• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 35. Good Girl

    By Holly Goddard Jones

    From the moment I read “Good Girl,” from Holly Goddard Jones’s new collection Girl Trouble, it has been one of my favorite stories of the year—so it was doubly happy news when she suggested it for Fifty-Two Stories. Jones’s characters are confronting crossroads in their lives, and truths in themselves—and the moments she finds them in are ragged, tense, and real.

    A year before Jacob’s son, Tommy, was arrested for raping a fifteen-year-old girl, the police chief came to his shop about the dog. Tommy’s dog—a pit bull bitch. Tommy had brought her home the week he graduated from high school, a pup in an old Nike shoe box, eyes just opened. And Jacob had said, “You’re not bringing that dog here,” but he soon gave in, letting his son keep her on a blanket in the toolshed; weeks later he said, “You’re not bringing that dog in the house,” but he gave in on that, too, and the dog started sleeping on the living room couch, the same spot where his wife, Nora, had liked sitting when she was alive.

    The one thing he’d held firm on, he thought at the time, was the treatment of the animal. Tommy wanted her mean, wanted to beat her and chain her to weights and mix gunpowder into her dog food. Now Jacob wasn’t one of those animal rights nutjobs, and he’d never really liked dogs, or any kind of pet, for that matter—always had to scrub his hands clean after petting one, and even then he’d go to bed sure that fleas and ticks were crawling all over him, setting up camp in the graying curly hairs of his underarms or groin. But he was softer in his middle age than he’d once been—less casual about life since Nora’s passing—and he wouldn’t stand back while the poor animal was tortured, made crazy by one of his son’s misguided whims. So he’d stood his ground. He started feeding her when he noticed Tommy was forgetting to, scratching her belly when Tommy was gone and she seemed slow and disconsolate, and at some point—maybe the day he got home from work and she met him at the front porch, bouncing on her hind legs, eyes buggy and worshipful—he realized he loved her, he was grateful to have her. Though he never said so to Tommy, he felt a bittersweet certainty that Nora would have loved her, too—good as she’d always been with rough beasts, himself at one time no exception. It was easy, on nights when Tommy slept away and the house felt as open and empty as a tobacco warehouse in January, to imagine the dog as his last connection to Nora, to anything good like Nora. It was a desperate way to feel.

    The police chief in Roma, Kentucky, was Perry Whitebridge. He’d been a year behind Jacob in high school, a soft-spoken kid with duct tape holding his boots together, which wasn’t so uncommon in the county back then, when Jacob himself sometimes snacked on wild onions from the side of the road to keep his stomach from rumbling. Jacob ran a gun shop now, and he had a contract with the city: they purchased their weapons and ammunition from him at a fair price, and Jacob took care of the cleaning and maintenance of their guns for free. So Jacob had come to know Perry, respected him, and even drank a beer or two with him some nights at the American Legion. Two womanless men: Jacob, a widower, and Perry, just plain unlucky. Or maybe lucky—Jacob knew him, but not well enough to understand how the man felt about those things.

    Perry came to the gun shop on a crisp afternoon in early autumn, and Jacob knew from the look on his face that something was up. But he tried to play it normal, thinking Tommy must’ve gotten himself in some trouble, stuck in a situation that would cost Jacob money or face. “Look what the cat dragged in,” he said. He wiped the big glass display counter with some Windex and an old rag, looking at his reflection with the guns crisscrossing below it. Perry was taking off his hat by the brim with one hand and patting his coarse blond hairs over to one side with the other; Jacob could see this reflected too as the man walked up.

    “Got to talk to you, Jake,” Perry said.

    “Talk, then.” He stole something. A car, maybe. Broke in somewhere. Jesus.

    “This is hard, man.” Perry grabbed the counter, putting greasy smears on the glass.

    Jacob sighed. “Lay it on me.”

    “Your dog, Jake. Tommy’s dog, I mean. She got into some trouble up the road.”

    Jacob was tempted to feel relieved. He imagined overturned garbage cans, the contents strewn across a neighbor’s yard. A dead rabbit lying on someone’s front stoop. “What kind of trouble?”

    “She bit someone—that little girl about two miles up from your place, across from the Methodist church.”

    “The Pryor girl?”

    Perry nodded.

    Jacob’s heart started to beat up in his throat. “Oh, Jesus. How bad is it?”

    “She’s going to be all right,” Perry said, and if Jacob had been the crying type, he might have started right then. He knew the girl by sight: she was a frail, wild little thing, ranging the neighborhood in her bare feet when the weather was warm enough, so filthy that she wore a ring of dirt round her neck like a piece of jewelry. Feral and almost unbearably lovely. He knew the dog, too: when they played, and Jacob teased her with a thick hank of rope with a knot tied at the end of it, she just about ripped his arm out of the socket trying to yank it free. His mind was putting these two images together, the child and the animal, the scrawny arms and those square, locked jaws. He felt sick.

    “It could’ve been worse,” Perry said. “The dog laid into her leg pretty hard. Mrs. Pryor had to whack her upside the head with a shovel to knock her loose, long enough to get the kid inside. She called me, but the dog was gone by the time I got out there.”

    “What should I do?”

    Perry’s face was shiny. “I’m supposed to get the dog warden out to your place, have her put down. That’s what I’m supposed to do. And the family could press charges against you.”

    “Shit,” Jacob said.

    Perry leaned in. “They’re good folks, though, and the little girl’s gonna be all right, like I said. You give them some money for their bills and a little bit extra, they’ll let it go. And do something about that dog. Pen her up, send her to your cousin’s in Timbuktu, whatever. I don’t know. I’m willing to let this one slide, Jake. Dogs go funny every now and then. Just don’t make me regret it.”

    Jacob shook his hand. “I’m grateful. I mean it. And you won’t regret it.”

    Perry smiled, the lines in the corners of his eyes folded like a stack of clean towels. “No, I’m sure I won’t.”

