Stories

Ronnie K.’s Big Summer – R. Jones

        Exactly one-hundred forty-three days, twenty-two hours, thirteen minutes and forty-two seconds after his mother died of rectal cancer, twenty-one-year-old Ronnie K. realized he didn’t need to throw away his Burger House wrappers anymore. In fact, he didn’t need to throw away or clean up a goddamn thing.

        Peggy K. had been a very clean woman, tidy, and to leave fast-food trash all over the country-furnished living room of the tasteful, one-story ranch they’d once shared would have been tantamount to taking the Lord’s name in vain in her home, so it was some kind of a strange awakening for Ronnie K. when he, after dropping a bag of burger-and-fry-and-mozzarella-stick remnants on the floor and bending down to pick it up, realized that his mother would not be discovering this mess because she was underground at Barrington Memorial Cemetery, next to his father and the stillborn child she’d chosen to bury years before Ronnie K. was born. 

        Ronnie K. was a miracle child, but at that moment the miracle child began to stop living like a supporting cast member in his dead mother’s house, and he started living like a man with no limits. 

        A man who contained multitudes.

        First, it was the food—within a week, pizza boxes were everywhere, covered in old, shiny cheese and greasy wax paper. Donut holes rolled into corners and under chairs and stayed there, and when he got drunk at night they’d become indistinguishable from the family of mice that came out and snacked on petrified burger meat in the dark. Quarter-full beer cans would spill out on the hardwood, soak and then harden the carpet. McDonald’s nuggets loose on the floor. Smoothies from Panera, smoothies from Smoothie King. Boba Tea. Crunchwrap Supreme wrappers took up permanent residence, face-down on his mother’s decorative wicker chairs, on the faces of her decorative cherubic dolls, her Christmas nutcrackers that never came down after she got too sick to care. The trash built up. Yes, there were a lot of bugs, black and shiny and hard-shelled and patrolling with an unsettling sense of purpose.

        The TV blasted until it was hot. Ronnie K. didn’t have to work, since Ronnie K.’s mother left behind money that was left behind to her from his dead father, a man who made a lot of good investments and had his wife and only child set up well for the day he died, which came fairly early in life when he took his mistress out on a rented houseboat off the North Carolina coast (he was there for business, though Ronnie K. couldn’t tell you what business his father had been in, since he just didn’t know those things about his family) and blew her head off, followed by his own. The boat had crashed into a dock somewhere near a town called Calabash. Ronnie K. had gone with his father on a number of business trips to Calabash and Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, but his father had stopped bringing him at a certain point. 

        The man who found Ronnie K.’s father and the girl dead inside the boat’s cabin said Ronnie K.’s father was wearing women’s clothing and his head was ripped open from chin to forehead. The girl was naked and completely lacked a face upon the discovery. The man who found them vomited, fucking up the crime scene, but there really was nothing to investigate. Ronnie K.’s father did what men like him do. Ronnie K. was eight when his father died. He’d just reached one-hundred pounds and the family was concerned.

        Peggy K. had to drive down there herself to identify her husband’s body. She drove the full twelve hours without stopping for anything but a tank of gas. They mistook her for the dead girl’s mother at first, so when they pulled back the sheet, she didn’t see her dead husband. She saw a beautiful head of blonde hair attached to a mess of broken skull and a gorgeous, young, tan body that made her think of nothing but her own fat legs and papery skin the whole ride home.

        Peggy K. told Ronnie K. his father died saving a little girl who was about to get hit by a truck. He hated this little girl forever, the girl who took his dad away. The truth came out, eventually, and he heard it at school. But he still hated the little girl—he didn’t quite understand that the little girl wasn’t dead, that she didn’t exist, that she’d never existed at all— and fell asleep most nights fantasizing about pulling her pretty, symmetrical pigtails (he imagined they were red, like Pippi Longstocking’s) and stomping on her head like an old melon.

***

        Ronnie K. watched cable TV nonstop. He liked the swearing and the naked girls and the violence, and the way they all kind of came together in every show. Cohabitating exclusively with his mother had been complicated—she’d urged him to go to college, get a job, go for a walk, eat vegetables, read a book, paint a picture, wash her car, meet some girls, etc. With her gone, life became very simple: Ronnie K. watched his shows all day, he ordered his meals from around town, and he ate them naked, on the couch, in the dark, with the sweet sounds and moving lights of Westworld and Girls and The Sopranos and The Wire and Gulf Coast completely smothering his senses. 

        He smoked menthol cigarettes inside until the air was blue. When he was horny, he masturbated right there on the couch, laid down on his back with his sweaty ass against the expensive pale-pink cushions, a cold can of Landshark nestled into the grooves and cigarette burns on the white carpet below.

        Sometimes, he’d masturbate thinking about Giorgia, Sheila’s daughter. Sheila had been Ronnie K.’s mother’s best friend. Her daughter was close in age to Ronnie K., and her daughter had massive breasts. She’d had them since middle school. Ronnie K. had, for years, made a habit of masturbating in Sheila’s bathroom every time they went over there to swim and Giorgia came out in her red-and-white-polka-dotted bikini to lay out in the sun and brown her olive skin while Ronnie K. hovered in the pool, hating his fat, hating the boner he was desperately trying to shove up in his waistband without Giorgia noticing. If she ever did, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t say much to Ronnie K. in general.

