Every time Michael told Gina about how he had become her father’s debtor—the old man’s slave, he always said—the story changed a bit. He might linger over his description of the bar where he and the old man met, The Blue Mustang, painting for her the horseshoes nailed along the edge of the bar, the locked door leading to the back room with the illegal poker games, the fat beads of air jiggling up the tubes of the Wurlitzer during the twelve hours they played cards. Or he might, as he traced a finger along Gina’s hairline, her lips, the edge of her collarbone, describe her father: the way the old man laughed even when he was losing, the way his eyes narrowed to slits when he looked at his cards, only once per hand, no double-checking no matter how high the stakes. Sometimes Michael skimmed over the whole night at The Blue Mustang and focused on better days, three straight weeks of a winning streak that had started on his twenty-sixth birthday and had taken him from Reno to Denver, leaving him feeling like he could turn any card to an ace just by brushing his fingers across it. But the story always ended the same way, back at the bar with him losing hand after hand, losing his temper and his money and digging himself deeper until he dug himself right down into Gina’s father’s coal mine, working ten–hour days to pay the old man back for all the bets made with money Michael didn’t have. His hands, while he spoke, were always gentle, but his voice tightened like a guitar string.
“You know what he said to me on my first day? ‘If you disappeared into one of those mine shafts, nobody would do a thing about it. Nobody would even notice. Think about that before you start making plans to sneak off in the middle of the night.’ ”
“He’s not lying,” Gina said. “He has cops in his pocket all over the state. But I’d notice.” What she didn’t say was that she had her own theory about how Michael had ended up in that bar.
Gina was eighteen and had never left Montana or even her hometown. She had a room full of designer clothes and jewelry and expensive shoes, and she hated it all. Her father would let her spend thousands of dollars on a horse she never bothered riding, but he wouldn’t let her go to Billings with her friends for the weekend. He would pay a driver to take her around town, but he would not buy her a car, or even let her buy one herself. She had a job at the convenience store in town that she kept only so she could spend twenty hours a week somewhere she knew he wouldn’t bother her, and the money from her paycheck just piled up waiting for some use she hadn’t yet figured out.
Her older sisters, June and Laura, weren’t smart enough to get away with anything, so they had solved their problems by marrying young and packing their new husbands off to Missoula. Once they were gone, it was harder for Gina to avoid her father’s scrutiny. On nights she wasn’t working and couldn’t sneak away, she would lock herself in her room and lie in bed with the radio on, plotting her escape. She began to picture the man who would get her out of Montana. Not someone boring, like June and Laura’s husbands. Not a husband at all. Someone exciting. Someone who hated Montana as much as she did.
When her father was drunk and in a lecturing mood, he loved to say, “If you really want something, you have to imagine every step of how you’re going to get it, and then you take it without mercy.” It was how he operated with everyone, and it was why half the people in town hated him, but Gina had to admit that maybe there was something to the philosophy, given that he owned everything in sight. So she imagined—the way the man who would be her escape would walk, and sound, and smile. The way he would drink a pop and zip his jeans. The kind of shoes he would wear and how he would smell in the heat of summer. She imagined him until she got to the point where every time she turned a street corner in town she expected to bump right into him.
The night Gina met Michael was one of her sisters’ rare visits home; when their father headed out to the bar, Gina and Laura and June got into Laura’s car and drove down to the lake. Laura and June were drunk on a shared six-pack and cackling with laughter. At the lakeside they left their dresses spread out like empty shells along the pebbled shore, slipped into the cool water, and made their way swiftly to the middle of the lake. They were all strong swimmers, and they spent an hour dipping between the dark water and the clear, sweet light of the moon.
When they swam back to the beach, they slicked the water off their bodies with their fingers, and Laura and June put on their dresses. Gina found her sandals but not her clothes; she walked across the beach, searching, but the night was windless, and until she heard a rustle in the bushes, followed by a quick burst of laughter, she couldn’t imagine what could have happened to the dress. She walked toward the underbrush cursing, eyes boring into the darkness, and crashed through the branches to find a group of men blinking up at her, beer bottles littering the ground around them, and Michael waving her dress above his head like a trophy.
Gina didn’t say anything, and she didn’t try to cover herself. She stared into a dozen-odd pairs of glittering eyes and recognized, one by one, faces she sometimes saw coming out of the mine at closing time. The same realization came over the men, so that they dropped their gazes and shuffled backward into the shadows, muttering apologies. All except Michael, who stayed leaning against a pine tree, lazily grinning up at her while she stared at him. Eventually one of the other miners crawled up to him and whispered in his ear, and then the grin disappeared. Michael turned his face away, held the dress out to her, and, when she took it, got to his feet and ran. But already she wanted to run after him, to bring him back, to tell him she knew why he was there, even if he didn’t.
