Sidekicks

by JP Gritton

I guess you’re wondering how I ended up with a woman like Syrena, in the first place. Truth is, it’s Mike’s fault. He’s the one to blame. Or to thank, I don’t know which. It was Mike Corliss who turned to me on this too-hot afternoon beginning of September. The four of us ought to go out sometime. Double Dutch, I mean. And I remember him smiling at me while my guts turned somersaults.  He was a different man those days, full of piss and vinegar. He had a smart mouth on him, and he wasn’t afraid to use it either, which is why Laughton Starbuck kind of had it out for Mike.

“Where’s your protective eyewear, Corliss?”

“My protective eyewear?”

“That’s what I asked you.”

“My protective eyewear’s protecting the dashboard of Sheldon Cooper’s truck. That’s where I left it this morning.”

Sheldon, he used to call me, ’cause he knew it got on my nerves. To everybody else I was Shelley.

I was just a journeyman carpenter back then. I drove Lij’s truck to work and home every day, give my best friend Mike Corliss a ride. Half the time, he’d forget something on the dash: that blue bandana, that pack of smokes, that pair of goggles.

I guess I looked up to Mike, who was a couple years older than me and besides that had a way about him. He told a story better than anybody I know, though you never knew how much was true and how much he’d half-made up. He told me how a honeybee flies through the rain, missing every drop. He told me nobody’d ever saw a giant squid, but even so scientists know they exist ’cause sometimes, he said, a whale or a shark will wash up on the beach, a great big bite took out of it.

You ever doubted his word, Mike would just get real quiet: “Fine,” he’d tell you. “Believe me or don’t. I don’t care.” And kind of sulk after that. ‘Cause Mike had a temper on him, too, I guess he still does. Take for example what happened with that bowling ball he’d stole from the alley in Birch Tree. For a couple weeks we’d kept that thing, a thirteen-pounder, in the back of Lij’s truck, set inside a spare to keep it from punching a hole in the bed.  Well one evening we come up on the Go-Go Room, that’s a bar in Summerglenn, and Mike calls out to me: Stop the car, damn it! Stop! So I pull into the lot.

When I turn to him, Mike’s pointing to this beautiful baby-blue Chevrolet C30 with a custom decal on one door: Starbuck and Purchiss Construction, LLC. Mike is saying, “Go a little closer, Sheldon.”

So I do. I pull closer, even though I already know what he’s fixing to do, and I don’t like it.  Don’t, I tell him, but my breath catches and anyway he’s already out the truck and reaching into the spare for that bowling ball and heaving it through Laughton Starbuck’s front window.  The whole thing come out at once. A kind of glassy scream.  And I am afraid, ’cause I know I can’t afford to lose this job, and ’cause Mike is taking his time coming back to the truck. He pulls the blue bandana out of his back pocket and kind of dabs at his forehead. Takes that pack of smokes out his shirt—he smoked, back in those days—and lights up.

He takes a big drag, gets in.

“Well,” he says, “what are we doing now?”

You got the feeling around Mike sometime that he was liable to go too far one day. You got the feeling he was liable to go too far, and you’d let him.

 

*

 

We framed house for three years together. I guess you might be wondering how a boy like that held onto a job for so long, and truth to tell it had always stumped me. There were plenty on that crew who would’ve liked to see Mike go, by the way, in fact me and Lij were about the only people in Haywood County who seemed to think much of him.

Not even my sister liked him, not back then she didn’t.  Mike come over to supper once or twice a week. He set there telling jokes until my ribs were sore and my grandfather was pounding on his chest, trying to get his wind back: You hear about that swamp rabbit, Lij? But all that while, May was quiet, the look on her face like she’d just sucked the juice out a lemon.

“I can’t stand him, Shelley,” May told me one morning, that spring. “He’s just so goddamned arrogant.” I never took it all that serious. Mike was my best friend, it didn’t matter if nobody else liked him. It never occurred to me to wonder why, if May hated him so much, she never told me not to ask him over.

