Lyle let his engine rattle for a ten count before he killed the ignition and stepped out. The snuffed porch light and the blanket nailed across the apartment window served as warning that he had best signal his arrival, that he should move slowly and keep on the pavement where his footsteps could be heard. He scraped his boots on the mat, gave three firm raps to the front door. He knew not to hesitate. Standing in the dark looked too much like listening in on things and then Uncle Keith was liable to do something sudden and irrational. Twelve days without a word from him. His uncle alone in the dark and wide awake, peeling back the window covers with dead certainty he’d find someone staring back. Twelve days taking apart his furniture and listening for whispers from the air vents.
Billie had called that afternoon. When his uncles’s ex was worried enough to start asking after him, she asked Lyle first.
It’s Taylor’s birthday, she said.
I’m sorry, Lyle said. I completely forgot.
No, no, it’s okay. It’s not that. Keith promised he’d be here. Now his son’s in tears and I don’t know what to tell him. I’m really scared, Lyle.
A small voice on the other end asked if that was Papa.
Lyle clamped the phone beneath his chin and rubbed the dishwasher spots from a highball glass, gave a nod to a couple taking seats at the bar. He asked Billie if she’d tried calling him.
His phone’s disconnected, she said.
Again. Okay, so what do you want me to do?
Talk to him.
He won’t listen to me.
He won’t listen to anybody. I’m at work, Billie. I’ll have to call you later.
Can you please go knock on his door when you’re done?
When I’m done. I have to work now.
But you’ll talk to him?
We’ve done this before, Billie. I can see if he’s still alive and then call you. That’s it.
Lyle learned the truth of this the first time he called on his uncle in the dark. Yes or no questions got a response, reasoning and emotional entreaties did not.
Billie knew all about Keith before they married. But every call from jail or the hospital was always the first.
Billy pleaded with him. You can’t do anything else?
I can call an ambulance.
Please don’t joke, Lyle.
I wasn’t. I’m hanging up. I’ll call you later.
Billie knew all about Keith before they married. But every call from jail or the hospital was always the first. She reacted with tearstricken shock and then turned to Lyle. He was mad dog fighting for stray shifts and driving on one bald tire but Billie wanted help with bail money. He said no, told her to quit coddling the man like some private detox nurse. Let him spend the night in jail or put his own goddamned pink slip on the bail sheet for once.
There was no other family left.
A hollow minute passed and Lyle knocked again. He once thought he could feel Keith scoping him through the peephole. An empty premonition better fit for his uncle than himself so he quit thinking it. The deadbolt slid back and the brass chain pulled taut across a seam of trembling light. Low moaning and oily slapping noises from the television. Keith stood naked but for his socks and regarded Lyle with suspicion that gave sluggish way to recognition.
You good? Lyle said.
His uncle nodded, waved him off like swatting an insect in slow motion and then shut the door, turned the deadbolt.
Ford’s had a low sloping roof and a wall of kegs around back where you bought things the bar didn’t sell or where you went if you couldn’t hold your drink. The red neon F was dying and the stuttering red light paralyzed the far gone drunks. They stared up through the glowing mist, kept on with their forgetting long after they’d been cut off and eighty-sixed. It was an hour before last call, just three cars in the gravel lot. The black Ranchero belonged to Deanne or Leanne or something. Her jeans were always a size loose so they slid down her hips and her tip jar was always full. She was sharing a smoke with a customer when Lyle walked in. Deanne or Leanne held up an empty pint glass and raised an eyebrow and Lyle nodded yes, then went to the pay phone.
He cradled the receiver and lost himself in the wall of knife marks and bumper stickers. He could recite them all from memory. The phone calls to Billie had become easier to make over time and now they were just tedious.
She answered on the first ring.
Hey, Lyle said. It’s me.
Is he all right?
What does that mean?
It means I didn’t have to call an ambulance.
Please, Lyle. Did you try talking to him?
There is no talking to him right now. You know this as well as I do.
What do I tell Taylor?
Billie had never had a problem covering for Keith before their son was born.
I don’t know, Lyle said. Tell him his father is sick and that he loves him very much. I’ll stop by tomorrow before work. I’ll bring him something. What does he want?
He’d just be happy to see you for once.
No, I’ll bring him a present. Does he like comics?
He collects them now.
Somewhere between drinks a weight snapped loose within him and fell away.
What’s his favorite? Wait, he’s there with you. Never mind. I’ve got a really old Spider Man somewhere. It’s in plastic. He can have it.
That’s very sweet of you. You don’t have to do that.
Thank you so much. I’m sorry for putting you through this.
You’re not putting me through anything. Tell Taylor his papa and I love him.
I will. Do you think you can go back and talk to Keith tomorrow?
You haven’t tried.
But he had. He’d tried so many times her accusation didn’t sting anymore. Billie mistook his numbed inertia for dependability and he’d soon set her straight.
I have to go, Lyle said. Tell Taylor happy birthday and I’ll bring him a present when I see him.
Paint It Black played on the jukebox. Lyle chugged his first pint then his second. He traced the slopes of the bar keep’s naked waist with not so much lust as with the memory of it. He slowed down for his third and by the fourth he stopped staring at her. Somewhere between drinks a weight snapped loose within him and fell away. He felt good for the first time in a long while. Floating alone in the night air, wrapped in the stuttering red glow.