After that, she noticed him everywhere: coming out of the movie theater; sprawled in the shade of the big oak trees in the park; sitting at the counter at the doughnut shop, licking powdered sugar off his fingers. He hunched over when he ate his breakfast, just like she had imagined he would. He had a tattoo snaking around his left biceps, the way he was supposed to. Every time she saw him she looked at him long and hard before she went back to what she was doing, and he blushed heavily and dropped his eyes.
When she found him sitting alone at Piper’s Grill, two months after the night at the lake, she decided enough was enough. As always, he turned away from her, but she walked over to his booth and sat down across from him, taking half his grilled cheese sandwich from his plate.
“Do you work at my daddy’s mine?” she said.
“Do you like it?”
He took a gulp of his drink and she watched him, biting the crisp corners off his sandwich and enjoying his discomfort.
“There are other places I’d rather be,” he said finally.
“Damn right,” she said. “Like anywhere.”
He laughed, and so did she, but he didn’t say anything else and looked down at his plate again.
“You’ve already seen me naked,” Gina said. “Which most of the boys in this town would give their right eye for, by the way, so I don’t see the point in getting shy at this late date.”
“Could you keep your voice down? Your father would kill me.”
“He’d kill both of us,” she said, “and we haven’t even done anything yet.”
It wasn’t hard to invent ways to cross paths in a town that small. At five-thirty, Gina would leave her house and walk to the Frosty Freeze, the only restaurant near the mine, and sit there drinking a pop with her bare feet up on the wooden rail of the porch until Michael walked by on his way home. Sometimes, if no one else was around, he would stop and exchange a few words with her, but other times he only blew gently against the soles of her feet as he passed. At night, he often came to the convenience store during her shift, just before closing, and spent long minutes browsing the magazine section until all the other customers were gone. As soon as the door closed behind the last patron, Gina would call out from the cash register, “Are you looking for the porno magazines, sir? Because we keep those behind the counter. I’d be happy to show you our selection.” She liked the way he laughed, shaking his head as if he were ashamed of her, walking toward her but still looking at the floor.
Only once did he ever allow her into the rented room where he lived, and then he pulled the curtains shut and turned the TV up loud before he sat next to her on the narrow bed, as though spies might be lurking in the hallway, ears pressed to the door. After a few minutes of nervous conversation she sent him across the street to get beer, and took the opportunity to quickly sift through his belongings. The room was crammed with odds and ends that he collected from the curb: facsimile paintings in fake gilt frames, ceramic lamps shaped like animals, furniture with six coats of paint. In his dresser, underneath his socks, was a plastic baggie of marijuana, which she had never seen him smoke, and a stack of letters bound with a rubber band, the same softly looped handwriting on each envelope in dark blue ink, the stamps set precisely into the corners. She would have opened them if she hadn’t heard the front door creak and Michael’s quick steps mounting the stairs, and she wondered about them for a long time afterward.
Unlike every other boy Gina knew, Michael was a source of constant frustration. His desire for secrecy she understood, and even enjoyed sometimes—it was satisfying to sit at dinner with her father, eating her peas and listening to him gloat about how he had just taken some sucker from Fort Worth in a contract negotiation, with the back of her neck still tingling from where Michael had been kissing it not half an hour before. But it was less satisfying when dinner was over and she was alone in her bedroom, left to reflect that she had never managed to get much beyond kissing, that Michael always disentangled himself just when she thought she had finally seduced him. How it was possible that she had conjured a man all the way to Montana and couldn’t get him to go the extra few steps into her bedroom was beyond her.
“Gina’s daddy was sharp, and she didn’t kid herself about it. As much as she enjoyed sneaking around, she knew that she was never more than one step ahead of him, that if she wanted to lie, the lie had to be perfect.”
“How did you grow up to be so pretty in a town like this?” he asked her one night as they sat whispering on a tree stump at the end of her driveway, twilight fading quickly around them, Gina tucking her hair back behind her ears.
“That’s brilliant, how many girls have you tried that one on?” she said.
“I mean it. This place is going to turn me into dust,” he said. He hooked one finger around the heavy jeweled cross that hung nestled between her breasts, a Christmas gift from her father. “What you need is a place to wear those diamonds,” he said. “Keep on living here and they might as well be glass.”
“He won’t let me leave any more than he will you.”