 

*

 

All this craziness happened the same summer Jimmy Carter was fishing in Georgia and a rabbit swum up to his boat and bit him. That was the joke back then, the one we kept on telling one another and never seemed to get old. Like that afternoon, after Starbuck shut off the generator, and me and Mike made our way over to the truck and get in.

“You seen any swamp rabbits today?” Mike said.

“Swamp rabbits? No more’n usual.”

“Haven’t had to fight any off, I hope?”

“Just a few. The swamp rabbit is docile this time of the year. The heat gentles him.”

“Gentles him?”

“Chills him right out, Mike.”

“But he remains a dangerous beast.”

“Dangerous as they get, Mike.”

We were quiet after that, the miles ticking along. And then Mike said, “I hope Ray don’t mind buttered toast for supper, ’cause butter and bread’s all we got at the house just now.”

And I knew him well enough to know what he meant: he meant he wanted to come to supper and he wanted May to fix him a plate to bring his dad after. That was the year Ray Corliss got bad sick, I forgot to mention.

“You can eat supper at our place,” I told him. “We got plenty.”

And Mike said, “Well I don’t know.”

And I told him, “Sure. Won’t take long, have you home before the swamp rabbits are up and about.”

“When’s that?” he asked. “When they come out?”

“Dark.”

“Well, all right.”

And we’d had this exact same conversation a hundred times and a hundred times Mike had come over and put me and Lij in a fit while May set there grinding her teeth, watching Mike eat the food he never bothered to thank her for. Except that afternoon, May had company of her own.

I hardly noticed her, even though I decided later on she was the kind of girl you notice: full-figured, kind of. I know May must’ve introduced us. I know I must’ve learned Syrena’s name. I know I must’ve shook Syrena’s hand. I know she must’ve explained, or maybe May did, that they worked together at the JC Penney’s in West Plains, in the home appliance section.  Problem is, I don’t really remember all that. It was about like any other supper—couldn’t even tell you what we ate—except there were five of us at the table instead of the usual three.

When we finished, me and Mike got in the truck. I’d been true to my word: it was well before sundown. He shut the door after him, that plate covered in tin foil settled into his lap, his daddy’s supper.

“She had eyes for you, Shelley,” Mike said.

And I said, “Who?”

And he said, “Who you think?”

So I thought. After a beat, I said, “Syrena?”

“Yes, shit-for-brains.”

And I told him all the things you’re supposed to when you hear something like that: Naw and You’re full of it and She wasn’t ever. But I couldn’t help smiling a little to say it.  And by the time I pulled onto the highway, Mike Corliss was working around to his big idea: “We ought to go out sometime, the four of us. Double-dutch, I mean.”

And I was quiet, trying to decide if he was serious. And then Mike said: “Missed the turn, shit-for-brains.”

 

*

 

That summer, we were working on this cabin. Now we aren’t talking Abe Lincoln out there with his axe and a pail of tree sap set to boil over a fire. No, them log cabins come in a kit, with the grooves already cut in the joists, and the splines and eleven-inch screws in a shrink-wrapped crate. I swear it to you, that first pack of lumber come with a set of directions.

We were pretty much through with the frame by now. And it was big, too: two floors, six bedrooms, three-and-a-half bathrooms. There were two chimneys, two fireplaces, one on each side. Dude owned it was a lawyer from Chicago, he was only fixing to live there for a few weeks out of the year. Even so, he wanted a custom finish on the beams, hardwood flooring, and cedar cabinets.  About the only thing made it a cabin was the lumber in the frame.

And when the drywall crew come and piled that sheetrock alongside the place the front door was supposed to go in—dude wanted glass doors, I forgot to tell you—I pictured them laying that plaster over top of that beautiful white pine and felt sick to my stomach.  We were working on the deck that day, since the drywall crew was busy inside. All that morning and into the afternoon, me and Mike Corliss and Jarvis Wicklowe were out front of the lot with a couple spud bars and a posthole digger, trying to find the freeze line.

