Reed Stiga is heading south on I-35 in the middle of downtown Austin when he spots some kind of problem far ahead.

Stiga’s nine-year-old daughter is in the passenger seat, the Texas sun burning dully in the center of the tinted window framing her profile.

Traffic slows on the highway’s upper deck, cars backing up in all lanes, in the way that usually signals another of the day’s major fender benders. This, Stiga is certain, is due to idiots who don’t know any better, who shouldn’t be allowed on the road to begin with. Already many of the drivers ahead of him are making a last-second decision and heading for the lower deck instead – which means, Stiga knows, that soon the lower deck will be just as jammed.

Hell with this, thinks Stiga, briefly checking his mirrors before dodging into the exit lane. Sometimes the best way of dealing with a problem is to avoid it completely. Certainly this most often holds true in traffic situations, and Stiga isn’t Stiga because he’s failed to do whatever is necessary in such situations. Stiga is Stiga because he’s had the intelligence to evaluate potential obstacles and the determination to overcome them. Not to think, in this case, “Oh, I’ll just use the lower deck” like the rest of these path-of-least-resistance fuckwits, but to actually make a cognitive leap and take the exit and drive the access road until the wreck or whatever is way the hell behind him.

“What’s wrong, dad?”

Stiga nods toward the upper deck as he guides his silver Lexus into the lighter flow along the access road. “Some kind of accident on the highway, honey,” he tells his daughter. “So we’re going to bypass all that business.”

Which is all the child needs to know, of course. But Stiga is not a man who doesn’t fulfill his parental duty. And when part of that duty is instructing his child, is giving the child the benefit of his now forty-four years of experience and the wisdom accrued therefrom, then it’s a definite pleasure to fulfill. So he adds, “See, kiddo, the shortest path between two points isn’t always the quickest path. And if you’re looking for the quickest path, then you have to adjust your plan if something happens – like an accident – that makes the shorter path slower than the long one. You see what I’m saying?”

A smile, a nod. “Sure, dad.”

“You should always adjust your plans if they need adjusting, honey,” says Stiga. “Inflexibility is one trap you don’t want to fall into if you want to be successful. You see what I’m saying? You’ve got to be able to adapt.”

“Like that movie,” says his daughter.

“Yeah?” Stiga frowns. “What movie?”

“That movie Adaptation. Mom and I saw it a couple weeks ago.”

Stiga’s frown deepens as he downshifts to second gear, nearing an intersection, the cars ahead braking as the hanging light flicks to red. That movie, he thinks, is a bit too adult for his daughter, isn’t it? That movie is not necessarily a positive, nurturing thing for a nine-year-old girl to watch.

“Your mother let you watch that movie?” he says.

“We saw it with Jason,” says his daughter.

Jason, thinks Stiga. Of course, that’s terrific, his daughter watching Adaptation with her mother and her mother’s latest in a long string of boyfriends. Yeah, that’s just about right.

“It was kind of weird,” says his daughter.

Yeah, thinks Stiga, it was weird, alright. Just the kind of thing her mother’s into. Just the kind of – oh Christ, as he brings his Lexus to a stop behind some beat-up station wagon with a bumper full of pro-choice stickers, another goddamn panhandler.

Stiga stares straight ahead, trying to ignore the raggedy man on the sidewalk, concentrating on the bumper stickers in front of him, on the sweet efficiency of his car’s air conditioning. He wants to look away to the right, but he fights the urge. Because, in the first place, looking away means that the homeless man has won, has made Stiga look away; and, in the second place, it’s not good to set an example like that for his daughter, to let her see such disgust for a fellow human being emanating from her father. A nine-year-old girl doesn’t need to witness such negative judgment of humanity, thinks Stiga, no matter how valid that judgment may be. A nine-year-old girl – oh Jesus Christ

– is waving to the homeless guy on the sidewalk.

Stiga turns his head to scowl at the man beyond his windshield. The man’s standing there in his grimy clothes, flashing a gap-toothed grin and waving one dirty hand while the other hand clutches a rough square of cardboard upon which a plea has been scrawled in black marker.

