Joshua A. Jones, Sunday Child Exchange
SUNDAY CHILD EXCHANGE
Joshua A. Jones
Jason plopped down on his sagging mattress. The thread-bare pile of sheets and blankets slipped free from the warped pallet. Jason’s neglected pit bull overwhelmed the trailer with its size and wet odor. He reached for his tired work boots. He bent the toe back on the left boot and sighed at the fissure running across the sole. He wondered how long he could go before his boss noticed the worn-out boots. He banged them together, and dried mud shattered onto the worn, stained carpet. It was a color he remembered old ladies going crazy over in the 1980’s – mauve or mint or aqua, some shade that never made sense to him and that no one ever needed, except to match giant ruffled curtains.
Jason grabbed a ball cap and the half-empty can of tobacco. The container was too light for a Sunday morning. He mumbled, “God damnit.”
The neighbors were shouting at each other in a language that Jason could not understand, an annoying language he assumed was from a country full of some type of brown people or another – people like them. He had once upset the woman why he mistook her for Mexican. “It was an honest mistake,” he told his buddies. Even after she cursed and spat in his face, he still had no idea from where they had come, but he was sure they were “illegals.” Whenever he spoke about them to friends and family, he always said, “Don’t get me wrong. I aint a racist. They’s hard workers. But I think they should have to talk English.” Jason went out to crank his truck, and narrowly missed the brown fellow’s little car as it threw gravel and dust back at the trailer park and his sobbing wife. Jason assumed she was his wife, though there were no little brown kids.
Jason’s old truck was beat to hell and back, but it got him where he needed to go.
It was loud and covered in work residue, inside and out. A metal toolbox, full of carpentry tools and fishing tackle, spanned the bed of the truck, sturdy against the back windshield. The toolbox was more than storage. It was proof that he was a man who works with his hands. In Nickajack County, a pick-up truck with a toolbox was a mandatory man-accessory. Crushed beer cans and fast food bags littered the truck bed, further testament to hard work. Brand new trucks, missing toolboxes and a few dents, were for insurance salesmen and bankers with boats. Jason’s divorce lawyer, a man who didn’t hunt, fish, or own a boat or camper, drove a brand-new Ford F-250. Jason thought the lawyer’s truck was a pathetic waste.
Jason left his truck running so that it would be warm for the kids. He went inside.
Wind caught the mobile home’s fiberglass door and slammed out the cold and the muffled sound of a country song on the truck radio. In the living room, mounted deer heads, bass fish, and NASCAR memorabilia loomed over mismatched furniture. The sofa and recliner were hand-me-downs from Jason’s brother and sister-in-law, who lived in Atlanta. The bookshelf was a $10, yard sale find – a good deal that was mostly empty. He rubbed his hands over the kerosene space-heater and shivered. His six-year-old boy sat in the floor, a shoe on each hand.
Jason said, “Dakota, put your shoes on. Now! We gotta go as soon as the truck gets warm.”
Dakota laid on the floor and kicked his legs. He whined, “I’m tryin’, Diddy.” Jason knew that a tantrum lay beneath Dakota’s pouty mouth. He snapped his fingers and pointed at Dakota, then at his belt. Dakota stopped kicking.
Jason yelled down the hallway, “Savannah, are you ready yet?”
Savannah dragged her duffel bag behind her by its broken strap. She clicked away at her phone and said, “Gawd, yes, I’m ready. You don’t got to yell. I’m standin’ right here.” Without missing a beat on her phone, she tossed long, straight, brown hair over a boney shoulder. Her usual thick, black eye liner covered her eyelids – the spoils from an argument that Savannah’s mother had won against Jason. He feared Savannah was too pretty for her own good, and make-up wasn’t making his job any easier. For the third time that weekend, Savannah asked, “And when are you gonna buy me a new duffel bag? You can see it’s broken.”
“Tell your mamma to use my child support to buy you a duffle bag.”
Jason didn’t need Savannah to lift her eyes from the phone to know she was rolling them.