“You don’t need his permission. You’re an adult. You know what I think?” he said, bringing his mouth to her ear so that his hot breath feathered against her eardrum while he spoke. “I think that deep down, you like being Daddy’s girl. Having nice clothes and everyone in town under your thumb. I don’t think you really want to leave.”
Gina turned her head quickly, so that her lips slid against his and she was kissing him hard for a moment before he stood up and stepped away.
“I just can’t,” he said, “not here. You know he’d find out.”
“You’re a tease,” she said, pulling her knees up against her chest and wrapping her arms around them, turning away from him to look across the fields on the other side of the road. “Anyway, what if he did. I’m old enough to make my own mistakes.”
“It’s a little different for you. You’re his daughter, not some guy he’d beat senseless without a second thought.”
“How much do you owe him, anyway?”
“What does it matter?”
Michael was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “Fifty thousand dollars.”
“Stupid. Who bets that much money?” He didn’t reply, but she could feel the anger in his silence, and looked up at him. “How long ’til you work it off?”
“It’s the interest that’s the problem. Years.”
“Years,” she said. “I hope you don’t think I’m going to wait that long.”
Gina’s daddy was sharp, and she didn’t kid herself about it. As much as she enjoyed sneaking around, she knew that she was never more than one step ahead of him, that if she wanted to lie, the lie had to be perfect, her face and voice and every detail of her story had to be perfect. But she also had a few trumps on him that he didn’t know about, and one of them was the Bomb Drop Money—two hundred grand in cash hidden in the fallout shelter below the basement, Saran-wrapped and ziplocked and stashed in a black gym bag behind four cases of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, right next to the gun rack. She and Laura had found it on a rainy Saturday during Laura’s senior year of high school, less than a year before Laura got married and left Gina to fend for herself. They had joked that only their daddy would save money for a day when money couldn’t possibly be worth anything, when everyone they knew would probably be dead and they’d be lucky if there was anything left to shoot with the guns, much less buy with the cash.
Now, standing in the cool interior of the shelter with a flashlight gripped in her armpit, Gina counted out stacks of twenties—fifty grand for Michael and twenty thousand more to live on, she wasn’t going to be greedy—and then ran her thumb along the edge of the bills, listening to the soft riffle of the paper, like a whispered promise.
She brought the money to the convenience store in her book bag, shifty with anticipation as she waited for Michael to arrive, but when he pushed through the glass door a cool smugness settled over her. She watched patiently as he moved through the store, waiting for the other two customers to leave. When he approached the counter, she scanned the bottle of Coke he handed her and said, “We’re running a special today. Buy a pop and get fifty thousand dollars.”
“Ha ha,” Michael said.
Gina grinned and raised her eyebrows, and nodded to the open book bag behind the counter. Michael leaned toward her and looked down at the bound stacks of bills that she had left at the top of the bag. He coughed once, hard, and stood back again.
“Are you nuts? Where did you get that?”
“Does it matter?” she said.
“Yes, it does matter. If I wanted to get thrown in jail, I could do that on my own.”
“It’s his, but he won’t know about it anytime soon. Anyway, you didn’t take it, I did. I could give it to you. Like a gift.” She crossed her arms and leaned on the counter, so that the front of her tank top gaped open.
Michael frowned. “What do you want?” he said.
“Take me with you. And we have to go tonight. He’ll be at the bar playing poker until close, and then he’ll come home drunk and go straight to sleep.” She nudged the bag around the side of the counter with her foot. “I could close this place down right now and meet you at the movie theater in an hour. Unless maybe you don’t really want to go.”
“You’re loving this, aren’t you?” said Michael, but he knelt down and quickly zipped the bag, slung it over one shoulder, and left the store.
Gina went home, slipped into a black dress, and packed a bag with some other clothes, a toothbrush and a hairbrush, and an old silver cigarette lighter that her sisters had claimed belonged to their long-dead mother. No nightclothes but lots of underwear and a pair of high heels. She locked the door to her bedroom and turned the radio on, climbed out the window and pulled it shut behind her, already picturing the scene that would take place the next morning. Her father yelling for her to turn down the goddamn music, to haul her lazy butt out of bed and get started on breakfast. Banging on the door and finally breaking it down to find nothing but the radio and a neatly made bed.
She sat on a bench outside the movie theater with her eyes closed, her bag in her lap, the shifting green-yellow-red of the stoplight bleeding through her eyelids as she listened to the street. Michael eased his car up to the curb and called to her softly, and she jumped up and ran around to the passenger side, slinging her bag in ahead of her.
