Out behind his old house—now his ex-wife’s house—he remembered a narrow, rocky path carving through the heavy woods, cool and shaded in summers but smelling of earthy decay and overrun with aggressive mosquitoes. In winters though, he would snow-blow the path despite its uneven terrain, rocks spitting from the sides of the blower and ringing off the blade. Two hundred feet through to the other side the path opened onto an unpaved access road, which led eventually to the pond. It was where he’d taught his estranged son, Henry, how to skate, three or four years old and bound in his black snowsuit, face chapped red and glazed with snot that the boy kept trying to lick. They’d shuffled around the lumpy ice on one side of the pond while a few older boys used the other half to play hockey, shooting at a net that one of them had made out of some scrap wood and fishing net.
Martin wasn’t even sure what had made him think of it—he’d remembered the pond, of course, because later they’d put Wild Blossom Road in and you could access the pond from the other side, near Main Street. But he’d forgotten about the path behind the house, forgotten about the plastic sled that he’d use to drag Henry along through the woods, Martin huffing for air and tired before they’d even gotten on the ice.
“Another?” Candy Welsh leaned toward him from behind the bar, showing him her tanning bed-freckled cleavage. She stubbed her cigarette out and blew a ribbon of smoke from the corner of her glossy lips, away from Martin.
“Nope. Cutting myself off early.” He put the glass down on top of two one-dollar bills and smiled at her. She nodded and smiled back and he noticed the bad tooth, dead and grayed, worse than he remembered. It had been a little discolored years ago but now looked like it ought to be pulled. He’d known Candy a long time. Twenty years? Longer than he’d even known his ex-wife, at least. In fact, the one and only time he’d tried cocaine in his life had been with her, sitting on the front steps of this very place, must’ve been sometime in the early nineties. He’d thought that maybe she wanted him to make a move on her, close the deal—her bare knee had kept bumping his, and at one point she’d reached over to wipe away a blotch of white powder from the side his nose with her fingernail, then licked it—but for some reason he never had.
“See you tomorrow?” She pulled his empty glass away and the couple bucks he’d left, wet in the corner where an ice cube had melted. Martin gave her a wink.
“Hope so,” he said.
Toad was near the door, slouched and unstable, trying to pick a crushed pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket without much luck. Martin, walking past, placed his hand between Toad’s shoulder blades to make sure he didn’t stumble back and fall onto his ass. He’d seen it before. “Who the hell’s that?” He turned, half-falling, his voice froggy and raw and near-hoarse. Martin always thought that it sounded painful.
“Just me,” he said, patting him. “Martin.”
Toad looked up at him—at five foot three he was nearly a foot shorter—and pushed his thick and yellowed eyeglasses back up the bridge of his nose with the neck of his beer bottle. “For fuck’s sake.” A white jagged crack ran right through one of the lenses. It had been like that forever. Must’ve drove him crazy, Martin figured.
“You around tomorrow? That fan belt’s making an awful lot of noise. Gonna snap any time, I think.”
Toad shrugged his slim shoulders, almost nonexistent in his oversized green work shirt. “I told you, you shouldn’t even be driving it till I get it fixed. I told you that.” He went back to fumbling for the cigarettes but continued to mumble. “…I told him. Told him like ten times.”
“So tomorrow? Yes? You around?”
“I’m around.” He sounded suddenly annoyed, his words sharp. “I’m around.” For some reason he splayed his arms out, the beer bottle sloshing and his tongue too big for his mouth. “I’m around.”
He’d known Toad a long time—peripherally at first, but now more closely, since Martin’s divorce—and he knew that the man was disintegrating. It wasn’t difficult to see. How long had it been since Toad had been kicked out of that halfway house, or whatever it was? At least a year, Martin thought. And ever since, he’d been living in one of those portable storage containers, not much more than a rusting aluminum box, really, in the corner of the adjacent lot out back where a gravel pit had closed down some time ago. On hot summer days Toad couldn’t even use it, but would sleep a few feet away under the cover of trees, wrapped in beach towels. But it was the dead of winter now and Martin worried about him. Toad had three extension cords hooked together, long enough to reach the back door to the V.F.W. At night he’d plug it in and use an electric heater Martin had given him, but sometimes, depending on who was working, the plug got pulled. Tonight, with Candy on the bar, Martin knew Toad would be all right. But tomorrow could be a different story.