    Jacob closed the shop right after Perry left and drove straight home. Tommy was gone, of course; he worked fifteen to twenty hours a week for a construction company down in Springfield, Tennessee, spent the rest of his time either messing around with that girl he was seeing—Leela, who was twenty-six and had three kids already and a loose fold of stretch-marked skin that hung over the top of her low-slung jeans, but at least had her tubes tied—or getting wasted with his work buddies, pot or beer, whatever they could get cheaper that day. Jacob was lucky to get a meal in with the kid once a week, and even then he often had to tempt him with something nice, like dinner out at Ponderosa. He realized that he should probably put Tommy out of the house, make him scrape up a living on his own—he was nineteen now, and Jacob was making it too easy for him to waste what little he made on cigarettes and alcohol—but he couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t. The living was lonely since Nora passed, and Jacob walked around with the dread, the looming possibility of a life by himself in his little house in the country: watching reruns of Bonanza every night on television, eating pork and beans straight out of the can, not bothering to heat them up. Seeing Nora’s shadow in her garden in the backyard, now two seasons overgrown. The skeletons of tomato plants—he’d once, because of her, known the names of them all, the Better Boys and Early Girls and Brandywines—still clung to the cages she’d staked them with, like starved prisoners.

    Tommy was gone already, mostly, but Jacob would miss the smell of the boy’s cologne, his white athletic socks balled in dirty wads on the living room floor. Even his tired eyes—hungover, yes, but dark brown like his mother’s—glancing up from the plate of sausage and toast Jacob cooked up for him on Sunday mornings.

    The dog was waiting for him on the front porch, wagging her tail. “Good girl,” Jacob whispered, bending down on his bad knee to scratch behind her ears, under her chin. She was an ugly animal: face broad and stupid, fur rust-colored and mottled, like granite. Tommy had gotten her ears clipped when she was still small, and they stood up on top of her head, two triangles of flesh, pink-lined like seashells. But her body was long and smooth, sculpted, and Jacob traced the line of muscle that defined her back haunches, marveling as always at such wild, stealthy beauty it frightened him. She licked the palm of his hand.

    “Good lady,” he said.

    He went into his house, to his bedroom, and opened the closet door. There was a safe at the bottom, under a pile of clothes and shoes that Jacob swept unceremoniously to the side. He turned the dial right, left, right again. What he had, the little he had, was inside: a stack of E series savings bonds, maybe twenty thousand dollars’ worth; his grandmother’s collection of silver dollars; the deed on the house; and the gun. He’d saved for years to buy it, even before he knew if he’d find the right one: a Colt .45 pistol, still in its original box, with an authentic screwdriver for disassembling. Issued by the Army in 1911, carried by a soldier in World War I, a fellow named Hughbert Waltham—he had all the papers. Jacob had paid nearly four thousand dollars for it at a gun show in Nashville, a bargain he’d considered too good to be believed. He could get at least six thousand for it now, probably more. He thought about the Pryor girl. He would need every penny.

    The bullets were in a cardboard box in the back of the safe. Jacob took a seat on his bed near the window, where he could see better, and pulled one out. His .38 was in the drawer by his bedside table, loaded, but that wasn’t the gun for this job. You always had to know the right gun for the job. The clip for the Colt was empty. He thumbed the safety, pulled back the slide with his left hand, holding the walnut grip with his right; then he shifted hands and inserted the bullet into the chamber. The gun gleamed in the afternoon light. Jacob looked forward to cleaning it, using the tiny screwdriver, handling the parts with a soft cloth on the velvet-covered surface of his workbench. He took the magazine in his right hand again, grasping the slide with his left, and depressed the trigger halfway, easing the slide into place. He would do this outside, normally, but the dog would hear and know. He didn’t want her to know anything.

    She sat on the porch with her back to the door, facing the road. She turned when Jacob came outside, storm door clanging behind him, and his hidden hand would have set her on alert with any other human, but she trusted him. He patted her hide and lowered his voice to an excited whisper. “Ball?” he said. Her tail thumped rhythmically. “All right, then,” he said, and she leapt off the porch, sprang around to face him in anticipation, then scurried around the corner of the house into the backyard, moving as if she worried he’d change his mind. He followed.

    This was the shame: a dog was a dog, Jacob knew, and they weren’t born to hurt little girls, only raised to be that way. He’d turned his face away too many times when Tommy played rough, smacking the dog across the jaw with an empty two-liter bottle, shoving her off the front porch with a steel-toed work boot. It wasn’t this one’s fault. It was his, for being too weak to stand up to his own son and tell him right from wrong. She’d been a good dog to Jacob, a sweet girl, a protector. She’d stopped in the weeds just past the line where Jacob ran his riding mower, waiting for him, quivering in her eagerness but motionless otherwise, understanding that this too was part of their ritual. “Wait,” Jacob said: a promise as much as a command. He bent over and stroked her back, the short, bristly hairs there, and she cocked her head, alert, watching the woods behind his property with her intelligent and predatory gaze. He thumbed the safety off the gun, lifted it up to the back of her head, and pulled the trigger.

    She fell over, a dark heap in high grass.

    Jacob buried her in Nora’s garden and waited up until almost four in the morning for Tommy to get back. He explained about the girl and what the dog had done to her, how a bullet was cheaper than a lawsuit. “And once a dog gets human blood in her mouth, she’ll never lose the taste for it,” he finished. “That’s what my own daddy said, anyway.” He watched Tommy’s face, hoping for a sign that his son understood his own stake in what happened without Jacob spelling it out for him. He was a good-looking boy, short—barely five foot seven—but wiry, with the dark eyes and skin and hair of a Mexican, almost. After a few moments he got up and stretched, his “Hank 3” shirt pulling out of his gray jogging pants, and patted Jacob’s shoulder.