Digging postholes is hard work. Spend a couple hours like that, your shoulders are liable to feel like they might slide right out the sockets, and the muscles in your back clench up just like a fist.  It isn’t work to talk through, but Mike just talked and talked while that sun that seemed too hot and close for September wheeled into the sky.

“Well how about it?”

“How about what?”

“What are my chances?”

“Chances of what?”

“Marrying May.”

I fiddled with the grip of the digger, trying to make the whole thing vanish.

“Honestly, bud,” I told him after a while, “I don’t think you got much of a chance at all.”

Mike laughed, but I could tell he didn’t much like hearing it. It was about four in the afternoon by then. We worked for a while longer, then Laughton Starbuck pulled up in that baby-blue Chevrolet C30 with the words “Purchiss and Starbuck Construction, LLC” painted on the side, the brand-new windshield. He razzed us some, saying how we hadn’t dug but half of the postholes we needed for this deck.

Well me and Wicklowe were quiet, kicking the dust at our feet.  But Mike went: “We can stay longer, you want. But I’m taking time-and-a-half.”

And Starbuck give him a look, and Mike took that blue bandana from the pocket of his jeans and mopped the sweat off his forehead. Our whole lives we’d been waiting for something to happen, but it never did. Starbuck just spit in the dirt and went on over to check on the drywall crew.

 

*

 

We were quiet, walking to the truck, and then Mike did the same thing he’d done for going on two years. Fit a cigarette into his mouth and slapped his hand hard on the hood. Some kind of celebration, but being honest I was getting sick of it.

“Don’t know why you keep this thing locked,” he told me while I dug the keys out my pocket. “You drive about the ugliest vehicle I’ve ever seen.”

It wasn’t that ugly. It was a ’70 Ford F-150 with a crooked fender that put you in mind of somebody’s swole-up lip. Another day I might’ve laughed, but I was bone-tired from the work. From the work, and from something else, this feeling I don’t have the words to tell you about.

“You don’t like it,” I told Mike Corliss, “you can drive.”

“Then I’d have to buy gas,” he said, and I laughed even if I didn’t want to.

We drove down the lane the Chicago lawyer had had graded not three months earlier, that river gravel smooth as blacktop. We come up to the highway and Mike looked out at the place the road cut across cedar pine and alfalfa and he said, “She don’t know me, that’s what it is.”

I asked him who he meant. I knew who he meant.

“May don’t know me,” he said, smiling a little to say it, “but she will.”

“That right?”

“That’s right,” said Mike. “It’s destiny. We’re talking destiny here. It’s just like you and Syrena. You’re meant to be.”

I didn’t answer him. But I guess what Mike said must’ve worked on my mind some, maybe without me knowing it.  What I’m telling you is, after a while I’d almost forgot it wasn’t my idea at all.

 

*

 

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It surprised May when I asked her. Truth is, it surprised me.

“What do you mean, the four of us? What do you mean, double-dutch?”

“You and Mike. Me and Syrena.”

“You and Syrena?”

“Why not?”

“For one thing, ’cause you act like she’s invisible when she come around. Like you don’t even see her.”

“I see her.”

“I wonder if you do,” said May. “It sure doesn’t seem like it.”

“Well I do. I like her.”

“What about her?”

When I didn’t say anything, May said: “You know what I think? I think Mike put you up to this.”

She didn’t even smile, saying it. Just looked at me. I knew probably there wasn’t any point in lying to her.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess he had the idea.”

“He had the idea and he wanted you to do the dirty work and you’ve done it for him. You want to be somebody’s sidekick your whole life, Shelley?”

Well it was a strange question. What I was thinking: there are worse things to be than somebody’s sidekick. When you are somebody’s sidekick, you are something. I guess I still think so, things were a lot simpler back then.

