Real, Really

          My cousin Donnie was killed sometime between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. I was likely chatting online during that time. I was involved, so to speak, with a twenty year-old girl from the western part of Illinois, near St. Louis. And if I was chatting online with Christina, we probably weren't really chatting. We were already past the getting-to-know-you formalities, had surged well past webcam snapshots of our faces, and were into the more seedy arenas of online dating. She'd recently sent me a picture of her tits. A picture of someone's tits anyway. I had no way of knowing because the photo was cut off at the neck. So to be more accurate, Donnie could have died while I stroked myself in my room, dark except for the potentially random pair of tits on my laptop screen.
          Will told me about Donnie the next morning. This time I was playing video games, my shirt collar damp with pink cereal milk that had dripped from my chin. I kept playing after Will told me because I didn't know Donnie very well. I remembered him coming down from Iowa with Uncle James one summer and hiding his cigarette butts in our air vents. I also recalled that he had a mismatched set of shoelaces in his shoes. One looked like the original but the other lace was thin like in a dress shoe. The color was a little off, too, and he pushed me to the ground in our front yard when he noticed I was looking at them, before telling me to "stick my face somewhere else."
          "I can't believe you're playing that when our cousin is dead," Will said.
          "Man, I don't know," I said. And that was it. I waited for him to walk away so I could keep playing in peace. I truly didn't know. How does one manufacture grief when it's not real? I knew some people had to do that because there was no way all the people I'd seen crying at funerals were upset. So much of it felt theatrical, like many of them cried only because they knew they were being watched and they didn't want to get outdone, or they didn't want to be the jerks who wouldn't openly mourn in front of others. I didn't know how they faked it, only that I couldn't.
          "We're leaving when Mom and Dad get home. They're leaving work right after lunch, so you need to pack your shit. And you better remember everything because Mom is upset. She isn't going to feel like making sure you have underwear and socks."
          "Okay, got it."
          "Do you even know where your shoes are?"
          "Why would someone hit him with a car?"
          "It was probably an accident."
          "How does someone accidentally get hit by a car? It was night. If the headlights were on, why would he walk in front of it?" I still had not paused my game and was pushing one button on the controller really fast, something for which I had developed a technique. And that technique was loud.
          "I'm not talking to you while you play that."
          "What part of Iowa are they from?"
          "Burlington. Come on, man! Find your fucking shoes!"
          I waited for Will to leave the room. Then I finished my level and saved the game. I dialed into the internet and sent Christina an e-mail. I'm going to burlington iowa. How far are you from there?

          Dad let me drive through Kentucky. I started in the coal-mining regions near West Virginia and shot over to Lexington, and then up toward Cincinnati. It was the first time I'd ever driven on an interstate. Dad made me pull off at a rest stop just before we got to the Ohio border and he took over again. The rest of the trip, I studied the map, pretended to be the navigator. Over and over I traced the route from Burlington, Iowa to Collinsville, Illinois with my finger. Mom cried from time to time, and Dad placed a comforting hand on her shoulder when the traffic wasn't too bad.
          Near Indianapolis, Mom said, "If James finds out who did it, he'll kill him."
          "Karen, come on."
          "No, he will. He'll kill him. You don't know."
          I glanced over at Will and he looked back at me. It wasn't every day that I found out that some close relative of mine had it in him to kill a person. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know how my mom thought he'd do it. But Will shook his head at me. "No," he whispered.

          Somewhere in the middle of Illinois, I opened my laptop. I clicked on my PICS folder and determined that the tits in the picture Christina sent me were real. Real in that they didn't belong to a model but to an ordinary person. They didn't look perfect. They were freckly and veiny and each was different in size and shape. Also, the picture quality was low, like it had been made with a webcam. This made it better for me, more alluring. I hadn't had the time to wait for Christina's reply before we left Virginia, and Uncle James was poor so I doubted if he had internet. I didn't know how I was going to get in touch with her. I'd probably never get a chance like this again. I stared at headless Christina's tits until my laptop battery died.

