|AIR FORCE ONES
by Lisa J. Sharon
Tessa steals a glance at Jimmy. He’s using his finger to
swirl the ice around in his bourbon. She can’t tell if he heard
her so she says it again. “I’m pregnant.”
He must have heard that time, even over the jumble of noise
from the TVs, the blaring music, and the beer-bellied softball
players who stand by the bar rehashing their game. She says
it loud enough that the girl with the straight black hair at the
table next to theirs looks over.
Jimmy wipes his finger on his jeans.
She wanted to tell him someplace private. She pictured them
sitting on the couch in his apartment, Whitney Houston on the
stereo. They’d have a glass of wine even though he doesn’t
like wine. He’d have his arm around her and she’d snuggle
close, safe and warm. He’d absorb the surprise then kiss her
hair and say, “That’s great news, Baby.”
But he had to blow off steam. His boss had ragged on him all
day, and he was out of bourbon. Two weeks of building her
courage to tell him was not going to waste just because it
wasn’t like she’d planned. Anyway, a public place might be
“Only six weeks,” she says, then worries that it sounds like
she’s offering to have an abortion. No way is she having
Nina went with her that time before, held her hand while they
waited for the nurse to call her name, brushed the hair off her
sweaty forehead when she threw up in the parking lot
afterward. Later, Tessa and Nina sat on the floor in Tessa’s
tiny living room sharing a joint and making solemn promises
to each other. Nina would help Tessa find a nice man to
marry. A man with a job. And handsome, like Nina’s husband,
Roy. Tessa would lend Nina the money for the drawing class
at the museum and neither of them would mention it to Roy.
They’d stick with each other no matter what. A more solemn
vow than a wedding “I do.”
She wishes she had talked to Nina about this baby before
telling Jimmy, but she feared that Nina would scold her for her
carelessness. She has been carrying the worry in the same
spot in her belly where the baby is forming.
Jimmy lights a cigarette, looking at her for the first time since
she told him. He’s relaxed and unconcerned, and Tessa dares
to hope he’ll smile.
“But I’m sure,” she goes on. “I took the test twice. Besides, I
could already tell. A girl knows. Some can tell almost the next
day. It’s amazing how you can be so in touch with your body
that you know when you’re pregnant. I read about it in a
magazine. You’re more complete, you know? That’s how it was
with me only it didn’t happen the next day. I felt it about two
weeks later. I woke up and said to myself, ‘I’m pregnant.’ I
just knew, you know?” She stops. His expression is unchanged
and she’s embarrassed at having confessed so much.
Jimmy drains his drink, making a sucking noise against the
ice. He puts the glass down, careful to place it in the same
circle of condensation that it was in before. He leans against
the booth and puts his arm along the back, his hand resting
on the strip of duct tape that covers a tear in the dark green
vinyl. His jacket opens and a skeleton on a motorcycle grins
out at Tessa from his chest. Jimmy squints at her through the
smoke that snakes up from the cigarette in the overflowing
ashtray. The dull, yellow light that hangs over the table gives
his face a washed-out look.
Tessa thinks back to when she met Jimmy, sitting in this
same bar with Nina and Roy, Nina with a pink drink, the two
men with a bottle of bourbon. He gave her the broad, Jimmy
smile when she slid into the booth next to him—straight white
teeth, dark eyebrows raised. He waved the waitress over and
Tessa ordered a sloe gin fizz. He gave Tessa a handful of
quarters and she and Nina pumped them into the juke box.
Jimmy and Roy were in a good mood, laughing about their co-
workers and teasing Nina and Tessa about their sweet drinks
and the way they sang along with the music. Tessa found her
mind straying from the conversation to the thought of Jimmy’s
lips against hers. At the end of the evening they danced,
slowly swaying to Jackson Browne’s “Crow on the Cradle,”
Jimmy humming softly so she could feel the rumble in his
chest where her head rested.
She wants to see his smile now, but his lips are closed and
his eyebrows remain a straight line. She takes a deep breath.
