by Constance Squires
From Fall 2018
Agnes opened the door. “What do you want?” She breathed the air of the hot day outside and became aware of how rank the apartment smelled, even with the air conditioner cranking full blast.
“Uncle Clay wants to see you one last time,” Agnes’s father said. He and her brother stood out on the landing of the apartment she shared with her friend, Mark, all the guys in his band, their girlfriends, and some other people. “He’s had a heart attack. Come with us.” Her father twisted the bill of his John Deere hat into a narrow concave. “It’s not that we don’t respect your decision to run off and live with these lowlifes,” he said, nodding politely at Mark and another guy, who were sitting, trancelike, in front of a television. “We wouldn’t bother you if it wasn’t an emergency. He’s the only one of us you can stand, right? So we thought you’d want to be with him.”
Agnes grabbed her sunglasses, pulled on her combat boots, and jumped into the pickup, sitting between her father and brother. “Please not Uncle Clay.” She felt the buzz of a late-morning smoke-out leave her, chased away by a cold and fearful sobriety. She loved her Uncle Clay more than she loved the rest of her family combined and could hardly keep herself from crying, but she couldn’t cry in front of her brother and her dad. Old as Clay was, it was hard to imagine anything going wrong with him. Then it dawned on her. “It’s the radioactivity, isn’t it?”
“That’s just one of his stories,” her father said. “You can’t believe a word he says.”
But the fact that her dad said it wasn’t true only made her more inclined to believe the story. Not that her father was a liar, but he was never the sort to acknowledge an inconvenient truth if he could avoid it. Agnes remembered when she had first found out. At a Fourth of July picnic when she was very young, maybe six or seven, she caught brother Dave, who was four years older, ducking around the corner of the house to avoid their great-uncle Clay, who was loping toward them in overalls carrying a handful of fireworks. Dave pulled her with him behind a Rose of Sharon bush, and while they ducked, he told her that Clay was highly radioactive. “Have you heard of Hiroshima?” he whispered.
She hadn’t, and thought it sounded like the name of a dragon until Dave filled her in. Uncle Clay was in the navy during World War II and had landed at Hiroshima to collect data for the government four days after the bomb dropped. He absorbed a bunch of radioactivity, and it wasn’t the kind of thing you could shower off.
“What is radioactivity, anyway?” Agnes had asked. “What’s it mean?”
Dave had fumbled for a definition. “It’s really bad. That’s all you need to know. It’s too complicated for me to tell you more.”
Agnes knew that Dave had no clearer picture of what it meant than she did, and her only notion of the term came from a Scooby-Doo cartoon. “Well, does Uncle Clay glow in the dark, or what?”
“I’ve never seen him glow. But he can’t get his teeth fixed because whenever a dentist gets near him with their equipment, he shorts it out. For real! That’s how he discovered it. And I hear he sets off metal detectors. Didn’t you ever notice that he doesn’t ever go to the airport?”
“We never go to the airport, either.”
Agnes loved the story. She wanted to believe, as Clay did, that his radioactivity gave him special powers, that the contamination that should have killed him had actually made him stronger.
Instead of driving to the hospital, her father turned into their rundown subdivision across from the junior high. In a minute, he was pulling up to his own oil-stained driveway. Agnes recognized the cars and trucks of her relatives along the side of the street. She choked then, the convocation of the family making Clay’s death real. “Is he here?” she cried. “Why didn’t you take him to the hospital?”
“There wasn’t time,” her father said, patting her leg. “Just settle down, Agnes.” She pushed her brother out of the cab and ran up the steps to the house.
All the members of Agnes’s family were in the yellow living room, knee to knee on seldom sat-upon couches, the plastic protective covers pulled from the furniture for this special occasion. She stood in the front door, scanning their faces, all cast in shadow by the sun pouring in behind her. Something strange was going on. She was familiar with the look and feel of a room full of her own bereaved relatives. Aunt Barb, Uncle Clay’s wife of forty-two years, had died just seven months ago, and Agnes remembered the streaked faces and the sobbing and the sound of stricken voices in the hospital waiting room. But the same people, grieving then, didn’t seem to be grieving now. Instead they looked mostly embarrassed. Contempt for them all rose in her chest like steam. Not a trace of a tear. They had disliked her Uncle Clay even more than she realized. Maybe they even hated him the way they hated her.