He barely talked while they drove, and when he did his voice was low, as though he were afraid her father could still hear him. They kept on through the night, crossed the border into South Dakota a few hours before dawn. Gina rolled down the window and stuck her head out into the breeze and let out a whoop of excitement, because she had done it, finally, gone farther than her father’s influence could reach. A few miles down the road they came to a motel, a cluster of tiny A-frame cabins grouped around a chapel with a green neon cross, and stopped to get a room.
Gina clicked on the bedside lamp and walked around the room opening the drawers, hoping to find something interesting, but Michael sat hunched on the bed and didn’t even look at her.
“He’s going to find us,” he said.
“Hush,” Gina said. “No one knows where you are, except me.”
“Why did you do it?”
“He has enough to spare some. Did he even ask you where you got it?”
Michael nodded. “I told him I went down to the reservation for the weekend, won it at roulette.”
“What did he say?”
“ ‘Some people never learn.’ And then he laughed and told me to come back anytime.”
She stood in front of Michael, put her hands on either side of his face and tilted it up toward hers. “Stop worrying about him,” she said, and then she pulled down her shoulder straps and let her dress slip to the floor like a puddle of ink, just like she’d been studying to do. He drew her to him and pressed his face to her bare, hot stomach. “Oh, Jesus,” he said, and he said it all night, but she could tell it was fear the whole time and not her; she had never realized that he was as scared of her father as he pretended to be.
In the next town they came to, they sold Michael’s car and bought a used pickup truck with a bed cover, put a mattress in the back and began working their way east as summer started to blaze. In cul-de-sacs and hotel parking lots and gravel pull-offs beside fields of soybeans like rippling green oceans, they made love and fell asleep twined together, the tailgate open to let the breeze play across their skin.
They avoided the interstate and stuck to county routes and two-lane state highways. They sold their phones at the first mall they got to, and Michael used the money to buy a cheap one that they quickly filled with pictures of Gina posing at roadside monuments—giant frying pans and concrete chickens and rhinestone-studded plaster Virgin Marys. Gina called her sisters a couple of times, but the conversations were always so awkward—June sounding confused, Laura angry and jealous, all three of them avoiding mentioning their father—that she gave it up and just sent a postcard now and then. Living out of the truck was uncomfortable, but it was fun in its own way. Sometimes Gina and Michael bathed in truck-stop showers, but more often they filled up buckets in gas-station bathrooms and made do with an empty stretch of country road, him tipping the water over her head while she shrieked and stamped with the cold, throwing her stippled arms around his waist and pulling him to her.
They were too afraid to put anything on a credit card—who was to say her father couldn’t use it to track them down—so they just kept spending the cash, but slowly enough that they could pretend it would last forever. In the cities they passed through from time to time, Michael looked up old friends. Gina sat beside him on their couches, smiled when she was introduced, and tried to keep up with the conversation, which was mostly about people she had never met. She drank cocktails when they were offered and tried to be friendly, but she always felt like she made Michael’s friends uncomfortable. Even when they smiled at her, she sensed there was something they weren’t saying, something on the tip of everyone’s tongue, whispered conversations behind closed doors at night. More than once she saw them pull Michael aside, into a hallway or empty room, to talk to him. But those conversations always ended with Michael’s laughter as he came back to sit beside her on the couch, where she’d been making painful small talk. The two of them would sleep in the friends’ spare rooms or on the sofa, enjoying the hot water and free food and a bed that bounced underneath them. “I don’t know how they all got so old,” Michael would say, tracing a finger along her spine as she sank into drowsiness. “Must be something about the mortgages.” After a few days, he and Gina would say their farewells and move on again, back out on their own, leaving the doubts and hushed voices behind for the old friends to worry about.
They spent the winter traveling the South, as far west as Texas and then slowly back toward Florida.
“Let’s head straight up to North Carolina,” Michael said one night as they lay together, waiting to fall asleep.
“But I want to see Miami.”
“No, you don’t. It’s just a big overpriced beach full of tourists.”
“So what? I like the beach.”
“Fine,” he said, and turned his back to her, so that she wondered how he could breathe with his face pressed so close against the wall of the truck bed.
They crossed into Florida the next morning, and were still hours away from Miami when Michael turned sharply onto an exit, crossing three lanes to slide onto the ramp at the last second.
“Are we getting lunch?” Gina asked.
“There’s something I want to see.”
“What?” she said, but he didn’t answer, and it was easier to doze with her head against the window than to ask him questions. He never answered questions if he didn’t feel like it anyway, and she had become used to his moods.
