Dopamine Agonistes

Constance Squires Click to

constanceConstance Squires is the author of the novel Along the Watchtower, which received the Oklamahoma Book Award for fiction in 2012.  A finalist for the 2014 Disquiet Literary Prize, she has also received several Pushcart Prize nominations.  Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, This Land, Bayou, New Delta Review and other magazines.  Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Village Voice, Largehearrt Bay and on the NPR program “Snap Judgment.”

Lorne Taggart stood at his front door waiting for the mail. He watched the surface of his coffee vibrate with his hands, concentric circles rippling out from the center of the cup, then another vibration, this one in his front pocket from his phone. It was Jenny: Don’t forget to check the mail. TELL ME if there’s news! She had said the same thing when she left the house thirty minutes earlier. The text was to give him a visual reminder. Jenny was adapting far better than he was to his difficulty with planning and remembering. For her it was a matter of extra prods and hints—treating him like one of the kids, basically. For him, the present was acute and dim at the same time, while the future—even the very near future—was like a tall tale he didn’t believe. The phone shook out of his hands and dropped face down on the concrete porch. It took him two tries to curl his hands around the phone and retrieve it. When he did, he saw that the front was badly cracked.

He lifted a yellow leaf that had drifted into his cup and dropped it, soaking, into the bushes that lined the front porch. Until now, he had always loved late September. Now he struggled to hold the details, the evenings and mornings that were cool enough for jackets, the high temperatures still reaching into the low 80’s during the day. The way a great, purposeful drift of Monarch butterflies wafted through central Oklahoma during their yearly migration to Mexico, blowing orange evanescence like spice across the lawn flowers of Oklahoma City. Fat green caterpillars appeared and ate the green leaves of waning summer annuals. The sunflowers reached their peaks, five, six, seven feet-high faces peeking above fence lines and nodding from the sides of roads, bent like old men with heads too heavy for their necks. Suicide grasshoppers flew against car windshields. Garden spiders showed up, weaving their zigzag webs and hanging ziplines across light poles and porch corners. Smaller spiders sent themselves floating, wrapped in streaming web, across the air to land on the places they would make their homes. Pumpkins and gourds and stalks of Indian corn appeared on roadsides from vendors who opened the backs of their pickups and sat in lawn chairs waiting for customers with the radios blasting sports talk radio from inside the cab.

Oklahoma University football season–that had always been what made fall really great for Lorne. Of course, Oklahoma State University football season started, too, and the state turned crimson and orange with the rivalry, the north half up from the Cimarron River skewing orange for OSU, more OU crimson to the south. Car flags, ball caps, t-shirts, and jackets announced allegiances everywhere you looked, and even the rock stations played the college fight songs. Between a Foo Fighters double play, there would be the martial cadences of “Boomer Sooner,” raising in him the old disappointment of his own high school football career replaced quickly by the long habit of allegiance and its steady rewards.

The kids had been back at school for a month. His eldest, Cade, would attend his 4th grade class in flip flops and shorts until a hard freeze came. His little ones, Emily and Ryan, on the other hand, rushed the change of season with new clothes still too warm for the in-between days of early fall, wearing their new hoodies and corduroys the browns and reds of changing leaves. The department stores were already jacked up with Halloween décor and costumes, rushing October to get to November and December and a Christmas season that still felt remote for all but the most forward-thinking planners. Lorne had been that sort of forward thinker once—he had prided himself on noticing, throughout the year, what his kids were into, and picking up the perfect gift on spring and summer sale, not waiting until mid-December to try and come up with a decent show from Santa, not leaving it all to his wife, like his kids were somehow not his business. But this year he couldn’t imagine Christmas. He couldn’t even imagine Halloween. Would he make it that long? Not that the disease would get him that fast. No, it would take years and malingering years.

