Scratching the Silverby Jen Knox
I was supposed to die before anyone had a chance to tell me about my daughter. It made more sense to let everyone think I was gone for good and renew my contract work on the North Shore, to go on saving money and building balconies beneath that angry but addictive sun. I should’ve been content to daydream and pop painkillers to keep up with the younger guys, inhale that fresh, salty air near calm green waters.
I didn’t know what I would do or say when I arrived; I didn’t know how they would react or who would be there to greet me. I knew I might get the opposite of a greeting. The Midwestern wind bit at my forehead as I pushed ahead, toward 103 L 4 on Brice Road. I never had much business on Brice Road when I lived here, but I envisioned a run-down rooming house with a shady landlord who collects rent by the week to supply his drug habit. My tires ate up the dry road as I neared, and Ohio took hold of my sinuses long before I saw the sign. Ten miles.
My blood had thinned since I was last here; the cold was chapping my skin. The sun hung low, so there was a good chance that the residents at 103 L 4 would be home when I arrived. I originally planned to meet up with the guys first, but there was no time for that. Too much reflection and a few beers would make it tempting to head east instead.
The guys said they had discussed it for a while before deciding to tell me Amber was back in town with her daughter; they said the kid looked exactly like me, and they were fathers now so they couldn’t keep the news to themselves in good conscience. These were the only two guys left from our old crew at the club—so many of them had retired or fallen out in less desirable ways. Georgie and Robbie (George and Rob, now that we were in our late forties) had tracked down the address. I guess they figured it couldn’t hurt, seeing as how the town had finally moved on. They each offered to put me up, but they had families, so I said I’d get a hotel. They offered the spare room at the club—that dark, dank, cramped room in the basement that had haunted me every night since I last slept there. I agreed.
George and Rob were the guys who always waited for members to bow out so they could move up the ranks. Bottom feeders, we called them back in the day. That’s who lasted though, the bottom feeders, the slow eaters and, apparently, the ones who left for lifetimes only to return older men. They ran the club now, along with a repair shop, and were planning to open up a bar called The Last Stop. They wanted to know if I’d partner up, an offer that almost made me laugh. I felt so far removed. I explained that I never expected a happy ending to this story, just an introduction. They said the offer wasn’t going anywhere.
I hunched into the wind, taking gulps of it, the sharpness softening halfway down my throat. I came near death often, and I was sure Amber assumed I was somewhere beneath her feet by now. This was the most frightening thing; I was a ghost riding toward the future of an old man that looked an awful lot like me. I’d soon face not only Amber but Mr. Martin and the girl.
I stopped for gas two miles short of 103 L 4. I took my time in the aisles, considering greeting cards and single roses that looked about ready to kick. I bought some strawberry bubblegum, in case the young one liked it and a few Snickers along with some hard candies that were wrapped in yellow cellophane. I bought six scratch-off lottery tickets that told me I had to play to win. When I was a kid, I’d felt pure hopefulness while working at that silver coating with a coin, revealing the promise of a jackpot in the form of dollar signs or thumbs-up or lucky horseshoes. Estelle used to let me help her, and even though she’d been disappointed when they lost (“Come on, Son, get me a win”), she’d always let me try again.
I had two plastic bags stuffed with junk when I left that gas station, so I shoved one bag in my stash box and the other in my backpack. I parked at 97, twisted the front tire and locked it down. The neighborhood was nicer than I expected, something like suburbia, and I was wary of the pastel doubles with perfect lawns. Estelle used to sell makeup in neighborhoods like this, and she’d make me walk along with her sometimes when she couldn’t find a sitter. I was a tough kid, but the pristine nature of these lawns has always made me self-conscious.
I forgot about the bag with the chocolate candy in it and carried only the one filled with a few hard candies, lotto tickets, near-dead roses in tubes, and a happy Buddha keychain. I pulled the bag out of my pack as I walked and placed it neatly in my helmet instead, thinking it’d be easier to hand off.
I arrived at a large house and looked for L 4, a side left entrance. Healthy desire is a useful thing to clarify situations you left muddled, but I was regretting this as I stood at the door, rapping my knuckles on wood. Just when I was about to leave, I saw a doorbell. I rang it three times in a row, with more urgency than intended.
Someone peeked out the blinds at the side of the door, and I nodded kindly, smoothing the white shirt beneath my leather coat. I was wearing jeans that had been brand new when I picked up the bike but were a bit worn from the ride: oil stains, probably from one of the filling stations I hit up between the Detroit airport and Ohio suburbs. The person took a long time to open the door, and I imagined cops arriving, taking me.
The door opened.A thin woman, sleek, gray, and only a few years older than me, smiled wide, said hello and asked how she could help me. I took a while to find my words, and she didn’t have patience for that, so she gently reached for my elbow and motioned for me to follow her inside. “I’ll be damned if you are going to stand in my doorway and let all that cold air in my house. You’re as red as a cooked beet. Warm up,” she said. “Come in, come in. We’ll figure your business quick enough.” I just stood there, dumbstruck, so she added a question: “You slow in the head or something?”
