When You Leave

By the time you were eleven, you found smoking was the only thing worth doing. That, and listening to records. In fact, the drugs helped you reach a different level of appreciation with the music, and so you felt it was right that you should embrace both, together. You and your friends had celebrated when, the year before, your little town had received the unofficial honor of being the largest cannabis trade city in the state. Your friend Mark had passed you his joint and laughed about how they’d never get caught because even the authorities got in on the action. Other than that, your town was quiet. Too quiet, apparently, because that same year your mom up and left. You woke up late for school, the wardrobe empty except for the metal hangers. She didn’t even leave a note. You had to walk to the payphone near the bus stop to call Dad and ask him what was going on.

“I’m still on contract here…” he had muttered on the other line. You heard the catch in his throat as he tried to put things into place in this new mess. You could also hear the twang of cords being tuned in the background and were troubled at the thought of your dad not working at the studio anymore. It was one thing if your mother wanted to abandon you, but it was another thing if her actions caused your dad to have to abandon something as well.

“Dad, I can take care of myself,” you said, trying to be reassuring. “I promise.”

You lived alone for two weeks at a time, until Dad came home and you would go to the store together and buy two more weeks worth of food and exchange stories and talk about how his album was going. Sometimes he’d say “It’s going, Noah,” and sometimes he’d just shake his head. Music was your common denominator, at least the one you were both willing to discuss. You would both make a show of walking through town, to prove to people he was still around. Then he’d have to leave again, and the cycle would repeat.

One night that winter, while the wind shook the glass in the windows, he overheard you humming while you were doing chores. He listened for a moment before finally asking you about it.

“I made it up,” you told him. The room was unnaturally bright to you, and the new tune was playing on a loop in your head.

He asked you about the song. You sat down and reached into the place inside of you where it was playing, stretching it out, feeling it. Dad brought out his notebook and together you started to write lyrics. As you figured out the chorus, he got out of his chair and wore a path from the table to the kitchen doorway, back and forth, patting out the rhythm on his hip. When you had at last finished it, he scooped up the notebook and held it aloft, like a trophy. And in the moment he did that, while you were both laughing and celebrating, the lights shut off.

Even in the dark you could see the painful shame on your dad’s face. You didn’t ask any questions, but took him by the hand and led him to your room.

“I can help,” you said. You flicked a lighter open and pulled out the lockbox from your closet. Inside, you showed him all the cash you’d saved up from bottles over the years. You’d had more, but you’d spent it, given it to Landon who’d given it to his cousin, and in exchange you smoked whatever he gave you.

“Noah, I can’t use your money,” Dad said firmly. He didn’t ask you where you got it, but you knew what he thought. The easiest way for kids to make money in your town was to be a trader. He moved to close the box.

“I know,” you said, opening it back up. “But I want you to.”

That night you both drank from his whiskey, “For extra warmth,” and then climbed into his bed together. Neither of you were a drinker, so it wasn’t long before you were slurring sentences and laughing over – what? Without the hum of the heater, it was still and silent, the muted shriek of the wind sounding miles away. Your toes were cold, but your combined body heat made it bearable. You both grew silent after a while, staring at the ceiling and the moonlight reflected through the blinds. The slants of the light looked like bars, trapping you in.

“Noah,” Dad whispered.


He paused for a long time, so long you wondered if he’d fallen asleep.

Then: “Make sure you find yourself a good woman.”