This time, Claire did not depart all at once but after a series of diligent, daily efforts to prove her affection to Andre—notes in his lunch pail, fruity desserts he favored, VCR Mafia movies, bubble baths, a ferry cruise to Alaska, and a television the size of Rhode Island—all of which moved him tremendously, though he couldn’t escape what motivated her largesse. She would argue through the morning hours he was reason itself for her heart to beat, but the necessity for her to pursue her case proved more evidence against it. There was no last straw, no camel’s spine, no argument or slammed doors or broken saucers or vases, none of the theater one associates with a marriage’s dissolution. Instead, their home darkened until neither of them could light it alone or together. One weekend during which he’d scheduled a fishing trip, she, with his blessing, boxed his books and clothes and organized his papers in a suitcase and added a share of their photographs together. Two high-school boys toted the lot to a pickup truck and transported it to an apartment Andre had rented a week earlier. She paid them ten dollars each.
Andre encountered his brother, Smoker, at the tavern each evening. They drank beer—Andre was off whiskey once more—and dined on Smoker’s tab, which Smoker squared each sitting, an inclination Smoker entertained only recently.
Their last evening in the tavern commenced like any other: Andre entered the tavern and Crazy Eddie peered up from his novel and slapped the griddle with a burger for Andre and another for Eddie’s dog, Desdemona, a mixed basset with legs no taller than beer cans and a long fat tube of torso that serpentined as she tottered inside. Her head, though, was as square as a Labrador’s. How sire and dame managed remained fodder for much beery discourse.
Grease popped and a meaty aroma rose from the grill and reminded Andre of his childhood; he had no fondness for his youth, but he appreciated the meals. Eddie spatulaed the patty onto a bun and extracted tomatoes, lettuce, and sliced pickles from a Tupperware box. With an ice-cream scoop, he plopped potato salad on a plate and added the sandwich. The dog took it bread and all but had no inclination for toppings or fries, so Eddie ladled her the chicken and noodles remaining from the lunch special so as not to short either of them.
By then, the old-timers had yielded their booths to the pool players as the clientele’s volume had bested the TV’s. The juke was full of quarters, which meant Andre must endure metal-clang and pop tunes that sounded like TV commercials before his Merle Haggard and Redbone hit the spindle. He poked his meal and glanced at the mirror while the evening regulars milled about the billiard table or piled behind a pair of upright video machines. He could have ordered to go and, at home played tapes, but alone and off whiskey the songs just cooked him into a stew.
Desdemona, beneath the stool, feasted until she cleared her plate then harassed Andre until he surrendered the remnants of his hamburger.
“Goddamned communist,” Eddie scolded.
The dog retreated to the door and Eddie put her out. No more than a minute later, Darrell Reynolds, one of two lawyers who served the coulee, allowed the dog back inside. Reynolds rotated his head to scan the room, an act that appeared rehearsed, then ordered a beer. Eddie poured and placed the full glass on the bar. Reynolds chose a stool beside Andre, where Desdemona had curled beneath his stool.
“Is that your dog?” he asked.
Andre shook his head. The man wore pressed gray slacks and a blue polo shirt and leather loafers with wine-colored socks.
“Anything’s friendly if you feed it.”
Reynolds laughed and inspected a scar in the wooden bar.
“I’m Darrell Reynolds,” he said. He maintained a mustache to fit in, but trimmed it too carefully.
“I’ve seen your ad in the paper,” Andre said.
“I’ve been doing some work for your wife.”
Andre pointed at the bar then held up two fingers.
Eddie blinked. “You sure on that?”
“I am,” Andre said.
Eddie delivered a pair of jigger glasses along with the whiskey under the counter.
“Oh no,” Reynolds said.
“You work for free, Reynolds, or require something from those that talk to you?”
“I charge a fee,” Reynolds said.
Andre poured whiskey into the shot glasses and shoved one toward Reynolds’s beer.
“What’s this?” Reynolds asked.
“It’s the fee.” The glass had spilled a little. Andre hooked his finger across the puddle and dangled it for the dog, who showed no interest. Andre downed his own glass.
The lawyer smiled and drained his whiskey then wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist.
“Your wife wants to dissolve your marriage.”
“It matter what I want?”
“Of course, there are two sides to anything like this.”
“Good. I want to stay married. Tie score keeps the game on.” Andre replenished the glasses. His stomach fluttered awaiting more alcohol.
“I’m afraid the law doesn’t see it such,” Reynolds said.
Andre hoisted his glass and indicated Reynolds do the same. They drank. Andre poured and lifted his glass again.
