“The Ninth Step” by Jen Conley


8. Made a list of all persons we have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

2 Suggested Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

Jeff was dreaming of the accident again. His eyes popped open and he saw the ceiling fan
swirl slowly above his head, around and around, just like the car did when it hit the tree and
flipped over. In the dream the rolling didn’t stop; he felt the flopping and flopping of the car
until he woke up in his bed, the ceiling fan gently spinning above.

His wife was already gone. Her job started at six. She worked at a nearby nursing home,
running the front desk, a recent job promotion from housekeeping. He could hear his boys,
shouting and slamming the kitchen cabinets. They were in middle school, just about
teenagers, almost the same age as Jeff was when his mother left home for good.

He got out of bed, took a shower, and eventually found the boys sitting in front of the
television, staring at television cartoons, slurping cereal out of their bowls. He told them
they had ten minutes before the bus came. Trent, the older one, nodded but the little one,
TJ, shrugged. “School sucks,” TJ said.

Jeff went outside for a cigarette. Tracey’s new rule was that all cigarettes should be smoked outside. He followed the rule even though Tracy sometimes, on a cold day, lit her cigarettes in the kitchen before going out. Jeff stared out into the woods of dry scrub pines. The needles moved gently in the soft morning wind. His backyard was green. “Green as a
shamrock from Ireland,” his buddy Jesse had said when he came to check on the sprinkler system two weeks earlier. Suddenly this morning the lawn’s lush greenness looked out of place against the dry, dusty Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It was so fake.

“You look like shit, Dad,” TJ said when Jeff walked back into the house. Jeff swiped him
gently across his head and told them to go get on the bus. They were both back within
minutes. “We missed it,” TJ shrugged. “I guess we’ll just stay home and bond, right Dad?”

Jeff sighed. “Get in the goddamn truck.”

They stopped at the local convenience store. Trent and TJ jumped out of the truck and
shuffled into the store, Trent moving slower, more bored with the adventure than TJ. Inside,
TJ raced to the candy aisle and Trent to the magazine rack to check out a car magazine. Jeff poured himself a cup of coffee at the center station.

“How old are those boys now?” Kay called from over the deli counter. She was slicing hard
rolls in half.

“Trent is thirteen and TJ is eleven,” he said.

“Jesus, hon,” Kay snickered. “I bet you’re not even thirty-five.”

Jeff capped up his coffee and walked to the register counter. The boys noticed quickly
enough to add a candy bar and a car magazine to Jeff’s order. Kay followed them to the
register to ring up their purchases. “We’re short this morning,” she explained. “And the new girl is out for a cigarette break.” Jeff nodded and then told her he needed a pack of Camel Filters. The boys grabbed their stuff and wandered outside while Jeff waited for his change.

Kay leaned in closer to Jeff as she handed him his money. “Diane came in yesterday. She
looked good.”

It had been fifteen years since he’d seen Diane. Two weeks earlier, Jesse’s wife Lori
mentioned Diane’s name. Within seconds, Tracey and Lori were poking fun at the Diane they knew in high school, the way women sometimes do, no matter how many years have
passed. Last month, his cousin Tim had seen Diane in the post office.

“I told her I’ve been sober for over seven years,” Kay said, tapping her red nails on the
counter. “I told her I see you all the time.”

Jeff grabbed the pack of cigarettes and pulled off the plastic. Then he looked through the
glass and saw TJ doing flips around a protection bar in front of the store.

“She said she’s at her mom’s old place. Her mom passed away last summer. So I said she could always come back here to work. She didn’t seem too interested.” Kay slapped the counter and chuckled at her own joke.

Jeff pulled a cigarette out of his pack and stuck it in his mouth.

“She ain’t married,” Kay said grimly. “I got the feeling she’s had the same luck as me when it comes to men.”

Jeff nodded and tapped the counter. “I’ll see ya,” he muttered, walking through the glass
doors, lighting his cigarette when he got outside. “Off that!” he yelled to TJ.