He pushed open the screen door and saw the mail truck pull to a stop a block down. Jenny was at work, the kids at school, everyone hustling with determined cheer through the morning routines he used to be up and out of the house too early to see. Rushing out the door, Emily yelled, “Have a good day, Daddy!” Cade wrote a note in his blocky scrawl, and left it on the dining room table propped up by a salt shaker: “DAD—Don’t Forget to Blow Up the Halloween Cat Today. Remember my Slumber Party!” A peck on the cheek from his wife, everyone adjusting without comment to his new status as stay-at-home Dad , now that work was out of the question.

He didn’t think he would ever adjust. Mornings in the oil fields, watching the shadows shorten under the pump jacks, coffee steaming the windshield of his truck, rounding up oil workers who had spent all night at the casinos, that was what mornings were supposed to be. Now he sat on his front steps, staring at plastic bats hanging from the neighbor’s trees. It was too early for Halloween decorations.

The mail carrier approached smiling. He had bleach-blonde hair and muscular calves. His mirrored aviator shades showed Lorne his own broad frame hunched on the steps.


“Nice day.” Lorne stood up and took the bundle of white envelopes. “No bills in here, I hope.”

“Gave them to your neighbor.”

“That’s the way,” Lorne grinned, pushing like a body caught in quicksand against the stiffness of his facial muscles. “Have a good one.”

He watched the mail carrier cross his lawn and head up his neighbor’s front steps before he looked at the mail. There were some bills. A National Geographic Kids with a stern blue parrot on the cover. Sales flyers for the usual crap. And an envelope from the Social Security Administration. To Lorne Taggart. He walked inside, dropped the other mail on the dining room table on top of Cade’s note. Poured himself another cup of coffee. Then he returned to the porch and tore open the envelope. As he read, a high-pitched sound startled him, a sound which he realized had come from his own throat. His hands trembled and he felt his face muscles tighten to a mask. It was official—he was fully disabled. The disability check would be very decent, not much less than he had made when he was working. Good news.

They had waited months for this official notification, but he and Jenny had been told that total disability was a foregone conclusion with a diagnosis like his, a young man in the prime of his working life with three small kids at home. So money wouldn’t be a problem. Was he supposed to feel relieved? He smacked a mosquito against his bare leg, gratified by the swiftness of his reflex, and said aloud, “When total disability is good news,” and then, startled by his own angry voice, concluded the thought in his head, you know you’re screwed.

In the back of the fridge there were some old beers. He drank one. He drank another. His phone buzzed and he knew without trying to peer through the phone’s cracked face that the call was from Jenny, but he ignored it. He thought about the guys at the well site, wondered what old Eugene was doing without Lorne there to roust the young ones, get them to work. There was a new guy, Lorne had heard, someone to take his place. Lorne decided he’d go by, just say hi to everybody, tell that new guy some of his tricks of the trade. Shoot the shit. On his way to the garage, he stopped in the utility room, breathing in a mealy odor from a big bag of cat food and the underlying sweetness of fabric softener. He jammed his feet into his boots, bracing himself against the washer and struggling with the laces for a minute before he gave up and left them untied.

In the garage, he climbed into his truck. The radio blasted a car commercial that he switched off. Then he sat in the garage and let the motor run. In the gray light, he made out the bicycles hanging from the ceiling, the weed eater in the corner, and the boxes of holiday stuff piled by the door. The big, plastic black cat that Cade wanted him to blow up was in one of those boxes. It really was too early to decorate, but Cade had been begging.  Exhaust began to cloud the air. He could just keep sitting here.