ANYTHING WILL HELP, says the sign, and GOD BLESS.

For chrissakes, thinks Stiga, it’s not even an actual plea. “Anything will help,” Jesus, it’s a simple statement of fact, it’s a totally non-specific cop-out declaration. As if this shitheel’s too damned good to actually come right out and beg for something. So even before you fork over your hard-earned cash to some idiot who doesn’t deserve it, you’ve got to take the trouble to infer the pathetic cry for assistance that’s merely implied by the goddamn sign.

The temerity, thinks Stiga, the temerity of this homeless fucker!

And his daughter, he realizes, is still waving at the guy.

“Honey,” says Stiga, glaring at her, using the fatherly tone he likes to think of as Stern But Loving. His daughter hesitates, then puts her hand down. And now, through the windshield, Stiga sees the man turning his way.

The homeless guy gets eye contact and grins a little wider, trying to ingratiate himself.

Goddamn tinted windows, thinks Stiga: They’re not tinted enough.

And now the man is kind of squinting at Stiga, the grin on his blotchy, sunburned face replaced by a puzzled smile. He steps off the sidewalk and moves slowly toward the Lexus’s driver-side window.

“Dad,” says Stiga’s daughter, touching his jacket’s smooth sleeve, “I want to give him some money.”             

 

Winchell steps off the sidewalk, not quite believing his eyes. It seems impossible, but he’ll be dipped in shit if that guy in the Lexus isn’t Reed Stiga. After so many years and so many miles of bad road in so many different parts of the country, and now here’s, he’d swear, old Reed Stiga – a guy he hasn’t seen since basic training. Over twenty years if it’s been a day, since the start of all that Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder crap at Lackland, the pick-em-up and put-em-down, the locker inspections, the fire drills out the emergency exit in their skivvies. All that happy horseshit, as Sgt. Manges used to say.

It’s got to be Stiga, it can’t be anybody else, even after twenty-five? Oh man, yeah, twenty-five goddamn years. But it’s not like Winchell could ever forget that particular face, hell no, not after he’d stared at it so intently for so long that one night. And everybody else in the barracks, too, everybody sitting transfixed on their bunks and watching Stiga’s usually pale face as it shuddered and turned several shades darker than purple …

 

It was around 2030, maybe 2040 hours, still about thirty minutes to go before lights-out among the rows of metal lockers and single bunks in the barracks upstairs from the drilling pads. This was week four of Air Force basic training: things had relaxed a bit after the first few weeks of harsh regimentation and constant T.I. mindfucking, and guys were free to just hang out for an hour after dinner – sitting on their bunks in their underwear, digesting all those heavy calories they’d wolfed in the mess hall, attending to whatever needed attendance.

Martinez, a couple of bunks over, was polishing his boots as he did every night, working the leather at the toes into a shine that you’d be able to see even in the dark. Eisen had some stationery out and was writing back to whatever girl it was who, so far, had sent him a perfumed letter every day of training. Estrada, paranoid about snap inspections, was obsessively positioning the contents of his personal effects drawer. Hammond from Alabama lay on his back, practicing some weird sleight-of-hand with a quarter. Walls and Johnson, the two black guys, sat together on Johnson’s bunk and argued sports. All the other guys were similarly engaged or not doing much of anything, just sitting back and enjoying the brief lack of schedule.

Winchell had just finished ironing his uniform and was reaching to put it into his locker when Tryczynski, at the next bunk, leaned over and backhanded his leg. “Hey, Winch,” he said. “Check out Stiga, man.”

On the other side of the big room, in the middle of that row of bunks, nineteen-year-old Reed Stiga sat holding his breath and straining the muscles of his neck. He was staring at the end of his bunk, focusing on one of his blanket’s hospital corners, as if to aid concentration.

The color of his thin, hawkish face shifted from pink into red and then into darker red as he sat there, rocking gently back and forth, straining.

“Whoa,” said Winchell. He set his uniform on his bunk and continued to watch. By now, everyone in the barracks had grown silent and was watching Stiga.