When they reached the middle school, Jeff told the boys that he had a job up north and
would not be able to pick them up if they missed the bus after school. TJ told him not to
worry because he was always the first one on his bus at the end of the day.

The traffic was difficult. An accident had closed a lane and slowed the road in general. When Jeff finally did pass the cracked up cars, he saw one victim covered in a white blanket on the stretcher. The EMT workers huddled around the man but they seemed to be smiling and Jeff
guessed he wasn’t in serious danger. Once, when Jeff first learned to drive, he let a young
girl in an old Chevy Nova pull out in front of him across a double lane to get to the opposite
side. Jeff thought she would wait and look before driving through the oncoming traffic, but
she didn’t. She slammed into the passenger side of a Lincoln Continental. Jeff remembered the old man getting out of the Lincoln and yelling to her that she was stupid. Jeff drove away, not wanting to be a witness for the old man and not wanting to be late to pick up Diane from her job at the convenience store.
Jeff was a heavy duty equipment mechanic. He traveled around the state fixing broken
down front loaders and bulldozers and cranes. He got the job right out of high school
through his cousin Tim. Tim’s father had been a foreman for the company for many years.

He died six months after he retired.

Today, Jeff was at a site up in Middlesex County where they were putting up an office
building. He spent two hours fixing the engine of a crane. Then he sat in his truck and
watched it move, spinning back and then forward, lifting up and down.

Diane transferred into his high school at the end of his junior year. She was almost sixteen
and a year behind him. Her family had just moved from South Amboy to a house in an old
neighborhood near a lake that had long been deemed unsafe for swimming. Something
about strange high bacteria levels. Diane wasn’t in any of his classes except for first period.
There he saw her first thing every morning, fresh blue eye shadow, glossy lips, and damp
hair, usually wearing rock t-shirts and tight jeans. Jeff didn’t speak to her but he never
missed watching her enter the classroom, books cradled in her arms, face brightening as she quietly smiled at the students near her assigned seat.

Soon after Diane arrived, the rumors began to swirl around her and her sister–that Diane
had a boyfriend back in South Amboy, that their mother was a drunk, that they had to move
because their father had been messing with a girl who had a biker boyfriend with a price on his head. Jeff, like everyone else, didn’t know which story was true and which was false, but it added a scandalous enigma to the girls, especially Diane, who was quiet. It was her older sister who did the talking, angrily dropping family dirt after a couple swigs of whiskey or lines of coke.

On a July evening in Tim’s backyard after the sun had slipped away and left the sky deep
orange and purple, Jeff talked to Diane for the first time. He came through the side gate and saw her doing cartwheels and round-offs across the dusty yard, greenish brown tufts of grass barely surviving the heat of the dry summer. He stopped for a moment, watching her twirl over and over, her dark, long hair flying around her like an oriental fan. When she
finished, the girls at the white patio table cheered and the guys said things like “cool” and
“awesome”. One of the girls asked Diane why she didn’t go out for cheerleading and Beth,
Tim’s girlfriend, laughed. “Diane isn’t dumb enough.” Diane smiled and sat down at the table.

Jeff pulled up a chair and lit a cigarette.

“You were in my first period class,” she said to him.

Jeff nodded.

After work, when Jeff pulled his truck up in front of his house, he found TJ playing street
hockey with some neighborhood boys. Trent was inside, flipping the television channels, his feet propped up on the coffee table.

“Mom is going out with some friends tonight. She just called. She said you can make us

Jeff nodded and went outside to smoke a cigarette.

Within hours of first speaking to Diane in Tim’s backyard, Jeff was kissing her in his car.

She told him that she didn’t have a boyfriend up in South Amboy. She’d said that because she didn’t want to stupidly hook up with the wrong guy at a new school. Before she knew what was what. Jeff thought about this as he kissed the side of her neck. It tasted of sweat and dust. She talked some more and told him the rest of the rumors were pretty much true. Her mother was a drunk and her father had been cheating. His “woman” was only eighteen. Diane’s sister lied about the rest of the story because she was embarrassed. Diane’s sister knew dad’s girlfriend from Girl Scouts.

