excerpt from The Distance Between Us

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I’m squeezing my eyes shut to keep the dirt out, but I can hear a car coming so I have to look to see if it’s her. So I hold my hands over my face like if I’m crying but just to keep the dirt out, and I open my fingers a little and I open my eyes a little and I look down the street but it’s a truck not her so I close them again.

It’s not cold but the wind is starting to make it colder and I’m a little afraid because I don’t have a coat on or a rain coat or anything and I’ve been waiting a long time.

She’s going to get me right after work she said so I rode the bus here after school the city bus not the school bus because I don’t go on that one but I like to go to the library after school sometimes. I have a library card of my own. But the library closes at five so I have to wait out here on the steps for her and it’s been about an hour I think. And I can’t read because the dirt hurts my eyes, so I’m just listening.

Louder then softer. Then louder then softer. Every time it gets loud it gets more louder and I know it’s going to rain because I can smell it. Wet dirt. I don’t know why it smells like wet dirt when it’s going to rain and I don’t know why it doesn’t smell like that after the rain starts, but I know that smell.

A lightning bangs really close to me. I see the light everywhere through my eyelids and the boom is gigantic and it makes me jump. Then there’s another right after, then it’s really quiet with no wind or anything. I feel the air get cold on my arms and the hairs all stick up then I hear the rain. It’s just drops on the leaves, then more on the sidewalk close to me then a kind of rush sound from the sky and it starts pouring rain. I open my eyes finally and stand up and back up against the wall but the wind is still pushing rain to me and I’m getting wet and I’m starting to get cold.

This is not the first time she’s late to get me but it’s in a rainstorm and I’m really getting angry at her now. I could get on the bus but that’s 75 cents and I’d have to walk to the bus stop in the rain and she wouldn’t know where I am so I don’t. I just try to move around where the rain can’t get me as much and I’m watching down the street when I finally see the car coming and she pulls up and leans across to push open the door on my side and she yells to me Come on baby, get out of the rain and I run to the car holding the book under my shirt for dryness and jump in and shut the door.

She pushes my hair back with her hand and says, Oh, Gordie, you’re soaked baby, but I won’t look at her. I’m just looking at the wipers on the windshield and how the one on my side leaves a big streak down the middle that it won’t wipe. She’s still looking at me and she says I’m sorry, baby, something came up and I didn’t know it was gonna rain. But I know she forgot me.

Baby, she says again, are you crying? I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Gordie, you have to forgive me. You know I love you.

I’m shaking my head because I don’t want to talk to her and I want to stop crying and finally she sighs really loud and pulls the gear shift and we drive away.

When we get home it’s still raining and I get out and run up the stairs and take off my wet clothes and wrap up in a towel before she even gets there. I’m sitting on the edge of the tub trying to get warm and she comes in and sits on the toilet and she doesn’t try to hug me or anything because she knows I’m still mad because I didn’t talk the whole way home.

I’m looking down at the floor trying to see where all the same patterns are and I can tell she’s watching me even though I have the towel over my head and it hangs down in front where she can’t see me. Then I see that there’s water dripping on the floor and it’s because she’s wet too but she’s just sitting there saying nothing. After a while I get up and pull the other big towel off the bar and I put it over her head. She just sits there with a towel on her head and that’s kind of funny but I’m not saying anything. I don’t feel like it yet.

I put my hands on the towel and start to rub them around the way she does when I get out of the tub only now I pretty much dry my own hair but sometimes I still let her. She just lets me dry her hair for a while then she grabs on to me and pulls me into a hug and I’m kind of bent over with my legs pushing against the toilet and it’s uncomfortable but I let her hug me for a while and I pull the towel off her head and I smell her wet hair and I smell this other smell that she smells like sometimes.

Finally she lets go and I stand up and I still have the towel over my head and she says You look like a monk. I make a face at her and she says A monk in his underwear and that almost makes me crack up but I still don’t want to.