          Once we got to Burlington, we drove straight to Uncle James's house. He lived under a bridge, like a troll, on a mud mound overlooking the Mississippi River. Their driveway was small so we parked at the curb. People stood in huddles on the porch. They stared out at us with stern eyebrows when Dad locked the car with his remote and it made that BEEPBEEP sound.
          "Really, Steve?" Mom asked him, and Dad shrugged.
          The people on the porch weren't what I was used to seeing at a visitation. When my grandmother died, the people who showed up were dressed like they were going to church or at least to choir practice. The people on my Uncle James's porch were dressed in jeans and ratty thin t-shirts. The men had long hair and beards. The women held cigarettes up by their faces. They'd arranged themselves by age, like an evolution chart from left to right. I could see the progression. I could've told every one of the teenagers on the left what they would look like in twenty years, and then in forty.
          A few of the people trickled off the porch and walked up to meet Mom. It amazed me that she knew people who looked like this, so rough and unrefined. Dad hovered behind. When James came over to shake his hand, he quickly shook it and then shied away, something I'd never seen him do. Usually Dad thrust his hand forward when meeting someone or seeing an old acquaintance. Usually he talked in a thunderous voice like the confident one.
          We walked inside the house. There was barely room to move. The place was packed with people. The noise of the conversations overwhelmed me. Then these people I'd never seen before guided me toward the kitchen with their hands. In the kitchen, the food looked like it had been out for a while. A pot of beans sat on the stove covered in skim. A dish of baked chicken sat on the counter, glazed over with time. More mismatched bowls and baking dishes lay everywhere there was space, their plastic wrap or foil pulled over to one side or the other. The air suffocated me and I pushed through to the back and out a door. I had to stop then because the back porch wasn't much bigger than me, barely large enough for two people. I stood outside, looking down at the mud hill. Discarded tires pockmarked the ground all the way to the river. I never would've thought the water would be so quiet.

          One of Donnie's friends, who everyone called Ump, had dial-up at his house. He lived two blocks from the riverbank so we walked to his house. Ump had long, curly, blonde hair that he tucked around his ear, so that it puffed out like a pair of wings. His tanned skin gave his arm muscles definition, and it made me think of Uncle James and his thick arms in comparison to Dad, whose arms were thinner than Mom's.
          “What do you need to check on your email that's so important?" Ump asked.
          "I think I might have a message from my girlfriend."
          "You two don't use phones?"
          "We're an internet-only couple right now. She lives near St. Louis."
          "You meet her in a chat room? I hear those are all men pretending to be girls. Friend of mine got a picture from a girl. It was supposed to be her but it was cut out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad. Ended up being some guy named Ralph or Steve. Shit you not."
          "I'm pretty sure she's real. A real girl, I mean."
          "Hard to tell."
          Ump never varied his pace nor looked to the side. I wasn't a slow walker but I had to concentrate on my stride in order to keep up. "How long did you know Donnie?"
          "Don? Hell man, my whole life. Twenty-two years."
          "You two good friends?"
          "Sometimes. We knew the same people. He could be an asshole though."
          "Dude stole a couple of my girlfriends. Did that shit to people all the time. You ask me this was some jealous boyfriend who ran him down. Cops should be checking out these guys, scoping their cars for impact damage."
          I chuckled, in a way that was meant to sound like a serious chuckle, and said, "Better hope Uncle James doesn't find out who did it."
          "Yeah, he'll fucking gut him. That dude will be dead lickity split."
          "Yeah," I said. Then I shivered a little, even though it wasn't cold at all.
          We got to Ump's house. His hook-up was in a room he called "the stash." It was stacked with cases of cigarettes and beer. I plugged the phone cord to my laptop, dialed in, and checked my messages. I ignored all of them except Christina's. I'm taking a bus up the day after tomorrow. I should be there by seven pm. Meet me?