        Ronnie K. also jerked off to the girls he saw on cable. Like, a lot. Actually, his viewing schedule generally oscillated from genre to genre, show to show, depending on his jacking-off schedule. There was correlation between the two. When he was satiated, when he’d recently jacked-off into the crusty t-shirt he kept within a six-foot radius of himself, he watched The Wire or Oz or another one of those shows that are awesome, yes, but basically don’t have girls. When he was in the mood to make love to himself, he watched Westworld or Girls, or Gulf Coast (for Ashley Pond). 

        Ashley Pond always made him finish the fastest. He’d cum so hard he’d fall right asleep when she was done with him. She was like his Ambien. 

        He’d drift toward heavy sleep on the couch, listening to the disembodied voices talking too-fast on the TV with his eyes closed, the hum of the flies buzzing around him in his ears, the taste of beer and cheeseburgers in his unbrushed mouth, and he’d have a moment of elevation, of rising up just a little, and he’d be above himself for moment, and he’d smell Ashley Pond’s sweat in those little waitress outfits in the show, imagine the yellow peach-fuzz on her legs, imagine her in the house, picking up all the pizza boxes and the Landshark cans, emptying the ashtrays, tucking a thin sheet around him so that, even in the summer, he’d have something to grip in his fist while he slept.

        And then he’d rise a little further up, even beyond that. And he’d be able to see his mother’s home the way one of his flies might, from up by the ceiling, seeing his mess and muck threatening to overtake the pristine furnishings of a no-nonsense woman, and just as he felt the heaviness touch his eyelids, just as the warm snug of unconsciousness started to constrict around his girth, he’d allow himself to miss her, to feel her dry kiss on his slick, bald scalp one more time.

***

        “Dude,” said Skeeter. “Why are you jacking off to HBO?”

        They’d redone the Little Caesars. 

        Everything was white and sterile, and the area around the register was all chrome. This was not the Little Caesars Ronnie K. used to go to with his mother. That place was sticky to the touch, dark, a sickly orange, but it felt like home. This felt like buying pizza in an Apple Store. This felt like going out for a five-dollar dinner at an urgent care clinic.

        “Like, why don’t you just watch porn?”

        Ronnie K. finally realized what Skeeter was saying. For a moment, he was disoriented. He stared at Skeeter’s face. Skeeter is handsome—girls always said he looked like Edward Norton, which is true, except Edward Norton doesn’t have mossy, yellowed teeth and a mouth that is perpetually agape with a disbelieving smile—and Ronnie K. wished he looked like Skeeter. He and Skeeter went to high school together. They weren’t friends, but, you know, they were there.

        Ronnie K. tried to say something. Skeeter waited patiently, his mouth open, one brow furrowed, the other raised. But Ronnie K. couldn’t talk, because suddenly there was this feeling of Other-ness, this feeling that nothing in the moment was real the way he thought it was, that there was a strange interconnectedness that had consumed his life without his even knowing, like there’s a whole reality that is his life that has happened—unbeknownst to him—during the hibernation he’d slipped into some time ago. 

        Looking at Skeeter, he knows Skeeter is the past—he is from a time when Ronnie K.’s mother still breathed and her asshole was not alive with cancer, when he played in a loud and awesome Pantera cover band called 5 Minutes Alone (With Your Sister) and worked at the other Burger House in town and woke up to an alarm instead of the low hum of empty rural midday. Skeeter is from before all the pizzas and beers and television programs and not-tears and all their collective assaults on Ronnie K.’s circadian rhythm. To think that he, as his present self, could even speak the same language as Skeeter, be of the same species as Skeeter from Barrington High School, was something short of astounding.

        He thought, for a moment, of something Matthew McConaughey said on TV one time, on some show, about time being circular, or a big oval, or something, but it went away.

        “What?” he asked Skeeter, whose defiant grin flickered in the presence of Ronnie K.’s sincere confusion.

        “You mentioned jackin’ your beanstalk to the TV, so I asked why you’d even do that,” he said.

        Then it was back. Ronnie K. knew he’d walked into that Little Caesars, ordered a large pepperoni to go with a large Mountain Dew and a side of Crazy Bread, and then immediately told Skeeter that he was going to eat the feast when he was done cranking down to sweet Ashley Pond in the season four finale of Gulf Coast.

        “I should watch porn,” Ronnie K. said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

        “Yeah, man, I dunno,” said Skeeter, handing him change from the twenty-dollar bill Ronnie K. did not remember handing him. “I was fuckin’ with you, but…yeah. Or, like, find somethin’ to fuck.”

        Ronnie K. nodded. Skeeter handed him a big bag with the pizza and the cheesy, delicious bread. Then he handed him his drink.

        “Anyway, how you doin’, man?” asked Skeeter, taking off the black uniform baseball cap smashed on his head and running his fingers through the somehow-perfectly-coiffed hair that lay beneath it, cropped close to his head. “Where you working?”

        Ronnie K. sipped his drink. “My mom died,” he responded.

        Skeeter stopped, fingers halfway through his healthy hair, hat in his other hand. 

        “No shit?”

        Ronnie K. nodded.

        “Shit, brother. I am sincerely, sincerely fucking sorry.”

        And he just looked at him. It had been so long since Ronnie K. had spoken to anyone who knew him as someone who didn’t just pick up fast food orders. Who asked him how he was. At first he was embarrassed, when he started crying, but Skeeter gave him a hug, and he kept crying some more. It felt good, to cry. Skeeter didn’t seem to be in a rush.

***

        The porn was a good idea. 