Why don’t you go put on your pajamas then come get your wet clothes and hang them over the tub and I’ll go make some dinner. You want tomato soup?

I nod because that’s perfect on a rainy day.

Yeah? Tomato soup?

I nod again.

With grilled cheese?

I pull the towel down off my head and wrap it around my shoulders. Yes, I say, with grilled cheese.

Oh, you’re talking again.

Maybe, I say.

I hope so, she says, and she smiles at me in that way that makes me sad for her sometimes.

I don’t want to sit around here listening to myself talk.

I nod at her. I’m trying not to talk to her.

I’m sick of listening to myself, you know?

Yeah, I say.

Yeah, she says back, soft. Then she lets out a big breath and stands up and goes out to the kitchen and I can hear her getting out the pans and opening the can of soup.

At the table I’m eating my sandwich and I can tell she’s looking at me again. I just keep eating because she’ll say it when she’s ready. Then she does.

You were scared, huh?

I stop eating and look at her. I’m sitting on the stool at the breakfast bar and she’s standing on the other side eating her soup like we usually do.

At the library. You were afraid I forgot you.

I shake my head.

Are you sure? You weren’t scared?

No, I say.

Good. She nods a little. Good. Because I would never forget you. You’re my main thing. You know that, right?


You don’t have to be afraid, Gordie. I’ll always take care of you. That’s one thing I can’t screw up.

I don’t know what to say, so I start eating my soup again.

You’re too important.

Okay, I say.


I’m thinking was I scared and maybe I was a little but not for very long and I’ve been more scared before. And I guess she’s right I didn’t need to be scared. She never forgets me.

It was after 2 a.m. when Annie dropped Meredith in the parking lot at the base of the stairs that climbed to her second story apartment.

Want me to wait? Annie asked, but Meredith shook her head no.

I’m good, she said, and she tilted her head back and touched her nose, first with her left index finger then with her right. Annie laughed. Yeah, you’re good, she said, but take it slow going up those stairs.

Meredith leaned in through the open window and kissed Annie on the cheek. Are you okay to drive home, foxy?

Both of them started to giggle then, recalling the 50ish man who’d driven past them in his Lincoln earlier that evening as they walked from Shorty’s to the Motherlode and had shouted FOX-Y! through his open window as though he were in a late seventies teen summer movie. For the rest of the night they’d called each other Foxy, and Annie had introduced herself as Foxy to a roughneck who’d bought them drinks and played a losing game of pool with Annie while Meredith heckled them both from a bar stool in the corner.

I’m fine, baby, Annie said, and touched her nose.

Meredith started up the stairs, then stopped and turned and watched Annie drive slowly across the parking lot and turn south on Paseo. As the sound of Annie’s car faded, Meredith could hear faint R&B drifting across the parking lot from the apartments opposite hers. Luis is still up, she thought. I could go smoke a little with him, but then she thought about the babysitter and remembered the hour and decided to go upstairs instead.

When she got inside she found the TV on, the sound down low, an old black-and-white movie that Meredith didn’t recognize throwing a dancing light over the dark living room. Bethanne, the fifteen-year-old from apartment 1326, lay asleep on her side on the couch, her head resting on her cell phone. On the floor at the base of the couch was a lumpy fleece blanket with an arm sticking out one side and some long blonde hair out the other. Meredith closed the door gently, turned the bolt, then softly walked the three steps across the carpet and bent to slide her arms under the back and legs of the sleeping boy, lifting him, blanket intact, and pulling him to her chest. He didn’t stir. She walked carefully, suddenly more aware of the effect on her balance that the evening’s drinking had caused.

Stepping into her bedroom, she felt her way to the bed and lowered the boy onto his back. She peeled back the blanket so she could see his sleeping face in the dim light. She smiled at the soundness of his sleep, then leaned down to kiss his forehead. I love you, baby, she whispered, and brushed his hair aside with the backs of her fingers. Then she stood up, kicked off her shoes, and lay down beside him, her arm over his chest, and she let the steady rhythm of his breathing guide her into sleep.