Jason said, “Put your phone down and look at me when I’m talkin’ to you.”
She shoved her phone in her back pocket, jutted her head out toward him with her hands in the air. “What?”
Jason hated that maneuver more than her eye rolling. He closed his eyes and clinched his jaw.
“Help your brother with his shoes so we can get goin’ before we’re late. I don’t feel like hearin’ your mamma’s crap today.”
Savannah sat down in the floor and said, “Dakota, put your shoes on and quit actin’ like you don’t know how. You’ve been doin’ your own shoes for at least six months. Here.” She walked him through a refresher course. “See? Now you do the other one.”
Dakota obeyed her.
“Y’all got all y’all’s stuff together?”
“Yis,” Savannah said.
Jason repeated, in a staccato rhythm, “Dakota, do you – have all your – stuff together?”
“Yisss.” Dakota began to cry.
“What’s wrong with you, boy?”
Savannah said, “Nothin’. He’s got to where he does that now cause he knows it gits attention.”
“Well, you best hush up. That shit might work on your mamma, but it don’t work on me. I ain’t raisin’ no pussy.”
Dakota said, “But I don’t wanna go. I wanna stay here with you. I hate my other place where we have to live.”
“You don’t hate nothin’. Don’t start that mess. You know how this goes. It don’t matter if you wanna stay or I want you to stay or if your mamma wants you to. The Judge said every-other weekend, and the weekend’s over. Now dry it up before I give you somethin’ to cry about. And answer me, ‘yes or no,’ do you or do you not have all your stuff together.”
Dakota said, “Yisssss. Gawd, quit asking me, already.”
Jason snapped his fingers and said, “Boy, we might be on the way out the door, but there’s still time to wear that ass out with this belt.” Jason pointed to his belt. “You better watch that attitude.”
Savannah begged, “Can we just go, already? I’m supposed to meet Anastasia at two o’clock to go over to Tyler’s house.”
“Who the hell is “Tyler”? Your mamma know about him?”
“Yes. Gawd, Diddy, I’m not a slut.”
“Watch your mouth in front of your brother. And I didn’t call you a slut. I just asked if your mamma has met ‘im.”
They looked away from each other. She went back to her phone.
Jason said, “Well, if y’all got everything together, go git in the truck.”
Dakota asked, “Can I take my PlayStation with me?”
“Hell no! If you want a PlayStation at your mamma’s, you tell her to use the child support to buy y’all one. I ain’t sendin’ this one over there for her to pawn, like everything else I get y’all.” Jason was still bitter about the four-wheeler she had sold. He had worked sixty-hour weeks for months to save for it the kids’ Christmas from Santa.
Savannah pulled Dakota up from the worn carpet. “Come on, Dakota. Let’s go.”
The truck jostled over the pot-hole-pocked road between Killwood and Burtsville.
Killwood was a rural off-cast of the snootier small town, Burtsville. Neither was worth bragging about. Jason remembered when the road was paved for the first time. Ever since then, the smell of creosote and tar reminded him of hot, July dirt-bike rides to the swimming holes at the old quarries or to girls’ houses whose parents were at work, where they’d make out to long-haired heavy metal bands that worshipped the devil, only coming up for air long enough to turn over or to rewind the cassette tape.
Neglected for decades, the road was in worse shape than when it was dirt. In Nickajack, a county where somehow even the best of economic times compounded the misery, repaving was out of the question. Jason’s fellow voters accepted the fact that occasional renewal was reserved only for rich people in cities. Yet, with the loss of guns and the homosexual agenda as constant threats, they had a habit of voting against their own self-interests. Not much of anything had been updated in Killwood or Burtsville since Jason’s childhood, except law enforcement strategies to battle meth, spice, and opioids.