    “No biggie, Pop,” he said. The “Pop” thing was new, something he’d heard from a friend or on TV. “I had my eye out for something different anyhow.” He gave Jacob a final patronizing squeeze on the shoulder and shuffled toward his bedroom.

    Jacob heard the door snick shut, the lock turn. The air smelled of smoke and that smelly cologne Tommy liked to wear.

    Jacob stayed up another hour, working Fill ’Em In’s at the kitchen table—“the soulless crossword,” Nora had called them whenever Jacob picked up a new copy from the magazine rack at the Piggly Wiggly. He liked the mindlessness of finding an intersection for random words and numbers, all the information you needed in front of you, no clues or guesswork required. He finished one, his eyes weak in the low light, back burning from hunching over so long without moving. He traced his fingers over the surface of the page, feeling the indentations of his ballpoint pen. He reached down to touch the dog, where she would normally have been sleeping beside him, and the emptiness of his life registered in full and aching force. “Nora,” he said, looking at her shadow figure on the old living room couch—head bent over one of the mysteries she loved reading, Agatha Christie or Sue Grafton, dark, shoulder-length hair glinting in the lamplight. She lifted her head at the sound of his voice, took off her glasses, smiled. Her face, the face she wore before the cancer and her death: gentle, intelligent, elegantly lined, like crackled pottery.


    Three months before Jacob’s son was arrested for raping the Winterson girl, Jacob saw Helen for the first time. He was eating lunch alone at Gary’s Pit Barbecue on the bypass and thinking about how strange it was to see two nicely dressed women—one quite young, early twenties maybe, the other closer to his own age—eating thick-piled pork barbecue sandwiches between spurts of typing on their laptops. He liked it. He wasn’t a man who adapted well to change, and he probably couldn’t even figure out how to turn one of those things on, but there was something reassuring about this picture, nonetheless: the mix of old and new, the idea that his hometown could move on in some ways and stay the same where it counted. He squeezed some hot sauce on his sandwich and took a big bite, still watching them, and the older woman looked up and caught his eye. His mouth was full of spicy meat and the sour tang of sauce, but he swallowed fast and smiled.

    She smiled back, then turned her gaze down to the screen.

    She was a handsome woman—that’s how Jacob’s mother would have put it—with gray hair, shortly cropped, styled. Nice hair: not yellow-gray like Jacob’s was turning, but striking and pure, as if she’d been born with it that way. He couldn’t tell her eye color from here, but it was something light, blue or hazel, and she had a fine, thin nose with the slightest upturn at the tip. She was a professional of some kind, he figured—an administrator at the hospital, maybe a lawyer. He guessed it said something else about the way the town was changing that he didn’t know who she was, what she did for a living. He liked that, too.

    He finished his meal and left a ten-dollar bill on the table, held down by a shaker of Lawry’s. He caught his waitress’s eye across the restaurant—Rita; her boy had gone to school with Tommy—and pointed at the table. She nodded and lifted a hand.

    The air outside was always a surprise after the smells of the restaurant: the fried batters, the fragrant burn of wood smoke. From the entrance Jacob could see the bypass: a newly blacktopped slash through what had once been the Brindle farm, wooded on this side, lined with trailers on the other. He reflected on another smell in the restaurant, one he’d breathed in as he crossed the dining room to the door, past the portraits of UK basketball coaches Adolph Rupp and Rick Pitino, and the photos of the Roma High School state championship football team from 1987: women’s perfume, an unnameable sweetness, freshening the other scents but not drowning them. The memory of the smell excited him, made the closely clipped hairs at the base of his neck rise. He hadn’t felt this way in a long time. He’d dated since Nora’s death—two or three times, all setups that ended comfortably but without event—and he’d seen women on TV who struck him as sexy, arousing him so abruptly that he felt almost hijacked. Six months ago he drove to the adult bookstore on 65 and purchased a porn video that he pulled out from under his bed sometimes when Tommy was gone to Leela’s. Watching it left him stirred but empty.

    When he met Nora—that was over thirty years ago, hard as it was to believe—he’d been twenty-five and reckless as hell, more interested in where the next shot of Jack was coming from than whether or not he’d be alive the next day to feel hungover. And
    the sex then was like the drinking: powerful but singular, a disorienting night trip that left him wrung out and slimy-feeling, so that the only thing he hated worse than himself the next day was the girl who gave it up to him so easily and thoughtlessly. Then he met Nora—sweet Nora, who’d only been with one man, one time, and regretted it deeply—and it didn’t take him long to realize he loved her. Before they slept together for the first time, he told her about the other girls—“whores,” he called them, “cheap whores.” And she hadn’t disagreed.

    He pulled out his keys, ready to cross the parking lot to his Chevy diesel and drive back to work. But the smell of perfume was still in his nose, making him light-headed. He turned, went back through the door, and crossed the dining room to her table. There was a deer head mounted to a plaque on the opposite wall, and he felt it staring at him through the dark-tinted sunglasses someone had balanced on its nose as a joke. The young girl noticed him first, drawing her eyebrows together—wary, as if he might be trying to sell her something. The older woman stopped typing on her computer and merely looked up, smiling. It was the kind of smile, Jacob thought, that the loan officer had given him the first time he came in about opening the gun shop. He felt now much like he had felt then: inadequate, ridiculous for dreaming. He almost fled.

    “Yes?” the older woman asked.

    “You’re new,” he said, neck hot. “I mean, you seem new. To town.”

    “I am new,” she said. Were her cheeks a little pink? He thought so. “I moved down here about a month ago.”

    “What brought you?” Jacob asked. It wasn’t just the deer’s eyes that he felt on him now: Rita, the waitress, was watching him over the pitcher of sweet tea she was carrying to a booth. Smirking, Jacob was sure. And the old men at the next table were certainly slowing down their conversation, casting amused looks back and forth between Jacob and each other. As if Jacob were a teenager and not a grown man, a widower.

