I have the plastic bag of things he asked for in the passenger seat. His iPhone 7, a pint of Jim Beam, a carton of Camels, a pack of Magnums. I curve down snaky highways for twenty minutes in the middle of nowhere, then boom: new asphalt and landscaping. The driveway leads to a series of squatty buildings, a gazebo, quacking ducks, and a brown lake. Nervous looking people huddle around deck tables.
Frank always holds his body rigid when he smokes, his head cocked like he’s leaning on a bar in a movie. He tosses his butt, opens the door, reaches in the bag, starts breaking out cigarettes without bothering to thank me for showing up.
“I’ve got to pay people back,” he says, then walks around handing out packs like Christmas.
He gets in, says, “I’ve got to sign some forms,” and points.
I drive around the building where he gets out and smokes with some nurses under an awning. I think how lucky that I’ve cleared my schedule for this. I told Mr. Bounds I couldn’t come in today because my mother-in-law passed. He said he thought I’d got divorced. I asked him what that had to do with anything and he just cleared his throat. He clears his throat so much I’m beginning to think he has a phlegm problem. Or maybe he’s so full of shit it’s backing up.
After we get Frank’s bags from the bunkhouse it’s sayonara time. I take some backroads just to see what happens.
“Man, you wouldn’t believe this shit. The first thing I realized is I was the least fucked up person there. Some of those people are hopeless. Strung out on pills and meth. Mostly know-nothing kids.”
My phone loses satellite. We’re somewhere south of the Tallahatchie and east of 7.
“They didn’t have anything to snack on but Nature Valley bars and green apples. I don’t want to see another Nature Valley bar for as long as I live.”
He goes on about the cuisine, how many more cigarettes he smoked, his roommates in each bunkhouse and their habits. Bunkhouses are separated by age. He laughs about kids getting caught fucking by the lake. He pulls the Jim Beam out of the bag, cracks it open without comment.
If I’d gotten out of rehab instead of Frank, I wouldn’t care about the cigarettes or Jim Beam or my phone. Ruby is what I’d want. Her doll face in my hands. Ruby of the past, not the present.
“It was like a concentration camp. Every day they wanted us to think about what terrible people we were and write that down and share it with everybody. Like everything that happened to us was our own fault.”
“Yeah,” I say, “total bullshit.” I think about things that aren’t my fault. I didn’t choose to be born. I didn’t cause Ruby’s miscarriages. It wasn’t my own frigidity that drove me into the loving arms of lesser ladies.
The macadam ends and the road turns to gravel. We swerve around the bends, rising through trees, passing the bottle back and forth.
“I wrote her this long letter,” he says, meaning his ex, the one who sunk him. “I’m going to read it to her. She’ll dump her new fuck boy and all this will be a bad dream.”
My bad dreams are coming true. Ruby’s found happiness singing in the choir, marrying the pastor, God on her side at last. I don’t like God choosing her over me. I imagine her baptism in that blue dress she’d wear sometimes just to make me tear it off. No fair—where are the female pastors for me? I want to wade out in a river in my jeans so a Lady of the Cloth can push me down. I want redemption for a lover.
Frank stares out at the miles of scrub pines surrounding us. Silence means some tendril of his heart has reached up and grabbed hold of his tongue.
It isn’t my fault we’re dying faster now that we’re middle-aged or that billionaires keep poking us like ants. It isn’t my fault dreams leave my head as soon as I wake up, draining through the cracks in the floor.
My sunglasses and the whiskey start yellowing everything. The yellow road goes up a hill and down again, narrowing yellower as we drive into the bottom. The wheel pulls hard left. I get over in the shade, roll down the windows, smell the hot pine sap and dirt. Frank lights two cigarettes and passes me one.
I get out, look at the flat and our dust trail unscrolling into the woods. The trunk is empty. I lean against the hot metal, remembering my spare is already on the car.
Frank starts coughing and retching but I know that’s how he cries.
Where we’ve been and where we’re going looks the same even though it’s different directions. I don’t know where we are, I just know it needs to get better, or else it ends.
Notes from Guest Reader Gay Degani
The title of Max Hipp’s ‘The Least Fucked Up People’ gave me that ‘What have we here?’ tingle, and I wanted to know, who are these people? From the first paragraph, the story unfolded like the opening scene in a movie through the author’s listing of specific items on the car’s passenger seat and the image of ‘snaky highways.’ The characters were engaging, one buddy picking up his pal at rehab, and his pal paying out his cigarette debt. Not assholes these two, yet the story promised something more, both real and painful. I was not disappointed. The author delivered authentic characters in conflict with their world and with themselves, a story written in beautiful prose with a Flannery O’Connor feel for irony.