“Fee’s doubled,” he said. “After hours. Pick up your liquor.”
Reynolds relented and drank.
“I don’t want to see you in court, Mr. White,” Reynolds said.
“Well, you won’t want to encounter me out of it, I guarantee you.”
Eddie threw Andre a warning look. Andre ignored him. Reynolds unzipped a cowhide purse and carefully placed a blue envelope on the bar.
“You can sign these and avoid the courts or hire your own lawyer.”
Andre poured two more. “I’m hiring you,” he said. “Drink. That’s an order.”
“You can’t hire me. Your wife already has.”
“I’ll pay more.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Goddamnit, how does it work then?”
Reynolds tapped the envelope with his index finger. “You sign the papers. That’s how it works. You save yourself some money. You get divorced.” He excused himself for the bathroom.
Andre plucked matches from a wicker basket between the salt and pepper shakers and adjusted the envelope on his dinner plate. He struck a match then admired the flames. Only ashes remained when Reynolds returned. He clasped his hands before his chest to demonstrate his patience. “It cost money to draw up those papers,” he said. “The courts have to process them.”
“Guess she’ll have to pay for another time through.”
“You don’t understand. Once they’re processed, they belong to the court. I served them to you. They’re your responsibility now. You’ll have to pay for another summons.”
Reynolds smoothed his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “There are witnesses. They will testify to what occurred. You,” he said to Eddie.
“We don’t do that here, mister.” Eddie opened the sink spigot.
“If I subpoena you, you damned sure will. I’ll be prepared with perjury or contempt charges, otherwise.”
Eddie withdrew a plate from the soapy water and rinsed it, then another. “You thought you were prepared when you walked in here, didn’t you?”
Reynolds switched his attention to Andre. “I’ll serve you at work, in front of your students.”
“It’s summer,” Andre said.
The lawyer drew a deep breath. “I can see why she’s leaving you.”
“So can I,” Andre said. “I just don’t want her to.”
“It’s my job,” Reynolds said. “Nothing personal.”
“No offense taken. A little more fee?”
“My wife’s going to shout bloody murder.”
“Better make it a double, then.”
Eddie let the dishes sit and paged through the phone book nailed to the wall. He punched some numbers.
“Mrs. Reynolds,” Eddie said. “This is Eddie at the tavern. Yeah, Crazy Eddie, though I’m not much crazy anymore. Your husband, he wanted me to inform you he’s with a client.”
Reynolds pleaded for the phone. Andre hushed him.
“No, I’m not covering for him,” Eddie said. “He’s a good man, now, everybody with any sense knows so. He’s with this hard drinker is all, and they’re working something out, so he’s indulging him to grease the skids. You’ll want to taxi him home when he finishes here. I won’t have an educated man arrested for drinking on my watch.” Eddie paused to listen. “No, ma’am. If there were women, why would he ask you to pick him up? He’d have one of us drop him off. That’s how it’s done. Thank you, ma’am. I’ll call you when he’s ready.”
“He don’t cost a hundred dollars an hour either, either,” Andre told him.
They had put a significant dent in the bottle when Smoker arrived and sat on the opposite side of the lawyer. Eddie retrieved him a beer. Smoker nodded to the whiskey bottle and Andre slid it past the lawyer to his brother. Smoker hoisted the bottle and pulled.
The brothers were heads and tails on the same coin. Andre had trouble meeting another’s gaze. His eyes drifted about a room, measuring occupants uneasily. His rounded shoulders folded forward over his chest like he expected a blow, though his reputation made the event unlikely. He cut his black hair short to disguise a stubborn cowlick. As an adolescent, he’d suffered acne. He still washed his face three times a day, but his skin shone with oil in any light. His brow shadowed his eyes and a bent Roman nose. He had straight teeth; still he rarely smiled; he appeared at times pensive and at others bilious. Living alone had left him with intuition like a woman. Sometimes it served him well. Others it hardly mattered. Some futures were already put down and no one could guess them gone.
Smoker shared the same black hair, though not the cowlick. He wore it nearly to his shoulders. In certain lights it appeared purple. Stronger lines than Andre’s delineated his face, as did a genial countenance. He was as tall as his brother, but he carried his shoulders more horizontally. Though Andre was a capable high-school basketball player, Smoker was the one who looked the athlete. He twirled pool cues with the same grace required to spiral a football and walked like his limbs were half air. If he decided to leap it appeared he could decide when to come down, as well.
“Seen my good-for-nothing woman?” Smoker asked.