“Where is he?” She rushed to the hall and ran down it, opening the bedroom doors, including her own. Her band posters weren’t on her walls anymore. Her stuffed animals weren’t there. Clay wasn’t there, either.
“Clay’s fine,” said her brother, meeting her at the end of the hall. His eyes, dark like hers and their mother’s, fixed on her, and he grabbed her by the elbow, leading her back into the living room. “But you’re not.” She looked up into his face. “This is the end of the road for you, Agnes.”
“I don’t understand.”
He was pulling her toward the living room.
“Where’s Uncle Clay? What’s this got to do with me?”
Her body absorbed the good news that Clay wasn’t dying before her mind did, adrenaline dropping like a tap turned off, and she felt limp with relief. But then, what was all this? Clay was fine. She was not. They were all there to tell her she was not fine.
Her stepmother, Phyllis, in white capri pants with rhinestones on the butt, circled the room with a plate of sandwiches, and called out over her shoulder. “This is an intervention,” she said, in the same chipper voice that usually touted a fancy drink recipe, “a kamikaze.”
Agnes’s confusion clarified into a bright rage. She turned back toward the front door, but a wall of uncles and cousins, wincing with embarrassment, blocked her path.
Her grandmother Mary, Uncle Clay’s sister, rose and put her hands on Agnes’s shoulders, the sagging flesh of her upper arms hanging like the swag curtains across the top of the front window. She had made all her preparations for crying—she was wearing her eyeglasses instead of her contacts, and no mascara. With a firmness that Agnes had never heard in her voice, she said, “Agnes, we can’t watch you die. We don’t want to see you kill yourself.” She smoothed Agnes’s hair and said more gently, “If you go back to high school soon, honey, you could still graduate with your class. I still have that dress pattern you picked out for homecoming—I could finish it in time for the junior prom!” she said.
Grandma Mary’s was just the inaugural volley. Her father brought in a straight-back chair from the dining room and put it in the middle of the room where the coffee table usually was and told her to sit in it. Then they took turns, laying out everything she’d ever done wrong and not letting her respond. She wondered where they read how to do this, and if they had rehearsed what they were going to say.
Phyllis was next. “We can’t even think about going back to the First Baptist Church after what you did to Reverend Carold’s son behind the baptistery—and I loved that church.” Agnes snorted but said nothing. That little fucker had pinned her to the floor with his hand against her windpipe and was ready for romance before she managed to rack him and clock him in the jaw. Now he’s the victim? All right.
Agnes could tell that her father was none too broken up about not being able to go back to church, but he was mad at other things. “You’ve totaled two cars, sweetie. Those were both good cars, low miles.” His ears had turned bright red, and his blue eyes were wet. “You were such a sweet little girl.”
Her aunt Julie stepped forward with the unnatural formality of someone taking the stand to testify in court and revealed that she knew Agnes was responsible for running over her mailbox.
“Aunt Julie, why would I do that?”
“You’re not supposed to talk,” Phyllis said.
Then Lewis, her five-year-old stepbrother, not looking up from the toy trucks he was smashing together on the daffodil-colored carpet, demanded she return four dollars and twenty-six cents he accused her of stealing from his piggy bank. She did feel badly about that one. “I’m sorry, little buddy. It was just a loan.”
Her Uncle Don stood up, rubbing the turquoise nugget in his bolo tie, something he wore when he was expecting Native American clients at his insurance office. “I always knew you were headed for trouble,” he said. “It’s not really your fault, Agnes. You got a loaded deck in the gene department, and there’s probably not much can be done for you, though I hope I’m wrong. You’ll end up like your Uncle Clay, if you’re not careful. Or like your mother. If you survive, young lady.”
