|Publisher:||Central Avenue Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)|
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A Good Start
The boy didn't look much like him. That was the first thing. He was just so damn skinny, like dangerously skinny, like he should maybe be in the hospital skinny, and Ralph had never once in his entire life been called skinny. A fat ass, yes, on multiple occasions, but never skinny.
Second thing, Ralph had used a condom. He was sure of it, actually, because he always did. Every. Single. Time. Didn't matter if the girl said she was on birth control or not — he wrapped it up.
Third thing was he just didn't feel like he was somebody's dad. He imagined, and later on he realized he was right, that once you were someone's dad, you automatically were beholden by responsibility. You could feel it. It pulsated. You were responsible for a living, breathing human being. His welfare and safety and security. You felt obligated. You felt an immediate sense of love and duty, but when he looked at the boy he didn't feel any of that. Instead, he couldn't help but notice the glaring absence of it all.
The boy's name was Huck, like Huckleberry Finn, his mother said, and "he's yours."
"You sure?" Ralph asked.
"Goddamnit yes, Ralph. I wouldn't be here if he ain't."
His mother was a bucktoothed equestrian rider Ralph had met years before when she'd been in town for the rodeo. Ralph hadn't attended the rodeo itself, but the night of he showed up to Cattlemen's, this honkytonk dive bar next to the state fairgrounds. He'd found her there, six Pabsts in and swooning to Johnny Cash. It hadn't taken much to convince her to go back to her motel room — it was her idea, in fact, if he remembered correctly — and after that he hadn't heard from her since. And time had not been good to her. She'd lost several teeth, and she looked jaundiced. Meth, he guessed. Damn shame, too. She'd at one time had an ass to die for.
"Well, there, Adeleine, sounds like we might differ in opinion in that regard."
"Look," she said. "I was only with one guy then, and it was you.
By the power of deduction I —"
"The power of deduction?"
"Yes, goddamnit. Yes!"
"And you wouldn't be offended if I say I want a paternity test?"
She scoffed, pulled out a leather cigarette case, and lit a long, skinny 100 with a flick of a wrist. "And who's going to pay for that? You?"
She glared at his trailer like an uppity, suburban bitch.
"I suppose you're the one accusing," Ralph said. "Should be your dime then."
"Listen," she said. "There's no need. I just need you to watch him for a few days. That's all. Got some business at the Winstar, and I'll be back on Wednesday. Understand?"
The boy wasn't much to look at. He didn't seem angry his mother was pawning him off on a stranger, some guy she claimed to be his father, and he didn't seem to care Ralph denied the allegations, instead staring up at Ralph like he was figuring whether or not he could take him in a fight. This seemed to Ralph to be the boy's only emotion: defense. To be so guarded like that, Ralph couldn't help but feel sorry for the boy. He was just a sad sack of potatoes, a burlap bag covering lumpy, bland vegetables.
"Fine," Ralph said. "Wednesday then."
Adeleine nodded, sort of — she really just jerked her head down once. Then she grabbed the boy. She hugged him tight and clawed her nails into his back. She held on to him like that for a while, the boy's arms pinned to his side. Most would be uncomfortable in such a position, claustrophobic because they couldn't move, but the boy didn't seemed to be troubled by it at all. Rather, it was like he expected it — to not have any recourse of escape.
Wednesday came. Then Thursday. Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But Adeleine didn't. She didn't answer her phone either, the call going straight to voicemail. They both left message after message, Huck's tone growing from agitated to concerned, Ralph's vice versa. At first, he was worried something might've happened to her. Years ago, she'd known her way around a bottle of Kentucky Deluxe; it wouldn't have surprised him one bit if she'd had three or four or six fingers before climbing behind the wheel. But after a few days, he figured that couldn't have been the case — somebody would've tracked the boy down by now if she were dead. No, she'd run. Sure as shit, she hit the highway and hightailed it. For what reason, Ralph wasn't sure. Could've been she couldn't take being a mother no more, the worry and the burden, the responsibility and obligation of it all. Or it could've been a man for all he knew. Love, she might think it was, and her beau didn't take too kindly to children in the picture. Either way, Ralph was pissed.
Turned out, the boy wasn't that bad of an apple. Most nights, Ralph and he played cards: Go Fish and War and Spades. Games he hadn't played since he'd been a kid himself, stealing sips from his uncle's Schlitz when he was too busy staring at the weather girl on the nightly news. Ralph had always thought cards came down to one thing: luck. Either you had the cards or you didn't. Like life in that regard, Ralph thought. Some people just don't catch the breaks.
On the eighth night he and Huck played dominoes. Huck'd never played the game before, and he fumbled around with the bones not quite knowing what to do.
"The point is to make the ends multiples of five. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, so on and so forth. Get it?" Ralph asked.
