I was balancing on a ladder halfway between the first and second story of the AmericInn just off of I-35 when the shrill honk of Mark’s dinged-up white Ford four-door demanded my attention from the parking lot below. “Get your brown little ass down here, Ranger Rick,” Mark yelled from the cab. I dried my hands on my shirt and stuck the squeegee in the back pocket of my cargo shorts. Three months ago I would have spat in your face if you told me I would be hauling ass for some white guy back home. Yet there I was, doing just that. And sober. Christ.
As I began to descend the ladder, Mark expelled a cloud of smoke from his tar-coated lungs. “God damn pressure washer went limp-dick on me,” he said, pointing his thumb to the back of the hotel, toward the shed that houses all his beat-up equipment. Mark’s beard hung loosely off his chin, coming to rest on top of his bulging stomach. His voice sounded like he was gargling the shotgun shells casings that rolled around the bed of his truck. I met him at the truck’s window. “Luckily I got a nice one at my place—3100 psi, axial cam pump and everything. Going to need some help loading it though. The thing is a real bearcat.” He didn’t bother to make eye contact.
Even though I had only known him for a few weeks, I understood this was Mark’s version of an invitation. Using both arms to hoist myself in to the passenger seat, I joined Mark in the cab. I was weak. Physically, yes, but more than that. Even the smallest task, like climbing a ladder, was exhausting. I didn’t have to explain it to Mark. The bandage around the bend of my arm told him everything he needed to know. As I buckled up, Mark gave me the same pitying look he always did before we set out on a task. Like he was compiling a mental list of all the ways I could possibly fuck this up. I was too.
By that time I’d been at the hotel—window washing, mainly—for almost a month. An old friend from Narcotics Anonymous had heard I was back in town and hooked me up through his cousin, who used to be drinking buddies with Mark, the sole maintenance worker at the AmericInn. Paid under the table, I could earn a little coin while I bummed around my old hometown, reassembling my life from square one. As he backed his truck out, Mark tossed me his Newports. The crushed teal box landed lightly in my lap.
“You know I quit.”
Mark pretended to be astonished. But he knew. He just liked to throw it in my face. Liked to watch me squirm with temptation as I returned the pack, even though the menthol ones always made me nauseated.
“Even cigarettes,” I said, playing along like I had an option. “You know, the reason why I’m here. Cold turkey and all that.”
Mark lit another cigarette using the one in his mouth. Turkey, he muttered loud enough so I could him hear over the radio, offering me the butt before throwing it out the window on to the pavement. The Minnesota dog day sun leapt off the tar. I was sweating. I was always sweating back then. Started when they tied me to that cot in Minneapolis. Even after my discharge, even after the pangs went from hourly to daily to weekly—I was sweating. Mark shifted the truck into gear, peeled out, one hand on the wheel, the other on his knee, thumping along to the crackling twangs of Willie on the radio.
When I told my buddies up in the metro about my plan—go home, live with Mom, wash windows until things start making sense—they got a real kick out of it. Tony, especially. “Trying your luck with hotels again?” he joked. He had been there for the worst of it—the January we holed up in a Motel 6, shooting up all night, drying out all day. Tony’s sister’s friend worked the overnight desk and would slip us into whichever rooms didn’t get booked. It was during that time when I first started slipping. Then it happened. I hadn’t even fully realized what went down until a few days later when I came to and asked Tony why the hell there were bandages on my thighs. He drove me over to the Motel. Pointed at a tarp covering the window of a room on the second story. “That’s you, man. You did that shit.” As we idled in the parking lot, I began to remember in hazy vignettes. A fever dream, waking in a cold sweat, overcome by the urge to escape. I remembered the sensation of falling. I remembered falling for a long time and never really landing, just placing myself on the snowy ground as it rose to meet me. “I did that shit,” I said. Tony was furious. It went unsaid: the deal with his sister’s friend was off. We hit the road, looking for our next place to squat. January was over, and we knew February would only bring more snow.
On our way out of town—Mark lived some ways out in the country—we stopped at the station to fill the tank. “You pump,” Mark instructed as he sauntered inside. I popped the cap on the gas tank and filled it up until the meter clicked. Almost fifty bucks. Enough for a fix. I went to wait in the truck, but when I yanked the handle, it was locked. From the filling station I could see Mark inside chatting with the attendant. I tried to signal that I was done, but neither of them saw me. When I went inside, I realized Mark wasn’t chatting.
“The hell you mean declined?” Mark’s palms were on the counter, pressing down on the Minnesota scratch-offs—the ones with the loons—secured under their plastic mat. Then, betrayed by the bell above the door, he turned to me. “What’d you do? Fill it with goddamn premium?”
The attendant behind the counter smacked her gum, arms crossed, unfazed. “Can he pay?” she asked, motioning to me. This was the wrong thing to say. Perhaps she knew that.
