Sam stood on the concrete porch of his ex-wife’s trailer in Inwood Indiana, doing his best to fill the doorway.
“Your daddy’s here,” Helen screamed into the dim light. She kept the screen door shut between them, resting her shoulder against the frame.
Sam shifted. “How are ya, Helen? This place ain’t bad.” He rose up on his tiptoes, trying to see any sign that would tell him how his old family was doing.
“It’s what I can afford, Samuel,” she said, curling her dark hair on her index finger. “Got a job waiting tables on the lunch shift. I’m studying for the GED after supper—Elaine’s getting too smart for me.”
“Takes after her daddy.” He coughed a smart-aleck cough.
“I’ll send her back down to Daytona anytime you like.”
Sam grinned. Helen burned a hole right through him.
He could see that the bags under her eyes were heavier, but she hadn’t lost her figure, that smooth tanned skin, Indian blood somewhere along the line. Elaine was her spitting image. He rubbed the stubble on his long, slender face and smiled a wide, boyish smile, what he’d chipped in to Elaine’s good looks. He never could figure out how Rebecca, his youngest, had turned out so pudgy, her teeth as crooked as her daddy.
“Can’t you call them girls again?” Sam bounced on the balls of his feet. “I still got two hours left down 31 til I even hit the Keystone Parkway.”
“That’s your business,” Helen said. “Not mine, not no more.”
He knew she meant to keep more than half a day’s car ride between them, but Helen couldn’t get too far without that check every month, as much as she’d like to. Sam had climbed telephone poles and checked lines from Indiana to California, stringing his wife and daughters from trailer park to trailer park for the better part of the ‘60s, until Helen finally got up the nerve to buy her and the girls bus tickets back to Inwood. Truth be told, Sam hadn’t minded his family being gone—more time for his eyes to wander, fewer sleepless nights listening to Rebecca cry from the colic. Sam hadn’t wanted a second child, much less a first, but what’s a man without a family? Sam’s daddy had always told him a man could never have too many women, but he needed one to keep around, one who could make biscuits from scratch and iron pleats and stiff collars.
Helen could do both. But Helen wasn’t like Sam’s mother, a woman who could handle the lies and the loneliness. Helen told Sam he was the kind of man who changed with the seasons, and she was worn to the bone trying to figure out if he was hot or cold.
Sam slapped his hands together on his ex-wife’s front porch. “Come on, honey,” he yelled. “I gotta hit the road.” He grinned. “You got you a man yet?”
Helen slammed the screened door. “Don’t even think about coming in.” She disappeared into the darkness of the house. “Girls, get your hind ends out here,” Sam heard her holler.
Once she was out of sight, he stepped off the porch to make sure his Oldsmobile—the F85 with a V8, the one he’d bought with the last of his savings to get back from Fresno—was still sitting at the end of the street. He’d told Helen he wasn’t sure if he had the right place, seeing as how she’d up and moved without as much as a letter or collect call. He’d told Earl to stay slouched as far down in the seat as he could go. They had a load of Moonshine in the trunk, two dollars a Mason jar. On the Fourth of July, for the Firecracker 400, Sam was sure the boys at the speedway would be itching for it, an excuse to get liquored up and rowdy and forget their ho-hum lives waiting for them in the morning.
He hopped up on the porch in time to see Rebecca through the screen, his bleary-eyed but cheerful six-year-old. “Laney, Laney,” she yelled. “Hurry up. Daddy might leave us.” Rebecca had on blue-jean shorts and a yellow top that matched her yellow sandals. She’d dropped her matching suitcase in mid-sprint. Elaine came into view wearing a white tank top that hit the button of her blue-jean shorts, which were frayed at the ends where she’d cut them shorter. She came into view just enough to grab her sister’s suitcase before slinking back to stand with Helen. Sam hadn’t seen his daughters since May, and he couldn’t get over how much his fifteen-year-old had grown. Helen had told Sam the boys were paying more attention to Elaine, and he could understand why when he saw her bend over for the suitcase—long limbs, breasts sprouting, eyes like almonds.
“Daddy …” Rebecca pushed at the handle of the screen door. “Momma, why don’t you let Daddy in?” Sam saw Elaine roll her eyes in her mother’s direction. Helen went to the door and undid the latch. She put her hand on Rebecca’s head. “Go on, hon.”
