lynette. “As a matter of fact, most of it’s InfoWars.”
“What’s InfoWar?” I asked.
“InfoWars, plural. It’s a news program hosted by Alex,” said Lynette. “Alex Jones. I flip that baby on and I’ll watch for hours. You ever see Alex Jones?”
“Well, no,” I said. “Tell me something about it.” I meant InfoWars, not its host, but Lynette took offense.
“Him,” she said. “Alex is him. Ain’t an it. Let me say, I’m no fan of them pesky little drugs. In the Ten Commandments, they talk about idols—the idea that you can’t worship no other God but the one God, the Judeo-Christian kind of ‘big guy,’ the one who named me Lynette (on account of I had no parents) and gave us all the law to obey and love, since it is a kind of love us folks feel for that-there Judeo-Christian law, a romantic love almost. Well, in my opinion, drug addicts are pretty guilty of that-there idolization—they’re stuffed full of sin like a Thanksgiving turkey—and their God is, guess what, them silly little powdery drugs. But my point isn’t to stand over them drug addicts like Phil was and say, ‘I’m better than these folk.’ With that man Alex Jones, I might be guilty of a bit of idolatry myself. Ooh-wee, hey. He gets me fired up.”
That evening, as rain peppered the dirt, Lynette changed into her scrubs—her aunt had been a registered nurse, she said, and so she liked donning scrubs as pajamas, to feel the crisp cloth of memory against her body—and after donning those scrubs she showed me Alex Jones. We sat on the couch, its fabric prickly with rose after embroidered rose, their stalks twisting together and vanishing beneath the cushion like dance partners diving underwater.
Lynette set her laptop on the coffee table, playing me elaborate videos which were half advertisements for a vitamin supplement, half a man—this was Alex Jones—who rumbled from grief and stank of rage as he spoke of something that resembled the news. He hissed conspiracies, saw treason in his own shadow, his voice crackling and bursting like a fire gradually consuming an entire structure. That voice. After a while, I realized that at work I’d heard Lynette speak of Alex Jones with coworkers, but the way they referred to him was so familiar that I’d always thought he was a friend, or someone who’d once been at the jeans factory but had moved on or been let go, who had disappeared somehow in the long night of time, gone like the rain would be in the morning, still wetting the topsoil but no longer falling.
“What’d you think of Alex?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “he reminds me of my father, Pa Robinson. Bit of a bigshot, that guy. You heard of him?”
Lynette thought for a moment. “Isn’t he the one who killed that whole family and dumped their bodies in a lake?”
“That’s not him. He’s a furniture guy,” I said. “Furniture commercials.”
“Don’t know ‘im,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me something about him?”
“Well, when I was very young and my mother was still alive we’d go out to eat,” I began. “He’d yell and shout when the waiters ignored him, and out of frustration—you can be rude to waiters, but you can’t yell and shout at them like my father would do—the waiters would only ignore him more and so he’d get even more upset and, believe me, it would always end terribly. Then, in the year or so before my mother passed, he got famous around the county because of these commercials he’d film and, well, no one could ignore him now. He commanded attention. He was attention itself, if you’re going to be poetic about it and start giving him his due. Wherever he went, they knew Pa Robinson,” I said. “Your Alex, it’s like he’s both sides of my father at the same time. The Pa Robinson who commands attention and the Pa Robinson who’s upset about being ignored.”
“You should be glad to have one of them fathers at all,” Lynette said.
“It’s hard when this man took everything that was dear to me. I mean everything,” I said. “But yeah, your Alex reminds me of the way my father was around waiters in the early days.”
“Sometimes I think my Alex—don’t you know that Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior (or as my aunt, who was religious but in a funny way, used to call him, ‘Mister Jesus’) well, don’t you know this Mister Jesus went ahead and died for our sins—and well, sometimes I think Alex is sitting there at his news desk and reciting the list of all the sins we’ve committed, all of them, from the very beginning up until now.”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said then. I wasn’t being sly. I really didn’t know.
Soon the rain began again, a torrent spilling in the dirt, the humidity thickening. While Lynette watched more InfoWars, I carried my garment bag up the stairs, hoping to poke around.
I slept in my new room, a tiny garret. The rain slowed around one, and I woke around then. I could hear it, the rain, dripping from the scraggly trees and the eaves. I could see that Lynette was sitting, in scrubs, at a small desk in the corner of the room. “It was right there that Phil passed away,” she was saying. Her fingers felt for each other. “I found him curled up like a sleeping dog in that bed of yours.”
