I’m wondering why I even bought him the slippers—extra wide, tan suede, memory foam, brand name Old Man Romeo, for the ridiculous price of $29.95 at Wal-Mart of all places. It’s never below 40 degrees in Arizona, and right now, standing on his doorstep at four in the afternoon, it’s a sauna-like 94. But it’s my Uncle Tony, and the last time I saw him, he was standing in our carport barefoot smoking a Marlboro, the lights from the police cars throbbing and shimmering in our driveway like a disco. His heels were bloody, his toenails, long and thick and some black. And I thought, even though I was only 10, that a man should take better care of his feet.
I survey the cul-de-sac of aluminum-siding double-wides as I knock. Where I stand, a silver Honda scooter rests in the driveway and an orange tomcat the size of a carry-on luggage lounges on the porch mat. Behind me, a voice booms like a PA system from a minor-league hockey game.
“Who the hell are you?”
I turn around and there he is, wearing a track suit, sunglasses, and slide sandals like he’s in the witness-protection program, at the end of the sidewalk by my rental car.
“It’s me, Raymond,” I say, holding up the box as an offering but also protection. “I brought you some slippers.”
And just like that, we’re sitting on the deck behind the house drinking Michelob, Uncle Tony thundering in and out of the sliding door with offerings.
“You gotta be hungry—they don’t feed you nothing on the plane these days.” He drops an party-size bag of Lays potato chips on the weather-beaten plastic deck table. “You want a sandwich? I got salami and cheese, some mustard. How bout just cheese, just like when you was little? I got one of those grills—George Foreman—I cook everything on that, my chicken, my steaks. My veggies.”
He pauses during this avalanche of words to slap me on my back. “Jesus, Ray, twenty years! You ain’t come out here to tell me your mother died, have you?”
“No.” I sip the Michelob. My therapist said I didn’t have to bring up anything if I didn’t want. But then, why else come?
“I, uh, had this work thing up in Phoenix¾stylist conference.”
“What?” Tony raises his eyebrows. “Like hairdressers or something?”
“Exactly.” I nod. “Anyway, Aunt Debbie said you’d settled out here, so I thought I’d come see you.”
“Debbie,” Tony laughs like it’s the funniest thing that’s ever been said. “Thank God she’s a goddamn busybody, huh? Bless her heart, she’s the only one who still talks to me. I never thought you ever would.”
He stares at me, grinning. There was a time when I thought Uncle Tony was handsome, but it was a time when I didn’t know much. When I was young, he reminded me of John Travolta when he was in Grease; now, he looks and sounds more like an old Andrew Dice Clay—wide cheeks, small forehead but with a big, silvery pompadour to even out the proportions.
“Well, you look very fancy—very dapper.” Tony inhales quickly, still smiling, and I watch him take in my skin-tight button-up Oxford, slim-cut lavender shorts, and Sperry top-siders.
“It’s hot out here.” I look away, pushing up my shirt sleeves.
“You don’t like this weather?” He does a panoramic of the backyard with his hand, as if this somehow makes his point, but all I see is a bunch of double-wides bunched together, all with beaten-down lawn furniture, snaky hoses in brown grass, bug lights. “When I’m home, this is my little slice of heaven. I’m glad you caught me—I’m taking a load out to Connecticut on Thursday.”
Tony’s sister, that goddamn busybody Debbie—told me that he’s been a long-haul trucker for years; maybe that’s why it was easy for me to make this side trip. There was a good chance he wouldn’t be home, and I could feel good about trying.
“So try on your slippers.” I nudge the box, resting on the table, toward him. “I got a receipt.”
“A receipt—you don’t know how special this is to me.” He lowers himself gingerly in the plastic deck chair—more for the chair’s sake, I suspect, than his own. “I ain’t gotten a present from nobody for a long time.”
“Not even your lady friends?” I joke. I know, as soon as it comes out of my mouth, it’s the wrong thing to say, and just as quickly, I’m bent over my Michelob, peeling at the label.
We sit in silence for a moment before I hear the rustle of tissue paper. When I look up, he’s angling one of the suede slippers over a corn on his big toe.
“If they’re too small…” I start.
“They’re perfect.” He’s standing up, admiring them as I press the cold bottle to my face. “I’ve never had a more perfect present.”
