Roo and I were driving along the bank of the Ohio River on the West Virginia side. We were on our way into town to buy a used cardboard box. You can always tell something about how a town is doing by what’s in the free classifieds, but even when a place is down to junkyards and a tire repair stand, you don’t see many single cardboard boxes listed. Cardboard box, Good Shape, 36 x 18 x 18, $2 OBO. I was just going to go the whole two bucks.
Right around Second Amendment Road, I pulled over to let Roo take a look at the river. The Ohio is one of America’s big ones — its mud-brown water runs a thousand navigable miles from Pittsburgh to join the Mississippi in Illinois. An old man with time on his hands wandered over to have a look at Roo.
“Okay to say hi to your dog?” he said.
“She’d be glad if you did,” I said. “She’s not as mean as she looks.”
“Oh, I can see you’re a real mean dog,” he said to Roo while he held out a hand for her to smell. He got a wag and a smile from Roo and scratched her ears. “You’re a good dog, aren’t you?” he said to her.
“She’s a whole pack of pit bulls,” I said.
He looked up to me and said, “I had a Golden,” he said. “Best dog I ever had. Got cancer, though. Died young. Fine dog, though.”
I told him that my dog before Roo had also died young of cancer and we got to small talking and looking at the river came up and he pointed to an old tree on the bank.
“See right down there? Used to picnic some Sundays after the wife got back from church. Just me and her. Back then people picnicked. I guess they still do. She’d wrap some chicken in wax paper and a bottle of pop. I didn’t have the dog yet or I would have brought him. But you could look at that river all you wanted and you’d never see a drop of water. It was wall-to-wall barges and tugs. They ran thick as paint. Steel, lumber, you name it, it came down that river. A long time ago they even made sewer pipe right here. Hundred acres of stacks. They never set. They just shipped out and kept stacking. Wasn’t dead like this.”
Now you can see all the water you want. We’ve driven up and down this stretch at least a dozen times and haven’t seen any freight at all on the river. There are a couple of tugs tied up on the Ohio side under the bridge in East Liverpool, but that’s about it. The old factories are abandoned now, the sheet metal walls rusting off their rivets and snapped angle-iron supports dangling in places like all that’s left of the wings of a vulture blown into barbed wire. Even the padlocks on the chain link fences have turned brown. Whoever had the keys last is likely dead. On the opposite side of the road are a couple of abandoned strip clubs, the size of small warehouses, perfectly positioned to ambush a pay envelope on the way home, but they, too, have weeds growing from the cracks in their parking lots and letters missing from the marquees.
At the end of town we passed a chain pizza joint that had a sagging banner outside advertising a $7.99 special for a large pizza. The catch was you had to order online to get the discount, so I did, specifying anchovies, Roo’s favorite. It gave the option to pay in the store or with a credit card now, and rather than enter the long number on the phone, I opted to pay there. A tracking widget popped up on the site to keep me posted on the minute-to-minute progress of the pizza. It informed me that Andy had placed the pizza in the oven at 4:48.
We went to pick the cardboard box up in the back of an old machine shop and headed back to the pizza place. There had been a sprinkle of rain, but not enough to cool the baked asphalt, and steam was rising from it when we got there.
While I was paying for the pizza, a young woman — I know that’s what one is supposed to say, but she was a girl, really, 17 or 18 — came in. She was flushed and tired-looking and in a hurry. She got to the counter and edged sideways in front of me to speak to the cashier. She was wearing a black tank top and had a tattoo on her shoulder blade. It was full of mistakes, maybe done by one of the meth heads who finance their habit by getting worn-out mail-order tattoo kits at pawn shops or out from under the beds of relatives in custody and assembling convincing portfolios of tattoo pictures they find online.
What would have been eraser smudges if it were a pencil drawing were instead areas of overwrought adjustment where more and more lines of frenzied green ink had been added to try to repair things, and then whole blotches to cover bigger mistakes, the way someone might fill in an absentminded ballpoint heart with an arrow through it before anyone saw it. I imagined the tattoo artist telling her, “It’s looking real good, baby. Gonna be hot,” and she believing it and waiting to see her new skin in a mirror.
Seeing it made me feel terrible. It wasn’t a tattoo, it was an emblem of the general ruin. It had reached all the way down to this individual young body, carrying now and until hers went the way of all flesh this stigmata of the Bad American Start. It was not her fault. It was a branding engineered by the liars and con men promising more guns, more Jesus, lower taxes and an end to abortion, in other, truer words, the plundered budgets of schools and libraries and hospitals and unions and community centers.
The cashier’s terminal kept instructing her to enter all sorts of codes, one at a time, then rejecting her entries and forcing her to re-enter them in order to get my credit card transaction approved.