“He sounds like a dick,” Jeff mumbled as he kissed her chest and then her neck again.

“You have to take me home now,” Diane told him, gently pushing him away. “You can come by tomorrow night and pick me up if you like.”

Jeff had been with many girls. Three years earlier, when Jeff was fourteen, he and his sister came home to find that their mother had left for Fort Lauderdale with some man from work. Their father cared for them but he preferred drinking to parenting and spent a lot of his time at the local bar. Tim’s parents looked out for Jeff and his sister, but they couldn’t do much about Jeff’s poor grades and womanizing. Someone must have told Diane that he was bad news, he thought, as he groped for one last kiss.

Sure enough, the following night as soon as she got in his car and he reached for her, Diane told him that he would have to stay true if he wanted her to be his girlfriend.

Jeff stopped and stared at her. He had heard this demand before. Usually he explained that he wasn’t a girlfriend-type-of-guy and lit a cigarette right away, like he imagined Steve
McQueen would. But with Diane, he couldn’t look away to light a cigarette. She was wearing blue eye shadow and her sharp cheekbones were dusted with pink blush glittering softly under the streetlight filtering into his car. He leaned over and kissed her. As Diane kissed him back, he could feel his chest tighten. He could barely breathe.

They spent the rest of the summer like this–meeting in his car and driving off to secluded
places where they could be alone. Once in a while he took her to a party at someone’s
house or, more likely, to the woods where all of the kids would stand around a fire, drinking
beers, and listening to Judas Priest or Van Halen tapes. By the time they started school in
September, Jeff was meeting Diane at her locker between classes so they could kiss or bicker or talk about what time she needed to be picked up from her job as a cashier at the
convenience store. Everyone knew they were a couple now, and everyone knew how
strange it was for Jeff to hang around one girl for so long. Of course the boys teased him and jabbed him in the stomach. “You’re pussy-whipped, dude!” they’d laugh at him. Jeff would tell them to fuck off and, if he was desperate to get them off his back, them that Diane was a good lay so why bother going back to Chevys and Fords when he was driving a Porsche? The boys would then bow over with more laughter because the truth was it took months before Diane would let them consummate their relationship. And the real truth was that Jeff would have waited for years if she asked him to, and all of his buddies seemed to sense it.

It was after ten when Tracey walked through the door. Her face was pink and she smelled like cigarettes. She was drunk. She stumbled across the living room floor, collapsing into the green oversized chair Trent had been sitting in earlier. “I can drink,” she stated. Jeff ignored her and stared at the television. “Don’t give me any of your pissy attitude. I’m not an alcoholic.”

Jeff flicked his eyes to her. She was trying to light a cigarette. It had been two years since he had started AA. He was true to it. It was hard because he didn’t see his cousin or his old buddies too much anymore. It was too difficult to hang around drinking people for long periods of time. Jeff had apologized over and over to Tracey for all the rotten things he remembered doing and the rotten things he hadn’t remembered doing. He cheated. He’d thrown things across the kitchen and screamed at Tracey. He told her he regretted marrying her. One night he threw a pot of coffee at the wall and just missed her head. Another time, he stumbled through the door and pissed on the new living room carpet. The one her mother bought them as an anniversary gift.

But Tracey was still angry. She’d invite women from work over to share Cosmopolitans or
Strawberry Daiquiris, even though Jeff‘s AA book sat on the kitchen counter. Tracey went out to the bars of Seaside with her friends and got smashed with all the twenty-one-year-olds even though she was already thirty-four. When they argued, Tracey yelled about his cheating, bringing up names and places. She stopped buying him Christmas and birthday presents. She hated him.

Tracey passed out in the chair with her cigarette burning. Jeff took the cigarette away and
finished it himself on the back porch. Then he helped her into the bedroom. When Tracey was in high school she’d been curvy. Now she was just skinny. She smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of coffee. Her teeth were yellow.