In the late afternoon they passed through a city and Michael began driving slowly, making turns that took them onto smaller and smaller streets, and eventually onto a dirt road that snaked along for miles.
“Are we near Disney World?” she said.
“Disney World is three hours away. And I’m trying to concentrate.”
“When she couldn’t bear the heat, she’d walk up and down the aisles of the grocery store, pretending to look at canned fruit and boxes of cereal until her blood cooled.”
At last they came to a bend in the road that looked no different from the last dozen curves, and Michael pulled the car onto the berm, just to the edge of the turn, and put it in park, then sat looking out the window, saying nothing. To their left was a house painted bright yellow like a new pencil, with a neatly trimmed lawn bordered by azalea bushes and a red-and-white swing set next to the driveway. An old couple were reclining on lawn chairs next to the swings, the man with a newspaper folded over his face.
“What are we looking at? Are we going to kill these people and steal their car or something?” Gina asked.
“Have you ever been serious for one fucking moment in your life?” Michael said. He leaned forward to see better through the windshield glare.
Gina scowled and turned to look out her window. On her side there was nothing but a dense tangle of plants at the roadside.
“Damn it,” said Michael.
Gina looked back at the house. A young woman with a child balanced on her hip had come out to join the older couple. Michael pressed his forehead against the steering wheel.
“Who is that?” Gina said.
“Girlfriend. And my son.”
“My life didn’t start in your father’s mine, you know.”
“I’m not stupid,” Gina said, but she felt nauseated. The woman had set the little boy down and he was walking across the lawn, grabbing onto pieces of furniture. “Can we go?”
“We will. Soon. I just want to say hello. I want to see him.”
“I’m not going in there.”
“Good,” he said. “Don’t. Just wait in the truck, I won’t be long.”
Gina twisted the edge of her dress around her finger, tight enough to cut off the circulation. “Don’t pick him up,” she said. “If you pick that little boy up you’ll never come back.”
Michael narrowed his eyes at her, a cutting look she knew well by now. “Please, be as crazy as possible. Because it’s not like this is already hard.”
He drove a few miles from the house, taking so many turns and shortcuts that, for a while, she thought he was just driving in circles. Eventually, he parked the car in a gravel lot behind a grocery store.
“Here,” Michael said, handing her the cash from his wallet. “Get something to eat while you’re waiting. Sorry there’s nothing better around.”
“I’m giving you three hours, and if you’re not back, it’s over,” Gina said. “I mean it. Don’t say you love me, either.”
“It won’t even be three hours.” He grabbed his jacket and got out of the truck.
“I’m going to stay right here and watch for you,” she said, but he didn’t seem to hear her, walking quickly to the road and starting back the way they had come, sticking his thumb out for a ride whenever a car passed. She watched him until he was out of sight.
She waited there for two days. She ate tuna sandwiches from the grocery store, drank plastic jugs of iced tea, and moved the truck around the parking lot, following the shade of the building as it slowly sailed across the gravel with the passing hours. When she couldn’t bear the heat, she’d walk up and down the aisles of the grocery store, pretending to look at canned fruit and boxes of cereal until her blood cooled. As evening settled, she sat with her forehead against the steering wheel and was just starting to doze when someone said, “Are you all right?”
She opened her eyes. An old man was standing beside the window, looking at her with eyes like puddles of mud.
“Are you all right?” he asked again.
“I seen you out here earlier.”
“Who are you?” she said.
“My name’s Paul.”
“I mean, is this your store?”
“Then go away.”
When she woke up again it was dark, the night full of small noises and the quick sting of mosquitoes, but it was still too hot to roll the windows up. Gina got out of the truck and walked to the edge of the parking lot, looked down to the bend in the road where Michael had disappeared, tried to visualize the yellow house where they had seen the family and the little boy. She imagined Michael sitting there, drinking a beer in the living room, making small talk. She closed her eyes and willed him to stand up, to put the beer down and walk out the door and back up the road to the grocery store and beg her forgiveness. A car came around the bend then, the headlights making her squint, but it roared right past her, spitting gravel at her bare legs. She went back to the truck and climbed inside.
The next day her head ached whenever she moved, and it was hard to even find the energy to get up and go into the store. The thought of drinking more iced tea made her want to gag, but she bought a bag of ice and sat in a patch of grass at the edge of the parking lot, rubbing the cubes across her wrists and legs as the day wore away. At some point, she fell asleep and when she woke up again, it was the middle of the night and the old man was crouching a few feet away from her.
“What are you doing out here?” he said.
“I made him,” she said. “He’s mine. He has to come back.”