Rebecca darted out, arms raised. Sam lifted her and squeezed, rubbing his stubble against her chubby cheeks. “Hey, baby girl,” he whispered in her ear. Sam liked his kids like his women, in doses. He shifted Rebecca to his hip. Elaine, lugging both yellow suitcases, pushed through the door and around her father. Sam reached for a suitcase, but she never broke stride.
“How’s my beautiful birthday girl?” he called after Elaine.
“Let’s go, Daddy,” she said, trudging down the gravel drive. “The race’ll start with or without us.”
Sam glanced back and eyed Helen, a look that said their oldest was something else.
“I want them back in time for school this coming Monday, you hear?”
“Helen, I hear. I never had any problem hearing ya.” Sam adjusted Rebecca on his hip and climbed off the porch, chasing after Elaine.
Even at nine in the morning, the heat bubbled off the pavement. Sam steered the Olds with one hand and pointed to his Dixie cup. “Pour me a swig, Earl.” Earl was a skinny man, except for a paunch that had beer and liquor written all over it—his corn-kernel teeth jutted every way but straight. He poured from the Mason jar. Sam sniffed the pure grain and turned it up.
“Whoo-wee. Damn right that’ll sell. How many jars for this run?”
“Believe it’s thirty,” Earl said.
“We’ll split it sixty-forty, since I’m driving.”
“What’s that leave me?” Earl took a gulp straight from the jar.
“I get thirty-six, you get twenty-six. Plenty for the both of us.”
Sam and Earl had become friends during a bad-check stint over in Yulee, friends in the way that they could trust each other enough to commit a crime together. Times were tough. Sam had blown his money out in Fresno and made his way to Inwood to find that Helen wouldn’t have him. So, he lit out for Florida, for sunshine and race cars. He was between jobs (and women), but he had to provide, his daddy had at least taught him that. Sam never wanted to do those weeks inside again—the stares, the showers. He prided himself on being able to read a person, a skill he’d picked up in the Army, a short stint in Korea. Death and killing had taught him plenty about a man’s ticks, and he didn’t question Earl’s loyalty. Sam was good with the numbers, Earl was good with the back roads and had a sixth sense for sour Shine, could smell it the minute a bootlegger popped off the copper lid.
Sam spied his daughters in the backseat through the rearview. Rebecca pressed her mouth against the glass and blew, then hurried to write an R in the fog, before her breath disappeared.
“Becca, that’s gross,” Elaine whined, lifting her head from her book.
“It’s not gross—it’s groovy.”
Sam noticed Earl swivel in his seat, eyes trailing down, surely catching a glimpse of Elaine’s legs shooting out of the shorts. He went back to checking the rearview and Elaine went back to reading The Outsiders, which she’d had her nose in almost every minute of the drive. Helen had said that Elaine liked the idea of being one of the girls in the novel, hoping the boys would fight over her someday. Helen had heard mothers around their new neighborhood say Elaine had no problem with the boys putting their hands on her, and Sam cussed on principle, although he was proud that he’d helped pop out a good-looking girl, that the apple had landed near the tree. With that dark hair let down around her cheeks, Elaine didn’t look fifteen, not from the neck down anyway. Sam had been in enough bars to know that body could pass for eighteen. He knew plenty of men, Earl included, that would say that body was ready, if they had liquor in them.
Stand up for yourself, he’d always told her. Don’t let those boys take advantage of you. Maybe Helen was right about Elaine needing a daddy around, to tell her those boys weren’t after her heart.
“Earl, you all right with that split or what?”
Earl jumped. “You bet, Sam, whatever you say.” Sam watched as Earl stretched his neck to look in the rearview. “Elaine, hon,” Earl said. “Who’s your favorite today? Who’s gonna win this Firecracker 400?”
Sam watched Elaine in the mirror. She didn’t lift her head from her book. “Me and Daddy like Petty.”
“That’s right,” Sam said and let out a yelp, excited for the race and his thirty-six dollars.
“Petty? Why the hell you driving an Olds and cheering for a Plymouth?” Earl grabbed the Mason jar from between his legs and turned it up. “A Ford’s gonna win this one. You bet. A Goddamn Ford.”
