A Free Country, by Eugene Marten

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From Pure Life, a novel, which was published in May by Strange Light.

She waited for him in Baggage Claim wearing a cowboy hat and a white blouse and a Bluetooth earpiece. They’d met at a Step meeting in a church basement (#3: Surrender), exchanged numbers and spent four hours on the phone afterward. They’d rescued each other from drink, and then, tired of the semicircle of caffeinated confession and the fellowship’s dismal 5 percent success rate, rescued each other from AA, retaining only the Serenity Prayer and some dependable slogans. Neither had lapsed since, though she also credited her clean time to the Supreme Being, of course, and to His subsidiary, the Big Pink, for which she was now an Independent Sales Director.

“Wherever you go, there you are,” he said, snatching his bag from the carousel.

“Let go and let God,” she said.

They kissed and held hands on the way to Short Term Parking.

Nineteen’s girlfriend drove the black Camry she’d earned supervising a twenty-six-member unit with nearly fifty thousand dollars of production in six months. Next level, if she doubled production, was the pearlized pink Cadillac SRX SUV with sunroof, OnStar, seat warmers, a cooler in the trunk. Twenty-five hundred lipsticks a month. You could keep it for two years or opt for nine hundred dollars monthly instead, but at the end of the day, it was about neither car nor cash.

“Better put that in the backseat,” she said, looking at his bag. The Camry had fifteen cubic feet of cargo space, but she’d retained the customer base she’d built as a Consultant and the trunk was filled with product, some of which had found its way into the faux-suede interior.

He did as she suggested and got in the passenger side. He preferred to be driven.

As an Independent Sales Director who wore the pin and enhancer and earned a Unit Volume Commission of 13 percent, Nineteen’s girlfriend no longer had time for part-time telemarketing or UberX or online classes, but was still his nominal manager—the position itself was nominal—and she debriefed him in queue at the exit gate, a blacklist of unreturned calls and withdrawn commitments, from youth organizations, event managers, a non-profit with the word “hope” in its name; from a producer of what is called reality television, who’d courted Nineteen when the wheels were falling off and he was in the news, going bankrupt, resisting arrest, slurring his speech on air as a preseason color analyst, backing his Range Rover into a mounted policeman in Miami.

Fathering a daughter who wasn’t returning calls either, who’d given herself a name he couldn’t repeat even in thought.

He unbit his tongue. “Anything else?”

“There’s Akron next month.” First pitch, possible autos after. “If you’re still up for it.”

“Who ain’t up for Akron.” He couldn’t resist being the occasional Somebody, and there would be nothing to refuse soon enough. Sometimes they even paid.

She gave a dollar to someone holding a cardboard sign at the foot of the on-ramp, yelled: “This doesn’t make you a bad person.” We are all carrying signs, she’d learned.

They took 480 East. Nineteen’s girlfriend docked her phone and instructed the car to play what is called Adult Contemporary through its six standard speakers. A compromise. Her own tastes ran to Patty Loveless and Patsy Cline, and once upon a time, in pursuit of a dream that did not require wholesale monthly minimums, she’d spent three years in Nashville, waiting tables, tending bar, renting a room in a house, then sharing it, singing to brown-liquor drunks and rowdies at open mics where only other singers and songwriters were listening. The Bluebird, the Orchid Lounge, someone’s cabin in the Smokies (“Just you and me, writing songs, making music. No strings.”). She’d miscarried, auditioned for the last season of Star Search, was passed over, moved to the other side of the bar, moved back home, was briefly, violently married, enrolled in flight attendant school, lost her job after 9/11, lost a hair salon, enlisted, was medically discharged after a nervous breakdown, reinstated by United, laid off again during the recession, drank all the while and by now had something to sing about but instead started going to meetings in church basements, discovered the Pink Dream (more often cause than cure), met Nineteen, and now drove a shiny black sedan you could talk to with eight-way adjustable seats.

Nineteen hated country music. He heard her sing only once, at a karaoke fundraiser. Faith, faded wallpaper, loss. Alcohol and tribulation had tempered her voice, not ruined it, and he’d wiped his eyes, though he cried easily these days.

She taught him to line dance. She’d been a fan of his when so was everyone else, and when everyone else wasn’t. Her loyalty was unconditional; she knew what it was like to sing to empty seats.

“Hey stranger,” she said, and why did she call him that? She asked about Florida and Doctor Q.

“We talked on the phone.”

“You gave me your flight number.”

“I was thinking maybe . . . We talked.”

“So let’s talk some more.”

He sighed. He was not used to her undivided attention nor did he want it now. “After this I can’t afford him anymore anyway,” he said flatly; he’d drawn his player pension early and was getting half of what he’d have gotten had he waited another ten years.

A pickup overtook them, swung in front fast and close with no signal. She flashed her brights, touched her heart, then touched Nineteen’s hand. “Surrender doesn’t mean giving up,” she quoted, “it means coming over to the winning side,” and he thought she was going to bring up the Lawsuit. Class action. Six thousand brain-battered former players versus the League, whose initials meant Not For Long, so they used to say, and Nineteen had been invited to participate. The neurologist who’d inadvertently referred him to Doctor Q had declared him eligible, but Nineteen refused to join and in this he was unequivocal. It wasn’t just a game, never had been, and now it was under siege. He’d let his own son play, if he played. He was sure he’d known what he was getting into.

He expected her to bring it up and was going to mention the family at the airport preemptively, but then she said, “Incoming,” and told her phone, “Answer call.” She no longer said, “I have to take this.”

Nineteen looked out the window. They were crossing the monumental overpass that spanned the river valley named by the Iroquois, beneath them business parkways, an old drive-in, the vast white dome that looked ominously science-fictional but housed an indoor driving range. The obligatory bike path. He heard his girlfriend talking to an Independent Beauty Consultant, or a Star Consultant, or a Star Team Builder about offspring units, wholesale purchase volume. He looked back inside, at what his suitcase shared the backseat with: wrinkle filler, lifting serum, spot reducers, toning lotion. The liniments of rejuvenation. She used them and swore by them and sold them, went beyond them to the knife, to lower-lid blepharoplasty (they scraped the fat out of your eye bags), had undergone firming and augmentation—not that he was complaining, but he understood it wasn’t just vanity; he knew as well as anyone that your body is never quite your own.

She was otherwise petite and wore sunglasses and from a distance passed for thirty.

“Remember what she said at Seminar,” she said to whomever she was saying it to. Sisters in success. “It ain’t front-loading, you just can’t sell from an empty wagon.” Her little-girl voice could harden into a kind of ruthlessness and Nineteen found this out of character but hardening in another way. He thought about putting a hand between her legs. Unit Volume Bonus, Unit Circle Bonus, Star Consultant Bonus—it seemed to have nothing to do with customers, but you couldn’t use the P-word; she preferred to call it dual marketing. A free country. No one had a gun to anyone’s head. He’d gone to the doctor of his own volition and if he wasn’t sure what the plastic bag was dripping into his veins, it probably didn’t matter anymore anyway. But to whom or what would he turn when it was empty?

“So there was this family in the food court, at the airport,” he said carefully. The call seemed to be over. “They were going to Honduras.”

“Not even a Red Jacket and she’s talking pink suit.” Smiling. “Silly bitch.”

“Well, sort of Honduras.”

She grew fond: “Such a sweetheart though. Honduras.”

“Actually I think they said it was an island around there.” He tried to remember. “Starts with an R.”

“Aruba. No, that’s . . . ”

“Central America.”

“Starts with an R.” She instructed her phone to look up Honduras.

“Yeah, this family. They had this kid.”

“Oh right, all those kids.”

“No, they . . . What kids?”

“Crossing the border.”

“You’re talking about Mexico?”

“Well, coming through Mexico, these kids. I mean like ten years old. Alone. Nine. Their parents are . . . Is that where they’re coming from?”

“Is where where they’re coming from?” He struggled to hang on to his thread.

“Well they’re poor. Starving? Like the ones you can sponsor once a month?” He tried not to see the ads, the barefoot brown lives you could save for the price of a cup of coffee a day. Changing the channel before the tears came. “You’ve heard about it. The President?” Her phone had become an infotainment screen. “ ‘Illegal alien children.’ Really?”

“What? But these parents, this family I’m talking about, the son has diabetes.”

“No jobs, gangs—just don’t bring that shit up here, thank you. We’re so lucky, you know. We should send money.” Then she began to think Pink aloud. It usually went there.

“There’s some kind of clinic down there.”

“ . . . and such beautiful skin.”

“The parents, they think they might be able to cure him there. Or at least—”

“Authorized distributorships in Guatemala, El Salvador . . . ”

“Are you reading or driving?”

“ . . . a free facial. I’d even spring for a starter kit. A woman can have an empty stomach but she’s got to have her lip—” She sounded alarmed: “Your son has diabetes?”

“No, this kid! They’re taking him to a clinic on this island! Roanoke or something.” He knew it wasn’t Roanoke. “They’re using—”

She spoke to her phone.

Nineteen turned away. It had almost happened. He’d given himself a headache—or worsened the one that never quite abated. He looked at his own phone, then out the window again. The interchange was coming up and they were passing the vast tract of land where the world’s largest indoor mall had once stood, where a portion of it remained, though not for long. Bulldozers, monuments of rubble. What would grow there? He’d heard rumors of an Amazon fulfillment center—order pickers trying to keep up with robots, miles of conveyor belts. Fourteen football fields. How about nothing instead? Leave it at zero, plant some grass; Number Nineteen, former real estate developer and erstwhile farmer, found a measure of relief in open spaces.

They segued smoothly onto 422. He would be on his farm in twenty minutes or so and he wondered if she’d mention selling it again.

“Roatán,” she said suddenly and he looked at her, pretending to know what she was talking about.

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