Donnegan, Stiga’s best buddy, leaned over from the next bunk and started a quiet chant. “Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH …”

Stiga grimaced, fighting laughter, and drove his skin to an even darker hue. His face looked like a bruised strawberry.

A couple guys laughed, others shook their heads and looked briefly away before returning to stare again.

“Airman Stiga!” barked Tryczynski, expertly mimicking Sgt. Manges’s sharp, clipped tones. “You are one crazy motherfucker!”

Laughter in the barracks.

Stiga let go all at once. He unleashed a long whooshing breath, doubling over and shaking his head like a dog shaking off water. He crouched there, his face slowly returning to its normal pallor. Donnegan slapped him on the back, laughing, while around the room other guys gave Stiga a thumbs-up or called out congratulations.

Stiga looked around, grinning and nodding, drinking it all in.

Hammond, four bunks away, snorted derision. He sat up slowly, working his wide face into a sneer that he aimed right at Stiga.

“Shit, man,” he said, the Southern drawl thick in his voice, “that’s nothin’.”

Conversations stopped, heads turned.

“Fuck you, man,” said Stiga.

“And the horse your mother rode in on,” added Donnegan.

“I’m serious,” said Hammond, ignoring the slurs. “That’s nothin’, that’s what babies do. Babies do that shit.”

“No, I’m serious, man,” said Stiga. “Fuck you.” He flipped Hammond the bird.

“You wanna see something?” said Hammond, scooting around on his bunk. “Huh? You wanna see something, Stiga? I’ll fuckin’ show you something.”  He placed his hands on his thighs, bracing himself. Then he took a breath, held it, and began straining his neck.

“Whoa, Jesus,” said Winchell.

Hammond sat, straining, his doughy face moving toward crimson as he stared at Stiga.

All eyes in the barracks looked from Stiga to Hammond and back again.

Stiga smiled. He surveyed the room with the smile, making sure everyone was paying attention, then put his hands on his thighs – theatrically, mocking his adversary. He took a deep, exaggerated breath, paused for effect, then began straining his neck.

The two young men sat staring at each other across four bunks, their neck muscles taut, their faces getting redder and redder.

“What is it about white boys,” commented Johnson to Walls, “makes you think they got no fuckin’ brains at all?”

“Hush, fool,” said Walls, intent on the strange scene.

Hammond strained. Stiga strained.

A minute passed.

The other guys in the room continued breathing, but just barely.

Another minute.

The combatants’ faces grew darker and darker until they were the color of young plums.

“Jesus Christ,” whispered Martinez.

The plums aged and ripened.

“Jesus Christ,” whispered Martinez again.

Stiga began rocking slowly back and forth, his bunk’s metal frame creaking faintly with the movement.

A third minute ticked past.

Hammond made a strangled, high-pitched sound that was muffled by his compressed lips. His eyes went bright with panic.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Martinez.

Hammond caved. The air came out of him like the Big Bad Wolf making one final, straw-scattering puff. He leaned over, grasping the side of his bunk with both hands. “Fuck you,” he said weakly, panting. “Fuck you, Stiga.”

Stiga ignored him, straining onward.

“Holy shit,” said Winchell.

Donnegan watched his struggling buddy in silence, smiling encouragement, then began to chant his name. “Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH …”

The corners of Stiga’s lips twitched upward.

“Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH …” said Donnegan.

“Stee-GAH … ” said Martinez, joining the chant.

“Stee-GAH … ” joined in Winchell, Tryczynski, Eisen, and Estrada.

“Stee-GAH … ” joined in Walls and Johnson.

“Stee-GAH … ” joined in everybody but Hammond as Stiga’s face continued to darken. The sound filled the big barracks.

Guys from the second dorm down the hall came around the corner, first one at a time, then in twos and threes, crowding in between the bunks and jockeying for position to see what was going on.

“Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH …”

Stiga sat still on his bunk, surrounded by a double dormful of gawking airmen. As his face progressed through darker shades of purple, his head began to vibrate from the stress. Veins stood out like earthworms on his neck, at his temples; sweat saturated the front of his T-shirt; a tear fell from from one eye.

“Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH … Stee-GAH …”

Stiga’s shaking face transcended purple and shifted to a dull and faintly metallic black, like the lead of an old pencil.

