One night when I was too grown up to be left alone, my mother entrusted me to a man named Bruce while she worked the late shift.
“I have a feeling,” said my mother. “I want you to tell me if my feeling is founded.”
“I refuse to help you in this endeavor,” I said. “Anyway, you won’t listen.”
“No,” she said, “but at least you can say you told me so.”
Bruce was at the door of his house when we arrived. I liked the look of him, but not the look of his house. His house looked artificially small, gnomish. The snow on the eaves looked like fondant.
My mother went to Bruce. When she came back to me, she carried the smell of his body with her.
“Sharp’s the eye,” said my mother. She adjusted my blouse, as if making an offering of me. Then she left.
Bruce’s house was dark on the inside and smelled like motor oil that had been tracked in on the soles of shoes. The TV was on but the sound was off. Bruce watched me find my place.
“I don’t like to be watched,” I said.
“I think your mother wants to see how we’ll get along,” he said.
I sat down and opened the book I was reading. Bruce sat down, too.
“What are you reading?” he said.
“That’s an obnoxious question to ask someone who is actively reading,” I said.
I passed him the book. He thumbed its pages, which is how my father handled books. I resented Bruce’s use of this gesture. It seemed he’d stolen it.
“This book saddens me, somehow,” said Bruce.
“It should,” I said. “It’s a sad book.”
“I think I’d have loved this book if my life had gone a different way,” he said.
“That’s bad thinking,” I said. “It’s possible for you to love this book now, in this life.”
In another room, a phone rang. It was an old phone with a bell inside it, which gave its ring an emergent timbre. By Bruce’s face I could see that in his life all news was bad news.
“Maybe don’t answer it,” I said.
“I have to,” he said, “though I’d really rather not.”
He went off, taking my book with him. I didn’t begrudge him. That book had shielded me from hardships. Perhaps it would shield Bruce, about whom I was already fond despite myself.
When he came back, he was looking at me queerly.
“I’m afraid we have to leave right this instant,” he said, offering me my book.
“You hang onto it,” I said.
Bruce drove an enormous powder-blue El Dorado that ran terribly. The ashtray was full of cigarette butts, but they looked old. The floor was strewn with empty fuse cartons. Rolling among my feet was a spent shotgun cartridge.
“I want to tell you what’s happening,” he said, “and what’s about to happen. But I don’t quite know what it is.”
“I understand,” I said.
We came to a bad-looking house on a pulverized street. I felt I could see light coming through the flimsy boards that were the house’s walls, but this seems impossible now.
“Maybe it’s better if you stay here,” said Bruce.
“By no means,” I said. My decisiveness seemed to comfort him.
The man who lived in this house looked ragged but kind. He was happy to see Bruce and extended this happiness to me. The interior was cozy in the way hovels in storybooks are cozy. I smelled baking bread. On a footstool sat a young boy, who stared at me in disbelief.
After some talk that I ignored, the man went away. Bruce came to my side.
“He and I are going to have a few words in private,” he said.
“That seems best,” I said.
This left me alone with the boy. The boy had a gawking face that I felt would cause him trouble later in life. He stared, but his stare was undemanding.
“You’re ugly,” he said after a while, “but I like it.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Bruce and the man came back from where they’d gone. The man was trying to look away from everything. Bruce was displeased and trying to hide it. He bade me come, and I came.
At the door, the man said, “I’m awfully sorry, Bruce.”
“Don’t be,” said Bruce. “Don’t let my problems become your problems.”
“But your problems are my problems,” said the man.
From behind the man’s leg, the young boy gawked out at me. I waved goodbye to him, and then with Bruce I left.
Next we came to a worse-looking house on a street where several buildings had been razed. The man who lived in this house was not happy to see Bruce, nor to see me, and in lieu of a boy there was a dog with wet, wiry hair and a runny eye. When Bruce left me alone to deal with the man, I tried to pet the dog, but the dog shied from me and sniveled.
From another room, I heard the man say, “I don’t care about your situation. Your situation has nothing to do with my situation.”
Bruce came back, followed by the man, who was disgusted.
“Sorry, Bruce,” said the man, but he was not sorry.
We left in silence. The man was watching us from his door when we went.
Last we came to a very nice house with all its windows dark and curtained. The roof had decorative battlements that seemed quaint. Obsessively sculpted shrubs lined the walk, as did little lanterns with paper blinds. These were dark, too.
Bruce looked at this house for a long time. Then, in answer to some inner proposition, he said, “No,” and drove us away.
Last he took us to an all-night diner that was on a freeway overpass. The lights inside were extremely bright and seemed to ring in my ears. He got us cups of coffee and sat across from me, turning his cup. Through the window, I saw the night traffic—sparse but urgent—passing beneath us.
“I’m so ashamed,” said Bruce. “This problem of mine makes me long for the problems of my past.”