Back at his place he checked his messages. He’d been here for two years and three months and it was still tough to call it home. Just a studio apartment above his elderly aunt’s garage. Really no better than the apartment he’d had when he was twenty-one. Smaller, anyway. But it was hopefully just for one more year, he often reminded himself, though with Barry cutting his hours at the machine shop he wasn’t so sure anymore. The divorce had been rough, and costly, but he was still trying to send money to the girls during their last year of college. Hannah and Melissa. Irish twins, everyone called them. Thirteen months apart. They’d both been accepted to Tufts but had settled for one of the state schools, and Martin had been grateful though it broke his heart a little too. The girls never complained about it. They liked school and got straight A’s and seemed to be doing well, but Martin knew—and he was sure that they knew, too—that an opportunity had been missed. He and Cathy had separated during the spring of their senior year of high school, everything in disarray, a chaos bomb dropped dead-center on all their lives. They were all casualties.
“Hey Dad, it’s me…” Martin sat down at the table, leaning closer. The machine sounded muffled and hissy. “You know, you’re the only person left on the planet with an actual answering machine. Just saying.” Hannah’s voice, he was pretty sure, despite the hiss. “I don’t know if you’re screening or if you’re not there…” He listened to a lengthy pause. It sounded like she took a bite of an apple. “…Okay, you’re not there. I was just saying hi. Mel and I probably won’t be seeing you this weekend. There’s an away game Saturday night and a bus is going so we’ll probably go. Not sure yet but probably.”
He had a slight buzz and he’d skipped dinner. His stomach felt a little sour because of it. He yanked on the refrigerator door, light splashing into the kitchen gloom. He squinted against it. Milk, OJ, butter, a few eggs—he wasn’t sure how old—half a tomato beginning to wrinkle, a Taco Bell wrapper with something inside it, must’ve been getting close to a week old at this point, and a Tupperware of soup his aunt had brought over a few nights earlier. He took out the soup and held it up, looking at it. He wasn’t sure why.
Hannah continued: “Henry’s fine, too. We talked to him a few days ago. Still working at the store, but they cut his hours back I guess.” She sighed. Was it a casual sigh, or an ominous one? He couldn’t tell. “Call him, Dad. Mel keeps asking me if you’ve talked to him.”
Martin hadn’t seen Henry in over five years. Five years ago last Thanksgiving. He’d always been a good son, polite, didn’t skip school, didn’t forge dismissal notes like the girls had. He’d gotten decent grades—not great but decent—in high school and worked part-time at the grocery store, slicing deli. That Thanksgiving five years ago had been the autumn of his first year at college. He’d been living at home and taking classes at community college just a few miles away. He hadn’t gotten into many schools and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do anyway. Martin suggested the community college path, thought it would buy him some time to figure things out and mature a little, and save Martin some money along the way.
He thought about that night a lot: remembering that after most of the Thanksgiving guests had left—not all, but most—he and Cathy had gotten to arguing. She’d muttered something about his drinking, nudged him inconspicuously in the ribs, asked him to slow it down. She may have even smiled at him, trying to deflate the tension, let him know she wasn’t trying to start anything even though that was exactly what she was doing, wasn’t it? He’d looked down into her eyes and read it all in that one quick glance: I don’t want to fight about this now, here in front of people, but we’re going to later. In return he shot her a wide, patronizing grin, bulging his eyes and maybe even pushing his face toward her. It was enough to make her flinch back. Then he fixed himself another rum and egg nog, packing the glass loudly with ice, drawing attention to himself. This time he poured a generous floater on top. He looked over his shoulder to make sure Cathy was watching, which she was, standing in the dining room with the Clevers and Duluths and a couple others. Then he took a loud slurp and brought the drink to the bedroom, leaving the guests looking at the floor and walls in discomfort.
He lay on top of the bed, drink balanced on his belly, condensation soaking through, and watched the end of the late football game. He could hear them down the hall, laughing again, playing a card game. He heard one couple leave and it got quieter still. Henry came home some time later, the house rumbling when he slammed the front door too hard, even though Martin had told him a million fucking times not to. He knew by the sound of his footfalls, heavy and a little clumsy, that the boy had been drinking. It had happened once before, earlier in the fall, and Martin had let it slide. Henry was in college, after all, and maybe Martin felt a little bad that he was living at home while many of his friends were away at school. So he hadn’t said anything.
