When Libby’s last check from the bike shop came around, their rent was already two weeks past due. The guys offered to buy her lunch at the Crown and Anchor, but she told them she had to go, had to get moving, was afraid if she didn’t she might never. She gave them one-armed hugs, the envelope still in her hand, and she rode the five miles home, crossing the Colorado at the Longhorn Dam, blasting through Lakeshore Park and down Pleasant Valley Road to Riverside. At the bank, she found they had included a farewell gift of a hundred dollars in stiff twenties. It made her regret not going to lunch with them for a longer goodbye. She curled the bills into her pocket, cashed the paycheck, and went to the Taco Cabana for bean burritos. She read a few pages from her paperback before phoning a thank you.
“Don’t forget about us. You come back, you call us.”
“Alright. Go get it.”
She dumped her tray and rode around the corner to the row of townhomes. They had moved in with Trevor the month she started high school. Now she’d been out of high school a year, and her mother and Trevor were missing. What the detective meant was her mother and Trevor were dead. Three weeks and no word from them.
She took the pictures she wanted out of their frames and slipped them into one of Trevor’s old record jackets, Pink Floyd, leaving the black disk on the rug below his stereo. He wanted her to love his records, like he did, so she listened politely with him, for her mother’s sake. Last week she had decided the stereo was too heavy to take and too much hassle to sell. What money they left behind she had already spent on food, cigarettes, and shipping the television to her father, which was probably stupid, but seemed a decent plan at the time. She couldn’t bear going through her mother’s jewelry for long. Their bedroom began to overwhelm her: the beige carpet, worn to a smudge between the vanity and the foot of the bed; the walls her mother called Apartment White. She took a pair of crow earrings. But keep it real light, she thought. Don’t think, even. Keep moving. Her foam pillow, her sleeping bag. Her pack stuffed with tee shirts and socks and panties, her iPhone in the shaft of one of her Doc Martens. She remembered her father’s hunting knife, and she went back to the jewelry box and lifted the long felt tray where all these years her mother had kept it. He never hunted, she said. But here was something she could give him. Hey, Seth, remember your knife? Found it in Mom’s back. She slipped the thing into her boot, too.
She emptied what little was left in the cabinets into a cardboard box, along with one loose-handled pot, and salt and pepper, and put it in the back seat of the car. She strapped the bike rack onto the trunk and secured her Vilano with bungee hooks, testing it with pushes there in the hot drive before the tall homes whose shadows could tell time. Back inside, last chance, she turned the air off and unplugged the fridge and netted the six fish from the tank into an old Coleman water jug she drove to the river. The fish were stilled at first, pulsing in the shallows, but as she shook the last of the water out, they moved deeper for the current, their colors fleeing. She thought about them as she drove north for Dallas on I-35. Not the other way. Not the way Trevor and her mother had always gone, south, to San Antonio. To Nuevo Laredo. Past Nuevo.
Gunning the highway north of Knoxville, she was trying to find a sign that marked the turn. Her hands ached. Her back itched. Her twinging bladder kept her awake.
In a moment of lucidity, she admitted her memories of her father were not to be trusted. Most of them were her mother’s, passed along incidentally or accidentally, perhaps over take out, a few remember-when moments on car trips like this one, other anecdotes mumbled in late night trances after bowl hits with Trevor. They weren’t all bad. But they weren’t hers, either. Libby’s mind kept returning to the small framed photograph of him, which stood for years in rear rank on her vanity: Seth smiling and pointing a finger at the camera, as if pointing his finger at her dyed hair or black lipstick or the pierced eyebrow he had never gotten to see. That picture didn’t go into the Dark Side of the Moon with the others, it was in the glovebox, with the novel and the roadmaps, for quick reference. His hunting knife chattered in the wedge between dash and windshield. She looked down at the phone charging in her lap, and in that instant the car struck an orange construction barrel at the shoulder.
Shot through with adrenaline, she braked and slowed and looked back at the toppled thing through the spokes of her front bike wheel. No cars in either direction, she left it, kept going, accelerated. The relentless black curves came nauseously into the high beams. Just a damned barrel too close on the shoulder. She pressed on for the state park the atlas had marked with a green pine and tent. Who would ever know?
