A Good World
Reading time: ~15 minutes
A note from the editor: I often tell writers that a critical part of an effective story is choosing the right moment for the story to start. Mario Aliberto III's hero, Gene, is on the edge of something; he just doesn't know what it is. We know something huge is about to change in Gene, though, right from the get-go, and it's this that hooks us into the story. By the time we find out what's really driving him, our hopes are sky-high for him. That's the kind of guy he is. That's the kind of world Aliberto has built for us. This is an unforgettable character, and although we know we'll see him through to the story's final, moving line, we're loathe to leave him when we turn the page. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.
Yi Shun Lai
The hangover is an aching knot over Gene Shaw’s right eye, and the Texas sun glinting off the bleached plain before him pulls the knot tighter. His condensed view of the piss-yellow purgatory is barely tolerable through the cobwebs of his eyelashes. Parked along a lonely stretch of US Highway 191 between the towns of Del Plano and Ulysses, Gene reclines in the driver’s seat of the company’s sand-encrusted ambulance, trying to meditate on the sound of the idling engine.
“That one there looks like it’s been blessed with more potatoes than meat, ya get me?” The boy sitting next to Gene nods at the sky beyond the dusty windshield, his palms turned up, cupping two giant invisible balls.
It’s Gene’s second day with his new partner, a novice paramedic with barely a dozen runs under his belt. When Gene doesn’t reply, the rookie returns to chewing the tip of a straw tucked inside a soda-fountain cup, tracking the movement of sparse clouds through the windshield. The boy breaks the long lapses of silence by announcing what the clouds look like, vivid pornographic depictions of genitalia that Gene ignores by pretending to sleep.
In the distance, the road dips and rises for miles, the barren land at the horizon contorted in wavy heat lines, plains of cacti and weed, and no shelter. As the form of a girl materializes on the road, she comes on like a spirit, the steady measure of her gait evocative of a higher plane of existence, as if two separate realities have come to a nexus on the road. The girl marks slow progress. She keeps to the sun-faded yellow line dividing the two-lane highway, feet bare, arms out to the side for balance like a tight-rope walker. The thin linen of her white shift brushes her knees with each step, billowing forward.
The straw springs from the rookie’s mouth, spraying Gene’s face with small drops of soda and spittle. The boy sets his drink in the cup-holder and shucks Gene’s shoulder with an elbow. “Oh shit! Wake your old ass up. Look at this.”
Gene pulls himself upright by the steering wheel, eyes alert, a practiced response. He rubs at a kinked muscle where his neck meets his shoulder. His eyelids assuming a half-lidded contemplation, he finds the spectral girl. She completes another five steps before he says, “Told you we’d see one of those doves.” He reclines, picks up his cup of soda, and gulps down the drink that he uses as a delivery system for the mixed shot of bourbon that he likes to think of as “the hair of the bitch that shit on my lawn.”
The boy pops his door open.
“Wait, rook,” Gene says, turning his head so the boy doesn’t catch a whiff of his breath. “Just watch. Can’t do nothing yet ‘cept call it in.”
The boy shakes his head in disbelief, but he closes the door and puts the microphone to his lips. “Five-three-bravo to dispatch, we have—a—a—girl in the road—” He releases the microphone’s button and looks at Gene with that particular dumbfound speculation reserved for the uninitiated. Everything about the boy is soft as a pillow.
“Tell ‘em you got one of the pastor’s doves walking the line on 191,” Gene says. “They’ll know what it means.”
After repeating what Gene tells him, the boy returns to his slack-jawed gawking. A female dispatcher’s voice comes from the radio speaker with a static pop. “Copy Rescue 53B. If confirmed, keep to policy.”
If the boy hears dispatch, he doesn’t show it.
Gene snatches the microphone from the boy’s hand, and says, “It’s confirmed alright. This one looks like she got heart, dispatch. We might be a while.”
A pause, and then the female’s voice from the radio. “I’ll check you out of service until she drops.”
The Texas sun meanders overhead without regard. The girl casts almost no shadow. Step after careful step, she carries on. Skin not far removed from adolescence, blistered and peeling. The bottoms of her feet blackened and suppurated. Without wobble, without hesitation, heel to toe, heel to toe. The line goes on, and so does she.
