By Thomas Kearnes
They hate me, Roxane thought. They want me to shut up and go away. They want me to die. Desperate, she glanced to the left of the podium that obscured most of her petite frame. Norma sat erect, lips drawn in a gesture of solidarity that had comforted Roxane those last five months. A wan smile flickered across Roxane’s face. She resumed her speech, tried for more animation like Norma had recommended, but saw only a wall of passive hostility: the half-closed eyes, caps tugged low, feet propped on tables. In the back of the classroom an off-duty police officer with a mangy beard solved a clue of his crossword. A young man in the front row began to snore.
Norma pounded the table, rattling a water glass. “I will not tolerate disrespect. If you got somewhere better to be, think next time you get behind the wheel.” She glared over her smoked bifocals as the thirty offenders stirred, now alert.
Roxane’s face reddened. “I promise we’ll be done soon,” she told them.
“These animals ain’t got nuthin’ but time,” Norma muttered. “They should all be locked up.” The officer crossed his legs and yawned.
The fluorescent lights turned sinister. The clock above the dry-erase board read 7:30. Panic tickled Roxane’s stomach. She dabbed her moist brow. Next month she’d speak without Norma. The fear pulsed through her veins like cocaine. Already, too many people had abandoned her.
Roxane cleared her throat and continued. She told them about her family’s yearly portrait at Sears. She told them about her husband, Bill, and twin sons, Adam and Aaron. She told them about the Ford truck sailing through a red light. She told them about the call: Are you Bill Lennox’s wife? She told them about dropping to her knees and howling like a beaten wolf. She did not tell them about Astrid.
Before Roxane knew it, Norma had taken her hand and led her from the podium. The offenders pushed chairs beneath tables, lined up before the officer to have their sheets signed. Roxane shuffled behind the older, steel-haired woman. Norma stopped abruptly, and Roxane collided with her.
“Officer,” Norma called, pointing at a young man with a mullet and denim shirt. “That man slept the whole damn time. Don’t sign his form.”
The officer absently signed each slip, looking at no one, including the mullet man. “Don’t wet yourself, Norma. It’s under control.” Roxane and Norma rushed down the spiral staircase to the foyer. At night, the county justice building assumed a cavernous ambience, emptied of its officers and chastened offenders. Roxane wrapped a grey scarf around her neck while Norma buttoned her overcoat. The forecast had called for flurries, a rare sight in that part of Texas.
“I swear,” Roxane said, “they were staring right through me.”
“You should be used to that, baby girl.”
“I speak at the New Hope meeting tomorrow.”
“You’ve got a real gift, Norma.”
Norma laughed, tossed back her head. Lipstick stained her front teeth. “Grief’s my gift, baby girl. Yours, too.” She shivered as she and Roxane passed through the glass door into the bitter January wind. “We give it till we run out.”
The two women huddled at the building’s corner, watching the offenders step into the raw night. If anyone noticed the two speakers a few yards away, they gave no sign. Norma offered her half-smoked Virginia Slim to Roxane.
“I really can’t. I’ve been good today—just one with my coffee.”
“You earned it.”
Roxane grinned and accepted the cigarette. It burned like a cannon’s fuse. She never noticed the tall man approaching, clutching his bomber jacket to stay warm. He hadn’t shaved in two or three days. He seemed close to her age, somewhere in that netherworld between the mid-thirties and definite, no-bullshit middle age. She imagined him stopping at the side of the highway to offer stranded drivers a lift—he looked capable and kind-hearted enough for that role. She imagined how his lips must move when he spoke. He might speak soon, she told herself. She glanced at the stranger’s eyes. She tried to remember the old axiom she learned as a girl about men with hazel eyes. As it eluded her, the man’s thick, muscled hand extended toward her.
Norma cut in before the man could reach Roxane. “You need some help, sir?” Her tone was nasty, full of certainty that trouble lurked. Roxane wondered, not for the first time, how Norma conveyed such tenderness when she spoke to the offenders.
“Hate to interrupt, ma’am, but—”
“Then don’t,” Norma said.
Roxane sighed then remembered the cigarette at her side. Bill spent the last two years of their marriage thinking she’d quit. She let the cigarette tumble to the sidewalk, hoping Norma wouldn’t protest. A blast of arctic air whipped around the trio; the hazel-eyed stranger clutched his bomber jacket, having retracted his hand after Norma’s rebuke.