    The woman grabbed her briefcase from an adjacent chair and dug around, pulling out a business card tweezed between two lacquered fingers. Her picture was in the corner, her name beneath it: “Helen Shively, CRS, GRI.” To the left was a logo he recognized: “Campbell L. Baldwin & Sons Real Estate and Auctioneers, serving Logan County since 1929.”

    “You’re an agent?”

    “Yep,” she said. “Just getting started. So if you know anybody shopping around for a house . . .” She shrugged a little and laughed. A nice laugh.

    “Maybe I do,” Jacob lied. “I’ll ask around.”

    “That would be great,” Helen said.

    Jacob looked from Helen to her friend and angled his body toward Helen. He lowered his voice. “If you’d like someone to show you around, I have a shop in town. You could stop by. Not that there’s much to show. Hell, you’ve been here a month. You’ve probably seen it all.”

    Helen laughed again. “Probably have,” she said. “But we could have a coffee sometime anyway.”

    “A coffee,” Jacob said. “Sure. Sure.”

    She nodded toward his hand. “You have my card.”

    “Yeah,” Jacob said. “I do.” He smiled, and feeling his face that way he was suddenly aware of how rarely he smiled anymore. “Thanks for that.”

    “You’re welcome,” Helen said as he walked away, and though it was hardly in his nature, Jacob thought he’d call her. He thought she wanted him to.

    Outside, letting the wind cool his flushed cheeks, he rubbed his thumb across the raised lettering of her card. Helen—he remembered that name from the baby books he’d looked at with Nora, one of the times she was pregnant. It hadn’t made their final list of girls’ names, but he’d liked it because the book had told a story about a face that launched a thousand ships, a woman so beautiful that men lost their heads. “If you want to set your expectations so high,” Nora had said, “let’s call her Athena. I’d rather have smart than pretty.” Jacob had agreed.

    Now that the fear was behind him, the excitement returned—a warm fist in his belly, clenching, releasing. He climbed into his truck and tucked Helen’s card into the visor, where he wouldn’t lose it. He closed his eyes and saw her face, memorizing it, not wanting to lose that, either. Helen. He started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, heading back to his shop.


    Later he’d recall how it felt to love a woman again. It seemed to Jacob that a life only had room for so many beautiful things, even if you were lucky: a true love, a healthy child, a job that you could wake up to each day with even faint anticipation. That Helen could see something in him—perhaps the same thing Nora had known lay beneath his bourbon-scented sweat in those reckless days of his youth—struck him as somehow miraculous. A miracle. The miracle of a good woman.


    On a Saturday morning in early November, Perry’s cruiser pulled into Jacob’s driveway. Jacob was on the front porch having a swing, thinking about meeting Helen in town for ice cream and a drive; right now the days were still brisk and eye-wateringly sunny, but the air was already getting that bitter smell. In another week or so he’d need to take down the swing for the winter and stow it in the garage, under a tarp, so that the boards wouldn’t warp with cold and moisture.

    Tommy hadn’t made it home last night. Jacob didn’t let Tommy’s absences keep him up anymore; he gave himself over to thin, uneasy sleep instead, dreaming with such frantic energy that he usually awoke feeling jittery and out of touch. He financed a cellular phone that his son had never used once to call home. Twice he’d determined to let the bill slip and the service disconnect; twice he’d paid the bill by phone on the day it was due, picking up a five-dollar surcharge for his trouble. He was in awe of his own weakness; he hardly recognized himself anymore.

    Jacob had the sense, watching Perry Whitebridge exit his car and begin a slow stride up the front walk, of reliving a nightmare; it reminded him of the way he had felt on waking each morning in the first few months after Nora’s death, sure that she was still in the bed beside him, or in the kitchen starting coffee, the sureness contradicted by a depression more physical than remembered. That moment before the two things—the sureness and the depression—came together to make sense of one another was almost worse than the despair that inevitably followed, and the glimmer of hope in the drawer of his bedside table: the .38 that he would surely have used if there hadn’t been Tommy to think on and love and worry about, Tommy to hear the gunshot from his bed in the next room.

    Car accident. Drinking and driving. He killed someone. He’s dead. Please God, someone else, not Tommy. Please God, not Tommy.

    Perry stopped at the front step, hesitant. “Need to have a talk with you, Jake,” he said.

    “Talk, then,” Jacob told him.


    The day Tommy had started kindergarten—his small arms dangling out of the short sleeves of his new plaid button-down shirt, both hands clutching the handle of his plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunch box—Nora had returned to her job at the nursing home. Jacob had warned her against taking on too many big changes all at once, but she’d been adamant. “I can’t stand sitting around that house all day by myself,” she told him. “I’d have the house cleaned by lunchtime, then I’d spend the rest of the day watching TV or taking naps.”

    It hadn’t just been that, though, and Jacob knew it. She missed the work. Tommy was late for a first child—Nora had miscarried four times before his birth, and she was thirty-eight when she delivered him—so she had adjusted to motherhood with difficulty as well as joy. When he was crawling age, she started making trips to the home to visit the residents, not worried like Jacob was about what germs the baby might pick up. The old people had loved touching the boy, planting dry, shaky kisses on his bald head. He never got sick, though. Not from them, not even a cold.

    Now in the car the day after Perry’s visit, driving Tommy home from his night in lockup, Jacob remembered what it was like to have a small, happy son. Random memories: he, Nora, and Tommy picnicking at Lake Malone, Jacob sipping on a Keystone and watching Tommy in the water, buoyant in his Mickey Mouse arm floaties; Tommy graduating from kindergarten, chewing on the tassel dangling from his white cap instead of singing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” with his classmates; Tommy asleep in the middle of the living room floor wearing only a diaper, the ceiling fan creaking above him and cooling his round cheeks, red-flushed from hard play. Pain raced along Jacob’s arm and he grabbed it, sucking air through his teeth.

    “Dad, you okay?”

    “Fine,” Jacob said.