When I was ten, when Tony was in-between jobs, he babysat me and my nine-year-old sister, Joelle, on the nights our mom worked at the Sky-High Cocktail Bar. Two or three evenings a week, Tony would arrive at 6:00 and, if my mother hadn’t placated us with bowls of cereal or leftover pizza, Tony would pull out the frying pan and whip up scrambled eggs or grilled cheese sandwiches.
“Did you do your homework?” He cooked with a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a can of Coors in his left hand and whisper-sang Van Halen songs with sexual innuendos that completely eclipsed mine and Joelle’s comprehension. Then we’d pile onto the couch and watch “Melrose Place,” Tony’s favorite show.
“That Kimberley, she’s one calculating bitch.” Tony shook his head as she plotted Michael’s death with the flighty and impulsive Sydney. “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed, though.”
“I kicked Raymond out of bed once.” Joelle nodded sympathetically. “But that’s because he farts a lot.”
“Shut up, you lying bitch.” I grabbed a handful of Joelle’s hair, the color of a penny, and pulled.
“Hey.” Tony reached around Joelle, who was nestled in his armpit, to whack me on the side of the head. “Language. Jesus, where do you learn that shit? School?”
Tony was a punctual and adequate minder, a perfect complement to our lower middle-class childhood of copious television, lack of vegetables, and secondhand cigarette smoke. I couldn’t imagine evenings without his volcanic perspiration, Drakkar Noir cologne, his encyclopedic knowledge about grades of gold jewelry, and his interest in ensembles of young, single people on network television. And, like most young, self-absorbed children, I imagined we were Tony’s world.
“Sorry I’m late.” Tony stepped into the doorway one afternoon, I, still holding the phone trying to reach my mom at work to tell her Tony had gone missing. Behind him, like a magic trick, stood a woman. “I had to pick Veronica up at work.”
“Hi.” She wore a fringed jean jacket and white boots, her hair so traumatized by styling the ends split like tulips. She looked at us from the porch the way my mom did the women with religious pamphlets who often showed up Saturday mornings on our doorstep. “I’m Tony’s friend.”
“These are the kids.” Tony rubbed my head like a dog. “Well, Darlene’s kids. But we’re like a family, right?”
“Uncle Tony, I’m starving.” Joelle picked her nose in an attempt to distract, I guessed, from her hunger.
“You said you were going to take me to Secrets.” Veronica frowned at Tony.
“You gotta work tonight.” Tony unhooked Joelle’s little coat with the unicorn on the back off its hanger near the door. “Ray, put your boots on. We’re going out to eat.”
Twenty minutes later, Joelle and I sat across from Tony and Veronica at Denny’s, studying laminated menus as Veronica dug out her beaded cigarette holder.
“Why didn’t we go to a place that served drinks at least?” Veronica had not stopped frowning since we piled into Tony’s Trans Am and fish-tailed across the icy February streets here.
“Veronica is my girlfriend.” Tony draped his arm over her shoulder. Her eyes wandered toward the ceiling. “One day, you two are going to have some cousins to play with.”
“Won’t we be too old then?” I questioned. Even then, I was a stickler for critical thinking.
“I want the spaghetti and meatballs.” Veronica pushed her menu to the edge of the table and scooted out of the booth. “And a ginger ale. I’m gonna go smoke.”
“We’ve been going together for a month or so.” Tony rubbed a patch of stubble on his chin after she’d left. “I think she’s the one.”
“The one what?” Joelle worked furiously on the paper placemat with a green crayon. “And where do you go?”
“He loves her, stupid.” I picked up my own crayon, blue, and drew a box, reinforcing the sides, making them thicker and thicker until just a blue box remained.
“Give me back my scarf.” Joelle tugged at the purple chiffon scarf around my neck.
“Why are you wearing a scarf, anyway, sport?” Tony sipped at his water. I glanced outside the restaurant, where Veronica leaned on the hood of a car that wasn’t Tony’s, talking to a guy in a leather jacket.
“The guys in RATT wear scarves,” I say after a beat. MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball was something that Joelle and I watched on the weekends, mostly because our other babysitter, Aunt Debbie, fell asleep on the couch with it on. We weren’t fans of the music, but the amalgamation of leather and spandex and chiffon into a single outfit opened doors in my mind that I didn’t know existed.
