Nothing ever was the matter with Jesse’s dad. Nothing, anyway, that he could articulate to his wife and daughter. He just started drinking more beer. And after a while, inexplicably, he stopped using the garbage can. He’d drink a six pack of Bud Light and throw the empties into the grass. They lived off a gravel road near Dorena, Oregon, with the foothills of the Cascade Mountains rising to the east. Drivers who turned down the road by mistake gawked at the piles of accumulating cans and turned around immediately back toward Row River Road. In the spring of 1987, after a winter of heavy drinking by her dad, Jesse couldn’t mow the lawn. The mower seized as aluminum wrapped around the axle. It rained hard in April and Jesse’s dad shot himself in the head. There was a pad of paper and a pen on the table next to his body. All the pages were blank. He had not been able to find any words. When the spring rains finally stopped, the grass trying to swallow the house was four feet tall. Jesse’s mom still lives there, watching cars slowly pass, turn around, and pass the other way back toward the main road.
* * *
Jesse met Phil in 1994 at a Phi Delta Theta frat party at Oregon State University in Corvallis, sixty miles north of Dorena, up I-5 through the Willamette Valley. Jesse was reluctant to attend the kegger, but her roommate, Ashley, liked one of the brothers, Jason, and needed a wingwoman. Phil approached Jesse while Ashley was putting on the moves. He held a red plastic cup and his pupils were dilated. Despite his goofy jokes, this girl seemed to like him. The evening ended abruptly when the siren outside got louder and louder and stopped, and two paramedics hurried upstairs to one of the bedrooms. Ashley came down the stairs, shaking. Jason had vomited and had a seizure, and was now unconscious on the floor. His skin was cool to the touch. Jesse took Ashley home and Phil huddled with his brothers as the paramedics carried Jason into the ambulance. The next year, Phil and Jason moved out of the fraternity and into an apartment, three blocks from where Jesse and Ashley lived.
* * *
West Portland Park is a neighborhood in Southwest Portland, seventy miles north of Corvallis. Phil and Jesse moved into their first house there in 2002. Their son, Alex, was born that year, in November. Phil’s uncle, visiting from Tacoma, wanted to celebrate at the dive bar on Capitol Highway. Jesse was awake and Alex was crying when Phil came home after midnight.
“Richard is a drunk,” Jesse said, referring to Phil’s uncle.
“I know,” Phil said. “I’m sorry.” This was the first time he had been out since Alex was born three weeks ago.
“We have a baby now, Phil!”
* * *
Phil and Jesse walked to the coffee shop on a windy Saturday morning in July, 2012. They started up the hill and Jesse pulled ahead. Phil’s headache returned. Too many beers last night
* * *
“Why are you walking so fast?” Phil said.
“I’m not,” Jesse said, slowing down.
“I should have drank more water before we left.”
They didn’t talk again until reaching the top of the hill. Phil stared at Mount Hood, which appeared larger than usual. The melting snow revealed the rock’s wrinkles.
“I hope Alex calls today,” Phil said.
“He sounded anxious yesterday,” Jesse said.
“I was like that at camp.”
“I just wanted to reach through the phone and hug him….We’ll talk to him this afternoon.”
* * *
“Let’s go to the convenience store,” Phil said after coffee.
“No, Phil, you don’t need more beer. You have to let your liver recover.”
“My liver is fine. It takes more than what I drink to hurt your liver.”
Jesse shook her head and waved off Phil’s assessment. She turned to him with vigor. “You have to take care of your body!”
“Beer is good for you. It was in Scientific American.” Phil grinned. “Remember? It’s healthy to have one or two beers a day. It’s good for your heart and stress.”
“One or two, not three or four!”
“I usually only have three.”
“I don’t know…”
The old man from Korea who owned the store was tending today.
“Hello,” Phil said. He always felt bad he didn’t know the owner’s name.
“Hi,” the owner said, smiling and nodding.
Phil walked to the back wall where the beer was. Jesse wandered down an aisle, looking for nothing. Phil chose a porter this time.
“How are you?” the owner said.
“Good,” Phil said. “How are you doing?”
“You watch Man U. today?”
“No. Who did they play?”
“They win!” the owner said, pumping his fist.
“Oh, good.” Phil handed the owner a ten. “Did you jog today?”
“Yes, but I jog slow.” The owner said it like he was apologizing.
“You have soccer game today?”
“No. We play on Tuesdays.”
The owner pulled out a black plastic bag.
“I can carry it,” Phil said.
Jesse came over as Phil picked the six pack off the counter. “Hello!”
“Hi!” the owner said.
“Okay, see you later,” Phil said.
“He’s so nice,” Jesse said, outside the store.
“I know. He always asks me about Manchester United because I have that shirt.”
Phil shifted the six pack from one arm to the other every block on the way home. “I have to go to the office to do a little work today.”
“No…” Jesse said. “I was thinking we could kick the ball around after lunch.”