“I don’t remember you from the meeting,” Roxane said. That’s how Norma had taught her to refer to the talks she likened to speeches.
“You wouldn’t, ma’am,” he said. “I was waiting for my son.”
Roxane glanced her way, hoping for a clue, but Norma shrugged, her mouth drawn tight with confusion. “Call me Roxane, please,” she said. “Does he—?”
“He’s on probation,” he admitted, sheepish as a schoolboy without his homework. “He’s going through a rough patch. You know, after college didn’t turn out so good, he kind of—”
Norma inserted her stocky build between Roxane and him. “You got a name to go with your sad story?”
Roxane gasped, slapped her friend’s shoulder. Loren, the man told them—his father’s name, his son’s name. He jerked his head over his shoulder as a young woman’s braying laugh rang through downtown. It was the younger Loren’s first offense, he said. The judge had been lenient, but Loren refused to comply with the meager demands placed on him. Late for the probation officer, skipping his hours at Goodwill. The older Loren had feared his son might’ve ducked out of the…the…
“Victim Impact Education,” Roxane said. She exhaled soft and airy. It has been six years, she told herself. Astrid would understand. Before Roxane could continue, Norma lit another cigarette and asked which young man was his son. Loren described his son’s mullet and denim shirt.
“Your son needs to learn respect,” Norma said.
“Oh, Lord, what did he do?”
“It’s what he didn’t do,” Norma said, smoke mingling with her frizzy hair, rendering the space above her head a plume of exhaust. “He still around?”
“I really don’t know. He doesn’t know I’m checking up on him.”
“Roxane deserves an apology.”
Loren’s eyes flickered with terror. Roxane felt a pang of empathy. She knew how a parent could buckle beneath the unending threat of a child’s self-destruction.
“Ma’am,” he said to Roxane, “please believe me when I say—”
“From your son,” Norma huffed.
“Norma, please!” Roxane grabbed her friend’s wrist. Norma’s eyes widened in disbelief. Releasing her, Roxane ran her hands through hair.
“I thought I’d taught him better than that,” Loren said.
Impetuously, Roxane lightly squeezed his arm. “How has your wife dealt with this?”
“She left us a while back.”
“I’m so sorry.” She staunchly ignored the warning glance Norma sent her way. “I know how hard it is to be on your own. Like I was telling the group—”
Roxane was about to tell Loren everything. How hard it was to raise a child baffled that she survived a tragedy. How large and cold an empty bed felt after midnight. How her friends’ sympathy had curdled into benign aversion. She would’ve told him all this but her cell phone chimed from her purse. She knew who was calling; she looked at the screen anyway. Norma grabbed the phone from her.
“Astrid, honey, your mother can’t talk right now.” Listening to Norma, Roxane burned with resentment to witness how ably her mentor could turn on the sweetness.
“Is that your daughter?” Loren said.
Roxane smiled, not as widely as she thought she would.
“You proud of her?”
“She’s my world.”
Glaring pointedly at her, Norma handed Roxane the cell phone. Roxane caught her gaze but was more concerned with how she couldn’t remember Loren’s son. After all, if Loren asked her out, as she suspected he would, she might one day again meet the young man; she feared an awkward scene. She couldn’t ask Norma—she’d figure out instantly that Roxane was drawn to this man. The two women had never discussed proper etiquette for these meetings, but Roxane suspected that dating the father of an offender was taboo. Still, she had an idea that would allow her to not only explore her curiosity about Loren but dampen Norma’s sure-to-be misgivings. First, however, Loren had to ask the question. Roxane waited. Tiny pellets of ice from the sky plinked against the back of her neck. Norma exhaled loudly behind her.
“Well, it was very nice to meet you, Roxane,” he said, hand again extended. “If there’s some way I could make up—”
“My friend talks tomorrow at the New Hope AA meeting.”
Aghast, Norma’s jaw dropped, but Roxane never noticed. She gave him her number and address; they agreed on a time. Loren seemed flustered, and she couldn’t recall the last time a man had become tongue-tied in her presence. A surge of confidence filled her like lemonade from a pitcher.