The summer after Diane and Jeff connected was the summer after Jeff’s graduation. Tim’s father had gotten Jeff the mechanic job by then and Diane’s father started another  affair. With the nineteen-year-old daughter of a local police officer. Diane’s sister had quit school and had moved back to South Amboy with an old boyfriend. Diane’s mother was drinking heavily and Diane was hanging out around Jeff more and more. She was calling him four and five times a day. She hung out in the woods with Jeff’s buddies at night and into the early morning, drinking around a crackling fire. When summer was over and she returned to school, Diane was frantic that something was going wrong with their relationship. Most of the guys told Jeff to dump her, that she was becoming an old ball and chain. He didn’t. He drove her to her job and picked her up at night. Sometimes, when his father was passed out drunk for the night or simply failed to come home, he let her stay over in his bedroom. And even though they bickered and fought about his drinking, he still wouldn’t cut her loose. He just drank more and told her to take it easy.

When Diane’s father was caught having sex with the policeman’s daughter in front of her dad’s house, he decided to leave for Pittsburgh. At the same time, Diane got into a lopsided argument with her mother and was kicked out of the house. She showed up at Jeff’s door with a large duffle bag and Jeff let her stay. Often, on the way home from work, Jeff would stop off at a liquor store that didn’t ID its patrons and buy a can of beer and an airplane bottle of Jack Daniels. He’d sit in the parking lot, sweaty and dirty from work, sucking back his whiskey and guzzling his beer covered with a paper bag. And then, as if God himself decided to bail Jeff out, five weeks after moving in with him, Diane’s father arrived with a Sheriff’s officer who told Diane that she had to move to Pittsburgh with her father. Diane screamed and bawled hopelessly as they all but dragged her to father’s car.

“I don’t want to go,” she cried, gripping Jeff’s arm. “Don’t let me go!”

Jeff looked at the Sheriff’s officer and then at Diane’s father. The officer fished a cigarette out of his front pocket and shook his head with impatience. “Goddamn job,” he muttered. Diane’s father, who was sitting in front of the steering wheel, looked at his watch and then started up the car.

Jeff gently pushed Diane into the car and shut the door. She rolled down the window and
grabbed his hand. “It’s not fair,” she sobbed. “Please don’t let me go.” Jeff frowned and told
her he’d come out there and visit. “Hell, I’ll get a job out there. And when you finish school
and turn eighteen, you can come back to New Jersey.”

Diane nodded and wiped her eyes, her blue eye shadow washing away. Jeff kissed her and she begged him to not forget to come to Pittsburgh. He told her he would remember and in that moment he knew he would not. As the car pulled away, the only emotion Jeff could summon up was an unyielding, rock-solid sense of relief.

The next morning, Tracey called in sick and sat in the green chair, drinking water and watching television. Trent and TJ got ready for school quickly and went out to catch the bus early. Jeff made Tracey some coffee and placed it on the side table next to her. She mumbled a thank you and flipped the channels. Jeff walked out to his truck.

He ran into Tim at the gas station who was drinking coffee and talking with their buddy, Jesse. Jeff tried to get away with a wave but the two of them walked up to his truck. Jesse asked about the lawn and Tim asked about the boys. Then Jesse said that he had just run into Diane the day before. “She’s good, I guess.” Jeff nodded, hopped back in his truck, and drove away.

After Diane left, Jeff spent the next two weeks hanging out, drinking beer and smoking weed  with his friends. Diane called at strange hours and sometimes he’d sleep right through the calls and his sister would have to get the phone. Diane was sometimes crying and sometimes angry. But mostly she just sounded depressed.

It took three months for Jeff to take up with other girls again. It wasn’t cheating because Diane’s calls were fading away. The first girl he messed with was a friend of his sister’s. Then there were the girls who drank too much beer and then there was Tracey. Diane’s eighteenth birthday at the end of August came and went.

