When Ray didn’t come home for a week, I made a dent in a bottle of Early Times and gave the boots, flannel shirts and Irwin handsaw he’d left behind to a thrift store. After I realized Jamie could’ve used the shirts down the line and I may as well have kept the saw, I drank more of the bottle, put a pot of pasta on the stove for dinner and sliced open the last tomato of the season. It was rotten. High-watt lighting always makes a person feel drunker on account of it giving everything a plastic, surreal look, but I could tell by the kids’ silence during dinner they thought I was pretty sauced, with or without the lights. Ray had always come back before.

I covered up what we didn’t eat and stuck it in the fridge so no ants could get at it. The kitchen trash needed to be taken out, but I only got as far as the porch before leaning it against the railing and sitting down next to the stuffed bag. It was evening time and the sun brought red to the surface of the rocks, the house and even my legs as it sank. The desert and far-off mesas looked like a cardboard backdrop on a movie set. An old Western. It was quiet as if all the creatures were waiting for the heavy sun to leave. Most of the activity in a desert happens at night when the heat drops and the animals aren’t cautious about exposing themselves anymore.

Watching the hard earth blaze, I could almost miss Ray. When management at the hotel had been hollering or guests had me running in circles, he’d massage the knots out of my shoulders. The same with when I’d had a few too many the night before, plus he’d handle Carla’s breakfast. He spoke slowly and made pancakes better than a restaurant; it was the only food he could cook without a grill. Thinking about him got me mad again. I couldn’t separate it from the missing.

He’d come back late last Wednesday and said he’d quit his job. And it wasn’t as if he had other work lined up, just a half-assed plan of doing freelance carpentry out of an old shack he called his shop. Of course I didn’t like it, particularly not when he said I was never reasonable when I was drinking. He started packing, but I refused to back down. I harried him outside, still screaming that his woodwork wouldn’t bring in a cent, until the red glow of his taillights had faded.

My cell phone rang from inside the house. Jamie wasn’t hollering at me to answer it, so I knew it wasn’t Ray. I got up anyway. It was Trish. She’d worked with me when I’d bartended at Macovy’s. I put Carla to bed before going out to meet her so Jamie wouldn’t have to do it. We were getting a jump on me turning thirty next week.

I made it home around two. Tripping up the porch steps, I dropped my purse. My cell phone fell out. When I checked it there were no missed calls. I played with the contacts list for a moment before throwing it as far away as possible. It bounced and landed somewhere outside the patch of light coming through the door.

Jamie sat at the kitchen table and squinted at me. He’d probably fallen asleep. He was twelve and stubborn when he wanted. Before Ray moved in, Jamie would sometimes sneak fives out of my wallet and hide them around the house to be collected later that month when the electric bill came in.

“What are you still doing up?” I wanted to know.

He shrugged and went over to the sink and filled a Cardinals cup with water.  He slid it to me across the table.

“I asked you a question,” I said, ignoring the water. I didn’t want to get up and pee a bunch during the night.

“Nothing, Mom. Why do you care?” he asked and headed for his bedroom.

The door closed. I stared at it. The quiet buzzed in my ears. Then I decided I wanted to sleep too.

*          *          *

“Mom? Mom, wake up. You’re going to be late for work.”

My lips were dry and cracked. Jamie stood over the bed.

“Why didn’t your alarm go off?” he asked.

“I’m not going today.”

I was probably still too drunk to drive.

“You at least need to call in and tell them you’re sick again.”

“I know. Pass me the phone.”

“Mom, where’s your cell? It’s not in your purse.”

Shit. I sat up slowly. In the bathroom I washed the caked makeup off my eyes and chugged two glasses of water.

The sunlight made my head pound. The phone had only gone ten feet from the porch, though it was dusty and didn’t stick out right away. There was a new crack down the screen, but it turned on when I plugged in the charger.

I woke up again in mid-afternoon. Last night’s pot of pasta sat empty in the kitchen sink. Jamie had probably made sure they’d eaten exactly at noon. He had a knack for being correct about things when there was no adult around. Sometimes I didn’t know how much to treat him like a kid. I rifled through the fridge, but we needed more groceries. I knew they’d complain about fried eggs and toast for dinner again.