Agnes closed her eyes and felt around inside herself for the buzz she had had going when she left her apartment. Some numbness somewhere, a fuzzy spot she could step inside while they talked. She hated Don anyway. He expressed affection by holding her down and giving her Indian burns on her head until she cried “Uncle,” to which he would respond, “That’s me!” and release her, laughing merrily at his wordplay. Now this moron was her moral counselor. It was too sickening.
“I’d be happy to be like my mother or Uncle Clay!”
“Ears open, mouth shut, Agnes,” Dave said, pointing his finger. “It’s my turn. If that creep you’re living with has got you on methamphetamines, you’ll be a snaggletooth old skank before you’re twenty.”
What did she have to lose? She was presumed guilty no matter what she did, just like her mother, who had run off when Agnes was five, unable to stand their judgment either. By the time she was thirteen, Agnes had started drinking or smoking anything that came her way. The worst part of listening to her family’s accusations was that even though most of her family members were utter and perfect assholes, they were right about one thing: she was an addict.
She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. In a low voice she said, “I want to go live with my mother.”
The room fell silent and everyone looked at Agnes’s father. He tilted his head and looked down, a sign of resignation that was one of his most characteristic poses. “You can’t.”
“You always say that,” Agnes said.
“That’s right, so why are you bringing it up? You can’t stay with her.”
Agnes fixed him with a hard gaze. She felt Dave’s allegiance shift, felt his body language turn on their father as he stared at him with an intensity equal to her own. “Why not?”
“It’s just not possible, Agnes. She doesn’t—she isn’t—.”
“She’s dead,” her stepmother said from the couch. She crossed her arms and looked around, a triumphant set to her chin. Shock and confusion passed over everyone’s faces.
Something inside Agnes went into free fall and a long wail poured from her throat, filling the room like water. Agnes’s father whipped around and gave Phyllis a look that Agnes couldn’t see. “She is not,” he hissed.
Phyllis’s face fell and she shrugged elaborately. “May as well be,” she said.
Her father smiled at her. “She’s not, sweetie. She’s fine. Last I heard, she’s fine.”
Agnes wiped her eyes and stared at her stepmother. “You lying fucking bitch! Too bad you’re not dead.”
She heard her grandmother gasp and saw Dave drop his eyes. Agnes’s father took a step toward her. He was holding out a colorful brochure. “We’re sending you to Crystal Meadows in Oklahoma City, honey. They’re expecting you this afternoon.”
Agnes wiped her eyes and took the brochure. On the cover, a photograph showed a group of people sitting in a circle on green, green grass next to a blue, blue lake. Talking about their feelings, no doubt. Learning to love themselves and making five-year plans. “I see,” she said, handing the brochure back to her father.
A treatment center! Why not bury her alive? They could all shovel dirt over her while Phyllis served sandwiches. Uncle Clay, who was supposed to be dying, wasn’t even there. She knew he had probably refused to be a party to their nonsense, had probably told them all where to go, if they’d invited him at all.
She told them she was going to the kitchen to put more ice in her tea glass. They gave each other looks. “Hey!” She stomped a foot. “It’s iced tea!”
She walked to the kitchen and straight out the sliding glass door. She crossed the yard and went through the gate to the easement that ran behind all the houses on their street and the next street over. Agnes ran hard, wishing she had worn socks with her boots as she felt blisters blooming against her heels. The easement let out across the street from a 7-Eleven and a daycare center. She ran toward them. In the 7-Eleven she quickly pulled a sixpack of Bud from the cooler and swung it onto the counter to pay for it, throwing money and her fake ID onto the counter.
She looked up, startled. Her Uncle Clay stood right behind her, jangling his car keys and blocking the Oklahoma sun pouring through the windows with his huge frame. She was enveloped in a familiar cloud of Old Spice and sweat.
