Kenny was twenty-one when his son was born, and now at twenty-two, he regularly revised the last several months, envisioning himself as an author of the choose your own adventure books he read when he was younger. He’d always read the possible endings before choosing the best path and wished that someone had done the same for his actual life.
In different ways, each of the men in his life had done just that—one uncle became a computer programmer and moved to the Bay Area, while another uncle dealt blackjack at the Gold Dust West in neighboring Reno, and before he left Kenny and his mom, his dad had fallen somewhere in the middle with an associate’s in science and a job as a petroleum technician. None of these paths looked like one he’d want to follow, though.
For now, he worked as a retail security guard at Clothing Outpost, an occupational placeholder for something better. Upholding the single responsibility of preventing people from stealing merchandise had worn tracks of monotony in his mind that could only be rerouted by his strongest, most vivid daydreams.
On a December day sharpened by bitter cold, Kenny had been at his post by the entrance/exit for an hour before a woman about his age triggered the alarm, which brought a flush to her cheeks. She was prettier than most of the girls who shopped there. Her wavy hair hung all the way down near her waist.
Kenny couldn’t make himself report her theft. [See alternate route 1 if you would like Kenny to report the shoplifter.] He’d watched her walk into a dressing room with an armful of summer dresses and underwear and walk out with only a pair of denim shorts, likely her own, hastily hung crooked on their hanger. Her backpack, which he hadn’t seen when she walked into the dressing room, was now full. She was smart and had bought a tin of mints so that if one of the security tags set off the alarm, she could pull the supposed culprit out of the flimsy plastic bag. Kenny gave an almost imperceptible nod as she hurried through the doors. If she came back, she might remember his generosity. And if his supervisor, Ron, reviewed the tapes (which he frequently threatened, but never did), he planned to say that her backpack was smaller than the ones depicted on the NO LARGE BAGS ALLOWED sign bolted to the building’s stucco façade.
- After weighing the options, though, he decided it best to report her. He asked to see inside of her backpack, and she offered too eagerly, as if her innocence were stored in a secret zippered pocket. He dug through her bag, which smelled like too-ripe strawberries, but none of the clothes had tags on them. Those are mine, she said. They’re not from here. Without any tags to prove otherwise, he sent her on her way, muttering an apology.
On his lunch break, Kenny walked three doors down to Pizza Plus and ordered two slices and a Coke. He chewed on the left side since one of his back right molars had been bothering him. A beefy kid, apparently unattended, slammed his fists onto the pinball machine to dislodge the ball. The cashier didn’t stop him, so Kenny didn’t either. If that were his kid, he’d intervene and tilt the machine from side to side. But it wasn’t his kid. Kenneth Jr. was at home with Kenny’s ex-girlfriend, Jade, and she was packing up their things as he ate his slice. By the time he finished his shift, they’d be halfway to Sacramento.
He foresaw what might become an ugly custody battle with Jade and pictured himself wearing a tailored suit—something much nicer than the off-brand separates sold at Clothing Outpost—as he presented his case to the family court judge. As soon as he got back into classes, he’d graduate and go to law school, then move to the East Coast. Become a partner and get enough money to move KJ out there with him. Maybe even make amends with Jade, promise to never cheat again, and bring her out there too. [See alternate route 2 if you think Kenny should go to law school.]
- What once seemed like an abstract aspiration took on a concrete shape three years later when Kenny took the LSAT and scored in the top two percent of test-takers. He didn’t even have to apply to schools; recruiters were coming after him, leaving cheerfully aggressive voicemails on his phone. His mom celebrated by buying an oversized cookie from Mrs. Fields at the mall; an employee had written One Smart Cookie on the top in neon green frosting. But he didn’t feel like a smart cookie once he started taking classes. The panic attacks happened during finals the first semester, the nervous breakdown during the second semester, and the withdrawal from the university during the summer that followed. When later asked why he’d dropped out, he answered that attorneys were assholes.