The boy never takes his eyes off her.
Perspiration has made the thin fabric of her dress stick to her skin, revealing the outline of her undergarments, and if there is fear of perversion in the paramedics’ observation, she shows no signs of discomfort. Her face is placid; if she is too hot from the sun, if she is cold with fever, her features reveal nothing. Discalced, pink skin ferments on the tops of her feet, matching the skin of her bare shoulders, her cheeks, the tip of her nose; yet, her eyes are clear, focused, over the verge of a smile that never blooms. Her hair, straw-gold highlighted red by sunlight, a burning crown; from a distance, one might think her afire.
“She looks young,” the boy says. “How old you think?”
“Pastor don’t take in any underage kids. She’ll be at least 18.”
The boy shakes his head.
An hour passes. Gene moves the ambulance only when he has to, to keep the girl in sight. He chews bubble-gum flavored baby aspirin for his headache, the only kind of aspirin that doesn’t upset his stomach, and he tries to sleep in-between moving the ambulance. The boy sits by his side, nervous sweat dotting his hairless face, even though they wait in air conditioning and relative comfort. When they drive by Whiskey Cabaret, a few of the jobless drunks in the parking lot congregate to remark on the girl’s passing in obscene terms, but take no further interest once the show moves along. Gene is occasionally awakened by his own snoring. The low volume of the radio broadcasts the chatter of other ambulances, the paramedics of Rescue 53B left alone to oversee the pilgrimage of their charge.
The boy leans forward, hand massaging his whiskerless jaw. “How long we gonna sit here? She clearly needs help.”
“No medical intervention. Religious freedom and all that. The girl’s pastor says his doves got to walk their penance out, and we can’t interfere while she can still communicate her wants. She needs to make it over the city limits into Ulysses. If she does, the church people will take care of her. Or she drops and she’s ours.” Gene presses a finger to the underside of his jaw, cracks a knuckle. “Church’ll threaten to sue us if we try to help her before that. And the company will let you hang for it, because they warned you not to render aid while the girl can refuse consent.”
“Let me talk to her,” the boy says. “Get her to listen.”
“Unless you’re the Lord or her pastor, she ain’t gonna listen. Trust me. Let it play out.”
“This is so wrong,” the boy says, crossing his arms and rocking back in his seat. “What’d she do to deserve this?”
“Don’t matter,” Gene says. “That’s between the girl, the pastor, and their Maker.”
“She’s dehydrated. Sun poisoning. She looks like she ain’t ate in a week. We’re supposed to do nothing?”
A heavy sigh, then Gene says, “You ever hear ’bout baby birds that fall out their nest, and what happens if humans touch ’em to put ’em back? Their mothers abandon ’em and the birds die.”
“That’s a myth,” the boy says.
“Is it? Don’t know about that. But I know if we help her before she drops, the church will cut her loose for not completing her penance. Then what happens to her?” There’s an aggressiveness in Gene’s voice that he leaves unchecked. “Most of these doves’ home lives is hell. Or worse. It’s what turns ’em to the church in the first place.”
“I don’t care if they sue me. I don’t have shit. I’m not going to let her die.”
Gene waves a dismissive hand in the boy’s direction. “We ain’t gonna let her die. But we’re also not gonna be the reason she’s put out on the street.”
“What kind of church does that? Don’t sound Christian. She’d be better off on her own.”
“Don’t be dumb, boy. She done something to offend the pastor that warrants her making penance. She don’t finish, she don’t get no absolution. And what do you think happens to a girl who believes her body is made of nothing but sin?”
The boy tilts his head, glares at Gene from the corner of his eyes. “How do you know so much? You belong to that church or somethin’?”
“I ain’t got nothing to do with them crazy bastards.”
“What makes you an expert then?”
The wind raises a dust devil, and the sand dervish crosses the girl’s path. Her dress lifts and the white of her thighs is buttermilk. The girl doesn’t slow, doesn’t so much as blink, sand whipping about her.
Gene says, “I’ve seen it all before.”
Mile upon mile, the girl does not waver. She keeps her balance, keeps to the line. The few cars that pass give her a wide berth, slowing to stare, but they carry on. As the sun sets behind her, a blazing tip of smelt iron-rod dipped to cool, the sienna sky gives way to blue-black night, and the girl comes into view of the sign announcing the town of Ulysses.