“Oh! Hey!” Agnes turned to face him, making an effort to distance herself from the beer on the counter. She whisked her fake ID back into the back pocket of her jeans and shot the clerk a warning look before she turned back and stared up at her uncle. “You’re okay! Do you know what they’re doing in your name?”
“What who’s doing?”
She squeezed his leathery forearm. “You don’t know what’s going on, do you? I knew you wouldn’t. They want to ship me off to drug rehab.”
Clay stood still, processing her words. No one in Clay’s life had ever been sure whether he was unintelligent or just poorly socialized. He always received any information with a built-in delay, like a bomb set to go off after the person who triggered it was well away and out of range. He absorbed Agnes’s words slowly before he finally boomed, “Let’s take a ride. You can tell me what the hell’s going on. You want this beer?” he asked, paying for it along with a Dallas newspaper and a can of cream soda.
They adjourned to his old, green Pontiac, a car that looked like it belonged to a teenager rather than an eighty-one-year-old navy veteran, oil wildcatter, and ladies’ man. The back bumper of his car was covered with conspiracy bumper stickers, one that said, “I Don’t Believe The Mainstream Press,” and another that said, “Ship Happens,” with a picture of a flying saucer. Agnes assumed that Clay’s cranky right-wing willingness to believe in vast government conspiracies stemmed from the radioactivity he had carried away from Hiroshima. It had addled his brain. Or maybe it was all those years in the oil fields, watching what men will do to cover up their misdeeds. Agnes told him about the intervention while Clay drove toward the Wichita Mountains that rose from the plains west of town. He reached I-44 and jumped onto the highway, driving northeast toward Medicine Park, Chickasha, Oklahoma City, Chandler, Tulsa, and points out of state.
“Are we running away?” Agnes asked from the depths of the bucket seat, trying to determine whether she could get away with opening a beer.
“Just driving. Where did you say they wanted to send you?” He hit rewind on the cassette player in his dash and started it a few times before he finally got it where he wanted it. Agnes already knew what was coming, the only question being which version of her uncle’s one-and-only favorite song he would play for her.
“Drug rehab in Oklahoma City! That Crystal Meadows place. Sounds like a freakin’ mall. Or a funeral parlor. You’re not on their side, are you?”
“Hell no. Sometimes you can pollute yourself for the better. I’m the most polluted person you know. Let’s just get out of town.”
It wasn’t Townes Van Zandt’s own version, he being the song’s author, nor Waylon Jennings, who also handled it pretty well. No, what filled the car now was, in fact, Agnes’s favorite version of “The Ballad of Poncho and Lefty,” a live version that Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson sang. Agnes, being more of a thrasher, more of an ear-bleeding hardcore kind of girl, was no fan of country music, but she secretly shared her uncle’s love of that song. The inside of the car was freezing, Clay having turned the air conditioning on so high that Agnes had found it necessary to crawl into the backseat and dig one of Clay’s old flannel shirts out of the floorboard. Now she sat in a blue-and-green flannel that smelled of engine oil and covered her to her knees while scenery rolling past testified to the heat outside the car: parched trees, dead prairie, and roadkill turned to papery wafers of desiccated flesh baked into the road with bits of hair waving in the wind.
“I’m freezing,” Agnes said.
Clay turned up the radio and began singing the part about the federales that let Poncho and Lefty get away. Out of kindness, that was the line. “I suppooose,” Uncle Clay intoned in a voice too sentimental by half. And what bass in that old throat! But what a weird line. Agnes never quite understood it, how kindness factored into pursuit and capture, or the failure thereof. There was the odd moment where she knew there were things she didn’t understand yet, and hearing that line was one of them.
“I thought old people were always cold,” she said.
“Just old frail people, not hot-blooded strong types like your Uncle Clay,” he said, punching Agnes in the shoulder. She could remember him punching her like that when she was a little girl, nearly knocking her over, but she had loved it. It was different from the Indian burn her Uncle Don always gave her. Uncle Don’s Indian burn made her a child, there to be humiliated, but Uncle Clay’s punch in the arm made her an adult, and pulled her conspiratorially into the world of men.