Six months later, after shoving Diane into the back of his mind, he suddenly wondered about her. He was sitting in his car, waiting for Tim and his younger brother, Lou, to come out of their house so they could go down to Seaside. They had gotten a hold of some new fake ID’s and they were going to try them out. So while Jeff sat, smoking a cigarette, listening to the song “Southern Cross” on the radio, the little girl across the street began to twirl along her grassy front yard in a stream of cartwheels. He watched her go across the lawn and then back again, the soft harmonies of the music tumbling through the car like paper ashes from a fire. When the girl finished, she raised her arms like an Olympic star. Jeff smiled.

After a successful night of drinking in the bars of Seaside and even a good fist fight with a
couple of obnoxious guys down for the week from Queens, Jeff walked into his house and called Diane. It was almost three in the morning but her father still answered and said she had moved in with a new boyfriend.

“And it’s not in your best interest to be calling her because her new boyfriend is a nefarious character,” her father snickered. Jeff got off the phone, went into his sister’s bedroom, and pulled out an old dictionary off her bookshelf. “Nefarious” meant wicked, despicable, evil.

The next morning, a lot more sober and a lot less sentimental, Jeff promised himself never to call Diane again.

Jeff stopped into the convenience store before heading home. Kay wasn’t working and that was good. He knew he had a meeting that night and she would be there, ready to help, smoking her cigarettes and drinking her coffee. Kay sponsored him when he first joined AA. During late hours, she sat on the phone with him or met him at a diner where they talked about his urge to drink. He missed his buddies, he said to her once. Kay nodded and lit a cigarette. “But they don’t miss you drunk. They hate you drunk.”

He grabbed some coffee and a lottery ticket, wishing he could just go get a beer. All his life he wanted to just go out and drink with his buddies. It was so simple for so long. If Tracey was pissed off, he’d go drink. If his boys were getting to be too much, he’d get in the car and go drink. Even when Diane left, even when he was so confused, even when he just couldn’t understand why he didn’t go out to Pittsburgh and get her, he would just go drink. It was just easier to go drink.

Jeff’s sister took the call from Diane’s father. The “nefarious boyfriend” had beaten Diane up. Apparently, he had done a huge amount of speed in no time and lost it when she came home. They argued until he ripped the ceramic lamp out of the wall and flung it at her. She ran to the apartment of an elderly neighbor. But the boyfriend came after her, throwing open the door and hurling Diane against the neighbor’s china cabinet, sending shards of glass and thin porcelain through the air, sprinkling on the pine chairs and into the thick threads of the shag carpeting. When Diane pulled herself up, the boyfriend punched and kicked her over and over again before he kicked her out the door and to the outside stairwell, where she rolled down the steps, her head smashing on the concrete. Then he went back into his apartment and slammed the door.

Jeff didn’t believe this story. His sister shook her head and called the hospital in Pittsburgh. Sure enough, said the nurse, Diane was there, in intensive care, in critical condition. Eventually, Diane’ s sister called Jeff’s sister and said that Diane might die. She had several broken ribs, a shattered wrist, a broken ankle, internal bleeding, a punctured lung, and a broken hip, not to mention twenty-five stitches on the left side of her head. Diane’s sister said the boyfriend had been wearing steel-toed boots. She said that Diane would have died if the elderly neighbor hadn’t called the police right away. She said Jeff should come out, immediately. It would really help Diane.

Jeff told his sister to call Diane’s sister back and tell her he was coming out there. Then he got into his car and sped off, racing down the back roads until he hit the highway. He rode without music, wondering what she would look like. Wondering what he could say to her. Wondering what the hell he was even going out there for. And then, when he reached the Pennsylvania border–the Delaware River–he noticed a small bar on the right side of the highway, its glossy sign glimmering in the afternoon sunlight. Jeff drove the car across the graveled parking lot and lit a cigarette. He pulled out his fake ID and went in to have a beer to calm his nerves, take the edge off, rest. Inside, the darkness and the tender smile from the pretty bartender softened his anxiety. He drank his beer quickly. Then he had another and another, until it was night and a Happy Hour crowd trickled in, most of them men, sweaty and dirty from work.