Gene drives the van parallel with the girl, a token of admiration for her spirit. Tumors of translucent skin populate the girl’s cheeks, like bubble-gum blown to their limit. He is close enough to see liquid sloshing within the boils, and he knows it would take only the slightest prick of a needle to release the pus. The bottoms of her feet are black from tar and heat, and the tops pink to her shins; the girl’s next step crosses the yellow highway-line at an angle; the step after misses the line completely. Her arms fail to maintain their rigid height, and they rise and fall in their struggle to stay perpendicular, mimicking the broken-winged flight of her namesake.
“Hell with this,” the boy says, grabbing a leather kit bag and dropping down from his seat. The hard-packed sand crunches under his feet like the sound of desiccated insect carapaces as he rushes to meet the girl.
Gene rolls his eyes, and after taking another drink of his bourbon and soda, slowly takes after the boy. The sun has fled, but not the heat, and sweat bonds his shirt to his skin. He flexes his hands, tries to keep them from making fists.
To the boy’s credit, he does not impede the girl’s path. She takes three wobbly steps before the boy says, “Miss, stop. Let me help you.”
Gene hitches his trousers up by the belt. “Don’t touch her, rook. I done told you. Let her walk it out. She’s got to make it to at least the sign.”
The girl takes another step and the boy paces her, hovering his hand over her shoulder. “Jesus, the heat coming off her. Miss, please stop. Let me look at you.” He pincers her arm at the tricep, and she shrugs his hand off as if it is he who has burned her, and not the departed sun.
The sign is less than twenty feet away.
Gene clamps his partner by the shoulder and the girl progresses two steps. He presses his fingers deep into the boy’s shoulder, between the meat and the bone. “Don’t touch her. She don’t want your help. Not while she’s conscious.”
“She’ll die,” the boy says.
“Our job is to make sure she don’t,” Gene says.
The boy smacks Gene’s hand away, and rears back with his kit bag, teeth bared. “Fuck this.”
Gene reaches for the boy, his other hand curled into a fist, when he sees them. A man and woman in white robes standing underneath the welcome sign to Ulysses. The woman is of his age and the man no older than one of the fraternity boys from over at Del Plano Community College. They are each scarred on their face, pink patina’ed craters from where the Church has burned out their latent cancers. Purification in disfiguration. They do not move, and the air is so still now that their robes take on the appearance of armor, and in their impassive countenances they may as well be statues.
It is only with a dim sense of awareness that Gene sees the rookie drop his bag and run back to the ambulance. The rookie reaches inside the vehicle and tears the lid off his soda cup and whips the remains of ice and soda to the dry ground. He fills the cup with water from a thermos and turns the chewed end of his straw over and stabs it into the water. He runs back to the girl, water sloshing onto his hand.
Gene sees it all happening, but he makes no move to stop it, like his destiny is to be a counterpart to the doves, an observer of some cosmic balance. He whispers, “No,” or at least thinks he does.
The rookie presses the tip of the straw to the girl’s bottom lip. The girl’s lips, chalky white, chapped with flaky bits of dried skin, quiver. Her mouth closes on the straw and she sucks, drawing water. Her reaction is immediate, spitting, horrified. She claws at her lips, her tongue, inside her mouth. Blisters burst and runny, yellowish liquid streams down her face. She looks at the boy, her eyes fixed, and her scream is unlike any Gene has heard before.
The pastor’s observers turn their backs on the scene and walk side-by-side out onto the plain, silent as ghosts.
Gene rushes the rookie and shoves the boy back and the boy crosses his feet and spills the cup to the ground. The sand drinks the water in. Gene wraps the boy’s shirt in his fists, shaking him so hard the boy’s head flies loosely on his neck. Gene vomits curses, a roaring tirade, and spittle constellates the boy’s face. Gene’s hands slide up to the boy’s throat, crushing his narrow wind-pipe.
The girl’s scream dies and her legs go out from underneath her. She sits on the ground, her head between her knees, before falling onto her back to look up at the stars. She breathes, eyes open, her hands folded over her heart.