After he refilled his soda, he drank it down partway to refill it once more, then pulled two quarters from his pocket and laid them on the pinball’s glass top for the boy to use. He took his time on the walk back to work, careful to use every minute of his break. On the floor, he wasn’t allowed to check his phone, but he felt it vibrate six times before the second half of his shift was over. Even once he was able to check it, he didn’t because he already knew what the texts said. At least one from his mom saying he needed to visit his Uncle Jeff, the card dealer, in hospice care and then the other five from Jade saying that she’d left and would need him to start sending her money, a picture of KJ thrown in as an exclamation point on the end of the demand.
But he was off in the ratio. Five texts from his mom were about Uncle Jeff, and only one from Jade that said, Pass is closed. Waiting til 2morrow. He drove straight to Sierra Nevada Hospice and Palliative Care Center as his mom’s last text instructed him to do.
The woman at the front desk greeted him without looking at him, which made the weighty guilt he felt for not visiting sooner slide off his shoulders. He’d always liked his uncle—it wasn’t that—he just couldn’t bring himself to be in a place like this, or more accurately, the place he’d imagined whenever his mom told him she’d visited.
The care center was nicer than the place in his imagination. A color palette of pale neutrals, accented by maroon, covered the walls and furniture. Maybe he would consider going into design. From the days when he’d used a level to hang his Call of Duty poster to when he’d assembled KJ’s nursery furniture from Target, he’d always had a knack for interior design. [See alternate route 3 if you think Kenny should pursue a career in interior design.]
- Kenny promised himself that when he got home, he would start to research how to become an interior designer. He kept the promise, but not for long. He learned that having good taste and an eye for design were tiny slivers of an enormous pie. Even if he took some classes, there wouldn’t be any entry level jobs available in town, and moving somewhere with a higher cost of living was out of the question. He still put together a modest portfolio, composed of pictures of his apartment and stashed it inside a manila folder at the bottom of what Jade called the junk drawer.
“Could you tell me where room 203 is?” he asked the woman. She pulled out a map and showed him where the room was before offering to give it to him. He refused, though he was not good with directions, and walked down the hallway and up the stairs. Kenny wished he’d taken the map once he got to the second floor, which was a labyrinth of visiting and recreation areas—all vacant. They seemed like the kinds of spaces that would look good on a glossy brochure.
He knocked gently as he opened the door and saw his mom’s face, red-raw and tear-streamed as she bent over her brother. His uncle’s eyelids were closed, but Kenny could see the soft vibrations that he hoped meant dreams. A quiet beeping sound tracked the strained work of his uncle’s failing heart. The tubes and machines unsettled Kenny, but his mom deftly maneuvered around them, years of work as a nurse aide guiding her fingers around hospital gown hems and IV catheters.
“Kenny’s here to see you, Jeff.” She rubbed his hand, but he did not respond.
“Hi, Uncle Jeff,” Kenny offered in a hoarse voice. His uncle didn’t move, not even when a nurse came in to fuss with the machines and replace bags of clear liquid. She smelled like cinnamon, and had lips so shiny with gloss that Kenny couldn’t help imagining what it might feel like to softly press his own lips against them. He looked out the window opposite her, worried that making eye contact with her would reveal the contents of his reverie. This was the kind of out-of-his-league girl his friends would goad him into flirting with, the kind of girl he did flirt with if he’d had enough to drink.
After the nurse left, Kenny’s mom asked about Jade and KJ in mumbles, and Kenny mumbled responses in kind. This was a part of their communication routine, one that appeared fuller and more satisfying than it actually was, the loaf of white bread crushed at the bottom of a heavy grocery bag.
“They’re saying this could be his last day,” his mom said. “And that they want to make him as comfortable as possible. But we don’t believe that, do we?” She shook her head, as if absorbing, then transmitting Jeff’s response.
“He’ll be okay,” Kenny said. He crossed his arms, then shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “I don’t mean he’ll be okay, but it will all be okay.”
“I wish you were right,” she said and laced her fingers back through Jeff’s.
“I’m so sorry, but I have to go. That’s Jade, and she’s leaving tonight.” He gestured to his cell phone, though he had not received any messages. “And sorry I didn’t come sooner.”
His mom closed her eyes and gave a solemn nod, disapproval in slow motion. He waved at his uncle, feeling deep in his gut, the place where he stored every devastating truth, that this was likely the last time he’d see him. He hated goodbyes, and not because they seemed too final, but because people always wanted them to feel final.