He wouldn’t feel it. He had known a girl in college, a girl madly in love with his best friend, Chris, who, when Chris dumped her, killed herself this way. She had tried to change her mind, but hadn’t made it. Her parents found her in their garage slumped in front of the door that led to the kitchen, her hands outstretched toward the door handle. What was her name? Kimberly. A journalism major. Lorne had been planning to ask her out when she got over Chris. That stupid girl. He pressed the garage door opener clipped to the driver’s side sun visor and the sun poured in. He backed out the car and turned on the radio.
It was barely 10 AM, but the parking lot of the casino was crowded. Lorne had strolled through this particular one looking for AWOL oil workers, whom he usually found glassy-eyed and desperate at the slots or playing Texas Hold ‘Em with someone who had the oil worker’s paycheck over on his side of the table. The carpet stretched into the expansive interior, swirling blue and yellow patterns lead his gaze like an eternal mirror at a funhouse. Once inside, it felt like the middle of the night. Although the place was huge, with fifty-foot ceilings suspending car-sized lighted banners, the air was stale with cigarettes and human sweat. Lorne couldn’t imagine the air conditioning bill. He found the bar easily. Elevated and surrounded by a wall of backlit glass, it looked like a liquid color wheel, morphing lights and humming like a spaceship ready for takeoff. Lorne bought a Jack and Coke. He smelled like car exhaust and the realization made him ashamed.
A short woman with wide hips and huge breasts inside a tight T-shirt strolled up and stretched her small frame on tiptoes until she was sitting on the stool next to Lorne’s. “You believe that Baylor game?” she said.

Lorne realized he was wearing his OU hat, which invited these kinds of conversations. The old Lorne would have swung around and started laying out his theory about Oklahoma’s defensive weaknesses this year, but today he just nodded and sipped his drink.

“I’ll give them one thing—it takes balls, coming up here year after year acting like they’ve got a snowball’s chance.” She tilted her head to look at him. “You just lose a bundle?”

“Worse,” Lorne said.

“Me, too,” she said. She had chunky blonde streaks in her brown hair and a diamond stud in her broad nose. “My son, he’s got to have a uniform for T-ball, and I was hoping to make the money to get it for him, but damn if I didn’t just lose what I had.” Lorne didn’t say anything so she continued. “What do you mean by worse, anyway?”

“I didn’t lose my money.”

“Oh.” She appeared to think about it. “So you have money?”

She wasn’t going to ask what was worse. Lorne shrugged. That was good.

“Then maybe we could help each other out. Start the day off with a bang.” She gave him a hopeful smile, lascivious and embarrassed at once, and Lorne rose in his seat.

“Excuse me,” he said.

The sun was bright when he left the building, and he shaded his eyes until he found the row of cars where he was pretty sure he’d parked his truck. He noticed a rusted out Honda with a bumper sticker that said, “You’re just jealous because the voices talk to me.” Inside, a small face watched him from under the steeply rounded bill of a crimson OU cap much like his own. He stopped.

The boy within was six or seven, the same size as his youngest, Ryan. When Lorne approached the car, the boy grew alarmed and his face dropped below the level of the window. Lorne looked inside. Who the hell leaves a kid in a car? The back seat was full of fast food trash and clothes. He could see the boy huddled in the corner, his hands clenched around a baseball.

Lorne knocked on the window. “Hey, are you okay?”

The boy jammed his cap low on his forehead.

“I bet you need a T-ball uniform.”

The boy nodded wearily, like everybody knew about him and his T-ball needs.

“Okay,” Lorne said, a sense of purpose rising in him. “Okay.”

The exhaust smell still clung to Lorne. That girl, Kimberly, she had been his first funeral. The place was packed. She was twenty-two or twenty-three, a pretty people-pleaser, a good student. The shock of it was an all-systems catastrophe for Lorne. Oatmeal in his veins, pain in his heart. Some people at the funeral had treated Chris like he was to blame and Lorne had stood with his friend like a bodyguard. Chris maybe never got over her death. They were thirty-six and Chris was still unmarried, living three blocks from his parents’ old house. For some reason when Lorne thought of killing himself, he couldn’t fathom his kids or Jenny’s grief, which was like trying to see the curvature of the earth, but thinking about what it would do to Chris gave him a picture and a scenario he could assimilate. His friend would be ruined. Lorne didn’t want to hurt anybody but he wasn’t sure he would be able to help it.

The boy’s mother was at a poker table, standing behind the players, shifting from foot to foot, watching the game. Lorne drew up alongside her and gave her a nudge.

She pulled her gaze from the game and glanced up. Her eyes leapt when she saw him, but she kept her face still. That was hard for most people, poker faces were. Lorne laughed at the idea that he could start playing poker now—his face was stiff all the time anyway. He could rake it in, leave his family with a pile. Parkinson’s for fun and profit.