“Someday, you’ll long for this problem, too,” I said.
“I need help,” said Bruce.
“Well, whatever you do,” I said, “don’t get it from my mother.”
“I wouldn’t,” said Bruce carefully. “But why do you say that?”
“My mother’s help has a high price,” I said.
“She doesn’t seem like that kind of woman,” said Bruce.
“No, she doesn’t,” I said. “I don’t think you should get involved with my mother, Bruce. I don’t think you’re cut out for it. I say this for your sake, not hers.” I drank my coffee. Its taste immediately connected with something in my character, and I knew I had made a friend for life.
My mother arrived then. She was still in her uniform, which was all black and very dignified. I could see she knew something of Bruce’s situation. She took money from her apron and tried to give it to him.
“Take it,” she said.
“He won’t take it,” I said.
“What choice does he have?” said my mother.
“He has this choice,” I said.
My mother turned to Bruce. “You’re like a drowning man who won’t grab the rope,” she said. “If you don’t let me give you this help now, I’ll only have to give you more help later.”
“You won’t,” said Bruce.
But she did. In time, Bruce’s situation became very bad, and he came to live with us. As I had foretold, my mother rescinded all kindness from him and treated him in every way—save one—like a freeloader.
“You should be kind to him,” I said to my mother.
“I am being kind to him,” said my mother. “But what if his troubles find him here? We have enough troubles. We don’t need his.”
“Perhaps we are the trouble,” I said.
“We are not the trouble,” she said, but I could see it had crossed her mind, too.
Cast out of my mother’s graces, Bruce drifted toward mine, often while I was reading and defenseless.
“What do you want to be?” said Bruce once, trying to start something.
“That’s an appalling question,” I said, lowering my book. “A better question—perhaps the only question—is, ‘What do I want to have?’”
“All right,” said Bruce, “what do you want to have, then?”
“Whatever it is,” I said, “I want to have it for myself.”
Bruce nodded. “My life has never felt like my own,” he said. “I always feel I’m waiting for someone to give it back to me.”
“You and my father both,” I said. “He’s still waiting for my mother to give his life back to him. But she won’t. Why would she?”
“Am I like him?” said Bruce.
“A little,” I said. “He’s a kind man, too. Kind and unlucky. My mother saw him coming.”
“I’m not kind,” said Bruce. “If I was kind, I wouldn’t be here, with you and your mother. I’d be on the other side of the world. You’d never know I existed.”
“You’re a good man, Bruce,” I said, “but you’re saddled with negative self-talk.”
Not long after this, a man came to the house in a fancy black sedan with a gold ornament. I was in the yard, reading.
“Is your father here?” said the man.
“He decidedly is not,” I said.
I heard the porch door open on its squeaky spring. Then I heard Bruce say, “Leave her be. I’m not worth it.”
“Oh, you’re worth it, all right,” said the man.
“He’s saddled with negative self-talk,” I said.
“Get inside, Grace,” said Bruce.
“You’re not my father,” I said, but I went anyway.
The rest I watched through the picture window. Bruce talked with the man. The man listened to Bruce closely. Then the man opened a back door on the sedan and Bruce got in and the sedan went away.
At the dining-room table, my mother was weeping angrily, impotently.
“He’s gone,” I said. I was so happy my voice clogged in my throat.
“The idiot,” she said. “I’d have saved him.”
That night, I dreamed of Bruce going far, far away. In this dream, the man was his driver, and he would drive Bruce wherever he wanted to go.
“Just drive,” said Bruce.
“Yes, sir,” said the man.
Bruce shut his eyes and let the wind sweep across his face. The sedan cruised through fields of tall wheat, now and then disappearing from view.
In the end, Bruce came back and married my mother and had a daughter with her, but not in that order. I wasn’t there to see this for myself. I had escaped. I returned only to see my sister born.
“Look who’s come crawling back,” said my mother, lying in her hospital bed.
“I’m not crawling,” I said.
“Hi, Grace,” said Bruce, as if he owed me something and was late paying. He held my sister in the hook of his arm.
“Don’t let Grace near her,” said my mother. “She’s liable to do anything.”
“Just for a moment,” I said. “I came all this way.”
Bruce handed my sister to me, but reluctantly.
By that time in my life, I knew that I was trouble, and that if I loved my sister, I wouldn’t have come. But I loved her more than that, somehow. I loved her too much to do right by her.
My sister wriggled warmly in my hands. Her arms waved helplessly before her. Her blind eyes looked out, trying to see into the future, or, lacking that, the present.
“Right now, in this moment,” I said to her, “I am here.”
“Grace,” said Bruce. His hands were out, imploring me.
“One moment more,” I said.
A moment arrived. Then it was gone. It was with no small difficulty that I gave her up.
David Hansen’s stories have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, Chicago Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He has a master’s from Washington University in St. Louis, and he teaches fiction at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.