The hangover clings to Derrick’s skull, his heart, which seems to be barely working this morning as he rolls off Tim’s couch and searches wildly around the living room for that glass of water he could have sworn he set beside his sleeping place for when he woke. This quick, common sense, even when he’s shitfaced, kicks in sometimes and he almost feels good about himself. But if he doesn’t quench that thirst now his tongue will dry up. Maybe his eyes too. Everything on the face is connected. He learned that in high school when he had an earache that gave him migraines for a month. What would you rather? he thinks. An earache or a headache?
Derrick works at Adam’s Mini Mart. Tim works for some cell phone company. Kevin, for his dad’s car dealership. Their jobs suck. But like most Americans stuck in the nine to five vortex, their weekends don’t. Drinking has become a second job. On Friday nights they start at The Harp, then move to Cleary’s after ten when the jukebox is free. Everyone is drunk by then and eventually they get a hold of some girls.
One time, the best time, Derrick had taken Amanda Thatcher back to Tim’s. Beautiful girl. Big green eyes. Crazy curly hair, so sexy. One of the smartest in his class when they were at Forest City High. They fucked twice on Tim’s couch, and the first time, he thought, This is making love. Am I in love? But a few weekends later at The Harp she was all over Tim. Whispering things in his ear. Pressing her perky tits onto Tim’s chest when she squeezed past him.
Later, when Derrick sank onto Tim’s couch, he heard them in the next room. The same moans that he’d coaxed from Amanda’s perfect mouth before. Should he be pissed? His drunkenness made him think so while he lay on the couch, the room spinning, their moans echoing, that feeling of worthlessness eating away at him. In the morning Tim came out in his boxers, his limp dick almost slipping out of the hole. He slapped Derrick awake. A big, freaky grin took up Tim’s entire face. He seemed happy about sharing something, so how could Derrick be angry?
When Derrick walks into the kitchen now, still craving that water, Kevin and Tim shuffle around the room like dogs waiting for a morning walk. Tim drinks a glass of orange juice. Kevin has the water Derrick was looking for earlier. It’s summer and he knows they have plans for fishing, maybe cliff jumping at Shem River.
“You look like shit.” Tim holds the juice in his mouth, his voice garbled.
“I feel like shit,” Derrick says.
Tim rustles the tight curls on top of his head. “We’re going fishing at Kev’s. I have an extra pole in the garage.”
Derrick imagines standing on the dock, the water a steady swirl under him, waves from the motorboats hitting the dock, the water jumping like Jesus bugs through the cracks and soaking his feet. That clear fishing line dangling in the water, his hands unable to stay steady, the slow swing of the pole causing him to lose his balance. He could fall in. He could drown.
“I’m doing the afternoon shift at Adam’s.” He says it as a way out and lying to his best friends feels so wrong.
“You’re kidding me,” Kevin says.
“It’s overtime and I need the money.”
Tim grunts. Kevin nods solemnly. They know it’s true. Derrick lives at home with his parents, as so many twenty-four-year-olds with student loans do. He wants to get a place of his own like Tim, like his sister who’s moved far away from home. He can’t stand being around his parents’ dead marriage. His presence is the only thing that’s keeping them together. And Derrick knows his mother is worried about him. He hasn’t tried to better himself or find a job that can be a career, even though he has a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
They have a routine. Once a week while they get ready for their workdays in the kitchen, she calmly asks: “Have you found any writing jobs? Is the Scranton Times still hiring?” Usually he shrugs and tells her he hasn’t seen many postings. When he walks out the front door for work, he feels what she’s thinking burning across his upper back. A fresh tattoo: Townie. My son is a fucking townie. He hears it when he walks into Adam’s Mini Mart and punches in, when he stocks the dusty shelves, eats a turkey sandwich for lunch in the staff room. Townie. Townie. Townie.