“On their heads, maybe.” Tony scrunched his eyebrows, glancing out the window. His face set like cement. “Who the hell is that guy with Veronica?”
“Best steak in the desert, was I right?” Tony has pushed the passenger seat in my rental Hyundai all the way back. He holds a cigarette in his hand, ready to light it up the second I pull in his driveway. “All the big-wigs—the politicians and football players—go there.”
“You really shouldn’t have.” The waist of my already-snug shorts digs into my guts as I cut the ignition. “At least let me buy breakfast tomorrow.”
“As long as you’re here, you’re not paying for a thing.” Tony waves me off. “I ain’t got nobody I’m spending money on.”
“Nothing wrong with spending it on yourself.” Outside the car in the darkness, the heat feels ominous, like a heavy breath on my neck. Down the street, a screen door creaks open.
“I’m just waiting to die, Ray.” His cigarette glows alive in his mouth. “Might as well spend it all before I go.”
Tony exhales, looking into the night, the bruised sky and small, faint moon. Suddenly he calls and whistles “Gizmo!” and the orange tabby runs up the porch steps with a speed that belies its size.
“I never took you for a cat person,” I say as Tony unlocks the door.
“Yeah?” He grins, cigarette dangling out of his mouth. “Check this out.”
In the living room he lumbers over to an ancient cabinet stereo and picks up a framed photo, holding it out to me. In it, Tony is sitting next to Santa Claus, Gizmo on Santa’s lap.
“I got this done at the PetSmart. Gizmo is my family. Except you.” He looks at me. He picks up another frame, in it my school picture from third grade, the last picture he has of me. But I reach for another—one of Joelle in second grade. Her teeth are too big for her soft, freckled face, her eyes wide and brown. In her hair is a white plastic barrette with a duck on it.
“You’re my only family, too, really.” I put Joelle’s photo back.
“You don’t talk to your mother anymore?”
“We had some differences in worldview.” I shrug. “So she stopped talking to me.”
“Why, because you’re a faggot?” Tony holds up my photo as if proof. “I’m sorry—I’m mean homosexual?”
“She was never the same after everything that happened.” I look for Gizmo. I want something to hug. “I guess I couldn’t be the person she needed me to me.”
“None of that was your fault, though—it was mine.” Tony puts the photo back on the stereo and picks up his new slippers, which sit by the door next to his black Caterpillar boots. “What are you drinking? You like vodka?”
“It’s like ninety degrees out.” I watch Tony slip on the Old Man Romeos. “You’ll sweat right through those.”
“There’s a breeze outside. You like vodka cranberry?”
“Vodka tonic’s fine.” I rub the back of my moist neck and watch Tony rummage through the fridge from the doorway of the kitchen.
“How about a vodka lemonade?” He’s holding a lime, a container of lemonade-flavor Crystal Light, and, inexplicitly, a jar of salsa.
“Does it bother you, the gay part?” I ask as he picks things up around the dark kitchen like he’s preparing to evacuate for a hurricane. “We don’t all drink fruity cocktails.”
“You don’t?” He stops and looks at me. “I love ‘em. The drinks I mean—not the gays. I mean, the gays are all right.”
“Just all right?”
“Let me tell you something.” He cuts a lime on the cutting board and pulls a knife out of the drawer. “All them showers at the rest stops for truckers—they’re full of guys looking to stick their dick in something or the other way around. Someone was telling me that, in the Middle East, men have sex with each other all the time when they’re ain’t no women around, and nobody considers themselves gay.”
Before I can respond, he waves the knife in the air to make a point: “You know what I do when I’m at the rest stops, Ray? Not looking for no guys. I’m not even looking for women. I’m looking for Joelle.”
“She’s cheating on me, I know it.” Tony lit a cigarette by the frying pan as Joelle’s cheese sandwich sizzled. “I called her apartment twice but her roommate says she’s taking a nap.”
“Why couldn’t she be taking a nap?” I sat at the table in my mother’s bathrobe. Although I claimed to feel under the weather, mostly I just like the color—rose—and the feel of the chenille on my arms and back. “We take naps all the time.”