“I think it’s because you’re radioactive that you don’t get cold. Nuclear energy heats, right? Your body is stoked with its own heat source.”
He grinned behind his yellow-lensed aviator shades and gave her a sidelong glance. “Oh, you know about me, do you? Well, maybe so. There’s no way of knowing all the ways my radioactivity has made me special. I set off metal detectors. Did you know that? Your Aunt Barb used to say I glow in certain kinds of light.” Aunt Barb had been dead only seven months, but already Agnes found her difficult to recall. She had been a pear-shaped woman, built like a nautical liquor decanter designed for stability at sea, delicate on top and heavy on the bottom. Agnes could never help equating her physique with the stolid, unresponsive way she seemed to handle the rough waters of her marriage. Agnes guessed that it was Barb who had discouraged Uncle Clay from telling people about his radioactivity.
“You’d think you’d be dead for sure. I know they didn’t know much about radioactivity back then, but they had to know better than to send soldiers in before the smoke had even cleared.” She watched her great-uncle as he leaned forward in the driver’s seat, intent on passing a semi. He wore his hair in a longish pompadour, like Jerry Lee Lewis circa “Great Balls of Fire,” pure silver but thick and healthy looking. He always wore one piece in the front pulled down, a studied, roguish affectation. Agnes had never seen him when that piece of hair was not perfectly pulled forward over his forehead, curling at the end.
“We were what the government calls acceptable losses. You should have been there with me in the army dentist office the day they figured it out. Poor fella’s drill short-circuited whenever he brought it near me.” He slapped his palms against the steering wheel, laughing. “He’d start that drill and, why, just when he brought it into my mouth, it made this pitiful sound and stopped.” Agnes stared at her uncle. She had heard the dentist story from her brother and so only half-believed it. To hear it now from her uncle was like reading some forbidden government document. She felt strangely exhilarated.
“That really happened?”
“Pumpkin, I swear it.”
“I wasn’t that surprised when the tests came back. I’ve always known something was different about me. Your Aunt Barb wasn’t all that surprised, either, but she sure was scared.”
“Because it’s scary. I can’t believe you didn’t go to a doctor or a dentist in all those years.”
“Doctors kill people. Ever notice that most people die in the hospital? I stay out of those places, and look at me. I’m in perfect health for a man twenty years younger than me. Hell, thirty.”
“Are you going to play that song again?” she said, watching his calloused finger pressing the rewind button again.
“I’ll play it til you hear it.”
She tossed her hands up. “I don’t like doctors either. That’s why I’m not going to Crystal Meadows.”
“Speaking of treatment,” Clay said. He lifted his pelvis slightly off the seat and reached deep into the front pocket of his khakis, pulling out a handful of change and handing it to her. “Why don’t you fish around in those coins and see what you find?”
Agnes took the coins in the palm of one hand and sifted through them. “These aren’t American, most of them. They’re beat-up looking.” She stared at their blackened surfaces and the foreign alphabet raised around the edges. “Oh, wait,” Agnes said, as she realized what she was holding. She yanked open the unused ashtray and dropped them as if they were searing her palms.
“Japanese. I picked them up on Hiroshima after the bomb. Ground zero. I was like somebody walking through Golgotha right after they took our Lord down from the cross, while his blood was still in the dirt. Before it became a story, you know? I wanted some souvenirs. They were still hot to the touch.”
Agnes recoiled. She had heard of the coins, but her uncle had never shown them to her, never talked to her about them before. What she knew she’d heard from her brother, who had told her they made clocks run fast, changed traffic lights and television stations, and made cell phones accept collect calls from Japanese ghosts reaching out from the other side. She had always wondered if they were real, assuming that, if they were, Clay kept them in a lead-lined box at the bottom of a drawer. But no. “I touched them! Pull over. I want to wash my hands.” She stared at her hands outstretched before her. She wanted to shake them, to scrape them, to purify them with water or fire. Whatever was on them, in them, she couldn’t see or feel or smell. She couldn’t do a thing about it. “Washing won’t help, will it?” She began to breathe heavily. It felt like steel bands were tightening around her lungs. She leaned forward and pressed her cheek against the dash. “Oh God, Uncle Clay. Am I going to die?”