“Nina will help me out. It’s not like I haven’t watched her kids
enough. I practically brought those kids up. When Brianna
wants to know what to do about some problem at school, she
comes to Aunt Tessa”—she air quotes Aunt—“before she asks
her own mother. Those kids are like they’re mine. Well, maybe
not Zack, but he’s just like his father, you know. You can’t do
anything about him.” She pauses, wondering if Jimmy’s blank
expression masks disapproval. “Oh, I don’t mean Roy is a bad
guy. He’s got a job and everything. He treats Nina okay, I
guess. She’s not the easiest person in the world to live with.”
She gives a short laugh. “Don’t I know it. I lived with her for
three years, don’t forget. Hell, I almost hit her once or twice
She wants a real drink. She ordered a Coke when they sat
down, hoping Jimmy would ask her why she didn’t get a gin
fizz, or a black Russian like she usually did. Then she could
have told him about the pregnancy right away instead of
having to blurt it out later. But he didn’t ask. Didn’t even raise
She looks at the pack of cigarettes lying on the table. She
rarely smokes, but she wants a cigarette. Maybe he’ll offer
one. But why should she wait for him to offer? They’ve been
seeing each other for five months. She can just take a
cigarette. That’s what couples do. They take each other’s
cigarettes without asking. They eat off each other’s plates.
They drink from the same glass.
She starts to reach for the pack but he’s still staring at her.
She smiles and runs her hand through her hair. Maybe she’ll
go to the bathroom. When she comes back, he’ll probably say
something about the baby. But his eyes pin her to the booth.
She glances around the bar. One of the softball players looks
familiar. She remembers. He lives across the street from her
parents. He uses an electric trimmer on the hedges in front of
his porch and plays catch with his teenage son.
She turns back to Jimmy. He’s eying her in that appraising
way that used to make her giggly with pleasure when they
were first dating. She takes a quick breath. “Did you notice I
colored my hair? It’s called sunrise. I thought a lighter color
would look nice with my complexion and all. Nina colors her
hair too dark, don’t you think? It makes her look pale.”
He raises an eyebrow then shakes the last cigarette out of
the pack and lights it with the butt of his old cigarette. He
inhales deeply, blowing the smoke toward the ceiling then
settles his gaze back on Tessa. Her voice shakes a little.
“Some people just shouldn’t dye their hair black. Like older
ladies. It just makes them older-looking, you know? Like Mrs.
Halvorson, my English teacher when I was in the eighth
grade? She had her hair so dark she looked like she was
straight out of a vampire movie. I swear to God her teeth
were sharp, too. Uh huh. That was one scary lady.” She
pauses, tapping her fingers on the graffiti-carved table.
"Course, your mom looks good,” she adds quickly. “I didn’t
mean that. I mean your mom looks about thirty-five. She
could do anything she wants with her hair.”
He looks over her shoulder toward the TV at the end of the
bar. He has a half-smile on his face. Tessa recognizes the
smile. It isn’t the one he flashed when they met. It isn’t the
one he had on his face when, the following Monday, she found
him waiting in front of the office where she works as a
receptionist. When he handed her a bouquet of marigolds he’d
picked from the garden in front of the building.
“I’m kidnapping you,” he said playfully when she told him she
had to stop at the grocery store to pick up some things for her
parents. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and held
her tight. “Your parents will have to wait,” he growled into her
hair, making her heart flutter.
They met Nina and Roy in the parking lot of the 7- Eleven and
the four of them drove out to Mentor Headlands where they
took off their shoes and ran through the lake water even
though it was early fall and the water was bitter cold. When
Tessa screeched at the feel of it on her feet, Jimmy scooped
her up and ran with her toward the blanket on the sand. They
kissed on the beach, and Tessa thought she had never been
But this is not the smile she saw in those early days. No, this
is the smile she saw just before he took the tire iron out from
behind the back seat of the car and went after those kids that
night in June. Stupid, drunk kids looking for trouble. He could
have killed the small one, the one who couldn’t run fast, but
he didn’t. One whack across the shoulders to teach him a
lesson and that was it.