“Not since the last time you asked,” Andre told him.
“Check with Eddie,” the lawyer suggested.
Smoker lifted an eyebrow. “How’s he know about Eddie?”
Eddie wiped the counter under his glass. “Every sinner finds the Lord sooner or later.”
“What about it, Edward?”
“Haven’t seen her since Flag Day,” Eddie told him.
“She’s probably just making a wide loop,” Andre said. He reached across the lawyer and confiscated the whiskey.
“I ain’t finished with that,” Smoker complained.
Andre paused. “You stop to wonder why a lawyer is my drinking partner tonight?”
Smoker stared at the french fries in ketchup and the lettuce leaf blackened with the letter’s ashes. He didn’t reply. They listened to the beer lights tick.
“Who’s watching Bird?” Andre asked. Smoker’s ten-year-old daughter was named Raven, but Smoker called her simply Bird.
“Dede’s got her.”
“You never said nothing about that up till now.”
Smoker shrugged. “Didn’t know till this afternoon. I thought Vera had her."
Andre glanced at Smoker. “Where you looked?”
“At that biker she used to shack with and Vera’s, like I said.”
“Neither’s seen her?”
“That or ain’t saying.”
“There’s a child missing?” Reynolds asked.
“Damned straight,” Smoker told him.
“Is there something I can do?”
Smoker pursed his lips. “Might be good to have a member of the bar in our corner. We could roust Vera and Biker Bump again.”
Smoker bummed Eddie’s cigarettes, lit one and put it between Reynolds’s fingers. “It’ll make you look meaner.” He hooked the lawyer’s arm and steered him to the door. Andre followed. Outside, Andre paused at his rig for a .38 pistol. In Smoker’s pickup cab, Smoker unholstered a snub-nosed Luger then tossed Reynolds a twelve-gauge from the window rack.
“Don’t shoot it,” Andre said.
“But if you do, get close,” Smoker added.
The lawyer crawled into the pickup bed and propped himself on the wheel well. Andre joined him.
Their first stop was Smoker’s live-in’s sister. Vera was as husky as Dede was thin. She looked like a legged ham. Twice she’d whipped her husband into the emergency room. Finally he countered by half scalping her with a posthole digger then lit out for Ephrata and the county hoosegow where he awaited the morning turnkey. But Vera declined to charge him and they had lived amicably ever since.
Smoker pounded the door and Vera answered.
“You should keep an eye on them better if you want a family, Smoker.” Vera was loud enough for the neighbors to come to their windows.
“She’s got the child.”
“Girl’s as much hers as yours.”
“And if you were God above, who’d you want looking out for her, Vera?”
“Neither of you.”
She shoved by Smoker and marched to the truck. She inflicted a curt look upon Andre then bored her eyes into Reynolds. The lawyer opened and closed the breach of the double-barrel.
“That don’t scare me,” Vera said.
“I wasn’t trying to,” the lawyer told her.
“Good, because I’m sure armed threats are against the bar.”
She turned and found Smoker. “I don’t know where she is,” Vera said. “I’d get the girl myself if I did.”
“You see her, that’s what I want you to do,” Smoker said.
“It would be for the child’s sake,” Vera told him.
“I don’t care why,” Smoker said. “Just as long as it gets done.”
Smoker turned for the pickup.
Vera raised her voice. “You know our mother’s place?”
“Still summer,” Vera said. “The roads are manageable.” The place had been Dede’s parents’. The old days, her father skidded logs the warm months and winters tugged green chain at the mill, and her mother cooked in the school kitchen. Both passed some time ago; they left the place to Dede and Vera and a brother who manned a Louisiana oil rig and pronounced no word to the sisters even for the funerals.
Smoker reversed the truck from her driveway.
“You think bikers are tougher than fire?” he asked Andre.
“Tough ain’t the question. Stupid is,” Andre said.
“Let’s hope this Bump is a lot of one and not much of the other,” Smoker replied.
“You could drop me at home,” Reynolds shouted from the truck bed.
Smoker opened the back slider. “Not yet.”
At the trailer court, the biker’s porch light glowed. Smoker dropped from the truck cab and clubbed the front door. Bump Rasker opened it and barreled through the door as if bee-stung.
Smoker put the gun muzzle to his forehead.
“I ain’t seen her, goddamnit.”
Andre fished a gas can from behind the seat and soaked the skirting beneath the manufactured home. Smoker tossed him a matchbook.
“I’ll call the law,” the biker shouted.
“We brought us a lawyer.” Smoker aimed his flashlight at Reynolds. “I guess we’ll do as we please.”