A stone wall with the sign flashed by before she knew she was upon it. She backed up the empty highway and made the turn uphill, through a split rail fence and a meadow that narrowed with encroaching forest. Yellowed notices were taped to the glass of the booth at the camp’s gate. No one was in it. She turned off the headlights and lurched over the speed humps. A cobwebbed park map cowered beneath a buzzing vapor light, the blue paint of a lake outlining the camp’s peninsula.
She puttered through sites carved left and right among the trees. The place was wholly empty. But when she snapped her headlights on to follow a turn, orange and red reflectors flashed like gems. A motorhome and a boat trailer. She put the lights out again and made her way by recall and moonlight past them to the back of the camp.
She pulled past a numbered post at the far end of the loop, and quickly went to squat in the pine needles. The ground was soft near the lake. When she was finished, she lit a cigarette and lay atop the picnic table, pointing her toes to stretch her back, a little ill from the block of cheddar she had pared one slice after another into her mouth, and a hot 7-Up, finished after all the coffee, a half hour ago. The crickets were wound up. The lake had a fishy smell. The day’s drive had been hot, but it was cooler up here in the hills.
On her back, she was watching the stars through the trees when her phone disrupted the stillness. A number she didn’t recognize.
“Do I call you Dad, or Seth, or what?”
“Whatever you like,” he said. “Dad?”
“I can tell you what we used to call you.”
“Probably not that.” She heard him take a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I got the tv and the note.”
“Well, she’s gone.” She went on before he could speak, to be sure he had her meaning.
At last he said, “Your mother?”
“Yes. Who else?” She waited. “Look, I’m just out of Knoxville tonight. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“I’m driving. I’ll be in Philadelphia tomorrow,” she said.
“I’ll tell you what I know when I get there. My phone’s dying. I got to go.”
It took two cigarettes to stop the quivering. She regretted some of how she had said what she did, but it wasn’t fair he should call her at, what was it, eleven. She wanted to talk to him when she was fresh. She would see him tomorrow evening, maybe before sundown. She went to pee again, and returned to lie upon the table. Ashes glowed bluely in the fire ring, as if the gliding moon had just scraped them there as it made its way across the opening in the trees. Soon it would disappear in the weave of leaves on the other side.
“Hey.” A man stood on the road above the site. “You aint up to anything you aint supposed to. I hope. Are you?”
She sat up. “No. I’m okay. I just pulled in.”
“Yeah, I heard you come through. How long you staying for?”
“I’m leaving if I can get some sleep.”
He looked down the dark lane. He was carrying a guitar. The trees were still. “Well, I’m the watch.”
“Meaning I’m in charge. Nice to meet you.”
“Like the camp host?”
“Like the camp host.” He set the guitar on his boot. “It’s twenty dollars.”
“I’m not actually camping.” She tried a smile. “I just needed to pull off and rest.”
“Where you headed?”
When he lifted his chin, his forehead gleamed palely. “Philadelphia, I heard.”
“None of your business,” she said. “I’ll be out before the sun comes up. Nobody the wiser.”
“Meaning I don’t have twenty dollars. How do I know you’re who you say you are, anyway? You got a badge or something?”
“You know you have to pay. Aint no free lunch.” He lifted his instrument by the neck and dragged a toe through the gravel. He spun the loose wheel of her bike and read the plate on the bumper. “Texas? You like music?” he asked.
She said nothing.
“You got another cigarette?”
They sat together on top of the picnic table, smoking in silence, and she listened to him play for ten or fifteen minutes. He didn’t sing anything. Nothing even seemed to be from a song. She felt he was at least thirty. She realized she couldn’t tell the difference between thirty and forty. Her mother was forty. What did fifty look like? Just older. He looked up from the frets at her and his face turned sad and he lost the thread of what he was strumming.
After a moment, he said, “You’re thinking nobody’s going to remember me for my guitar playing, aren’t you? It’s alright. You lose it if you don’t practice, and I haven’t practiced. When I was a kid, I used to be pretty good.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m really sleepy.”
He gave a little nod and rose from the table. “Things disappear on you.” He stopped at her car and looked in its open window. “You spare another cigarette?”
She walked the pack up the slope, holding it out, the lighter, too. “Here. Take them. We’ll call it even.”