    “Don’t be a hero, man. Let’s get you to the doctor if you’re going to have a heart attack or something.”

    Jacob pulled the car over onto the shoulder, unlatched his seat belt, and backhanded Tommy with his good arm. Tommy’s head knocked against the passenger-side window, hard, but he had the good sense not to say anything in return, only to sit there, slackjawed
    and wide-eyed, pawing at his red-and-white-blotched cheek.

    “You’ve had that coming for a while,” Jacob said. He closed his eyes and kneaded the tight spot in his chest. There was a moment when the pain seemed ready to cross over from bad to serious, and Jacob could even hear that wonk! wonk! sound in his head that always announced DANGER in the movies. Then it started to subside. He took deep breaths, massaged the loosening knot, and opened his eyes. A few seconds later, he noticed the road ahead of him, where Les Clemmons’s row of neatly kept board fencing ran out into Paul Brown’s scraggly old barbed wire contraption; the Presbyterian church up on the hill to the left, where one of his uncles was buried.

    “Dad?” Tommy whispered.

    Jacob looked at the church, wondered whether he could see the boneyard from here if he strained hard enough. In his line of sight was a big tree, a spot of white under it.

    “Daddy, you’ve got me scared.”

    Jacob reached across Tommy and opened the glove box. The bottle of aspirin was stuffed behind the owner’s manual, and Jacob shook two out; he chewed them dry, the bitter taste drawing him out of his fog.

    “I’m okay.” He meant it—he felt better. As with the two previous times this had happened—once at work, once just after Nora’s funeral—he felt almost silly after the pain passed, as if he’d been imagining the whole thing, or exaggerating it. He wanted to believe this was true; his middle age, these hints at coming infirmity, embarrassed him. There had been a moment when Jacob was just about Tommy’s age, when he looked in the mirror, hardened the big muscles in his chest and arms, and thought, My Lord, I’m iron. Two seconds of clarity and beauty, nothing more, but he never forgot them. How awful to know that kind of sureness in your life, only to lose it.

    He started the car, refastened his seat belt.

    “I can pay you back the bond money,” Tommy was saying. “I’ll sell the truck if I have to.”

    “A lawyer’s gonna cost a lot more than a thousand dollars,” Jacob said.

    “I’ll figure it out.” Tommy lit a cigarette and cracked a window, letting the wind catch the ashes and pull them out of the car. “They can set you up on payments. I know a guy.”

    “I’m sure you do.”

    “Got Chad off a DUI. He only charged five hundred.”

    “This is a hell of a lot more serious than a goddamned DUI,” Jacob said. “Christ almighty, Tommy, I thought you had more sense. I thought your mother had raised you better.”

    “So that’s it? Somebody says I did something, you right off believe them? Real nice, Dad. Not that I’d expect any different.”

    They pulled into the driveway and Jacob shut off the car.

    “Well, you tell me, then,” Jacob said. “Did you hurt that girl?”

    “No,” Tommy said, not looking at him. His hand, the one grabbing for the door handle, was shaking. “Of course I didn’t.”

    “You going to call this lawyer, or do I have to do that, too? The arraignment’s on Monday.”

    “I’ll call him, Dad. Jesus.”

    Jacob rubbed his mouth, his dry lips, and thought about Helen for the first time since yesterday, when Perry came. He hadn’t even remembered to call her. “I wonder about you, Tom,” he said. He looked at his son, who was staring off in the direction of Nora’s overrun garden and playing with the flip top on the car door ashtray. “I just wonder.”

    “Don’t,” Tommy said.

    Jacob left it at that.


    Tommy was gone the night before the arraignment—Springfield again, spending the weekend with Leela; Jacob hadn’t had the energy to argue—so Helen came over Sunday night, bringing with her some cobbler and a bottle of Maker’s. While Jacob gave her the details about Tommy’s arrest, she searched his cabinets for food, then started cooking grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup, her movements fluid and efficient—the way she could butter the bread without tearing it, or flip the sandwiches in the pan with one fast motion that didn’t shift the corners. He hadn’t had a woman cook for him—for him and only him—in almost three years. He’d missed too many other things about Nora, important things, to allow himself to grieve for something as selfish as this, but he grieved for it now: the gift of a meal you didn’t make yourself.

    “I wasn’t much older than Tommy when Nora and me got married,” Jacob told Helen, watching her work. She knew this—she knew most of what there was worth knowing about him, he was sure—but he needed to say it again. To make sense of it.

    “Me, too,” Helen said. “It was a different time.” She had, Jacob learned in the two and a half months of their careful courtship, married when she was twenty, divorced twenty years later. It wasn’t something she often talked about, but his name was Harry, she’d told him, he drove trucks for Overnite, and he left her—not for a twenty-five-year-old “slip of ass,” which she could just about have understood, but for a lawyer seven years his senior down in San Antonio.

    “He and this girl he’s with just spend the night together like it’s nothing,” Jacob said. “He lets her kids call him Daddy, then comes here and eats my groceries. Don’t think nothing of it.” He poured another shot of bourbon into his coffee mug, grateful for the warmth. Nora had never fussed when Jacob drank but didn’t like being around him when he did, and she would’ve died before going out and purchasing a bottle of whiskey herself. “Marrying settled me somehow. These kids don’t ever figure that out. I sure wasn’t born a good man.”

    “But you are one,” Helen said.

    “If I am, it’s because Nora made me that way.”

    Helen stopped stirring the soup and sighed. “Goddamn, Jacob, you sure give a girl a lot to live up to.”

    She’d said things like this before, and hearing her jealousy—there wasn’t a better word for it—always surprised him. Nora was as much a part of his life as his son. He could stop talking about her, thinking about her, no better than he could stop breathing.

    “Don’t mean anything by it,” he said into his drink. And though he didn’t feel his comment had warranted an apology, he offered one: “Sorry. I’m sorry, hon.”

