“Okay, Dad,” a sleepy voice mumbled behind me. It could have been my own.
The road’s yellow lines hammered hypnotically into my brain. It was punishment for something, though I wasn’t sure what. I’d forgot where I was going about fifty miles back, but I was in a hurry to get there, it was night and these goddamn yellow lines were on the verge of battering me into slumberland. My mood was a familiar sort of sour, and as I looked down to turn the radio on, the mostly-empty bottle of scotch on my dash softly suggested that I might be drunk.
A headlight passed. There was a little someone breathing rhythmically, sleepily in my passenger seat. Her T-shirt was sassy Abercrombie & Fitch. A silver Gaelic cross and necklace dangled around her neck. Kim. Kimmy.
“Shit,” I said. I pulled over so fast that I left skid marks.
How did I get here? How did she get here?
A Day Earlier
In Indiana, there’s a suburb where ticky-tacky is a dirty word. It’s a place where people still live for the ol’ two point five kids, two cars, and the stability that only an unspoken whites-only clause could provide . Personally, I’d left the American Dream behind years ago. Fate gave Charlene, on the other hand, a house in that quasi-paradise.
By fate, I mean a team of divorce lawyers plus a five-digit alimony. Taking Kim, among other things, paid for those. It had been seven years, I told her. She wouldn’t even recognize me as her dad.
“Tough. I need a break,” she said.
“A break from what?”
“Don’t be dense. Her.”
Kim was in my car, which I had, with malice and full intention, parked on the lip of Charlene’s carefully cropped grass. Duffel in lap, she read Screamer and lounged, her oversized mukluks pressed against the windshield. I work in suit and tie, so I don’t have to think about fashion much. I could be talking out of turn, but who wears mukluks and short shorts? Besides teenage daughters.
“It’s Michigan or bust, I said.”
“It’s either this or I throttle her,” Charlene replied. “You know I found tobacco in her makeup kit? She said it was rouge.”
“I didn’t even know she used makeup.”
“Still doesn’t. At least not now. Not since Christmas. Thought she’d get this out of her system by spring break, but, well, here we are.”
“She can’t be that bad.”
“And that, Don, is why we’re no longer together.”
I slid behind the wheel and the show began. “Where’d you get the car?” Kim said. She folded a “how” into that question.
“A dealership,” I said. Truthfully, I’d cadged it from the cousin of an uncle of a friend of an acquaintance and so forth. I omitted that.
I omit a lot.
When Kim and I awoke, the sun and clouds were up. A clammy light made everything look worn and grey. The car’s frame shuddered to the beat of highway traffic.
“What the fuck?” Kim straightened and stuffed her Gaelic cross beneath her shirt. Her reaction confused me until I saw it: the bottle was still on the dash.
I rolled my window down and chucked it. A mixture of guilt and shame filled my belly. I rehearsed the truth. I rehearsed lies, too.
I hadn’t settled on any of them when Kim said, “It’s cool, Dad.”
Cheap hotels and I are intimates: wood walls from the same stock as tongue depressors, warped wicker tray with a Reader’s Digest and Holy Bible, coffeemaker without coffee, and a Kinkade over the toilet. Cheaper hotels like the Swallow lacked the Kinkade.
“What a dump,” said Kim once I closed the door.
I’d anticipated her reaction. Didn’t make it sting less. I dug out the Good Book from the basket. “I could have reserved a four-star, but they don’t have these. Wanna torch it?”
When first I’d first seen that Gaelic cross around her neck, I’d formulated a guess. Her nourishing, elated grin confirmed it. I was suddenly elevated from a deadbeat to a fellow skeptic. She made the excuses a good girl had to make – Oh, we shouldn’t! and What if we get caught? – but I rarely fail to sell, and she wasn’t a good girl.
For the record, I’m an agnostic, but in that moment I believed – in her. I didn’t care how big the lie if it pleased her.
By request, Leviticus 20:13 was the first into the wastepaper basket, then a picture of current president Ronald Reagan one of us had (I don’t remember which), then the rest. The ersatz gold leaf sizzled like plastic.
Perched on a crappy cot, we joked about how many terrible TV shows we were missing: Matlock, Full House, Small Wonder and Maude reruns. Once we eased into what we were doing, we insulted the hotel.
“Doesn’t this shithole have a fire alarm?” Kim said.
“Yeah,” I said. “What if this were a real fire? We could get hurt!”
“Yeah! We should get a refund.”
“Our room smells like smoke. They should pay us to sleep here.”
Funny enough to double us over. Had to have been there, I suppose. After my chuckling ran out of gas and my vision cleared up, I noticed that Kimmy had her makeup case out and was chewing something.
“What’s that?” I said.
“What’s what?” she said.
“In your mouth.”
“Roug . . . I mean, gum.”
“Didn’t think rouge was edible. Pass some.”
She hesitated. “You been talking to Mom?”
“Of course I have. Pass some of that ‘gum.'”
So we chewed the cud, as cattle do, until sleep became too much to ignore.
Arriving in Detroit
Cheap hotels stink. Visiting Detroit, I miss cheap hotels. Detroit’s like a book with half its pages ripped out, and the remainder’s the same sentence repeated over and over, over and over and over and over.
I was cruising with index cards in one hand and the wheel in the other, struggling to balance Kim, the art of driving and reading my handwriting.
She slumped downward. “Where are we going?”
