M I C H I G A N
a novel by
Jeff Vande Zande
Beyond the cyclone fencing and down the slope rippling with big bluestem and switchgrass, I-696 drones with five o’clock traffic escaping Detroit. The sky is overcast and threatens rain. Robby Cooper stands outside an apartment door and studies the drivers racing westward on the interstate down the hill. Looking at the marbled cloud cover stretched gray to the horizon, he scratches feverishly at his upper arm. A raggedy-looking robin lands on top of the fence and just as quickly flies away. He follows it until it’s out of sight and then reads the address on the piece of paper trembling in his hand. He checks that the number matches the number on the apartment door. He checks it again. Fingercombing his bangs away from his face, he tucks the longer strands behind his ear. He inhales a long breath through his nose and looks up into the underside of the second floor walkway. Exhaling a sigh between his teeth, he watches his fist reach out to knock on the door.
He dries his palms against his jeans. A young, blonde woman opens the door. Her face blanches when she sees him.
Robby looks down and his bangs fall across his face. He sweeps them aside again. His smile is tight-lipped. “Hi, Tif,” he whispers, glancing at her rounded belly.
She watches him for a moment as though he is an apparition that might disappear, that hopefully will. She wears a long, blue maternity dress. Her hair is pulled back from her pretty face in a ponytail. One hand on the doorknob, her other hand moves to her abdomen and rubs gentle circles there. “You shouldn’t have come here,” she says. “You should have called.” Her hand leaves her belly and goes to the door, moving as though to close it. “Who gave you the address?”
“Your mom.” He shrugs. “She said it was good that I come see you face to face.”
Tiffany sniffs a scornful little laugh and shakes her head. “She was wrong.”
Robby jams his hands into his pockets and hunches his shoulders towards his ears. “I just wanted to talk.”
“I really don’t think we have anything to talk about,” she says. She crosses her arms between her belly and breasts. “I don’t expect anything from you if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried...” He shrugs again. “I just thought that we could talk.”
Rain starts to fall, dinging on the hoods of the cars behind him.
Tiffany hugs her arms tighter against her. “Is this something you have to do for your program? Are you supposed to talk to people that you might have—”
Robby shakes his head. “No, I’m not—”
“Because I’m not hurt. I’m not mad at you, not anymore. That night was a mistake, and it’s over.” Her hand goes to her belly and rubs. “I really don’t expect anything from you or want anything. You’ve got your own problems. This one’s mine, and it’s not even a problem, okay? I’m fine.”
As though being turned up on a volume knob, the rain drums down in a sudden torrent.
Robby looks over his shoulder at all the water pouring over the cars and asphalt. “We can’t even just talk, just for a minute?” he says, raising his voice above the racket of the rain.
She studies his face for a moment. “You’re tan.”
“The place was in Florida, wasn’t it?”
“It was a cold winter here.” She shakes her head. “Almost seems like you were being rewarded.”
He shivers. “Can we, though? Can we talk?”
“Aren’t we talking now?”
She combs her fingers into her hair, squeezing her palms against the side of her head. “What, then? What do you want to say?”
He looks back at the rain coming in at an angle, soaking his hoodie. He looks at her and his bangs sweep across his face again. He shrugs a shoulder. “Can I come in?”
The rain pours down.
Tiffany sighs and then steps back, opening the door wider. “I don’t have much time. I need to get ready for work soon. I’m covering for someone this afternoon.” When he doesn’t move, she motions with her hand, gesturing him inside with her fingers in a movement that might be used to swat away an insect. “Come on. Just don’t plan to stay for very long.”
Sheepishly, he slips in past her, and she closes the door behind him.
The apartment’s kitchen, living room, and dining area are all in the same space. The chair, coffee table, and sofa look worn and ready for replacement. There’s no dining room table. Tiffany walks past Robby and sits in the chair. Her hands go to her belly and rub circles, as though trying to predict a future from a crystal ball.
“I just moved in last month,” she says. “I’m just starting to put the place together.” She smooths her hand over the arm of the chair.
“It’s nice,” Robby says.
“No it isn’t, but it’s mine.”
He nods, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. “Are you still at the dealership?”
She looks at him. “You can sit down.”
Robby smiles. “Okay. Thanks.” He unzips his hoodie, takes it off, and holds it in his hand. He bends toward his laces.
“You don’t have to take off your shoes. You’re not going to hurt this carpet.”
He walks over to the couch and sits. He drapes the wet hoodie across his legs. “Are you still at Shuette’s?” he asks, watching her circling hands.
She nods. “Still at the reception desk, but not for much longer. Dan said that he’ll start training me for a title clerk position after the baby is born.”
Robby flips his bangs away with a snap of his head. “That a good deal?”
“Better than what I have. It’s high stress, but a lot better pay.”
He looks up at the sound of footsteps coming from the upstairs apartment.
“What about you?” Tiffany says. “Are you working?”
He shakes his head, rubbing his hand up and down his arm. “I just got back yesterday.” He shrugs. “I’m going to talk to Ty, but not about working. I don’t think he’d give me my job back.”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
He looks at the floor. “I need to talk to him, too.”
They don’t say anything for a moment. The muffled sound of the rain fills the room.
Tiffany pushes her hands against the arms of the chair and raises the leg rest on the recliner. Her hands go back to her belly.
Robby watches them. “Does it kick?”