“Let’s play,” he said. “I’ll stake you. Are you any good?”

“Good enough,” she said.

“How much is that T-ball uniform, anyway?”

“Eighty bucks.”

Lorne whistled. “That’s steep.”

“Cause of the shoes. He needs a glove, too, but that would bring it up to, I don’t know, a hundred and something.”

Lorne considered just giving her the money, sharing a little of his social security windfall. She would take it, he was pretty sure. He thought about taking her up on the sex, but he was afraid. He had already done a couple of things he never thought he’d do, had never wanted to do—the new neighbor down the street and a mother he’d met at Emily’s gymnastics. The meds he was taking were doing something to his impulse control, that was a fact. Dopamine agonists or something like that—they made it impossible to think of consequences. His mind didn’t pull up all the considerations that it used to pull up. Drop that symptom into the disease’s time issues, the new way of living in an eternal present, and you had a problem. He was doing well right then, remembering those early mistakes, remembering the medicine’s side effects, remembering consequences. There were still these moments of clarity. It helped that he wasn’t the slightest bit attracted to her. “So, are you in?” he asked.

“I’m Debbie.” She offered him her hand to shake, and then found an empty spot at the end of the horseshoe-shaped table. He took the seat next to her. Three other players were there, a round Asian woman in a purple velvet track suit, an older dude in a yoked western shirt with pearl buttons who reminded Lorne of Burt Reynolds, and a jug-eared guy still young enough to have acne. They all had the fixed, hard blinking look of people who had been there all night, and the palpable esprit de corps of veterans of a long struggle. The table was low stakes, the kind of table where Lorne used to find his AWOL employees, so he knew how scrappy, how all-or-nothing, these games could be. The all was small, but the nothing was total.

The Asian woman had the biggest pile of chips, guarding it behind wrists wreathed in gold bangles. It looked to Lorne like she should cash out, but she had some higher mark in mind. Lorne bought in for himself and Debbie, twenty bucks each. His hand was crap and he began shaking so badly he could hardly hold it.

Noticing his hands, Debbie leaned across the table. “Hair of the dog’s what you need.” She held up her own steady hands gripping the cards. “Should have seen me this morning—I was worse than you. Why don’t you get a whiskey?”

Lorne smiled at her. So he could pass for an alcoholic.

He folded almost immediately, leaving Debbie at the table looking alert. He wandered the casino, cruising by the poker game every few minutes to check on Debbie’s fortunes. She was cleaning up.

His phone rang. Chris’s ringtone was “Through the Never,” from Metallica’s black album. Whenever Lorne heard it he was sitting on his parents’ couch, listening to that song and playing video games with Chris. Sometimes he felt so sorry for himself he didn’t know what to do, wanted to punish someone, make someone worry. He had lived a charmed life until the diagnosis. Not playing college ball had been his heaviest blow. The troubles of others — his sister’s bipolar disorder, his dad’s PTSD—had made him feel embarrassed for them. He had never for a moment believed they couldn’t snap out of their troubles if they wanted to, and now that he was caught, daily being pulled under in a thousand different ways he couldn’t control, he felt ashamed of his own lack of empathy. And sorry for himself. He couldn’t help it. The phone kept ringing and Lorne picked it up.

“Guess who’s got two tickets to OU/Texas?” Chris said.

“I’m at a casino.”

“Oh no, Lorne, come on. Those places are–”

“I know.” He stopped and leaned against a slot machine. “But I just found a little boy locked in a car.”


“Nothing. I’ll leave after a while.”

“You got to get out of yourself, Lorne. Live for something else.”

“Like what?”

“You’ve always said you lived for Sooner Football.”

“Turns out I was exaggerating, friend.”

“Remember old Mr. Foster?”