“You stupid sonofabitch. Get the wagon and prep a drip.” Gene pushes the gasping, red-faced boy away. He kneels beside the girl and gently takes her hand at the wrist, fingers on her pulse. The girl finally surrenders to whatever awaits her on the other side of consciousness. They lift her onto a gurney and load her into the back of the ambulance. The boy and he work in tandem, pricking her arms with needles, draining fluids from plastic bags through tubes into her veins. The boy drives while Gene works to keep her stable. Her feet are red, swollen potatoes. He takes her blood pressure the old way, fingers on her wrist. Her body a furnace, and his as well. He palms sweat from his face. He wants an ice-cold drink of water more than anything. Even more than the bourbon in his cup. He can’t remember the last time that was true.
Days and shifts pass, and on one of the emergency runs that bring Gene to the hospital, he checks with the nurses. No visitors. The hospital sent word to the pastor at the church, and as expected, he sent word back that the girl had been excommunicated. The Church owes her nothing, he says. The nurses don’t have a name for the girl to even start guessing where to look for her real family. Gene peeks into the girl’s room as she sleeps. Bandages on her face and arms, her feet wrapped in a cocoon of gauze. She looks older in the hospital bed than she did on the road.
The next day, between runs, Gene sees the girl sitting in a wheelchair outside the hospital, underneath the shade of the overhang of the emergency room entrance, a pair of crutches leaning on the wall behind her. Her hair bleach-white from her time in the sun. Gene’s new partner, a quiet man, former military, wheels in a bleak heart attack case flanked by attending physicians. The stink of cigarette smoke from the victim’s house clings to their uniforms.
Air conditioning spills out of the automatic hospital doors and goose pimples spring up Gene’s arm as he stands over the girl. Her hair hangs over her face, and there is no sign she is aware the world continues about her.
“Hey. You doing okay?”
The girl doesn’t move. She is dressed in gray sweat pants and a gray T-shirt, the standard clothes gifted by the hospital for those without. A square bandage on her cheek and gauze still on her feet, now wrapped over with tape. A shallow breeze ruffles her hair.
The doors whoosh open and a pair of nurses light cigarettes hanging out of their mouths as soon as their feet cross the threshold. They glance at the girl, then Gene, raising their eyebrows before walking the opposite way. Gene makes it inside before the doors close. The nurse at the front desk confirms the girl has been discharged. He finds a vending machine in the break room and feeds some crumpled bills into the slot. He walks outside and places a cellophane-wrapped turkey on wheat on the girl’s lap and a can of Coke on the ground next to her wheelchair.
There’s another call—there’s always another call—and Gene meets his partner at the ambulance. His partner lifts his head at Gene in question, but Gene waves his attention away. After the run, a minor injury that doesn’t require transport, Gene cashes in on vacation time that has piled up over the years. He drives his pick-up truck back to the hospital. The girl sits in her wheelchair where he left her. The sandwich has fallen off her lap. The Coke is unopened, a circle of condensation at its base. The girl doesn’t make a sound, but her shoulders are shaking, and tears fall like hard rain onto her gray sweatpants.
Gene puts his hands on his hips, looks out at the road, and says, “Pastor wouldn’t have you walk no penance if you was only a dove for a minute. And if you was a dove more than a minute, you know he ain’t sending no one to come get you.”
The girl lifts her head. The bandage on her cheek, wet from tears, has peeled away at a corner, revealing the color of an Indian-summer sun on her cheek. Her eyes are puffy, the whites reticulate with red forks. She picks at pieces of hardened, peeling skin on the back of her hand, and blood bubbles to the surface.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Asenath,” the girl says, voice dry as burnt toast.
“Go on and drink the pop. Sugar do you good.”
The girl reaches down with a slender pink arm and picks up the soda. She struggles to lift the tab with a fingernail, and when the aluminum is finally pierced, the explosion of carbonation and fizz jolts her in her seat. She lethargically sweeps long strands of hair behind an ear, and takes a sip. On the bridge of her nose, where the skin is not peeled to the pink, dark brown freckles amass.
“That the name the pastor gave you? What’s your real name?”
“Asenath,” the girl says.
Gene chews on his lip, spits. He opens the passenger door of his truck. “Can’t stay here. Come on.”