          For all his talk about being upset over Donnie's death, Will did very little to show any grief. The next day, he hung in the background or in corners of rooms with Dad, nodding when people talked and staying out of the way. Just like Dad, he shied away from Uncle James. We didn't know anyone like Uncle James back in Virginia. He was loud. He cursed a lot and that wasn't something we were used to hearing from adult family members. And when Mom started doing it, dropping shit-bombs like an old pro, I could feel Will and Dad distancing themselves from her, too. Will was no saint, and I was certain that Dad was a different person when he was away from us, but I could tell they didn't like this version of Mom, and it pissed me off that she was held to a higher standard.
          That night was the wake, and my family was the best-dressed people there. The wake was more like what I was used to. People came up and hugged Uncle James and Aunt Lorna, and there were tears, and the old people smelled weird and asked me who I was. After the wake, we went to a house on the other side of town. It belonged to a friend of Uncle James and he threw a big party in his back yard. They didn't call it a party or a celebration of Donnie's life or any of that, but it was a shindig nonetheless.
          Mom got drunk. I'd never seen her drink before. I'd never even heard her speak about drinking before, and seeing how it changed her personality alarmed me at first. But then she touched people when she talked and her laugh carried over any room she was in. She played pool and threw darts in the basement while Dad stood by her side, looking even more uncomfortable, as if every second that passed turned a tension knob in his brain. I stopped being alarmed because Mom looked happy. It was the after-party of her nephew's wake and I'd never seen her this happy. I thought it might be a good time to tell her about Christina.
          I waited until she walked off by herself to get another beer. By this time, Dad and Will sat on a couch in the living room by themselves. In this environment, their identical postures and expressions were funnier than usual. When I stepped in front of Mom, she almost walked into me. I waved my hand so she would see me clearly.
          "Hey, Mom."
          "Hey, Honey, this is kind of fun, isn't it? It's a shame that it takes something like this to get us all together again. I hate to be enjoying myself this much but I am. That's just between you and me, okay?"
          She held her arm up as if to brush past me and I wedged myself in front of her. "I need to tell you something."
          "What?" she said, mouth, eyes and cheeks red, as if she were in bloom.
          I didn't want to talk around it, and in her state that seemed like an ineffective strategy anyway, so I dove in.
          "I have a girlfriend. I met her on the internet."
          "She's a couple of years older than me. And she lives around here, near St. Louis actually. And she's taking a bus up here tomorrow and I'd really like to meet her and maybe introduce her to everyone. If that's okay. She'll be here a couple of hours after the funeral."
          "Oh my. How long has this been going on?"
          "A few months."
          "And you've never seen her?"
          "Never talked on the phone?"
          "But she's real?"
          "I don't understand, sweetie. You just talk to her on a computer and she's your girlfriend. What do you type to her about?"
          "Life, what we like. School, music, the same stuff people talk to their girlfriends about."
          "Okay. Well, I think it's great. It's about time that girls started catching on to you. We'll find someone to take you over to the bus station after the funeral to pick her up. What's her name?"
          She pulled me to her for a hug and she kissed me on the cheek. "Well, I can't wait to meet her. Christina."
          "Thanks, Mom." I'd shared a moment with her. She understood me and was happy for me. I felt like her son. I looked back at the couch, at Will and Dad, two versions of the same person. They had each other, and now I had Mom.

          The next day, people filled the church for Donnie's funeral. Uncle James cried silently and my Aunt Lorna dabbed tears from his eyes and cheeks. She missed a few and the tears lodged themselves in his beard like dew. We sat behind them, and Mom kept her hand on her brother's shoulder the whole time, while Dad kept one on hers. It was a funeral and there isn't much else to say about it.
          Afterward at the gravesite, I sat in the second row beside Will. We were under the green tent and I looked out at all the lovely ladies in attendance. Their heads were exposed to the sun, the light making white halos around their glossy hair. Some wore stockings under their short black dresses. Others were bare-legged. I thought about what Ump had said, wondered how many of these girls Donnie had fucked, and what it could mean to them knowing that they had fucked someone who was dead. They were too young for that. They were too young to fuck someone who was dead before I had fucked anyone at all. I must've looked sad because Will put his arm around me and said, "There, let it out man. It's okay." Then the service ended. Uncle James and Aunt Lorna scooped some dirt on the coffin, way down in its hole. The lovely ladies stood to leave, and I counted them as they walked by. Thirteen blondes. Eight brunettes. Two redheads. None of them looked at me.