Tim fills his glass with more orange juice. Derrick watches him and feels a tiny phantom hair in his mouth, tries to find it with his fingers. He wonders if it’s one of Rebecca Lewis’s. He danced with her last night at Cleary’s and they made out by the jukebox for an hour. She has long red hair and pieces kept getting caught in her lipgloss, tangling with his tongue. But she disappeared at one point and he remembers stumbling outside the bar, trying to find her. He circled the building and thinks he saw her smoking a cigarette. He remembers stepping closer, maybe trying to reach for her, kiss her again. Then something happened. Something that’s since turned fuzzy. He woke up to a text from Rebecca. You’re the scum of the earth, it said.
Tim sets down his empty glass, slaps a hand on Derrick’s back. Tim walks into the bathroom. Derrick hears the shower turn on. Before gathering his belongings, he stands in the kitchen for a few minutes and watches the steam crawl out the door.
Outside, Derrick looks down the road. All open space. The sun has risen to the middle of the sky. It isn’t too hot yet, being the end of June, being morning. He likes the town most this way. Forest City is peaceful in its bright morning sunlight and silence and coolness. He can enjoy the miles of smooth green hills in the distance without any distractions.
He doesn’t have his car. Kevin drove him the night before and Derrick isn’t about to go back in and ask him for a ride. Plus, he doesn’t know where to go. He’s fabricated a day that isn’t even close to being real. So he walks along Tewkesbury Road, knowing it’s probably an hour walk to Adam’s if he does decide to make the lie come true and beg to work a shift.
He feels like some crazy hitchhiker hippie from the seventies. Cars soon appear. They pass, slowly, and people eye him from their windows and rearview mirrors. He doesn’t hold up a thumb. His head is down. His thick blonde hair starts to hold the heat and sweat and he wonders what he looks like to them. A ratty, sopping, golden mop of a boy? He shouldn’t be dragging his feet this way, as if he’s in shackles. He imagines drivers saying this to their passengers: he shouldn’t look like he’s carrying a mobile home on his shoulders, the weight of it creating that horrible slouch. He’s too young.
When he gets to Adam’s, there’s a puddle of sweat in the seat of his jeans. He doesn’t have the energy to feel embarrassed. He can smell himself. The shots he took before dancing with Rebecca reincarnated as thick droplets of perspiration. He wipes his forehead with his arm. The smell of onions and fermented fruit gets caught in his nostrils. He thinks of Rebecca and he feels sicker than before.
Inside Adam’s he moseys over to Caroline. She’s at the last register, ringing out a woman who looks like she’s throwing a party. Ten bags of rolls on the belt. Twelve packages of hot dogs. Five cases of Pepsi. Caroline asks the lady if she needs help loading anything into her car. The lady smiles, shakes her head, and tries to pull back the look she gives Derrick. It’s too late. He’s seen her scrunched brow and wrinkled nose.
That’s when Caroline turns. “Derrick!” The sound of her voice, the worst it’s ever sounded. Scratchy, clean. “What are you doing here?” She brings her hand to her nose. “What the hell did you do? Roll in a field of piss and alcohol?”
“I need to work today.”
Caroline frowns. They’ve known each other since preschool, but have always belonged to different crowds. When it’s slow during the weekday, she follows him around as he stocks the shelves, talking and talking and talking. Never about her own problems, but her sister’s bad taste in men, her father’s declining health because he has diabetes and still eats like a growing twelve-year-old boy. Mac and cheese, Minute Steaks, Twinkies, lunchables. He jabs the insulin into his thigh like it will undo everything. It’s the way Caroline tells these stories. As if she’s on the phone with an old relative who needs to be caught up on every single detail. It doesn’t annoy Derrick, though. He thinks it’s funny that she chooses him to tell her stories to, even when he never says much in return. When she talks, he nods and dips his hand into a cart filled with Campbell’s soup and lines it up with the rest of its soup family. Stocking the shelves is his favorite task. For some reason, it soothes him, even while Caroline tells stories. Occasionally she dips her hand in too, hands him a can before he has the chance to grab it and that’s when he speaks, when they are holding the same can at the same time and making eye contact. He usually asks a question so she will keep talking: “Does he go to the doctor a lot?”
“But you’re not on the schedule till Monday,” Caroline says now.
“I know. I really need the money.”
She puts her hands on her hips. “Fine. I’ll call Jason and tell him it’s too busy and I’m calling you to come in.”