The girl sets the Coke down next to the wheelchair and stands. She hobbles on the dressings encasing her feet without a hint of fuss. Gene boosts her into the cab of his pick-up, her crutches left behind. The girl asks no questions. He scolds her against picking scabs or peeling her skin, and she does stop for a time, but after a few minutes, returns to it, balling up the skin and rolling it between her fingers.
Her back straightens and she turns her head when they get on US 191 and pass by the large wood fence surrounding the Revival Church, the church’s spire and giant gold cross ascending against a backdrop of clear blue sky. The entrance gates are closed and the girl sighs ever so slightly, looking out the window, fingertips pressed to the glass. By the time they pass Whiskey Cabaret a few miles down the road, the girl is staring at her lap again and picking scabs.
They arrive at Gene’s small, weather-faded ranch home on the outskirt of Ulysses. The sun, as usual, cooks everything hot to the touch, and Gene burns his hand on the chrome door handle of the truck. The girl has trouble walking, and when she allows Gene to take her arm and sling it over his shoulder, he burdens himself with as much of her weight as he can handle. When he gets her inside, if she is offended by the dirty laundry piled on the couch, three empty beer cans on the television stand, and a litterbox by the door in desperate need of emptying, she doesn’t show it. The girl limps around the living room, using the walls to help with her balance. Gene takes an armful of clothes from the couch and dumps them onto the floor. She sits, folding her hands neatly in her lap. He tidies up the papers, the beer cans, and a few microwave burrito wrappers from a small table, and tosses them into the trash can under the sink in the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator, sniffs at a jug of expired milk. Shelves stocked with too much beer for one person. He fills a plastic cup with water and microwaves a frozen pizza that he cuts in half and puts on two paper plates. He takes a beer from the fridge, promising whoever listens on the other end of his thoughts he’ll have just the one.
When he reenters the living room with the girl’s plate of food and her cup of water, she is standing, looking at a picture frame hung on the wall to the left of the television. “I know this girl,” she says. A faded photograph of a teenage brunette in braids, dimples deep as wells, the girl saddleback a brown mare, and Gene, before his hairline signaled a full retreat, holding the lead. The sun shines behind them, giving off a dazzling starburst with slices of blues and reds above the girl’s brilliant smile. Her arm in a white hard cast and the small ink of writing decorating it. A small red heart. “She hangs around outside the church fence sometimes. I think her name is Keren. Some of the other doves know her.”
Gene sets the plate and cup on the table gently. A tremor passes through his hands. He hides them in the pockets of his slacks and rocks back on his heels. “Her name’s Lara. Eat something. Before it gets cold.” He retrieves his food and his beer from the kitchen and sits on one side of the couch, leaving plenty of room for the girl. She studies the picture, as if there is some relevant knowledge to be imparted from something so long ago. His beer is empty before he takes his first bite of food.
The girl looks back over her shoulder at Gene, the bandage falling away from her face, exposing her burnt skin. “Pretty sure her name’s Keren.”
They eat their supper watching the Texas Rangers lose a home game to the Tampa Bay Rays in thirteen innings. When it’s time to turn in, Gene offers the girl his bed, intending to sleep on the couch, but the girl refuses. He has broken his promise and drank his usual amount of beer, and she has not expanded farther than the single cushion of the couch. His insistence that she take his room is met with refusal, and he can feel the kindness of his offer turning sour. He drinks another beer before turning in, and as he lies on his back in bed, his hands work against each other, cracking his knuckles. He taps the bones of his fist against his jaw, eyes closed, listening to the rushing blood inside his body until he passes out.
In the morning, he is surprised to find the girl sleeping peacefully where he left her, the brindle cat he sometimes forgets to feed curled in a ball against her bandaged feet. She lies across two of the three cushions of the couch, her knees pulled up beneath a blanket. He changes her dressings, applies ointment to burns, and marvels at how little the girl flinches. She fits into some of Lara’s old clothes. He schedules two weeks off from work. In their time together, they watch more Texas Ranger baseball and eat barbecue. At night, he drinks until he locks himself in his room. During the day, he cleans the house in increments, starting with the living room. The girl watches him from the couch at first, a refuge of three cushions she has made her own, until she eventually pitches in, dusting everything she can reach with some of Gene’s old socks. The house begins to smell of lemon Pledge. The girl says grace at every meal, and more than once, when she thinks she is alone, he overhears her singing old hymns in a mournful timbre that ignites within him a deep regret at having abandoned religion so long ago. After hearing the girl’s version of “Amazing Grace,” he empties every bottle of beer from his refrigerator into the sink.