“If I don’t get some things done, I’ll be stressed out Monday,” Phil said.
Jesse looked away.
* * *
Phil sat in The Shanghai Tunnel with a beer, looking out the window, contemplating the ripples working upstream with the wind, against the flow of the Willamette River. He had spent an hour at the office. That was enough for a Saturday.
“Want another?” the bartender said.
“No thanks. I gotta get going,” Phil said. He drove home with the window down and his elbow out.
Jesse was in the backyard planting vegetables.
“Are you wearing your sunscreen?” Phil said. He stood at the backdoor. He didn’t want Jesse to smell that he had had beer.
“Yes.” Jesse was wearing her wide-brimmed hat and green sandals with pink flowers on the toes. Her hands were stained with earth and she was smiling. “Did you get your stuff done?”
“Mostly. I think I’m going to take a nap before dinner.”
“Did you have a beer?” Jesse said, squinting at him.
“Dang,” Phil said, frowning. “I’m just tired.”
* * *
“It’s a good thing they sat us by the window,” Jesse said. “People will see us eating and want to come in.”
“Yes,” Phil said, looking at the menu.
“I like the painted bamboo in the big vase.”
“There’s nobody here.”
“Would you like something to drink?” the waitress said.
“I’ll have jasmine tea, please,” Jesse said. “Do you want tea?” she said to Phil.
“Do you have Vietnamese beer?” Phil said.
“Yes, we have Bia Hoi, Saigon, and Bia Hanoi.”
“I’ll have a Bia Hoi.”
The waitress bowed slightly and walked back into the kitchen.
Phil leaned across the table. “She’s Vietnamese.”
“Very good,” Jesse said.
Phil chuckled. “What are you going to order?”
“I don’t know.”
“What the pho!” Phil said.
“What?” Jesse said, alarmed.
Phil pointed to number three on the menu: pho.
“Very funny. You startled me.”
Phil chuckled again.
The waitress returned. She poured the beer into a glass and the tea into a cup. “You ready to order?”
“You go first,” Jesse said.
“I’ll have the spicy chicken curry.”
“Mmm, that sounds nice.” Jesse’s eyes raced around the menu.
Phil tasted his beer.
“How is it?” Jesse said, stalling.
The waitress smiled.
“I’ll have the cha ca.”
“Thank you,” the waitress said, taking the menus. “Thank you.”
Phil took another drink then leaned over. “It’s pretty good. Nothing great. I don’t think Vietnam is known for their beer.”
“They have rice wine.”
“I think I’ll stick to beer. Beer is safe.”
Jesse furrowed her brow.
“Did you have a good time working in the yard?” Phil said.
“I was on slug patrol. They are everywhere. They ate my sorrel.”
“Return of the slugs!”
“Those copper strips don’t work.”
“They’re just trying to make a livin’ too, you know.”
“Well, they don’t have to eat all my sorrel. I hate them. I was going all over the yard cutting them in half with the weeding tool.”
Phil rotated his glass. There was one drink left.
The waitress brought their food and just in time.
“I’ll have another beer. Can I try the second one you said?” Phil continued holding his glass to let the waitress know he intended to finish it.
“Another beer?” Jesse said.
“I’m experiencing the Vietnamese culture,” Phil said, smiling.
Jesse stared at him.
“What? I’m only having two.”
“Plus the one before you came home.”
“Three beers isn’t a lot. I usually have two or three beers.” Phil didn’t like Jesse’s look. “Give me a break.”
Jesse started shoveling her food, ignoring Phil.
“Come on!” Phil said, slamming his fork on the table.
“It’s not just that,” Jesse said, now glaring at Phil. She started shoveling again.
“First, you missed Alex’s call this afternoon when you were napping.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were snoring!”
“I was tired!”
“I found the tequila bottle,” Jesse said, her voice trembling.
Phil’s face, which had been reddening, lost its color.
“Did you drink that all in one night?”
Jesse’s eyes swelled.
“No,” Phil said again. “I’ve been waking up at night worrying about things. I drank it so I could sleep.”
Jesse was hurting.
“I didn’t drink it all in one night,” Phil insisted. “I probably drank it over a week or two, a little bit at a time.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know.”
A tear ran down Jesse’s cheek.
“It’s nothing, Jesse. I just start thinking and I can’t turn off my brain. I can’t stop thinking about things.”
“Yes. And sometimes other things.”
“What other things?”
“I don’t know…”
Jesse wiped her eye and released a stream of tears.
“I try thinking of nothing, but I can’t, so I’ve been getting up and reading, and having a little of the tequila to help fall back asleep.”
Jesse reached across the table, offering her hand. Phil took it and squeezed.
“I was worried, Phil.”
Jesse did not usually cry like this. Phil kept squeezing her hand, afraid of what was happening.
“Come sit over here,” Jesse said.
Phil moved around the table and sat next to Jesse. He pulled his plate and silverware over.