Astrid called again while Roxane drove home. Why wasn’t her mother home at 9 p.m. like she’d promised? I’m so hungry, she said. I’m trying to be good but it’s so fucking hard. Roxane knew what Norma would say: Don’t indulge her. You’re enabling her. But Norma wasn’t with Roxane—she was alone, alone but suffocating under the vague weight of duty. She promised Astrid she wasn’t far from home. She promised twice. The toothpick pines whizzed past her window. It was a perfectly ordinary night—Bill must’ve believed his last trip on this earth was perfectly ordinary, too, she thought.
When she’d asked the trooper if her husband’s death had been quick, he’d told her it was too soon to tell. And my boys? Too soon to tell. She could’ve asked Astrid, she wanted to ask her. Roxane still feared, however, that asking the question would plunge Astrid back into the wreckage from which only she’d escaped with her life; asked to return, even if only in her mind, she might remain forever in its fiery embrace.
“I’ll make it up to you.” Roxane strained to hear through the static.
“I’ll pick them off myself.”
She’d bought the large pies from the Pizza Hut two blocks east of the county justice building. She’d borrowed twenty dollars from Norma who parted with the cash only after Roxane confessed that Astrid had maxed out her emergency credit card. Norma asked how she’d found it. Her look stirred within Roxane simultaneous anger and relief like witnessing a junior-high best friend spill a secret. Norma said nothing more about Astrid, but there was no need. Roxane’s friends and extended family shared her opinion: the wrong child had survived that crash.
The house’s emptiness surprised Roxane. She called out for Astrid. After setting both pizzas on the kitchen counter, she swallowed, her emotional impotence like a wad of gum caught in her throat, and began down the hall. She checked the bathroom first. There remained only one in Roxane’s home; when Astrid turned fifteen, Roxane installed padlocks on the other two for which only she possessed a key.
“Don’t let dinner get cold,” Roxane said, the hallway devouring her words. “I promise, sweetie, it’s not Domino’s.” She found the bathroom silent and dark. Even the toilet was silent, no telltale moaning from the tank indicating recent use. Not satisfied, she knelt before the bowl. She inhaled deeply but was not comforted to spot no trace of the odor she knew too well. All this meant was Astrid hadn’t vomited that evening. Likely, she was waiting until after dinner, waiting for Roxane to retreat to her bedroom. Astrid had no problem sticking a finger down her throat with her mother in the house—that threshold had been crossed the summer before Astrid started high school.
“I thought it was my turn to clean the bathroom.”
The snarl in that scratchy voice reminded Roxane of a vexed housecat. That’s how she’d come to think of Astrid in the years after the accident: a wild creature smart enough to know it lived in captivity but too entitled to plot an escape. Roxane rose from her knees and greeted her daughter with a smile, knowing it was too dark for her to see it. “Did you find dinner?”
“I bet it has anchovies.”
Roxane wrung her hands. “Tonight was tough. I might’ve forgotten.”
“Don’t you do the same thing every month?” Astrid stalked out of the doorway and disappeared into the kitchen. The pizzas’ tangy aroma wafted through the house. Roxane wondered how her daughter greeted such pleasing odors, knowing what ugliness awaited her after she finished. Of course, as Norma had told her many times, the vomiting is what Astrid enjoyed most—she briefly tasted the power denied her the night God decided only she would see the sunrise. Roxane checked herself in the dark mirror then followed Astrid into the kitchen.
“Honey, please cheer up. You love pizza.”
“I love whatever won’t eat me first.”
Roxane’s face fell. Even after all this time, Astrid’s blasé acceptance of her disorder troubled her mother more than the mortal danger in which it placed her. Astrid’s ribs protruded like arthritic fingers beneath her flaccid breasts. Watching her turn and hunch over the pizza, the knobs of her spine parading toward her buttocks like lemmings off a cliff, Roxane froze. As Astrid slapped a paper towel on the table and heisted three pieces from the box, beginning to eat as if she were alone, Roxane realized anew how much like her Astrid would look if healthy: the straight, soft red hair; the faint army of freckles dotting her cheeks and forehead; the imposing height offset by a hesitant smile. Of course, Astrid still had all these characteristics, but her emaciated frame blinded everyone. She was simply “sick.” Nothing else.
“I met someone after my meeting.”
“Don’t set me up with some thug, Mom.”