The next day was her day off so she’d planned to sleep late – had drunk the third shot of tequila knowing that she could sleep it off – but she’d forgotten to turn off her alarm clock and it started its buzzing at 6:25. It came to her as a fire alarm, pushing into the dense fog of her dreamless sleep, setting her unconscious mind to frantic work inventing a story to explain a fire alarm – she’s at work, the waiting room is full of people talking and reading magazines or staring at Oprah on the TV, then there’s the alarm and they’re all up rushing to the front door, pushing, and she knows she won’t get out and the phone starts to ring and as the panic overwhelms her and she begins to cry, the adrenaline pulls her from her torpor and she’s awake and she’s sick.

Sliding her arm from beneath Gordie, who had squirmed himself sideways in the bed, she rushed in the darkness toward the bathroom, tilting as she went, losing her balance and slamming her shoulder into the corner of her dresser, but arriving at the toilet before sickness overwhelmed her and vomit rushed up her throat. Stomach muscles tensed, her back arched, she leaned close over the toilet to make sure she didn’t miss and make a mess she’d have to clean up later. Her throat burned and she could taste the harsh metallic tinge of the tequila, and that made her wretch again. Her diaphragm spasmed twice more, and when she was sure she was empty she reached up and pulled on the flush lever, then slumped over against the cold wall of the bathroom.

A little after one she drove out of the parking lot and turned south to Main, then west past the lumberyard and the Goodwill, stop and go through downtown and its peculiar mix of traffic, F150 pickups with Navajo kids in the beds, Cadillacs striped with gold trim, municipal sedans, heavy oilfield trucks with Halliburton logos on their doors.

Clearing downtown she turned and climbed the hill past the back side of the airport, on her left the huge metal buildings like outsized trailer homes that housed industrial welding shops and oilfield equipment repair and heavy machinery, on her right the hill dropping away to the river, grown over with tumbleweeds turned dry and brown in the cool fall air. She drove too fast until she caught herself and slowed to a few over the limit. A mile up the hill she turned away from the river into a dingy tract development, tiny homes with dirt yards cluttered with broken bicycles and ruined sofas and Japanese cars on jackstands, weeds growing up through the open hoods from which the engines had been pulled. Everywhere the detritus of marginal lives, signs of minimal ambition ever unfulfilled.

She parked on the street behind a Toyota with dark tinted windows. She sat for minutes, looking out the passenger window at the front door of the house, her lips moving in silence. Abruptly she pulled the door lever, sprung from the seat and slammed the door shut, and pulling herself upright and forcing her shoulders back, she walked quickly to the door and knocked hard on it. The breeze had grown colder as the afternoon sky had clouded over, and she gathered the cloth of her jacket in her fists and wrapped her arms across her chest. She could hear the indistinguishable drone of daytime television from inside the house. She knocked again, longer and louder. The door opened an instant later.

The woman, a couple years older than Meredith, big across the hips and chest but with a thin face made severe by sunken cheeks, red dyed hair pushed haphazardly into a short-brimmed winter cap, stood rigid, half obscured by the partially opened door, arms crossed over her cotton sweatshirt. He’s not here. What do you want?

Do you have a check for me? Meredith tried to look past the woman into the house but the passage was blocked by the woman’s hulking form.

You drove out here just for that? Why ain’t you at work?

Can you just get my check? It’s two weeks late.

Seriously. Why you have to take our money? Get yourself a job.

I have a job, Sharla.

Why ain’t you there?

It’s my day off. Come on, Sharla, it’s cold. Can you get my check?

Just tell me this. What’s your right?


What’s your right? Why do you get to take our money?

Meredith considered whether she had the stamina for this struggle, whether anything she could say would make a difference in the face of this malice. Finally she spoke, measuring her breath to keep her voice level. The judge says so.

The judge don’t know shit. You’re a crap mom.

Sharla, I don’t like coming over here. You don’t want me here. Her voice began to rise and she felt the will to prevent it begin to fail. Just get my check and I’ll leave.