“Sure.” Mr. Foster was the owner of a pharmacy and a couple of video stores in Lorne and Chris’s hometown of Yukon. In high school, when the two were stars of the high school football team, they been startled to find Mr. Foster and other middle-aged men in town accosting them at gas stations, diners, movie theaters, even dropping by their houses, to give a lot of overly-intense, unwanted advice about how to win games. And if they lost, Lorne and Chris had to virtually go into hiding to avoid the hard scrutiny of these men, who would start out friendly and fatherly before turning mean. “You’re not going to tell me to live for Mr. Foster, are you?”

Chris laughed. “I think maybe the shock, you know, going from being high school heroes to being nobody college students, going from football being our whole lives to knowing we were never going to play another big game, it wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t had those grown men treating us like we held the keys to the kingdom, you know?”

Lorne massaged the bridge of his nose. Since the Parkinson’s diagnosis, Chris had revealed a cheesy, motivational-speaker side to himself that Lorne could hardly bear. “You having a lot of deep thoughts this morning?”

“I wish we’d been good enough for college ball, man, but we weren’t.”

“I’m busy, Chris.”
“Just thinking this disease you got—you’re in another big transition, like with leaving football.”

A few feet away, Lorne could see Debbie push all her chips into the middle, a broad grin on her face, her nose ring sparkling.

“Having Parkinson’s isn’t like football.”

“I’m just saying, I think you’ll get okay with it. You’ll be a different person, kind of.”

“Man, I’m already a different person.” Blood rushed to his face and he banged the back of his head against the slot machine.

He hung up on Chris and banged his head against the slot machine again. Again he dropped the phone. This time it fell on the soft carpet where he scooped it up and walked toward the poker table. The Burt Reynolds look-alike had just won the pot. Debbie watched indignantly as he claimed his chips, twisting the diamond stud in her nose around and around with the tips of her chipped nails. Wild pity rose in Lorne’s throat as he watched her push away from the table and begin roaming over the endless carpet like a sailor in open water. Lorne waved at her.

She smiled and walked over. “So much for T-ball,” she said. “Are you crying?”

“Let’s go back to Plan A,” he said.

She gave him a long look, smoothing down her eyebrows. “Okay.”


They did it in the women’s restroom, in the roomier stall for handicapped people, a detail that made Lorne think about the letter he’d gotten that morning from social security. “You are entitled to Total disability.” Surely that meant he could use the handicapped stall.
Debbie was dense, harder to hold up than Lorne would have guessed, and he had to push her hard against the wall to keep her in position, pressing her into the heavy plastic multi-roll toilet paper dispenser for ballast. Panting in his face, she had rancid breath, and he found himself turning his head away and thinking about his kids, about how, one by one, they all had arrived at a moment when they developed morning breath. Three, maybe four years old. Before that, they smelled sweet all the time, all of them, that new baby smell, Jenny called it. Jenny herself was pretty great all the time, even when she was sick. She was light—light tempered, light weight, light in all her appetites and her odors. When things got heavy, Jenny stayed light. When Lorne was diagnosed, she said, “At least we know what’s wrong now.” Lorne had been exhibiting symptoms for a few years by then, and Jenny took the diagnosis like a champ, buying Michael J. Fox’s autobiography and quoting it to Lorne all the time. It was very uplifting, that fucking book. Jenny also kept trying to get him to go to group therapy. “There are other people, you know. You could learn from them. How to cope.” But the idea of a room full of hulked and twitching bodies venting the trapped souls inside, no, he wasn’t ready to see in their varying conditions the progression of the disease, wasn’t ready to look at his own future.

He pulled up his pants and leaned against the cold turquoise tiles, panting. Next to him, Debbie buttoned her jeans and pulled the bottom of her T-shirt over her hips. She fluffed her hair.

They had agreed on eighty dollars, but Lorne looked at the clock—it was noon. He thought of that little boy stuck in Debbie’s car all this time and bumped it up to $130, to help with the glove.

“Well, I love you, too,” she said, counting the sum.

“He probably has to pee.”


“Your little boy out there. You got your money–you can go home now. Let him out of that car.”

She rocked back on her hips and her posture flared. The fingers hooked around her front belt loops were white with strain, like they might rend her jeans in half. “What are you—you saw him?”

“He’s in first grade, right? Why isn’t he at school?”