“If I ain’t got it, sweetie, he ain’t got it.”
Feeling uncomfortable, I wandered down the rack with the chips and sunflower seeds, shooting intermittent glances toward the cash register. When I was a kid growing up north of town, me and a neighbor used to come down here and lift Twix Bars on the weekends. I peered down the aisle, watching Mark, but never looking directly at the counter. It was like putting on an old suit. When I was still on the needle, I moved on from candy to full meals. A couple of roller dogs, a bag of chips. If I was with a buddy, and the attendant was distracted, perhaps a tank of Blue Rhino from out front. The guys who cooked always needed gas—it was a quick flip. Up in the city, there was more ground to cover. I became methodical. I had to. Mapped which stations I was going to hit, and when. Spaced them out over weeks, never gaining suspicion. As I made my way back up to Mark, I thumbed a family-size Milky Way on the rack but stopped when I noticed the woman behind the counter was following me with her gaze. She glanced at the security camera in the corner. Sometimes it became easy to forget what being brown meant back home. I wasn’t going to nab the candy bar before, but now something within me was telling me to. Before I could process these thoughts, I realized Mark was digging in his wallet again. I looked away, but not before I saw him pull out the AmericInn’s company credit card. I knew what the card was for—drill bits, blades for the lawnmower, that sort of thing. Not a pack of smokes and a tank of gas. I could feel Mark’s eyes on me as the attendant swiped the card.
Finally paid and on our way back out to his truck, Mark explained: “She just had to run it again. The strip is getting old. You know, simple misunderstanding.” Mark started the engine. It hissed like a snake. And when we hit the dirt road a few minutes later, the speedometer showed five, ten, fifteen over. We flew out of town with the urgency of someone escaping the scene of a crime. And when I looked behind us, all I could see through the back window was a cloud of red dust, swallowing us whole.
We didn’t get more than a mile and a half before Mark pulled the truck over into the ditch. “Piss time,” he said as he meandered across the median and into a field of corn on the other side of the road. As the dust settled, I began to make out the silhouette of the trailer park on the horizon. Leech Land, as Mark dubbed it. Leech Land. My old neighborhood. If you could call it that. In those early days, I often wondered if Mark knew. At the very least I was sure he suspected. Why else his frequent preface: You’re one of the good ones.
As I waited in the cab, the keys dangling from the ignition caught my eye. Having lost my visible on Mark, I was suddenly the closest I had been to being behind a wheel in months. The most freedom I had since coming home. And for the first time in just as long, I really needed a fix. I was about do it—light up one of Mark’s Newports and drive, get away, away from Mark, away from window panes, from vinegar cleaning solution, from corn fields and Leech Land when Mark’s gruff voice pushed its way out of the cornfield.
“Ricardo! Grab my rope!”
Startled to hear my real name coming from Mark’s mouth, I found the spool he was talking about and quickly jumped out of the cab. Mark yelled for me again, so I followed his voice in to the cornfield. The late-August stalks were over my head, consuming me. I remember feeling as if I was being pulled, as if the field was an ocean dragging me out with the tide. About a dozen rows in, I found Mark standing in a small clearing, hands on his head. Before him was a deer, bigger than I’d ever seen, a hole in its stomach, tongue hanging limp. A layer of dried blood coated the surrounding dirt. Flies swarmed over the exposed wound. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.
“Twelve-fucking-point whitetail,” Mark said, shaking his head. He whooped. “Ain’t he pretty? My God, ain’t he something?”
Heat seemed to rise from the buck, making the very air around us feel dangerous. I began sweating again. It was suffocating, almost. Mark nudged the buck’s stomach with the metal tip of his boot, pushing in the blood-matted fur, confirming the obvious. Dead. From smell alone I could tell the thing had been there for a few days. I didn’t want to look again, but something deep within my stomach took control, seized the muscles in my neck, tilted my head downward. Then, deprived of my own agency, I made eye contact with the animal. Its eyes, gray, glossed over, stared back at me. I had seen these eyes before. In friends, in family. In hospital beds, ambulances, usually with foam at the corners of the mouth. It was a disconnect. Often, a goodbye. The more I stared, the more human it became until, finally prying my gaze away, I was not convinced the buck before us was entirely animal.
Mark squatted down and grabbed the animal’s hind legs. He looked up at me expectantly, the spool of rope in my hands.
“Shit or get off the pot, boy.”