Sharla shook her head slowly and twisted her mouth into something between a grin and a snarl. You’re a skank. She dropped her arms from her chest and began to swing the door closed. I’ll get your check if you’ll get your skank ass off my porch. The door clacked shut.

Meredith stepped down off the porch, telling herself it wasn’t to acquiesce but to put distance between herself and Sharla, for she felt the sting of blood in her cheeks and the knotted muscles in her jaw and feared she might lunge or strike at the woman. She stood in the patches of dry grass in the front yard below the bottom step for several minutes, her stomach tensed and her fists balled in her jacket pockets.

Finally the door opened and Sharla stepped onto the porch, the check in her hand. Meredith put a foot on the first step and Sharla raised the check high above her head. Uh uh. Don’t you come up on my porch. You want the check you can work for it. She flung the check out into the air above Meredith’s head, where the wind caught it and pushed it across the lawn and into a clump of drying yuccas that stood in a circle of crushed gravel in the neighbor’s yard.

Meredith watched the check land and flutter in the wind, then looked back at Sharla, who stood with a sickening grin frozen on her face. They stood this way for several seconds, neither of them speaking nor moving. Finally Meredith turned and walked quickly toward the check. Before she could get it in her hand it cut loose in the wind and pinwheeled farther down the street, Meredith in pursuit, her pace quickening to overtake it. From the porch behind her she could hear Sharla’s throaty laugh and she fought against the need to cry. Three houses down she finally pinned the check under her foot and stooped to pick it up. She tucked it in her pocket without looking at it and, head down, walked back up the street to her car.

She drove around the corner, out of sight of the house, never looking over to see if her antagonist still stood watching, then she slowed to a stop at the curb out of the way of traffic and turned off the motor. She pulled the check out of one pocket and her cigarettes from the other and sat there studying the check until she’d smoked one down to the filter and then another. Then she started the car and drove back down the hill to home, feeling colder than she remembered ever feeling.

A thick blanket of clouds lay over Uinta Street, so low above the street that the light from the streetlamps lit the clouds from beneath, casting a warm glow on the sidewalks and people and the occasional pickup in the street.

Mac held onto April’s hand as they crossed the street in front of Serrano’s. He stepped carefully through the bank of hard dirty snow the plow had pushed along the curb, then rested his free hand on the top of a parking meter and guided her over. He slid an arm around her waist but he didn’t move from his spot on the sidewalk. She followed his gaze upward, and the streetlamp glow reflecting off the blanket of clouds lit their faces like a sky full of moons.

This is incredible, she said softly. I’ve never seen anything like this.

I bet it’s going to snow, probably before we finish our dinner. Those clouds look ready.

She couldn’t see what he could read in the clouds, but she could feel something was about to happen. And she knew without putting it into words that she might never feel exactly this way again, or stand under such an extraordinary sky. So she just went on looking up into the cloud’s glow, and listening to the soft crisp sounds of the street around her.

There were a few other people on the sidewalk, men in rancher hats and down vests and flannel shirts and their wives in long coats, on their way to a Friday night date at the movies or a steak dinner, but their voices didn’t carry and even the crunch of their boots on the salty sidewalk was captured, muffled, by the low clouds. The hush felt to April like a movie theater just after the lights go down and all the voices tail off to nothing and everyone holds their breath at once.

I hate to go in, she finally said, but she could feel him leaning away, peeling his arm slowly from her waist. But I am ready for some enchiladas and a Negra Modelo.

Mac led her inside and greeted Kelly, the oldest of the Serrano girls, as she passed by with a tray of steaming food balanced on her shoulder.

Hi, guys. You want that table by the window?

Sounds good, Mac replied, already moving that direction. Maybe we can watch the snow.

Is it snowing? Kelly turned with eagerness to look out at the street.

Not yet. But it’s about to. Maybe even before we get our Negra Modelos.

Kelly smiled and nodded. Grab your seat and I’ll grab those beers and some menus. She headed off toward the kitchen.