He reached for them. His face still had the sad, slow look. He grabbed her wrist and pressed her against the warm car. The cigarettes and lighter fell, and he dropped the guitar, its steel strings sounding a deep tone that hung about under the pines. He pried the phone out of her fingers, and it fell to the ground, too.
“Quit it.” She mule kicked him, her boot glancing off his shin.
“It’s alright, Texas.” He was against her. “I won’t hurt you. It’s all alright.” His whiskers were at her collar.
When she arrived in Philadelphia, it was steamy. People sat smoldering on dark stoops, and air conditioners were humming and dripping over the sidewalks and in the alleyways. She was smoking on Seth’s couch, reading the manuscript he was keeping in a dented shirt box on an otherwise bookless bookshelf. She had their old tv on for company–she had gone out to the fire escape, where earlier she had sneaked in, and run a coaxial cable looped out there through the window, across the room to the set, but tv was just tv, and these pages, which were about the only evidence of her father in the place, she decided right away were not very good. It looked like an empty life: a water pitcher and a half bag of coffee in the fridge; a couple chipped plates in a dish rack; mousetraps in the crannies between appliances.
Outside the apartment’s door, a man was calling kitty, kitty, kitty. The summons stopped, a key sounded in the lock, and the door swung open. There he was, the man who would be her father. Before he even spoke, he was contemplating the taut black wire strung across his living room. She looked under it at him, but didn’t get up. “Your neighbors have cable,” she explained. She smudged her cigarette out in his cereal bowl. “Is there a cat?”
“No. There’s not a cat.” Even his voice was empty. “The old lady downstairs thinks she has a cat, and I look for it for her,” he said. “Welcome to Philadelphia.” He ducked under the cable, unable to close his mouth, from shock, she guessed. “Stranger,” he said. He stepped over the pages she had stacked sloppily on the hardwood floor. He grabbed her hands, running his thumbs briefly over the rings, and began to tug her from the couch.
“Hey, don’t pull me. Let go,” she said.
She stood on her own, and he opened his arms for a hug, which she hesitated to enter. He was taller than she thought he would be, and he didn’t look much like the old picture except around the eyes. He wrapped her in his arms. He was sticky with sweat and smelled a little of booze, but not badly. She could tell he was waiting to feel her return grip before he let go, so she gave one, a small one. She wasn’t processing his words. It was just wooden babble. She sniffled at the black window and asked could they do this in the morning, she was so tired. The exchange petered out. He straightened himself and led her to his room, behind the wall the television was on, and lowered the blind and she got in bed, and he pulled the sheet to her chin, all as he might have done fifteen years ago, carrying her in hot Austin, taking care not to knock her precious head. He resumed chattily, about the humidity, probably not knowing what he was saying exactly, either, as he turned the window unit on high and went back into the other room. The tv siphoning his neighbor’s programming was shut off, and she imagined she heard the sound of him gathering the pages on the floor and fitting them back into the box.
It was a story with her mother in it, but not as she recognized her. How old would her mother have been? Libby had stopped reading when the words started swimming on the page. So this is Seth, she thought, because she felt she now was the time to really contemplate him. Her father was a middle aged boy. Nothing but this crappy apartment. Part of her wanted this news to please her.