    “No need,” Helen said. She sighed again—he didn’t even think she was aware of doing it—and stirred the soup more vigorously.

    He hadn’t eaten much of anything since Perry came by with his news—drank coffee, nibbled on a bear claw he got out of a vending machine at the police station—so he indulged himself now, putting away two sandwiches and two helpings of soup, plus a slab of blackberry cobbler drenched in some of the vanilla ice cream Helen had found in the back of his freezer. He washed the dishes while Helen read a magazine, and then they made love—not for the first time, of course, but it was still new, and Jacob had never felt so satisfied, so frankly grateful to another human being. He didn’t love Helen like he’d loved his wife, but he did love her, and he told her so.

    He was close to sleep when she rolled over and worked her way between his arm and side, resting her head on his chest. “There’s a house,” she said, her own voice soft and sleepy. “Right outside of Auburn. It’s going on the market in a few weeks.”

    “Yeah?” he said, moving his feet into a cooler pocket of sheet.

    “Yeah.” Her breath hit his nipple, sending a chill down his back. “It’s a nice place, Jake, part of an estate. The kids are in a hurry to close and split the sale money.”

    He was awake now. “So what are you saying?”

    “I’m buying it, Jake.” Her finger traced the line of his rib cage. “I want you to live with me there. I want us to get it together.”

    He didn’t say anything; he couldn’t. What about Tommy? Tommy wasn’t part of this plan, he was sure.

    “Don’t worry about it now,” Helen said. She stretched and rolled away, because they’d both figured out that they didn’t sleep well in each other’s arms. “It was a bad time to mention it. But the offer’s there.”

    “I’ll think on it,” Jacob said.

    “That’s all I’m asking.”

    But it wasn’t all she was asking, he knew. And when she fell asleep beside him, the same place his wife had slept when she was alive, he went to Tommy’s room, sat on his son’s bed, and wondered if Helen wasn’t trying to strip him of the little he had left of Nora—killing her again with softness and warmth and the possibility of something new and alive.


    Perry Whitebridge called Jacob on the evening following the arraignment, asked him if they could meet somewhere. Tommy, for the first time since Jacob had picked him up from the county lockup, was quiet and morose. He sat in front of the television after dinner, not bothering to flip the channel, and ate from a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups left over from Halloween. A pile of brown paper wrappers spilled off the edge of the end table and littered the carpet, crinkled and twisted like dead leaves.

    “Well, I guess you’re scared now,” Jacob had told him, driving home from court. A mean thing to say, he knew, and ironic, considering: Jacob himself had found the arraignment much less intimidating than he’d worried it would be, schooled as he was in episodes of Law & Order. Tommy hadn’t had to say anything; he just sat there while the judge outlined the charges, and it was his lawyer who called out “not guilty.” The Winterson girl—the victim, they’d called her—wasn’t even there. That was what had worried Jacob more than anything: seeing this girl his son was supposed to have hurt.

    “Of course I’m scared,” Tommy had said. Then he started to cry, high-pitched hitches that shocked Jacob so badly he almost ran the car into the shoulder. He went ahead and slowed to a stop, unlatching his seat belt. Tommy shrank back when he put his arms out, no doubt remembering their last car ride, but Jacob grabbed him roughly anyway, pulling him to his chest, and Tommy shook in his arms while he thrummed an awkward, consoling rhythm on Tommy’s back. And just as he was reminded of how much he loved this boy, this piece of himself—more fiercely than he’d ever loved anyone, even Nora—he understood that Tommy really had done something to that girl, and that the hurting was maybe only just starting.

    “Well, I’m here,” Jacob had said, patting, feeling both comforted and repulsed by the warmth of his son’s back. “There’s that.”

    Jacob and Perry arranged to meet at a truck stop in Bowling Green—a thirty-minute ride from home, but Perry had insisted on getting out of town, and Jacob hadn’t wanted to question him. He was hunched over a mug of coffee when Jacob arrived, blowing the liquid between quick sips. He stood when Jacob approached the booth, and they shook hands, strangely formal in a way that Jacob didn’t understand.

    “Have a seat,” Perry said, and he did.

    “I haven’t been here before,” Jacob told him. “Cozy.”

    “Yeah, it’s all right.” Perry tapped a beat on the scratched laminate of the tabletop—“Shave and a Haircut,” it sounded like. “I come here now and then.”

    They looked at each other. An eighteen-wheeler roared to life outside, and they both jumped a little.

    “Well, Christ,” Perry said. “I’ll get right to it.”


    “It’s one of those good-news-and-bad-news things. I’ll give you the bad first, okay?”

    “Okay,” Jacob said.

    Perry leaned in. “There’s a couple of witnesses, say they saw Tommy picking the girl up in his truck down by Sonic the night she says it happened.”

    Jacob nodded, rubbing his face.

    “I talked to this one kid, off the cuff, so to speak. He told me this girl, this Winterson girl, she worked at Sonic Thursdays and Fridays, and Tommy had an eye on her. Always parked in her section.”

    Jacob waited.

    “Well, you see where I’m going with this.”

    “Yeah,” Jacob said. “Yeah, I do.”

    “I’m sorry, man,” Perry whispered.

    Jacob put his hand over his eyes, noticing how the bright fluorescents in the diner made the edges of his fingers glow orange, like a jack-o’-lantern.

    “There’s good news, remember.”

    “Let’s hear it,” Jacob said hoarsely.

    “There’s a process for all this, you know,” Perry said. “The grand jury’s the next step. That date got set, right?”

    “January,” Jacob told him.

    “All right, then. Well, the commonwealth attorney has to prove to the jury that there’s sufficient evidence to try the case. If he can’t—or if he doesn’t—they’ll throw it out.”

    Jacob’s heart started to beat so hard that he was sure Perry could hear it. “What’s this mean?”

    “Where do you think the attorney gets his evidence from, Jake?”