A few miles from Jason’s trailer park, they drove past the house where Jason grew up. When they divorced, his parents let it go to foreclosure. Since 1994, it was just another house. Jason’s only attachment to the place was the memory of getting to third- base for the first time at his thirteenth birthday party. It was Jason’s first and only boy/girl party. His dad had “accidentally” left a six-pack out in the garage, and after all the girls left, the boys camped out, got drunk for the first time, and forgot the rest of the night. That was all that Jason wanted to remember about the house. Every time he drove by it, he wondered what Savannah and Tyler were up to and whether his ex-wife was paying enough attention.
Jason asked Savannah, “You like that boy, ‘Tyler’?”
Savannah blushed and turned her smile toward the mud-flaked passenger window. Jason chided her, “Yeah, looks like someone has a crush. How old is he?”
“Diddy, hush! I don’t even know if he likes me. We just been hangin’ out. And he’s fifteen, if you must know.”
Dakota sang, “Savannah and Ty-ler, sittin’ in a tree. K-I-S-S-“
Savannah tickled Dakota. “You hush, too, before I tell Diddy about that little Amy girl you been chasin’ ‘round the playground.”
“Not-uh! You shut your face up!”
Jason said, “Boy, you too young to be messin’ with little girls.” Jason was proud that his son was turning out to be a rough-and-tumble, womanizing, little redneck. No doubt, Dakota was the spitting-image of his father, from their dimpled chins and brown eyes to their obsession with hunting, cars, and girls. “Savannah, what’s your mamma think about this ‘Tyler’ boy?”
She laughed out loud. “You can just call him ‘Tyler.’ You don’t have to call him ‘this Tyler boy,’ like I’m makin’ up his name or somethin’.”
“Well, ‘Tyler,’ then. What’s your mamma and Derrick thank about ‘im? I’m not sure how I feel ‘bout you seein’ a fifteen-year-old. I know what fifteen-year-old boys are thankin’ about, and it ain’t what church you go to.”
Savannah said, “Derrick ain’t met ‘im yit, but he works with his uncle. Mamma don’t like his mamma. And for your information, Tyler goes to Shiloh Baptist.”
“Those Baptist boys are the ones I worry most about. Who’s his mamma?”
“Nawh, I guess your mama wouldn’t care for Becky Jackson.” Jason chuckled and thought back to his thirteenth birthday party and the game of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” that Becky Jackson had been all too proud to talk about around town, even a few years later after Jason had met the kids’ mother.
“Why not? She’s nice,” Savannah said.
“You don’t need to worry about that. And I dit’in ask you what your mamma thanks about his mamma. I asked what she thanks about that boy. Tyler.”
“I don’t know. She only met ‘im once or twice. She likes ‘im all right, I guess. She aint said otherwise.”
Jason asked, “His mamma and diddy at home when you go over there?”
She mumbled, “Yis.”
“Huh? That don’t sound so certain. Don’t lie to me. You been over there without his parents there?”
“Maybe. I don’t remember.”
Jason said, “Don’t give me that ‘maybe,’ you either been alone with that boy or you aint?”
She let out a heavy sigh and explained, “Gawd, I have been over there without his mamma and diddy, but I have not been alone with him. Anastasia’s always been with me.”
“For some reason that don’t make me feel better.” Anastasia was a troublemaker. She had a pierced belly-button and had already been arrested twice for shoplifting at Wal Mart. Jason was sure that a teen pregnancy was in her future. “You don’t be goin’ over there unless his parents are home, you hear me? Y’all girls are too young to be in a house alone with a boy.”
Savannah said, “I’m at home alone with Dakota all the time.”
“You know what I mean.”
Dakota asked, “What? What do you mean?”
“Don’t you worry about it, Squirt,” Jason replied. “Savannah, you understand me?”
“Alright, Diddy. Gawd.”
They drove past Killwood High School where Jason and his ex-wife, Tammy, had dropped out, just before Savannah was born. He asked, “When’s your next volleyball game?”
“Uhm. I think it’s next Thursday, but I can’t remember if it’s at home or away.”
“Well call me and let me know.”
They both knew Jason wouldn’t go.
Jason asked Dakota, “How ‘bout you, Squirt? You playin’ basketball this season?”