“You’re okay, Pumpkin.” She felt his big hand patting her back. “You’re not afraid to touch me, are you? I held you in these two hands when you weren’t big enough for a snack, and I’ve hugged you more times than we could ever count. Hasn’t done you any harm.”
“How do we know that? Maybe that’s why I’m so messed up.”
Uncle Clay was silent. Finally, he said, “At least you admit it.”
“Okay. Yeah, I’m screwed up.” As if to demonstrate, Agnes tore a beer out of the six-pack. She felt uncomfortable drinking in front of him, but she couldn’t wait any more, and took a swig. “Want one?”
“No, thanks, but you go ahead.”
“I have nothing in common with my family, and they just want me to be like them. I’d rather die.”
“Well, you’ll be real different when you’re dead and they’re alive,” Clay said. Agnes flinched at this remark. She turned toward the window and watched scenery—the Cherokee Nation Bingo Hall, the water tower, and the thick stone walls of the old Fort Sill corral. They rode without speaking for some time before Clay spoke again: “You’re a lot like your mother.”
“Really?” Agnes loved to hear this coming from Clay, who had always liked her mother and had always hated her stepmother, further proof of Clay’s superiority to the rest of the family. She had heard about her similarities to her mother often enough in a negative light from Phyllis, who had attributed wild and lascivious motives to Agnes since the day she was seven and a boy her age walked up to her in a Dairy Queen and shyly offered her his baseball, kissed her on the cheek, and ran back to his own table. Agnes accepted the ball—she loved baseball. This transaction had been all the evidence Phyllis needed that Agnes carried the slut gene and would turn out just like her mother, who Agnes had expected to blaze into town and reclaim her, and maybe even her brother, any day, every day of her life.
Clay was in the middle of one of his suspended delays. Finally he nodded hard. “This family didn’t know what to do with your mother, either. Just like you. She was a sweet girl, but they were determined to think the worst of her, and finally she just gave in and became what they thought she was. They were always calling her ‘flighty.’ One day she just flew. I hope you don’t do that.”
“I want to find her.”
“I understand that.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“Sure don’t, Pumpkin.”
Agnes turned and looked out the window again. They were passing the sign that marked where the path of the Chisholm Trail crossed I-44. Her mind conjured an image of one of those massive longhorn herds on its way to Kansas crossing the highway in front of them, stopping traffic. She thought of Poncho and Lefty galloping up the yellow line with old, gray federales on their trail, careful not to overtake them.
“Listen, I’ve got a plan to cure you of these addictions or whatever it is that’s got you.”
Agnes looked at him. She knew she needed help. Over the last few weeks she had begun waking up in a panic, remembering nothing of the night before, feeling like she’d been on a sunny day hike and slid into a den of rattlesnakes. “I am a little scared. I don’t want to die, but I can’t go into that stupid treatment center and come out all white-washed, telling them how sorry I am and that I’ll never do it again. Fuck that.”
“You can sure cuss, for a sixteen-year old. Want to hear my plan?”
She thought about Mark and the fumes and the grime and the nonstop TV at the apartment and knew she couldn’t go back there. She thought about Phyllis telling her that her mother was dead—a bold-faced lie she had felt confident enough would be okay to say loud and proudly in front of everyone. There was nowhere and no one except her mother and Uncle Clay. He was probably the only person who could save her. Agnes turned in her seat. “Okay.”
He reached into the ashtray, scooped up the coins, and held them out to her. “Take them,” he said solemnly.
“What?” She backed away from his outstretched hand. “Why?”
“The thing is, Agnes, the radioactivity I got from carrying those coins has kept me from ever getting sick. I’ve never even had a cold. I think somehow what’s in those coins is just the right dose to heal instead of kill.”