    Jacob exhaled in a rush, his face hot, peppery-feeling. “You wouldn’t be willing to. You wouldn’t—”

    Perry raised his hand. “Hold up just a second. Let’s be straight. I’m not going to lie about anything. I have the mayor to answer to.”

    Jacob made a fist under the table, trying to push all of his anger into it. Just as soon as he’d allowed himself to feel hopeful he understood that this was Perry’s game, and the little divide between them—the things he hadn’t known, hadn’t wanted to know—was deep, and much darker than he’d figured. But how little had he known his own son? And what kind of man could he himself be, letting things turn out this way? Nora, even in that last, difficult year of her dying, had been able to reach Tommy, to make him do right. Jacob couldn’t do it without her.

    “What I’m willing to do is talk to the commonwealth attorney,” Perry said. “He takes my word on things. If I say back off, he probably will. Can’t guarantee it, but I’d bet on it.”

    “Why would you do that?” Jacob asked.

    “Hell, Jake, we go back.”


    Perry shrugged and pulled away from the table. “These girls. I don’t know. They’re different nowadays. Time was, a girl knew what she should and shouldn’t do. You know what I’m saying?”

    Jacob, not sure if he did, nodded.

    “She got in the truck with him, that’s what I mean. And I heard things about her from that kid, the one who told me about Tommy. He said that she hangs out at the Sonic after her shift ends, smoking and drinking and all that shit. Fifteen, I mean, Christ.”

    “Fifteen,” Jacob echoed.

    “A good girl just don’t do that. Good girls know better. Maybe it was mutual and maybe it wasn’t. Either way it’s tough to prove. How old is Tommy again?”

    “He’s twenty,” Jacob said.

    “Well, you see, that’s already something. Another year and they could’ve got him on third-degree rape, and that’s as much as a five-year sentence.”

    Too many ages, numbers. Jacob couldn’t think.

    “This one wouldn’t fly, Jakey. Not likely, anyway. It’s her word against his, and like I said, her word ain’t so respectable from what I’ve heard.”

    “I don’t know,” Jacob said. Jakey. His father had called him Jakey.

    “What don’t you know?” Perry pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket and lit one. “All I’ll do is push the commonwealth attorney a little. Make sure he does what he’d probably do anyway. Tommy’s learned his lesson, I bet. There’s no sense in his life getting ruined over this.”

    Jacob wondered what Nora would say. But if Nora were still alive, this wouldn’t ever have happened.

    “You’re a good man, Perry,” Jacob said, feeling like a liar.

    “Hell, buddy. So are you.”


    Katie. That was her name, Tommy had told him. Katie Winterson.

    Jacob watched, truck parked in the back of the lot, away from the drive-up order intercoms. There looked to be three waitresses on duty: one older, late thirties probably, and two teenagers. He felt, for no reason in particular, that she must be the smaller of the two—one of those too-tiny types in clunky shoes, breasts like dumplings, dishwater blonde hair in pigtails that bobbed against her thin shoulders. She carried a tray full of white fast food bags out to a minivan, balanced it on her hip, counted out change from a metal dispenser belted around her waist. She didn’t look beaten or traumatized. She didn’t look happy, either.

    A half hour before closing, he pulled into a slot and ordered something called an Arctic Slush. The older waitress brought it out. It looked like Windex, tasted like watery toothpaste. He got out of his truck and pitched it into a wastebasket.

    At eleven the lights around the intercoms dimmed, and the Sonic sign shut off. A few teenagers hung out in the parking lot playing music that blared from souped-up speaker systems, their cars seeming to hover over the neon light effects custom-installed along their bottoms, a sight that struck Jacob as somehow mystical and horrifying. A sedan pulled up to the back door at eleven-thirty, and the girl—Katie, he was even more sure of it—exited the restaurant moments later, climbing into the passenger front seat. There was a moment, when her door was open and the dome light flared, when Jacob could see everything: the middle-aged woman behind the wheel, a dog—some kind of Lab mix—putting his nose into the front seat, Katie turning to put her face into his, rubbing the scruff behind his ears. Then her door slammed, and the car was dark again. He watched it pull out and drive away.


    A week after Tommy’s arrest, Jacob drove out past Auburn, following the instructions Helen had written for him in her old-fashioned script: Two miles after crossroads, turn left at the red barn. Drive out five more miles. House down gravel drive on R, just past Presb. church. Red brick w/ brown shingles. She would meet him there, she’d said. She’d had a busy week, houses to show in Auburn and Lewisburg, plus a trip to Bowling Green that afternoon to sign papers. He hadn’t seen her in a few days, and he already missed her.

    Her car was parked in the drive when he arrived, and Jacob pulled in beside it. The house was larger than he’d imagined it would be, nicer. It was a full two stories, cottage-style, with a wood door and shutters and a roof that looked like it needed some repair, but not much. Shade trees lined the drive, and the backyard sloped down into a thicket of evergreens and brush, the kind of dense growth Tommy would have called a jungle when he was younger. Most of the leaves had fallen from the trees, and they made a thick carpet around the house. As he walked the grounds, looking for Helen, he was reminded of a trip he and Nora had taken to the Biltmore estate in North Carolina. This would have been about ten years ago. Nora had remarked that the forest looked like a fairy tale forest: tall trees making a canopy high overhead; neat, unlittered ground surrounding them. No weeds, no snarls of kudzu or scrawny saplings. That forest had been carefully pruned and manicured by a whole team of day laborers, but this little grove was merely quiet, untouched.

    “So what do you think?” Helen called from behind him.

    “Not too bad,” he said, crossing the yard to hug her. Her gray hair was tucked behind her ear on one side, and he kissed the silky bit of skin just south of her earlobe, breathing in where she’d dotted her perfume—White Shoulders, he knew now, an old bottle she’d made last. There was something about the smell that made his heart ache irrationally, as though Helen were gone like Nora instead of pressed against him, nuzzling her smooth face into his neck. He clung to her more tightly.