“I don’t know,” Dakota said. “If I play, will I still git to go huntin’?”
“Well, you’ll have a lotta games and practices, but I’m sure we’ll git to go huntin’ plenty. You need to play and get involved with sports. It’ll help you do good in school.”
Dakota made a gagging sound and said, “I hate school.”
Jason had hated school, too, except for sports and girls. His bad grades were the trait that he hoped Dakota hadn’t picked up. “Tough. You stuck with it for another twelve years. And then college, unless you want to end up broke and workin’ for other people like everybody else ‘round here.”
They rode in silence for the last few miles to the Burtsville McDonald’s.
At 11:58 am, Jason pulled his rumbling truck into the McDonald’s parking lot. Savannah worried that her clothes smelled like the cab. He parked near the back and the drive thru. On the other side of the lot, another man sat in a pick-up with two young children.
Jason looked around for Tammy and Derrick’s new truck. Every time he thought about that truck, he wanted to punch Derrick in the face. He wished he could afford to take Tammy back to court to get the child support lowered. Then maybe he could have something nice. Tammy and Derrick didn’t need the money, and Tammy spent the support on everything but the kids. She got her hair and nails done every week. She had a brand-new car. They had paid-off their double wide trailer with Tammy’s disability settlement. Jason looked ahead at nothing through the windshield while he adjusted the radio past church services. He stopped on a ball game.
Dakota asked, “Diddy, can we get a ice cream?”
“No, we can’t git an ice cream. You ain’t even had lunch yit.”
“Can we go in and play on the indoor playground?”
“No. Just wait here. Your mamma’ll be here in a minute.”
Dakota tried again. “Pleeeeaase.”
“No! Now don’t ask me again!”
Jason turned through more radio channels to a different game.
Savannah scrolled through her social media newsfeeds.
Dakota picked his nose and fidgeted.
Thirty-minutes passed. Jason looked at the mirrors again and noticed two other families making the Sunday child exchange.
Jason muttered, “Where the hell is she?”
“I don’t know why you’re surprised,” Savannah said. “She’s always late. She’ll probably be late for her own funeral. I texted her, but she hasn’t texted me back. Why don’t you just call her?”
“I need to save my minutes, in case I get a call about a job.”
Savannah rolled her eyes back to her phone. “Well, I need to save my minutes too, in case Anastasia calls.”
“Well, she needs to come on. I gotta git over to Mamaw’s and split some fire wood before it gets dark.” He scanned through the radio stations and landed on a country music countdown show.
After twenty-minutes of rowdy men singing songs about being manly and getting it on with denim-clad, drunk, hot chicks in giant pick-up trucks, parked by the river or a bonfire, everyone’s patience was waning.
Dakota said, “Diddy, I’m hungry.”
Jason looked out the truck mirrors and said to no one, “Goddamnit, where is she?”
Savannah said, “I’m gittin’ kinda hungry, too.”
“Your mamma’ll be here in a minute, and she can git y’all somethin’.”
“I’m staaaarrrvin’,” Dakota said.
“You ain’t starvin’. Now hush. If she ain’t here in fifteen minutes, she can just come pick y’all up at Mamaw’s, and we can eat a ham sandwich or somethin’ there. Tired of waitin’ on her sorry ass.”
Ten minutes later, Savannah said, “Finally. There they are.”
Derrick parked beside them. Derrick and Jason acknowledged each other with a nod.
Tammy got out and waddled her high-heeled boots over to Jason’s truck. Her jeans labored to contain twenty pounds too many. The embroidered back pockets mimicked the pattern in her frumpy sweater. Tammy carried her usual full face of dollar store makeup.
Jason and the kids got out.
Derrick cracked his window open and spat out tobacco.
Jason asked, “Where the hell’ve y’all been?”
Tammy said, “Now don’t start with me.” She lit a light cigarette and inhaled it between stained teeth. She exhaled towards his face and said, “I dit’in mean to be late.” She picked at her front teeth with a bright red nail.