I said, “Mike’s been a good friend to me.”

“I don’t trust him,” she said. “I don’t trust Mike at all.”

She chewed her lip, which is what May does when she’s nervous, or afraid, or trying not to smile. I didn’t know which one it was just then.

“Let him grow on you,” I said. “He’ll grow on you.”

 

*

 

By the time the four of us—me and Mike, May and Syrena—had our date, it was coming up on fall. Hotter than hell, still, but the green in the trees was cracked yellow in places, and at night you thought sometimes you’d rather have a coat.  Friday of that week, me and Mike pulled up in what we’d worked in: blue jeans and holey tee shirts. I remember how he kept fussing with that blue bandana on the way over, wiping the sweat off his forehead and setting it down on the dash and then taking it up again, wiping his forehead, setting it on the dash.

“Leave that thing alone,” I told him. “You’re making me nervous.”

May and Syrena were pulling in just as we did, and it was strange seeing my sister step out of Syrena’s car, all gussied up from work. She looked an awful lot like Momma, and very beautiful all the sudden, and she looked old—hell, she was old, she’d have been twenty-four that year. Syrena didn’t look awful, either. She had a prettyish face the makeup did favors to, very dark hair and very blue eyes.

But when the girls made their way over to where we were standing, Mike didn’t so much as nod in May’s direction. He kept his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, and his face had went pale as paper. All that big talk, I thought, smiling to myself.

I dug around in my head for something to tell them, and what I come up with was: “How are you ladies doing?”

May just give me a look: “I’m not a lady, Shelley. I’m May.”

Which is by way of saying, I knew all this was a bad idea, right off the bat. For one thing, I’ve never much liked bars. If I drink, I like to do it in my own house, or an automobile. The Go-Go was this ramshackle kind of a joint. Pool tables with the felt coming off, concrete floors, hardly enough light to drink by. I won’t tell you about the toilets in that place, ’cause buddy you don’t want to know.

It was full up that night, and I knew if we turned down the music and told every crackerjack in there to shut up, you’d hear that humming in the air meant somebody was going to scrap.  Who knew exactly how long it’d take, but it was coming. The table pushed over on its side, and the broke glass and the quiet over the bar before that wet sound of somebody’s knuckles on somebody’s mouth. And I’d brought May here.

But I knew we couldn’t leave. We couldn’t leave ’cause we were miles from home now. Besides, May and Syrena were already settling in on one side of the booth and Mike was handing me a ten-dollar bill: “Get a round.”

Don’t think for a second I felt good about leaving him alone with May, I didn’t. Waiting on the beers, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what kind of fool’d bring his sister to such a place and what kind of fool buys her a beer when he’s done it? I guess I felt a little better when I come back from the bar, though, account of Mike had left. He was sidling up to the pool table, where a couple boys I didn’t know stood in blue jeans and matching green t-shirts that read “Claymore-Union Extraction Services.” Their skin where it showed was mud-brown, so dark that the too-blue eyes almost looked like they didn’t belong in their faces. Strong-looking, good-looking boys who smiled bright white when Mike took the beer I’d brung him and nodded their way:

“I’ll put two dollars on this game, if Sheldon remembered to bring me my change.”

They looked at me, and I handed Mike his money.  After I’d racked the balls, Mike set to studying the tip of his stick. Something about the look on his face told me I’d be the one making the chitchat, and I was right. Me and them out-of-town boys got to talking, and they told how they were roughnecks, headed home from Louisiana. Said they lived up toward Clay County. Said they were stopping for the night.

That’s when Mike cut in: “Stopping here? What in hell for?”

The two of them laughed. One said: “Just figured we would.”

The other said, “Sick of driving.”

Mike still had that look in his eye, the one I knew meant he was fixing to do something mean or crazy, or both: “Nothing to see here,” he told them. Then: “It’s your break.”