Once he got outside, he breathed in the cold until it felt like sharp crystals had bloomed inside his chest. With that breath came a dull throb in his tooth that he chose to disregard. He thought of his mom standing there all alone, the other family members still making their way by car and airplane, and considered going back inside. But he realized that he’d already begun driving away.
Jade drew back the deadbolt halfway through him unlocking the door, which meant she was in a generous mood. KJ was crying, a fact she announced in between his wails. Kenny picked him up, ran through the potential reasons for crying, but stopped after smelling his diaper. He handed him a toy shaped as a bumble bee perched on a quilt, which made the sound of crinkling paper when touched. The crying stopped as KJ wrapped his mouth around an antenna, and Kenny picked him up to show Jade how quickly he’d fixed the problem. But she was already silently cooking dinner, breaking spaghetti noodles in half to fit in the small pot and exploding pasta shards across the kitchen counter in the process. He turned on the TV, then brought the toy to KJ’s face in big loopy movements, doing his best to mimic the sound of an airplane’s propeller.
“So, the pass is still closed?” he asked over the sound of a newscaster describing the suspect in a hit and run accident.
“That’s what I texted you.”
Kenny didn’t have a good response, so he triangulated KJ into the conversation.
“You don’t want to go yet anyway, huh?” He kissed the back of KJ’s head, which seemed to startle him.
“Let’s not do this again. I’m tired.” Kenny knew he didn’t have the patience, energy, or desire to be with KJ all day, but that didn’t quiet the voice in his head that wanted to ask, Tired from doing what exactly?
He nodded before putting KJ in his bouncer and taking over dinner duty by straining the pasta, which was now overcooked. A car alarm sounded in the parking lot in time with a sharp pain that flashed in Kenny’s molar. He’d get it fixed as soon as he was able to become full-time and could get insurance. Ron had said he could bump up his hours as soon as Lisa went down to part-time after her foot surgery. Kenny had found himself staring at Lisa’s foot the last few days, imagining the footbones flexing and then retreating beneath her pale, mottled skin. She’d caught him once and asked what he was staring at, and in a panic, he complimented her pink platform flip flops. [See alternate route 4 if you think Kenny should contact Lisa.]
- Kenny Facebook messaged Lisa, halfway hoping that Jade would ask who he was talking to in an eager voice pitched high by jealousy. He asked how Lisa was feeling and whether or not she was still getting the surgery. No response. In another message, he explained that if she was worried about someone covering for her, she didn’t need to. Kenny could cover all of her shifts. No response. He said her foot was starting to look bad. No response. He sent the first image of a gnarled foot yielded by a Google search. No response. He apologized. Two hours later, she blocked him.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Kenny tongued the top of his molar as if to scoop out the pain. Jade silently handed KJ over. Normally, he cried during the handoff, but this time he didn’t. Still, he made a soft whimper that made Kenny feel like his tooth was set to vibrate. He and Jade ate in silence, and Jade got ready for bed without reciprocating Kenny’s call of goodnight.
KJ fell asleep on Kenny’s chest as he clicked through TV channels, a part of his nightly meditative ritual. Click, a baseball game. Click, a woman mincing a clove of garlic. Click, a man in black and white struggling to connect a sprayer to a hose as a booming voice exclaiming, “Only three payments of $19.95.”
The next morning, Kenny saw that he’d missed twelve phone calls. Uncle Jeff had died; his mom had not left a voicemail, but this is what twelve calls meant. Jade had already left for the day, and he vaguely recalled something she’d said about a doctor’s appointment for KJ. He grimaced at the memory of the last well-visit when the doctor had said that KJ was only in the fiftieth percentile for height, and the fortieth percentile for weight. Thankfully, the doctor had looked at Jade while delivering the news, an accusation reserved for her alone.
He drafted a text asking where she’d gone, then deleted it. His shift started in a half hour, and he waited to call his mom until five minutes before he had to clock in. She delivered the news without crying; he was probably the eighth or ninth person she’d had to say the same thing too. I’m sorry, he said in his head, but aloud, he said, “Thank you. Thank you for telling me.”