Jason said, “The judge said twelve-o-clock. Not twelve-o-one, not twelve-fifteen, and not one-fifteen.”
“Well, it’s not my fault. We had to drop off Derrick’s kids at Waffle House, and Christy was late, so that made us late.”
Savannah lingered between the tailgates of the trucks. Between text messages, she spotted a friend from school and tried to disguise herself with earphones and her hoodie.
No one watched Dakota’s game of holding the straps to his backpack in one hand while kicking it up in the air over and over.
“I don’t give a shit what Derrick has to do with his kids. If droppin’ off his kids to Christy makes you late, maybe you need to thank about pickin’ ‘em up without Derrick.”
Tammy replied, “Can we not do this again? In front of the kids? In front of the whole town?”
“Hey. I ain’t doin’ nothin’ but tellin’ you how it is.”
Tammy turned to Savannah in a slow inhale of frustration and nicotine and said, “Savannah, baby, find Dakota and y’all git in the truck and let me talk to your Diddy a minute.”
Dakota waded into a muddy storm run-off ditch to play with another young boy, also ignored by his arguing, divorced parents.
The other boy said, “What’s your name?”
“Dakota. I’m six.”
“I’m seven.” He shook Dakota’s hand. “My name’s Carlos.”
“My diddy drives that truck,” Dakota said. “The one with the tool box.”
“My papa drives that car.” He pointed to an old sports car where his father and mother gestured aggressively in an argument that the boys could not hear.
Dakota looked over the boys’ shoulder at Tammy and Jason’s argument. He looked down at the mud and thought of the bullshit his dad talked so much about. He always wondered why people care whether bulls shit. He asked the boy, “Where do you go to school?”
“I go to Killwood.” Dakota studied the boy’s dark features. He asked, “Are you a Mexican?”
“No. I’m American,” Carlos said.
“Oh. I’m American, too!” Dakota kicked up an eruption of water that splashed them both. “Hey! Watch this!” He jumped up as high as he could and plunged his feet into the water. Mud and runoff showered the boys’ giggles.
Tammy looked past Jason in time to see the mud-slinging. “Dakota Matthew Smith! Git your butt over here, mister. Now!”
Carlos’s father heard the commpotion and called Carlos to his car.
Tammy inspected Dakota. “Look at you, Dakota! You are covered in mud! Now we gonna have to go home and change you and we supposed to go straight to Mamaw and Papaw’s. Savannah, watch him and y’all git in the truck with Derrick.”
“He’s got clean clothes in his backpack,” Jason said.
Tammy stomped out her cigarette. “Well at least you did something right. Thank you for washing his clothes.”
Jason wasn’t listening.
“Lord, that boy is a mess.” Tammy took a sip of her energy drink. “How’s your mama an’ ‘em anyway?”
“Alright, I reckon.”
Jason’s mother never cared for Tammy. Tammy never cared for his mother.
Tammy faked it in front of the kids, but their Mamaw never held back about Tammy’s shortcomings. The first time Tammy met his mother was the night they told Jason’s parents that she was pregnant with Savannah. Jason and most of his cousins had also been born out of wedlock to teenage parents, so the thirty-five-year-old Mr. and Mrs. Smith weren’t surprised or offended by the news. They weren’t happy, but they also were not surprised. Jason’s mother had always assumed she’d be a grandmother before forty.
Tammy said, “Well tell ‘em I’m thinkin’ about ‘em. I heard your Papaw ain’t doin’ too good.”
“He just got out of the hospital, I guess.”
“They don’t know what’s wrong with him?”
“They waitin’ on a bunch of tests to come back.” Jason was annoyed. “Just old age, I reckon.”
“Well tell him, I’m prayin’ for him.”
“Psssht. Since when you turned into the prayin’ type?” He thought back to fucking her behind the high school gym when they were sixteen. Nine months later, Savannah was born. The intervening years had snowballed into slim tolerance for the consequences.
