It had comforted her when the lawyer told her about the trouble in Robbie’s brain. It was why he needed the drugs, why he would disappear and get up to no good. It wasn’t that he had stopped loving her or the girls. It was like being sick, the lawyer had said, but it hadn’t made much difference to the judge.
There was likely an event that had set him off—a catastrophic event, a tragedy. A trigger. Lacey May had tried to think of what it could be, but all the big things had happened long before. Robbie coming to this country, Robbie moving down from New York, Robbie’s mother dying in Colombia. There was the man he’d known from work, the one who left a little boy behind. Lacey had never even heard of the man until Robbie came home, turned on the news, and pointed at the awful picture on the screen, all the yellow caution tape spread over the lawn of a house on the east side of town. 'They killed my friend,' Robbie had said, but, surely, it couldn’t have been that. No matter how she searched their past, Lacey May couldn’t find a reason.
When she was all out of tears, Lacey May got the coin jar out from under the sink, patted Jenkins good-bye, and drove along the service road to the store. Inside she found a clerk and asked for Hank, and she waited for him by the coin machine, trading in all her pennies for a flimsy receipt that said she had earned nine dollars. Hank surfaced from one of the aisles in jeans and a neon-yellow worker’s vest. His hair was long, combed over so it hung down one side of his face. He waved her out the sliding doors and into the parking lot, where he kissed her behind the ear and lit a cigarette.
'God, Lacey, you’re as pretty as you ever were. Do you know that? Your teeth are fit to eat.'
Lacey hardly felt beautiful at all these days. Her eyes were red from too little sleep; she hadn’t been able to afford her good shampoo in weeks. But she did still have her smile, at least. She looked at Hank and turned it on, explained about the 15 percent. She had been careful and budgeted for everything except the gas. It hadn’t gotten cold yet since Robbie went away. She didn’t know.
'You ever think about selling that house?'
'Robbie wouldn’t like that. It’s the only thing we got to pass down to the girls.'
'What good is the house if they freeze to death?'
'Can you bring me on to work or not?'
Hank tapped a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to her. She bent over his lighter, and when she straightened up, she saw he was staring at her. They had been teenagers together, all three of them, her and Hank and Robbie, when they were in high school and working at the Hot Wing. Hank had a face full of acne then, but it had cleared now to nothing but scars, dark shadows along his cheeks. He had always wanted her, she knew, and she had liked having him get things off a high shelf for her, or rush over with a washcloth if she burned herself with the oil. But Robbie was the one who had won her, and they forgot all about Hank until they came in to do their shopping with the girls, and saw him patrolling the aisles with his walkie-talkie and neon vest.
'You know I got a place?' Hank sucked on the tip of his cigarette and let it dance between his lips. 'I’ve got a yard and everything. You and your girls would fill it right up.'
'You would do that for us? You’ve got an extra room?'
'I’ve got a pullout in the basement.'
'It would be tight, all four of us on the couch, but it’s better than letting the girls freeze—'
Hank laughed and shook his head. 'Lacey May, you never could take a hint.'
Lacey looked at him, confused.
'Let’s put it this way—if you stayed with me, it wouldn’t cost you nothing, but it wouldn’t be free neither.'
The wind blew hard and kicked up the smell of gasoline from the pump at the edge of the lot. Lacey pulled her coat around her.
'How would I explain that to the girls? They think their father’s on the coast working a fishing job.'
Hank shrugged. 'I’m a man, not a saint, Lacey.'
She stared at the white button on his vest: team leader. Until now she had never believed the stories she had heard about him. The rumour was that he gave the high school girls who stocked the aisles overtime and whatever shifts they wanted if they let him fondle their t*ts in the back lot during their breaks. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever known a man to do, but she wouldn’t have pinned it on a man like Hank.
'I think I’ll go inside and get a few things for the girls,' Lacey said. She stepped around him and walked toward the store. Hank called after her.
'You were always too proud, Lacey May.'
With her nine dollars, Lacey bought a tin of coffee, another block of cheese, a magazine about TV stars and their weddings, and a fistful of bubblegum lollipops for the girls. She drove back with the heat on low so she could idle in the driveway for a few extra minutes with the engine on.
When the girls clattered in after school, Lacey gave them each a lollipop, and Diane, who had lost three baby teeth to cavities, looked at her mother, as if to see if she were sure. Lacey nodded at her and said, 'That’s right, sweetheart. Go ahead, let it rot your teeth.'
She asked the girls to tell her what they had learned in school while she made their sandwiches and mixed chocolate powder into hot milk. Noelle sliced the cheese into perfect thin squares. 'You could perform surgery with those hands,' Lacey said. 'Gifted hands!' She’d heard the phrase before, but she couldn’t remember where. Noelle didn’t seem touched by the compliment.
What's Mine And Yours by Naima Coster is published by Trapeze in Hardback, eBook and audio available to buy from May 27.
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