“Honey, you’re not even making sense. You’re tired out. Why don’t you come home with me? Whoever you’re looking for, you can find him tomorrow.”
“He’s not, though, is he?” she asked. “Coming back.”
Paul helped her to her feet and led her back through the parking lot, empty except for the pickup and another car with the engine running. He walked to the car and leaned in the driver’s–side window, said a few words to the man inside, and stood back to let him drive away. Then he came back to Gina and opened the door to the truck, but she made no move to get in.
“I have a granddaughter your age in Boston,” he said. “I wouldn’t hurt you for anything. There’s a couch in my attic room. You can sleep there tonight, lock the door if you want. In the morning, we can see about getting you home.”
“I’m not going home,” Gina said.
Paul’s house was dark when they arrived. He went around turning on lights, then brought Gina a towel and a washcloth and showed her the bathroom. She didn’t bother with a shower, but as tired as she was, she cranked up the air conditioning and lay awake for a long time in the dry cool of the attic, staring up at the peak of the roof and feeling the seams of the couch against her back, trying to think of everything Michael had ever said to her about Florida and love and how beautiful she was.
She woke early the next morning, showered, went into the kitchen and started going through the cupboards. With the radio on low, she began to make pancakes. Paul wandered in soon after, trying to smooth his hair into place with his fingers.
“Smells good,” he said.
She nodded, fixed two plates and sat down at the table. Paul ate quickly, swallowing without chewing, like a dog. Gina twirled her fork and leaned back in her chair to look out the window. They didn’t speak, until Paul finished his last mouthful and said, “Got some relatives I can take you to?”
Gina thought of June and Laura with their husbands and babies and their boring lives. Of her daddy bubbling with anger, sitting in his bright white office while the miners shuffled through to collect their paychecks. He must know by now that the money was gone, and where to. He might forgive her, but, then again, he might not.
“Not really,” she said.
She scratched her fingernail against a spot of crusted food on the tabletop, looked around at the house. The windows were fogged with dust, the kitchen linoleum sticky and curled at the edges. She could smell banana peels in the garbage can under the sink.
“You want a housekeeper?” she said.
Paul set his fork down and sighed. “If I could afford a housekeeper, I’d have one already.”
“You need that attic room for anything?” she asked. “You can afford me.”
Every morning she served him breakfast, and while he ate she made up plates for his lunch and dinner and put them in the refrigerator, tinfoil pressed down tightly around the edges. Once a week, she went to the grocery store, vacuumed, wiped down the furniture and the windows, and did two loads of wash.
It didn’t take long for the attic to wear out its appeal, but she wasn’t ready to move on. She took to exploring, learning the layout of the city, walking the sidewalks just to lose herself in a crowd. After a few weeks, she got a job with a catering company and spent her evenings wearing a tuxedo shirt and snug black pants, cruising bar mitzvahs and fundraiser dinners with a silver tray balanced lightly between her hands. On the weekends she and a few of the girls from work would gather at someone’s apartment and drink until the early hours, or one of the boys would get up the guts to ask her out, and when she got home in the morning there was no one to answer to, only Paul. He might shake his head as she dragged herself around the kitchen with a blinding hangover, but he never asked questions.
She took her earnings, rolled them up tight in a pillowcase, and hid them in the dark recesses of the couch cushions. Some nights she counted the money, smoothing each bill across her knee as she went, a tiny black-and-white TV playing old westerns in the background to keep her company.
One day at breakfast Paul said, “So who was he, anyway?”
“Guy you were waiting on when I met you.”
“No one,” she said. “Anyway, he ran off with some slut who probably doesn’t even appreciate him.”
Paul took another bite of his toast. “You ever meet this slut?”
“No. What difference does that make?”
“Just sounds like an ugly name to call someone who wanted the same thing you did.”
“Well, I wanted it more,” Gina said.
“Did you? Well, it’s a hard time getting anything in this life without taking it from someone else.”
Gina didn’t answer, and Paul went to the counter, poured a second cup of coffee, and set it down in front of her. She blew across the top of it to watch the steam billow off, even though she didn’t like coffee.
“The only thing that told time was the money accumulating like dead leaves, two pillowcases full now, hidden in an old bookshelf behind some coffee cans full of screws.”
“When I was your age the only thing I really wanted was a motorcycle,” he said. “Never got one. I had a pretty little girlfriend who thought I was Heaven and Earth all wrapped up in Christmas paper, but if someone had offered to let me trade her for a motorcycle, I’d of done it.”
Gina laughed. “That’s fucked up, Paul.”