          After the funeral, we sat in Uncle James's dining room. Mom and Uncle James did most of the talking, each with a sweaty brown beer bottle in their hand. Dad and Will kept their own silent vigil. Will looked at Dad often but Dad only stared off, at the wall, or toward the kitchen, dark with the blinds drawn.
          "Did Roddy talk to you?" Uncle James asked Mom.
          "No, thank Christ no," said Mom.
          "He still talks about that time that he tailed you all the way up to Dubuque to talk you out of leaving him."
          I nudged Mom's foot with my own. Christina was due at the bus station in an hour and I didn't want to be late. She blinked to acknowledge it.
          "He knew I was going up to see that guy who worked construction," she said to Uncle James.
          "The one who sent you lingerie and flowers every month. Or was it every week?"
          Dad straightened in his seat.
          "James," Mom said, "not right now."
          "Oh come on," Uncle James said, a thumb sort of pointed toward Dad, "like he doesn't know. You were getting that stuff every week and you stopped going up to Perry Point with Roddy. And when he found out what was going on, he followed you."
          "Steve doesn't know," Mom said.
          "And then you got up there and realized the guy was married and Roddy found you pulled over on the side US 61, crying and everything."
          Will got up and walked into the dark kitchen. I saw him turning and spinning in there, like he was trying to find a way out. But there was no way out.
          "Mom," I said. "Christina will be here soon."
          Dad spoke up. "What did you do then, Karen? After Roddy found you? What happened then?"
          "I thanked him," Mom said softly.
          "Oh yes you did," said Uncle James. "You were always thanking everyone real good."
          Mom slammed her beer bottle on the table and suds spewed over the top. She left the room and I called out after her. "Mom, I need someone to take me."
          "I'll take you," said Uncle James. "Does that work?"
          When Uncle James and I left, Dad was the only one still in the room. I looked at the back of his stupid head, at the growing bald spot. I was too excited to pity him, too amped up to be mad.