        He’d looked at it before in the past, but mostly just pictures. Ronnie K. had had sex once, when he played in the band and they went to a party over in Revere. She was heavy, and she wore a lot of makeup. He’d told her he had never done it before, and she said she had, a lot, and she’d show him. They’d done it in the total dark. That was her one request. He came, and it felt good. But afterwards, for the next few days, he obsessed over the fact that he did not know her phone number, and that none of his friends knew her, and that he’d probably never see her again. He felt naked all the time, and very dirty. Every time he’d walked past his mother, he felt like she knew. It all left him feeling very alone. So, for that reason and others, Ronnie K. had only had sex that once. They’d done it regular, with him on top of her. 

        The stuff he found online was way different than that. 

        He started that night, after seeing Skeeter. He ate half the pizza, watched half of the season four finale of Gulf Coast, and he paused it a few different times on Ashley Pond’s strong jaw, her thin arms, and he closed his eyes and listened to her talk in that sing-song Bayou drawl. Ronnie K. had a lingering suspicion it wasn’t her real voice, that it was an accent she put on for the show, but he refused to look it up and ruin everything for himself. He watched and he listened, and then he masturbated slowly, finishing into his rag and then using its other side to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

        Then he ate the rest of the pizza, then the Crazy Bread. He drank the Mountain Dew. He smoked a cigarette. He drank a beer. He watched the rest of the episode. It was so dark in the house. 

        He never went upstairs anymore. 

        His mom’s room was untouched. It was summer, and it made him sad to look out the window and see all the houses dark, his house dark. He knew he should have been out engaging with the world. He was twenty-one. He could go to bars, finally. He’d never been to one. There was no one to go with. His friends were all gone. They’d come to his mom’s funeral, but after that, everything seemed to stop. 

        He opened his computer. He typed in “porn.” Google suggested Pornhub. Ronnie K. obliged. He saw people having sex from behind, in the mouth, in public. He liked all that. He was almost surprised at how much he liked all that. He saw people having sex and saw it from extreme close-ups, which he did not like, but he found he could fast-forward through the stuff that looked less like love and more like surgery. 

        He typed in fat girls and huge ass and blonde small tits and Chinese girl blowjob and blowjob group and that one was wild, that one was something new. Ronnie K. saw guys shooting cum in girls’ faces, on their asses, up against their pussies, all over the place. He looked over at his jizz rag and felt disgusted by the fact that he came on that crinkling hunk of putrid cloth instead of Alexis Texas or Cherokee D’Ass or any of these other women online.

        Then he came in the rag to a video of a heavy blonde girl giving oral sex to a man in full Juggalo makeup. The Juggalo came in her mouth, and when he did, she slid the entirety of his huge, hairless dick and balls into her endless gullet and swallowed the whole mess. Ronnie K. came like a ton of bricks and fell asleep almost immediately. He did not hover above himself or wonder what his mother would think of it all. This was probably for the best.

***

        He awoke to the sound of the doorbell. Looking out the window, Ronnie K. saw it was daylight outside, the hot-looking blood-orange daylight of the middle of an unnamed, undefined summer’s day. He knew he’d slept at least thirteen hours. This was typical.

        He opened the door, and the way Sheila looked at him made him immediately regret not changing his clothes. He wore basketball shorts stained with pizza sauce and (he hoped they could not see this) semen. His Dimebag Darrell RIP shirt was stretched out at the neck. He smelled cigarettes on his upper lip. He smelled his body odor. 

        “Good morning, Ronald,” Sheila said to Ronnie K. She handed him a white box. “We thought you might like some donuts from Hally Jo’s.” 

        “Thank you.” Taking the bag, he felt the kind of heavy sadness that comes with remember going to Hally Jo’s with his mom and these people. Remembering sitting with his mom, being with her. Eating with her.

        She smiled at him, and the realness of her smile, the genuine nature of this gesture, made Ronnie K. hope even more that Sheila couldn’t tell that he’d spent the evening watching men push their fingers in women’s vaginas and mouths and throw them around, even slap them, all in the name of punishing women for being bad. And for being women, it seemed.

        Giorgia looked stunning. He hadn’t seen her in months, but he knew she was back from UCONN for the summer. It was just an hour away, but she never came home. He saw on her Instagram that she partied a lot. Giorgia let him follow her private account, but she did not follow him back. Ronnie K. stared at her. Too stunning, like she wanted him to see her beauty, even though that was bullshit, of course. She didn’t care what he saw. Her mother had dragged her to Matty’s house, like always. 

        But he could pretend. 

        She wore a salmon-colored dress that went halfway up her thighs, and she was tan and glistening in the sun. Radiant. She did not look at him. She was texting on her phone. 

        Her dark, shoulder-length hair was teased and poofed and a full mane and Ronnie K. wanted her. Ronnie K. always wanted Giorgia, but something had changed after his big evening. He did not just want to kiss her or have sex with her like he had sex with that girl at that party. He wanted to have sex with her like the men fucked the women on Pornhub: he wanted to fuck her in a park, and he wanted her to fight him.

        “Hey Ronnie,” she said, looking up. “How are you?”

        “Fine,” he said too fast, hoping she couldn’t see the stains.

        She gave a small smile. It was enough.

        “So, Ronald,” Sheila said. She was always businesslike, always peering into what he was doing. Ronnie K. knew that his mother, on her deathbed, had asked Sheila to look after him. She did this. She was probably, well, no, definitely the only person who did this. He appreciated the thought. He knew it made sense. Since high school, all he’d done was get fired from Burger House, get kicked out of his band for walking in on the guitarist’s sister in the bathroom too many times, and watch his mom die of cancer.