Bump approached the pickup bed. “You a real shyster?”
The biker scratched his goatee. “I got to tell?”
Under the streetlight, Reynolds appeared white and holy. “It seems prudent,” the lawyer said.
“You won’t burn me down?”
“Not if I’m satisfied with your answers,” Smoker told him.
“Last I seen either Dede or the girl was three weeks at least. They was with Harold the Preacher and his whacked-out son.”
“I recognize that Harold’s name,” Andre said.
“Well, first I heard of them was when they knocked on the door and walked in.”
Andre lit a match, which threw a watery light on the grass and low shrubs. “Seems to me a long way from answering my question.”
“Give me a minute, goddamnit,” Bump said. “They were hunting Peg.”
“I told them. But they kept around. They had cocaine and money, so I didn’t argue.”
“So how do we find them?” Smoker asked.
Bump shrugged. “I don’t know. The boy’s drugs dried up and so did his money, but he claimed he had more. Harold read his good book and watched TV news. Drank a beer or two but didn’t put out spending money or partake in the cocaine. Dede decided to follow the son and took the kid. I wasn’t invited.”
“You’re not telling me anything useful,” Smoker said.
Bump eyed Reynolds.
“In Spokane. A place off Wellesley. Heroy, I think. Twenty something’s the address.”
“How do you come to know this?”
“Dede wanted her unemployment forwarded.”
“He spilled it all, you think?” Smoker asked Reynolds.
Reynolds said he sounded genuine.
Andre extinguished the match and pocketed the rest.
They returned to the tavern where Eddie phoned Reynolds’s wife. Smoker and Andre waited with the lawyer on the sidewalk. Desdemona butted her forehead into the jamb, clanging the bell inside. Eddie had banished her for farting.
When Reynolds’s wife arrived, Andre apologized through the passenger window. She wore white, which left her tanned skin darker. She was fully aware of the effect. Her short hair was practical. She did little with it, maybe because she wasn’t required to. Reynolds kissed her hand like a sailor long at sea might. She laughed. A man could go a hundred years without hearing a sound so pleasant.
Smoker and Andre watched their lights go.
“Dingy bastard,” Smoker said.
Andre ignored him. A grassy strip lay between the curb and sidewalk. He walked to it and sat. The cool of the earth swirled around him like water. He wanted to slump into it and sleep. Smoker kicked him in the shin, hard. Andre rolled but Smoker booted him once more, then grabbed Desdemona and lobbed her at him. The dog yipped and her claws drew blood through Andre’s shirt. Smoker dodged backward but Andre caught his shoulder and thrust him to the pavement.
Smoker glared up at him. Andre punched his belly.
“That hurt?” Andre asked.
“Not as much as you want it to.”
“Well maybe I should put a little more effort into it.” Andre rose and kicked Smoker between the shoulders.
Smoker grunted. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked.
“Why in hell not?” Andre replied.
Smoker navigated the truck through Grand Coulee’s Main Street. The place was a coupling of Colville Confederated Indians, construction men hard-hatting at the dam, and locals between jobs or disability checks. The coulee towns lost a kid every other year to poor driving and poorer drinking. The high school had exhausted athletic fields to name for them, so the last funeral paved the student parking lot.
They crossed the lit dam’s mile span then steered for a road few remembered existed. The truck wound between the riprap, stones bigger than the vehicle. Andre felt like a child in a dream of dinosaurs. Farther, a boneyard retired the contractors’ ten-foot cable spools, bent and rusted crane booms, and a scrapped loader minus tires, the Bureau emblem barely visible on the door. Another hundred yards, fifteen years of Christmas trees lay against an ancient retaining wall, their dead needles still piped with tinsel.
Smoker steered them along a wide trail to an abandoned park on the water. The government had let the place go after the third powerhouse. Water-blackened pylons held a log boom the drawdowns had stacked against a half-sunk swimming dock.
Smoker and Andre listened to the water lap the park’s pebbled beach. The wind had eased, dropping with the sun.
“You ain’t Jesus Christ, you know,” Smoker said.
Twenty feet upriver, a deadheaded tree lay upside down in the sand, its dry roots spread like a gray star against the water’s darkness. Andre chunked a stone at it and missed. Smoker tried with the same result. Andre lobbed another, closer.
“You got to turn everything around, don’t you?” Andre said.
Smoker sorted through a handful of gravel for the rocks that would fly best. He hit the deadhead on the bounce.
“Don’t count,” Andre told him.