The air conditioner’s fuzzy rattle was like a prop plane that never passed, as if maybe she were not beneath it but flying in it, and it would go on like that all night. A fat housefly circling your head begging you to kill it. That kind of annoying. She pushed her foot from under the sheet and pressed her toe against the plastic grill to deaden the vibration. She thought she might be able to sleep that way, and it was about then she knew she would never tell anyone, never mention last night in Tennessee at all. Trevor had told her marijuana was the best way to go to sleep for him, and it would seem it was for her mother, too, since she had already fallen asleep on his chest there on the couch, Supertramp ringing bright layers through the Advents. Give a little bit… give a little bit… And the one lamp on that softly lit her mother’s sleeping head rising and falling on Trevor’s sloped chest as Libby said It doesn’t seem to put me to sleep, but it puts me in a place like sleep, but sleep with lights, like lighted sleep, like watching your dream in a theater but it’s just what you’re seeing right in front of you. Trevor smiled his high smile and stroked her mother’s hair. And then he had expired, too, their heads nestled together. He wasn’t a bad man. And she stayed like that all night, cradled Pietà-like in the overstuffed armchair, watching them folded together on the couch into dawn, the blue light coming through the long livingroom windows and over the glass coffeetable. And the noisy birds that had made her smile that morning but this morning in Tennessee had sounded so furious as she bent over the lake to wash herself, not wanting to walk that way, past his guitar on the ground, to use the bathhouse. She parked in front of his camper on the way out, but left the motor running. She beat the dash once. She found the leather sheath on the floor and put the knife in the glovebox. Inside the RV, a squalor of snack bags and ashtrays. DVDs on top of a small television. Little Feat cassettes. A centerfold hung beside the mirror on the bath closet. He had written things on her leg. An opened carton of cigarettes, which she took. She found a twenty folded in half on the countertop by the filthy range. She took it, too, and tossed it onto the passenger seat and left. The farther she drove, the less she wanted to touch it, not even when she had to refuel in Roanoke, not until she was shaky with hunger in Staunton and stopped at a drive-thru for a Whopper without meat and there was the way the kid in his uniform and headset in the window looked at her through his glasses as if he just knew, and she handed him the twenty from the seat where it had ridden nearly five hours untouched and drove away for the Pennsylvania Turnpike without waiting for any of its change. Nothing. And then she couldn’t even eat the food.
She was awakened by the sound of sirens, which put her in a small panic. She found Seth waiting on the couch in the other room, dressed and shaven. He offered her a fresh towel. After her shower, he took her to an early lunch.
Taking a quick look into the place, she decided it simpatico and went to a booth halfway down the wall of the dark saloon. He slid into the seat across from her, and suddenly she felt cornered. A waitress came from the tv to take their order. Seth introduced her as his daughter, Libby, from Texas. So, okay, she thought, and she said hello and ordered a 7-Up with olives and conceded, to herself, she was on his ground. “Just introduce me as Libby for a while, okay, Seth?”
“Sure,” he said, but his look was harder now.
She wanted to deflect his scrutiny. “I like this place. Looks like it hasn’t changed in fifty years.”
“No, no. They just built it like this last summer,” he told her. “Shabby-retro. I walked in at the grand opening, they were still spraying on the antiquity.” He twitched his finger at her.
She gazed at the table and pinched her straw. She wouldn’t smile.
“What is it with you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I admit all this is awkward, and I realize you might not want to talk about it, but I have to know what happened. I have a right to know, and you haven’t been all the way straight with me yet. You’ve barely talked to me.”
“You mean about Mom?” She had to send her memory back to the earlier misery. Her mind hadn’t been on it for two days. What right did he have to be demanding, anyway? Shouldn’t she be the one drilling him with fifteen years of questions?
“Yeah. I couldn’t even sleep.” He sat back. “You have to know it’s killing me. Even if you think I don’t deserve to know, which maybe I don’t-”
“Not much we can know, Seth.”
Now the hard look was an angry one. “Nice. I can see you’re no stranger to ambiguity.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means don’t be so goddamn condescending. Maybe you despise me,” he said. “Okay, fair enough. But never be so cavalier when you talk of the dead. Any dead. It dishonors her. It dishonors life altogether. Get me?”
She tried for a different tone. “She and Trevor would cross over for a weekend, or a week. But not a month. And she didn’t call once.” Her voice sounded just as hollow as his had last night.
“Yeah. They’d go to Mexico.” She waited to see what else he would ask, what they did in Mexico. “That long, she would have called by now if she was okay. Even Mom wouldn’t just…”
His blush was hot. Their drinks arrived, and he took a quick sip. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Wouldn’t just disappear. Right.”
She had shamed him, but it didn’t feel as good as it should have. Her voice quavered. She looked at the ceiling to keep from crying.
He put his hand on hers. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m glad you’re here.” On the paper placemat were recipes for age old cocktails. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
She blew her nose in a napkin, more to dry her eyes, and started again. “They’re both gone. If I said dead, I didn’t mean to. The police said they’d let us know when they found anything. But a lot of times they never do. They said expect no news or expect bad news. I mean, no news is bad news, isn’t it?”
“I should call them.” He repeated it, as if reminding himself. “My mother?”