The next day, the tooth pain had gotten so severe that he’d stopped eating solid foods altogether. Lisa ended up quitting, but that didn’t equate to a promotion to full-time. Ron explained that he’d made a mistake in promising more hours. The security staff had a different designation than other employees. They were independent contractors, and consequently could never be salaried employees with 401k’s and insurance member IDs and paid vacation time. Kenny now felt an empty camaraderie with the gray-haired man who patrolled the whole strip mall.
Kenny spent his entire lunch break in a bathroom stall trying to get a picture of his tooth using different angles, flash and no flash, zoom and no zoom. The tooth looked normal, a bodily betrayal. Made him feel like when his car made clunking sounds on the way to the mechanic, but stopped the moment someone wearing coveralls turned the key in the ignition.
He counted the customers coming into and leaving the store to keep his mind active, his shifts punctuated by the automatic glass doors’ squeal. An older man walking with the aid of crutches was the fifteenth person to exit this shift. Customer number fifteen set off the alarm and said, “Are you fucking kidding me,” as he tried to balance one crutch against his body and search for his receipt.
Kenny began looking through the bag before Ron ran up in between them.
“My apologies, sir. He’s new.”
Kenny considered correcting him to say he’d been there for a year, but before he could, Ron added, “Thank you for your service.” Kenny hadn’t noticed the hat, which had Vietnam Veteran embroidered in gold thread above the bill. He also hadn’t noticed that his hand was still inside the bag in between a faux leather belt and a black dress shirt.
“Yes, thank you,” Kenny said as he pulled his hand from the bag.
At the end of his shift, he considered hanging up the blue vest that constituted his uniform for the last time, maybe leaving a note explaining why he’d quit, but his tooth ached in warning. [See alternate route 5 if you think Kenny should quit.]
- Fuck it, he thought. I can do better than this place, this job. I deserve the same respect as a vet on crutches. He flipped Ron off and yelled “I quit!” But Ron didn’t seem to hear or see him. He’d moved back to the register to show one of the new guys how to process a return. Kenny repeated himself, and he got Ron’s attention that time. Ron shrugged as a parent might when a child refuses to eat his vegetables. Disappointed, but not surprised—resigned to the reality that people often don’t do what’s best for them. Kenny caught his own reflection in the full length mirror on the end of the blazer rack, his right arm and middle finger still extended in the air, and smiled. On the drive home, adrenaline quickened his pulse and made him clamp down his jaw. Fuck that place, he growled from behind gritted teeth. His molar throbbed, but he couldn’t make his face go lax. He needed to get to a bar with some friends, tell them how he’d gone out with a bang over tequila shots. The accelerator depressed until it couldn’t go any farther, his sedan pushed to its V4 engine’s limits. He was going too fast and the roads were too slick, a realization that came too late, seconds after his car spun around into oncoming traffic.
After work, his phone vibrated, alerting him to the fact that it would be his and Jade’s four-year anniversary if they were still together. Another snowstorm had kept Jade in Sparks, and they’d reached a place of peaceful coexistence that Kenny sometimes confused for contentedness.
On the way home, he stopped at the grocery store to buy her flowers. These kinds of gestures always worked with her. Their senior year of high school, she’d rejected him the first three times he asked her out, but the fourth time worked. He’d gone all out for his promposal, arranging a scavenger hunt that spanned the entire city and even made it onto the community page of the Sparks Tribune.
In the parking lot, he looked up the meaning of different flowers on his phone, and he thought of the first time he saw Uncle Jeff’s faded tattoo of a thorny rose on his shoulder at the Minden Community Pool. He’d inspected it for a full minute before Jeff volunteered an explanation that the tattoo was in honor of his ex-wife, the thorniest bitch he’d ever known.
In the grocery store, Kenny frowned at the condensation in the flowers’ glass case. These flowers, even the most vibrantly colored ones, were in the process of dying. An employee with perfectly curled, stiff ringlets watered the potted plants next to the case and joked that Kenny must be in the dog house. Hastened by embarrassment, he grabbed the purple carnations that had been sprinkled with glitter. Only once he got back to his car did he remember that purple carnations symbolized unpredictability.