The boy blinked at him like popping a balloon, throwing out dominoes without regard for strategy. Ralph tried to coach the boy, asking him if he had the deuce-three when it would've scored five points or the double sixes that would've scored twenty, but the kid just looked at his hand like he was trying to read Mandarin. Did no good, so Ralph just let him play his way for a couple of hours, them both sipping on lemonade and eating potato skins like the famine was coming, until finally Ralph just asked it:
"You got any other family out there?"
"Sorry?" the boy asked.
"Family? Aunts? Uncles? A Meemaw somewhere that still has two marbles clicking around?" Ralph pointed to his skull, but he could tell the boy didn't get what he'd meant.
The boy shrugged. "Probably. Don't most people?"
"Well," Ralph said. "You'd be surprised."
Next morning they headed south for the Winstar Casino, looking for the boy's mom. It was still dark out when they left, the time of morning Ralph's mother had always warned him about. "Just drunks and cops out that early," she'd used to say, "and I recommend staying away from both." Throughout his forty-three years, he'd learned his mother was right about one thing: the middle of the night was full of drunks and cops. What she got wrong is that they were often the same people, and turned out to be some of his best friends. Maybe that was why they didn't get along — turned out her son was one of the very people she mistrusted.
The boy stared out the window like this wasn't anything new, like he'd grown accustomed to the middle of the night himself, his eyes not expectant but rather complacent, steady. He found common ground with the boy in this regard. He remembered his own youth. Used to, his mother had a liking for drink and waffles, so she spent most of her time at the I-35 Waffle House next to the truck stop. Problem was Ralph's dad had skipped town a couple years before, so Ralph was forced to take umbrage in a booth, doing his social studies homework and developing a taste for decaf.
Every hour or so, his mother left him alone in there. At the time, Ralph had just thought his mother popular. It wasn't until many years later he figured out she'd been turning tricks in the back of big rigs. He remembered one night especially — he was working on what the waitresses called a heart attack bomb, which was just a gigantic pile of food: fried eggs, waffles, French toast, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, grits, all topped in maple syrup, and it was the most delicious thing Ralph had ever eaten. It was so tall he actually had to reach up in order to make a dent, and boy did he. He ate and ate and ate. He ate until he was full, and then he ate some more. He ate until he could feel his sweatpants tighten. He ate until his stomach bulged. He ate until his organs contorted. He ate until he could feel it creeping back up his throat. Eventually, he had to stop, and he became lethargic; he became sleepy.
When he awoke, it was light out. New waitresses were working, the graveyard shift having had already gone home. Someone had draped a floor mat over him as a blanket, and it stunk of muddy boots and rainwater. When he sat up, nobody paid him no mind, busying themselves with the menu or writing down an order. It wasn't until he tugged on a waitress' apron that someone looked at him.
"Have you seen my mother?" he asked the woman.
"Oh, honey," she said, her words garbled from missing her two front teeth. "Oh, sweetie. I haven't. I'm sorry."
Ralph found his mother at home, five miles and a couple of hours away by foot, passed out on the couch. She was still dressed, minus a shoe that seemed to have gone missing.
After an hour, they stopped at a Love's Country Store. Part truck stop, part convenience store, there was a little bit of everything. Souvenirs lined dusty shelves: dreamcatchers, ceramic buffalo skulls, I Love OK magnets, Woody Guthrie coffee mugs, and beer coozies picturing large-breasted women. The place smelled of oil, the adjacent Subway sandwich shop, and the body odor of weary travellers. It was a place Ralph knew well, and a good a place as any to piss and grab a bag of chips for the road.
Ralph let the boy wander, giving him some time alone. Ralph had the idea this might be the first time, but it wouldn't be the last his mother might abandon him, so he thought it best for the boy to work through it himself. Comforting him wouldn't do any good. He'd just ignore Ralph, defenses poised in prepubescent rage, and Ralph couldn't blame him for that. He knew the feeling all too well himself.
Ralph picked out some Pringles and a Diet Dr. Pepper and was heading to the register when he heard it, a scream that sounded something like a Kung-Fu Master on a made-for-TV movie, a high-pitched "Hiiiiyyyaaaa." It took Ralph aback so much he just stared up at the ceiling, like something so bizarre could only come from some place as equally bizarre, like a ninja climbing through the air-conditioning ducts.
"Thief!" the man yelled. He was to Ralph's left, an aisle over. "Shoplifter! Delinquent!"
Delinquent? Who talked like that?
Ralph tried to mind his own business, but the man kept yelling in that high-pitched, whiny voice until there came a voice Ralph recognized.
"Don't touch me!" Huck yelled. "Get your goddamn hands off me!"
Fuck, Ralph thought. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Ralph turned the corner and found a small Indian man grabbing Huck's forearm, a couple Snickers lying at the boy's feet.
"What seems to be the problem here?" Ralph asked a little more hesitantly than he'd intended.
"This boy yours?" the Indian man asked, pointing at Huck.