“God, Dad, I haven’t seen you since I was a kid. You think I talk to Grandma?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t her fault. You might have.”
“She sent stuff for Christmas and on my birthday. She quit when Mom stopped reminding me to send thank yous, I think.”
“It’s not how you thought it would end, is it?” It should have made her feel like she had some power over him, but it didn’t, and if it did, she didn’t know what she’d do with it. She was squandering this moment, and felt a long way from home.
Seth was watching some people in the back corner, out of earshot but looking their way.
“Who are they?” she asked.
“Students I know.”
“You hang out where your students go?”
“So, okay,” she said. “New topic, please.”
“Alright. Tell me about my girl. What do you like? Judging from your gear, looks like you like outdoors stuff. Camping out?”
Her pause was heavy.
He gave a small shrug.
“How about you tell me,” she said. “What’s your version of why you left? I’ve always wanted to hear it.”
Now he was the one searching the paraphernalia on the walls. Lights and signage. Old boots. He made a small sound. Photographs of virile ballplayers in midswing. “You tell me your version first,” he said.
“Okay, Seth.” She rose to it. “Here’s how I remember. I remember you packing your bag in the middle of the night, but passing out in the driveway, behind the wheel of the car, the one with the ceiling felt coming down.”
“The Chrysler. You remember that? We used long strips of balsa, like ribs, to hold the felt up.”
She didn’t break her gaze.
“It worked,” he said.
“Whatever. Anyway, Mom finds you in the drive in the morning and won’t let you take the car. Practically pulls your ass through the window. Waking up the whole neighborhood. So you take off down the sidewalk with your bag. Walking in the sunshine. La la la.” She leaned back and waved at him across the table. “See you, Dad.”
There. She had rehearsed it from Texas to Tennessee, had been waiting to tell it. But from Tennessee to Philadelphia, there hadn’t been room for it in her mind. How it had tumbled out so quickly, like stones dumped from a barrel, and not nearly as eloquent as she had dreamt a few days ago. “I remember some phone calls,” she added. “Mom didn’t cry much after the first week, if you were wondering.”
“You don’t remember that.”
“How would you know? She told me not to dwell on you, though I always felt she said that because she needed to hear herself say it. I was four years old when you left. But we got by fine, you know. Great. It was all good. She said if I wanted to find you-”
“Okay, you found me. And I’m sure it wasn’t all good.”
“So what’s your fucking story?”
“Easy. Don’t give me language like that. Or at least not here. I’m not sure what you’ve come for, but you won’t get it with that tone. It was wrong what I did. But after I had done it, she told me to make it clean. No back and forth. End it. I sent some alimony I couldn’t afford. A joke, I know. But I sent you what I could save, and borrowed on a credit card, but when I went back to school I was out of money. We hadn’t talked. I didn’t know what was going on. Gradually, to move forward, a person quits looking back.”
“Just like that.”
“The short version.”
“You left us to go back to school?”
“No. Before. The plan wasn’t so clear as that. There was no plan.”
“What do you mean you quit looking back? Is that even possible?”
He slowed his answer. “With time. Years go by.”
“Oh yeah, right. The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
His eyelid was twitching. “You’ve read Faulkner.”
“No,” she said. “Mom. She used to say it. She said you used to say it all the time, but it was more like an excuse for shit you hadn’t done yet. And so like now, the other day, after fifteen years, you can just say you love me on the phone…” She had heard it last night, too, as he put her to sleep on his mattress.
“You think I can’t. I do. I love you.”
“But you’re conveniently skipping all sorts of stuff, Seth.”
“I’ve had to have you in the back of my mind, not the front. You hope and imagine things are well, but I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to die. I hadn’t expected your coming now. It’s…”
He nodded. “It doesn’t have to be.”
She raised her phone from her bag and snapped his picture. “When were you going to expect it, though? One of us had to do something. And I didn’t want to tell you about her, except to your face.” She took another picture. “Do you always dress like this?”
“Can you get me an apartment?”
“Do you even miss her?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I do.”
“You’re hard for me to read. She was a good woman.”
“She could be,” Libby said. “Not always, I wouldn’t say.”
When he glared at her, she clicked again.
She made a point to frown at the images.