        “Yes?”

        “What’s the plan for today?”

        You’re lookin’ at it, he thought. 

        “Not sure.”

        “You want to come over and swim?”

        He looked at Giorgia. She was looking at her phone again. He looked at her breasts, admired the way they pushed against the fabric of the sundress. He thought about splashing around with her. He thought about the hardness that would spread in his shorts, the way he’d empty himself in their toilet. But he realized this was a thing of the past.

        “Sorry, I can’t.”

        Sheila nodded, as if she’d already known his answer before she asked the question. 

        “Well, it’s an open invitation.”

        He nodded. This was just a formality, the whole thing. Sheila pulled three twenties out of her pocket and handed them to him.

        “It’s really okay,” he said.

        “Just take it,” she said. “For whatever you need.”

        He looked at that money, at her. At Giorgia. 

        “Thanks.”

        They left without hugging him. That was okay, today. 

        Back in his living room, Ronnie K. watched a video of a blonde girl who looked dangerously like Ashley Pond (but not surprisingly like her, considering he’d typed Ashley Pond look alike group fuck blowjob booty into the search bar) have sex with two men at the same time in a dingy bedroom somewhere. It was clearly filmed on a cell phone, but the quality didn’t matter—there was something about her that made Ronnie K. stop tugging for a moment and just watch. He watched the way the one man entered her mouth while the other entered her vagina from behind. He watched the way she seemed to be having so much fun. He watched the way, when the men moved to switch places, she looked at the camera and winked. He brought the video back ten seconds. 

        Wink. Again. Wink. Again. 

***

        It’s not like Ronnie K. didn’t have any money. As I mentioned before, the kid had always had some money coming his way.

        When his mother died, he inherited the house, everything in it, and fifty-five thousand dollars, give or take. That was more than enough for him to live on, based on his calculations, a long-ass fucking time. 

        Unfortunately, he spent some of the money pretty recklessly after her death. I mean, come on—the kid’s mother died. He lost control sometime between February and the summer. First off, he elected to take all the money, liquid, and put it in his account. No growth, nothing. He bought a recliner, first, and a big-ass 4k TV, the kind with the curve in it. Seventy inches. That was the start, which was fine. But he kept going. He bought a two-thousand-dollar Dean guitar, the Dimebag Darrell signature Razorback.  Then he bought a thousand-dollar Marshall amplifier, and he plugged the guitar into it and ripped on all the loudest songs, all the Pantera fucking smash classics that he and the boys had played in their cover band. He missed the boys. He missed eating Burger House with them and getting drunk and watching the video of Dime getting shot on stage over and over. But they were away at college, and he wasn’t. 

        Then he bought a new iPhone 11 to take videos of himself playing all the classics in front of the Dimebag Darrell tapestry in his childhood bedroom, and he did. It felt good to do this. He loved the spirit of domination that came with all things Pantera. Phil Anselmo did what he wanted. Dime was a maverick. Ronnie K. liked men who did whatever and didn’t ask anyone about it. He threw the horns. He ripped off signature Dime guitar squeals.

        After a few of these sessions, though, he just felt very odd: playing guitar alone, taping it alone, editing it alone, posting it on his new Instagram alone. People ‘liked’ it, but he got the feeling they just did it because his mom was dead. Nobody even commented on his arpeggio technique or the intensity of his budding Dimebag Darrell beard. So, he stopped, and he just used the phone to order takeout.

        But there was more.

        He learned on a subreddit about grief that it was important to take yourself on a vacation of discovery. He immediately booked a first-class ticket from Bradley International Airport in Hartford down to Nashville. One-way. He figured he’d deal with the end of the trip when he got to it. 

        He took a seventy-three dollar Uber to the airport on Tuesday morning, April 7th, and flew to Nashville. He brought his guitar (not the Razorback, keep up, but a three-thousand dollar Taylor twelve-string he picked up the night before his flight), a few pairs of pants, and fifteen short-sleeve Tommy Bahama button-down shirts that he thought looked good over his chinos. He wore brown boots. He had six thousand dollars in cash in his pockets and bag, just because he hates using plastic. 

        Ronnie K. was ready for Nashville.

        Unfortunately, Nashville wasn’t ready for Ronnie K. He went from one honky-tonk to the next, but they all told him the same thing: they didn’t need performers, but they recommended he tried one of the karaoke bars off the Broadway strips. Ronnie K. was incensed. 

        He asked more managers and bartenders at more honky-tonks, but the response was the same. He was dejected. He checked into the Downtown Hilton (two-hundred fifty-five dollars per night), tossed his guitar on the bed, changed in his favorite pair of beige chinos and a baby-blue Tommy Bahama, bought a seventy-dollar pair of blacked-out shades at a Sunglass Hut a block away, and hit the town. 

        He had four drinks at one honky-tonk. He met nice people. He had a cigarette with a man, then another drink, then smoked another cigarette. Ronnie K. was getting kind of drunk. Everybody was wearing cowboy hats, and they were partying hard. Ronnie K. ended up with a cowboy hat. Everybody laughed, and he kept wearing it. The man was with some women, and they were older, but pretty. They went to another honky, then to another tonk. They all got rip-roaring. Ronnie K. was drinking draft beer and forgetting all about the bullshit he put up with from the managers. For a moment, he even forgot that his mother was seventy-nine pounds when she died. 

        He drank.

