“You’ll laugh.”

“I won’t. I swear.”

“Like the swear of a juvenile is worth anything.”

“What does he call you?” “Mars.” ‘Uh-huh.”

“You said you wouldn’t laugh.” “I’m not.”

“ Yeah, you kind ofare.”

“You’re laughing, too. Look at my arm and your arm.” “You’re so pale.”

“And you’re like, I don’t know. Honey or something.” “ Watch the hands, mister.” “ Your skin is soft, that’s all.”

“You shouldn’t be back here. Mr. Rufe would be super pissed.” “I’m just keeping you company.” “Are you coming to junior prom?” “No, probably not. When are you done?” “Soon. I have to go home.” “Nah, you don’t.” “You shouldn’t do that.” “Kiss you?” “No, you shouldn’t.” “I can’t help it.” “No?”

“No. I have to.” “You have to?”

“I see you and I just… have to.”

“Well, if you have to.”

“I do. Do you like it?”

“Yes. Say my name.”


“You like me?”

“I like you.”

“I like you, too. Ray.”

On Tuesday he drove south through Philly, down 95 past the airport and the Burn Center. At Providence Avenue he got off and made his way to SCI Chester, the front looking like a factory or a school or something, if you didn’t notice the coils of razor wire.

He filled out the forms using his own name, figuring if they didn’t want him there they could kick him out. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be there either, but the big bull with the gray flattop behind the Plexiglas just took his name and buzzed him through. He emptied his pockets and stood for a wand, and in about fifteen minutes he was sitting in the visiting room that stank of disinfectant and cigarettes, watching men in yellow jumpsuits trying to act casual with their wives and kids. He sat and watched the kids get tokens out of the change machines for sodas and candy, the same thing he had done the one time he had visited his father upstate all those years before.

He thought about riding the chain the first time, the way he did every time he saw coils of wire. When they sent him out to Camp Hill, his arms were busted, and he sat stiffly in the bus with his arms in the rigid casts while a guy with a lazy eye looked his way and moved his tongue over his lips in a pantomime of hunger.

He could remember little bits of the trial, but it was like he’d seen it on TV. The prosecutor looking pissed all the time and telling the judge how he had stolen a car from his drug buddy Perry March and racked it up with Marletta next to him, but the trial went by in a rush, like ten minutes of bullshit before they locked him up. None of what the guy said was right, but Marletta was dead and he didn’t care what came next.

It was like his life had run backward, the parts before Marletta died real and true and clear, and everything after just a long twilight, a half- life where none of his vague wishes or worst fears materialized and it was hard to come fully awake, to open his eyes and see things as they were. Harder still to sleep, with no one he trusted there to stand watch.

HE PICKED THROUGH different pictures in his head. His father, short but wide through the shoulders; jet black hair in short spikes, holding a can of beer at a ball game. His mother sitting at the kitchen table, her cigarette in the ashtray stained with her lipstick, looking as if it had been dipped in blood. Her blank, defeated look, her eyes fixed somewhere else. His father in handcuffs in the kitchen in the middle of the night, the cops looking embarrassed on his mother’s behalf, their eyes down.

Now his father shuffled into the visiting room in a bathrobe, and Ray wasn’t ready for the sight of him. His hair was sparse, gray and patchy, and his lips were sucked into his mouth like he was tasting something bitter. He leaned heavily on the long table as he sat, and Ray saw his hands shaking. His father smelled like cigarettes and sour sweat, the wave of it taking Ray back to his own time upstate.

“So,” said his father, in a petulant rasp Ray wouldn’t have recognized. “I thought you was dead.”

Ray opened a pack of cigarettes and shook one out, and his fa-ther picked it up with fingers gone orange at the tips.

“Gimme some credit, Bart. I’m violating my parole to be here.” He bared his teeth in a mirthless smile and lit his cigarette. He couldn’t look directly at his father’s face, like it was a too-bright light. “I’m not supposed to associate with criminals. Not even the ones that raised me.”

The old man nodded as if Ray had made a valid point. “Ever hear from your mother?”

“I thought I saw her once at the Pathmark in Warminster. Just wishful thinking. What’s with the robe, old man? Playing sick?”

Bart shrugged, looked him up and down, everywhere but in the eye. “Cancer. In the stomach. Drinking that shit they make in here, the raisin jack.”

Ray looked away, not ready for any of this, and his father looked down, talked to the tabletop.

“The guys put all kinds of shit in it, trying to make it taste like something.”

“Shit, Bart. What do they say?”

The old man shrugged. “Six months, a year. Over and out.”

“Did you talk to your lawyer? Maybe you can, you know…”

His father snorted, made a motion like throwing something over his shoulder. “Can what? Go where? It might as well be here as anywhere. Like you give a shit.”

Ray let that hang. He stubbed out his cigarette, lit another. His father grabbed the pack and tried to pinch one between his shaking fingers. Ray watched him for a minute, then took the pack and shook one out. Across the room, a man reached over to tousle the hair of a little girl, who slid away down the bench.

“What about Theresa? Does she know?”

Bart shrugged. “What do you think? She better off with me there, or here?”

Ray shook his head, things moving in this unaccountable direction. Why had he come? What did he need from the old man now?

“I keep remembering this thing,” he finally said. The old man looked at Ray, and he pulled his lighter out and fired up his cigarette for his father. “We’re in the old house on County Line, remember?”

His father nodded, looked at the tip of his cigarette.

“Anyway, I’m like seven or eight, I don’t know. It’s the middle of the night and I’m half asleep, but you got me down the kitchen in my pajamas. You been beating the old lady, showing her the errors of her ways. She’s crying, but what the hell. I don’t remember her doing nothing else. I’m out of it, and slow on the uptake anyway, like you used to point out. But after a while I get that I’m supposed to take a swing at her. You know, get in the habit. Learn how it’s done. Take a lesson.”

“Yeah, it was all me. I was the one ruined your life.”

“Did that happen, really? Like I remember it? Would you even admit it now, you old fuck?”

The old man’s breathing was shallow, his face red, the busted veins standing out on his cheeks. “She’d have ruined you.”

“Yeah, I was lucky you straightened me out. You straightened me out so good I live alone like a fucking animal in a cave. Scared if I even bring a woman home I’ll start beating the shit out of her.” His hands were shaking, and he stared at the table a long time.

He heard a rasping sound like laughter and looked up, but the old man was crying, his hand spread across his face and the tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes.

“Don’t hate me no more. It was the drink, Ray, the drink. I wanted to be good, but I was weak. I couldn’t handle it. Working at that fucking quarry and breathing that shit all day and coming home to the water heater’s shot and the bills and you sick all the time. And her wanting me to be something I couldn’t. I couldn’t.” He put his hand across the table and touched Ray’s arm. The old man’s flesh was hot, and Ray wanted to pull away. “Do you think this is what I wanted? You think I didn’t want to be going home at night? I was weak. I was weak. You can’t be better than you are.”

“Yeah.” Ray lined up the cigarette packs in front of him and pulled back from the table. Nodding as if Bart had

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