Outside, Jamie was trying to toss a football with Carla. He’d grown enough in the last two months that he could finally throw one single-handed, if he balanced it right. Carla dropped the ball almost as often as she caught it. Then Jamie would run closer, and she’d wrap it in her arms and hurl it back. They stopped when I opened the door.

“Hi, Mama,” Carla waved.

I hugged her. They should’ve been in school, but I was in no position to be doing any yelling.

“Throw the ball!” she yelled to her brother and slipped away from me.

“Jamie, I’m running to the supermarket, but when I get back I can give you a hand with your history project.”

“I don’t need you to. I finished it already.”

“I thought it wasn’t due till next week.”

“Ray helped me with it before you kicked him out.”

“He chose to leave. And don’t roll your eyes at me!” I told him as I climbed into the car.

In the supermarket, I felt shaky and leaned against the handle of the cart as I pushed it down the aisle. The girl working the register in the express line looked pregnant.

“You a Rattlers fan?” I asked.

The Rattlers were the high school football team. From what I remembered, all the kids in school were fanatics. She kept chewing her gum as if she hadn’t heard me. I recognized that deafness and shut my mouth.

Carla played with her peas during dinner. She refused to eat them until Jamie ate all of his and told her how good they were. Even then she seemed skeptical, as if she’d forgotten we’d had the same meal two weeks before.

I put her to bed early. The door to Jamie’s room was open, which didn’t usually happen. I poked my head in. He wasn’t there. Leaning against the bed was the blank poster board I’d bought him for his project on railroads. It was still in the plastic wrapping.

*          *          *

I cut my shift at the hotel short and drove across town to the construction site where Ray worked. He’d gotten rid of his old apartment when he moved in with us last year. This was the best place I knew where to find him, but I still didn’t know how I’d ask him back. I wasn’t too happy about wandering around the piles of debris in the heels and tight skirt all the receptionists had to wear, but there hadn’t been time to change.

“He ain’t here, Suzanne.”

Pete Williams leaned against a sign for McCarthy & Son Construction Co. He was the first person whose door I’d have knocked on if I’d been desperate enough to look for Ray the night he left. Pete kept his hair in a buzz cut to hide premature balding.

“Ray quit. Or got fired, depending on how you look at it,” he said.


“Yep, he stuck up for J.T. against old McCarthy’s son.”

“Who the hell is J.T.?”

“The new kid. Should still be in high school. Physical work ain’t his calling but he tries hard.”

Now I remembered hearing Ray talk about him. The younger McCarthy gave him a hard time. Ray had come home worked up over it more than once.

“Turns out the McCarthy son was having him work the last hour of each day unpaid to make up for being clumsy on the job,” Pete continued. “Tried to make it sound like he was doing it out of fairness to the other workers who got more done, but Ray called him on it. The son of a bitch told Ray to leave if he didn’t like how things were being run.”

“Any idea where he’s staying?” I asked after a few seconds had gone by.

“Last I talked to him he was headed for Albuquerque. Figured you all had a row by the way he was so set on going. Never even came by to pick up his paycheck. You could probably take it you know.”

“It’s not my money.”

“Don’t you think he would’ve wanted you to spend it on Jamie and Carla?”

“I don’t want it, Pete. I’ll see you around.”

*          *          *

On the way out of town, I stopped at Macovy’s. I didn’t get out, just sat in the car. Inside, men fiddled with the brims of their baseball caps as they waited for the alcohol to kick in. Most of them would clear out in an hour or so. They just wanted to tip back a few before going home to their old ladies, who’d count the empties. I’d made more money there, but the kids liked my job as a receptionist better.

The day shift wasn’t too rough, and for a while I didn’t keep alcohol in the house most nights. But then it got old. There’d been a couple times when I’d called in sick after I was already supposed to be there. It’s like a seesaw. You’re either up or you’re down.

At home, I let myself into Ray’s shop. It had been an old shack with a hole in the roof that I’d never much bothered with until he came along. He’d hauled a lot of rusted scrap metal out of it that first month. At the beginning he’d made it look worse. He’d move one piece of junk only to find out it had been supporting two other pieces of junk, and everything would fall over. It almost seemed as if the shack just wanted to be left to its tumble-down self, that it didn’t want to be improved.