        “Who’s hungry?” he asked, and the man cheered. His girls cheered. Ronnie K. led the way in the thickening onyx-and-navy Tennessee dusk down Broadway, hat high on his head, past the music and the women in hard denim. He was proud that his new friends were so handsome and fancy. He saw where the Tennessee Titans played football out in the distance, beyond the street and across the river. It was magnificent; a majestic kingdom looming over the hazy mist of city night, the mighty Cumberland flowing by like a mote bestowed on the place by God himself. His father would have liked it. He wanted to cry. They went to the Jason Aldean Kitchen and Rooftop Bar. Ronnie K. was excited, because his band had once played Aldean’s song “Dirt Road” at a party and that was the same night he had sex for the first and only time. He saw this as a good omen.

        They ate and drank. Ronnie K. must have fallen asleep, because then he was alone in the booth and his head felt awful. There was a leather book on the table. He opened it. It was the bill. There was a waiter looking at him with something on his face between contempt and curiosity. The bill was for four-thousand eight-hundred and seventy-three dollars.

        “How did this happen?”

        “Your friends ordered some wine to go.”

        Ronnie K. paid the bill. He walked outside. He wandered, but it was the wrong way. The punch knocked him off-guard, knocked his cowboy hat right off his head. They took all the money in his pockets. He returned to the hotel.

        The next day he rented a car and drove to Memphis. He thought his luck would be better. It wasn’t. This time it wasn’t a punch, but a swift kick to the gut. He went down like a bag of yogurt. They took his guitar and another five-hundred dollars. He flew home out of Memphis, coach. 

        He kept spending money on bullshit. 

        On the day that Sheila and Giorgia brought him donuts—the day Ronnie K. discovered Layla, the Ashley Pond look-alike—he had less than nine-thousand dollars left in the bank.

***

        “Your name’s Ronnie?” she said, leaning back to show her ribcage, her knees firmly on the carpet.

        “Yeah,” he said, transfixed. “My name’s Ronnie.”

        “Hey,” she said, her syllables lazy, unhurried, pouring out like warm water. “I’m Layla.”

        “Hey.”

        This didn’t just happen, by the way. Ronnie K. went from typing random body parts and sex acts into Pornhub to completely focusing on the Ashley Pond look-alike the second he found her getting spit-roasted by those dudes in that dirty room. Like I said, it was the wink that set him off, and he learned her name, and then a username that posted all of her videos. She was magnificent, and he was hooked. He sat fully naked at the computer until eleven o’ clock that night, eating Sheila and Giorgia’s donuts and watching Layla do anything that he could have ever thought to ask of her. There were videos for every position, every place, and it was always so brutal. She never said no. She just took and took. She was a shapeshifter, a transformer of cock destruction. And the wink. Always the wink.

        And then he found her Onlyfans. And then he signed up, bringing his less-than-nine-grand-to-live-on-forever bank balance down by thirty more dollars for the month. After watching her specialized content, he couldn’t wait anymore. He sent her a message. He said “hi.” She responded at four in the morning.

        hey.privat call?

        And when he called, there she was, right on the computer screen, bucking and writhing in a torn-up Nun habit. He didn’t like it that much. She took it off soon after, and she was naked.

        “You’re so pretty,” he said.

        Her smile was big and loud across her face, the kind of smile you wear to a school picture. “You don’t have to be nice,” she said.

        “What do you mean?” Ronnie K. asked. 

        “When you pay for a half-hour, you own me.”

        “I do?” he asked incredulously. In his nudity, in his home, in the dark, bathed in sweat, lost in the sleeplessness of the days that were starting to congeal, he couldn’t believe he could ever own anything, let alone anyone.

        She nodded. “Yes, daddy. You pay, and we do whatever.”

        Ronnie K. stuffed his erection under the table, though he figured she wouldn’t mind seeing it. 

        “What should we do?” he asked. She laughed, but he was serious. He wouldn’t even mind just talking, or watching her do chores. Or just the two of them sleeping there, together, apart, on their floors in their empty homes.

        “Depends on how much you want to spend.”

        He heard a dog bark in the background. A yell. Something smashed. She looked away, once, but not for long. She smiled at Ronnie K. He asked to see her breasts up close. Within two minutes she was cheering him on while he yanked on himself in front of the camera and she spread her vagina lips open with two fingers. He came, and he was instantly hard again. It was incredible. The meter ran.

        He tried some of the stuff he’d seen on PornHub.

        “Stick your hand in your mouth,” he said. “Bitch,” he added, with a hint of uncertainty in his hoarse voice.

        She did.

        “Go find something to put down your throat.”

        The dildo went down until she gagged.

        Within twenty-four hours, he’d given her almost a thousand dollars. He didn’t care. Ronnie K. went to bed. He slept and slept. He did not watch his shows, not even the season premiere of Gulf Coast. He didn’t drink any beer. He barely ate.

***

        “So,” Ronnie K. asked Layla as she pushed the lime-green dildo further inside herself from behind. “Where are you from?”

        She hesitated. Looked back. “Why do you wanna know?” She laughed when she said it, playful, but she seemed curious.

        “I was just wondering.” Ronnie K. was no longer embarrassed about being naked. His penis was visible on the screen, and that was okay. They’d spent a lot of time together since he first found her. Things were more casual. He liked that. She would take breaks and drink out of a big soda cup, like from a fast-food place. He’d sit with his dick out. Relaxed. The soda cup looked very familiar—the lime-green with black writing, and this very particular picture of a big red crab dancing struck him as something he knew. It was déjà vu every time he looked at it, to the point where he figured it must not be déjà vu at all, but true recollection. But he did not ask her about it because he did not know her. He did not want to ruin all this, whatever it was.