Keep in mind Mike still hadn’t said so much as a dozen words to May so far, not that she seemed to mind. She and Syrena were still just a-setting there in that booth, reminding me of a couple of sisters in a church pew, chaste is the word I’m looking for.

Anyway. Took those Clay County boys about ten minutes to win the first game and hardly that long to win the second one. We couldn’t have been playing a half hour by the time Mike smiled and spat in the sawdust and said, Best out of seven.

The tall one just shrugged. By then, I could tell they were a little tired of playing, but that didn’t mean they were about to give us the table. And now the other Clay County boy stuck his chin out at Mike, “I guess you owe us that two dollars.”  And I can see he doesn’t care about the two dollars, it’s just he doesn’t like Mike all that much, he’d rather just get it all over with: the table turned up on its side, the glass broke on the concrete floor, the fist and so on. I could feel it coming then, boy—hear that hum—and I watched a vein doing jumping jacks in Mike’s neck. We were all of us a little drunk now, me and Mike and the roughnecks, but I wasn’t drunk enough just yet to scrap.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Let me buy you fellows a beer.”

 

*

 

Well guess who’s standing up at the bar when I got there? Jarvis Wicklowe and Laughton Starbuck. I hadn’t saw the company truck in the lot, which I figured meant he’d parked round the back. Account of maybe he was nervous about bowling balls falling from the sky.

At first I made like I hadn’t saw them, but then Jarvis stood up off his stool and come alongside of me.

“You here with that pissant?”

His breath stunk, and the words kind of slid out his mouth.

“Which pissant, Jarvis.”

“Which pissant.”

“I’m here with Mike, if that’s what you mean.”

“Figured you were,” he said. He looked like he had more to tell me about that, but just then the barman come and I held up four fingers for four Budweiser beers and handed him the money. When he’d went to fetch the drinks I turned away from the bar and looked out at the room, hoping Jarvis would take a hint. But he never did.

“Jesus Christ,” he said instead. “That isn’t ever May.”

My sister and Syrena were still visiting at the table together. Mike was standing alone, over by the pool game. Everybody was pretending everybody wasn’t there.

“Boy, she look a little like your momma, don’t she.”

I didn’t say anything. It still didn’t feel right that I’d brought her.

And then it was like he read my mind: “Keep her away from that little pissant cocksucker, hear?”

I was quiet. Then I said, “Mike isn’t so bad.”

“Bad?” Jarvis laughed. “Who said he’s bad. He’s just a pissant cocksucker. You know what I seen him do th’other day? Smoking right there on the site and dropping his butts where the deck’s supposed to go. I tell him, You better pick that up, Mike. And he says, What for? This deck goes up, isn’t anybody going to see it.”

By now, Jarvis had cut his eyes over to where Mike was standing.

“It’s the little things, is what I’m saying.”

Now the bartender come with the bottles of Bud and I nodded quick at Jarvis, like, Take it easy. But Jarvis took hold my arm: “Hold on, bud. Mr. Starbuck wants to talk to you.”

So I went over to Laughton Starbuck with them four bottles of beer notched into my knuckles so I had to set two of them down just to take his hand.

“I’m always glad to see you, Shelley,” he said.

I thanked him. I tried to sound like I meant it.

Jarvis had trailed me back over to where Starbuck was sitting, and now the boss nodded his way: “You’ve got a long future in this work, Shelley,” he said. “That’s what I was just saying to Jarvis. You’ve got a good mind for the work, and you work hard. I could see you— young as you are, still—I could see you making a decent enough crew foreman one of these days.”

And being honest, I was a little proud to hear him speak that way. Proud, even if something in Starbuck’s smile didn’t feel right.

He said, “You come here with that Michael.”

He wasn’t asking.

“That’s right,” he said. “Y’all two are thick as thieves.”

I said yeah we were pretty good friends.