This time, though, Martin felt differently. Maybe it was because it wasn’t the first time, but was suddenly a pattern. The kid thought he was getting away with something. Staggering home shitfaced whenever the hell he wanted. Classes for just a couple hours a day, the first one not until eleven for Chrissakes. At community college in the first place because he’d pissed away high school. And there he was thumping around the mud room and stairs while company sat in the other room. They’d be polite and say the right things but then talk about it on their ride home, how Martin and Cathy’s son was clearly drunk, how he was a good kid and all but a little aimless, living at home and working part-time and stumbling around the house stinking of booze like he was king shit and didn’t have anyone to answer to.
Martin didn’t even remember coming out of the bedroom but he remembered grabbing Henry by the throat—the kid had grinned at him when Martin had asked if he’d been drinking—and remembered manhandling him back down the steps to the front door, Cathy pleading from behind, starting to cry, Henry clawing at Martin’s hand, trying to get a breath. In the background Martin heard Glenn Duluth protesting: “Hey, Martin, come on, now. Don’t…”
Glenn’s wife, Audrey, over-fucking-dramatic: “Oh Jesus, stop him!”
Martin slipped on a stair and fell to his ass but didn’t let go of Henry. They both landed with a thud. One of them—Martin wasn’t sure who—broke a wooden banister rung. He pulled Henry to his feet, opened the door, and shouldered him outside. The dog across the street started barking. The momentum carried Henry onto the lawn, where he stumbled to the grass, landing on his hands and knees.
“Come back when you’re sober.”
Henry popped to his feet, embarrassed. His jeans were wet at the knees. He touched his neck and looked up at Glenn and Audrey, watching from the window. Audrey had her hand over her mouth.
Back inside, Martin had stopped to pick up the broken slat. He’d burped and tasted eggnog. Cathy was sobbing, coming down the stairs, squeezing past him. “That’s right, go tell him everything’s going to be okay! Go give him a hug!” He’d turned and looked at the guests, pointed the broken slat at them. “Party’s fucking over. Happy Thanksgiving.”
Martin ate the leftover soup on the futon and watched Wheel of Fortune and then Rick Steves’ Europe on PBS. Rick was in Austria—Sound of Music country—and there was even a shot of Rick doing a twirl atop a green hillside, ala Julie Andrews. The girls had been desperate to vacation in Europe when they were young, especially Melissa, who’d gone so far as to mark the journey with a red pen on a map: Rome to Florence to Venice, then west into France, then back east into Germany. All over the place. Martin had suggested Epcot as a nice alternative—the whole goddamn world in a day—but the girls were adamant.
It never happened. “But you said!” Melissa had protested, melting into tears one night after dinner, the map crumpled in her fist. “You said so!”
The truth was, he’d figured they’d forget about it after a while, like so many other things. Who the hell knew they’d keep it up all those years? Then Hannah had come in, hearing Melissa crying and rushing to her aid, the way she often did. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Dad says we’re not going to Europe! He’s a liar!”
Martin had rolled his eyes and dropped his fork. “You know how much a trip like that costs? You two crazy?”
After Rick Steves’ he got up to wash the dishes. Europe never happened, and in fact, now that he thought of it, they hadn’t gone on a family vacation again. A few years after had been the infamous Thanksgiving, and that had been the beginning of the end. He turned the hot water on, waiting for it to warm up. The good news was, the girls were resilient. In fact, they were the only two who still spoke to him, though they’d been in the apartment only once. The three of them had gone out to dinner and they’d come up to wait for him. The space was mostly bare, boxes unpacked, bean bag furniture, paper plates on the counter and the cabinets still empty. Martin could tell they’d been uncomfortable seeing it, embarrassed even, and hadn’t been up since. Sometimes they waited out in the driveway for him, or go next door to visit Aunt Edna. Anything to not have to come up.
In fact, the only person who’d been up here was Toad. He would often pick Toad up from the club to come work on Martin’s car in the driveway. Martin would keep him company, handing him tools, trying to learn a little something, keep the beers coming too. If he had food in the fridge, Martin might bring something down, let Toad sit on an overturned plastic cooler or folding chair and eat. If Toad wasn’t too dirty—if he didn’t smell too badly—he might take him upstairs to eat, at the Formica table in the kitchen. It was certainly easier than carrying everything down and then back up again. And if Toad was dirty, not just visibly dirty from working on cars but dirty,with that stale, stinging odor of someone whose clothes hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, Martin might invite him upstairs, like he had about three weeks earlier after Toad had done the brakes on Martin’s 2002 Accord, and, after reheating Toad a plate of chicken pot pie, threw him in the shower.