“Well, Lynette, I guess you’re not going to let me sleep, are you?” I asked.
“Phil never hurt anyone except his own stupid self,” Lynette said. “I come and knock on that door of his—no answer—and he’s lying there curled like a sleeping dog. It was about at this time of hour. About one o’clock in the morning.”
“Better the middle of the night than when you’re awake,” I said. Earlier, I’d pilfered a small amount of cash from a jar in Lynette’s room that said “NEWPORT MONEY” in terrible handwriting. Now I stuck that money under my pillow. The radio was on, of course. DJ Hank was still on—it must’ve been the tail end of his show—and he was talking about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I leaned over and pushed the minus-icon “volume” button enough times that I could no longer hear him clearly saying the words, or variants of the words, that he’d been saying nightly for a while, such as: “Now the station doesn’t want me to talk about this—they say it’s depressing to folks—but I think, and my wife thinks, we both think, that it’s a scandal the way these hospitals, these doctors and nurses deal with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I’ll get to the music you all love in a second, but I just have to say this. When we were given little Hank to take home from the hospital—Henry was his proper name, but Hank was going to be his nickname, the kind of name we would call when it was time to go get some shopping done over at the local Target and we called for him to come downstairs, ‘Hank! Hank!’, or, ‘Hank! Hank! Come in from playing outside! Dinner’s more than ready, it’s actually getting cold! Come and get washed up!’ It was supposed to be that kind of a name, an instrument to be played for that boy of ours, but now he’s up in that goddamned heaven, excuse me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those angels are calling him Henry instead of Hank and getting it all wrong because it was them, those stupid freaking angels, who took him way too soon and so they clearly don’t care that much about what he’s supposed to be called—and when we were given little Hank to take home, they (the folks at the hospital, not the angels) didn’t say a word about what to watch for with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. How to prevent against it. The warning signs and all that jazzerooni. You know why? Do you want to know why?,” DJ Hank saying something like this but suddenly cut off as I reached over and depressed the minus-icon “volume” button multiple times until his voice was nothing more than a rumble, a muffled rant of unstoppable grief.
“About twenty-five years ago,” I said then, to Lynette there at the desk in the corner of my new room, her toes working nervously on the floorboards, “well, I might as well tell you this story, Lynette, if we’re going to live together and you’re not going to let me sleep. About twenty-five years ago, my mother died in broad day. She didn’t ever believe in God or Jesus or any of those guys, and she was fairly disrespectful about it. My father, of course, he was a fierce, fiery Pentecostal type of guy: speaking in tongues, having his visions. He’d have them at the dinner table, be mid-chew and say, ‘Hold on one second, having one of my visions,’ and then he’d start doing his glossolalia too. And they argued a lot, my mother and father. It was like they enjoyed it, thrived of it. After an argument, she’d go in the front yard and shout, ‘If you’re out there, God, like my husband thinks, strike me down me to hell!’, and of course nothing would happen. Absolutely nothing would happen.
“Then one day, some guys who’d been casing the house—they knew who we were and what we were worth on account of my father’s refurbished furniture business—they came in waving these Glock .40s or whatever, tire irons and all that, stockings on their faces. I wasn’t there. It was just my mother at home then on that afternoon, the wind waving through the window and the curtains waving and her reddish blonde hair also—you guessed it, Lynette—waving. Now, we didn’t have much in the way of furniture—funny, I guess, on account of who or what my father was (or is)—but we did have this tremendous plasma TV, 50-something inches, that my father bought. Well, these guys sort of put their Glock .40s in their pocket and lift the TV off the wall and spend a good chunk of time simply trying to get the TV out the door and into their sprinter van. And after a couple minutes of this, my mother thinks this is a good time to go and call our neighbor, Roger, who owned a sporting goods store, Roger’s Sporting Goods, and who had a house stocked full of baseball bats and lacrosse sticks, not to mention hunting rifles. She wasn’t ever a fan of police. ‘Those police,’ she’d say, ‘think they’re Jesus, each one of them a bald, fat, self-obsessed Son of Man.’ So she dials Roger quietly now, in the kitchen, and one of the guys carrying the plasma—he hears her, and he comes in and unloads a couple rounds into her body. He’s frightened like I would be, like any of us would be.