“Is Andy here?” the girl with the tattoo said to the cashier.
The cashier looked towards the kitchen factory area, which was open to full view, and said, “Oh. Andy? I don’t know. He was. I really don’t know. I think he was here before. Anybody seen Andy? Maybe he stepped out or something.”
Thinking nothing of it, I said, “So there really is an Andy. The web site just told me that a guy named Andy just made my pizza. I thought it was just a gimmick.”
The girl shot me a look as if I was a surprise mystery witness brought to the stand to clinch a murder case against someone she knew was guilty of a crime but was not yet prepared to side with a stranger over.
Andy, however, had not stepped out. Where he had stepped was behind a wall out of sight to the customers, but right next to the cashier who had tried to cover for him, and, trying to look unbusted, he headed toward the work area.
He was the kind of kid who worked hard at cultivating the look of cruelty. Maybe he was insecure about his height or being as skinny as he was. It might have been his nose, which would have looked squashed on a pug. He was wearing shorts and his legs looked like surgical tubing. They were covered in tattoos of the style intended on the one on the girl’s back. They were about the same age.
“Can we step outside?” she said to Andy.
‘Uh-oh,’ I thought. ‘Didn’t see the angry-girlfriend-showing-up-at-work-vibe coming.’
“Yeah, we could,” Andy said. “If I wanted to.” Hopefully this pizza job was just temporary, because the sooner Andy got into the asshole business the sooner he would rise to the top of a profession. His sneer showed off a gold ring he had through his nostril. It was too small for anyone to hook a finger in if they wanted to booger-fling him by it into the Ohio.
The idle comment I had made about Andy’s name on the web site made me feel uncomfortably involved in this, which of course I didn’t want to be, so I was trying to become invisible the way dogs do at inopportune moments. Any second the pizza would be handed to me by the cashier — who was wide-eyed and red-faced because of her lie about Andy not being there when he was actually hiding right next to her, and I wanted to get clear.
“Yeah, well, you and I need to talk. We need to talk right now,” the girl said to Andy.
“I know you know how to text.”
“Like you answer texts.”
He drifted sideways to position himself behind a steel worktable and, though there were no pizzas in the pipeline and he was doing nothing, said, “I ain’t got a break coming.”
She took a deep breath as if to give herself another chance to reconsider saying what she had planned to say. But she went through with it, raising her voice to make sure everyone heard.
“Okay, then,” she said. “When are you going to come see the baby?”
Andy stared out the plate glass window in the direction of the flaking plywood on the abandoned storefronts across the street. Once, those shops had probably sold vacuum cleaners and apple corers and ukuleles and summer dresses and manicure sets you could get your initials stamped on in gold. Now they were just more of the coffins piling up in the gutters of former boom towns. Andy didn’t answer her.
She said, more confidently now, “You have to come see the baby.”
Andy stared out the window more intently, as if he had just noticed a custom Harley in one of the windows and was considering buying it. He would extend the forks and make it into a chopper. Choppers were badass. Get a badass paint job on the tank, too. Those are real badass. And straight pipes so they hear you coming from a mile away.
She took another few breaths ad said, “All right. Why don’t I just bring the baby in to see you, then?”
“I don’t want to see your baby,” Andy said.
The thought occurred to me that from where I was, if she pulled out a gun and aimed it at Andy, I would be able to grab her wrist and stop her, but wouldn’t.
The cashier said, “Darn it. I made a mistake. Can I see your card one more time?” It was as if the transaction was undergoing close scrutiny by a hastily-convened meeting of the board of directors at the bank’s headquarters in New York, where they were tired of hearing from this part of the country now that the factory pensions had been successfully pirated. But, finally, word came from a walnut-paneled boardroom on the 56th floor of an office tower overlooking Central Park that another eight bucks of credit was extended, as long everyone in that goddamned town swore never to call on them again.
The cashier gave me the pizza at the same time the girl — the young mother — reached her limit. She had been holding her head high in her exchange with Andy, but she sagged and turned away in the loneliest way I have ever seen and went ahead of me to the door. Even at this moment of her struggle, her instinct for politeness was intact. She didn’t seem to realize she was holding the door for me until she heard me say, “Thank you.” I don’t know if I said it wrong or if it sounded like there was something else I was thinking or if I just looked awkward. Whatever it was surprised her enough to make her smile for a second.
“You’re very welcome,” she said. The bottom rim of one of her eyes was wet.
She walked fast in her scuffed suede boots to a battered little car with one mis-matched yellow junkyard door and old adhesive window tinting peeling off. She opened the door and leaned in and reached down to something I couldn’t see in the passenger seat.