“Adults don’t take naps.” Tony took several drags of the cigarette in succession. “She’s lying to me—I bet she’s at the CatCall right now dancing for Mr. Monte Carlo.”
“That’s his name?” Joelle asks from the doorway. “Is my grilled cheese burning?”
“No.” Tony’s tone was mocking. “That’s not his name, that’s the name of his car. Shit—yes, your grilled cheese is burning.”
He slid the spatula into the smoky pan and retrieved Joelle’s sandwich, black on one side.
“If I could just go over there and prove it.” Pinching the sandwich between his fingers, he dropped it into our trash can. “But she knows I’m here babysitting, so she’s gold, you know?”
“We could go with you, Uncle Tony.” I offered. “We could just sit in the car.”
“I can’t let you do that.” Tony shook his head. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if I find her in there with Mr. Monte Carlo.”
“You could take us to McDonald’s and we can eat in the car,” Joelle argued. “I can bring my Nancy Drew book in case I get bored. You ruined my grilled cheese—you owe me.”
“Your argument is sound.” Now he nodded. “But your mother would never forgive me if I let anything happen to you two. Plus, you’ll get grease and crap all over my seats.”
“We’re not kids anymore.” I stood up and disrobed, showing the scrawny chest of a 10-year-old. “We can sit in the car and eat McDonald’s like adults.”
Tony rubbed his temples so hard I thought they might catch on fire, like Joelle’s cheese sandwich. Then he clenched his fists like a superhero doing epic battle with the villain in his brain. He took off my mom’s apron and hung neatly it by the cupboard door.
“Do not leave this car.” Tony mashed his cigarette into the ashtray. “Put all your wrappers in the McDonald’s bag and hold it in your lap—do not let it touch the car, okay?”
From the backseat Joelle spread a napkin on her lap and set about opening her Happy Meal.
“If something happens, just keep honking the horn until I come out.” Tony stood beside the passenger door now. He took a few deep breaths, shook out his arms, and walked into the concrete bar with a pink awning. In the window, a neon cat simulated a meowing sound. The windows themselves were tinted dark.
“That doesn’t look like the bar mom works at,” Joelle said from the back seat.
She was right. Although, in retrospect, I wouldn’t call the Sky-High Cocktail Bar classy, it wasn’t this place. Mostly men seemed to go inside, albeit a few women in fake furs and high heels.
“Eat your cheeseburger,” I said, dipping a chicken nugget into my barbecue sauce.
“Raymond, what does ‘titian’ mean?” Joelle asked ten minutes later.
“I don’t know—use it in a sentence.”
“Nancy, an attractive titian blond, grinned up at her friend.”
“Oh, Nancy Drew.” I sipped my drink. “I don’t know, steely?”
“Why would she have hair like steel?”
“Can’t you just look it up in the dictionary when you get home?”
Joelle was silent for another ten minutes, during which time I pondered asking her to read her book to me, I was so bored, but Joelle was a laborious reader with a lot of non-sequiturs pondered aloud, so I didn’t.
“Ray, I have to pee.”
“You can hold it.”
“No, I can’t. And Uncle Tony said not to get anything on the seats.”
“Jesus, you’re so annoying.” I looked out the window, spotting a bush at the end of the building. I didn’t want to leave the Trans-Am, since Tony took the keys. But I could see her safely from the car. “You’re going to have to go in that bush.”
“I can’t.” Joelle sounded like she was going to cry as I opened the door and slid out, pulling up the seat. “I can’t go out in public like you can. I don’t have a wee-wee.”
“You’re going to go in that bush, or you’re going to hold it until you get home.” I stared at her. “And throw away our trash in that can while you’re over there.”
Joelle climbed out carefully, squeezing her legs together as she stood. Then she wiggled across the asphalt toward the bush. I picked up her Nancy Drew book from where it lay opened, face down, on the back seat and flipped through the pages, looking for the black and white illustrations.
The door of the bar swung open, and Tony appeared, locked in a man sandwich. One man with a leather vest and handkerchief knotted over his head pulled at Tony’s left arm, and another man behind me gripped him by the shoulders, pushing him forward.
“I wasn’t doing nothing—she’s the one cheating on me!” Tony dug his new black boots into the concrete, hunching over as the men tried to dislodge him from the doorway.