“He asked me out. “
Astrid stopped chewing and gazed across the table. Her slice was riddled with anchovies. She either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. “That’s why you give your little boo-hoo stories, huh?”
“Please don’t say that.”
“Have fun. I’m still hungry.”
“Didn’t I bring enough home?” No doubt the pimply boy at Pizza Hut assumed Roxane was buying dinner for her family. No doubt most would assume that. These people would be wrong. Roxane thought vaguely about what she should eat; more and more often, the very idea of food disgusted her.
“You can go to bed, Mom. I’ll lock up.”
Roxane knew it was soon time for Astrid’s ritual. “Think you’ll make it to school tomorrow?”
“You know, I’m old enough to drop out.”
“We can talk about it later. Good night, honey.” Roxane backed out of the room as if a coiled cobra had spooked her. Watching her only living child, Roxane felt she was beholding the end of a soliloquy onstage, the spotlight dimming before curtain. When Astrid asked her to wait, Roxane perked with optimism.
“Don’t leave your purse on the counter,” Astrid said. A rueful smirk soiled her face. “You know I can’t be trusted.”
Months ago, riding the elevator to the third floor, Roxane raked her fingers through her hair, still damp with perspiration, and clicked her teeth. A mere twenty minutes before her first encounter with the offenders as principle speaker, she felt sick with apprehension. When she’d seen the news story about victim impact speakers followed by a number for Norma Pratt, she instantly saw an opportunity to purge herself of the shame she felt for not being there on the highway, for surviving by absentia. Norma had assured her in dulcet tones how speaking to offenders (she warned Roxane never to use the word “criminal,” no matter how true) would give her a sense of control. Those fuckers, she said, will be all yours—yours for an hour.
Roxane stood before the offenders—Norma had warned her about their empty eyes and folded arms—and realized she empathized completely with their resistance; she, too, resented strangers who forced their misery onto others. It’s far better, she thought, to behold others’ misfortunes than make a fetish of your own. The contradiction inherent in her belief—what she believed to be a contradiction, at least—halted her speech. She spoke in clipped sentences, rushing through the parts Norma had encouraged her to “punch up” and stumbling over mundane details. No matter how many warnings Norma had offered about the offenders’ reaction, Roxane wasn’t ready for their scornful looks. This is pointless, she thought, thanking them for their time when she finished. Nobody cares what happened to Bill and my boys. Even the officer on duty yawned and erased a letter from his crossword.
To Roxane’s horrified surprise, Norma assured her outside in the stifling heat that she’d done a terrific job. They were really listening, she said. They heard you. Roxane wanted to contradict her mentor’s willful foolishness, but she remembered an old slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous: fake it till you make it. She slapped a broad smile on her face. She grabbed Norma’s shoulder and gushed how she felt like she’d done right by her family’s memory. The pride spilling over Norma’s face muffled Roxane’s sneaky hunch that she’d condemned herself to the most mundane sort of purgatory.
The New Hope chapter of AA held its meetings at a nondescript building in a sketchy part of town. Roxane never could remember its appearance. She knew only its address on Becker Street and that the Shriners used to meet there.
“You seem nervous,” Loren said.
Roxane chewed her cuticle. She’d stopped painting her nails after Bill died. She’d considered resurrecting the ritual before Loren arrived, but feared proving to herself her attraction to him, a proof no less palpable because only she knew its existence. “I think public speaking is the number one fear in the country,” she said. “Either that or going to the dentist.”
“I don’t think your friend likes me. Are you sure it’s okay I came?”
“Norma’s a bit of a mama hen. It’s nothing.”
Loren pulled into the tiny parking lot on Becker Street. It contained no more than fifteen spaces; Roxane always wondered how the meetings could be so large and hectic and the cars so modest and forgettable. Loren’s car smelled like lavender. She recalled the smell in Bill’s truck, sugar and tobacco. That scent, she thought warmly, I thought I’d forgotten it. Loren held the door for her. She flushed at how this excited her. So many men seemed like Astrid, rude and contemptuous, disinterested in any act not immediately benefitting them.