Someone put some money in the jukebox. Jeff listened to “Harvest Moon” and watched the
bartender sing along as she pulled bottled beers out of the cooler and poured Jack Daniels for her customers. After a while, the alcohol helped Jeff befriend some of the locals enough to tell them his troubles. “I don’t think I love her, dude,” he said to a thick man with a long, blond braid down his back. “I used to love her but I don’t think I do now. I know I should, but I think I don’t. So maybe I shouldn’t go.”

The man with the braid nodded and told Jeff that he was in a real shitty situation.

“Women,” he shrugged. “I wish I could help you but I got my own troubles with them.” Then the man leaned in closer to Jeff. “But I find a drink here and there makes them a hell of a lot easier to deal with.” He fell back against his chair, howled with laughter and slapped Jeff on the back. Jeff nodded and lit a cigarette. A minute later, the man ordered tequila shots. “Don’t forget my lemons, sweetie,” he said to the pretty bartender and winked at Jeff.

When Jeff’s sister found him walking through their house the next morning, she just shook her head. “Nice work, handsome,” she said, pouring herself a bowl of Corn Flakes.

It wasn’t long before he ended up with Tracey. She liked to drink and hang out with his friends. She was small but tough and she could handle the loud, rotten words that came from any of his buddies’ mouths. Hell, she had a rotten, loud mouth herself. But, inevitably, she got tired of Jeff’s drinking and his cheating and she eventually started screaming at him during parties and in the bars. Sometimes, she’d find him sharing a joint in the bar parking lot with some asshole he’d been sitting next to for three hours. She’d scream at him in the parking lot. Then she’d go off with her girlfriends, bitching about what a shithead Jeff was. Jeff would just shrug, head back into the bar, and order another drink.

It was after the car accident that Jeff decided that he might as well be with Tracey. They had been driving down a back road, the day almost gone, the shadows of twilight lurking in-between the trees. Tracey was at the wheel and they had just passed his old elementary school. He was thinking about Field Day and making Easter baskets when a deer darted across the road. Tracey swerved to miss it, smacking into an old tree, the crack echoing in Jeff’s ear as the car twirled over and over again, finally coming to a rest on its hood. Tracey never screamed. She had such a loud mouth but now she was quiet. Jeff quickly crawled out of the car through the open window. He raced to the other side to see if she was alive. She was in shock. Her eyes were wide and her breath shallow. He touched her skin and it was cold. He knew he wasn’t supposed to move a
person but he heard a nasty hissing sound from the engine and he was unsure if there would be an explosion like in all the television movies he was always watching. So he pried and pulled the door open, the car dented and smashed, upside down, and scooped her out of the seat. He carried her to the front lawn of an old woman’s house, who was standing in her screened porch yelling that she had just called the ambulance. Another woman raced across the lawn from the house next door and covered Tracey with a blanket. Tracey just stared ahead, straight up at the indigo sky. Within minutes, the ambulance arrived.

A few months later, Tracey announced that she was pregnant. And just like that, he fell into domestic life, face first.

Of course, he could have taken off. Plenty of guys did that. He could have gotten a job under-the-table, down in Florida, maybe even the Keys, so that the government couldn’t track him down for child-support. Men do it all the time, they told Jeff in his local bar. You didn’t ask to get her knocked up. You didn’t ask to have the baby. But Jeff married Tracey anyway. His cousin Tim had just gotten engaged. His buddy Jesse was recently. It was no big deal, they said. It was the right thing to do.

Jeff’s sister told him not to marry Tracey. She told him to pay the fucking child support and just deal with it. However, she soon moved down to Virginia Beach with her lottery ticket–some naval officer she met at a Jesse’s wedding, and her advice was lost in the fumes of the moving truck.

Before Jeff’s sister moved away to Virginia, she ran into Diane’s mother at the grocery store. Diane was just getting out of bed, she said. A year later, and she was just getting out of bed.

Now he was ready to leave. To take off to the Keys or California or the Grand Canyon. He
could just go get Diane and leave, sending for his boys a few weeks later. He could tell her that he made a mistake. He’d been cocky. He was an alcoholic. He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know what he had with her. He knew he had made a mess. He knew how sorry he was.