“I told you a thousand times, you can’t touch the dancers,” handkerchief man sad.
“She wasn’t working!”
“Doesn’t matter.” Handkerchief man pulled at Tony’s arm so hard I was afraid he was going to pop it out of its socket, but Tony wouldn’t budge. I wasn’t quite sure of his plan, but it looked like it involved flipping the man behind him over his shoulder like Chuck Norris. Just then, handkerchief man bent low and punched Tony in the stomach. I tossed Joelle’s book in the car and joined the scrum, hitting handkerchief man in the ass with my fist.
“Don’t hurt my uncle!” I screamed, and both men let go at once as if they’d been tasered.
“Get in the car, Ray.” Tony dusted off the shoulders of his jacket as the men pondered their legal liability in light of the young witness before them. “This place hires a bunch of two-timing whores.”
“Don’t ever come back here,” handkerchief man warned. “Or you’ll have more than a tummy ache next time.”
“Get in the car, Ray—what did I tell you?” Tony’s face was red and sweaty, and he walked a little hunched over.
“Joelle had to pee,” I explained, glancing toward the bush. “Joelle, come on.”
But there was no one crouched behind the bush. I ran over to the side of the building, ready to give her shit for wandering around, picking up interesting rocks whatever crap she always found on the ground, but she wasn’t there, either.
“I don’t know where she went,” I choked up the words, my body feeling like it was turning inside out, as Tony staggered up.
“What the fuck did I tell you, Ray?” Tony pushed me into the side of the building. “About staying in the car?”
“She’s gone.” In the kitchen I put my hand on Tony’s shoulder, giving his knife hand a wide berth. “She’s dead.”
“You don’t know that.” He turns back to the counter, slicing up a lime with a dexterity I didn’t think he had in him. “I watch these shows all the time when I’m home—Crime Stoppers and stuff—you don’t know all the girls who get taken for sex trafficking.”
I remember the police arriving at the CatCall, Tony erupting when they told us we couldn’t file a missing person’s report until someone had been missing for more than 24 hours. I also remember him getting into a fight with Veronica, who’d come outside the bar at some point to see what all the excitement was, which ended in him spitting on her and us peeling out, only for the police to show up again at our house hours later to arrest Tony for assault. It’s one of the last images I have of Tony, standing in our carport barefoot, his feet rubbed raw from walking for miles in his new boots around town, looking for Joelle. Actually, it is the last image I have of him, since Mom banned him from the house, from seeing us ever again.
“I don’t think she’s alive anymore.” I sit at the deck table. “As much as I want it to be true, in my gut, I just don’t think she is.”
“The bodies they found, they didn’t match her dental records.” Tony lights a cigarette as he paces on the deck. “I’m on the road forty weeks out of the year. I go places, I see people, talk to people—I ain’t never stopped looking.”
I close my eyes. Sometimes, often, I imagine what Joelle would look like now—what her voice would sound like, what she would’ve majored in, assuming she went to college (her grades weren’t great, but I also thought she needed glasses, something I’d been bugging our mom about in the months before she went missing). I wonder about the man who took her, what he was thinking. If he’s alive. The police interviewed everyone at the bar again and again, poured over scant spotty video camera footage from the gas station across the street, even the cold case detectives years later. How does a girl walk to a bush to pee and then disappear?
“Sometimes I just stand outside the restroom at the welcome centers, and I shout ‘Joelle!’ just to see if anybody looks up.” Tony’s glass is close to his lips, his eyes watery.
“Does anyone ever look up?” I feel my eyes water too, tell myself it’s the generous pour of the vodka.
“One lady did.” Tony looks thoughtful. “But she was Chinese or something, so I know it wasn’t her.”
I spit out my drink, I’m laughing so hard.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my stomach in stitches as I bend over. “It’s not funny…it’s just…the way you said it.”
“I guess it did sound a little kooky,” he agrees, trying to hold back a smile. “And what if somehow it did turn out to be her?”
“I think we’re officially going to hell now.” I empty the rest of my glass, deserving the burn that flares in my throat.
“So why did you come?” Tony asks, frowning. Not in suspicion, but sadness.