“Yeah, well. Last I heard, she was living in Naples with her sons and her grandkids, and all I got is a daughter who won’t talk to me and a crazy teenage runaway who sulks around the attic all day. And still no motorcycle. So I guess the joke’s on me.”
She stayed through the summer, months that were hot and steaming and full of the threat of hurricanes, through the fall and the winter, and it felt like time never passed. To her, winter was cold that froze your spit on the pavement, drifts of snow that covered the windows and made the world silent. Here, there was just a slight coolness and some occasional rain. The only thing that told time was the money accumulating like dead leaves, two pillowcases full now, hidden in an old bookshelf behind some coffee cans full of screws. She didn’t earn much, but she hardly spent anything. She ate the leftovers from work, prime rib and Coronation Chicken, finger sandwiches for breakfast and slabs of chocolate cake if she had a craving. Sometimes she thought about Michael, wondered if he was even in Florida anymore or if he had gotten himself a new truck and a new girl or just started hitching. She didn’t even know the name of the town where he had left her at the grocery store. She knew if she asked Paul he would tell her, and she could drive out there, find her way back to the yellow house, see for herself. She could go crying back to her father, too, say she’d been tricked and taken advantage of, and maybe he’d find Michael for her. But she also knew that the part of her that didn’t want to ask for those things was the better part, and so she cleaned the bathroom with bleach water and mowed the lawn and pulled comforters out of boxes to pad the couch and waited without knowing what for.
In May, the weddings started, two or three every weekend. Gina served hors d’oeuvres in ballrooms filled with bunting and candles, extravagant displays of flowers, small pink boxes of candied almonds. She liked the fuss of it all, the ceremony and music and grandparents slow-dancing on parquet floors. She could get overtime when she wanted it, and she always wanted it. One Saturday, Joel, her manager, called to see if she would come down to the Sea Crest to fill in for a girl who was sick.
“What time?” she said.
“Six. But maybe you have a date.”
“Maybe you should.”
She ignored him. Joel was twice her age and said things like this all the time; she expected it as much as he expected her continued rejection.
The room at the Sea Crest was festooned with ugly violet crepe, and the tables were packed close together. As she waited for the guests to arrive, Gina placed napkins beside plates, set out flatware and glasses and silver pitchers of ice water. Joel handed her a basket of favors, chocolate kisses wrapped in tulle with a paper tag attached. Cheap, she thought, and set four tables full of them before she saw Michael’s name on the tag, paired with one she didn’t recognize, his bride’s.
Gina turned the tag over and stared at the blank back of it. Flipping it again, she traced her finger over the names, the date. Eleven months since she had come to Florida, and all that time he had been there. Had maybe been at the movies with this woman a few streets away from where Gina was buying shoes, had been happily playing house without ever knowing where Gina had gone or what had happened to her. The thought turned her stomach like a swallow of spoiled milk. She tore the tag free of the chocolates and put it in her pocket, and wove her way through the ballroom to the head table. A chair with a brown plastic booster seat sat beside the bride’s chair. Gina filled the water glasses.
Back in the kitchen, she said to Joel, “It’s a big wedding, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. “About average, really.”
“Do you think they love each other?”
“Jesus, are we here to philosophize or are we here to serve shrimp? If we could make money catering divorces the way we do catering weddings, we’d be all over it.”
“I’ll bet,” she said.
Once the guests arrived, Gina kept herself busy refilling platters of cheese and crackers and tried not to watch the door. Finally, the DJ tapped his microphone and announced the newlyweds. The bride and groom entered through an archway decorated with tissue-paper roses, heralded by a song that Michael had always turned off when it came on the radio.
The first thing Gina noticed was how clean Michael looked. In all the time she had known him, he had been smudged with either coal dust or road dust, but now his hair lay flat and his skin looked polished. He smiled and waved at the guests, one arm circled around the waist of his bride.
She was beautiful in an easily forgettable way, soft and smiling and mild as milk. Behind her, being shepherded by an older woman in a pastel suit whose face Gina vaguely recalled from that last day with Michael, was a child of such uncommon loveliness that Gina smiled in spite of herself. He had Michael’s curls and his mother’s pale skin, and he skipped among his relatives, grasping the hands of the adults as he moved from person to person. Gina clapped with everyone else as the bride and groom took their seats at the head table, watched as Michael leaned over and kissed his wife before settling his napkin on his lap.