The refrigerator was blanketed in drawings, all of them done in bright colors, reds and yellows, with very little blank space. I used to paint in high school, even won an art competition or two, and I thought about how I never saw the value in negative space but learned to live inside of it. She stared at me, tapping her fingers on the table.
“There’s a possibility of that, yes Ma’am. I’m Rattle, Robert Treble, I mean. It’s good to meet you.” I stuck out my hand, and she took it and gave me a strong squeeze. She was chewing gum, smacking it and nodding almost angrily as everything sunk in, and I wished I had the other bag. I was amused by the thought of offering her strawberry bubblegum, and I almost smiled but stopped quick. She knew who I was, which made her Mrs. Martin, Amber’s mother. She glanced in my helmet, and I realized in that instant how misguided it was to bring lotto tickets and gas station candy to an estranged family member.
“Like to gamble?” she asked.
“I used to. I believe I stopped doing gambling twelve years ago. That is, I believe I learned my lesson about gambling around then.”
“That’s about right, yeah, twelve years. You know, folks still talk about you around town. Not as much, but you come up in conversation. Some of these young thugs think you’re some sort of celebrity.”
“I don’t see why.”
“Nothing going on in this town is all. Don’t take it to heart. Don’t be too proud. So why are you here, planning to stay? You want to scramble up all the good thoughts she’s been having about herself, erase all the success she’s had and then run off again, leaving what, losing lotto tickets behind?”
“That’s poetic, Ma’am, and it’s fair, but no. I came back to do one thing, and that’s apologize. I came back to make sure that kid saw me one time in her life so that she has a memory, even if it’s so buried she can’t find it when she’s awake, just so she has one memory of me.”
Amber’s eyes were something between green and gold, and I caught sight of them after a long silence. She stood in the doorway behind her mother. Mrs. Martin was going to ask me to leave, I could tell, but she’d made the mistake of waiting too long. Amber stood in a way that only people who know who they are stand. She stood upright and leaned in, and I could tell she stood like that no matter what or who she faced. This was not the girl I knew so briefly those years back.
“Mom. Can I have a minute with him?”
After some cross-looking, and with a sigh, Mrs. Martin left the table without a word.
My plan didn’t involve a happy ending, but it involved an introduction, so I readied myself to ask for that. “You look grown up,” I said first. She smiled; I heard Mrs. Martin give a high-pitched heh. I continued. “I heard you’re doing well. I’m surprised you’re doing so well, to be honest. I really didn’t know how broken you were back then.”
Amber pressed the bases of her palms into her eye sockets to shove out any light and held them there a minute. When she removed them she had a little makeup smudged around her eyes. “Broken. I was,” she said. “You were supposed to stay gone. But here you are. An old man.”
An old man,” I repeated, smiling. “With a past.”
“Rattle, I wanted to tell you.”
“You looked for me?” I asked, realizing she could take it as an accusation.
“No. Honestly, no. I wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t tell you and move on at the same time. I didn’t think you’d want to know either. I had the support to keep her, but I almost didn’t. It was hard because I was all set to focus on just me. I met a counselor at the clinic that asked me what I really wanted. I was pregnant when I went through that transition; I’d been too far along by the time I found out, so I didn’t have a choice. That nurse helped me—she was there when Mom was too mad.”
“Yeah, like that. A nurse. Made me want to go to school. Why are you here, really?”
“I wanted to see her.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, but—” She was quiet for a long time, an uncomfortably long time. I was prepared to leave them, to say I tried was enough. “She’ll be home from school soon. I meet her at the bus stop a block down. Her name is Elaine.” She glanced at the clock on the oven across a hall and widened her eyes. “Oh! I have to go now. Can you hand me that red coat?” She spoke quickly as she put on the coat and grabbed her keys. “I’ve told everyone, Rattle, everyone knows that I lied, but they still blame you. I never meant for that.”
I wanted to remove the brown smudges around her eyes with my thumb, even embrace her and tell her it was okay, but it wasn’t. None of this was okay, it just was. There was a little girl, soon to arrive by bus, and she was a lifetime removed from me; this girl carried my tough-luck but hopeful genes, alongside her mother’s. Estelle, if she were still alive, would tell me to give these good people the silly things I’d bought and go back to my real life, the life of a working man who wasn’t tied down and wasn’t causing anyone any stress. Estelle was never tied to anyone, not even me. But the thing that caused me to come back wouldn’t let me leave without seeing my daughter.
“Can you introduce me as a family friend?” I asked.
She seemed at a loss, so I motioned to her eyes then the mirror by the door. “Thank you,” she said, using her pinky to remove the makeup and fixing the collar on her coat. She looked at me through the mirror, said, “How’d you find me?”