Many days pass the same, the girl taking on more small chores, helping Gene prep when he cooks, washing dishes after. One night after dinner, when the brightest stars are close enough to burn the tips of fingers pointing to their beauty, Gene leans back in a chair in the driveway, using a stick to poke coals on the barbecue that have long ago become fossil ash. Grease from the burgers he cooked for dinner stain the concrete beneath the grill and a line of brown ants from the grassless front yard dips into the shiny pools. The girl sits next to Gene, her feet resting on their heels, fresh pink skin shining beneath the ointment she applies with delicate fingers.
Gene tosses the stick away and leans forward, resting his arms on his knees. His hands yearn for action, for idle distraction, to tear the label off a beer. He wipes sweat from his palms on his jeans. “Let me ask you. Were you ever happy there?”
The girl’s smile is one of obsession, the madness of religion. “Oh, yes. The pastor is very kind. And the other doves—it’s nothing but love. We’re all so blessed.”
Gene shakes his head. “Not at the church. Whatever home you had before. I assume you had a family. Were you happy with them?”
“The only true happiness is found in God.” With her hair tied up high on her head, the burns on her cheeks are exposed, the dead skin crisp around the edges. She applies a dab of ointment to her face.
Gene says, “You have to miss them. I can take you to them. I’m sure they’d take you in.”
“Your mother. Your father.”
“I never missed them a day in my life.”
“That can’t be right.”
The girl rolls her eyes, continuing to slather her wounds with the ointment.
Gene says, “You try forgiving them for whatever they done?”
“You wouldn’t if they’d done to you what they done to me.”
“I might. I just might.” His fingers dance on his thighs, and he rocks back in his chair, the metal creaking with the strain. “You won’t forgive them, but you can forgive a pastor who put you out in the sun and gave you all them scars?”
“I was the one who needed to be forgiven, not him.”
“What’d you do that was so wrong that he’d put you out on a road to be cooked?”
The girl gazes down at her arms, the shine of the ointment on her burns. “There can be no forgiveness without penance.”
Gene collects moisture from between his teeth with his tongue, and spits dryly onto the sand. He fills his chest with air and turns his face up to the night.
She says, “You looking at the stars, or what’s beyond?”
“There ain’t nothing beyond.”
The girl caps the ointment and tucks the tube under a leg. “Oh, that’s not true. You should go to the public service on Sundays. If you listen to the pastor, he’ll have you seeing all the Lord’s miracles. There won’t be nowhere you look that you won’t see God.”
“Oh yeah? That so? Where have you seen God?”
The girl shifts closer, the metal legs of the folding chair scraping concrete. “I saw him the other day. On my walk.”
“That was heat stroke and delirium.” Gene tries to lighten the blow by smiling, but it feels more like a sneer, and maybe that’s all it is.
The girl’s blue eyes catch all the starlight, and for a moment, they hold within them the promise of great revelation. “I saw him standing over me. After I stopped walking, and I lay on the sand. I knew I had failed, and since I didn’t complete my penance, I knew I’d be cast out. But then I saw him. He wore a white robe like we doves do. He looked down on me, and he was glowing. And right then, I knew he would never abandon me. That I was saved.”
Gene steeples his hands before his lips, drawing a deep breath. “Listen to me. You know how long I’ve been working an ambulance? Twenty years. Seen a lot of people take their last breath under my care. A few of them I’ve brought back. Brought ’em back like the resurrection in the book come to pass before my very eyes. You want to guess how many people told me about Jesus when they come back? Not a one. I’ll tell you what they do. They cry for their mommas like babes in the crib, and if they had seen Jesus, they wasn’t impressed enough to talk about him.”