Derrick smiles. It is the first time he’s smiled all day. “Thank you, Caroline,” he says, and he means it.
“Do us all a favor and go wash up in the bathroom. Put some soap under your pits or something.”
That’s exactly what he does, but he spends a while there. He looks in the mirror. His face belongs to a dead man. Someone who hasn’t seen the sun in years. He looks sick and maybe that’s it. Maybe he should make himself get sick.
He lets himself think of the memory and he’s not sure if it’s real or imagined, much like his vision of Rebecca from last night. Memories do that sometimes. The unclear ones become vivid and stranger over the years. In the memory, he is young, standing under the kitchen table, watching his parents yell at each other. His father is demanding an answer from his mother. She shakes her head until his father’s hands go around her neck. He squeezes. He starts gently shaking. The shaking gets faster, harder.
Derrick imagines his mother’s eyes rolling toward her brain and he sees what they look like now. A soft, baby blue that stares him down every morning. Eyes that are maybe that light because of secrets and sadness she keeps locked inside.
He licks his lips. He tastes cherry. Maybe it’s from Rebecca’s fruity lipgloss. He thinks of her hair in his mouth, that strand he pulled out this morning. Did he demand something from her like his father had his mother? Had he done something that would horrify his mother? All the shit in septic tanks. The oil that pollutes the ocean. He wonders how he has become all of these things as he stares into the bathroom mirror, holding his breath so his face has color again. He lets the air out and leans over the sink. He keeps breathing, the sound deep, the feeling and pulse of it so deep that his shoulders tremble.
Caroline yells through the door. “Derrick? Everything okay in there?”
He imagines her skinny fingers twirling her hair. She does this when she looks at the shelves and realizes the Rice-A-Roni is misplaced.
He shouts that he’s fine, he’ll be right out.
He splashes cold water on his face. His pores open and sting. He steps out of the bathroom. His tongue catches the water that drips down to his lips. It tastes fresh. It gives him the tiniest bit of something other than humiliation.
And there’s Caroline. She stares, but steps aside, lets him walk past her so he can open up register seven, watch the produce, boxed food, and freshly baked pies scroll by him for the rest of the day. It’s what he asked for after all.
At six, Caroline starts sweeping the front of the store. She has a lollipop stuck in her mouth and hums along with a pop song that’s playing. Derrick watches her, her joy from the sugar, from the music. So simple, yet, something he could learn from. She turns, catches him staring, but he doesn’t look away. She takes the candy out of her mouth. The pop is red with pink bubble gum hidden in the middle. Today is the first time she hasn’t told one of her stories.
“Why don’t you head home,” she says. “I can finish cleaning and lock up.”
He nods, signs out of the register. He thinks about thanking her for being her, but he tells her to have a good night. It’s Saturday. She’s rarely at Cleary’s or The Harp and he’s intrigued now, by Caroline and everyone like Caroline. What do they do for fun? What makes them feel good and worthy?
He’s back on the road. He walks slowly, uncertain. The boys are probably back at Tim’s, expecting him to show up any minute. He wonders what to do. Home or Tim’s. Home or Tim’s. At the end of Main Street his heart beats faster. Take a right, head to Tim’s. Take a left, just go home.
His lower back feels like it’s being stabbed by dull kitchen knives and his feet ache as if they’ve walked a crooked, nail spiked balance beam all day. He knows there’s alcohol swimming around in him still. He wishes he could shit it out of his body for good.
He turns left. Maybe his mother will be in the kitchen waiting for him. Maybe he will ask her who she thinks he will turn out to be. Maybe she won’t say anything, but watch him with her sad baby blue eyes and become sadder. Or maybe she’ll tell him something he’s never heard before: that he can become a different man than the one he often imagines.
Sometimes we aren’t who we thought we would be, he says to himself, but sometimes we are better than we think we could be. Despite the weight of regret, the weight of worry, the weight of the night that’s on its way as the glowing sun keeps shrinking, falling, until it rises tomorrow, slowly, gracefully, magnificently, knowing it has a job to do.
The sun is almost done for the day, beating its last rays on his back. It says nothing at all. It’s just hot.