Toad, as usual, had tried to decline. “Naw, I’m aw’right. Next time.” He’d patted his pockets for his cigarettes. “Next time.”
“No. Fuck next time. Come on.” Martin had taken the empty plate away—Toad had mopped it clean with a slice of bread—and gestured with his head for Toad to follow. “Let’s get this done.”
He tossed Toad’s clothes in the wash, doubling the detergent, and sat on the toilet lid sipping a can of Miller Lite while Toad showered. “It’s too fuckin’ cole!” he’d heard Toad yell, his voice rasp and sore-sounding.
“Then turn it up some more. To the left.”
“The what? Turn what?”
Martin stood, placed the beer on the back of the toilet. He swiped the shower curtain aside. “The fucking knob. This thing. Adjust it however the hell you like.” He demonstrated, first twisting it all the way to the right, throwing a shot of cold all over him, then back to the right. Toad howled, backing up and turning to the side. Naked, he was tiny and nearly hairless. Martin realized he still had his eyeglasses on. “Why’d you leave your glasses on? Give me those.”
“So I can see, what you fuckin’ think?” Martin reached for them and missed. “I said I need them for fuck’s sake!”
The bathroom began to steam. Martin took a swallow of his beer and opened the bathroom door, letting in some air. The washing machine began thumping back and forth as it switched cycles. He’d forgotten to balance its contents, the way his aunt had shown him.
Toad asked, “The Christ’s that?“
“The washing machine.” Martin could see Toad’s shadow against the back wall, where there was a gap between it and the shower curtain. Toad was standing completely still. Martin sipped his beer, watching. Waiting for him to do something—pick up the soap, lift his arms, some sign of effort—but Toad was just biding his time. Martin put his head back, finishing the last half of the beer in three or four hard swallows, then chucked the can into the sink, where it clanged loudly before settling at the bottom.
He’d been through all this before, trying to get Toad showered and presentable. Martin thought to himself that if it were he who hadn’t bathed in a month, he’d stay in that shower for an hour, scrubbing himself raw, the heat jacked to almost unbearable. Hell, sometimes he showered twice a day and even three times, letting the water run cold against his skull.
Martin leaned into the shower, shouldering the curtain aside. He filled his palm with shampoo and slapped it onto the top of Toad’s head. “Come on, let’s wrap this up. Put an exclamation point on this and be done with it.” Toad writhed as though in pain, leaning against the tiled wall in an attempt to get away while Martin scrubbed his hair.
“My eyes!” Toad pushed his hand under his eyeglasses, brushing at soap suds. “Fuck, Martin, my eyes!”
“Well, stop moving around, you pussy.” Water pattered Martin’s shirt and the thigh of his blue jeans. He tried to step to the right, get behind the curtain, but Toad became harder to reach. He squinted against the spray and hurried to finish.
After the dishes he made himself a whisky and water—he was out of ginger ale—and tried to find something to watch. The Bruins were down 3-0. The Celtics were on the west coast and wouldn’t play until later. Eventually he shut the TV off, and when he did, he realized he hadn’t put any lights on. The apartment was in complete darkness. He sipped his drink, ice cubes knocking together, and didn’t bother reaching for the lamp. When the cars passed, a square of light wiped across the far wall and ceiling. Then vanished.
Saturday morning he rose early, unable to sleep in as he’d wanted. The apartment was cold. He pulled on a sweatshirt and turned the heat up, listening to the radiator start its routine clanging. From the kitchen window he saw his aunt standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting for Penelope, her Jack Russell, to go to the bathroom. White breath trailed from their mouths. Martin thought she’d looked his way, so he raised his hand in a wave, but she didn’t seem to notice.
It was only eight or so but he’d decided to head out. Toad would be cranky for the early wake-up, but Martin was restless and wanted the fan belt fixed sooner rather than later. If he waited too long, Toad could be already roasted, toasted and useless. He swung through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru and got coffees for the two of them—medium regular for Martin and a large black for Toad—and two plain crullers. The roads were quiet, everything gray and depressed. The icy snowbanks dirty with soot. He never understood people who said they loved the winter.
He drove his Accord into the club’s parking lot and then around back, passing the dumpster and recycle bins. Martin was sure the squeal of the fan belt would wake Toad. Nothing made a shitbox seem more like a shitbox than unwanted noise. He’d be glad when it was fixed, and decided that later on he’d drive it through the car wash, get all this salt and grime off it. Be like new.