Kay was always telling him that he had to apologize to every person he had ever hurt during his drinking days. He had apologized to Tim and Lou for smashing up their boat with a crow bar. He had apologized to Jesse for calling his wife a whore in front of his daughter’s eighth birthday party. He had apologized to his sister for calling her up in the middle of the night on so many nights and telling her what a shitty sister she was. He apologized to his boys for showing up at their baseball games drunk and screaming at their coach. He had apologized to everyone except Diane, right?

After work, he drove over to her mother’s house near the polluted lake. His heart pounded
thick and fast as he rode past the old house, the blue asbestos shingles chipped in various
spots, the over-grown bushes covering the bottom half of all the windows, a dark blue sedan in the driveway. Jeff drove quickly, breathing easier as he reached the next corner. He drove around again, slowing down as he approached the house, noticing the front tire of the blue sedan was very low. He saw the front door open and then he sped up.

At the next corner, he stopped his truck. The neighborhood was quiet, each house divided by a patch of scraggly pine trees and dry brush. If he went around again, it would be the last time. If he drove around again, he’d have to get out of his truck and walk up to her door and speak.

He did circle around again, his stomach knotted. Diane stood in her driveway, her hands in her jacket pocket. He slowed the truck down, put it in park, and got out. He walked towards her but she was shaking her head. Her skin was still pale but he could see the indentation of a scar which lined from underneath her forehead until it faded just before it reached her ear. It looked like someone had once tried to slice her head off. She didn’t smile and there was no trace of blue eye shadow or glittering pink blush, just a plain, colorless face and the scar. When she walked towards him, her gait was slightly off.

“You keep going around and around, huh?” Diane said, her voice heavier than he remembered. She held out her hand. “Nice to see you.”

Jeff hesitated before shaking it. “I’m sorry. I was just making sure this was the house. My
memory is shot,” he lied.

Diane nodded, smiling a bit. “Kay told me you quit drinking.”

Jeff sighed and nodded.

She made small talk with him. She told him that the house was sold and she was moving to South Carolina, not far from Myrtle Beach. Her sister was down there with her two kids. Diane asked about his friends and his sister, squinting her eyes in the fading afternoon sunlight.

Diane smiled. “Well, it was nice to see you.” She put her hands in her pockets.

“Listen,” Jeff started to say but Diane shook her head. “Go home, Jeff. Thank you for stopping by but go home.”

She turned and walked back up her driveway, up to the porch which was crumbling around the corners. “You have kids. Go home.” She paused before climbing the porch, as if to get her pain in check. “I’m good. Go home.”

Diane opened the door and walked into the house.

Jeff drove out onto the highway to an old bar set behind a gas station. He kept seeing Diane in her hospital bed, waiting for him, her hopes lurching every time someone came into her room. Jeff sat in his truck long enough to smoke three cigarettes. He watched men get out of their trucks and walk into the bar. Jeff turned his head and watched the scrawny pine trees tilt and rock in the wind. Then he put the truck in gear and drove away.

Back home, TJ was in the street playing hockey. He lifted his goalie mask and walked up to his father, halting the game and causing the other kids to yell. TJ ignored them and warned Jeff that Tracey had gone out with her friends.

“Pretty funny, Dad. Now you get to take care of her.” He grinned, showing his crooked teeth.

Just then, Trent walked out of the house with a skinny girl with short, blonde hair. They

traipsed across the lush green lawn until she broke out into a short run and then cartwheeled all the way down to the dark edge of the tarred road.

“Check that out,” TJ said, nudging his father in the elbow. Then he lowered his face mask and walked back to his hockey game.



Jen Conley grew up near Lakehurst, New Jersey, graduated from Elon College, North Carolina, and spent a year and a half living in London, England. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son, where she teaches sixth grade. In May of 2006 she presented a story at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, New York City. Her last story appeared in RE:AL, The Journal of Liberal Arts.