He sat up in the booth. “Are you glad you’re here?”
“Sure. I’ve never seen Philadelphia.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean, do you want to stay in Philadelphia?”
She leaned across the table. “That’s not what you mean, either. Is it, Seth? Let me look around. How much are one-bedrooms?”
“Maybe more than you’ve got. Or I think. You can stay with me.”
“No offense, but if I stay here, I want my own place. How much does a place like yours go for?”
“How about just take my place,” he said. “Go on and take it for now. I’ve got somewhere else I can stay awhile.”
“No, not a woman.”
“A man? That other address you sent me.”
“My friend’s. He and his wife are out of the country.”
She shrugged. When the food came, he ordered two lagers, one for her and one more for himself. She peeped under the sandwich bread. She’d restricted bacon from the BLT. “There a garage I can park my car?”
“No. But I can show you where to park without getting a ticket. I don’t have a car, myself.”
“How do you get groceries and shit?” She thought he laughed.
“Looks like I beg my daughter to take me. We’ll call it rent.”
“Call it even,” she said. Her words spooked her.
He raised his glass. “Cheers, then.”
She leaned close. “I don’t drink, Seth.”
So he drank hers, too. “Come on, I want to show you something. If I can find it.”
He called directions from where he had jotted them on the back of an envelope, up 76 to Bala Cynwyd. He ejected the disk she had in the dash player, Rainer Maria, and put in Skip James. She wanted to turn it down when she heard the barrage of pops and crackles, but she did not. He told her how, in the twenties and thirties, the record company sent the musicians north on trains to Wisconsin, and how they recorded almost as if in secret, blacks in a white town, so much of the north inhospitable to the great migration, before they were turned instantly around with a little cash in pocket and shipped back to Mississippi to await the modest release. Then the Depression. Libby pulled the car through the gate at the corner and set the parking brake on the hill. They walked between the memorials in the lumpy lots. He told her they were looking for Skip James’s stone.
“The guy we were just listening to? It’s funny how English teachers are always into the blues.”
“What do you mean funny?”
“Like, grammatically. To show they’re not uptight assholes.” She glanced at him to see if he had the hard look again. “Somebody else pointed it out to me. But it still kind of backfires, because only pretentious white guys-“
“Oh come on, Libby. Whom do you love?” He elbowed her, and she smiled. “Poor grammar can be dangerous, though. I heard tell of a convict killed in prison. Ended his sentence with a proposition.”
“I could learn to like the blues,” she said.
“Like learning to love a sickness.”
The hard ground was wildly uneven, churned and rechurned, and the grass was coarse and sparse. Many of the stones didn’t have concrete foundations and, here and there, were toppled or sunken. They paused a moment looking down the hill of them. A backhoe was parked in one of the lanes. “This place is a mess,” he said.
“Why do you want to see his grave? You’ve got his music.”
“I know. But why do we put up memorials at all?”
“Meh. Rocks are a silly way to remember the dead,” she said.
He chuffed. “How else should we do it?”
“I don’t know. Look, Chinese…”
There, below the road, was a whole section of their glyphs on stones, and at the center, a small dais. She began to step down toward it, but the very motion–and the slope, the table, the way the trees were grouped around the site—was familiar, and gave her a chill.
Her father didn’t notice. “How do you remember your mother?” he asked.
“Stop it, Seth.”
“I probably remember her better than you do.”
They passed through a cloud of gnats as he kept scanning left and right in the grass. “How?” he pushed.
“It’s not a fair question. But I remember her when I get high. Sometimes I’ll go online and listen to songs she used to like.”
“Like what songs?”
“Like Connells songs.”
“She liked the Connells.” He seemed to remember this about her. “So, smoking grass, listening to songs Rachel liked, works for you. What do these rocks do?”
“Nothing for me.”
“No, I mean think about it.”
She crossed her arms as they went on in the heat. “They’re like these permanent signs that you once existed.”
“Right. Of course, some are more permanent than others.”
“Some are bigger. The pyramids,” she said.
“Or Grant’s tomb. Sometimes the rock is commensurate with their stature…”
“How about this one?” she said. They looked at it at their feet. A black kid’s picture was glued to the surface of a baseless slant, which was tipped on its back in the weeds. Her father bent and pulled the stone upright. Up the hill, the groundsman in the open shed watched them without moving. “He was my age,” she said.