           Uncle James's car smelled of stale beer and motor oil. He didn't wear his seat belt and mine was broken. Burlington was filled with old neighborhoods, and it felt like we rode through all of them.
          "So you met this girl on the internet?" he asked.
          "And you never saw her in person before?"
          "She's sent me lots of pictures, but they're all on my computer."
          "You ever met a real girl?"
          "I've met lots of girls."
          It felt like we had driven in the opposite direction of the river, but then it appeared again out my window, ugly and brown, swelling from its banks like it couldn't wait to lap up into the streets of the city itself, to reach into everyone's back door, like fingers sliding into a glove.
          "You're more like your dad," said Uncle James.
          "No I'm not."
          "It's okay. So's your brother. Doing what you're supposed to, being good. I think my Donnie is the one who took after your mom. Although meeting this girl you don't know, that's something your mom would've done. If we had computers and all that crap when we were young, there's just no telling what she would've done with that."
          I smiled, "Oh yeah?"
          "Yeah, except she would've done it because she was bored with everyone around here. Not because it was easy."
          He took a left and pulled into the driveway of a small house that was little more than a box with a tin roof. "You mind if Slim rides along? Me and him have some business to take care of after we drop you off." He honked the horn three times and leaned back. He reached into his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes and shook one out.
          "You're just dropping me off?"
          He pushed the car's cigarette lighter in to heat up. "Yeah. I thought you might take some time to get to know this girl. Me and Slim won't be long."
          "I didn't want to just hang out at the bus station."
          He pulled out his wallet and handed me a fifty-dollar bill. "Here, take this and get a cab. Go to the mall or something. We'll pick you up there."
          "How about Perry Point?"
          Uncle James turned to look at me. He smiled with big stained teeth. "All right then, wild man."
          Slim walked out of the box house, hands in his pockets. He peered in the passenger window at me and then got in the back seat just as Uncle James lit his cigarette.
          "Hey, is this Karen's kid?"
          "Yeah, one of them. The wild man."
          "Me and your mom go way back."
          Uncle James snorted beside me. He looked into the rear-view mirror, into the back seat. "Anything change? Everything still in place?"
          "He's still there from what I hear," said Slim.
          "Okay, we're going to drop loverboy here off at the bus station to meet his girlfriend then we'll head over."
          "You got a girlfriend, buddy?" asked Slim.
          "She's on the internet," said Uncle James.
          "She's real though?"
          "Yeah," I said, "she's real." I shifted in my seat and Uncle James started to back out into the street. I felt Slim bouncing his knee behind me. I thought I needed to add something to make it more authentic. "She has huge tits," I said.
          "Well there you go," said Slim, and Uncle James laughed and started toward the center of town.
          No one said anything else for a few blocks. It was starting to get dark and the streetlights glowed a dull orange. The sun was setting on the opposite side of town and the river looked black.
          "Is anyone else there?" Uncle James asked, and at first I thought he was talking to me.
          "Should be just him," Slim said.
          "Anything I need to know?"
          "I don't think so. Shouldn't be much to it."
          I nodded for some reason over in the passenger seat, like I knew what they were talking about, what was happening. "You two working on a project?"
          "Nothing to concern yourself with," said Slim. "So tell me more about this girlfriend of yours. Did you meet her on the computer, too?"
          "Yes," I said. "It's a chat room. Lots of people meet up there."
          "I need to see before I chat," said Slim, "and not just no picture. I got to get the eyes, the look, see if there's some chemistry there."
          "There can be chemistry there."
          "If you say so." We were at a stoplight, one of those old-style ones that didn't hang over the street but that stood on a pole at each corner of the intersection. Across from us, on the other side of the intersection, two young girls in tight jeans walked across the street, one pushing a baby stroller. A guy a little older than me walked past them going the other way. He was tall with a rodent-like profile and he hunched over when he walked. He turned to look at one of the stroller girls for a moment and then kept going.
          "Fuck me, Jim! That's him right there," said Slim.
          "The kid crossing the street. That's him."
          "You sure?"
          "Yes I'm sure."
          Uncle James gunned the engine and took a left. He pulled up beside the kid and leaned over, his hand on my leg so he could look out my window. The kid did a double-take and took off running into an adjacent yard. Uncle James popped up on the curb and parked in that same yard. He and Slim jumped out of the car and ran after him. I saw that Slim had a metal pipe in his hand. They disappeared behind a house and I sat there in the car, the doors still open where they'd jumped out, the engine still running.
          I got out and ran back toward the intersection. I looked down in the direction Uncle James and Slim had run, and I didn't see anything but cars coming up the street. I thought I should maybe call someone. I remembered what Ump had said walking over to his house, what Mom had said driving through Illinois, how it had turned my stomach. I turned back and walked toward the car in the yard. I saw the bus station, the red and blue sign of the Greyhound, lit up on the left a quarter mile down. If Christina was coming, she'd be there soon.
          I waited there by Uncle James's car for a while longer. I watched for the owners of the house, on whose property I was trespassing. An old lady pulled back a curtain and stared out at me. I waited to hear police sirens. I waited for the old lady to come out and confront me. I waited for Uncle James and Slim to come back. I felt like I gave all of these things ample time to happen, and they didn't. Then I got back in the car, switched the ignition off, and started walking down to the bus station.
          When I got there, I sat in a plastic blue chair, part of a whole row that was bolted to the floor. A man with stringy gray hairs in his beard slouched asleep beside me. I thought about all those girls who felt compelled to come to my cousin Donnie's funeral. They must have been remembering what it was like with Donnie, how it felt with him. The funeral had been just as much for Donnie's cock as it was for Donnie himself. And then I thought about Dad and when he talked of how he first met Mom, and what he told anyone when the subject came up back in Virginia. "She was my first and only love," he'd say, and Mom smiled and blushed. And I'd wanted it too, that same storybook love that I thought Mom and Dad had. But that wasn't what happened with Mom in Davenport. It wasn't real. And Dad didn't want to talk about that, not with all these former guys around, guys who'd laugh at him because they knew his one and only had been around, had seen it all, had thanked guys who picked her up at the side of the road.
          Mom, she didn't wait for happiness to come along in the form of one true love, and she still found it anyway. And Uncle James, he didn't wait for justice. He made his own. They were my people. My family.

Mark Cravens has stories published or soon-to-be published in The Bicycle Review, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, and Rock Bottom Journal. He lives in Apex, North Carolina with his wife and four sons.