“So fast-forward to me as a teenager. Few years later, I’m fifteen. I’ve got my leather jacket on, my hair in a rattail. I miss my mother like shit. I can feel her down there, in that goddamn kitchen, making her tuna salad on toast, fresh from the gym, her sweat kind of evident on the air. I can feel her there, but I’m acting tough, like I don’t feel anything. Anyway, my father starts seeing this new woman, Glory, who owns a hair salon and who does, in fact, do his hair: gives it its special poof and its brightness. Its ‘sheen,’ he called it. ‘Got to have the sheen on my hair,’ he’d say. And any time they’re in the house together, Glory and that father of mine—who, you should know, is the reason I’m here: he chased me out of town by telling everyone I loved and respected that I wasn’t any good—well, any time Glory and Pa were together, I’d tell them I’d seen my mother’s ghost.
“‘I swear,’ I’d say, ‘she’s here. I came in earlier and she was wearing that nightgown she’d always wear in the morning, the satiny slip she would place over her shoulders as she woke, she was wearing that and silently sitting at the kitchen table and staring off at the backyard, at the sky sloping behind the houses outside, and then she was gone. She was just gone.’ I’d say stuff like this to kind of frighten Glory, my father’s girlfriend, to make her feel unwelcome, unwanted, like I was unwanted around her and my father. I haunted the space around them, a type of ghost myself. Eventually, after a few times of my pretending to see my mother’s ghost, Glory went away, saying, ‘Well, Pa Robinson. You’re one hell of a handsome man, and I love how you love me—bottomlessly, like they might take me away from you. But they are taking me away—or not they, but me, I am taking myself away, since I can’t be around this ghost of your ex-wife who keeps appearing, according to Robinson Junior, and plus my hair salon is struggling because I’m sleeping in, spending the night here, having a great old time with you, Pa Robinson, when I really should be focused on the folks’ hair.’
“Well, Lynette, things weren’t okay at home after that. They weren’t okay, no. There were times when—well, I can’t talk about that, not really, not now, not this early or is it late? So I left home and moved into a rent-to-own trailer (though I never owned anything). Then I got an apartment and started working at the factory, over ten years building up my skills and reputation enough to get up off that forklift and start holding a clipboard, crossing the catwalk and handling warehouse logistics. You could say I left home and made a new home. And now I’m here and just praying that God will one, forget me, and two, start existing. I mean, He’s incredible: I have to give Him that. It’s incredible that he doesn’t exist and yet he still keeps bothering me in the way he does. You know?”
“Maybe that’s why you grow your hair out,” Lynette said. “To remind you of your mother.”
“That’s a good theory, Lynette, but my mother’s hair wasn’t half as long as mine. She kept it shorter. Boy, Pa hated that.”
“What you’re telling about reminds me of Phil,” Lynette said. “How he’d always say, ‘I’m doing these drugs to kill my father,’ trying to sound real profound-like. ‘Not to literally kill him, but it’s a—you know—a metaphor kind of thing. To make him not exist,’ he’d say, stuff like that. No idea what he’s talking about half the time, but he said it nice, saying this crazy kind of shit no one wanted to hear except himself. And he wasn’t a big fan of Alex Jones, tell you the truth. He’d say, ‘You just wish you had a father, Lynette. You just want someone to yell at you.’ Was there some truth to that? Was there some of that-there truth? Beats me.
“My aunt, the nurse I’m going ahead and honoring with these-here scrubs, she didn’t raise me so much as sometimes she’d have me over—whenever my Grandpappy, the one who really raised me, was too tired and raw from his job at the what’s-it, the carbide factory, to be near me, and so he’d go out dancing and partying and riding hogs as he liked to do, feeling the wind on his big bald skull. I’ll go ahead and say it. Grandpappy wasn’t a fan of them-there helmets. He’d say, ‘Look, little Lynette, when I’m going out to one of them dances at Fat Chesel’s nightclub, I don’t want to have to show up with a helmet on my head. I’m already an old man compared to some of the women-folk there, and having a helmet, well—that’d ruin everything. I’d look like a fool, rumbling up on this beautiful shiny hog, ready to meet the love of my life after your Grandmammy passed into that-there long impossible night of death, and then I take off my helmet and underneath it is this sweaty-shiny bald head and then the shiny alloy of my motorcycle. It would just look silly and confusing to folks, the shiny head and the shiny bike, like I’m part of this hog when it’s the other way, the hog is a part of me, little Lynette. Besides, sometimes I’m so tired and raw on account of my job at the factory that I don’t want to wear a helmet. I don’t want to be safe. I want to ride right-up close to the edge of things.’