He looked away. “Where the heck’s Skip James?”
“We can keep looking, if you want. Or go ask that guy.”
“No. Let’s go.” He walked. He walked faster.
“Hey, you’ve always got the CD,” she called. “Wait up.”
He looked frustrated as he turned to her. “I take your point. But which do you think will last longer? The music, or a rock like that one there?”
“The music. You know these answers, professor. Are you okay?”
“Right, ars longa.” He was talking to the bright white sky. “But I’m not so sure. I mean, everyone knows what the pyramids look like. But I can’t name a single song from ancient Egypt.” He met her eye.
Together they looked up the steep rise of buried dead to where her small car was parked.
“I don’t know that’s a fair analogy,” she said.
“There’s no stone for your mother, for instance. How will she be remembered?”
She pulled her hair up off hot her neck, and found that even this common action was no longer hers. She felt the hand behind her in Tennessee. She let her hair drop. She would get it cut even shorter, soon, tomorrow. “Just by us who knew her, I guess.”
“And when we’re gone? What?”
“She won’t be remembered, Seth. That your point?”
He pursed his lips. “How about us?”
She wanted to go. “We won’t be remembered either. Nobody will remember anything about anybody. You need me to tell you this? People will just step over our rock, if we even have a rock. If someone is even around enough to get us one.” She marched past him, up the the lane for the car. She didn’t turn around to see if he were following. It was a steep hill , and she wouldn’t forget it, nor the way the sun beat on the ragged grass. “But, come on, being remembered isn’t even what’s important.”
“No? What is?”
“God, Seth. Being worth being remembered.”
Some weeks later, she had taken a job as a bike messenger. She was smoking with Judge in his apartment in Fishtown. She had been spending time with him, but it was the first time she had been to his place. He only smoked Turkish cigarettes, which she could never justify buying for herself, and he slid the box across the table, gifts for her, the moment she rubbed one out. “I remember your dad,” he said. “But I was only at that school like a couple months. Figured I could learn photography on my own, so that’s what I did, and hell of a lot cheaper.” He had turned his bike upside down on the floor and was cleaning the sprocket and chain with an oiled cloth.
She browsed his shelf, stacked with tattered books on photography. Most of them had library markings taped to the spines. A pile of comics. Tattoo magazines. His own script was blue on his black skin, which, at a distance looked like hair on his chest, but it wasn’t. His chest was smooth. Libra’s level scales on either pec.
“These cameras all work?”
He looked up from the sprocket. “Them my babies.”
“How’d you afford them?”
“Tell me, what’s he like, anyway? Your dad.”
He had spent ten minutes explaining why there was no point in her going to school, yet it still seemed he was trying to get his head around Seth. Feared him, maybe. Her father like a picket out in front of her. It occurred to her she might ask the same thing of him about her father. You sat in a class with him, what’s he like anyway? She raised a camera to test its heft. “Seth speaks in italics,” she said.
“He do what?” He hadn’t stopped looking at her. “Speaks in italics?”
“Like professors do. Professorial.”
“Aw, yeah. I hated that. Sage on a stage. You get along?”
“But I’m not going to live there anymore.”
“Mm. You got people?”
“I have a lead.”
“A lead?” He put the back of his hand against her temple. “You can stay here until you’re set up.” She liked how his tough was a quiet, thoughtful tough. How his touch was gentle, despite his arms. “Or you can set up here.”
“I don’t have much stuff,” she said. He was moving in to kiss her again. She stayed him.
“It’s alright,” he said.
“Don’t say that.”
“Don’t say it’s alright?”
“If it’s alright, it’s alright. I’ll know it’s alright.”
“Let’s go do this.” She rolled her sleeve up to her shoulder and looked at her bare arm. They were going to go to Chinatown.
“Okay,” he said. “After.”
She came down the stairs and met Seth at his own front door. He was wearing flip flops and a straw cowboy hat, which looked like it had been run over at least twice.
“You got mice,” she said.
“Yeah. Thought we’d go swimming. What’s that?”
The loose pattern of small skulls cascaded over her shoulder. Like a cluster of grapes, was how she had described it to the guy at the Chinatown shop. “New ink,” she said.