Inside, brightly colored crepe paper still hung in loops from the ceiling. A miniature tree festooned in tinsel and candy canes lurked in the corner next to the coffee pot and extra ashtrays. Christmas had passed three weeks ago with little fanfare, at least not between Roxane and Astrid. A bulletin board covered in yellow butcher paper boasted a handful of snapshots, the members celebrating January birthdays. Not for the first time, Roxane felt warmth expanding in her gut. She wasn’t an alcoholic, never had drank in excess even during high school, but sometimes she flirted with the notion of joining the group on a regular basis.
My name is Roxane, and I just want what you have.
Norma, warm and vulnerable behind the podium on a raised stage at the end of the room, waved at Roxane. “Hey, baby girl,” she called out. If she noticed Loren, she gave no sign. Roxane grinned, eyes sparkling, but her stomach seized when she realized others in the meeting, other drunks like the one who ruined her life, were looking at her. She knew what they must assume about her. This wasn’t the first meeting where she’d watched from the folding metal chairs as Norma commanded the audience with the skill and grace of an orchestra conductor. That’s how Roxane thought of the people listening to Norma, every time: an audience. She didn’t know what to call the people, the offenders, who listened to her at the county justice building. She couldn’t bear to use the word offenders when outside of there. Before she knew it, Norma had introduced herself to polite applause and begun her story.
“She’s going to scare the hell out of everyone,” Loren whispered.
“Oh, no, she’s very professional.”
“Is this her only job?”
“She’s a greeter at Wal-Mart.”
“Brave woman.” Loren smiled.
She grinned, but again, the phoniness of her reaction sent her down a slide of shame that made the room seem hot and crowded. All the drunks seemed like too many roses in too small a vase. Norma’s delivery slithered from ache to indignation, the tone of her narrative almost incidental to her words’ music. Roxane saw to her mild surprise that Loren, in profile, seemed in rapture to Norma as well. She studied the creases radiating from the corner of his left eye, the grayish hue of his stubble. She hoped Loren would smirk and dismiss Norma’s theatrics. She needed someone to yank away the curtain and allow the sunlight through. She needed an excuse to leave.
“I have to run to the ladies’ room,” she whispered, already collecting her purse and backing away into the row of drunks. A couple of smashed toes and rude stares, Roxane never noticed them. Outside the lecture hall, she flitted past the Christmas tree and bulletin board, banged open the front door and fled into the chilly night air. She searched her purse for her emergency pack of cigarettes; she hoped Astrid hadn’t swiped those, too. She knew Loren would wonder where she went, maybe look for her. Of course, she thought, exhaling that blessed cloud of smoke, maybe he’d be so deeply inside Norma’s narrative of loss and hope, he wouldn’t notice she hadn’t returned. The horrible prominence that tragedy lends a person doesn’t last forever; invisibility returns both too soon and never soon enough.
“Roxane, what happened?” Loren stood, clutching his bomber jacket, his breath visible beside his head like a thought cloud in a comic book. “You’ve heard all that before, right?”
She smiled ruefully and summoned the nerve to look him in the eye. “I hope your son got something positive from hearing me,” she said, “because I think that was my last meeting.”
Loren’s smile flattened. Flustered, he gently placed his hands on Roxane’s shoulders. She no longer wished to feel his touch but thought it impolite to ask him to remove his hands. She’d turned off her cell phone before Norma started her speech. Astrid was likely trying to reach her—more hunger, she was never satisfied. She turned on the phone, but a gust of wind cut around the anonymous building before she could check her messages. Roxane allowed Loren to embrace her, grateful for the moment’s warmth, no matter how strong the urge to resist his touch.
He whispered into her shoulder, “Does this have anything to do with me?”
“No, Loren, you’ve a very nice man, and I—”
“I wasn’t completely honest last night.”
Roxane pulled from his arms quickly, surprised. “What do you—? You lied?”
“I don’t have a son, Roxane. At least, not one you’ve met.”
“But you described him and…”
“I picked one out from the crowd. I’d been waiting outside for the meeting to end. I knew it was the same day every month.”
Panic pulsed inside her, made her face flush. She should’ve listened to Norma. She’d warned Roxane these were damaged people. Damaged like us, she’d said, but in a more insidious way. “Wait, how did you—?”
“I guess you don’t remember me. From October? I sat in the front row. I paid attention to every word. I wanted to cry hearing about your family. It made me really think about what I’d done with my life.”