Now it was full of light and sawdust and smelled of wood. I ran my fingers along a board. Once he’d fixed the place up, I used to come in some afternoons with Jamie. He liked watching Ray so much he’d forget to act rude with me. It felt like a slice of peace until Ray started up a drill or circular saw.

His repairs and efforts filled the place. Ray made things easier. He hardly ever got mad, just when he was bone-tired and I’d been needling him because the whiskey had been needling me. Then he’d get fed up and spend a night or two sleeping on Pete’s couch. He never yelled at the kids and didn’t push hard to change me. The way we lived staggered on, held up by his kindness. He was a good person by instinct; as long as he was helping someone it almost didn’t matter what for.

Over dinner I told the kids Ray wasn’t coming back. I said it didn’t have anything to do with them, that it was my fault. I knew Carla would cry and Jamie would sulk, but I also knew years down the line this would be the choice we’d needed. I hoped they’d ease into seeing it that way, too.

“Did you even try, Mom?” Jamie asked. “Did you talk to him or just decide this on your own?”

“He left town. It’s pretty clear.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“If he was planning on coming back, he’d have told me by now.”

“That’s bullshit! You don’t know because you didn’t ask him. I want him to stay!”

“I know I’m not always the parent you want, but do you really think having Ray around is going to fix things?”

“You’re not going to change. You’re just going to get drunk again!”

“Watch yourself now. I aim to try, Jamie, and that’s better than having Ray here making you think everything’s okay when it’s not.”

“No, it isn’t! We can’t even rely on you to lock the doors at night!”

Jamie’s voice wasn’t steady. His lips quivered and he looked younger than usual. He jumped up and knocked over his chair but didn’t stop to pick it up before running out of the kitchen. Carla wailed. I held her until the sobs turned into hiccups.

Jamie’s door was thrown open but the room was empty. The poster board from yesterday was gone. Down the hall, a light shone from inside my room. I stood outside the door a moment, trying to figure out what he was up to before going in. He was talking to someone. We didn’t have a landline so he had to be using my cell phone.

“You can’t leave me with her,” came Jamie’s wobbly voice. “I’ll run away!”

I smacked the door open with the flat of my palm. Jamie squatted on the floor with the phone crushed to his left ear. He saw me coming and tried to run, but I grabbed his arm. He knew I would take the phone away, probably thought I’d hang up on Ray too.

“Leave me alone!” Jamie shouted.

I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t need to because I was stronger than him and pried his fingers off the phone, one by one, even as he bellowed and swatted at me with his right hand, even when he lost his grip because of his own tears and sweaty palm, even when he bit my arm and drew blood.

Jamie barreled from the room. The porch door slammed. His feet pounded down the steps and into the desert. Then there was only silence.

I’ve done more harm to myself drunk, but the punctures from his fresh, adult teeth stung so bad I cried. There were a lot of things about our life Jamie didn’t like. I knew that. But I’d never thought he could hate me. It took a while before I remembered the phone in my hand. I looked down at the screen. Ray was still waiting.

“I can’t really talk right now,” I said, wondering how loud the shouting and crying had been. “Jamie ran off.”

“Suzanne, it’ll be alright. He’s becoming a teenager. You can’t change that.”

“Why didn’t you tell me what happened with McCarthy?” I asked.

“Because that wasn’t the issue and it wouldn’t have made a difference at the time.”

“I didn’t mean to yell so much.”

“I figured. I’ve been looking for work,” he said. “It looks like I have some options. The city pays better but-”

“Yeah, I know, it’s not just about the money for you. Maybe you should find a place in Albuquerque,” I told him.

“What the hell?”
“I’ve got to fix things with my kids and you being here won’t mend anything, just bury it for a while.”

“I help.”

He said it quietly, but I knew what he was doing, trying to calm me down. It was the voice he used when I was drinking.

“I don’t want my kids to be scared to count on me. You make it easy to avoid dealing with things.”

“Suzanne, I can understand why you want to quit but I don’t see why you have to cut me out.”

I could talk to him all night, and nothing would change. Ray would just stay with us and I’d keep drinking while he took care of everything.