A sympathetic smile alights on the girl’s face. “You shouldn’t say that. I’ll take you to the church on Sunday. Even failed doves like me can go to the public services. Just listen to the pastor’s sermon—”
“I don’t want no words from that sonofabitch. And you might as well forget about going back. You know that’s foolishness.” There’s a harshness in his tone, and when he sees no reaction from the girl, he clears his throat, and says, “You can stay here as long as you like. Until you’re ready to go home.”
“I’ll stay until I see another sign,” she says. “Maybe you’ll see one too. Why don’t you pray with me?”
“I don’t do that.”
“Did Keren pray?”
“I don’t know no Keren. My daughter’s name is Lara. She left me to take up with them doves a long time ago. I’m no perfect father. Never pretended to be. But I ain’t never hurt her equal to one of them walks the pastor sent her on.”
The girl arched an eyebrow. “But you hurt her?”
“There ain’t nothing easy about being a father. We all screw up our kids. Don’t mean we don’t love ’em. After Lara split, I let her have her time at the church, gave her space. Thought a touch of faith might do her good. Then I saw her walking the line and I tried to help her the same way that boy I was training tried to help you. Church threw her out, same as you. I ain’t seen or heard from her in forever.”
“She didn’t need your help. I didn’t need your help. Jesus watches over us. I bet he was looking out for her same as he was me.”
“You think so, girl?”
The girl lifts her head to the stars, and for the first time, her smile fades. “Why won’t you say my name?”
“I would, if I knew it.”
He stands so quickly the chair falls over, metal clapping on concrete, and he kicks the barbecue across the driveway, a plume of ash erupting into the air, a gray cloud descending slowly about them.
A gulf of silence exists between them the next day. The girl stays on the couch stroking the traitorous cat as Gene futzes around the house. The tension carries over into the evening, and over a meal of hot dogs and tater tots he tries to make amends, offering to have one of the surgeons he knows take a look at grafting her burns, most of which will assuredly scar.
With a full mouth, and a bit of mustard clinging to her upper lip, she says, “I’ll keep them. Plenty of doves have them.”
“You ain’t a dove no more,” Gene says, not unkindly.
“They’re my scars. I earned them. And I earned a name.” The girl swallows her food and doesn’t touch another bite.
A couple of days go by and he no longer catches her singing, and dust grows like fur over all his things. She rarely leaves her cushion on the couch. It is on her third day of silence that Gene stocks the refrigerator with beer. The girl is curled up on the couch, knees drawn to her chest. The cat leaps from her lap, hisses, and scatters as Gene approaches. He crouches before her, grabs the remote, and mutes the baseball game. He sets an unopened beer bottle on the table and takes a slug from the open beer in his hand. The sun sinks slowly behind the blinds, and the shadows of the room dance around them as if possessed by ritual.
“I’ve been thinking,” Gene says, swirling the beer in his bottle in tiny circles.
The girl draws her knees up closer to her body, tucks her chin between them.
Gene takes a drink. “You say you saw God out there on 191. But I’m thinking, my medic shirt is white. And I was standing over you, saving your life. You had heatstroke. Hallucinating. I’m thinking I’m the closest thing to God you ever seen.”
The girl picks at the remnants of a scab on the top of her foot and a pinhole sized circle of blood forms. “The only stitch of God in this house is what I brought with me.”
Gene takes another drink, and reaches out and draws a lock of blonde hair away from her face, rubbing it between fingers and thumb. “Why don’t you let me take you back to your parents? I can do that. You can go home.”
“I am going home. I’m going to tell the pastor what I saw and he’ll take me back. I’ll be a dove again.”
The girl’s hair winds around his fingers. He pulls it close to his nose, sniffs, but he drank too much, and his sense of smell is gone. “He won’t. You know it. You could produce Jesus himself and that pastor won’t take back a broken dove. I know it. I tried for Lara. I begged him. I begged him to take her back for what I done. Wasn’t her fault I tried to help her. She didn’t ask for it. I told him all that, but he didn’t care.”
“I’m going back,” the girl says.
“You can go home. Your parents will take you, I swear it. Just tell me your name and I’ll find them.”
“I’m never going back there. I’m going back to the church.”
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Asenath,” the girl says.
He twists the girl’s hair tightly into a fist, and her head bows as he pulls. “Your real Goddamn name. Not the name that bastard pastor gave you.”