He stopped at a drive-thru to get a side of mashed potatoes and ate in his car in the apartment’s parking lot. Since KJ was born, Kenny and Jade had begun a silent fight to prove who was the most adult, and eating fast food instead of making something at home felt too young, something a teenager who just got his first car would do. Currently, Jade was winning the fight. She figured out how to put the utilities in her name when they moved into the apartment together. She alerted the waitstaff when they got Kenny’s order wrong. Kenny’s molar felt as if it’d split in half, and nausea enveloped him as he balled up the paper bag his food had come in and slammed it into the garbage can.
The apartment was empty, a note reading “Left for Sac—will be back next week for everything else” lay on the couch, the placement a final insult sourced from his nightly TV-watching ritual. Kenny arranged the flowers in a tall glass and staged them for a picture to send to Jade. He wrote a text that said, Happy anniversary 🙁, and sent the picture. There was no reason to believe that Jade wasn’t going to leave, and yet he still felt shocked as he stood in the half empty apartment. He’d imagined how he’d smoothed things over so many times that he’d forgotten that he’d been the one to cause any ripples in the first place.
He heard a desperate knock at the door, and he rushed to open it. When he swung the door open, he only saw his neighbor, Ben, completely at ease.
“What is it?” Kenny asked.
“I saw Jade moving her stuff out. Kind of fucked up that you didn’t help her.”
“I guess so,” Kenny said. His neighbor forced his way inside in a way that didn’t feel like he was forcing his way inside.
“Rent’s going up. Did you see the notice?” Kenny hadn’t seen the notice but nodded anyway. “Can I see the layout? It trips me out to see all of my apartment, but backwards.” Kenny nodded again, and Ben walked away to begin his self-guided tour.
Kenny knew what was coming next. Ben was going to ask to move in. He’d made a joke about it once before when they were doing laundry, likely prompted by hearing Kenny and Jade fight through the wall. “Everything split right down the middle,” he’d offered, and now that Jade was gone, so was her dad’s offer to pay rent for the first year they were in the apartment.
“In my apartment, the second bedroom and the bathroom are right across from each other.” He pointed his arms in opposite directions as if directing airplane passengers to the emergency exits. [See alternate route 6 if you think Kenny should move in with Ben.]
- The longer Ben stood in front of Kenny, the more the prospect of them moving in together made sense. He’d never had the college roommate experience and imagined what it might be like. Would they grocery shop together like he did with Jade? Would they develop inside jokes and watch the same shows? Would the middle of their shared interest Venn diagram expand until their circles overlapped completely? No, no, and no, as it turned out. Ben didn’t allow KJ to visit, said having a baby in the apartment ruined his vibe. Ben spent most of his time watching YouTube videos that explained which politicians were lizard people and how 9/11 was an inside job. Kenny only lasted four months before he broke the lease and moved in with his mom, camping out on a rollaway in the living room.
“What’s up?” Ben asked.
“Are you okay?” Ben moved in closer, squinting his eyes.
“Your cheek’s all fucked up.” Kenny touched his cheek to survey his facial topography, a small mountain now rising from above his jaw. His face was hot to the touch, and the mashed potatoes threatened to rise up from his stomach.
“It’s just a bad tooth,” he reassured Ben, who’d taken up his elbow.
“I think you need to go to the hospital. It looks really bad.”
“Just go to the emergency room. They have to take everyone.”
Kenny refused Ben’s offer to take him. As he drove, he imagined being an EMT, watching the cars pull off to the side of the road in deference to the ambulance’s siren. Maybe he could enroll in the EMT program at Western Nevada College. [See alternate route 7 if you think Kenny should become an EMT.]
- Years later, when Kenny came to talk to KJ’s second grade class, he described this day as the day he decided to leave his dead-end job to start helping people. The kids in KJ’s class were impressed by the defibrillator he’d brought and hadn’t seemed interested in the story about his uncle. So, instead, he recounted the time that he’d brought a man who’d been pronounced dead back to life. KJ’s teacher cut him off mid-story, which was good because he’d already begun to embellish. At KJ’s high school graduation, he embellished this story further during his valedictorian speech. He urged his classmates to show the same bravery his father had throughout his life, which was cut short when he helped save eight people after the bombing at the federal building in Carson City. KJ would never learn that his father hadn’t actually died saving anyone; he’d died under concrete, having hesitated too long at the building’s crumbling entrance. KJ closed his speech by saying that they all could be heroes, and each of their hero’s journeys had already begun.