Gina bided her time until after dinner. She didn’t want to make a scene, exactly; it would be enough to get the bride alone. She waited until Michael had gone off to get a drink and the bride was standing and talking with a small group of people, and then picked up a tray and walked up to her.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Gina said, “but I wondered if you need a drink? Some champagne or lemonade or something? It’s your big day, after all, and we want to make sure you have anything you might want.”
“Oh,” said the bride. “Some water would be great, actually.”
“Of course. I’ll be right back.”
The water was in sweating silver pitchers on a side table, and as Gina filled a goblet, she watched the bride. Michael’s wife was beautiful, but she was nervous. She laughed too much at everyone’s jokes, her eyes darting from face to face, and now and then she glanced around the room as if she were lost. Gina placed the goblet on her tray. Moving through the throngs of people who had all gathered to celebrate Michael’s marriage, she felt a sense of exhilaration, of power, as though she were a cyclone descending, unsuspected, on all those glad faces. By the time she reached the bride, she could see Michael approaching from the other side of the room.
The bride smiled and reached for the glass, and as her fingers brushed against it, Gina tipped the tray just enough so that the goblet fell forward, sluicing water down onto the bride’s dress and soaking it.
A chorus of concerned coos went up from the women surrounding the bride, and people at the nearby tables turned to look.
“Oh, I am so sorry, I’m just the clumsiest thing,” Gina said. The bride whimpered and began to brush at her skirt, and a woman in a black-beaded cocktail dress said, “Aww,” and emptied her drink. Michael was walking quickly toward them now, looking faintly worried, and Gina watched him and waited, and waited, until that moment when he was finally close enough to recognize her. His face turned gray and he stopped in midstride. A man from a nearby table got up and began clapping Michael on the shoulder and congratulating him, and Gina took the bride by the hand.
“Let’s go to the ladies’ room. I’ll fix you right up,” she said.
When they reached the powder room, Gina pointed to a chair in the corner and grabbed a stack of paper towels. The woman in the black dress had trailed behind them, and now she leaned against the counter as the bride sank into the chair and Gina knelt down and began to dab at the damp skirt.
“Oh, wow,” the woman said, “the dress. Well, I mean. I mean, it doesn’t really matter, it’s not like you’ll have to wear it again. We hope!”
The bride nodded but didn’t reply, and Gina turned to the woman and said, “Why don’t you go see if you can find a hair dryer to help out here? Try housekeeping.”
“OK,” said the woman, and staggered out.
As soon as she was gone, the bride made a choking noise and began to cry. Gina dropped the towels and sat back on her heels, bewildered. The bride covered her face with her hands and tried to catch her breath, her shoulders making little shrugging motions that shook the curls pinned to the top of her head.
“I know what everyone’s saying,” she said. “I know no one thinks it’s going to last. But I just wanted him to come home for so long and he did. That must mean something, right?”
Gina looked around, but there was no one else in the room. Michael’s a liar, she wanted to say. Michael’s a child. His name itched against her tongue. Every time the bride sobbed, Gina felt her pulse race and her blood sizzle. For the first time in her life, she understood the smile she had seen so often on her father’s face, the smile he flashed when he told her about buying out a competitor or twisting the city council around his finger, the one he had surely worn the night he took all of Michael’s money. It was a smile that said, Make the world you want, and take without mercy. Gina had all the right words; she could make Michael’s pretty new life come undone with a wave of her hand.
But she didn’t want to. She didn’t want any of it—Michael, or the yellow house, or the sweet little boy with his curls. Not the way this woman did. Who knew how many nights she had lain awake, wishing with all her strength that he would come back to her. Maybe she had her own kind of magic that had drawn him to the lake that night in Montana, to Gina’s dress and the bag of money that had unlocked Michael’s chains, all the way across the country and right back to her door. A magic that had gotten Gina free of Montana, which was all she had really wanted to begin with.
A moment later the door swung open and the bride’s son ran in, followed by Michael, who glanced around uneasily. He looked at his crying wife, and then at Gina, and as she looked back at him it felt like the last two years had never happened. Like they were still back in Montana standing at that lakeside, staring in the darkness, and she’d just discovered the whole world was a top she could spin with a snap of her fingers.
The bride’s tears were turning gray as they dissolved her makeup, leaving sooty trails on her cheeks. She sniffed and swiped at her face with her fingers even as she continued to cry. Gina took one of the towels and blotted the bride’s face until it was clean. Then she reached up from where she was kneeling on the floor and grasped Michael’s hand, and when he tried to yank it loose, Gina held on tighter. “Help a lady up,” she said, and pulled herself to her feet.
From All the Names They Used for God. Used with permission of Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2018 by Anjali Sachdeva.