I got the results from the paternity test and an offer for a new job on the same day. The paternity test was positive; I was the father. The new job was cutting meat at Chives, a specialty grocery store in Boulder. On my lunch break I texted my twin sister Maria that I wanted to share two things with her on Skype. I told my coworker, Lance, the news after work at Hank’s, our regular bar.

I was glad only we two had come out; none of our other coworkers were as discrete. He bought me a shot of whiskey to celebrate, and we settled into a game of pool with a pitcher of beer.

“You gonna fight for your rights with the kid?” he asked.

“I think so. If I can afford it.”

“Good. Courts will be in her favor but you’ve got some things going for you.”

Lance had a kid, not from a one-night stand, like me, but from a short-term marriage. He was upset he didn’t have joint custody, but since he’d been on the road a lot when he worked as a train engineer, I thought the courts had decided correctly. Jodie, the mother of my child, was finishing her third year of med school and didn’t know where she’d go for residency. I’d consider staying in town indefinitely, if the courts would look favorably on that.

Lance had two balls down to my one. I liked playing pool with him; we were both mediocre to fair. Some guys we worked with could clear the table before you drank half a pint. Lance dropped a third. He straightened and chalked his cue.

“I’d give you crap if I weren’t leaving too,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“More railway jobs have opened up. I should be gone by fall.” He leaned over the table on one side, then moved to the other.

“That’s great.” He needed the money as much as I did, and he enjoyed being an engineer. I snapped my fingers.

“Two of Luke’s best, gone like that.”

“Fuck Luke.” He angled his pole too much and the ball bounced on impact.

I eyed the table. “Putting in my two-weeks tomorrow.”

“Serves him right to lose his hardest worker. Son of a bitch.”

I sunk a ball in a corner pocket. It felt good that Lance considered me the hardest worker. I thought of myself as the most reliable, but liked hearing it from someone else. I sunk two more before I screwed up.

“Did you like Laura when she was a baby?” I asked as he tried an off-the-wall shot. “I mean, kids are cool but I don’t know about babies.”

He laughed. “I liked her from the start. Not all dads do. Every year gets better. Not even worried about high school.”

For me, having kids had always been something for the future. My sister had two. I refilled my beer. “Better when they can walk and talk. You can teach them stuff then.”

“Laura liked soccer really young. Kicking a Nerf ball around.”

I sipped until Lance knocked one of my balls in. I eventually won with one of his on the table.

“Good game,” he said. “Another?”

“I have to meet Jodie.”

“Oh Jesus. Good luck with that.”

We exited the bar together. Usually, I’d take a left, toward South Boulder Road. From there I’d catch a bus to Lafayette, where I rented a house with three others. Today I took a right with Lance toward old-town Louisville.

“Where’re you going?” he asked.

“Ernesto’s.”

“I hope she’s paying.”

“She said it’s happy hour till seven.”

“I bet.”

It was a late April day, warm and windy, but I didn’t trust it. Last winter, my first in Colorado, we’d had two six-inch snowfalls in May. I remembered telling Lance, a year ago February, while we broke and stacked cardboard boxes outside the shop in the snow, that I was glad winter was almost over. He’d stared at me. “We get most of our snow here in March and April,” he’d said. Now, I unzipped my jacket and eyed the bare limbs. In West Virginia, where I was from, there’d be buds or leaves by now.

We raised our hands in goodbye as we split at the entrance to Ernesto’s. It was a white Stucco place with a Spanish-style roof. The inside was dimly lit and smelled like spaghetti. Waiters and waitresses dressed in black with white aprons floated by.

Standing in a corner, I glanced over black-and-white photos of coal-mining Louisville. Main Street with tall Western storefronts. A boy in a coal cart. Two men with blackened faces holding picks. Louisville and Lafayette weren’t so different historically from my hometown, except they had the resources—or the smarts—to move on from mining.

A menu on the wall detailed happy hour. The prices weren’t bad; you could get a personal pizza for eight bucks. I didn’t remember if I would’ve thought this cheap for a nicer restaurant in West Virginia. Probably not. Everything was more expensive here, the mountains larger, the women prettier. I’d thought my starting wage at Louisville Sausage—ten per hour—pretty good, but after rent, food, and student loans, I didn’t have much left. I’d worked up to fourteen an hour in two years, and at Chives I’d be making fifteen.

“Hey.”

I turned to Jodie. She wore black slacks and a red sweater, and was definitely starting to show.

“You kinda stink,” she said.

I’d offered to go home and shower.

She stepped up to the hostess podium while running fingers through her dark hair. “Two for happy hour.”

The hostess led us to a two-person table in the back. I sat where I could see the whole restaurant. She faced me, a hallway, and the wall.