Rebecca leaned between the front seats, her belly hanging out from under her shirt. “Daddy, Earl can’t say that word. At Bible school they told us that was a bad word.”
Earl shoved the Mason jar to the floorboard. Sam reached over and pinched Rebecca’s cheek. “That’s right, hon. Earl was just excited’s all. He didn’t mean nothing by it. He loves the Lord, just like me and you.”
“Yeah, hon,” Earl said. “You’re right. I ought not said it that way. So, you like Petty too?”
Rebecca fell back, her legs flying over her head. “I like the car with the best colors,” she giggled.
“The color of the cars doesn’t matter, idiot,” Elaine chirped. “It’s how fast they go.”
“Elaine, hon, don’t call your sister names,” Sam said.
But that fired him up even more. He punched the gas and picked up his Dixie cup and gave a cheers to Earl. “Damn right,” Sam said under his breath. “That’s my girl.”
The air was filled with exhaust and the roar of engines. The hum of the crowd faded into the rumble of the track. The sun burned hot on Sam’s face, his head swimming with Shine. A twinge of icy heat ran through him, a sensation that tended to visit him in this state, when his life was veering but there was no wheel to grab hold of. Elaine was next to him, Rebecca on the other side of her, nestled next to Earl, who was surely as drunk, seeing as how they’d unloaded the thirty jars and started on their own stash before the blast of the starting gun. Sam patted Elaine’s dark head. Her almond eyes were intent, following Petty’s No. 43 as it blurred past, lap after lap. She might as well have been his drinking buddy.
The day she was born, July 4, 1952, he wasn’t even there. He was fresh out of Korea, at a bar on the outskirts of Dallas. Before he knew it, he was in another woman’s bed, while Helen pushed out their first child. Sam had convinced Helen that the money was in wildcatting, that the Lone Star State was their ticket. They were twenty-two. Helen said she’d go, said she believed in him, leaning against his blue Dodge B-2. He’d even believed in himself then, even after the military told him he ought to get some help with the nightmares and the tremors. Sam wasn’t the kind of man who went to doctors and preachers with his problems. That night while Elaine was being birthed, Sam lay in bed with a woman whose name would jumble together with the rest. He ran his hand over her thigh under the covers and came to terms with this side of himself.
The next day, when he brought Helen and his baby girl home to their trailer, the oil fields stretching off in the dark horizon, he didn’t feel a shred of guilt. He knew then that he couldn’t catch himself, that the race would always be the thrill, not the finish line.
“Daddy, I want a Coke,” Elaine said, nudging Sam’s arm.
He smiled and pulled a dollar from his pocket. “Get Becca and me one too. Earl, you want a Co-Cola?” Earl swatted at him without taking his eyes off the track.
Elaine snatched the dollar and skipped down the steps, disappearing into the concourse. Sam watched her and watched the men watching her. He wondered if he’d be watching Elaine the same if she wasn’t his blood. He wondered if all men were like him in their marrow, or if a man turned off that switch and became a daddy.
Sam reached over Rebecca and shoved Earl in the shoulder. “How’s that damn Plymouth running?”
“Petty ain’t winning this crown today, Sam. He ain’t got it in him.”
The sun glowed hot, shimmering like it was beneath the Atlantic instead of up in the sky. Sam wiped the sweat from his forehead with a crimson bandana. He winced when the rough cloth rubbed across his pinked nose. But it wasn’t near as burnt as Rebecca’s cheeks.
“Daddy, where’s Laney?” she asked, tugging at her father’s hand.
He scanned the speedway parking lot, enough cars to haul forty-some-odd-thousand people spread out for miles. Sam and Earl leaned against the trunk of the Olds, Rebecca sitting on it between them, a few jars of Shine underneath her, six or so dollars Sam wanted in his pocket. There were fifty laps left. He’d scoured the concession stands before they left, even sent Rebecca to the lady’s room alone. Elaine was gone, just one of those things, although Sam wondered if he wouldn’t have been drunk if he would’ve gone with her, if maybe that fatherly instinct would’ve kicked in with all those men with whiskey-soaked breath around.