My hankering from the cab turned to nausea as I realized what was about to happen. Stranded and with no other real option, I joined Mark in the dirt and began to tie the hooves together. After we got the rotting animal’s limbs tied, Mark slipped out of the field and backed his truck across the road, straight through the corn to where I stood next to the deer, my shirt pulled up over my nose. “Well shit,” I said. Mark said he didn’t want to hear any of it and so we laboriously hoisted the deer into the bed. When we set the rotting animal down, it rolled over, squeezing intestines out its open stomach like a tube of bloody toothpaste. Now on its other side, I could see the cause of death. The mark of a car’s grill on its back haunch, shards of glass sticking out the fur. Mark noticed too, but he didn’t say anything. And by the way he looked at me—desperate, almost—I could tell he didn’t want me to say anything either.
A few cars passed, and I was afraid they might stop, ask if we were okay. Ask if maybe we swerved off the road and if we needed a tow into town. Thankfully they all just sped by. Mark, once again giddy as a school boy, was already back in the cab waiting on me. I stood, still petrified by the buck’s glossy gaze.
“What’s the matter, Rick?” Mark said. “Ain’t your daddy never took you hunting before?”
Once, while I was still living in Minneapolis, Tony and I borrowed his girlfriend’s tent and went camping up north for a weekend. When we got to the site, which wasn’t a site but a patch of dirt a mile into a state park, we realized that beyond a handful of magic mushrooms and a baggie of rock, we hadn’t brought anything to eat. So we fried our brains and went hunting for squirrels with the unregistered pistol Tony kept in his glovebox. We got a couple, skinned them and roasted them over the fire. I can’t remember if it tasted any good. I only remember waking up the next morning with a headache and dried blood covering my hands, the carcasses of two unidentifiable rodents beside me. Fuck this, we both decided and toked up for the long drive home. When I got back to Minneapolis I spent the afternoon throwing up in the toilet. That night was the first time I had the dream. The dream where I am stuck to the floor, the contents of my stomach spilled out on the tiles, my family and friends looking on as a squirrel gnaws, burrows into my abdomen. That night was the first time I told myself I was starting over.
On one of my first nights back home, I got a call from a number I didn’t know. When I moved, I deleted all the contacts from my phone except Mom. In the moment, it had been liberating. But I soon found starting a new life is harder than pressing a few buttons. Now it was just a pain in the ass every time someone called and I had to guess who they were by the sound of their voice.
“Me and my cousin are about to score big tonight. Come by later. Bring cash, double the usual.”
I couldn’t place the voice. It could’ve been anyone. Could have even been Tony, I had deleted his number, too. I didn’t say anything. Just covered the receiver so whoever was on the other end couldn’t hear my heavy breathing.
“Ricardo, you there, man? You coming through or what?”
I walked into my bedroom, shut the door, and set the phone down on my nightstand. It was the same wobbly, plywood nightstand from when I was a kid—some garage sale find. The voice continued to force itself out of the receiver. But I was no longer listening. I laid down, picked a point on the ceiling like the counselor at my discharge had told me to, and let my vision blur. The room closed in on me. I felt the walls collapse, the roof sink in. I closed my eyes, hard. When I opened them, the room had restored itself. The paint on the walls, a little brighter. My nightstand, a little more sturdy. And I felt a calm relief rush over me. My stomach was warm and my fingertips were filled with energy. I sat up, grabbed the phone, and hung up.
Back at the hotel, still without the washer, Mark made a few excited calls from the phone in his shed. “He’s pretty as hell. Does it matter how he came into my possession? He’s pretty as hell and he chose me.” Later that day, after Mark covered the rotting contents of his truck bed with a tarp, a buddy of his stopped by and dropped off a pressure washer. Mark brought his friend around the back of the hotel, peeled up a corner of tarp.
“He’s going to make a hell of a mount,” Mark said.
His friend nodded, murmured in agreement.
“Your lucky day,” I said.
Mark scoffed. Told me to get back to work. Told me he had shit to do. Some time later that afternoon, as the sun started to fall in the sky, I ditched the ladder and began washing the windows from the inside. Each room had four detachable window panes that could only be washed by removing each one and cleaning them individually. From inside the rooms, I could watch Mark go about his business behind the hotel, as could anyone with a room on the south side. I watched as Mark used the new pressure washer to clear the grime from the patio behind the hotel, a thin but powerful stream of water erasing years of buildup. He worked in horizontal lines, methodically making his way down each individual tile. A few yards away his truck sat in the grass. I shuddered as I considered its contents, then distracted myself by focusing on the smudges on the window. The goal, like always: a clear view. The smell of vinegar was sharp, but not unpleasant. Each time I finished a window, I put the four panes back on, one by one in the reverse order I took them off, making sure each slider fit in neatly with its respective groove. Then, I flipped the window lock and waited for the sharp pop which confirmed; yes, this is how it all goes back together.
Author Bio: Jacob Warehime has a BA in creative writing from Luther College in Decorah, IA. He currently lives in Minneapolis where he works for an architecture firm and writes fiction at his grandma’s house.