April moved to her chair, leaving the seat facing the door to Mac. He stepped around and behind her, trailing one hand across the small of her back as he pulled her chair out with the other. This courtesy had struck her as almost laughably quaint when she’d first met Mac and they’d begun dating, but she quickly realized that every rancher and banker and store clerk in this town did the same, holding doors and pulling out chairs and walking to the street side of their wives and girlfriends, and now just a few months later it felt as natural to her as her California life had been. To their credit, these men didn’t seem to mind if she occasionally held a door for them, instead. She slid into her chair and picked up a menu as Mac moved to his seat.

When Kelly arrived with their beers, Mac ignored the menus and ordered their usual, bistek ranchero for him and chicken molé for her. He took a pull from his beer and watched the people walk past on the other side of the glass. April sipped her beer and watched Mac, sensing a shift in his mood. After a minute, she sat her beer down on the table and said softly, like she was waking a sleeping child, Are you okay?

Mac turned to her quickly, not startled but surprised, maybe, and his face opened into a sheepish smile. Yeah, I’m good. He took another sip and sat his beer down, too. I got a call from Meredith this afternoon, and I’ve just been thinking it over.

Thinking it over? What’s going on?

Gordie might be coming to stay with me.

April’s face lit up. At Christmas?

No, sooner. And for a while.

Oh. Is everything okay?

Well, it is and it isn’t. She’s not sick or anything. He took another sip of beer. But she’s pregnant again.

Pregnant? Really? April studied Mac’s face, the lines at the corners of his eyes and the lines across his forehead, looking for a hint of how he was dealing with this news. How far along is she?

She just found out, I guess, last week. She’s around six or seven weeks.

April thought for a moment before she said the next thing. I assume this wasn’t planned.

No, it didn’t seem to be in anyone’s plan. And that’s the deal. That’s why she wants to bring Gordie up here for a while.

April dropped her head toward her right shoulder and squinted. But, she’ll be okay, right? It’s early enough that it’ll just be an outpatient thing.

Mac was already shaking his head slowly before April had finished. Nope, She wants to have it.

April leaned back in her chair. Why would she…I’m sorry, this is going to sound terrible…

No, it isn’t. I’m right there with you. But listen, she doesn’t want to keep the baby, and she doesn’t want Gordie to…

Mac was cut short by the arrival of their dinners. They both leaned away so Kelly could put their plates down. Watch those plates…you know. Do you want a couple more beers?

Yeah, I guess so. Thanks, Kelly.

No problem. I’ll be right back with those.

As soon as Kelly had turned away, April leaned in so she could say quietly what she felt like she wanted to shout.

She wants to have the baby and adopt it?

That’s what she’s thinking.

April considered this. She rested her elbow on the table and leaned her chin against the palm of her hand, her slender fingers pressed against her freckled cheek. She reached for her beer, checked the level, then tilted the bottle and drank the last of it. Mac picked up his bottle and did the same, just as Kelly returned with two full ones.

Everything okay with your food?

Oh, yeah, we’ve just been talking. We’ll get to it in a minute.

Okay, good. Can I take those empties? She collected the bottles and knelt to pick up a fork that was lying on the ground next to the table base, then she was away.

Finally April took in a deep breath and let it out in a long measured exhale that sounded almost like a sigh. It’s a tough choice to make, any of them.

Mac nodded. It is. I feel bad for her. She could really…

He trailed off, looked over at this full beer, and picked it up. We better eat, he said, then took a long drink from his bottle.

April watched Mac cut into his steak, take a bite, then another, without looking up. Finally she spoke, softly, tentatively, knowing full well he wanted to be done with talking for a while.

Listen, Mac, she’s a strong woman. Headstrong, but strong, too. She smiled, but he didn’t look up. I don’t know why this is what she wants, but if it is, she’ll need you to be behind her.