Once he got to the hospital, he parked and walked slowly, each careful step an attempt to keep his tooth unbothered by movement. The emergency room doors squealed in the same pitch as the ones at work, which reminded him to send a text message to Ron saying that he wouldn’t be able to come in the next day. He felt the weight of the phrase “emergency room” as he typed it, and before checking in with the woman sitting at the front desk, he updated his status on Facebook. His status read, Kenny is having the worst Monday ever. At the ER.
Jade liked the post, so he deleted it. He called his mom, but hung up before she could answer. She had enough worries of her own, and he didn’t want to add this to the list. Though now that he thought about it, he had never been to the doctor without her.
“It’s my tooth,” Kenny said as the woman seated at the desk handed him a form on a clipboard. She had a warm smile and tired eyes, looked a little like his mom. As he spoke, air rushed into his mouth and attacked the tooth. He didn’t know some of the answers to the form’s questions and had to guess the name of the medication he was allergic to. Some kind of antibiotic, he knew that much. He texted his mom to ask, adding “just wondering.” Kenny was a bad liar, and when his mom asked where he was, he told her, hot tears of relief and embarrassment streaming down his face. He wiped them away before submitting his paperwork.
Ron texted him that he could take the remainder of his sick leave, but only if he could get one of the other security officers to cover his shift. Kenny didn’t have any of their numbers, and didn’t even know their full names. What if he wasn’t able to get anyone to cover for him? How would he have enough money for KJ? How would he be able to pay his rent? Would he have to move into his mom’s one-bedroom way out in Lemmon Valley?
The questions kept coming even as he shook them away, a list of hypotheticals that moved from possible to probable at a dizzying pace. He could even feel the verb tenses shifting from conditional to future, from what he could do to what he was going to do. That sense of inevitability—of working in a casino and then meeting a new, less kind Jade, and then having another KJ by accident—became a twisted feeling in his gut that made him feel like puking.
After several deep breaths, the feeling subsided, but pain returned to replace it. When he heard his name being called, he shook his head and hoped that if he continued to stare intently at the door, his mom would appear. She didn’t appear, and he wondered if he’d even told her where he was. His memories were beginning to feel incomplete, the frayed end of an unraveling rope.
A nurse in scrubs patterned with cats wearing stethoscopes took his temperature. He tried to follow the words coming out of her mouth, but couldn’t focus. Something about an abscess and an infection spreading. The question about allergies came up again, and he shook his head, more to communicate that he couldn’t bear the pain of opening his mouth again than in answer to the question.
He awoke woozy with anesthesia and the faint feeling that he’d done something embarrassing. On the morning after his twenty-first birthday, he’d woken up with the same feeling and figured most things out as if assembling a puzzle with the foreknowledge that a few pieces would never be found. He’d said something to make Jade cry, a prediction about her never leaving Sparks, getting fat on the free Pizza Plus slices that’d be a perk of her job working there.[See alternate route 8 if you think Kenny should contact Jade.]
- After the dizziness subsided, he called Jade, and she answered before it even rang. He asked her to come see him and apologized for everything, begged her to come back. He would be better for her. She deserved better. KJ was laughing in the background, and Kenny asked if he could at least see KJ. She didn’t respond, and the silence intensified his dizziness. He tried to focus on one spot on the wall to steady himself, settling on the pain scale chart. One to ten on the left, a range of smiling then frowning faces on the right. We’ll come and see you soon, she said, and the thought of all three of them together became the force that steadied him.
Then, he remembered thrashing around, the nurse trying to calm him down, the security personnel being called in when that didn’t work. His mom was now in the room with him, and the dark circles under her eyes seemed more permanent than they had before. She held his hand as she’d held her brother’s and shook her head in gentle reproach.
“Why didn’t you call me sooner?” she asked.
Kenny couldn’t answer. Instead, he slid his tongue through the hole where his tooth had been, lingering on the slick emptiness before imagining what his smile might look like with a set of bright white veneers.