“What rotation are you on now?” I asked.

She made eye contact with a passing waitress.

“So the test,” I said.

“Food first.”

She told the waitress we were ready while she poured our waters. I got the sausage, spinach, and feta pizza. Jodie ordered a house red, meatballs, fries, and some butternut-squash dish. She was animated and direct, qualities that attracted me the night we met, at Lunar, a bar closer to Main Street than Hank’s.

I’d gone there only that once, and only because a bluegrass band was playing. I didn’t even like bluegrass much: I just wanted to hear a sound from home. It was one of those fancy industrial-looking places, all exposed pipes and sleek counters, and she was at the bar. I sat two seats down. She laughed when I was visibly overwhelmed by the number of beers on tap.

“So the test,” she said. She was sipping her wine.

She’d controlled the flow of conversation in the bar that night, and told me to kiss her thighs first thing in bed. But I wasn’t a pushover.

“I’d like joint custody.”

She looked amused. “I thought you’d say that. You’re so responsible.”

I’d suggested a condom that night. She said pulling out should be fine. Why did I agree? It was something in her demeanor, how she ran her hands casually over her breasts. Like she controlled the world, like she would not get pregnant unless she wanted to.

“I want to be part of his life.”

“Are you sure you can afford it?”

“I got a new job.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“At Chives. Comes with benefits.”

“Moving up in the world.”

I looked toward the front door. She was so classist. Why hadn’t I noticed that the first night? Maybe because I was busy telling the story I always told to impress: that I was a computer genius at my rural high school, putting together motherboards at fourteen. That by the time I was a senior, the tech teacher paid me to fix electronics. That my parents cosigned on my loan to get a two-year tech degree at a college that shut down my final semester.

That night, she’d googled the school and said that students at a branch in Pennsylvania had filed a class-action lawsuit. “Not sure how it works across state lines but you might’ve been able to jump on that.”

Our food came. We ate in silence. I liked the unique red sauce, the thin, crunchy crust. She was eating meatballs greedily, the way she’d had sex. Through the front door, an older couple and a family arrived.

“I talked to my parents today,” she said. She dabbed a napkin at her mouth. “We’re prepared to buy you out.”

“What?”

“What’s left on your loan? Like, thirty thousand with the interest? We pay it off and you leave me”—she touched her sweatered stomach—“you leave us alone.”

I chewed my last piece of pizza slowly, looking down. What kind of fucking deal was this?

She ordered another glass of wine. “You’re a Colorado resident now, right? CU has a great computer-science program. You let us clear this debt, keep your Chives job, enroll in college too. By the time you’re thirty you’ll have a real degree and start earning real money. Or, by the time you’re thirty, you can be sending money across the country for a four-year-old you rarely see, and between child support, loans, and whatever crap job you have you’ll barely be getting by.”

Our waitress brought Jodie wine and refilled my water.

“Is that even legal?” I asked.

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

I gulped at the water. Her description of my future was not far-fetched. Two of my coworkers had their wages garnished for kids they saw once a month.

“One minute,” I said. I stood, turned, and headed down the hallway, where more black-and-white photos lined the walls. I glimpsed a small-town parade and kids at a drugstore counter before I pushed open the bathroom door.

In some ways she was offering me my dream. The life I could have had out of high school, if the school counselor had actually counseled me, if my parents, or myself, hadn’t been so dumb. But to accept this life I’d have to pretend my son didn’t exist. I didn’t know if I could do that. I stared at my almost-clear piss before zipping up my jeans.

I looked straight ahead as I walked down the hall. At our table she was flushed and beautiful, pressing manicured fingers against her phone. I wanted our son to have her looks, my work ethic, and both our brains.

For a moment I wanted to say that I’d follow her wherever she moved, that we could raise the kid together. But I knew she didn’t want that, and besides these passing thoughts, neither did I.

She looked up. “We’ll give you time to decide. Is a week enough?”

“Yes.” I stayed standing.

She threw back the last of her wine.

“Is it OK to drink that?” I asked. My sister had stopped drinking while pregnant.

“Are you in med school?”

I put on my jacket.

“I’ll get the check,” she said.

“No.” I pulled out my wallet and set down a ten.

I walked away while she was motioning for the waitress. Her confidence would stick with me, I thought. If I never saw her again, in ten years, long after I’d forgotten how we’d had sex, I’d remember how she could fetch a waitress with a simple head tilt and widening of eyes.

I passed the lights on Main Street in a daze. A lot of people were out enjoying the lapse in winter. But it had cooled since I’d entered the restaurant and was even cooler when I got off the bus. The breeze smelled like future rain.

At home, I went up to my bedroom, took off my clothes, folded them, and placed them by my bedroom door for morning. I took a quick shower, scrubbing off the sausage smell. I met Maria on my desktop at eight.