She blew out a harsh breath. “To hell with you, you palsied mother fucker! You knew he was out there? You could have just given me the cash.”

She flew from the stall and Lorne heard the rush of the slot machines’ fluctuating electronic tones as she flung open the bathroom door. Someone else walked in when Debbie walked out—he heard the click of heels across the floor and had to wait until the bathroom was empty again before he could leave.

When he got back into the casino, the sordid business in the bathroom fell away. A .38 Special song was playing, which reminded him of his southern-rock loving ex-co-worker, Eugene, who was a loud mouth and had driven Lorne crazy, but whom he now sometimes missed. Lorne thought again about visiting the well site and ordered a burger, fries and a coke to go that he could eat on the drive out of town. He could rarely sense hunger anymore and had dropped a good thirty pounds in the last few months, losing the typical ex-football player’s flab and becoming svelte. He wasn’t hungry now, but he could hear his stomach roaring over the noise of the casino and he felt weak. Debbie was at the poker table again. He saw her smiling, eyes shining, flush with her new money.

A waitress arrived with his order in a plastic bag. He paid her and made for the front doors. Some kind of lunch crowd was filling up the place, the valets were busy at the entrance and he had to weave around a steady throng of working people on his way to the row of cars were Debbie’s old Honda stood. When he found the car, the little boy was asleep.

He knocked on the window.

The boy startled awake.

Lorne held up his bag of food. “Are you hungry?”

The concentrated desire on the boy’s face as he looked at the bag of food reminded Lorne of Debbie at the poker table.

“Roll down the window and I’ll give you this.”

The boy did as he was told, reaching a small hand out for the bag.

“Your mom’s going to be in there awhile,” Lorne said. “Do you need a bathroom?”

“Real bad,” the boy said, jamming his arm into the sack up to his wrist.

“I can take you to a bathroom. You can eat in my car. I’ll bring you right back.”

The boy had a mouthful of fries. He squinted at Lorne.

“My name’s Lorne. What’s your name?”

The boy chewed and swallowed. “Thomas,” he said.

“Hey, Thomas. You can’t go into that casino, but there’s a gas station across the interstate—you need to pee, I can take you there.”

“Can I get a Twix?”

“A Twix. Sure.”


In jeans that dragged the ground with a good half-foot of extra length, Thomas zipped into and out of the bathroom and then spent several long minutes in the candy aisle, doing what Lorne’s kids always did, picking up one thing, then another, filling his hands, then putting everything down and starting over. With his own kids, Lorne rarely caved in. Jenny didn’t like them eating junk food, so Lorne confined them to the one-candy rule. But Thomas wasn’t his kid, and Thomas looked like he never got what he wanted, so Lorne scooped up everything the boy had picked up and he bought it. Thomas stood behind him in line, jangling with enthusiasm in his baggy jeans.

Back in Lorne’s truck, Thomas set aside the burger he had half eaten and tore into a bag of M & M’s. Lorne swung the truck onto the entrance ramp to the highway. They were directly across the interstate from the casino, but he’d have to drive north a mile or so to exit and turn around. He watched as Thomas tipped the M&M’s bag into his mouth. His phone rang, Jenny’s ring. She had probably gone home for lunch and had seen the social security envelope on the kitchen counter. She could be calling to rhapsodize about what, to her, was good news, or to yell at him for not letting her know, but either way, he didn’t want to talk.

Thomas stopped eating and said, “Your phone’s ringing.”

“That’s okay,” Lorne said.

Thomas studied him. “Why don’t you want to get it?”

“I’m the quiet type,” he said. He had missed the exit and would have to drive to the next one to turn around.

The kid peered out the window. “Aren’t we going back to the casino?”

“I missed my turn.”

Thomas turned and took Lorne in, big-eyed and suddenly tense. “My mom. She’ll be looking for me.”

“I got news for you, Thomas. Your mom’s not leaving that casino anytime soon.”

Thomas continued to stare at Lorne. “I want to go back,” he said under his breath.

