I got off work at seven in the morning on a Sunday. The roads out of Pasadena were quiet. I bought groceries at the Lake Avenue Ralph’s, then went home. The early summer sky was a bright, washed‐out blue. I flipped through the car radio until the Eagles came through, and I hummed along to “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” It was 1996, and I was thirty-four.
At home, I found my boyfriend, Dave, asleep on the corduroy couch in the living room. He was on his side, facing out, gradually sliding deeper into the folds. Fabric clung to his pajama pants and ratty Planet Hollywood shirt.
"It's eating you," I said. His skin was waxy, between Burnt Sienna and Pink Sherbet in a Crayola box. When we first met and his tan was built up through steady construction work, it was closer to the former.
"Breakfast?" I asked.
He grunted and rolled over, burying his head in the space between where the back and bottom cushions touched.
"Fine," I said. "Sleep it off. We’ll try again at lunch."
Dave’s son, Jamison, sat at the kitchen table, streaking crayons across a page of the Toy Story coloring book I gave him for his sixth birthday the week before.
"Morning, big guy," I said. I ran my hand through his obsidian hair. "Where's Soap?"
Soap was what we called Dave's uncle Louis, who lived with us because we actually lived with him in his Altadena home. The name came from his army basic training, from when a drill sergeant made him brush his teeth with borax powder.
"Sleeping," Jamison said.
The morning was hot and bled through the slatted glass window above the table. I cooked eggs and toast and watched Jamison eat while I sipped coffee. He ignored me and flipped through the coloring book between bites.
“Which one are you going to do next?” I asked.
“Woody,” he said. “Maybe Buzz.”
“Want my help?”
He shook his head.
“Just let me know,” I said.
Jamison’s birth mother died when he was an infant and they lived in the Central Valley; her Corolla hit a tree outside of Stockton. He and Dave moved down shortly after. I met them when they ate breakfast at my Denny’s in early 1992.
I finished my coffee. “I’m going to take a shower,” I said.
He started on a new picture, sweeping dandelion yellow in ever‐widening circles to fill Woody’s plaid shirt.
"Do you want anything else?" I asked.
"No, Emma," he said.
The word was a tiny detonation in my stomach.
"You can call me mom if you want," I said.
"Okay," he said.
I tried to picture Jamison as my son, but his growing chin, his dark hair spilling onto his hickory face, how he gripped crayons like his fingers were vices, each was Dave cut with traces of the woman I’d never met. I left him at the table, stripped off my work clothes, and stood in the shower.
"Emma," I said. “Emma.”
I imagined the water carrying my name as it left my lips, forcing it down my chin until it gathered enough weight to fall and be washed down the drain.
"The problem’s mechanical," Soap said.
I was making bologna sandwiches for lunch. Soap stood across the kitchen from me, face shining with Pinaud Lilac and red with candy apple veins, hair ash grey and slicked with Royal Crown. The mixture smelled medicinal and surrounded him. Dave and Jamison were in the living room. The theme to Gilligan's Island blared through the walls.
“Many men say they can fix things," Soap said. "Some are decent enough, I suppose. But until you get the right person in there, things wear down all over until, pow!" He slapped the wall with an open palm.
"Dave's not one of your machines," I said.
Soap was half deaf from working on airplane engines during and after World War II. With my back to him, he didn't realize I'd said anything.
"It's not right,” he said. “A man should be able to support his family, his child. The only way Dave's going to stand is on his own two feet."
I put Soap's sandwich on a plate and set the plate on the counter next to him.
"How about a beer?" he asked.
I got a Hamm's from the fridge and handed it to him. He cracked it open and drank half the can in one go.
"Exactly," he said.
I took out two more cans, set one next to Soap’s plate, and opened the other for myself.
“That’s all you get for now,” I said, facing him and speaking with exaggeration so he could read my lips. "How are you feeling?"
"Better now,” he said.
“Did you take your vitamins?”
“And your Coumadin?”
“I think so.”
“Quit babying me.” He finished his beer. “I’m fine.”
“You need to take your pills each morning,” I said. “And if you’re out or running low, I need to know so I can go get more.”
Soap took his plate and spare beer and retreated to the kitchen table. The conversation was over. I shook my head and drank. The Hamm’s tasted watery awful but ran down my throat and spread out in my stomach with a needed lightness.
Dave walked into the kitchen. “What’s the holdup?” he asked.
I gestured at Soap. “Take a guess,” I said.
Dave shrugged and filled a plastic cup partway with Popov from a 1.5‐liter bottle, topping it with Sprite.
