Story no. 26.
Little Jimmy lay next to her for still, long, slow minutes, breathing. Emma could feel the weave of the sheets rubbing across her shoulders, the backs of her hips, the backs of her thighs. The afternoon was dry and crisp and brittle like the winter-kill grass beside the stoop. An air conditioner still clung to the windowsill of his bedroom. He mostly didn’t heat the trailer in the winter months; when it was his weekend to have Lucia he dragged an old electric radiator into her bedroom.
She stepped down the short hall wearing just her shirt and leaned against the frame of the bathroom door. It was funny, she thought, watching Little Jimmy splash water on his face and scrub his arms. People always talked about looking like a horse like that was a bad thing. But he looked like a horse at a horse’s most graceful: all long lean lines and hard shining planes of muscle. Freckles covered his shoulders, disappearing up under his hairline and fading out on his lower back. Like the red roan she had learned to ride on, Emma thought, and grinned. He pulled on his briefs and jeans and a white t-shirt. He didn’t comb his hair back down from the tussled-up cockscomb it had mashed into, and she was glad.
He made to leave the bathroom, but she didn’t move from the door. Little Jimmy scooted by her, pausing to look down through narrowed eyes.
“Emma Walker, you’d put a man in the grave,” he said. “You want some eggs?”
“What, no Campbell’s soup?” she asked, following him into the ratty little kitchen.
“Special occasion,” he said, sliding the box from the fridge.
He shook his head and started cracking eggs into a bowl. Between the fourth and the fifth egg he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket, smacked it in the heel of his hand, and nipped one between his teeth.
Emma raised her eyebrows. “You ought to ask me if it’s all right for you to smoke.”
“It’s my house,” he said. “‘Oddly enough,” he turned away to put a pan on the stovetop, “the last time Lucia was here, she told me to put away my cancer sticks. Now, as everyone in Ramona’s family smokes like a chimney, I can’t imagine where she might of heard that. Can you?”
“Not at all.”
“That is a fine business, when a man can’t smoke on his own back porch without a five-year-old telling him off for it,” he said. The eggs hit the pan with a hiss.
“Can’t imagine how aggravating that must be for you,” Emma said, filling her nostrils with cooking eggs and secondhand tobacco. “What with your only child not wanting her father to die a slow, agonizing death by squamous cell carcinoma.”
“Omelet or scrambled?” he asked, tapping the ash off the end into a red Dixie cup haphazardly parked on the back of the stove.
“Have to say that your reputation for having slept with most of the women in Ward County makes a lot more sense now,” she said, watching as he took a glass from the cupboard, tucked his cigarette between his teeth as he filled it, then held it out away from himself as lifted the glass to his lips. His hands were broad and tan, each finger square and powerful.
Little Jimmy set down his glass and sucked on the cigarette. He turned, leaning against the counter, crossing his arms and his legs. Deliberate. “Have to say you staying with that fuckwit up in New York for three years makes even less sense now.”
“Thought we were being honest here.”
“I’ve had enough of that honesty from Isaac and Aunt Jenny, thank you.”
“Obviously not enough, or you would’a done something about it sooner.”
“I didn’t want — you realize that if Isaac hadn’t come up that night, I would probably still be with David, right? You do realize that, don’t you?”
“Well, I s’pose it’s a good thing Isaac came up then, isn’t it.” Little Jimmy stretched out an arm along the counter to poke at the omelet with a half-melted plastic spatula.
“Isaac had no call to do what he did.”
“Isaac had every call in the world to do what he did.”
“You know, in the world that is not Ward County, dragging a guest in your grandmother’s home out into the yard and beating him senseless would be considered assault and prosecuted as such.”
“You know in the world that is Ward County, your piece-a-shit ex is lucky Isaac didn’t put a bullet in him.”
That statement was so matter-of-fact, and yet Emma still felt tears rising behind her eyes. “Don’t. You cannot put the blame on only one half of dysfunctional relationship.”
Little Jimmy’s nostrils flared, and at the same moment an acrid hint of burning eggs slipped up her nose. He snatched at the pan, misjudged, snarled at the sudden blister, before grabbing the handle and flipping what parts of the omelet would detach onto a paper plate. He sighed. “You still want to eat this?”
Emma folded her arms tightly across her chest. “Yeah, I’m hungry.”
He got beers out of the fridge and split the eggs between two plates.
“You got ketchup?”
“Nah, I’m out.”
The first bite of eggs was blessedly rich and warm. “You put anything in these? They taste real good.”
” ‘s the eggs. I get ’em from Bonnie. Keeps chickens in her yard.”
“Nah, Bonnie Unger. She lives down the road a bit. I keep her car up, she gives me the eggs.”
Emma finished her portion and licked her fork. She leaned forward on her elbows to look out the window. She had expected sitting at this table to feel different after what she and Jimmy had just done, but there was no new strangeness coating the scrub stretching into the far distance. He was still himself. She might even be the same herself.
“I s’pose what I don’t understand,” he said abruptly, dropping the end of his cigarette into a coffee can, “is how it’s always the same with you and these men you take up with. David, that college boyfriend, that idjit Kyle from up to Odessa in high school — ”
“Kyle actually works in Chicago now for a very successful consulting agency,” Emma said.
“Like I give a fuck,” Jimmy said around a harsh laugh, and lit another cigarette. “And — what was that — the Hanson kid? And Mason Conroy.”
Emma wished she had put on her bra and pants so she could leave now. “I didn’t date Mason Conroy.”
“I know you didn’t. Went to prom with him, though.”
“Yes, I did.” She looked at her hands.
The thing sat between them, a big, ugly, sad thing.
“Do you know — ” That didn’t sound right, so she started again. “Do you remember –”
“It wasn’t that long ago. I remember coming up on you in the car that night.”
“Did you see what happened.” That was not a question, she realized after it came out of her mouth, because the thing that had happened was bad enough to touch him even if he never knew what it was.
“Lord,” he said, then again, “Lord.” When her eyes pulled her toward his face, he had rolled his head up toward the sky, to all appearances praying.
The second cigarette had hardly started to burn, but he put it in the can and took her hands. “What I saw was that you didn’t want to be where you were,” he said, staring at his thumbs as they traced a pattern over the her knuckles. “And that you weren’t sure how to get out of there.” He turned her hands over before raising the right one to his lips. He didn’t kiss it, but just pressed it against his lips as if trying to remember the feel of her. He left their clasped hands in front of his lower face, so she couldn’t see if he was smiling or if some other expression was making his eyes crinkle. “I imagine that’s what about Isaac saw when he beat the shit out of David in your mama’s front yard, too.”