He finally looked up. I’m not worried about that. I know Meredith can take care of herself. He paused and a smirk curled the corner of his mouth. At least, I thought she could before this. He shook his head and April saw the concern wash over his face again. It’s the rest that I’m worried about.

What rest?

Gordie coming, and me and you.

April looked down and saw that she still hadn’t taken a bite of her chicken. She picked up a fork and sliced off a bite, twirled the fork a bit to break off the string of melted cheese that clung to the food, and brought the bite to her mouth. As she chewed she watched Mac eat and thought about the two weeks Gordie had visited in the summer.

So, Gordie’s gonna stay for a while. I don’t see how that does anything to you and me.

You don’t?


Mac put down his fork and his knife, slowly, like he wasn’t sure he wanted to let them go, then he looked right at April, his eyes looking straight into hers for five, ten, fifteen seconds. Finally he looked down, looked around the table, searching for a safe place to cast his gaze. Finding none, he just looked back at April again and started talking.

I think we ought to take a break. He paused for her to respond, but she said nothing, just pushed at the pile of shredded lettuce on her plate. I feel like it’s gonna take me some time to figure out how to handle Gordie.

What’s to handle? That kid was born a grown-up. He could take care of you. She tried to laugh at her joke, but the emotion rising up her throat made it sound more like a sob. She swallowed hard and held his gaze.

Yeah, that’s mostly true, but I’ve got to figure how to get him into school, and how to get him to school and back home, and set up a room for him… Mac trailed off.

And those are all things I can help you with. I still don’t see why it changes things with us. First of all, I’m pretty sure he can get to school and back.

I don’t know if he ever rode a bus.

Jesus, Mac. Even if he hasn’t, how hard is that?

Well, sure, but it’s a lot harder when you don’t know anybody.

Yeah, he’ll need to make some friends. Gordie’s a sweet kid. It won’t take him long.

Maybe. Or maybe not. Either way, I want to be able to help with it.

And you will. Mac, this doesn’t have anything to do with you and me. Or not much, anyway.

I just feel like I want to do a better job than I did with Meredith. This last he said quietly, and turned back to his food. April watched him cut off another piece of the bistek and eat it without looking away from his plate.

You did just fine with Meredith, and you’ll do just fine with Gordie. It’s just for a few months, anyway, right?

I didn’t do fine with Meredith. I sat in my goddamn chair and felt sorry for myself and she went off and got pregnant.

Mac, that could have happened even if you’d been father of the year. Stop blaming yourse…

Before she could finish the sentence, Mac slapped his fork down on the table. The diners at the table across the aisle looked up, but Mac ignored them and glared down at his plate. When he finally spoke, he spoke softly, but the tensed muscles in his face and his hands made it look like he was shouting.

Goddamn it, April. Will you just let me do this my way? He paused. Just let me be.

April took a slow measured breath. She looked at Mac, at the top of his head, and she looked around at the other diners, who had turned back to their meals. She sat up tall in her chair and exhaled. Then in almost a whisper, she spoke to Mac’s bowed head.

You always do things your way. That’s the only way. And I’ve never had a problem with that, even when you’re being a stubborn ass.

That amused Mac, just enough for him to give a small shudder of a laugh, but he wasn’t ready to release his anger yet. He kept staring at his food.

And this is one of those times, Mac. This is one. You need help. I’m willing, but you just can’t let me. You just have to keep building this goddamn wall.

Abruptly she plucked the napkin from her lap, dropped it on the table, stood from her chair and walked away, one continuous motion.

It took him a moment to realize that she hadn’t walked toward the ladies room but the other direction toward the front door. He raised his head and looked around the restaurant, but she’d gone out the door. Kelly had seen her leave from the kitchen and came through the swinging doors to check on Mac. Is everything okay?

Well, I guess not. No. I better go find her. Can I settle this up later?

Oh, of course. Sure. Go ahead. She looked out the window at the first fat flakes of snow beginning to fall. Is she okay?

Mac nodded as he stood and began to pull on his coat. She’s okay. He looked at Kelly and grinned. Can’t say the same for me.


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