“Let’s eat this good food.”
They ate without talking, both of them hungry and finishing their plates. Phil left a full beer on the table.
* * *
“We need dental floss,” Jesse said on their way home from dinner.
Phil opened the door for Jesse at the convenience store. The owner stood at the far end of the counter where he could see the beer and wine. His wife sat by the register, watching a TV screen.
“Hi,” Phil said.
The owner waved without looking at Phil and Jesse. He continued watching something at the back wall.
Phil looked at Jesse, who shrugged. As they walked past the counter, Phil glanced back and saw two men on the black-and-white TV screen the wife was watching. The men wore heavy coats.
Jesse headed for the toiletries.
“I’ll be right there,” Phil said. He walked to the back and saw two young men—boys, really—fussing around in front of the wine. One boy stumbled and Phil heard glass knocking about inside his coat. The boy had thick, black curls of hair and he stared at Phil with opaque eyes. The other boy was very nervous. Phil turned toward the beer as if he was shopping. He glanced over again and the boy with opaque eyes was swaying and pointing to a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.
Phil put his hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “There’s a situation going on here.”
Jesse and Phil walked toward the counter where the two boys were now standing. The owner nudged his wife and she rushed into the private area of the store.
“No,” the owner said. “No.” He shook his head.
The bottle of Mad Dog was on the counter. The boy with opaque eyes held out his hands.
“What?” he demanded.
“No,” the owner said. “Give me bottles and you go.”
“I want to buy this,” the boy pleaded.
The other boy, the nervous one, left the store.
“Go,” the owner said. “Leave bottles and go.”
“But I want to buy this.” The boy searched his pocket, pulled out several coins, and dropped them on the counter. A dime bounced off and rolled on the floor.
“No,” the owner said. His wife appeared and he said, “Call.”
“This guy is wasted,” Phil said to Jesse.
Jesse’s face was white.
“We call police,” the owner said.
The boy left the bottle of Mad Dog on the counter and started walking out with the other bottles in his coat.
“Hey!” the owner said.
The boy stumbled through the door. The owner followed. Phil followed, too.
“Phil,” Jesse started.
In the parking lot, the owner grabbed the boy and tried to reach his hand inside the boy’s coat. The boy, as wasted as he was, was still much stronger than the old man.
“Be careful!” Jesse said.
The owner followed the boy into the street and grabbed him again. This time the boy swung his arm and knocked the owner to the pavement. Phil rushed in. Now the boy’s eyes were fiery red.
“Give me the bottles and get the fuck out of here!” Phil said.
The boy reached into his coat, pulled out a bottle, and swung his arm. The bottle broke against Phil’s head, showering him with red wine. Phil dropped. Jesse ran in. The boy froze, afraid. A minivan slowed to a stop in the street, its headlights beaming over the scene.
The owner sat up and placed his palm on a shard of glass, drawing blood. The minivan driver’s door opened. The boy, his friend gone, his adrenaline flowing, dropped the broken bottle neck and staggered into the darkness.
Jesse squatted next to Phil, who was unconscious.
* * *
Jesse drives to Dorena to visit her mom every couple of months. Phil and Alex usually go, but not always; sometimes Phil stays to take Alex to play soccer or basketball. It’s a two-plus hour drive down to Dorena. Lots of time for talking. Or silence.
The three of them drove down this year on Memorial Day. Alex slept most the way. Long periods of time passed without Jesse and Phil talking. Five minutes, ten minutes, one time fifteen minutes.
The forest is advancing down the foothills and reclaiming the land around Jesse’s childhood home. Twenty-year-old maples shade the property. Several branches fell from the large Doug fir next to the house over the winter. One branch landed on the roof.
Jesse decided to take Alex and Mom to the mall in Eugene. Phil stayed behind to clear the branches. Jesse’s mom didn’t need anything from the mall, she said, but whatever Jesse wanted to do was fine. Grandma just wanted to be with her grandson. Jesse didn’t care if Mom needed anything anyway. Her main objective was to get Mom out of the house and around people.
That evening, Jesse found her dad’s blank pad of paper in her mom’s bedroom. The pages were now brown and brittle. “What was the matter with Dad?” she said. It wasn’t the first time she had asked.
Her mom shook her head and sighed.
“Did you guys talk much?” Jesse said.
* * *
Jesse, holding a soda, walked back into the hospital room where Phil was lying in bed. It was 1:50 a.m., Sunday.
“I threw up,” Phil said.
“Where?” Jesse said.
“The nurse took it. Why does a concussion make you throw up?”
Jesse put her hands around Phil’s arm. Her eyes were puffy.
“I want to fall asleep for a long time and wake up without a headache,” Phil said. “I wish I could just fall asleep. Maybe I need a glass of wine…”
Jesse stopped rubbing Phil’s arm and stared at him.
“I’m just kidding. Dang. Wine wouldn’t be good at all right now.”