“Wherever there’s business,” I said, “and feet off the glovie, lovey. Important documents there.”
She inched sideways. “Can I read ’em?” she asked.
“All else you got is that stupid sales manual.”
“So? If you’re bored, help me find Elton Boulevard, 2637.”
Kim shot forward and fumbled with the glove compartment’s latch. “Come on, Dad.”
“No,” I said so firmly that Kim’s hands immediately zoomed to her sides. “And stop fooling with the seat or you’ll break it.”
A clang of gears proved my point. Kim apologized. I pretended to be angry. It wasn’t my car, after all.
My landmark turned up: the blackened husk of a church. 2637 Elton Boulevard. I parked in the nearest multi-story garage. Kim meekly handed my briefcase to me. For the second time, I asked her if she wanted to come. For the second time, she refused.
I crossed two blocks to the fire-gutted building. Right house? Left house? Flipped a coin. Right house. Doorbell. A quivering sack of pallid skin answered with no hellos or good afternoons. Instead: “What do you want? Do I know you?”
“I don’t want anything, I said. “In fact, maybe I can help you, and maybe you know me. Second pew from the back.”
They frowned. “I don’t recall you.”
“I attended every other Sunday. Pastor Ted was quite the speaker. Shame he died.”
The sack calmed and a smidgeon of color flushed through them. “Okay.”
“Such a shock when it happened. I’m originally from out of town, you see, and this was my big tie to the community, so. . . . You mind if I step inside?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was a real blow, and I’d appreciate if I could communicate with like-minded folks.”
Nine times out of ten, I leave with a fistful of dollars and papers full of ink. Not many rules exist in a business this results-orientated, but there’s one: don’t sell until they let you in.
Naturally, Kim had opened the glove compartment. I would have doubted my sanity if she hadn’t. You do what I do and you begin to tailor the future based on the personalities around you: a wide web of possibilities narrows to one.
Could I slam Pandora’s Box shut? I tried. At first, I ran for the car. Then I saw she had my index cards and most of the newspaper clippings in her lap. I acted casual and plopped into the driver’s seat. A discarded Screamer magazine opened to a Gene Simmons interview crinkled under my butt.
I said, “Kim, I was never good at persuading or pitching. There are a couple of ways to get ahead in this game-”
She waved the index cards. “2637 Elton Boulevard. 3357 Rosa Parks Drive. Two of about a dozen addresses listed in this.” She held up a clipping which read, DETROIT PAYS PRICE FOR ARSON, INSURANCE FRAUD. “The rest of these? Floods in California. Hurricanes in Kansas.”
“Your mother has spread some bad ideas about me. She never considered insurance a good field.”
“Mom? You’re gonna blame Mom? Mom called you the kind of insurance salesman who’s ‘a service worker.'”
I squirmed. More crinkling. “I am. Some of us are good at pitching and creating a need. I have a knack for finding a need and filling it.”
“By visiting the site of every natural disaster you can drive or fly to?” she said.
“Nothing illegal about my job, and it’s bought you an education. Look at me, Kimmy. You’re the brightest spot in my life. If you’re going to judge me for-”
“Ever have a customer who isn’t afraid for their life? Hey, why not branch into life insurance? You can catch widows on the way out of the funeral home. Easy pickings.”
“Enough,” I shouted, “and get your goddamn shoes off my goddamn windshield!”
She dug her mukluks in harder, and the glass creaked under the strain, but her verbal drubbing ended.
As I started the engine, I wondered how much she suspected, how genuine she thought our bonding at the Swallow was. As long as a client preserves a shred of good faith, there’s hope. But hope was no comfort in the moment. This was the sole, unpleasant conclusion, a wide web of possibilities narrowed to one: my mask torn, what sweetness I enjoyed gone. Charlene’s fault, and Charlene’s faults push me to imbibe.
Reviled by your own child. Charlene’s fault.
That wasn’t true. I knew it.
With Kim’s company, I couldn’t drink, so I went on. I rode the cracked concrete spine of Detroit, hunting for meat. I went on.
The Road Back
The road back wasn’t quiet. I filled it. I filled it with bullshit arguments I remembered from my community college years. The trader principle. Voluntary exchange. Stuff I’d barely remembered from days wasted on the bong and fellow fuck-ups.
She talked back a bit. She was limply struggling with the reality that half her DNA belonged to me. We would speak and then stay perfectly still, waiting for an echo to come back to us. Something of ourselves had to be in the other. Had to be.
But I’m empty. I knew that from the start. It had taken her a while to catch on, but she was learning that, too. All the colors of her personality, all the rage she felt at a world that wasn’t hers, shot straight through my colorless self.
I tried my best to glow, reflect some of that light back at her. But I’d spent too much time in the world.
Kim didn’t say anything to Charlene when we got back. It was kind of her, even if Charlene had known about my character for years. Kimmy sold it, though. She hugged me, told me she loved me, maybe even smiled. Charlene threw a few questions my way. They were bland to the taste, and I answered them blandly.
Kim made for the house, cutting through the lawn.
“Off the grass, missy,” said Charlene.
Kim was at the door. She was about to disappear into that Midwest fantasy of neighborhood barbecues and Superbowl Sundays.
“Kim?” I said.
She pretended not to hear me. “Kim?” I said.
Kim turned and looked at me. Her smile died around the eyes.
“Can we do this again sometime?”
She said the two most hurtful words I could imagine.