That was the first time Tessa had thought about breaking up
with him. It would have been easy then.
“Of course, I could get an abortion. If you want me to. It’s
still early. I told you as soon as I knew. I mean, as soon as I
knew for sure. I wasn’t going to tell you the day I had that
feeling ‘cause what if I’d been wrong? I wouldn’t want to get
you all worked up and then find out that I was just sick or
something. I waited until I was sure. I mean, I respect what
you want me to do, and you have a right to know, you know? I
want the baby and all. I would take care of it, and Nina would
help me. You could help if you want. You’re great with Nina’s
kids, and all. But, hey, you didn’t ask to have a baby. It’s not
like it’s your fault. I mean, I could just take care of it myself.”
He stands suddenly and Tessa gasps. He waves the waitress
over. “Jack Daniels.” The waitress looks down at Tessa.
“Nothing for her.”
Tessa laughs with relief. “Oh, yeah. I’m not supposed to be
drinking. Got to look after my health.”
He towers over her, his broad shoulders blocking the bar from
view. But he doesn’t look down at her. He reaches into the
pocket of his jacket. Tessa remembers the heavy, black gun
that he keeps in the drawer by his bed. He once pointed it at
her. She had come out of the bathroom, drying her hair with a
towel, to find him sitting with his foot on the bed and the gun
resting on his knee. He had one eye closed and he followed
her with the point of the gun as she stopped then slowly went
toward the bedroom door. “Bang,” he said and laughed.
She imagines the barrel pointed at her now. She thinks of
what it would feel like to have her head explode and splatter
all over the table. Brains would fly, maybe hit the ceiling and
stick next to the wads of ancient paper napkins that have
been launched there over the years. Maybe a piece of her skull
would land on the plate of the black-haired woman at the next
table. Tessa wonders if she’d hear it. It would be loud. Louder
than the music, louder than the boasting of the paunchy
softball players, louder than a train roaring through the bar.
But he pulls out a new pack of cigarettes and smacks it
against the palm of his hand while he slides back into his
Tessa breathes again and glances over at the softball players.
They seem to be playing a betting game involving the
baseball game on TV. Her parents’ neighbor groans and
passes money to another player.
The waitress brings over the drink and replaces the ashtray.
Jimmy’s eyes linger on her behind as she disappears into the
crowd, then he takes a long drink from his glass and jams his
cigarette into the ashtray. He opens the new pack, wadding
up the plastic wrapper and dropping it in the ashtray. He
lights another cigarette.
Tessa starts to say something, but she stops when he makes
“Yeah?” she says.
He leans back in the booth and lifts his foot off to the side,
so they can both see it. He studies his shoe. “You gotta love
these fuckin’ shoes,” he says.
He’s wearing some kind of basketball shoe.
“Air Force Ones,” he says. “These fuckin’ shoes cost me a
hundred-twenty bucks. I got three pairs plus this one.” Tessa
stares at him. “How much is that?” he says. Tessa says
nothing while she tries to do the math. “Come on. How much?
You’re the high school grad. A hundred-twenty times four.
What the fuck did you go to school for eighteen years if you
can’t do a little math?” He takes a drag off the cigarette and
smiles at her. “Four hundred and eighty goddamn bucks for
shoes,” he goes on. “And you know what? They’re shit. You
know why they’re shit?” Tessa shakes her head. “They’re shit
because of Nelly. I spend four hundred and eighty bucks on
shoes then that mother fucker raps about them and every
single goddamn pimply fourteen-year-old boy stops jerking off
long enough to beg his mommy and daddy to buy him a pair
of Air Force Ones.” He slams his hand flat against the table
top. Tessa jumps.
“So why do I wear them?”
If she says the right thing, everything will be all right. He’ll
smile and they’ll agree about what is important in life. But he
“To remind myself.” He pauses again, eyebrows raised. “And
what do I want to remind myself of?”