“We gotta ditch the Shine,” Sam said, squinting at Earl, the alcohol starting to wear off into a hangover. “Might have to put our hands up, Earl. I can’t leave without her. I can’t call Helen without her.”
Earl slapped the Olds. “That’s good liquor in that trunk, Sam, and me or you neither one is in any shape to talk to no police.”
Sam nodded. His tongue was as thick as the heat, and Earl was right, he didn’t have enough sense to tell a cop how he’d let life get here. His mind had been on Shine and race cars and the women he was going to spend his money on. Not his daughters. Anything he’d done for them had been out of obligation, responsibilities a man acquired because the men before him had acquired them. If it weren’t for Rebecca, Sam questioned whether or not he’d already be in the car headed back to Fresno, back to where he still had a few women to sleep with at night. Everything in Sam’s stomach—the hot dog and cracker jacks and pure grain alcohol—splattered onto the pavement. Rebecca’s stomach gushed next, her snow cone and chocolate-covered peanuts. Once she was finished, Earl pulled out his white handkerchief, knelt down, and wiped her eyes and mouth.
“Daddy, where’s Laney?” Rebecca asked again through sobs.
Sam had a hand on both knees, unable to get his bearings.
“We gotta get,” Earl said, his words slurred.
“Earl, we can’t leave without Elaine.”
“Sam, it ain’t your fault—she just wanted a Coke,” Earl said. “Let’s get sober, and you can tell that to the police.”
“Dammit.” Sam ran the crimson bandana over his sweaty forehead again stuffing it in his back pocket. He got off his knees and met Earl’s bloodshot eyes. They stared at each other. Sam’s fingers twitched and tensed up. Never in his life had he stared at a man like Earl and saw himself in those drunken, bloodshot eyes. They both turned to Rebecca, realizing this was all spilling out in front of her, as nasty and smelly as the puke at their feet. Sam could tell Rebecca was weighing every one of their words, every gesture, like a dog aware of the dread circling in the air with the seagulls.
“I want Momma,” she said, catching her breath between sobs.
Sam grunted as he lifted his pudgy daughter.
“Honey, everything’s gonna be fine. We’re gonna be just fine.”
“Is Laney gonna be fine?” Rebecca rubbed her glassy eyes with the backs of her hands.
Sam motioned for Earl to get in the Olds and opened the backdoor. He had to pry his daughter’s arms from around his neck.
“Becca, let go dammit.” She did and he slung her into the car.
“I want Mommy,” she screamed, over and over, slamming her hands on the seat.
Sam grabbed her face and squeezed her cheeks, enough to cut off her squeals. “Quit that shit, you hear me?” He jostled her head, enough to scare her. “We gotta find your sister, and you ain’t helping one damn bit.”
“Let her be,” Earl said from the front seat. “We gotta get.”
Rebecca’s tears streamed onto the back of Sam’s hand. He didn’t have time to worry with apologizing. He settled into the driver’s seat but couldn’t bring himself to crank the engine. He knew that when the race let out, finding Elaine would be like looking for a blonde-headed needle in a haystack. “This is a mess,” Sam said, tilting his Dixie cup over to Earl, who poured. He took a sip and rolled down the window. “You got any kids?”
“Ain’t never even had a woman,” Earl said, “cept them girls at the motel.”
Sam propped an arm on the sill and surveyed the parked cars, gleaming in the sinking Florida sun. “Women would be better off without us, wouldn’t they?” Sam threw back his cup.
Earl made a humming sound. Sam mashed the gas and hooked a left down a narrow path that would spit them out onto the main road. Dark would be falling on Daytona soon and the palms swayed with the earth. As Sam navigated the back roads, he asked the Lord to help him find Elaine, and for forgiveness if he never did. He was praying for Helen and Rebecca as much as himself. He looked in the rearview at Rebecca, who had her forehead pressed against the window, clutching The Outsiders to her chest.
“Becca, honey, let’s sing a song,” he said. “Let’s sing a song for Laney.”
She didn’t look up.
“What song you reckon we should sing, honey?”
Earl blurted out before Rebecca could answer. His voice was out of tune, but it rose and fell in the right places. You are my sunshine … My only sunshine …
Rebecca joined in and the two of them sang like that for a while, before Earl’s voice cracked. Sam put a hand on his shoulder.