Her mouth hung open. She took a deep drag from her cigarette, wondered if she had enough money to buy another pack before she returned home. “You’re an…offender?”
“It was my first time, I swear. First and last.” He launched into the whole story of his bitter divorce, losing his kids, setting up quasi-residence at the honky-tonk three blocks from his house. His arrest had cost him his job and visitation rights. He’d lost everything. Two weeks before he’d listened to Roxane, he was sitting in his darkened bedroom, a pistol in his lap and the Cowboys game gurgling on TV. “I’ve been trying to be a better man since I heard you. Believe me, Roxane.”
She straightened, threw back her shoulders, her face blank and eyes hard like marbles. In that moment, she felt like a child on Halloween who’d been ringing the doorbell for minutes, finally understanding whoever was home wouldn’t answer. “Loren,” she said, “I’d like to go home now.”
Fortunately, the Papa John’s close to her house accepted checks. Roxane whipped open the pizza box, another box held beneath it, and took in the heavenly aroma. She hoped Astrid would smile to see it. Roxane had instructed her to wait in the den until her “surprise” arrived. Usually, Roxane made it a point not to order pizza more than once a week—not that it stopped Astrid from ordering it for herself. “It’s here,” she called. “Come and get it!”
Throughout the drive home, Loren had apologized and pleaded. Yes, he’d said, deceiving her was wrong, but he hadn’t known how else to approach her. He’d feared she would think him a degenerate or a stalker or, worst of all, simply pathetic. What about Norma, he’d asked when those arguments did nothing to weaken Roxane’s resolve. What will you tell her? She hadn’t told Loren that Norma had texted twice already, puzzled over Roxane’s sudden departure. She didn’t plan to speak to either of them ever again after bidding Loren good night.
Astrid looked at her mother warily from the doorway. “Special occasion?”
“You were right about those meetings,” she said. “Just a bunch of sob stories.”
“They don’t help anyone.”
“Papa John’s? Good job, Mom.”
Roxane sighed, frowning when she inspected the second pizza. The anchovies riddled the pie like dead soldiers after a battle. She gave Astrid a pitiful look, like a little leaguer who tried his best but struck out in front of his father.
“You wanna eat some, too?” Astrid asked.
Astrid gestured to the seat opposite her. You take one and I’ll take one. “I’m thinking about going to class tomorrow,” she said.
“Oh! That’s terrific news!”
“I said I’m thinking about it.” She shoved half a slice all at once into her mouth. An image of Cookie Monster, brown crumbs falling from his furry lips, flashed through Roxane’s mind. She just smiled wider, pushed the thought away. “I hope you like anchovies more than I do,” Astrid said.
Roxane picked one off her slice, then another. “I’m not crazy about them, either,” she said. “You know, your father—”
The doorbell chimed rudely. Roxane was reluctant to break away from her recollections. It seemed lately that even the outside world conspired to soil the little universe of memory and yearning she’d built, story by story, since the accident.
“Are you expecting friends?” She refused to lose that airy tone.
Astrid scowled. “All my friends ditched me. I hang out with you now.”
The moment Roxane reached the door, a man’s scratchy voice beckoned from its other side. “Roxane, it’s me. It’s…uh, it’s Loren.”
The doorknob, in an instant, seemed a dangerous tool requiring parental supervision. If she turned it, her life might change. If she did not, that ceaseless flatline indisputably symbolizing her life would persist as flatlines forever do.
Loren beat against the door. There was nothing neighborly about the knock.
“What do you need, sir?”
“I need to look into your eyes, for starters.”
Astrid wailed from the dining room. “Who the hell is it, Mom?”
Again, the doorbell chimed, the sound then subsiding. By now, Roxane had flattened herself against the front door. If he knocked again, she’d experience the vibrations, perhaps a tickling sensation. She wondered how many times he’d knock, how many times he’d ring the bell. She wondered when curiosity would finally spur Astrid from her seat.
“I’m not leaving until we talk,” he declared. “You owe me that. You owe yourself.”
Loren, the offender, knocked again. Roxane thought about loss. Curiously, she didn’t ponder despair, its unavoidable compadre, for an instant. In the following moments, however, her reluctance vanished like smoke off a bonfire. Slowly, the door opened. Her hand gripped the knob. It had been so damn long since a man stepped inside her home.