“Asenath,” the girl screams.
Gene rips her off the couch by her hair, the girl shrieking, and he whips his empty beer at the wall, the bottle shattering against the picture of Lara on the horse, and the picture frame falls from the wall and cracks on the ground. A tuft of hair is entangled in his fingers and he blows it away with a breath, like a dandelion puff. The girl cowers at his feet, covering her head with her arms.
“Can’t put a bird back in a nest,” Gene slurs, grabbing the unopened beer and stumbling off to bed.
She is still there in the morning, watching him warily from her place on the couch. He is dressed for work, reeking of beer. “Come on then,” he tells her, and she follows him out to his truck. They drive beyond the limits of Ulysses and get on US 191. It is Sunday, and the gates of the church are open, and the pastor’s doves cluster along the road in their white gowns, young and old, men and women, greeting those who would attend service. Many doves wear the scars of their penance proudly. His focus picks among the brunette women although he knows she will not be there. Gene pulls the truck off to the side, across the street from the gathering. The girl sticks her head out the window like a hound sniffing at the air.
“They won’t take you back,” Gene says. “You know it. But I guess you got to do a thing to know it for real.” He reaches across the girl and pops open her door. She hops down from the seat and limps across the road, white medical tape on her feet turning brown. A yellow sundress, one of Lara’s, shows off her peeling shoulders. She doesn’t look back. Gene gets going before witnessing an outcome that is never in doubt.
A month passes, time in which he returns to work, emergencies without end, the suffering of humans, the injury they do unto others and the injury they do unto themselves. A night run to Whiskey Cabaret, a couple of drunks brawling over nothing, one of the men split jaw to hairline with a broken bottle. Cops are there before the ambulance arrives, the drunk perpetrator spitting curses from the backseat of a squad car. Inside is smoke-filled, there’s blood dripping from the bar, and the victim lies on his back tended to by the bartender, a white towel drenched red pressed to his face. Music plays overhead, what passes for modern country, and from behind a microphone a DJ announces the night’s drink specials from a booth that overlooks an empty stage and a chrome stripper pole. The crowd, hard men who have yet to have the cowboy bred from their souls, keep to their drink with disinterest. Gene and his partner get to work, taking a look at the old fella’s wound, the sour reek of liquor on the man’s breath washing over them. They clean the cut and offer to transport the man, but he refuses, so they butterfly him up with some tape. The old man goes back to the bar and orders a drink.
It’s as they are about to leave, the music shifts to a rock ballad, and the men at the bar are incited to hooting, migrating from their stools to fill the empty chairs circling the stage. From behind a curtain of glittery beads struts out a barefoot girl with dark hair and a landscape of old burn scars covering dimpled cheeks. A barely noticeable limp as she saunters across the stage, twirls around the pole in a tied off t-shirt that exposes the flawless skin of her midriff and the crater-pocked flesh of her shoulders. The DJ’s voice announces, “Give it up men, for a former angel who traded in her wings to become a horny little devil, sweet, sexy—” The men around the stage wave their dollars as Gene bolts out the front door.
Outside, he looks up at the stars, more than he could ever count. He tries to catch his breath, overwhelmed, not by the innumerable constellations, but by all the black space between them. He walks over to the back of the ambulance and sits on the bumper. His partner follows him out and tries speaking with him, but Gene doesn’t answer. He’s untying his boots, stripping them off his feet, and peeling off his socks. The asphalt of the parking lot is warm on his soles, absorbing all the sun has to give during the day and parsing it out at night. Gene walks out to US 191 and faces east, plants his feet on the yellow dividing line, and takes his first step.
Mario Aliberto III had this to say about "A Good World":
"A Good World" began with a simple premise: A person on the side of the road, and why were they there? From that seed, I couldn't shake a vision of a girl burning her feet walking the yellow highway line under the hot Texas sun. I wanted to know more about this mysterious girl, and who would care for her. That's when I heard the character of Gene Shaw speaking to me about his experience with the girl, and he spoke so loud, I couldn't ignore him. This became Gene's story, and the girl remains a mystery.
Mario Aliberto III is a Long Islander posing as a Floridian, as well as a husband and father. Twitter: @MarioAliberto3
Reprinted with permission of the author