“I wish the Lord would let me start over,” Earl said. “But I reckon he’s had about enough of me.”
Sam nodded, the sea breeze whipping through the Olds. “Earl, I can’t take Becca on no wild goose chase, not where I’m gonna have to look. I need you to stay with her. Can you do that for me?”
“I ain’t no good with kids.”
“You’re all I got.”
Sam eased the car off a side road and into the driveway of the fern-green trailer he’d bought with liquor money after Helen left. He swiveled around to Rebecca, while Earl got out and went to the trunk for the leftover Shine.
“Hon, you stay here,” Sam said. “Mr. Earl’s a real good cook. He’ll make you whatever you want.”
Rebecca opened her door and slid out, not making a sound, holding her big sister’s book.
Sam watched Earl and his youngest walk up the two cinder block steps onto the porch, side by side.
“I’ll be back soon, hon,” he said, waving out the open window.
Sam drove through Daytona fighting his impulse to skip out on it all, parking at every place of sin that had already done him in. He stopped long enough to have one of his usual girls at the motel, just to feel something other than what he didn’t know how to feel, whether life would quit without Elaine or whether he’d be fine no matter the outcome. After he’d had his thighs under the covers, Sam sat in the motel lot for a time in the dark and thought about his oldest, how he’d been in her life so little, barely enough to even know her favorite anything. She’d been old enough to recognize all of his coming and going, the roller coaster with Helen, and he wondered now if all that unfaithfulness had steeled Elaine for life in a way that no kid should be at her age. He wondered how Elaine could ever come out of this all right, and whether or not he’d always be the one to blame.
When Sam started the Olds up and turned on the headlights, the beams lit up the lot and caught a girl exiting one of the rooms, hair covering her face, long limbs slightly tanned, a man in a leather jacket and a black bandana with his hand on the small of her back. Sam slung open the door, the Olds still running, and yelled out for Elaine over the engine. The girl brushed back her dark hair and looked directly at Sam. Her face was slender, like Elaine’s, but her cheekbones stretched her skin and tiny scars spread like a road map across her face. Sam got close enough to the couple to see that her eyes were green, almost as dark as seaweed that had dried up on shore.
“Can’t you find a girl your own age?” he yelled at the biker. The biker had a ponytail and wore black sunglasses, even though the sun had set. He pushed them on top of his head and his pupils were as small around as the head of a pen.
“What’s it to you, brother?”
The girl scurried away like a mouse into the motel lobby.
“That’s someone’s daughter,” Sam said. “You ever think of that?”
“Ain’t they all,” the biker said and flipped his sunglasses back down on his nose.
For the rest of his earthly life, not too many mornings will go by that Sam doesn’t snap awake in a sweat, flying down highway 95, bursts of red, white, and blue exploding, the finale to the Firecracker 400 spread out over the night sky. He prayed that he would find Elaine, mostly out of selfishness, because he didn’t want the guilt to follow him. Sam wasn’t a believer, couldn’t go off what he couldn’t see, but he prayed for his daughter anyhow, cause she didn’t deserve the sins of her father.
The police would find her at a truck stop near St. Augustine the next day, about an hour north of the speedway. No matter how many more women, no matter how many more naked thighs under the covers, Sam will always see Elaine in that hospital chair, clear as if it were yesterday. There is a police officer by her side, waiting on him. Sam calls out to Elaine, but she doesn’t move. Her arms stay wrapped tight, hugging herself, bruises on her neck, tufts of black floating away each time she rocks. She’s alive, at least she’s alive, at least he will be able to live with that. Elaine’s almond eyes are focused on something, but nothing Sam will ever be able to see.
He squats down, and he can’t find her in those almond eyes. He puts his hands on his daughter’s knees, dirty and scratched from what he doesn’t want to imagine. Sam didn’t ask for Elaine, nor did she him, and that is apparent to them both now. She and him won’t ever be behind a frame on the mantel. Elaine will become a school picture stuffed in his wallet, tattered at the edges. He rubs her skin, the pores open, the soft hairs on end. Sam wants to reach inside her chest and grab her heart, the veins pulsing, and put it inside his own chest, to jump himself off, like a dead battery. He mouths her name over and over, but she never answers.