“I know it,” Smoker said. He threw another, shorter still.
Andre plunked it his next try. Smoker emptied his hands.
“You’d have found someone else to drive the nails,” Smoker said.
“You saved me looking.”
Smoker lit two cigarettes and offered Andre one. Smoker exhaled. His smoke broke up around him. He was quiet awhile.
“Zebra can’t change its stripes, can it?” Andre said.
“Don’t make it right,” Smoker replied.
“No,” Andre said. “But it keeps it from being a surprise.”
A typical summer haze, wheat-harvest chaff and dirt trucks and combines in the fields smeared the halved moon. Its light winked in the reservoir waves.
“Don’t change the matter at hand,” Smoker said. “I can’t leave Bird in the wind. Dede alone, I’d not ask.”
“But this lunatic is religious to boot.”
“That’s troubling,” Andre agreed. Lately religions had become unruly. Most had organized into megachurches, where hucksters suckled from the masses’ fears and otherwise normal people crowded into warehouses to shut their eyes and lift their quaking hands toward heaven as if their football team had just scored a touchdown. At the other end of the trough, a north Idaho sect was rumored to have eaten a wayward cross-country runner a few summers ago.
Andre listened to the wind press the reservoir waves into the bank.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Need,” Smoker said.
“Someone to ride shotgun.”
“Money. Couple thousand probably.” Smoker lit a cigarette. “I won’t pay it back.” He dragged from his smoke. “Even if I scraped that much together, I mean, something will keep me from getting it from me to you.”
“That ain’t news.”
“I’m tired of lying to you.”
“Maybe you ought to keep the truth easier to tell,” Andre told him.
Before light, Andre woke to eggs snapping on his stovetop. His head ached from the whiskey and too little sleep. The coffee had already perked when he discovered Claire at his stove at a quarter to four.
<tx>“Bacon’s in the oven,” she said.
“Smoker has visited you.”
She leveled her gaze at him from the stove. Andre sipped his coffee. She brewed it better than he could, though they had employed the same blend and kettle.
“You corrupted my lawyer,” Claire said.
“Only a little.”
“I told him you had a stubborn streak.”
She carried the pan to the table and slid two basted eggs onto his plate. “Can you get the bacon?”
Andre retrieved it with an oven mitt. He set two strips on his plate and left her the same.
“It doesn’t make any kind of sense,” Claire said.
“You got prospects?”
“No,” she replied.
He drank his coffee.
“Do you see us together somewhere ahead?” Claire asked.
Andre peered into his cup.
"That would require too much, wouldn’t it?” Claire said.
“I don’t know. Forgiveness. Optimism. Faith.”
“All words I can’t comprehend, you figure.”
Her brown eyes reflected the light, and the breakfast grease made her skin shine. “I don’t want to fight.”
“But you want to put me in the skillet then blame me for cooking.”
“No,” she said. Andre thought she might cry and if she did maybe he would too, and if that happened, this moment might be the one to lift them past history, both recent and ancient. He heard the clock; waiting had become his lot and the rest was just supposing. He finished his coffee and Claire refilled the cup then poured more for herself. She sipped then set the cup down and blew on the surface.
“Don’t let Smoker twist you into something you don’t want to do,” she said.
“There’s a child involved. My niece, in particular,” Andre replied.
“That child’s in trouble whether Dede or Smoker raises her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Anyone with eyes knows it,” Claire said. She sighed. “Look at you.”
“I had a chance once.”
Claire surveyed their plates. “She’s not your daughter.”
“Child don’t need to belong to you to need your help,” Andre said. “I’d thought you might have considered that.”
Claire winced. “That is a mean thing to say.”
“It is,” Andre agreed.
“I suppose I deserve whatever hurt you mete out.” Claire rose and dumped her coffee in the sink then rinsed the cup. The light reflected the beginning of crow’s-feet that tugged at her eyes. “I don’t guess there’s anything I can do to talk you out of it.”
“I been trying to talk myself out of it all night,” Andre said. “Part of me isn’t listening.”
“You need anything? I have some money.”
“No, I got enough. Smoker tell you different?”
“No,” she said. “He never told me as much as you thought.”
“Wasn’t about that, was it? Telling, I mean.”
“It wasn’t about that, no,” she said.
Andre nodded. “Have Reynolds make another paper. I’ll sign it if that’s what you want.”
A passing car’s light stretched their shadows on the wall. In it, Claire’s tight jaw and the tired corners of her mouth came clear. Then the light slid from her and she became the yellow of old paper. She bent and kissed his forehead.