He parked along the far fence, its posts broken and jagged, reminding Martin of sinister teeth. It looked like one section had blown down in the last couple days. He cut through, coffees in his hands and bag of donuts between his teeth. The storage pod stood in the trees, diseased with rust and littered with orange pine needles, looking both foreign and at the same time a decaying part of the woods. He gave the door a kick with the toe of his boot. “Toad!” he tried to say through clenched teeth. “Coffee!”
The door couldn’t close all the way, leaving a two or three-inch gap where Martin wedged his elbow to lever it open. He squeezed inside, straining his eyes in the gloom, and put one of the coffees down on an overturned milk crate. “Hey.” He was surprised it was so cold in here. The electric heater, he saw, had tipped over, or been knocked over, tripping its power. Some kind of safety mechanism. “Rise and shine, my man.”
He tried the lamp but nothing happened. When he inspected it he saw that it was missing a bulb. He wished Toad had told him—he had a couple sleeves of bulbs at the apartment. Having no windows, the pod was dark. Martin kneed the door open wider, letting in the outside light. Toad still lay on his military cot in the center of the room, away from the cold metal walls. Clothes and plastic grocery bags filled the perimeter. Books and beer cans everywhere.
“Hey. I said coffee’s here.” Man, was it cold. He put the large black down on the nightstand by the cot. “Coffee.” He went to lean in, give him a gentle shake, but before he got any closer he knew something was wrong. He could almost see the stiffness without even having to touch him. He put the bag down and touched Toad’s shoulder. He was coiled in a fetal position, knees drawn up into his thin chest, the two quilts that Martin had given him twisted around his body. His mouth hung open, glasses askew on his blue face. Martin tried to put some pressure on his shoulder to turn him onto his back, but his joints were locked tight. “Fuck,” Martin said.
After picking up his cremated remains the next day, Martin stopped at the club. He brought the wooden urn inside with him, just a plain box, really, and placed it on top of the bar. It was early in the afternoon and the place was quiet: Candy was doing a Sudoku puzzle in the paper and picking through a bag of chips, while Lucky Keene and Joe Dumphy shot pool in the adjacent room. On the TV, Judge Judy berated someone.
Candy brushed her hands together, then wiped them on a rag. “That was fast.”
Martin shrugged. “Get her done, right?” He pulled off his knit hat and gloves, and stuck the gloves inside the hat.
“I’ll get us something good.” Candy turned, touching the top of the small box, and went for the bottle of Jack Daniel’s 1800. It was dusty. At $14 a shot, no one ordered it. She lined up five shot glasses. “Joe. Lucky. Come over here.” She muted the TV, then used a key to open up the jukebox cabinet, fingering the tab to add credits. A few seconds later “Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe came over the speakers.
Martin smiled. “Toad hates this song.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Candy said. She twirled in a circle on her way back to the bar. Martin had already filled the glasses, placing the fifth directly on top of the wooden box. Candy handed out the shots.
“Is this a freebie?” Joe asked.
“Just drink it,” she said.
He drove past the turn for his aunt’s house and instead drove another mile to Main Street, the fan belt squealing the whole way. Toad said that if it were to snap it could do a lot of damage under the hood. A mist hung in the air, peppering the windshield and leaving a low fog settling over everything. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and the sun was already slipping away, a faint, messy smudge behind the gray sky. The Jack had given him the hint of a headache. He hoped one wasn’t coming.
Farther ahead he turned onto Wild Blossom, the new road that led to the pond. He’d never taken it before. Somehow it felt like a cheat. It was narrow and already damaged with potholes. Somewhere on the other side of the woods was his old house. He tried to spot the path he’d used to take way back when, the shortcut through the woods, but he couldn’t find it. With the new road it must have become overgrown and forgotten.
Before reaching the dead end he turned into the gravel lot in front of the pond, pocked with snow and ice, the crunch of the tires announcing his arrival. Five or six boys were out on the ice, playing hockey. Some of them turned to look. Martin put the car in park but left the engine running so that the heat continued to defog the windshield. The wipers, on occasion, cleared away the mist but left streaks.
He fished a can of beer out of his coat pocket—Candy had given him a couple “to go”—and he cracked the tab. Martin watched them play. They were good, he thought, graceful. Through the mist and low curtain of fog, they looked like ghosts. When he sipped his beer, he could smell the pine from the wooden box still on his fingers.
Sean Conway writes and teaches north of Boston. His stories have appeared in literary journals both print and online, including Eunoia Review, Solstice, Long Story, Short, and Glassworks.