“That’s your plan?” Agnes said, pushing his arm away. “Put them down, Uncle Clay. I thought you were really trying to help me.”
“The coins will fix you, Agnes,” he said, shaking them at her. “They will. I’ll need them back after a while—I’ve still got good reasons for staying young—but carry them till you kick your bad habits. Go ahead, kiddo.”
For the first time in her life the collective unease her family felt toward Clay began to seem like something other than sanctimonious clannishness. “No way. I thought you really had an idea. What if I died of cancer in a year? Then how would you feel?”
“You’ll probably be dead in a year, anyway, Pumpkin, if you keep on doing what you’ve been doing. What have you got to lose?”
“I can stop by myself.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“The coins can fix you right up, Agnes. Really. I’m going to tell you something. Your family’s against me, but you’ll understand. I’m about to get remarried. Most men my age are food for worms, or wish they were. I’m about to take a bride. A young one. And let’s just say that I have no fears about being able to perform my marital duties.”
Agnes palmed her face. “Uncle Clay.”
“I’m telling you, it’s the coins. There’s still gas in the old tank!”
“Aren’t you supposed to still be mourning Aunt Barb?”
“I’m eighty-two. I don’t have time for mourning. Her name is Doynia.”
“Where’d you meet her?”
“Found her on that Internet. She’s from the Ukraine. She’s twenty-nine, and she’s some hot number. Here, look.” Clay pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and laid it on the dashboard, wrestling out a folded-up piece of paper and handing it to Agnes. “Feast your eyes on the next Mrs. Clay Parker.”
Agnes unfolded the paper. What she saw was a color photograph printed from a computer of a young woman with long, dark hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. She had a large nose and a bad complexion, and her eyes looked tired. “This is some kind of scam, Uncle Clay. This woman just wants a green card.”
“I just want a bride. We can help each other. You think ol’ Lefty would’ve ended up in that cheap hotel if he’d a had a wife? No way. Anyway, I was only trying to make a point about those coins. You need to take them, Agnes. Something’s got to be done for you. Here’s the deal, Agnes. Here’s the deal. Listen to me. Here it is.” He lowered the sunglasses on his nose and turned to face her. Agnes could see that he was in the grip of an epiphany. “You take the coins, or I’m taking you to rehab.”
Agnes smashed her fists against the dash. “Stop the car, Uncle Clay. Let me out.” They were close to Oklahoma City. Agnes knew plenty of people in Oklahoma City that she could hide with. She would call someone.
Clay sped up, whipping the car into the fast lane. “Just make a choice. Personally, I think those treatment centers are scams. You know what happens in there? You know that most stories of alien abduction come out of treatment centers? They cover it up, of course, but it’s the truth. The government knows about it, just like they knew damned good and well there was radioactivity at Hiroshima when they told us to land there. You might come out of that damned quack house sober, but with a chip in your brain so that the government can track your every move. They know people don’t listen to addicts. That’s why they’ll use you. They’ll chalk your abduction story up to being a degenerate.”
Agnes fought panic. She tried to think. The coins were the most immediate of all the threats she faced. She would try to pacify him without taking the coins. “Listen, Uncle Clay, I know that radioactivity has worked out really well for you. You’re young for your age, got a sharp mind. You’re virile. You’re strong. But maybe it’s just you that’s special. How about the rest of the soldiers that landed on Hiroshima with you? Are they all still young and strong?”
“They’re all dead—died of cancer to a man. But you’re my blood. We’re made the same.”
“I’m only partly your blood. I’m diluted. The blood from my mother’s side might not be able to handle the radiation.”
“So you’d rather take the chance of alien abduction, brainwashing, and who knows what else? Do you want to spend the rest of your life as a pawn in a huge government cover-up, the way I did? At least if you die of the radiation you die on your own terms, unpolluted by their propaganda.”