“Shiiit. I’ll believe it when I see it. Just because you post about ‘unspoken prayer requests’ on Facebook don’t make you a Christian.”
Tammy raised her hands to the sky, and prayed aloud, “Dear Lord, please, baby Jesus, let Jason have brought his damn child support check for once.”
“Har, har, har. You’re so funny.”
“Well, do you have your child support check?”
Jason had been dreading the question all morning. “No.”
“Surprise, surprise. Well, where the hell is it?”
“You’ll git it.”
“On Tuesday, when it’s due.”
“Yeah right,” Tammy said.
“I said you’ll git it.”
“I was hopin’ you’d bring it today so I don’t have to drive back to town later in the week.”
Jason said, “Well I don’t have it today. It’s been rainin’, and I ain’t had no work.”
“Derrick’s been able to work, and it’s been rainin’.”
“Derrick lays carpet and works inside. I do the real work building the houses outside.”
Tammy said, “Yeah right, some big man you are. You can’t even take care of your kids. Derrick pays his child support. I don’t understand why you’re always late.”
“Because y’all got your disability check, plus his income. It’s only me workin’ at my house. I don’t git to sit around all day, do nothin’, and collect money from the government.”
“Well if I could work, I would.”
“You can work,” Jason said. “You’re just too fucking lazy and lied to git on disability. And that’s just sorry.”
“I have a bad back from the nursin’ home, and you know it!”
“That’s right, ‘whatever.’”
Another couple’s shouting interrupted them from the opposite end of the parking lot. Their toddler wailed while the father struggled to move the car seat from his car to the mother’s.
Tammy said, “Well, we’re gonna go on then. Don’t be late on that child support; you hear me? I need it to buy Savannah new volleyball shoes.”
“She just got volleyball shoes.”
“No. That was last year. See, you don’t even remember nothin’ about your kids.”
As he walked away, Jason said, “Whatever. I’ll see you Tuesday.”
Derrick and Jason nodded at each other.
Derrick spat out a stream of tobacco and drove away with Tammy and the kids.
Jason’s truck wouldn’t start. He waited a few minutes before trying again. Another expensive repair was the last thing he needed.
A burly man with his kids drove up in another beat-up truck. The back windshield had a gun rack. The bed had a toolbox. The man was almost too large for the truck. Jason recognized him from somewhere. He couldn’t remember if he knew him from when he was nineteen and worked at the chicken plant or if it was from school. They nodded at each other.
A faded hatchback pulled up behind them, and a gaunt woman with frazzled hair and a frown took her kids from the burly man’s truck and left without saying a word. The man looked at Jason, grinned through his beard, and shook his head. He laughed as he pulled out from the parking space.
Jason tried to start the truck again. He noticed a tired mother, a few cars down, with three children. He wondered how many families meet there every Sunday. The truck finally turned over. He sighed with relief.
As he drove away, Jason made eye contact with Carlos’s father, interrupting for a moment the argument that the man was having with Carlos’s mother. Jason didn’t need to speak the language to know exactly why they were shouting. He gave the man a nod of solidarity.
On the road home, Jason thought about the week ahead. He ciphered the week’s potential: how much money he needed for lunch; how many cans of spaghetti-o’s were left; the power bill; and the child support. He added up the two small jobs set for tomorrow morning, and he hoped that if the weather held out, he could do a small project on Tuesday morning and get over to Tammy and Derrick’s house in time to pay the child support.
He wondered if he could put off the past-due power bill until the end of the week. He wondered how much it’d cost to take Tammy back to court. The idea of a lawyer and more court made him nauseous.
He hoped his Mamaw might have something to settle his stomach before he chopped the firewood.
Jason clicked through the radio in search of the local weather report and hoped for a prediction for a solid week of work.
Sunday Child Exchange Copyright © 2020 Joshua Aaron Jones
Joshua A. Jones is Visiting Assistant Professor, Indiana University McKinney School of Law. He is the author of a number of short stories and producer of several documentaries and the GLAAD Media Award-winning reality television show, Strut.