“I don’t know—to see how you were.” I shrug. Since I was thirteen, right after I took a bunch of my mom’s Nembutals and had to have my stomach pumped at the hospital, I never thought about Tony, ever. Or Joelle, if I could help it. I never thought about anything. The same way Joelle disappeared, Raymond did, too, and Ray appeared in his place, a flamboyant, happy-go-lucky BA-in-commercial arts-turned-stylist. A stylist attending the Salon & Spa Expo conference in Phoenix, who happened to tell his Aunt Debbie, who happened to mention the conference’s proximity to Tony. A stylist who watched Raymond, Joelle, and Tony spill out of his body, like an overturned drawer full of marbles. Who was having trouble putting them all back in.
“I just hope you ain’t never blamed yourself. I should’ve never taken you two to the CatCall.” Tony coughs for like five seconds and pats his thigh for Gizmo, who’s looking at him in alarm from the corner of the deck. “Don’t worry—daddy ain’t going to kick yet.”
“I don’t.” I pick up the Stoli bottle and aim for my glass, splash the table a little.
This wasn’t always true. And maybe it wasn’t entirely true when I drove up to the house this afternoon. But now, I don’t know. I’ve blamed myself, Tony, my mother, the monster who took Joelle. But blame is a completely useless verb, noun, whatever. It doesn’t change the past or the future. And yet the deck is stacked with them, sometimes the only cards.
“That’s nice of you to say.” Tears run like boulders down Tony’s cheeks as he encases Gizmo’s head with his hand. “It makes me feel like there’s something to live for—you and Joelle.”
“You should try to go on with your life.” I hold the vodka glass with both hands, the perspiration from the glass dripping in my palms.
“How?” Tony rolls Gizmo up his leg and onto his lap. “I can’t date—once you start to get serious, how do you tell someone you lost your niece outside a titty bar?”
I think of the men at bars with whom I’ve gone home, always going to their place to have sex, giving them a fake number the morning after. The thought of bringing up Joelle with anyone is like resuscitating the dead, to have that zombie following you around again. Not that the zombie ever leaves you. But for years I’ve been a zombie, too, because they don’t feed on their own.
When I decided to see Tony, though, I packed Joelle’s Nancy Drew book and, on the flight here, I opened it and read the word titian over and over and willed myself to be steely.
“Why don’t you come on the next haul with me?” Tony says after a minute. “It’d be nice to catch up for real. We don’t have to talk about all that stuff, you know. Just something.”
“To Connecticut?” I laugh. “You snore like a power washer.”
“I got one of those CPAP thingies now,” he says. “Anyway, I could just drop you home, on the way. Save you a flight back.”
“I already paid for the ticket,” I answer, as if I’m considering it. There is so much I could tell him that I haven’t told anyone else, and him me. But feelings—they’re so much like blame—another useless verb, noun whatever.
“Well, I just thinking aloud—spit-ballin’.” He crushes his empty box of Newports. “I gotta get more cigarettes. Can you drive me to the 7-11?”
“I can’t.” I feel unsteady just sitting in the chair. “How about the scooter?”
“You serious?” Tony laughs, heavy and wet. “You wanna drive that?”
“I want to ride on the back, I think.” I put my palms on the table and slowly unfold myself to a standing position. “It goes like thirty, tops, right?”
Thirty miles per hour in the open air without a helmet feels like ninety in the closed cabin of a car. I press my bare head against the top of Tony’s back, to keep out of the stinging wind, and think about the stack of flyers I noticed in his living room before we left: MISSING: JOELLE ESPOSITO printed atop, her photo underneath. It’d been xeroxed so many times she was an inkblot of a girl. A girl who could be anyone, nowhere and everywhere at once.
At the 7-11 I stand outside and wait, the heat so thick it’s pressing me into place. Inside Tony jerks his head back, laughing at something the cashier says. I study his profile, think of what I could do with his hair, shaving the temples close but keeping his sideburns, losing the pompadour. I imagine us in Tony’s rig, driving through Las Cruces, El Paso, Dallas, and we are moving away and toward things.
I hear the jingle of the door as I bend over the trashcan, throwing up all the marbles.
“Christ, Raymond, you okay?” I feel Tony’s hands on my shoulders.
I shake my head. Tears burn my cheeks as I mouth the word titian over and over, into stench of my own vomit, willing myself to be steely.