“Man’s proud,” Dave said. He gulped his drink and gave a dull smile. “Doesn’t like you talking down to him.”
“Can you watch Jamison later?” I asked. “I need to run errands.”
“I’ll be here, won’t I?”
”Dave wrenched his back carrying a bag of concrete the year before. We didn’t have insurance. I paid first for doctors and then physical therapy, and it helped a little, but Dave quit because he got mad and punched the therapist.
“I appreciate it,” I said.
He leaned in and kissed my neck.
“Not now,” I said.
He put an arm around my back and roughly drew me to him. His breath stank of vodka and was acid on my skin and lips.
"I bet you appreciate it," he said.
I put my hand on his chest. His eyes shined.
"No," I said.
He pulled back and glowered, but found his smile after another sip from his cup.
"I'll watch the boy," he said.
Dave took two sandwiches and his drink into the other room. I stood in the kitchen with my beer, trying to focus on the tingling growing in my gut and behind my eyes.
I lay on the bed that Dave and I shared in the house’s backroom. I’d gone to the pharmacy for Soap’s medicine, to the bank to deposit my paycheck, and back to the market for more groceries. Now, I needed sleep because my shift started in nine hours, but my eyes were stuck open and my mind drifted.
I saw February 1992. Dave and I walked the botanical gardens at the Huntington Library on a Monday morning after work. The lawns and planted rows were deserted thanks to a storm and chill. We strolled under clipped branches and hid beneath trees waiting to flower as rain fell, stealing sips from a bottle of red wine in my bag. When it was half gone, we finally kissed.
The door rattled with a series of light knocks. I sat up.
“Emma?” Jamison asked.
I shut my eyes and debated burying my head under a pillow and never coming out.
“Are you awake?” More knocks. “Please.”
The house was too small. Soap slept in the bedroom across from ours. Jamison had a pull‐out sofa bed in Soap’s old office, between a splintering roll top desk and four corroded metal filing cabinets. We shared one bathroom.
Our room was once used by Soap’s now‐adult son. We’d lived in it for more than two years, but childhood artifacts still closed in around me. Baseball trophies lined shelves and glinted in the afternoon light that sneaked through closed blinds. Drawings of increasing sophistication, indistinct crayon whorls to fading watercolor landscapes, were taped to the walls at various angles. The centerpiece was a big and bright blue Los Angeles Dodgers poster over the bed—a shot of the 1981 team with the words “World Champions!” at the top in white block letters.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“I feel weird,” Jamison said.
I got up and opened the door. Jamison was leaning on the doorframe and looking up at me with red, wet eyes.
“What’s wrong, honey?” I asked.
Jamison touched his stomach and forehead. I picked him up and sat him on the edge of the bed.
“Use your words,” I said.
“My tummy and head hurt, and everything’s fuzzy,” he said.
I felt his forehead. “You don’t have a fever,” I said. “When did it start?”
“I don’t know.”
“I ate my sandwich and a lot of chips. Then you went out. We were watching Gilligan. Daddy fell asleep on the sofa. I was thirsty, but there was no more soda. So I drank Daddy’s.”
“From the big cup.”
Jamison’s pupils shuddered and were unfocused. His breath had a sharp stink to match Dave’s.
“How much did you have?” I asked.
“Some. It tasted funny.”
I put my hands on his shoulders and pressed down. “Did you drink it all?” I asked.
He looked past me and squirmed. “Let go!” he said.
“Was the cup full?”
“And you finished it.”
I let go of Jamison and ran to the kitchen. The Popov bottle was on the counter and empty. The room smelled like vodka. “Dave!” I shouted.
He was asleep on the sofa. His cup was across the room, next to Jamison’s coloring book and scattered crayons.
“Get up,” I said.
Dave didn’t wake, so I punched his arm and jostled the cushions.
“Get the fuck up!” I shouted.
He groaned and sat up. “Is it that time?” he asked. His voice wobbled as he tried to focus on each word.
“Jamison drank from your cup and now he’s sick,” I said.
“How much vodka was in there?”
“I didn’t measure it.”
Typically, the more Dave drank, the longer he let the plastic bottle go level as clear liquid sloshed out from behind the red label.
“You were supposed to be watching him,” I said.
“I was,” he said.
“The hell you were.”
Dave squinted up at me, head bobbing as a counterweight to his body’s sway.
“I shut my eyes for a minute,” he said. “It was an accident.”
“Accident? Our boy went and soaked himself.”
“He’s not your son.”