    “Do you want to see the inside?” she asked.

    He didn’t know. Did he want to see this kitchen he and Helen would eat dinner together in, or the living room where they’d watch television, the sound getting louder as the two of them got deafer? Did he want to see the bathroom where he’d hang the antique shaving mirror Nora had bought him for their fifth anniversary? Or the toolshed he’d putter around in after he sold the gun shop and retired? Did he want to see the master suite, this bedroom he and Helen would share for the next twenty years, maybe more, first making love, then simply sleeping, and maybe, finally, Helen tucking pillows behind his head so he could eat the soup she was spoon-feeding him, catching dribbles with a napkin before they fell off his chin and landed on his flannel pajama top? Could he imagine a life where Nora was just another memory?

    “Maybe we should just sit here for a minute,” he said, motioning to the front stoop.

    “It’s kind of cold,” Helen said.

    “I’ll keep you warm.”

    They sat side by side, Helen leaning into his chest, and Jacob took the left side of his big quilted coat and pulled it around her, shielding her face from the wind.

    “Sixty-five thousand,” she said, her voice muffled. “I mean, I just couldn’t believe it at first. The twenty acres alone are worth that.”

    “Kind of late for starting over, don’t you think?”

    “I have some money left from selling the house with Harry,” Helen said. She wrapped her arm around his waist and her hand brushed the bare skin between his shirttail and work pants, chilling him. “I could mortgage the rest easy, get it paid down in five years or less. Or you could put up the other half.”

    “I have a house,” Jacob said. Her touch was so cold it seared. “But there’re so many memories attached to that place.”

    “Maybe I want my memories,” he said.

    “I never said you had to give up your memories.”

    They watched a gust of wind pick up a pile of leaves, swirling them.

    “What about Tommy?”

    “You don’t have to give him up, either.” She exhaled, her breath frosting a current of air. “But he’s a big boy, Jacob. He has to move on with his life at some point. And so do you.”

    “You’re saying he wouldn’t have a place here, then,” Jacob said.

    “I’m saying he shouldn’t.”

    When Jacob was young—high school age—this woman down the street from him had stroked. She was young, too, he knew now—early forties, probably, an age that had seemed impossible to him at the time. Still, watching what the stroke had done to her—twisting her face (“handsome,” his mother had said; “she was a handsome woman”), turning her into something witchlike—was terrifying. This woman’s husband had stayed with her, but a few years after the stroke he was seeing other women, and before too much time had passed one of these women was living in the house, too. Quite the scandal. Jacob’s mother was up in arms, but his father, in his quiet way, had only said, “There’s lots of ways to love, son,” and that had made more sense to him back then than his mother’s yelling and flapping of dish towels. There were lots of ways to love, he thought now—ways that made you a better person than you were, maybe, and ways that got you through lonely times, and also ways that could destroy you if you let them. So many ways to love a woman, but only one way to love a child, and that was the single thing he felt sure about anymore.

    “I guess I won’t be coming in,” he told Helen, holding his coat tight around them both, wanting to keep her under his arm for as long as possible. She didn’t say anything. He could feel her warm breath through his shirt, and he held her tighter.


    A little over two months after Jacob’s son raped Katie Winterson, Jacob and Tommy ate dinner together at Ponderosa. He had a coupon he’d clipped from the newspaper—sirloin tip dinner with salad bar for $6.99, limit four persons. The grand jury had met two weeks earlier and dismissed the charges, just as Perry had told Jacob they would. He hadn’t seen much of Tommy since, between work and the time Tommy was spending with that woman in Springfield.

    “I’m starving,” Tommy said, grabbing a plastic plate from a stack at the end of the buffet. While Jacob put a salad together, Tommy made two trips back and forth to the table, salad on the first plate, chicken wings, mashed potatoes, a slice of pizza, and two dinner rolls on the other. There’d been a time when Jacob could eat like that, never gain a pound. Like so many things in his life, that time had passed.

    They ate silently, Jacob working through his salad, wincing at the metallic taste of the processed bacon bits, then his sirloin tips, dipped in a puddle of A1. Tommy’s chicken wings, stripped free of meat and breading and even cartilage, piled up on a saucer in the middle of the table. A waitress refilled their glasses of sweet tea a few times, and Tommy finished with a saucerful of soft serve ice cream, the kind with the chocolate and vanilla swirled together. He still put sprinkles on the top. Tommy had always liked his sprinkles.

    “So I’m thinking,” Tommy said, eating his ice cream, “that I might try school again next year, after I have some money saved up. Like, maybe vocational school. But the tattooing thing could also still work out. Did I show you . . .”

    He unbuttoned his left shirt cuff and rolled up the sleeve, revealing his forearm. There was a Celtic cross tattooed on the inside in black, not badly drawn, a little wobbly where it crossed a tendon. The skin around the design was blotchy and hot-looking, and tiny red dots made a trail across the length of his arm, all the way up to the bend in his elbow.

    “Mikey let me use his gun, and I hear the guy at the Purple Dragon in Bowling Green is looking for an apprentice. That’s good money. I mean, that would be awesome. . . .”

    Jacob stopped hearing him. He watched Tommy’s mouth—the lips so much like his mother’s—forming words, empty things Nora would never have said, or believed. He wondered about Helen, whom he’d last seen on Christmas Eve by accident. This was at Wal-Mart. She was standing over by a display in the holiday aisle—a big table with a Christmas village built on it, fiberfill snow and ceramic houses lit from within by tiny bulbs, miniature cedar trees, a train. The train circled the village, making an electronic whistle every time it rounded a corner. Helen watched the train. Jacob watched Helen. She never saw him.


    © by Holly Goddard Jones. From the collection Girl Trouble.

    Buy it here!

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    One Comment

    1. antique white cabinets on July 24, 2011 :

      for information, I’ll always keep updated here!

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