“Hey!” She waved.

“Hey.”

She was sitting at her kitchen table. Beside her were her waitressing nametag and a vase of lilacs.

“Mom says hello, too. Told her we were talking when she came to watch the kids.”

“Hello to her too.”

Maria smiled, an outward smile, unlike Jodie, who smiled only to herself. She’d got the “best smile” in our high school yearbook, along with “most likely to marry her high school sweetheart.” She didn’t marry him, but she did marry her second serious boyfriend, Dan, a salesman at a Honda dealership.

“Trevor wanted me to wake him but I said we’d talk to you during the day soon.”

“I’d like that.” Trevor was six. Rebekah, her other kid, was three. I remembered when Trevor had learned to walk, moving from knee to knee of us adults sitting on couch and chairs. I hadn’t been around when Rebekah learned to walk. I hadn’t been back since I’d left.

“Dan’s been showing him retro games. Maybe you guys could all play sometime over Skype.”

“Sure.”

She leaned forward. “What did you want to tell me?”

I rubbed my hands against my pajama pants. “I got a new job.”

“Oh great!”

“Still cutting meat. But at a nicer place. And I get salary plus benefits.”

“Awesome.”

She was genuinely excited for me. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or to tell her to raise her standards. My parents had taught us that a decent life required a good work ethic and avoiding debt. We’d internalized these values, and Maria was happy. But what if she had unexpected medical bills? If Dan died in a car accident? I doubted she’d know who to ask for advice anymore than I did.

“And what’s the other news?” Her eyes were sparkling, eager.

“Oh, well. I get to leave Louisville Sausage,” I lied.

She laughed. “That’s great. That place sucks.”

I ran a hand over my scruff and cleared my throat.

“But what’s wrong?” she asked. “Your eyes look sad.”

My damn eyes. I looked toward the white-washed wall. If I told Maria, she’d advise me to fight for my rights.

Concerning money, she’d say it would all work out. “Just tired,” I said.

“You wanna get some sleep?”

I looked back at her. “You guys doing OK?”

“We’re fine, Aaron. You sure you’re OK?

“Yeah.”

She looked like she wanted to reach through the screen and hug me. “I’m tired too,” she said. “But let’s talk soon. Maybe this weekend?”

“That sounds good. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

The screen went black. I retreated to my mattress on the floor. I leaned back, eyes closed. Outside, rain pattered against our plastic lawn table and chairs. I didn’t mind. Rain was more forgiving than snow.

I shook off sleep and went to the unfinished basement, where a couple of my housemates liked to smoke pot. They were sitting on a dark green, frayed couch. The guy handed me a joint. The girl, a clerk at Chives, imitated problem customers, and we all laughed.

Two years ago, when I was overwhelmed by my loans and earning eight bucks an hour as a line cook, I’d almost illegally sold pot. I remembered the evening I got home from meeting with the supplier, sitting crisscross on my mattress, looking down, fingers interlaced against the back of my head. In high school I’d been voted “most likely to be the next Steve Jobs” and now I was reduced to this. I wanted to leave, to start over. I remembered the road trip my family had taken one summer to the Rockies. It was the most beautiful landscape I’d seen. I decided to go there. I knew my debt would follow me but I wanted to do something different.

And here was my real chance, I thought as my hit faded. I’d accept the offer. I didn’t want more bills I couldn’t pay.

Lance texted while I was in the kitchen making grilled cheese. She pay for the food?

Tried, I replied. Wouldn’t let her.

Take from her all you can. You’ll be paying a hell of a lot later.

I flipped the sandwich. I wouldn’t tell Lance what she’d offered. In two weeks I’d be gone. He’d drift out of my life as all coworkers eventually did. I’d go to college for computer science. Maybe after I’d continue west, to Silicon Valley. I had the drive to work there. Everyone in my family knew how to keep our heads down. It was the connections we didn’t have, the ability to maneuver in complex bureaucratic or social situations.

I ate over the sink. Afterward, I went upstairs and lay on my mattress listening to rain. I woke from a doze to my housemates coming up the stairs. The downpour had stopped. Water dribbled in the gutters. I remembered the day. My son, who’d soon be out in world doing something apart from and unknown to me. He was better off with her, I thought. If I raised him, he wouldn’t learn how to be savvy or ambitious. So far, I’d only blindly worked hard.

The air felt humid. I stripped to boxers and cracked a window. Maybe we’d skip the May snow this year, I thought. Maybe, if we were lucky, the world would simply turn green.

 
 

Rachel King

RACHEL KING's short fiction has appeared most recently in One Story, Pigeon Pages, and Lunch Ticket, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press. Find out more at booksrachelking.com.

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