        “From the south,” she said, and leaned forward to get the dildo in further. He knew this already, because of her accent. Her twang. She sounded like some of the girls in Nashville, only a little softer. She was smoking a cigarette. He wondered what her mouth smelled like.

        “Oh, cool. And do you, like…like what you do?”

        She didn’t look back this time. “What…this?”

        “Yeah. Like, are you happy?”

        She snorted. “Happy? Shit, Tom. I don’t know. Probably not.”

        “That’s too bad,” he said.

        “It’s just life,” she said, with this kind of weariness that made Ronnie K. feel concerned.

        “My mom died earlier this year,” he said. He was surprised to hear himself say it. It seemed wrong to say this while he was naked.

        She looked back. Her cold blue eyes were on him. “Don’t tell me that shit.”

        She looked away. The dildo went so far in that Ronnie K. didn’t want to see any more.

        “I’m from South Carolina,” she said after a while. “I don’t ever tell people that, people on here.”

        “Okay,” he said. She sat on the dildo.

        “Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked. He instantly hoped it was not too much.

        She giggled. She was always giggling at him. She looked back over her shoulder. “You’re my boyfriend.”

        “Am I?”

        “Of course.

        Every half-hour cost him. His banking app made a little chirp every time money left his hands and went into hers. He put it on silent. Time moved around.

***

        Giorgia was laying out by the pool when Ronnie K. pulled in the driveway. Her perfect, large breasts were out, browning in the sun, and she waved to him. He walked by her, did not look at her. Her face showed confusion. He was unconcerned. In the past, he’d have spent the afternoon trying to get her attention. These were different times. When he knocked on the door, Sheila opened it and invited him in. She seemed very happy to see him.

        “See, it’s a computer class,” he told her. 

        She raised her eyebrows, impressed. They were drinking iced tea at the kitchen table.

        “It’s so I can get a job. I get a certificate.”

        Sheila nodded. “That’s great, Ronald. Is there any literature I can see about this, any website?”

        “Yes, definitely,” he said, steeling himself against the self-loathing creeping through his abdomen. “But I need to sign up by tonight or I miss out. I can get you all the info later.”

        She looked at him for a moment. She was hard to read. She was generally expressionless. “If you need this money for your education, I will loan it to you.”

        He smiled.

        “I have to ask, though. What happened to yours?”

        “It’s all tied up,” he said. “I’ll have it later.”

        Sheila didn’t look like she believed him. She kept looking at him. He felt like she wasn’t looking, really, but thinking. He figured she was thinking of his mother, which makes sense. Either way, she wrote him a check for two-thousand dollars.

        “This is to be used for school, okay?”

        “Definitely. Thank you.”

        She gave him a hug. A long hug. When she pulled away, her eyes shimmered with unhatched tears.

        “I’m proud of you, you know.”

        He showed himself out, passing her purse and a wad of twenties protruding from its depths. He took the twenties. He took a Visa Mastercard with Mickey Mouse on it. For once, Sheila didn’t make him think of his mother. He was living a life separate from the one he had lived with her. In fact, Ronnie K. was starting to realize, for perhaps the first time, that every element of the life his mother had lived in this world was gone forever. Irretrievable. 

        He left the house. Outside, he said hello to Giorgia as he passed her. She was in the pool. She got out, dripping and glistening, but he walked away. She could not tempt him with her breasts and her wet temptress lust. He was on his way. She watched him leave down the driveway. She heard the Pantera coming from his Buick and she listened to it until he was gone down the block.

***

        Layla sucked on a lollipop for Ronnie K. She was wearing the necklace, too. The way the platinum gleaned and danced in the camera’s eye made him smile. Her dry yellow hair was up in a ponytail.  She was completely naked. She had a lot of makeup on one eye. He didn’t understand why, but didn’t ask. She made him shy and uninhibited at the same time. 

        She looked less suntanned than usual. She’d been spending so much time inside with Ronnie K. that the Carolina rays hadn’t touched her in a bit. Ronnie K. liked this a lot.

        It’s incredible how much she looked like Ashley Pond.

        “It looks beautiful on you,” he said, but then corrected himself. “You look beautiful.”

        “Thanks.” She was texting on a new iPhone 11+.

        “Do you like the phone?”

        She looked up, smiled. “Love it.”

        He stroked himself. He didn’t know what time it was. “Am I a good boyfriend?” he asked, his voice cracking a little. He felt very emotional, though he wasn’t sure why. It was just a lot. All of it. His life was so radically different than it had been just days before. It had been a week, or a few weeks, or maybe a month, actually, to remember.

        “The best boyfriend,” she said, and she put on that voice to say it. She sounded the way she did in the videos she posted for everyone. He didn’t like that as much, though it was still so hot. He liked the regular voice she used when she forgot she was putting on a show, the slightly nasal voice with the hard twang and the soft drift-away of every last syllable. The breath-heavy, pushed-out voice she put on right there wasn’t the same. It wasn’t exclusively for him.

        “I’m the best daddy.”

        “You’re my best daddy,” she said, tracing her lips with the pineapple Dum-Dum, her eyes grey in the dim-lit room and looking hard at him.

        “Your only daddy,” he panted.