She glances at him and then back to her hands. “Not exactly. He moves, though. I can feel him moving.”
His face changes. “Him? It’s a boy?”
“What did you want to talk about, Robby?”
A small sound vibrates from his pants pocket. He takes out his cell phone and looks at the screen. It reads Mom. He presses a button, sending it to voicemail. He looks at Tiffany and stuffs the phone back into his pocket. “I don’t know, Tif… everything, I guess.”
“Is there an everything?”
He scoots forward on the cushion, rubbing his palms over his knees. “I think so. Don’t you think so?”
She looks into his eyes. Her head shakes back and forth. “No. I don’t.”
“It’s mine, though, right? I’d heard, and then your mom said—”
Tiffany pulls up on the lever and slams the leg rest back into the recliner. “Yes, it’s yours. It’s yours because you showed up to party high and started telling me how much you loved me. You found me down in the basement drunk, and you lied to me, and then you fucked me.” Tears well in her eyes and she brushes them away. “I didn’t hear anything from you after, and when I finally heard something, I heard that you were gone and in rehab.” She takes a deep breath and exhales it slowly.
Robby’s fingers pick at a loose thread on the couch. “You weren’t that drunk,” he mutters.
“I didn’t lie.” He looks across at her and into her eyes. “I’ve had feelings for you since high school. I always—”
She crosses her arms. “Shut up, Robby. Just shut up, okay? I don’t want to hear about any of this. I wish you wouldn’t have even come here. Why’d you come here?”
He looks toward the window at the rain coming down the glass in wormy lines. He squeezes his forearm in his fingers. “You talk about things when you’re in, things you want to make right. That’s what they get you to talk about. My mom told me about you.” He looks at her. “I would have called, you know. I was only allowed to talk to one person, though. That was part of the deal. I got to talk to my mom once every two weeks. That’s it.”
Tiffany looks at him, almost through him.
“For the last three months, you’re who I talked about. In group, in one-on-one. I talked about you… you and the baby. I just want to do something right. I want to play some kind of part—”
He looks at her, his face startled.
She shakes her head. “We’re not part of your recovery. We’re not going to be the thing that makes you feel better about yourself, okay? You’re just going to have to—”
“I don’t mean it that way,” he says, holding his head between his hands. “It’s not about my recovery or… I just want to help. I want to be involved in some way.”
“That’s fine, but I’m saying no. I don’t need any help from my mom, and I don’t need any help from you... especially not you.”
Robby closes his eyes and squeezes his forehead in his hand. “Why? I don’t understand. I just want to do something…” A tear breaks from his eye and he smears it across his cheeks. “I mean, he’s my son, too. Like it or not—”
“I want you to leave.”
He looks at her. “Tif—”
Using the arms of the chair, she pushes herself to standing. “I know what you’re thinking. A boy should have his father in his life.” She looks toward the window. “That’s probably true most of the time. But you’re an addict and a liar and a thief. I don’t want that in my life.” She looks at him. “I just want you to stay the hell away from me, okay?” She glowers at him with stony eyes. “I should have never let you come in here.”
He drops his face into his hands. His body shakes, and he releases a choked sob. Then, he stops himself, breathing in a strained breath through his teeth and exhaling its heat into his palms. “Jesus Christ, Tif,” he nearly whispers. “You won’t let me be any part of this? You’re really saying that you won’t let—”
“Robby, just go,” she says. “That’s what I’m saying. Just go.” She walks to the door and opens it. The sound of the rain is like colossal radio static.
He looks out at the cold, wet world waiting for him. Standing, he puts on his hoodie, zips it up, and slouches past her.
Outside her apartment, he turns back. “Could you call me, at least? Or, call my mom? Would you at least do that?”
“Call you? What are you—”
“When he’s born.” His voice cracks. “Could you just call me when he’s born?”
She looks down at the ground. Her hand rubs her belly. “I don’t know,” she says, pushing the door toward him. Her hand stops rubbing. “I don’t think so,” she says and closes the door.
He stands on the welcome mat with tears streaming down his face. “You weren’t that drunk!” he shouts above the noise of the rain. He turns, flips up his hood, and runs through the downpour to his car.
Sitting in the driver’s seat with the engine running, he turns on the radio. Bruce Springsteen sings something about time slipping away and leaving you with nothing. Robby turns the radio off.
He fishes the cell phone out of his pocket and listens to his voicemail:
“Robby, it’s Mom. Your Grandpa Otto wants you to stop out to his place when you get a chance. He just called. I tried to give him your number, but he said that he wants to see you in person. Soon as you can, okay? Don’t keep him waiting too long. Call me, too. I want to know how things went with Tiffany. Okay? Okay. Well, bye. I’ll talk to you soon. I love you, and I’m so proud of you. You’re doing great. Everything just keeps getting better from here, okay? You just need to—”
He tosses the phone onto the passenger seat. It bounces once and lands down in the passenger seat footwell. His mother’s voice keeps talking faintly.
Robby gives it the middle finger.
Shivering, he turns on the heater. The vents blow cold air over him.
Outside, the world undulates through the rain-wrecked windshield. Blurred brakes light glow red in front of him, then white shifting into reverse. Reaching to shift into drive, he slumps forward and buries his face in his arms against the steering wheel.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Vande Zande
All Rights Reserved
Cannot be reproduced or republished in any form whatsoever without express permission of the author