My cousin is a librarian. She’s the only relative I have left. We went to the same high school and then afterwards she went to the local college and I worked as a plumber with my father. He even changed the name at the shop, even added it on our two work trucks and our business cards: Casey and Son. My parents have both passed away and now my wife helps me in the office at night after she gets off work. She’ll go over the books and she’ll print out all the billing and help me schedule. During the day she works on the sixth floor of Saint Mary’s as a post-operation nurse. That’s how I met her. Years back when I’d just turned twenty-three, I had an accident on a job site where a beam fell and crushed my leg. I was in the hospital for nearly three weeks and met her there. I wasn’t her regular patient, but a couple times she helped out. We started talking whenever she could. Sometimes she’d take her break with me. She’d sit there while I lay stuck in that bed. I fell in love with her. She felt the same, and even though she was twenty-two and just out of nursing school, we got married while I was still on crutches.
After my dad died, I hired on a kid who had just dropped out of high school. Even then, at age 16, he was a decent plumber.
He’s a good kid too. Shy, but honest. He pours all his money into a broken down 1968 Pontiac LeMans that I let him keep in the shop. All he does is work for me and work on that car. My wife liked him from the first day she met him. She set up a retirement account for him, cut his hair, bought him clothes, and even began making him lunch and putting it next to mine. She’d label each sack like we were both heading off to school.
The kid, Pat Dury, had had a bad home life. I didn’t know anything about it, but one night my wife woke me and explained his situation. So that next weekend, she and I cleaned out the back room in the shop and painted it and put a bed and a dresser and things like that in it, and we told the kid to stay there when things were rough for him. He moved in for good a week later.
I can’t remember where the kid and I were working the day my cousin called me from her home. She was in tears. I’d never heard her cry, not since she was a young girl. Now on the other line was a woman in her mid-forties, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Could you come over right now?” she begged.
I drove to her apartment. When I knocked on the door, she answered in her robe, and her face, the face I’d known my whole life, had a broken nose and two swollen eyes. On her right hand was a handcuff locked to her wrist.
“What the hell happened?” I asked and shut the door behind me.
She walked into the kitchen.
“He locked me to the drain pipe down there,” she said in embarrassment. She pointed to the sink.
“You know who.”
“Why would he?”
“I don’t know. I had to break the pipe. It took a long time.”
“We should call the police.”
“I don’t want anyone to know.” She sat down at the kitchen table with her hands covering her face.
“So what do you want to do?”
“I talked to him today,” she said. “I told him that I just want to be left alone. That’s what we agreed to.”
“I still think you gotta call the police.”
“I know,” she said, but she wouldn’t look at me and wouldn’t say anything more about it.
I brought her to a locksmith, and he took off the handcuff while my wife packed her a suitcase. She came and lived with us for nearly a month. She took a medical leave from her job and when that ended she used her two weeks of vacation. It was hard, she said, to just get out of bed, let alone go to work.
Three months later I went to the dog track with a contractor from the job I was on. The kid, Pat, was there. We sat in the bleachers and after a while I got up to use the toilet and that’s when I saw my cousin’s ex-boyfriend. I couldn’t stop staring at him. I followed him around the building. I stood back by the concrete pillars when he ordered food or when he went to the counter to place a bet.
I watched him for nearly a half hour.
I went to the track once a week after that and watched him. He was always there. Always alone, shoving food down his throat and betting. One evening when my wife was called in for swing shift, I went down to the track with a backpack. Inside it was a hammer and a red ski mask.
I watched him like I always did and finally, when darkness fell and the track cleared, I followed him to his car. I took out the ski mask and began to put it on. He worked as a manager at a department store. He was five feet six inches with a large gut and was balding. He drove a worn-out Buick and he smoked menthols and he beat up my cousin. He handcuffed her to a sink pipe. How many times had he done that? To what other women?
I took out the hammer and walked behind him. I wanted to break his knees. I didn’t want to kill him, but I wanted justice. Shouldn’t there be justice? Shouldn’t there be? I wanted to scar him the way he scarred her.
And I tried, I really did try to take the hammer and crush his knees so he’d always walk knowing what he’d done. Knowing what kind of person he was. Knowing what kind of man he’d ended up being.
But in the end, I couldn’t. I just stood there in that parking lot and watched him drive away, and I felt as lost and lonely as I ever had. A blackness came over me and I sat down on the asphalt. It was like someone had hit me in the guts. It was like someone had hit me in the guts with my own life.
I have a wife who wakes me up in tears in the middle of the night because she can’t get pregnant and she hates herself because of it. She hates her life because of it. I got a kid who works for me who isn’t even eighteen and has no friends. My wife says he’s never kissed a girl, never even held one’s hand or talked to one on the phone. He’s never even spent the night over at a friend’s house or gone to a movie with anyone his own age. And my cousin’s slipping away. We all see it. My wife tries to get her to see a counselor, but it’s like she’s just given up, like she’s just thrown in the towel.
Maybe it’s like the summer here. Where it’s hotter than hell and it’s relentless and there’s not anything anyone can do about it. Maybe in the end there isn’t any justice. Maybe in the end you just get let out and nothing more. And that’s the thought that really worries me. That’s the thought that left me broken in the parking lot with no desire to do anything but just sit there and let time pass.
[This story first appeared in print in The Ne’er-Do-Well #3: Working-Class Stories.]
Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, Willy Vlautin started playing guitar and writing songs as a teenager and quickly became immersed in music. It was a Paul Kelly song, based on Raymond Carver’s Too Much Water So Close to Home that inspired him to start writing stories. Vlautin has published four novels: The Motel Life (2007), Northline (2008), Lean on Pete (2010), and The Free (2014).
Vlautin founded the band Richmond Fontaine in 1994. The band has produced nine studio albums to date, plus a handful of live recordings and EPs. Driven by Vlautin’s dark, story-like songwriting, the band has achieved critical acclaim at home and across Europe. 2014 will see the debut album from Vlautin’s new band, The Delines, featuring vocalist Amy Boone (The Damnations).
Vlautin currently resides in Scappoose, Oregon.