“I’m sorry. I think if you could, then I wouldn’t need to,” I told him and hung up.

I put my whole mind on Jamie and pushed myself off the floor. Down the hall, onto the porch, into the desert, I called but heard nothing.

The moon was over half full. I could see enough to avoid tripping over the stones and scrub brush at my feet but not farther out to where I might be able to separate the shape of a twelve-year-old from the staggering shadows of warped, old rocks.

I kept looping back to the house. Even once I’d put her to bed, I didn’t want to leave Carla alone for long.

After I’d been shouting for a while, I couldn’t think about Jamie anymore because it closed off my voice. Instead, I brought up small pieces of Ray that were comforting, like when he’d let Carla sit on his lap and steer his truck up the driveway. As long as I blotted out the whole of him, it was alright.

At midnight I stopped tracing circles through the desert and tried to guess where Jamie might have gone. Most of the trails off our porch lead back to themselves. Of the two that go anywhere, one goes to the Tub, a sandstone bowl that rises six feet up out of the desert, and the other goes to a two-lane interstate. Everything else just peters out into sandstone and scraggly plant life.

Back in the house, I used a kitchen knife to widen the leg holes of the toddler backpack Carla used to ride in when she was younger and we’d all go for walks in the desert. She was cranky when I woke her up, but she fit. It was a heavy load though.

Off the porch again, I chose the trail to the interstate and then followed its shoulder to the bus stop. He wasn’t there. Heat and nausea spread though my body. A couple hours would have been enough time to have gotten a ride into town. But there was no one he could stay with without me finding out about it. I lowered Carla in her backpack onto the bus stop bench and sat down beside her. Car headlights washed over us. The backpack forced Carla’s limbs to stick out rigidly, like a plush teddy bear, and I left one hand on the shoulder straps to keep her propped upright. Her round, child’s eyes took in the passing vehicles.

Going to the Tub before getting the car and driving around town could give him more time to hitch a ride to somewhere else, like Albuquerque, but Carla had finally accepted the backpack. I went over places to search in town as I hoisted her up again.

My shoulders felt tight. I didn’t think I’d be able to carry her home. She’d have to walk, but I climbed up the Tub with her anyway.

Jamie lay cupped in the palm of the cold stone. He’d curled up into a ball. I don’t think he realized I was there until I lifted Carla from the backpack and wrapped my arms around him.

I told him I was sorry. Ray would come back. I’d ask him to. I said it over and over, voicing the sounds softly to soothe us both. After a while he joined in with his own words, saying he was sorry too, that he loved me, that it didn’t matter. I kept my left arm around his shoulders and hugged Carla with my right.

If you lean back against the curve of the rock, you can feel the earth holding you up and hear the wind whispering secrets as it whittles the stones into fantastical shapes. Carla’s eyelids drooped. I started telling her stories about the desert. They’d been told to me once and I’d made sure Jamie had heard them too. I began one about Coyote, the trickster, but Jamie took over and turned it into a different story. He still hasn’t learned to like Coyote, who’s never plain good or bad. Jamie’s favorites are the ones about the early days when people were still learning how to live in the world.

We listened to the words take shape. Jamie’s voice grew, blending with what I remembered, and the stories seemed outside time somehow. I couldn’t resist adding in twists that didn’t exist. I thought I’d annoyed him, but he kept going, weaving my attempted plot changes into the larger story, tying together the loose ends I’d thrown him.

Carla fell asleep but Jamie kept talking. I wondered when he would discover that making life better wasn’t just about dealing with the hard parts of other people. He wanted Ray to come back so bad. I hoped he’d forgive me.

I thought how it could be when he was in high school wanted me at his football games. He’d do fine in class and wouldn’t drink. It would be different with Carla. This part of her life would fade into the myths of early childhood. I’d have to keep an eye on her, but at least she’d never have a reason not to believe in me. I pulled her closer in from the cold and shivered thinking how the possibility of changing it all was already branded into me.

The white moon bared the skeleton of the land. Tomorrow it would be fleshed out as its red hues returned with the heat. I imagined how we looked from far away, curled up together in the pale expanse of desert, and it seemed then that I’d never drink again.