"That's a more complicated question than I think you know."
"He is or he isn't."
"Well, then, in a manner of speaking, the boy is under my charge."
Huck tried to jerk his arm free, but he wasn't strong enough. Ralph cut him a look that said to cut it out, and Huck shot him one right back that said to fuck off.
"The boy was stealing."
"That's one helluva of an allegation. You got any proof?"
"There!" the man yelled, pointing at the Snickers.
"What? That?" Ralph asked. "Some candy bars? What does that prove?"
"He had them in his pockets! I saw him!"
Ralph looked to Huck. His expression hadn't changed, and Ralph could read it as if it were in plain English: fuck you and everyone else in this world. Fuck it all. Fuck every single last bit of it until the end of the Earth. Ralph might've thought it funny if it was under different circumstances, if it was some other poor schmuck standing in his shoes rather than himself.
"Assuming he did, and I'm not saying I believe you at all — it is, after all, your word against his — but assuming that's so, couldn't it be that he just needed his hands free to get himself a drink? Could he not have had every intention of paying once he got everything he wanted?"
"I'm calling the cops," the man said and jerked Huck's arm forward and tried to push past Ralph, but Ralph scooted in his way.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Ralph said, his mind running over the laundry list of warrants he might have out for his arrest: unpaid parking tickets, a public urination charge, that one time he'd skipped out on his tab at Cattlemen's. "No reason to get hasty now. I can afford a couple Snickers. How much are they?"
The clerk eyed him sideways, squinting like he was aiming a rifle shot.
"For you," he said, "fifty bucks."
The man didn't blink.
Ralph did some quick accounting. He only had sixty bucks, and he needed that for the ride back home.
"I can do $25."
"For fuck's sake."
"You can't do that. You can't go up again."
"Back to fifty."
"All right, listen. I'll do the forty. Forty's still good right?"
The man stuck his tongue against his bottom lip. "Fine," he said. "Forty. But you only get one."
"Jesus fucking Christ. Fine."
Ralph pulled out two twenties from his pocket, threw it at the man, who didn't seem to appreciate the gesture, and then dragged Huck from the convenient store. By this time, several bystanders had accumulated, snapping pictures with their iPhones and grinning shit-eating grins like they knew Ralph. He wanted to punch every single last one of them in their snot-nosed faces but, of course, he didn't. He only stopped one time on the way out, and that was when Huck pulled free from his grip and told him to wait just one goddamn second; he'd forgotten his candy bar.
In the truck, Ralph gave the boy a tongue-lashing, demanding Huck pay back the money he owes him, to which Huck replied that he was nine years old, "how the fuck do you expect me to have any money?" Good point, Ralph thought.
"But why'd you do it?" Ralph asked.
The boy shrugged. "Got to eat, don't you?"
The Winstar Casino was a monstrosity, a hodgepodge of buildings that looked like a souvenir shop had vomited out its gigantic wares. There was a replica of the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace and the pyramids and pretty much every other tourist trap known to mankind, and the parking sucked balls. Ralph wandered the aisles for what seemed like an hour, intermittently waiting for some gamblers to make their exit, but they just sat in their cars, maybe enjoying a toke or doing something a little more illicit, he wasn't sure.
Once they finally found a spot, Ralph parked.
"Wait in the car," he told Huck. "I'll find your mom and bring her back."
"Don't be a pain in my ass. Just stay. A casino isn't a place for no kid."
The kid looked disappointed. It was the first time Ralph had seen him show any emotion besides disgust and anger, and in an instance Ralph felt sorry for the boy, but it didn't change the fact he couldn't take him inside.
"Lock the door when I leave." He handed Huck the keys.
"Unlock it for nobody but me. You hear?" The boy nodded.
The casino was dark, windowless, air thick with tobacco smoke. Ralph's throat swelled and his eyes itched as he snaked his way through the throngs of gamblers. It was a sordid group: rednecks donning ten-gallon hats, young frat girls wasting their parents' money, overweight men with tucked in T-shirts, and the elderly, sneaking a smoke between gasps from their oxygen masks. He'd be hard pressed to find Adeleine here. But hell, he was out of options.
He had no idea where Adeleine would be. He'd only known the woman for a few short nights several years prior. Back then, she'd been wild. A rodeo junkie with a cheerleader's flair, she drank and cussed like a soccer hooligan. Fun was what Ralph remembered, dumping an ice bucket full of crickets into the pool; siphoning gas out of the asshole desk clerk's car, spelling "Fuck You" on the parking lot and lighting it on fire; banging left, right, and sideways in the bathroom, the bedroom, even the unlocked facilities management closet next to the mops and bleach bottles. If she was anything like her former self, then Ralph figured she'd be someplace with the most action, getting into any kind of trouble she could.
Excerpted from "Five Hundred Poor"
Copyright © 2018 Noah Milligan.
Excerpted by permission of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd..
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