He said, “You know him pretty well, I guess. You know what the fellow’ll get up to.”

Well I took my time answering him. ‘Cause by now I figured Starbuck was trying to get me to say something I didn’t mean—or else, something I didn’t want to say.

“I guess I know him pretty well.”

“You tell me something about Michael Corliss.”

“All right.”

“He got any hobbies?”

That smile had went a little sharky. I was nervous, I wanted to get back to the table.

“Hobbies?” I said.

Starbuck nodded his head: “Hobbies. Does he have any hobbies. Like for example. Is Mike a bowler?”

“A bowler?”

“Does he bowl?” He looked at me, knew everything. “Ten pins. Strike. Spare. Gutter. A big old thirteen-pound ball.”

He was watching my face real close now. Shark-grinning.

“You’re asking me does Mike bowl?”

Starbuck’s mouth kind of twisted itself shut.  After a second he started to say more: “About five, six months ago…”

But then I guess he changed his mind, ’cause he broke off. We just stood there quiet, and I wondered should I stick my hand out, tell Starbuck, See you Monday. I don’t know why I didn’t, exactly, except somehow I knew he wasn’t through with me yet.

“You ever hear the one about Ray Corliss and the doctor?” Starbuck asked after a long while.  “Doctor come out to see him. You know what Ray ask him, first thing. Doctor, Ray says, you got anything to drink? Doctor says, Cancer patients aren’t supposed to drink, Mr. Corliss. And Ray Corliss says, It ain’t my liver, doc, it’s my pancreas.”

Jarvis laughed, too loud. I smiled, ’cause it’s Starbuck told the story, and I knew I’d better. Still I was shamed of myself, smiling.

“It’s too bad,” I said. “It’s too bad about Mike’s dad.” Meaning, Ray’s cancer, but Starbuck just shook his head:

“No, it isn’t,” he said. “What’s too bad is, she couldn’t leave him until he was too sick to chase after her. That’s what’s too bad.”

She. As in, Mike’s momma. And so I come to understand why nobody’d ever fired Mike Corliss before then: nobody’d ever felt mean enough to try it. And now Starbuck pointed with his chin crossed the bar: “What I’m saying is, the apple never falls too far from the tree.”

And I turned, figuring I’d see Mike tangled up with the roughnecks. But that isn’t what I saw. Mike was standing over at May’s table. May had her arms folded over her chest. That look on her face, like when she’s trying not to smile.

 

*

 

Seems to me there isn’t much mystery to it. Either a woman likes you or she doesn’t. You come to her, pulled by the same nothing that’ll make a compass point north. You talk to her, and what you say doesn’t have to make any sense. You tip your mouth close to her ear. You say, Seen any swamp rabbits lately? And she tries not to smile. She tells you, You’re crazy. You’re just out of your mind, Mike.

That’s how a man and a woman come nearer, nearer to each other. Like the beasts of the field. Forget about the pool game, the Clay County boys you were fixing to tussle with. Forget Laughton Starbuck up at the bar. Forget about your best friend, sitting over at the table with his date.

“You’re crazy,” she kept saying.

“I’m crazy?” I told her. “You’re the swamp rabbit.”

I don’t know what to say about it. Some things are so simple, it doesn’t do any good trying to explain them. After a while we went out to Syrena’s car and necked some. I knew she wanted it, but being honest with you I didn’t know how to get things started.

I said, “Okay, well.”

“Well what?”

My ex has a strange kind of laugh, a sound like bells: too high-pitched, the sort of laugh you hear on TV, so that somehow you got the feeling she didn’t want to laugh in the first place. I kissed her on the mouth and tried not to think about it too much when she rammed her tongue between my teeth. This whole time she’s just flopping and flapping under me like something at the bottom of a canoe. Arms and legs a-going. An octopus, I thought, and I remembered Mike telling me a giant squid’s mouth is in its stomach.