“Yeah, I’d be polluted by nuclear radiation instead. That’s much better.” She tried to open a new beer can and noticed that her hands were trembling. “I’ll—”—her voice caught—“I’ll take my chances in the treatment center.”
He settled back in his seat. “What about the alien abduction? You can’t fight it. You might not even remember it.”
“Then I wouldn’t mind.”
“Here,” he said. He tried to get her to take the coins again, gesturing for her to open her palms.
She shrank against the passenger side door and turned her back to him. “No! Stop it, you’re freaking me out, Uncle Clay!”
“All right. I tried, Agnes.” He sighed, stuffing the coins back in his pocket. “Not many people have the fountain of youth handed to them. Not many people would throw it away. Someday you’ll see that I was right.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“Suit yourself,” Clay said, changing into the exit lane. They drove in silence, Agnes finishing another beer and trying to bring her breathing under control. Clay steered the GTO off the highway and pulled almost immediately onto the pristine blacktop of a white building with phony Greek columns on the front porch. A tall stockade fence ran around it like a prison. The treatment center. How did he know where it was?
“Come on,” he said, parking in front of the building next to a handicap spot. “You’ve made your choice.”
She slammed her beer, tossing it in the backseat, and watched as her great-uncle came around to open her door. Scammed. Uncle Clay was on their side after all. She stepped out of the car and shielded her eyes from the sun. Where were the tall trees in the brochure? Clay put his hand around her arm in a courtly way, like he was walking her down the aisle, or up a platform to be hanged.
“Look, Uncle Clay—”
“Let’s just give it a look-see. Might be that I can tell from looking down the halls what rooms to avoid. Did you know alien abductions most often occur in soundproof rooms? Stay out of those, and you just might make it.”
As they walked up the sidewalk, he held her tight, looking straight ahead and smiling. Could she break free? From Uncle Clay? He was pretty strong. The front door opened onto a long, sterile-looking waiting room decorated with big, close-up photographs of flowers, lunar and super-saturated like an acid trip. She saw racks of the brochure her father had handed her and a smiling receptionist who asked Agnes to sign a stack of papers. As she scrawled her signature, she said, “Will there be a family week?”
The receptionist leaned closer. “A what, hon?”
“In the movies about treatment there’s always a family week. Will there be one?”
“Not a whole week. Your counselor will explain the schedule to you.”
“But, I mean,”—she looked up at the woman—“you can’t have family time without the mother, right? You guys will insist that she come?”
“I just couldn’t say.”
Then a blond woman in a red silk shirt appeared from behind a closed door and took Agnes’s hand. “Welcome,” she said, and introduced herself as Joan, a counselor. She told Agnes to take off her shoes and walk through a metal detector.
Agnes had lost her chance. She should have run sooner. Now she looked around and saw Uncle Clay, saw Joan, saw the brochures, and knew she wouldn’t make it out the door. After all, Clay was strong, as he was fond of saying. She sighed and unlaced her combat boots and set them on the counter. Then she walked through the metal detector and stood on the other side, looking back at Clay, who was taking off his boots, too.
She called to him, “What are you doing, Uncle Clay?”
He set his big black boots on the counter next to her much smaller ones.
“Hey!” She waved her arms. “You’ll set it off, remember?”
But it was too late. She clamped her hands over her ears, ready for some kind of alarm as he loped through the metal detector. None came. He stood next to her.
“I wanted to give you a hug.” It was the sort of hug he had always given her when she was little. He bent down and picked her up, holding her off the ground, crushed into his chest as she hugged him back. “I love you, Pumpkin. You’re my girl. Remember—stay out of those soundproof rooms.” He wiped away a tear and pointed at her. “And don’t believe everything they tell you. Question everything. People are tricky.”
She watched him as he walked back through the metal detector, which, once again, failed to respond to his presence. “Yeah,” she said. “I see that.”
He gave her a long pleading look. “Lefty only did what he had to do.”
“Right. Right.” She focused on the ground, noticing that her socks didn’t match. “Out of kindness, right? This is kindness?”