“He’d say all that. And I loved him. I loved my Grandpappy. After my parents went off into heaven, he moved down from Las Vegas to take care of me. I swear, his head a permanent tan from that Las Vegas sunshine. I think part of the helmet thing, the not-wearing of it I mean, is he was a bit—well, a bit vain about showing off his big-old tan head,” she said.
“And your parents?” I asked.
“Grandpappy, if you’re up there, I’m still here,” Lynette was saying. “It’s your little Lynette and I want to let you know that I might be joining you in heaven soon, my doctor says, if I keep on eating them damn sugary cereals I can’t get enough of in the morning. And the night and the afternoon too, I’ll admit it.”
“How about your parents?” I asked.
“Oh, well, mommy and daddy. They were always dead. Or not always, but most of the time. When I was two years old they—“
“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me what happened to them.”
“They were in the mountains somewhere in Virginia—the Shenandoah Valley, I think—and God came to them and lifted them up to heaven. That’s how it happened, I’m pretty sure.”
“But how did they pass? What happened?” I asked.
“That’s what happened. The way I was told it by my aunt: God came down and said, ‘Hey folks. We’re missing you up in that-there heaven. Come up and join us,’ and He descended right out of that bright sky, holding a hiking stick for each of them. (He could fly, of course, so He didn’t need any sort of stick to support Him.) And that was that—they followed him up the mountain, and since then, they’ve been in heaven. And soon I know He’s going to call for me to join them.”
“That’s great, Lynette,” I said. I smiled. “Maybe you’ll put in a word for me.”
“That depends,” Lynette said. “It depends on if you give me back my Newport money.”
“I know you took my Newport money,” she said. She was laughing. “Why do you think I’m here? To sing you a lullaby? After you went up to bed, I counted the money in my jar, like always, and found there was a ten-dollar bill missing. That’s enough for a pack and a half, Robinson. Give me the money.”
I gathered it from under the pillow. “Hey now, I’m sorry,” I said. I supposed I was no good.
“It’s your first night here and you’re stealing from me,” she said, stuffing the bills in her scrubs. “I mean, Robinson. What’ll it be like in a month, once you’re comfortable? In a year? Phil never stole a penny from me. He borrowed money—lots, in fact—but he always asked.”
“It won’t happen again,” I said. That was clearly a lie. I didn’t even believe it. I was like an actor rehearsing his lines for the first time.
“I’m happy you’re here, Robinson,” she said. “I’m happy we found each other. Matter of fact, later on we can tell each one another more about the past, our voices kind of rising together like a couple of vines on the wall, if you don’t mind me saying. Just please don’t steal from me again.”
I decided to tell the truth. “That’s the problem,” I said. “I don’t think I can stop stealing. I’ve always been bad about it, but ever since I left home I can’t stop.”
“Well, the Lord does bless me with tenants,” Lynette said.
“My eyes see something, and my hands make the motion of taking it, and then it’s mine.”
Lynette smiled, her wrinkles taut and fixed. “I know how we’ll fix it,” she said. “We’ll play one of them little games.”
“But I don’t like games,” I said.
“Well I like games,” Lynette said. “And you’re the one who stole from me, so if you’re a tiny bit iffy on games I don’t mind.”
“Then tell me what you’re thinking,” I said.
“You see, Robinson, when my aunt passed from that-there little breast cancer, she left me a special set of silver that’s downstairs in a chest of drawers (she also left me the chest of drawers). ‘Lynette,’ I remember her saying when she was in the little hospice facility, her eyes like tiny beans in her face, ‘Lynette, that silver was handed down from my mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her father. It’s meant for family dinners—big dinners where everyone’s laughing and telling stories and passing great big platters of food. It’s antique as can be, Lynette, you’d better believe it,’ she said, ‘and I want you to have it and use it whenever you have folks over, sitting around the dinner table and laughing and having a good time, and I want you when you’re sitting there smiling and spooning some soup or stew in your mouth with that polished silver as some gorgeous chunk of a man tells some story about, say, his foot nearly breaking off from frostbite when he got trapped on a mountain in a snowstorm and you look into his eyes and think, ‘Please fall in love with me tonight’—well, I want you to take that swallow of soup or stew and think of your aunt who was a nurse and who adored the crud out of you and who—me, your aunt—will never really be gone now so long as you have that silver in that chest of drawers which I’m also leaving you, by the way,’ and then, the morning after that, she passed.