The chanting faltered, subsided to silence. Guys shifted their weight uneasily from foot to foot, watching Stiga, not sure what to do.

“Stiga, goddamnit,” said Martinez. “You’re gonna hurt yourself, man. You’re gonna rupture something.”

“Hey, Stiga, hey,” said Donnegan, reaching over to squeeze his friend’s shoulder.

Stiga did not stop.

“Hey, cut it out, man,” pleaded Martinez. “You’re gonna fuck yourself up.”

Stiga did not stop.

A trickle of blood ran from his left nostril.

“Whoa, Jesus,” said Winchell.

“Stiga!” boomed Walls, who was his squad leader. “No shit, man. You stop that shit right now.”

Stiga swiveled his blackening face around and looked at Walls through gibbous eyes.

Walls rose from Johnson’s bunk like a dark commanding angel and leveled an index finger at Stiga. “That’s a fucking order, airman,” he said.

Stiga blinked once, then let go. The air tore from his mouth in a long, low scream. He collapsed facedown in a sweaty mess on the bunk, hyperventilated until he could regain control of his lungs, then just lay there, breathing heavily, the side of his face mashed into one hospital corner, his eyes unfocused.

Stiga’s right hand rose slowly, middle finger extended toward Hammond.

The cheering in the dorm was as loud as thunder.

 

“Dad,” says Stiga’s daughter, touching his jacket’s smooth sleeve, “I want to give him some money.”

“Honey, look,” says Stiga, trying to be reasonable, “I really don’t want to waste my money on – ”

My money,” says Stiga’s nine-year-old. “From my birthday bank account.”

Outside the Lexus, the homeless man is shuffling closer.

“You want to give this – this homeless guy – some of your own money?”

“Uh huh,” says Stiga’s daughter. “You could give it to him, dad, and I’ll pay you back, okay?” She nods toward the man beyond the window. “He just looks so sad and miserable.”

Stiga tries not to roll his eyes. “Listen, honey, you realize that he’s probably gonna take that money and spend it on booze, right? You see what I’m saying? He’s gonna use it to get himself drunk.”

“Yeah,” says Stiga’s daughter, “but he’ll still be happier then, won’t he?”

Oh sweet Jesus, thinks Stiga: Out of the goddamn mouths of babes. “Look, honey – ”

Please, dad?”

Stiga sighs. “Alright, kiddo,” he says. “Okay, how much of your money do you want to give him?”

“Uh, three dollars?”

“Three dollars,” says Stiga, scrutinizing her face. “Three dollars of your own money. You’re sure about this?”

His daughter nods. “I’m sure.”

“Okay,” says Stiga, leaning forward to dig the wallet out of his back pocket. “Alright.” He fingers the leather flaps apart, removes three crisp Washingtons. He touches a silver button in his door’s armrest; the lightly tinted window slides noiselessly down.

The homeless guy is standing there, smiling and sweating in the heat.

Stiga focuses on the sidewalk, not wanting to meet those rheumy eyes again. “Here,” he says tightly, holding out the money.

At the intersection the light has turned green and the cars ahead of Stiga’s Lexus have begun to move forward.

The homeless man reaches out, takes the bills. Stiga glances up, sees a wide grin stretching the whiskered face.

“Hey – thanks, Stiga,” says the man, nodding at him, meeting his eyes.

Stiga flinches. The driver in the car behind him taps her horn. Stiga turns away from the homeless man – who’s saying something more that Stiga is making certain he’s not listening to – and throws his Lexus into gear and speeds through the intersection.

On the right, buildings slide backward past the silver car; on the left, the interstate’s giant pillars pass in gray verticals, marking precise increments of distance. Stiga’s pale face is slightly flushed, a tinge of pink around his cheeks and throat.

“Dad,” says his daughter, four blocks later. “How did that man know your name?”

Stiga does not reply. He stares straight ahead, eyeing the traffic in front of him, scanning the crowded road for obstacles, for possible reasons to alter his path.

“Dad – ”

“Honey,” says Stiga tightly, “I have no fucking idea.”