28 December, 2009
(nor cocky enough) to call on god,
of this I am fairly certain: no bad deed goes
unrewarded. If I seem cynical
it is only because
I have watched the world
erase itself and (then)
after the manner of mediocre talents
whose seminal work
lacks depth perception
and who themselves
lacked the appropriate vices
that would have kept them humble.
All the good and noble songs
have been transposed
into obscene hymns
written in sick key signatures.
And though I do not (still) call on god
I am often left wanting.
I am often left wandering.
I am often left – and the only voice
I hear is a child’s asking me
“Are we there yet?” (There’s no use in answering.)
A thousand years from now, that child
will live somewhere on a forgotten South Pacific
island where he will
stare at the ocean,
listen to himself
inhale and exhale, and,
wrapped in silence, try to recall
even the simplest prayer
(Our father who art called Fred
Hollowed out like that old rugged and forgotten tree…)
he will close his eyes
focus on the sound
of crystalline blue waves
crashing on a sun baked beach
waiting to be washed away
when the tide goes out.
Though I am not confident:
(and though I am cocky)
I do not call on god:
though I still sometimes look for him
hidden in abandoned libraries
where there shelves are caked
in 50 year old dust, encrusted
with the tears of failed penitents
and the semen of a thousand lost souls
in search of the adult arcade three streets over.
The kids, they come
and then they go
and sometimes they leave
behind things no adult
would ever think to miss.
Though I am not confident
I am sure
there is nothing to be sure of
while all the grand prestidigitators
sell certainty for a 20 percent tithe.
People are worried – the wealthy tithe
a little bit more, and attend quite a bit less,
and by doing so, more or less
assure their place in the
hereafter. In this scenario,
god is an unemployed switch board operator
played to perfection by Yul Brynner – though nobody thought
he’d be able to pull off the beard. Jane Blondell plays
a coquettish devil, always cutting telephone wires
and whispering sexual advances in god’s left ear. Somewhere,
buried deep in Eastern Hills,
a devout ascetic prays for my soul
and burns dandelion leaves
in search of answers. When I see her again
she will tell me stories
and we will laugh
and she will see through me
down to my lack of penitence
for all I have done. And this
will leave her disturbed, and she
will return to her bible
and her dandelion leaves
for further instructions.
Although I am confident
and while I may be cocky
I do not presume
to summarize the universe; instead
I grasp at honest straws,
feel my way through rhythms
and patterns that (in the end)
will leave me with only
one last question to ask
before I run out of breath.
19 December, 2009
plop plop fizz fizz
early AM Arizona mornings
cold couch nights stretched
too thin because you are
too far away. This morning you call
anxious in the face of a dream
because life can’t be Too Good.
I am sick and not up to the task
of telling you (again) you’re wrong.
I know you’re lonely because
I’m lonely too. These mornings are
three times too frequent since you left.
Early morning midweek hangovers
is the price for an hour or two
of dreamless, unsatisfying sleep.
We’ve been here before—
but it never gets easier.
You call me crying
(Bless and forgive
my inability to cry) and
I know your loneliness only means
as we walk through the world
we are not so alone.
19 November, 2009
if the sun is shining. That’s
how I know
it’s winter in Ohio
and the gray wooly clouds
have invaded her skies
in bad sci-fi remakes.
I hear the Midwestern chill
in the tone of her voice –
that certain tightness, that
particular unconscious act
of conservation. Lethargy in the face
of the arctic winds, the wet sticky snow,
the black ice on the roads and
the frost on the windshield; I remember
being old enough to turn on the car
so the engine would be warm enough
to run the heater and having to
scrape the windows so Mom or Dad
could brave the winter without feeling it
in their fingertips. But here
the sun always shines and it hardly ever rains
and the morning chill that moves in with the snowbirds
burns off by midday. Natives are easy to spot
because 60 degrees is too cold
and 50 degrees makes them
break out the laundered heavy jackets,
the pristine scarves and brightly colored boots
that would never survive
a morning after the snow trucks
pushed gray ugly slush
in front of the driveway.
When my mother calls
we talk about the weather
and she threatens to retire to the desert
or maybe to Florida because the beach
is nice sometimes. I tell her
Arizona doesn’t need any more snowbirds
that it’s crowded enough
with pensioners and the ones who were lucky enough
to retire and still be able to afford
a decent set of golf clubs, cable television,
and a nice little place in 55 and Older Community
guarded by big metal gates that don’t guard anything
but allow the management company or the realtor
to pad the price. I tell her
there’s no more west to lament and that
there are now more cowboys
to cry over and that
the beauty of the sunset
has been erased by neon lights and street lamps
and the never-ending lines of cars on choked interstates
and bypasses. I tell her
this is not a place
that’s beautiful at a distance; that
it requires a careful and myopic eye
to appreciate it
and the sun burns everything
except those quaint pictures
taken by tourists whose vision
was myopic to begin with.
She asks me
Do I like my work?
and I say
I like it fine, that
the writing is going fine. No, she says.
She means my job:
the one that pays, the one she can explain
to my relatives who thought me mad all those years ago
and to the people she runs into
who knew me when I was 10
before the itch set in
before the darkness took shape
and I became something
from what was intended. I tell her
I want to quit. I say
The institution is dead,
the ideals evaporate under the sun and in the hands
of unimaginative bean counters. I tell her
writing is The Thing
and that someday
she will be the mother
of a famous writer; a famous poet
whose language echoes
the death and rebirth of scorched landscapes
and broken, abandoned dreams.