“You just got that?”
“Last night, with Judge. You like it?”
“The money I gave you,” he said, his voice hollow again. “I don’t know. Ask me in thirty years.”
She stopped smiling. “Fuck you.” She pulled her arm away. “I like it.”
“No, it’s cool. I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”
“You didn’t say you did.”
“It’s like a baby’s breath of blue heads,” he said. “Who’s the Judge?”
“Just Judge. This guy.”
“Well, I was hoping to take you swimming.”
“No, not the beach. Some place more clinical.” He was squinting at the pavement. “Concrete and chlorine. I hate the beach.”
“Good. I hate the beach, too.”
“Right. We’re beach haters. Good.” He stepped back onto the sidewalk, a visitor at his own apartment. “I mean, I like the ocean plenty,” he said, as if it clarified something.
“Here.” She handed him the knife. “Happy Father’s Day. Look, I’ll go with you, but I can’t get in chlorine. You belong to some sort of club somewhere?”
They greeted the hotel’s doorman as though he should remember them and strode across the carpet right in front of the desk, past the ferns, and down the tiled hall. They boarded the elevator and went to the roof. No keycard, he knocked on the window. Two wet kids, seven or eight years old, sat on the nonslip concrete picking at their toes. One of them opened the door. Libby was hit with breeze and blue sky. The kid called the other to go. They had southern accents. They passed quickly under her father’s arm, leaving wet footprints to the elevators.
There, on top of the city, the cloudless sky was as blue as the pool she and Seth to themselves. She tossed the paperback from her bag onto a white patio table and sat. She hadn’t touched the book since Texas, could barely remember what it was about, and yet she considered how, whatever it was, its story was still intact there between the covers, immutable, complete, even as her life these past couple of months had endured a hundred revolutions. She turned her chin to her shoulder. This tattoo would stay, a constant.
She watched her father hang his towel near the deep end. He stood staring at the knife in his hand. She was glad he had it now. It made her feel safe that he had it. She had avoided the Internet as much as possible, staving what news might ever come from Tennessee.
“You remember it?” she called.
“No,” he said. “Was this mine?” Still holding the knife, he rolled into the water like a fluke and sank all the way to the bottom. He sat there submerged on the blue floor. She couldn’t laugh, but she wanted to, a little.
She checked her tattoo again. She liked it. She hadn’t slept since getting it, had stayed up all night with Judge and the others afterwards, spray painting the bike entirely white, sharing smokes beneath the rasping speakers in the messengers’ garage. From a chair in the corner, she had watched them trying to recall anecdotes about the guy who had been struck. Nothing that memorable. What tears there were only seemed to acknowledge this lonesome fact about him. After a while most of them just stopped talking, drank their IPAs, and waited for the dawning to come incrementally through the glass blocks high on the wall.
At eight a.m. their peloton crept down Market en masse, motley of polyester, Judge in front with a traverse towing the riderless ghost bike, the fixie’s pedals paddling over the asphalt like drumbeats to some silent dirge. The lot of them was too egalitarian to ride rank, but Libby sensed the preferred outriders and kept her front wheel back. Their dogs trotted alongside. Judge hit the stoplights at greens and yellows and they rode through reds like a passing barge, just try it, not a single honk, and went down 19th Street for a full lap around Rittenhouse Square before dropping deeper into South Philly. When they reached the corner where the messenger had been lost, they dismounted, and they quickly fastened the painted ghost to the stop sign, U-locks, padlocks, and chains. She thought someone might say something. Someone should say something. But all of them, thirty or forty, scattered like marbles through the chutes of Center City.
Chad Willenborg teaches writing at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, though his resumé tracks stints as a bartender, a gravedigger, a dry ice blaster, and a wild game packer. His work appears in McSweeney’s, The Believer, Fugue, First City Review, and The Best of Philadelphia Stories (Vol. 2). Two excerpts from his novel, Suit of Lights, were finalists for CityPaper’s annual writing contest, and “Stone and Paper and Vinyl and Skin,” winner of the 2014 Marguerite McGlinn Prize, is a third excerpt from that novel. The author is at work on a book called The Sexton and a collection of “cover versions” of James Joyce’s Dubliner.