The words were flat and emotionless off Dave’s lips. I stepped back as if avoiding a punch.
“I’m going to take him to the doctor,” I said.
“I’m coming too,” Dave said.
I wanted to scream or collapse or get drunk and forget.
“No, you’re not,” I said.
Dave tried to pull himself off the couch, but ended up rolling onto the floor. He shrugged and propped himself up on his hands and knees, staring up at me with sad eyes.
Jamison vomited twice on my stomach and lap as I drove us to the doctor’s office. The mess slid down my legs and pooled at my feet. I drove on, ignoring the warmth, the acidic smell, and the squishing under my shoes. When we arrived, I wiped myself off in the parking lot and we went into the lobby, where I felt the waiting parents watching me, judging the tan stain on my shirt and the food chunks that clung to my jeans. I held Jamison in my arms and tried to avoid their gazes.
The doctor was a woman a lot like how I imagined I could have been. Her eyes were tired, but she had a radiance of purpose, like she knew that what she did mattered. When she asked what happened, I told her Jamison got into his father’s liquor cabinet. I said that we normally kept it locked, but that we forgot overnight. I said that we didn’t think he had much but wanted to bring him in to be safe. The doctor nodded understanding and said that the vomiting was a good sign, and that Jamison needed to drink fluids and rest.
We left the office, bought medicine at a CVS, and went home. Soap was drinking Hamm’s and watching baseball on the kitchen television. Dave wasn’t in his usual spots: on the couch, asleep on our bed, or smoking in the yard.
“Seen Dave?” I asked.
“Maybe he went out,” Soap said.
I checked the garage. Soap’s Dodge was missing.
“He took your truck,” I said.
“Probably went for some dinner,” Soap said. “Hardly anything here worth eating.”
“Dave was so drunk he could barely stand.”
Soap shrugged. “I ain’t the boy’s keeper.”
I called Dave’s usual five bars, but he wasn’t at any of them, and no one had seen him. With no other way of reaching him and unsure of what else to do, I changed clothes, opened a beer, and sat on the sofa. Jamison lay next to me and put his head on my lap. I turned on the game, the Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies.
“Am I going to be okay?” Jamison asked.
“Tomorrow you’ll feel just like new,” I said.
I sipped my beer and stroked his hair.
“Sure,” I said.
Dave was trying to endure when we met. He was young, not yet thirty, with handsome muscles and a boyish smile. We went to the movies and kissed in the back like teenagers. I bought McDonald’s and beer, and we hiked into the Angeles National Forest and soaked up sun on rocky bluffs. We talked of plans, of buying our own place and raising Jamison right. I held him and wanted desperately to burrow in deep and fill the hole left by the death of his wife.
I drank my beer and looked around the room. Everything important was bought with my money: the television, Jamison’s toys, Dave’s clothes scattered across the carpet, Dave’s vodka that once filled the empty plastic cup. The longer we were together and the further Dave drifted, the more I wondered if he’d ever come back, if I’d ever fit him right.
The call came an hour later. The woman on the other end worked for Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. She said there had been a car accident and that Dave was badly hurt. My name and our phone number were on a folded index card in his wallet.
I left Jamison on the couch, asked Soap to check on him every half hour, and called my work to say I wouldn’t make it in. Then I drove to the hospital. The roads were clogged with people heading home from regular jobs at regular hours. The hum of my car’s engine and the Eagles on the radio eased me along.
The hospital and my work were only a few miles apart, both off the 210 as it turns through the heart of Pasadena. But the buildings and roads and people approaching the hospital were unfamiliar because my world ran from the Denny’s on Colorado to the edge of the Angeles National Forest, between the Rose Bowl and the Santa Anita track. The house was the center; Dave and Jamison were the center.
The nurse who met me in the emergency room lobby said Dave was in surgery. She was another young woman overflowing with purpose, whose voice was quick and unperturbed, who looked immaculate in spotless pale blue scrubs despite the whirlwind of life and death around her.
“Are you Mr. Shuman’s wife?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Girlfriend.”
“Do you know how to get in touch with his next of kin?”
The nurse paused, like she was weighing the nature of my relationship with Dave.
“His condition is extremely serious,” she said. “The doctors are doing everything they can. Someone will be around as soon as possible, when we can tell you more.”
I stared at the nurse and said nothing. As much as I wanted to be afraid or worried, I wasn’t.
“Do you want someone to talk to?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
The question surprised me, like it was being asked of someone else. Her voice sounded distant.
“Yes,” I said.