        “You’re the best daddy,” she said, her smile big, her eyes suddenly very pixelated by the poor connection. Her voice overmodulated hard on that last word, sounding like Velcro when she got too close to the computer mic. He finished right on the white carpet of the floor before him.

***

        And that’s why Ronnie K. is, at this moment, driving fast down through Virginia blasting Pantera’s The Great Southern Trendkill and aiming his car toward Myrtle Beach. The two reasons Ronnie K. is doing this right now:

        1) He recognized the cup, finally. She drank from it again when he logged on for another private chat, and he knew it. The Krazy Krab. His father had taken him there on those business trips down south, before he stopped bringing him. They went there a lot. He knew it was familiar. It had just been so long. He’d left his body again when he made this discovery. Things were tied together in this world. This was something Ronnie K. learned.

        2) She called him her boyfriend. That doesn’t just happen. See: above.

***

        He answers the phone. He shouldn’t, but he does.

        “Ronald?” Sheila sounds relieved, then terrified, then confused, then shocked, all over the span of the one word. “Are you driving?”

        “Yes.”

        “Where are you headed?”

        “Grocery store.” He doesn’t want to get into it. She won’t understand. She knows nothing about taking a chance.

        “I need to ask you about something, and I want you to be honest with me.”

        The cash is hot against his leg in his cargo shorts. It is all that is left. You can’t Venmo cash. He’d Venmo-ed everything else. She’d needed so much, Layla, and he was her love. Medicine. Food. Gas. Toys. Pot.

        He hangs up the phone. He turns up the music. 

***

        Just like his mother all those years ago, he does not stop driving until he reaches the Calabash and Myrtle Beach coastal region that straddles the North Carolina/South Carolina border. When he arrives, it is late at night, and the Krazy Krab’s website says it is closed. There is also no guarantee that she would be there, but he imagines she stops by frequently, since he’s seen her sucking Faygo (he asked) out of one of their big cups at least four different times since he’d started talking to her. The cups always look new, too, indicating frequent visits. This is generally around lunchtime. The digital clock on the dash of the Buick says it is just before midnight. 

        He has time.

        It is rare that he sees a pair of headlights as he heads south from one Carolina into the next. It is peaceful. He drives with the windows down, all four of them. The fertility of earth is in the air. His lips taste salty as he drives. 

        Ronnie K. drives all the way to the Myrtle Beach boardwalk. It is terrible, just full of people from one side to the next, all smoking, drinking beer, drinking slushies, eating fried dough, trash everywhere, neon lights coming off of everything, cops wearing shorts arresting girls in bikinis for vomiting, other girls in bikinis vomiting safely against brick walls, men crawling drunkenly into the slamming surf away from the otherwise empty beach, just dots receding into a dark ocean against a moonless sky, children blasting music out of phones and little speakers, the country and rap blending together with the smells of cotton candy and the epileptic crash of lights and cheap, led-based commerce to create a white trash supernova that makes Ronnie K. just stand, sweating, in the middle of the boardwalk, cigarette in mouth, Tommy Bahama unbuttoned to reveal his almost pregnant-looking paunch, staring up at the all of it, at the swirling whoosh of the Ferris wheel beyond the stained wood and cacophony of the grotesque all around him. He is here, with these people, in Layla’s town. He is not home. His mother is in the ground, and he is a thousand miles south. That means something, goddammit, even if he isn’t sure what.

        Ronnie K. has a beer. It’s a Landshark, which makes him happy, and it is very cold and very good and cuts his nerves. He has two more. He has two hot dogs, too. His pockets feel lighter, but he is buzzed and does not think about this. He drinks two more beers and smokes more cigarettes, sitting and listening to the teenagers yell at each other. He watches the drunk people his age wrestle on the beach. He goes on the Ferris wheel by himself, and at the top he thinks about jumping. He really does. 

        He imagines his swan dive would be elegant, that there would be nothing fat about his suicide, nothing funny, that he would be simply weightless and gorgeous in his descent down to the salty tongue of velvet ocean below. 

        Weeks ago, he would have done it. Especially a suicide like this, one that just required an unfastened belt and the shifting of weight. But there is mystery afoot, a search at hand. He is pursuing something bigger than himself. Everything since that last Ashley Pond explosion had been building to this, everything from Skeeter to Sheila’s donuts to her money, to the sudden connection of the soda cup touching Layla’s glossy lips was from a place where he’d once drank Cheerwine (North Carolina’s signature soda, for those who don’t know) with his father who would eventually murder a “mistress” who was really just an escort on whom he spent his son’s entire college fund, to the fact that he still doesn’t know just how long he’s been in love with Layla. 

        He doesn’t even know how long she’s been his girlfriend. It feels like a long time.

***

        “This card has been declined,” says the concierge at the Radisson. 

        “Oh.” 

        Ronnie K. stares at him. Then his phone vibrates in his pocket. It is ringing. He looked at it. Sheila. He leaves the hotel and uses the GPS to drive to the Krazy Krab outside the city. It is the only one, one of those stand-alone seafood joints that seem to last forever around beach towns like this. He parks in the empty lot. He reclines his seat and thinks of nothing before he sleeps.

***

        He wakes up to heat that feels like the coming-on of death. Ronnie K. feels like he’s been buried alive. This makes him think of his mother and wonder how many years it will take for bugs to start crawling around in the soft dough of her crumbling skin. He rolls from the car in the midday glare, airborne dust and dirt and sea salt sticking to him like FunDip to a dip-stick. The Krazy Krab is open and bustling. He catches a glimpse of himself in the Buick’s window and knew he couldn’t go in shining with sweat and smelling like his car. He drives to a Dick’s Sporting Goods in town and buys Nike Air Force 1’s, white Nike basketball shorts, and a large red-and-black University of South Carolina football jersey. He also buys a hat, since baldness sometimes repels women, though he knows that’s silly; Layla is his girlfriend, and she loves his shining head. She says he looked like George Costanza.