“We will. But I was thinking, have you ever seen a pump jack? You know, those things that go up and down and pull oil out of the ground?” Lorne had a vision of Thomas’s home, some filthy one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother, dirty carpet, bad food, probably a big-ass Rottweiler that crapped all over the place. The kid probably didn’t see much nature, didn’t have a lot of normal kid experiences. “I used to work in the oil fields. I was thinking, you and me could drive out and see my old buddies at one of the well sites. Just a little ways outside of town—fifteen minutes or so. The boys would like you. These pump jacks are real neat, real big machines.”

Thomas had slid himself against the door and had his chin jammed against his chest. He was blinking back tears and muttering.

“Hey, buddy, what’s that?”

But Thomas closed his eyes and clenched his fists, still muttering. Lorne leaned over and made out the words. “Stranger danger, stranger danger, stranger danger.”

Lorne could smell fear sweat pouring off the boy. He didn’t know kids could smell that way and wondered if it was some olfactory hallucination caused by his meds. Lorne studied the boy and understood that Thomas was having a different kind of moment than he was. Thomas’s moment was no good for Thomas. Lorne wasn’t sure how Thomas had gotten scared, but he felt sick himself, dizzy with the disconnect between his world and everybody else’s. Then he imagined one of his kids getting in a truck with a strange guy—why had he not thought of it before? He had been thinking bathroom, thinking candy, thinking special field trip to the well site.

The next exit came fast, and he took it, driving over the interstate to the southbound exit. “Turning around,” he said in a slow, measured voice. “Heading back to the casino, Thomas. Be there in just a minute.”

The boy stayed clenched, but raised his head to look around and verify what Lorne had said. In another couple of minutes, Lorne pulled his truck into the far end of the casino parking lot, several football fields away from the covered parking at the front of the building. Police cars idled before the long bank of front doors, sirens wailing. He was too far away to see what was going on, but he thought he knew. Thomas was sitting up straight now, clutching his bag of candy.

“Hey Thomas? I hate to drop you off this far away from your mom’s car, but—“

“That’s okay.”

Lorne popped the locks and stopped the truck, still deep in the empty part of the parking lot, two football fields to go. Thomas jumped out, giving him a wired, puzzled look as he slid out and slammed the door behind him, pressing the candy bag against his chest. Reaching across the cab, Lorne grabbed the door and pulled it shut. Thomas’s wispy form sped down the length of the parking lot, baggy jeans dragging the concrete, his OU hat jammed low on his head. He began weaving in and out among the cars, looking for his mother’s, until the dark shapes of police officers converged on him. Lorne turned the truck around and headed home. They were talking about the big game with Texas that weekend, but Lorne couldn’t concentrate. As he drove north through the metro, he shook so badly it was hard to steer, and for once he didn’t think it was the disease that caused the shaking.

When he got home, he saw the social security letter on the kitchen counter and Cade’s note reminding him to blow up the Halloween cat still propped up by the salt shaker awaiting his attention. In an hour, his kids would be home from school, Jenny a little while later. Cade’s slumber party would start, he thought, at 5:00. Lorne yanked the creaking plastic mass from a big box in the garage, which still reeked of exhaust, and situated it on the front lawn so that when it was blown up it would look like it was guarding the sidewalk leading to the front door. That was where they always put it. He pumped it up as full as it could go without bursting. It stood four feet high and twice as long, shiny and stiff, a big black cat with white fangs and glowing yellow eyes.

But then a low hiss started and the cat began to rock gently, to soften; its taut, round shape loosening like Jenny’s abdomen after giving birth. He walked around the creature with his palms out, an inch or two away from the shiny surface. His hands shook and he fought the need to let them curl. Finally he felt it, the soft rush of air against his palm, and he stuck his finger over the hole. From his jacket pocket he pulled a role of black tape and tore a piece off with his teeth and smoothed it over the hole. The hissing stopped. He returned to the pump and refilled the cat with air until its yellow eyes bulged, its white fangs hung like icicles and its ears stood stiff to their points, like they could hear everything, the past and the future, the things that weren’t true and the things that were.


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