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FIRST FERSON/Judy Troy THE FIRST STEP HE TOOK was his first step toward the penitentiary ," Pam liked to joke about her son, Avery, during the year that she and Avery lived next door to me in Sea Coast Village, which sounds like a prettier place than it was. It was a strip of poverty down in the Florida Panhandle near the ocean, shortly before that part of the coastline was developed. There were still oaks and poplars and old houses sunk halfway into the sand. It was nice in a hopeless kind of way. Our houses were rentals—cabins in a defunct motel a block from the highway that ran along the Sound. I had a night job at a motel, a functioning motel, where I sat at the front desk looking out at the blackness until a car pulled up, some tired-looking family from Indiana or Missouri who couldn't afford the hotels in Destin. Pam was living mainly on child support from her ex-husband—the Tattoo King, he called himself—who hadn't seen Avery in six years. He'd never wanted Avery to begin with; he'd been awful to him, but at least he made his payments. Pam said that she was a part-time tattoo artist somewhere in Fort Walton Beach, at one of those trashy shops that cater to lonely airmen off duty from the air force base, but I never saw her go to work. And she never mentioned the streak of lightning tattooed on my chest, which I had gotten in Texas when I was in the army, years before. There was no chance that she hadn't seen it. Pam and I were naked together many times—drunk and naked, since for me it was before I'd started with AA. On the nights I didn't have to work we would go to my house—Avery was eleven, old enough to stay alone, we both thought—turn up the music, drink tequila until we couldn't stand, break whatever got in our way and pass out until morning. We were usually surprised at where we woke up: sometimes outside, near the ditch that ran behind our cabins; or inside, in the bathtub. One time we found ourselves in the kitchen with our heads under the kitchen sink, as if we were fixing the plumbing, and another time we were all the way across the highway, in the back seat of somebody's twenty-yearold Chevy, which I'd thought was a car I'd had back in high school. "I like fucking you, Billy," Pam said when we were sober, but I hardly ever remembered the sex, just a flash of something—her bare shoulder, or her long, narrow thighs. Sometimes I could tell what we did by the rug burns, the next day, on her knees or on her back. I have no memory of us kissing, though we must have kissed at the beginning. At the 26 · The Missouri Review beginning I think she wanted us to have something romantic. Or did that come from me, that sense that she was supposed to mean something to me more than she did? I'd see her sitting outside with Avery as the sun was going down, her face so sweetly sad you'd want to cup it in your hands, and I'd go have a drink, and not even offer one to her. Or I'd see the King drop off his payment and leave her in tears, and not go over there to comfort her. And when Avery fell off his bike once and gashed up his knee, needing stitches, I didn't say, "Get in the truck. I'll take you." It wasn't because Pam and I didn't get along or have fun. We did. We thought the same things were funny—the night Avery barged in from next door, for instance, in his underwear, shouting, "I set a cat on fire!" We ran outside naked, looking for that cat in a jungle of viney trees. "Whose cat? Whose cat?" Pam kept asking. We never found it. We never knew for...


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