She nodded knowingly, said, “I have my own place in Perry. I’m just here for a few months because we had a fire. It was a potholder that caught and reached a towel. I wasn’t thinking, grabbed Elaine before thinking to try to put it out. My first thought was her. Her, then the house. I picked her up out of bed, and by the time we returned to the front room, we had no choice but to grab the phone and rush outside. We had insurance. We’re fine. We’re just starting over in some ways, so here I am with Mom again.”
She was silent, somber, and I said I understood. We walked toward the bus stop, which was at the crossroad near my bike. I was prepared to go in either direction.
“I’ll tell her you’re a friend,” Amber said at last, nodding as though to confirm her own decision. “One question though: Why do you have so many lotto tickets?” We both smiled.
Amber had been seventeen when we slept together in the basement of the club, the room where I would sleep alone later that night. Back then, she’d been so frail and full of fear, but this person before me was a filled-in version of that girl. It was as though she had been a mere outline in a coloring book then. She’d been a stripper when I met her, so I figured she had to be eighteen. She chose not to tell me otherwise until after, so I set about taking off. Before I left, I made sure her father found out about it. He’d been an acquaintance, a good man, and when I made the connection for him, I knew I’d have to leave. We’d used a rubber. I didn’t think there was a chance I’d knocked her up.
I told him I wouldn’t go far for a while. I told him I’d be around if he wanted to kick my ass, but he never came after me. I worked in the southern states a while, then followed a sweet but unstable woman named Mary to Australia where she had a photography gig. There, I stayed. Mary did not.
When Amber turned up pregnant, no one told me, but I don’t blame the guys at the club. They hadn’t bothered me with it because I’d already been identified as a predator, and who was to say it was mine? Truth is, I wouldn’t have wanted to know then. Might not have been capable of reality any other way than it was. I hadn’t been expecting the call.
The cold was a welcome distraction as we stood, waiting. She said she was sorry again, and I said okay, me too.
“You can be part of her life. I’m not saying you should or that you need to, but you can,” she said. “I’ll convince my family to leave you be. Enough time has passed. No one talks about it like that anymore.”
My breath thinned as a squat yellow bus made its way, slowly and safely, toward us. “I was nervous,” I said. “I bought her lottery tickets and candy. I wanted to bring something.” I handed her the bag. “There’s another in my bike,” I added.
She smiled, but not to laugh at me. She smiled dolefully. “That’s nice.
Two girls held tight to the sidebar as they came down the thick stairs that led them from bus to ground. The dark-haired girl, the one with the curls was my kid, I knew it. Amber saw me staring and tapped me. “Not yet,” she said. Another bus arrived, pulling up as the other pulled away. “That one,” Amber directed as though pointing out the melon she wanted at the grocery.
On that day, my daughter was a short girl in a big pink coat with fur around the hood; she eased off the bus gingerly, waved goodbye at the bus and ran toward Amber. “Hey, Mom. I drew some more stuff today,” she said. “You can have the drawings. We had a model today, a frog. He didn’t move too much till this dumb boy poked at him, then he wouldn’t stay still. But I drew him the best I could, and I think you’ll like it enough for the fridge.”
“Of course I will, kiddo,” she said.
Kiddo. It was a term I hadn’t earned the right to use. The girl had my eyes. But she looked a lot like Amber, pale hair and slender. She had that plump bottom lip that gave her an indignant, knowing look. She seemed content. I waited.
“So, um, honey, this is Robert. He’s an old friend, and he rides that cool motorcycle over there. See it?” The girl looked me over, then looked at the bike and smiled mysteriously. “He’s a good guy. I think he might draw a little, too. He can’t stick around today,” she said, looking to me with lifted brows as though offering otherwise. When I didn’t react, she added, “But Robert here, he’s worth knowing.”
“Hi,” Elaine said to me. “Cool bike. It’s really dirty though.”
I felt suddenly comfortable. “Want to see it up close?” I asked. She nodded, so we walked to the bike. I unlocked it and pulled out the bag of chocolate candy and strawberry gum. “I have this candy weighing me down. Want it?”
Looking hesitant, my daughter reached for the bag and asked if she could have what was in the other one, too, the one her mother was holding. She saw some hard candy, butterscotch, and she loved those. I nodded. She asked me what the lottery tickets were, and right there, with kids debussing around us and the cold biting at our cheeks, we all knelt on the pavement and scratched lottery tickets. The one she scratched was a winner, twenty dollars.
“That’s my girl,” Amber said.
“Thanks, sir,” Elaine said. “I’ll put my big bucks to good use.”
As I got on the bike and situated my helmet, I watched my daughter head back toward the house. She was reaching for something, and when I looked closer I saw it was the receipt for the items I’d bought at the gas station. She had carefully folded it and was checking that it was still in her pocket. She stole a glance at my signature, then back at me. “Bye, kiddo,” I said as I revved up. She zipped up her pocket and turned. She walked with purpose, so much purpose.