        “Seinfeld is my favorite show,” she’d laughed in the pink bikini he’d bought for her online and then paid for her to wear sometimes over those weeks. Someone had yelled something in the background, too, and her smile had flickered for a moment.

        The USC jersey is a nice touch, he thinks. It will make her feel at home.

        He washes himself thoroughly in the bathroom before leaving. He feels good. Employees watch him dripping water all over the jersey he was wearing at the register, handing them the tags to scan. They don’t care. Nobody cares about anything.

***

        Lunch rush at the Krazy Krab. 

        Ronnie K. does not see Layla anywhere, but that is okay. The place does look familiar, he has to admit that. It obviously hasn’t changed much since his father brought him for lunch all those times almost fifteen years ago—wooden picnic tables all over the inside dining room, long benches, windows looking at some kind of river, or the intracoastal waterway, or something. He never knew which body of water was what. Presumably, that’s something his father would have taught him, had he not done what he did.

      He was surprised he felt any pang of remembrance, since he rarely remembered much of anything. There were memories. One time, his father once took him here to eat, yes, and then to a beach a little way down the highway. Not the horrid strip of needle-strewn shit-sand of Myrtle Beach itself, but some of the glorious beaches up by the border. Sunset Beach. His dad had dropped him off once when he was seven for almost a full day. Looking back on it now, he doesn’t want to know what his father had been doing that afternoon while his seven-year-old son splashed alone in the foamy split-ends of the Atlantic.

        Ronnie K. gets in line behind a large man and his larger wife. He can’t see the menu or really much of anything beyond these two, but he hears somebody order a catfish sandwich with a side of crab salad, and that sounds good. It might even be what his dad used to get, though he’s not sure. His hat feels itchy, so he takes it off. He puts it back on. He’s nervous. He scans the place again, the long, communal tables. No Layla. That is okay. He’s got time. Ronnie K. waits patiently for his meal.

        The large couple ahead of him steps forward to order, and when they do Ronnie K. can finally see the menu. He sees the catfish, he sees the crab salad. He decides he will drink a gigantic cup of Cheerwine while he eats his meal and scopes out the place. Then the couple moves a little bit, and he sees Layla behind the counter, manning the register in the most adorable red visor, her corn-yellow curls tucked down by its grasp. Strangely, her nametag reads Bridget. She sees him at the same time. She does a double-take. Triple-take. She’s paralyzed. Then, one step back.

        “Miss,” says Biker Mama, sounding miffed. “Miss.”

***

        She takes the cigarette from Ronnie K., but she doesn’t let him light it for her.

        “What the fuck are you doing here,” she says, whisper-shouting. She’s on her break. Ronnie K’s been waiting. She’s not using her sexy voice. In fact, something’s different about the whole thing—she looks tired, and she looks older. She looks a little less like Ashley Pond. She’s not looking at Ronnie K, and she doesn’t respond when he uses the word “boyfriend.”

        “Daddy’s home,” he’d said at the counter. It was the line he’d rehearsed.

        “Wait outside,” she’d said through almost-closed lips. She was so pale. She did not look golden like she had in her bathing suits. Her skin looked like paper mâché. She was still so beautiful, she was. She just looked kind of sick, too.

        Back outside, he looks at her. She doesn’t seem happy to see him, but that’s probably just because she’s surprised. Still, this is not the hero’s welcome Ronnie K. had been expecting.

        “I’m here to see you, Layla.”

        “To do what?”

        “I don’t know,” he says, suddenly drawing a blank between the moment he took Sheila’s money to this moment, this one right here where Layla is drawing on his Kool and looking at him, expecting something. 

        Now, this is one of those moments where Ronnie K. leaves himself for a bit, hovering just above his flesh suit, above the whole scene, and he sees the bruise on the back of Layla’s neck, and he sees himself in these clothes that a different man must have bought, and he feels the wet, salted, fecund air of a place where he never needed to be fill his nostrils, and he imagines his father’s body supine on a bed, ripped open from chin to crown of head, next to the body of a blonde woman that is all breasts and hair and a face of chum, and he feels the miles and years between his father’s supine body and his hovering now, in this moment, this moment that came from a drink Layla had in her hand while he ejaculated and a drink he had in his hand as a child in a different life, a life that was as good as dead, and he opens his mouth to say something about this to Layla, to try to communicate to the love of his life that the closeness of it all, the way she lives where his father died—sort of—and the way she looks like the woman he died with—though she has a face, of course—that it means something, that he did not come here by accident but with purpose, in search of a deliverance larger than even he could have imagined during all those months he spent eating and ejaculating and resting, preparing, waiting to be here with her. 

        Ronnie K. returns to his body, and he sees her wedding ring. It is a plain, gold band. She is still staring at him, still smoking. He stares at the band. 

        There’s that feeling. 

        “To do what?” she repeats. 

***

        He gets back in the car, finds a gas station and puts what he has left in the tank. Ronnie K. officially has no money left. Not a dime. He pulls onto the highway, and as he does, he feels almost comforted by the irrefutable knowledge that this is either the end of something or it is the beginning of something else, but it is not both.