“I still remember the parking lot and how there was a guy roaming through it from the pizza shop up the street, sticking fliers in people’s windshield wipers, how I stood up after her heartbeat flatlined out on that-there little electrocardiogram and I stood and stared out the window, trying to see her spirit ascend up to heaven. And there this man was, putting the fliers in the wipers, looking over his shoulder like someone was going to sneak up from behind and stab him between the shoulders. Anyway, Robinson, now you know where that silver is. It’s the only thing I have that’s worth some money. And the chest of drawers, I guess.”
“What if I take it?” I asked. “What if I take that silver, Lynette?”
“You take one utensil of my aunt’s special silver and you’re ‘outta there,’ as they say in baseball. But the first day you don’t take my silver, you’ll feel better. The second day, you’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m getting a hang of this not-stealing thing.’ The fourth day, or maybe the fifth (I’m not sure yet), we’ll have a dinner party. We’ll use the silver and celebrate four or five days of not stealing. You see what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” I said and then she left. In her absence I clasped my hands and prayed—not, for once, that God would (a) forget me and (b) exist, but that I would have the strength to resist the silver in the morning. That I would pass by that chest of drawers and not think, “Well, why don’t I just grab a couple forks and stick them in my garment bag?” I reached across the bed and pressed the radio’s plus-sign ”volume” button until DJ Hank’s voice rose from nonsense into audio. He was giving the same endless monologue as always. I lay back and tried to sleep.
I could hear the throat of Alex Jones. Lynette was watching InfoWars. Nodding off, I heard her pouring cereal into a bowl and saying, “Damn little cereals.” Some seemed to have fallen. I heard her pattering on the floor, gathering them up. Our bedrooms were very close.
In the morning, I stole multiple handfuls of utensils from Lynette’s chest of drawers. When I left she was asleep, having stayed up late watching her show, listening to Alex scream against conspiracy, against men and women who lived two lives, a shadow and a public one—who tended to feed off trust and betray others. Then I left town, exiling myself, hot-wiring old junkers, sometimes hitching rides or hoofing it through a quilt of sunbaked states. If I stayed anywhere too long, I knew, I would meet someone who was kind to me, and I would rob them. My solution was to move.
Now and then, when I would reach a new town—Knoxville or Louisville—I would poke around the computer at the public library, and eventually I’d end up on Lynette’s Facebook, wondering whether she’d said anything about my theft of her utensils. But she mostly posted pictures of herself and her friends, older and slightly faded photos in which sometimes she wore her Walmart vest or her scrubs, sometimes a long soft-patterned dress. The older the photo, the longer her hair was. Most of the photos were of large gatherings, and Lynette was often in the center, often seen dangling a Newport from her mouth or eating from a polystyrene bowl of cereal. “If there’s one thing my friends know about me, it’s that I love my sugary cereals,” she would say, or else, “It was broiling hot that day, if I remember right, and as all my friends know, there’s nothing I like more than a cool Newport on a day like that. Absolutely nothing.” I could see her posts—her profile was public—but I couldn’t comment. It made me wish we’d had a dinner party, even months after I had pawned her silverware somewhere on the outer edges of Chattanooga.
Then one day in the dumps of the Southern summer, I was in the library in Mobile, Alabama, hoping to land a job on an oil rig, and saw that she had died. Hundreds of friends had left condolences on her page, some of them only finding out she’d passed because of other folks’ condolences appearing in their feed, some of these folks in their condolences saying, “I told you to hold off on those sugary cereals and Newports, Lynette. Now I’m going to miss the bejesus out of you,” and other folks in their condolences asking that the dead not be blamed for anything and one friend even brushing this debate aside by saying, “As some people are here fighting over your memory, Lynette, I’m in my living room watching the home movies from our beach trip to Savannah back in 1996, and I’m sitting here with a bag of tissues—the box broke, so I had to put them in a bag—and I’m wishing you were here with me, to share these tissues and see these movies. Of course, if you were here, I wouldn’t need these tissues, except if we laughed too hard and shed a couple tears on account of that laughter.” I read every comment, and then I left the library and soon afterward got the gig on the oil rig. I lived in company quarters, took a bus with the others to the shore in the morning. Those Mobile mornings were glorious, the sea wind in my hair as I rode the freight transport over to the rig, talking and laughing with the other men and managing not to rob anyone for the short time I was there.