The nurse left. I was alone. My head was empty except for a slow and repeating slideshow. I saw Dave smiling and touching my arm. I went to get coffee from the cafeteria and there was Dave, drunk and down on the carpet like an animal. The sun set through a bleeding orange sky, and Dave was strong and upright, with his hands around my waist. I returned to the waiting area, where Dave was fading away until there was nothing left of him.
At ten minutes to midnight, an older man in scrubs found me.
“I’m Doctor Jaspar,” he said in a raspy voice. “You’re here for Dave Shuman, right?”
“He’s out of surgery,” the doctor said. “And alive. Somehow.”
“The crash seems to have been particularly violent. Mr. Shuman’s injuries are severe, both internally and externally. He lost a lot of blood and has been unconscious since his arrival.”
If Dave died, would Jamison think of me as his mom?
“But he’s alive,” I said.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “And we’re doing everything we can to keep him that way.”
I noticed two police officers standing on the other side of the room, watching us.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“He’ll stay here for a while longer. Then, as he improves, he’ll be transferred upstairs to intensive care. You’ll be able to see him soon, but he might not be awake for a while.” The doctor gestured to the officers. “Also, these men would like a word.”
The doctor hurried away and the officers approached.
“I know this is difficult, miss,” the first said.
“Mr. Shuman caused a multi‐car crash up Colorado heading into Eagle Rock,” the second said. “Put half a dozen others in this hospital. A couple are touch and go.”
The officers looked identical to my sleepless mind, pale and formless flesh in deep blue uniforms.
“Mr. Shuman had a dangerous amount of alcohol in his system,” the first said.
“That’s not surprising,” I said.
Could I adopt Jamison? Or would he end up alone with Soap, or in a foster home?
“He was a drinker?” the second asked.
If I said yes, would it end here? My face flushed.
“Everyone has bad days,” I said.
I got home at two in the morning. The house was lit up, but the air inside was still. Jamison was asleep on the couch, peaceful and looking like nothing had changed. I covered him with a blanket and watched his shoulders rise and fall with each breath.
“Drank a bunch of water and passed right out,” Soap said.
He was standing behind me. We went into the kitchen and sat together at the table.
“How’s my nephew?” he asked.
“Alive,” I said. “For now.”
“That’s a bet I would’ve lost.”
Soap opened a Hamm’s for himself and poured me a short glass of Jim Beam.
“Dave caused a crash that put some people in the hospital because he was drunk,” I said. “The police asked me so many questions about his drinking and what had gone wrong. If he lives, he’ll probably go to jail.”
“He wreck my truck?” Soap asked.
I shrugged and drank.
“Boy’s a mess,” he said.
Soap frowned, which turned the deep lines across his face into chasms.
“Why are you still here?” he asked.
I hesitated. Dave’s lips tasted sour and delicious in my memory, and his voice was clear.
“I miss him,” I said. “And there’s Jamison.”
“Dave’s slipping away more each day,” Soap said. “Don’t know if he’ll return.”
I wanted to go back to when Dave and I held each other in the rain, when water ran over our faces and lips.
“I know,” I said.
“You should take Jamison and find a better life,” Soap said. He pointed over my shoulder, to the front door. “Just leave. Sure beats hanging around with us.”
I swatted at the idea as it hovered in my mind.
“You know I can’t do that,” I finally said.
“Do you really think I’m the best choice to raise the boy?” Soap asked.
“He doesn’t even call me mom,” I said.
“Does that matter so much?”
I drank the rest of my bourbon in one gulp and stood.
“I need to get some sleep,” I said. “Who knows if or when the hospital will call.”
Soap looked nonplussed. He leaned back in his chair.
“Good night,” he said.
I went to the sofa and took Jamison into my arms. He was small, but growing all the time. Of course I couldn’t run off with him; it wasn’t legal. But maybe Soap was right. Maybe the boy would do better if we made our own way forward, together.
I carried Jamison to his room, and I undid his pull‐out bed and laid him upon it. He stirred but kept his eyes shut. I kissed his forehead and tucked him in.
“Sweet dreams, my boy,” I said.
I saw Dave in Jamison; he lingered in the simplicity of the boy’s need for me, which brought me back to bare feet in the yard’s grass on warm evenings, to cigarettes and sparklers under the moonlight, to Dave’s old kind of smile and touch.
“Goodnight, Momma,” Jamison said.
My knees buckled. I caught myself by sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Momma,” I said.
I couldn’t move, but I wasn’t tired anymore.
Ben DuPree lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Oregon. His writing has been featured in the Reed College Creative Review and Cirque: A Literary Journal for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest