Doubt Weighed In
Product Magazine Prose Award Winner selected by guest judge Meakin Armstrong
Ethan Broomhill drove a forklift toward the stacked steel. He guided the forks beneath the pallet and pulled down the lift control, then headed toward Trang’s open tailgate. The sun glared off of the metal, a bright blue streak that made Ethan squint. The air was hot and dry, and Ethan had trouble focusing. Later, he had to see his daughter, Emelie, who despised him. He thought of the white Daisy Rock electric guitar he’d soon give her, its semi-hollow body, the narrow neck made for small hands. He felt better thinking about the guitar, but wasn’t sure she’d accept the gift. He lowered the steel into Trang’s truck bed, backed up and secured the parking brake. He and Trang didn’t speak as they fastened the steel down with elastic cords. When they finished, Ethan came around the side of the truck, offered his hand. “I appreciate it, as always,” he said.
Trang shook Ethan’s hand and smiled, his teeth tinged gray from cigarettes. “You are welcome,” he said. A hot breeze rustled Trang’s tattered shirt, exposing parts of the old faded tattoos on his chest: an anchor coiled in rope, columns of language in Vietnamese. He wore flip-flops, his pants rolled up past his ankles.
Trang said little and most of Ethan’s coworkers had no patience for people who didn’t speak English. Not Ethan. In the past, words had gotten in the way of things and left him with regret. Words weren’t forgotten, even when he took them back.
Like Trang, many of Ethan’s Vietnamese customers owned shrimpers and welded the steel he sold them to their boats. Ethan liked that the product he sold was made part of something greater, that it was out there slashing through the green-brown water off of coastal Mississippi. Sometimes at night he’d lie in bed, stroking Rissy’s auburn hair, thinking about how the steel allowed the fishermen to do their work and how their work provided food for people’s tables, and he felt like he was part of a pattern of good and decent things. Living decently was something he was still getting used to, though he’d been at the job for three years. It had been just as long since his last go at rehab.
Trang reached into his driver’s side window, took out a stringed pouch of Mahjong tiles. “Spit?” he said.
The two had been playing Spit with the tiles whenever Trang dropped in. The tiles had helped Trang learn numbers in English, and they didn’t make Ethan want to gamble the way cards did, the ivory squares smooth on his fingers. Trang emptied the bag and the pieces clinked and scattered onto the tailgate.
Ethan held up a hand, shook his head. “I can’t today,” he said. “Next time maybe. Maybe I can drop by your boat.”
Trang stood staring, then nodded. He raked the pieces back into the bag, tightened the strings. “Are okay.” He parted his lips, keeping his eyes on Ethan.
“Thanks,” Ethan said.
Trang patted Ethan’s shoulder. “You are okay?”
“I’ve been better. It’s my daughter.” Ethan lifted his hands and let them fall. “Bunch of bullshit, most of it’s my fault.”
Trang got in his truck and turned the key in the ignition, punched in the lighter. He shook a cigarette free from a pack and put it to his mouth. “You bring fishing pole if you come out,” he said, the cigarette wavering.
“I’d love to deep-sea fish. You still docked out there at Sea Rain Marina?”
“Near casinos, yes. You pay if we go there.” He smiled.
Ethan gave an abrupt laugh. “We’ll stick with the fishing.”
Ethan’s boss, Martin, whistled from the warehouse building’s double doors.
“He’s whistling for me,” Ethan said. He shook Trang’s hand again, stepped back up into the forklift and steered it toward the warehouse. The sun was bright and hot, sharpening the reflection in the building’s tinted glass. Ethan parked and stayed there a minute, looking at himself in the glass. He had not caved to gambling in years, and still liked seeing the difference in his looks since quitting. Used to, he’d stay up for days, eating little or nothing, wasting away in the cards. Now he had muscle on his body, slept well, ate raw vegetables to be like Daniel in the Bible. He felt strong. Just then, a dull tapping on the glass, and Ethan looked past himself: Martin, dimly visible, motioning him inside.
Inside, large fans on the high walls propelled the air, keeping it moving though not cool. Ethan took the wooden staircase up to Martin’s office: a square room with blinds half-open on the windows. He went in and shut the door, blinds clapping, and took one of the seats in front of Martin’s desk.
Martin sat in his rolling chair, the telephone pressed between his face and shoulder. He was fifty-eight, white brushstrokes at his temples. He held up a finger to Ethan. “What kind of gauge you looking?” he said into the phone.
On Martin’s wall were pictures of his family, plaques for his service in the steel industry, and a Bible college degree. Next to these a bass and bream calendar with scripture in the corner of each page. Along with selling steel, Martin pastored a small Assembly of God church, and when no one else had, he’d given Ethan a job so as to dispense the grace he preached. Ethan appreciated this and out of respect had gone to Martin’s church once, although he hadn’t gone back. Ethan had started to believe in God, but didn’t need Martin’s preaching or the noise and eagerness of his congregation. He’d been mostly reading the stories in the Bible about Jesus, and he liked Christ’s defiance—his anger and his occasional frustration, his insistence on solitude.
Once Martin hung up he stroked his beard and looked past Ethan. “I got Matt covering for you, but of course you’re free to go either way. She ever done anything like this before?”
Ethan feigned a smile. “Emelie’s like her father, always has been. Just never this bad.”
“ER?” Martin said.
Ethan nodded. “Stomach pumped.”
Martin sat forward. “I was wondering if maybe I could tag along.”
“What for?” Ethan had not expected his own abruptness. Still, this was not Martin’s business.
“A friend has a church in Pass Christian,” Martin said. “He wants me to come speak for the Wednesday service.”
Ethan’s eyes drifted, and he leaned forward in his chair. “Sure, I can give you a ride. Rissy’s coming, too.”
“It’s not a problem?”
Ethan shook his head. “I’d like to do like you’ve done for me.”
“There’s maturation in the Christian life,” Martin said. “You’ll get there.” He stood and looked out the window. “You mind if I’m there when you talk to her?”
Ethan stood. “I don’t mind if you come, but I’d rather me and Emelie be alone.”
At home, Ethan kicked off his work boots, put on his brown loafers. He dressed in a white button-up shirt and tan pants. Next to the empty coat hanger was a denim-colored dress shirt Audrey, Ethan’s ex-wife, had bought him. He’d leave that here, no use showing up in something from their past. On his iPod he played Alice in Chains’s “Rain When I Die,” and the music eased him some. The band was one of Emelie’s favorites.
He went to the kitchen and poured a cup of tomato juice. Outside the window, Rissy stopped at the intersection in her blue Mustang. The top was down, the sun streaking through her red-brown hair. She wore large sunglasses, had a strong face and fair skin. Somehow Rissy loved him, and it was the last thing he deserved. She coasted to the house and pointed the car into the driveway, cut the engine.
Ethan walked outside and gave her a kiss at the driver’s side. Tomato juice tipped over the cup’s rim, stained the thigh of Rissy’s pants. “Oh hell,” he said, dabbed at the spill with his sleeve.
“Stop, don’t ruin your shirt,” Rissy said. She took her bag from the backseat and headed for the house. “I know you didn’t mean to, I just have to change.” Rissy owned a clothing store, The Sugar Well. The first thing she’d done when Ethan got out of treatment was buy him new clothes.
She probably wanted to look good in front of Audrey, who in their day had been Rissy’s closest friend. Ethan needed Rissy with him. Whenever he got alone with Audrey they argued, and now they needed to focus on Emelie. With Rissy there they could be civil out of consideration. Ethan went back inside and wiped the cup with a dishrag.
“Ethan, can I see the guitar?” Rissy said from the bedroom. Ethan reached behind the couch where the case lay, unclasped the buckles and lifted the guitar from the navy blue felt. Rissy came into the room wearing clean blue jeans and a low-cut black shirt, an open button-up. She rolled her sleeves, said, “I thought you said the guitar was pink.”
Ethan said, “I don’t know how you got pink from electric white.”
Rissy shrugged. "I guess I just imagined Emelie rocking a pink guitar.”
“You don’t like the color?”
“I didn’t say that,” she said, sitting on the couch.
“Well now I’m thinking I should have gotten her a pink one.” The guitar of Emelie’s he’d stolen and pawned years ago had been pink, but he wanted a clean slate, and white seemed the way to go.
Rissy took the guitar from his hands, propped it on her thigh. She tuned to E flat and started playing. “I love the neck,” she said. “It’ll be good for her little hands.” Rissy strummed a few chord, laid the guitar back in the case and closed the top down. “Where’s the amp?” she said.
“Already in the car,” Ethan said. He locked the case’s clean bronze buckles into place, and set it beside the door. Outside, Martin’s blue truck parked against the far curb. Ethan’s arms and hands began to shake, even more so when gripped the handle on the guitar case again. “Guess it’s time to go,” he said.
After two hours on the road, Martin suggested they stop at Lake Hannah to eat. They’d stopped once already, at a roadside shoe store where Rissy had bought Emelie a pair of red flats. Although Ethan wanted to keep going, Martin was always talking about selflessness, so he decided one more stop wouldn’t hurt. The gravel hissed under the wheels of the car as they drove into the lot and parked. A gill net hung over the entrance, pieces of driftwood and a flotation ring caught in the ropes. Ethan thought of fishing with Trang, and wondered if he should buy a fishing rod once he reached the coast and see if Emelie wanted to join him. He held the door open for Rissy, and inside a waitress whose nametag read Angela seated them next to a window looking out over the water.
Martin browsed the menu. “You thought about how best to approach Emelie?”
“Alone,” Ethan said. “She’s never liked being in a room with a lot of people.”
“I’d like to see her get the guitar and amp, since it’s something I had a hand in,” Martin said.
“I’m paying you for the amplifier.” Ethan knew it was the wrong thing to say, but he didn’t care.
“I thought you were preaching a Wednesday service. You here for something else?” Rissy said.
Martin held up a hand. “I know a thing or two about intervention,” he said. “Things can go south if you go about this the wrong way. She should know the guitar’s for when she’s done with rehab. Give her something to look forward to when she gets right and gets home.”
Ethan rubbed his forehead with his palm. “Things are already south, Martin. The only thing that could be worse is if she were dead.”
Martin sat back and the chair creaked with his weight. “You’re not listening.”
Ethan looked away to the bar, searching for distraction. There, a young boy with a plate of chicken strips was watching cartoons on one of the flat-screen TVs. When a waiter appeared and changed the station to a Braves game, the boy started to fuss. Angela, the waitress, came over from another table and crouched down in front of the boy.
Ethan pushed out from the table and walked over to the boy and his mother. “Ma’am?” he said.
She spoke without looking at him. “Sir, I’ll be right with you, I just have—”
“He can sit at our table. We like cartoons at our table.”
She looked up. Slight grooves shone under her pretty cheekbones, and her eyes were full of sleep. She brushed a strand of dark hair away from her face. “Oh, goodness, are you sure?” she said. Ethan knew her situation. He’d left Audrey the same way: alone and forced to work without a sitter.
Ethan nodded. “You got a name?” he said to the boy.
The boy looked at Ethan and then at his mother.
Angela ran a hand through her son’s hair. “This is James. He talks, just mostly to me, or in his head.”
Ethan held back a grin. “My own kind,” he said. He motioned towards his table.
Their motel faced Highway 90, and the water rolled to the shore, red in the dusk. Standing outside his room on the second floor, Ethan dialed Audrey. Audrey told him Emelie hadn’t left her room, that he was free to come whenever. He hung up with her and stared out at the Gulf. A few more casinos were in business since the last time he’d been here, before everything was swept away by the hurricane. Signs flashed with colorful scrolling messages. Awful things happened and people moved on. The world didn’t stop because anyone was hurting.
Ethan leaned into their open door. “She says we can come now,” Ethan said. “Will you get him?” He nodded toward Martin’s room and then took the guitar off the bed, went downstairs and slid it into the cargo space and got into the Jeep, turned the engine over and waited. When Rissy and Martin got in Ethan said, “Martin, where we dropping you at?”
Martin said, “Service doesn’t start until 8:00. There’s time yet. If things get heated you may need me around.”
“I’ve got Rissy, got her mother. I think I’ll be all right.” He eased out onto Highway 90.
Martin turned in his seat and brought a hand down like a blade, aimed at Ethan. “You need to listen to me,” he said. “You’re young in the faith, and I don’t know that anyone else in the house has the guidance of the Holy Ghost, do you get what I mean? You, ma’am,” he looked over at Rissy, “you speak in the tongues of the Holy Ghost?”
Rissy said, “Can’t say I have, but the point isn’t to scare Emelie.”
“Riss,” Ethan said. Martin had to go, but he didn’t want him hurt. His were good people, but Ethan did not owe him Emelie, didn’t owe him a tithe or a membership, just hard work. He thought of Christ, on his boat, paddling out to still waters, away from everyone. He hit the brakes and pulled onto the side of the road next to a gas station. “Get out,” he said. “You’ve done plenty, and I thank you, but it’s time to leave.”
“Bad idea, Ethan. You’re more teachable than this,” Martin said.
Rissy said, “Martin, let’s call a cab.” She rummaged through her purse and brought up a twenty.
“I never meant—,” Martin said. He opened his door and set a foot out. “Forget the cab. I’ll call the church.”
Rissy held out the money. “Just in case?” she said.
Martin waved a hand. He shut the door and went his way past the pumps towards the sliding doors of the entrance.
Ethan pulled back out onto the road. Rissy stared at him from the back seat. “What if he fires you?”
“I’ll get another job,” Ethan said.
“And if it’s not that easy, you and Emelie moving in with me?”
“I said I’ll get another job.” He took a breath and rolled down the window, placed his elbow on the door. “You still want me working for him anyway?” Rissy sat a moment, then climbed over the console into the front seat. She rolled down her window as well. Sand swirled beneath the tires of passing cars. A few people walked barefoot on the beach, some kicking a soccer ball, and a dog kicked up sand as he ran.
Ethan remembered taking Emelie to the beach as a girl. His crew had been hired to work on a house in southern Florida, so he’d brought Emelie and Audrey down for a few days to stay with him. Because of bad weather the crew cancelled the day’s work. Hoping things would clear off, Ethan took Emelie down to the water, even though Audrey had told him not to. In slipping out before Audrey could stop them, he’d forgotten towels. The ocean was cold and gray in the drizzle, crashing against their bodies in bitter bursts. They left the water and started back toward the hotel, the rain picking up in fat, harsh drops that raked like sandpaper. She flinched as they fell. He should have picked her up, sheltered her from the storm.
The sun had gone down. Ethan let the lights of the coast swim in his eyes. He turned left into Audrey’s neighborhood. Once they reached Audrey’s driveway he put the Jeep in park, let the engine run for a minute.
Rissy reached into her pocket and grasped a marbled guitar pick swirled in purple and black. She placed the pick in Ethan’s hand and squeezed. “You’ll be fine. You two need each other.”
Ethan studied the pick. “Nothing can go wrong if I stay put.”
“You’ll have lied to them again, saying one thing and then running.”
He shut off the Jeep, went to the cargo door to unpack the guitar and amp.
His old home was one story and red brick. The low-slung limbs of a weeping willow swept down onto the porch and roof, leaned into Emelie’s window on the right. The tree needed pruning. Solar-powered lamps lined the walkway, glowing faintly in the dusk. Ethan carried the guitar and amplifier and Rissy walked with him up the path. Reaching the porch, Ethan noticed a chipped place in the beveled glass of the door window, and past it, Audrey coming to them through the dim hallway. The door opened and she stood wearing lace-up pajama pants and a thin zip-up with a hood. Her black hair was in a pony-tail, her eyes swollen and tired. “Hey,” she said.
Ethan set the guitar down, slid a finger across the splintered glass. “You need somebody to fix this?”
Audrey pressed her cheek against the door. “One thing at a time.” She motioned with her head for them to come in. She took a seat on the couch, and with the remote cut off the television.
Rissy sat next to her. “You holding up?”
Audrey shook her head with a nervous laugh. “My old best friend and my ex-husband just walked in,” she said. “Then there’s my daughter.”
Rissy looked at Ethan, then back at Audrey. “Do you want to get something to eat? I’m buying,” she said.
Audrey said she looked like hell and Rissy offered to fix her hair. Audrey sat still as Rissy removed the ponytail holder and with her hands ruffled out the dark locks down her shoulders. “Let’s search the closet.”
“Fine,” Audrey said. She turned back to Ethan. “Emelie’s in her room.”
Ethan’s heart flounced in his chest. He walked into the hallway, took slow steps to Emelie’s room, keeping the guitar and amplifier from battering the walls. The gap below her door glowed pale blue, from the television he figured. He stared at the door for what felt like a long time before he finally said, “Emelie.” When no one came, he spoke louder, “Emelie, it’s Dad,” and knocked on the door with an elbow.
After a few seconds, the door jerked open. Emelie dropped back to her place on the bed, pressed herself into the headboard.
Ethan set the amp and guitar inside the door. “Hey, girl,” he said.
The circles under her eyes were almost purple, her bangs low on her forehead and damp with sweat.
Ethan walked over, took the remote and muted the TV. “How bad do you feel?”
She rubbed her small round nose with the back of her hand. “I feel like hell,” she said.
“Have you eaten anything?” Ethan said.
“Not hungry,” Emelie said.
“I brought you something,” he said. “Something I should have given you a long time ago.” He laid the guitar case on the bed, then took up the amplifier and placed it beside the guitar. Emelie glared slightly as Ethan unfastened the clasps on the case. “You’ll keep this one, maybe long enough to learn to play this time.”
Emelie breathed out, gave something like a laugh. She shook her head. “You’re a little late, aren’t you?”
Just then he realized he’d been gripping the rubber handle of the amplifier so hard his palm had begun to ache. He let go and took out the guitar and stuck the pick Rissy had given him between the strings. “It’s not too late to learn to play. Rissy’s giving free lessons.”
She looked toward the door, gave a nod. “Rissy, you going to hurt her too?”
His hand formed a fist. “Stop it.”
“Like you did the rest of us?”
“No, not like I did the rest of you. That’s done.”
“Like it was the last three times?”
He released the guitar and its strings grazed the footboard in hushed noise. He watched her. There was nothing he could say that hadn’t been said before. Emelie was right. There was no reason to trust him. He wished there were some way he could just do for her, without any talking or promises, something obvious. A way that did not require words. He stood and went to the window and yanked the blinds up.
“What the hell are you doing?” Emelie said.
He unlocked the window and thrust it open, pushed out the screen and ducked down through to the outside. Emelie stuck her head out the window behind him. “Where are you going?” she asked. “Hey—wait!” She climbed out of the window and followed him, the grass rustling under her bare feet. At the truck Ethan handed her red flats that Rissy had bought her. Then Ethan got into the driver’s side and cranked the engine.
“What is going on?” Emelie said.
He put the Jeep in drive.
Before he could pull away, Emelie pulled herself into the passenger seat. Ethan drove them to the road and out to the Wave Burger drive-in, where he ordered Emelie a chocolate shake and a cheeseburger and fries. They did not speak, and she did not look comfortable, but she stayed put. He ignored the calls on his cell phone from Audrey, from Rissy. When the food came they left the car behind and crossed the street towards a pier out in the water, the planks riven and splintered by the hurricane. The lights of a casino shimmered a hundred yards away. He figured maybe they’d go in and sit around the pool, and then he spotted the sign he was looking for: Sea Rain Marina. It was dark out and Ethan looked down one of the piers for Trang. A lone figure stood at its end, smoke jetting from his mouth.
He started towards him, Emelie behind, stepping on nails that jutted from the boards, wood creaking under his weight. He called out Trang’s name. The man turned and stood for a few seconds before coming Ethan’s way. It was not Trang, but someone who knew him, someone who’d answered to his name.
Ethan held out a hand, asked if the man knew where he could find Trang.
The Vietnamese man motioned out toward the boats. “Why?”
“I’m his friend. We’re supposed to fish,” Ethan said.
The man nodded and led them along the docks. Ethan and Emelie followed him up a ladder onto a boat and they waited. In a minute Trang appeared, pinching the sleep from his eyes.
Ethan nodded towards Emelie. “Things aren’t okay,” he said to Trang.
Trang smacked him on the back, said nothing and then vanished toward the front of the boat. The engine cranked up and they backed out into the gulf. Ethan noticed police lights pulling up behind his Jeep, figuring Audrey had called them, put them on the hunt. They drove far out into the water. The lights of the coast disappeared behind them causing the stars to reflect in the water—like gleaming quartz on solid ground. Emelie sat and crossed her arms like she was cold, hair playing on the wind. She looked at him like she was almost willing to pat the space next to her. Ethan recalled Christ on the boat, leaving the crowds behind, his walking on water: Peter, stepping out and taking a few steps towards his savior, right before losing focus, before doubt weighed in and pulled him under.