Tessa waits, then when he doesn’t go on, ventures, “To not
“Personal responsibility. I was a piss-brained fuck-head.” He
taps his fingers against his brow then leans forward and
places his palm on the table. “Now, you’re smart.” He waits
for confirmation. Tessa nods tentatively. “Finished high
school. Could go to college if you wanted.” He raises then
lowers his eyebrows. “But you’re not a philosopher.”
“No,” she mutters.
“I’m a philosopher. And my philosophy is that life is dumb-ass
luck. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. You walk into
a convenience store a thousand times and nothing. Joe Blow
walks in once, a robbery goes down, he’s shot dead. Jerking
on the floor wishing he’d fucked his girlfriend one last time.
Dumb luck, see? Not a goddamned thing he could do about it.”
Tessa takes a shuddery breath as a wave of nausea sweeps
through her. A cheer goes up from the softball players by the
bar. Jimmy leans back again and turns his head toward the TV
screen. Tessa scrambles for meaning in his words.
“Not a goddamned thing the jerking dead guy could have
“But I didn’t have to buy those shoes, did I? It was a choice.
Can’t blame anybody but me.” He pulls out his cigarette
lighter, flicks it, and holds it up between them. “I could have
taken four hundred and eighty bucks out of my pocket and
held this up to it and, whoosh, gone. One week’s work gone.”
He takes a drink from his glass and gives a small grunt as an
idea strikes him. “Here, hold out your hand,” he says.
Tessa raises her hand and Jimmy takes her wrist and holds it
so her hand is palm-down. He flicks his cigarette lighter with
his other hand and holds it beneath her palm. He smiles
reassuringly. She tries to pull away but he holds her fast. Just
as she begins to feel her hand get hot he lets go. She jerks
her hand into her lap and covers it with her other hand. Her
shoulders tremble and she hopes Jimmy doesn’t notice. She
glances over to the table where the dark-haired girl sits.
“Personal responsibility,” Jimmy says as if he had just proved
a point. “You make a decision and you get burned. The poor
fucker in the store made a decision to go to that store instead
of the one down the street. I made a decision to throw away
my money on fuckin’ garbage. You didn’t marry Joe Dork in
high school, so here you are with me. Your decision. You get
Tessa’s vision blurs but she holds back tears.
Jimmy sucks at his cigarette, squinting through the smoke and
giving Tessa a slow, considering look. He grabs his glass
decisively and drinks the rest of the bourbon. He pulls out a
wad of bills and slaps a twenty down on the table. “Let’s go,”
“Okay, Jimmy.” She puts on her jacket and flips her hair out
from under the collar. She looks over at her parents’ neighbor.
He’s watching the ballgame. She could go over to him and ask
for a ride. She could remind him that he waves to her when
she drives by. Then she wonders whether he’s one of the
neighbors who called the police when her parents’ fights
spilled out into the neighborhood.
“Okay,” she says again. One last look at the neighbor and she
turns toward the back of the bar.
Jimmy walks behind her as they weave over the sticky floor
through the crowded room. One bare bulb lights the narrow
hallway that leads to the rear exit. Its edges spread and blur
in Tessa’s vision. The beige paint is filthy and the odor of
stale urine makes her gag. She’s aware of Jimmy following her
closely, but he doesn’t touch her. Outside the air is cold and
she hugs her jacket around her. She can hear Jimmy’s Air
Force Ones crunching behind her on the gravel of the dark
As they approach Jimmy’s Jeep, Tessa feels his hand on the
back of her neck. He pushes her slowly against the car and
presses his body into hers so her breath comes shallow. His
words are low and quiet. “That’s great news, Baby.”
She feels his warm breath on her neck, smells cigarettes and
alcohol. She squeezes her eyes closed and tries to breathe.
Lisa J. Sharon’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares,
The Painted Bride Quarterly, Cleaver Magazine, and Kestrel, among
others. She was a winner of the 2015 Brain Mill Press novella prize and a
semi-finalist in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She lives in
Cleveland Heights where she writes for a nonprofit legal organization.