SHORT STORY CONTEST
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 better.
“Only six weeks,” she says, then worries that it sounds like she’s offering to have an abortion. No way is she having another abortion.
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 myself.”
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 his eyebrows.
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 so happy.
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 seat.
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 a sound.
“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 speaks first.
“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 waste money?”
“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 done. Right?”
“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 me?”
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,” he says.
“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 parking lot.
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.