I get her undressed and before long things are up and running and I’m shuddering and shimmying and feeding myself into her.

“Don’t you gunk in me,” she said, giving my arm a little bite. “Don’t you even think about it.”

I won’t, I told her, but I did. And then I didn’t know what to say.

“Okay, well.”

“Okay well what.”

I didn’t know what. I tried to think what time it must be, and it seemed like it was probably pretty late. The Go-Go would close soon. And I flashed on them all gathered round the windows and laughing and whoo-ee, boy, Starbuck and Jarvis and Mike Corliss and I don’t know who all, everybody just gray shadows in the light off the bug lamps, blob-faces pressed up against the car windows.

“What’s a matter?” she said.

I was pulling up my jeans, fastening the buttons.

“Just worried somebody’s liable to see.”

She give out with that bell-laugh now: “Nobody’ll see,” she said. “Windows is fog up.”

She was right. They were gray against the wet and cool of the outside. It was fall, sure.  When I looked down at her, she dragged me to her lips again.

“What’re you thinking about?” she said.

But how do you explain you’re thinking about nothing and everything all at once?

“Where you think they went?” I said after a while.

“Who?”

“Mike. And May.”

She was quiet for a second.

“What’re you thinking about them for?”

Here’s why: it was occurring to me, if we’d used the front seat of Syrena’s car, that didn’t leave anywhere but the cab of my truck. I’d find them sprawled out, one white knee against the windshield, one foot dangling out the window. I got out of Syrena’s car quicker than you could say Starbuck, crossed that lot at a dead run. I don’t know rightly what I was fixing to do. I believe I would’ve tore her out of that truck by her hair. I’d have stood over him, my whole body shaking. I knew it then, knew my hands could kill if they wanted.

But the truck was empty, I’d locked the doors like usual, the only thing inside was the bandana Mike had forgot up on the dash. I turned and walked back toward the bar. Syrena was waiting by them great big double doors. She took my hand, smiling.

“You’re crazy,” she told me. “What’s the matter with you.”

We come in right as the Clay County boys were going out. They watched me in that half-jealous, half-curious way boys do, holding the door open. Glad to meet you, they said. I felt so mean right then, I didn’t answer back.

Mike and May had set themselves down in a booth, Mike had his arm over May. And I thought to myself that May had told me a sort of lie: that there wasn’t anything to be in this life but somebody’s sidekick. Now Mike belonged to her, or she belonged to him. Listen good to what I’m saying: that’s how this shit works, we’re all of us sidekicks to somebody else, except the ones who aren’t.

“Where’d you two get off to?” Mike wanted to know.

I guess I’d kind of swallowed my tongue. It was Syrena who answered him, after a while. None of your beeswax, she told him, and boy she was right about that, wasn’t anybody’s problem but our own. She was holding very tight to my hand. I didn’t like it any more than I liked that laugh of hers.

Now she looked at my sister: “What are you looking at me like that for, May?”

But May didn’t say anything, just moved her eyes over Syrena’s face, then mine, wondering things it wouldn’t have been polite to put into words. I asked what time it was.

Mike shrugged: “Why? You tired?”

“A little.”

“I’ll bet you are,” he said.

Syrena’s laugh. Mercy.

May said, “Shut up, Michael.”

He turned to her. He looked like he was fixing to say something smart, but all he said was sorry. Then he wiggled his way closer, fit his arm tighter round her shoulders. And I knew it then, everything was going to be different, and boy was I right about that. Not even a year, and we’d both of us be fathers. My son was born in April, Layla end of July.

_____________

JP Gritton’s novel Wyoming is forthcoming from Tin House Books (September, ’19). He received his MFA from the Johns Hopkins University and is currently a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellow at the University of Houston. His awards include a DisQuiet fellowship and the Donald Barthelme prize in fiction.  His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review, Southwest Review, Tin House and elsewhere.

Illustrations by Devan Murphy

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