She chides me
semi-gently; for I have always been
her son the poet, the sensitive boy
born too fragile for the world, the
prodigal son who is never as lost
as it seems, but who, at the right moment,
will let himself be found – but only
for a blink—
just long enough
to fool her into hoping
I have finally grown up
and have finally become
a son she can brag about
in the same sentence
as my brother.
She tells me things she thinks
my Dad might say
if he were alive and if
I were still listening,
as it is in the world she makes
in her imagination. It frustrates me:
this attempt to direct me
when all I really wanted to talk about
was the weather and the seasons
and the palm trees that always appear
one day closer to dying
like an army of intentionally placed indigents
lining the streets. But it’s not in me
to tell her off. Besides, it won’t help.
People see what they want to see
and will make the world
whatever they want it to be
and mother’s generation
has shaped things quite conveniently
though she loves me (as only a mother can)
will never see
the things I have seen
and she will never understand
where I have been
or who I am … unless,
perchance, she reads my poems
and allows herself, for a moment
I am her son. I tell her
I love her and I say
I will talk to her soon. Then
I hang up the phone and step outside to smoke.
(She hates when I smoke while talking to her.)
The sun is setting
and the sky is clear
and all the things
left unsaid fade
into the brief shadow
between sunset and
the dull illumination
of neon lights.
17 November, 2009
To call Brenda a vampire would be giving her too much credit; that would bestow on her a predatory instinct she fundamentally lacked. Even classifying her as a leech is an overstatement, though that would be an apt enough description. The thing that motivated her was fear – fear of rejection, fear being laughed at, fear of being alone. She’d been heckled and put down her entire life, which, instead of giving her something to overcome, merely shaped her into a spineless lump of insecurities. She didn’t think beyond what other people told her to think. Before she met Pendleton, she took her cue from her narrow-minded religious father, her self-righteous martyr mother, and her dimwitted brothers whose success in the world was admirable only because of its improbability. After she met Pendleton, her thoughts and words echoed his thoughts and words; then she gradually dug in and the relationship took on truly parasitic proportions. She gained strength and he, proportionally, began to diminish.
True, his health had been poor. Losing the ability to work and suffering under my ex-mother-in-law’s harpish and vindictive nature had worn him down over the years. His first heart attack happened when I was still married to his step-daughter. That heart attack changed everything; and even though it was subtle at first, I noticed how he just seemed to … slow down. He blamed the additional medications. The blood thinner made him bruise more easily and it also made him more sensitive to sunlight. The gray in his hair started to stand out in contrast to the hawk feather black it had always been. He gradually lost interest in things –even his junk jaunts. His reading habits changed and took on a more theological bent. Not being someone who felt the need to explain himself to anybody, he said nothing about any of these things.
The break up of his marriage seemed to rejuvenate him. He stopped taking all the medications and read up on homeopathic and herbal medicine. Vidalia onions, he told me, were good for blood pressure. Garlic was a natural anti-oxidant. Certain fruits and vegetables, in combination with the right herbs, could control heart disease.
I didn’t know that I believed him; but it seemed to work for him, so I didn’t say anything.
By the time he married Brenda, he’d managed to regain most of his former self, though his physical strength had continued to steadily decline. That was one of the reasons Red was so handy to keep around; he could pick up the slack whenever Pendleton got tired, and he thought nothing of it. He was nothing if not reliable – and Brenda always made sure he felt welcomed.
At the time of his marriage to Brenda, he lived in small A-frame cabin in the lower Appalachians, near the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest; that had been his dream for as long as I’d known him. And while the cabin wasn’t much to look at, it was everything he needed: a ten thousand gallon cistern and a simple kitchen. He took out the wood burning stove that came with it and had the old iron belly refurbished and installed. It was the primary source of heat in the winter and a constant source of satisfaction. “She always said it was a piece of junk,” he told me, referring to his ex-wife. “Well, look at it now.” With the right kind of planning, a person could live out there and avoid going into town for months at a time – even during the winter when it wasn’t uncommon to be snowed in for days and weeks on end.
Brenda liked the idea of the cabin, but the lack of certain creature comforts – like central air and heat – quickly got to her. After the first winter there she convinced Pendleton to leave the cabin and move into a nice modular home closer to town with city water, city gas, and weekly garbage pick up. The cabin then became a large storage shed for all of Brenda’s things that they didn’t have room for in the new place. But Pendleton didn’t like leaving the place empty. When Linda and I were between places (after making the mistake of moving in people we considered good friends) we all struck on the idea of us moving into the cabin. Pendleton told us (much to Brenda’s chagrin) that as long we took care of the place, kept the grass mowed, and paid our own utilities, we could live there rent free.
The mistake we made was actually moving in.
Life was okay for a couple of months. Linda and I settled in and cleaned the place up – which was no small task, since Pendleton and Brenda had let it go since the move to town. We moved things around, put a lot Brenda’s things either upstairs or in the airtight prefabricated storage building Pendleton had erected with the intention of using it as a workshop. Linda planted a little garden of peppers and tomatoes. I chopped wood to stock up for the winter and tried to keep the grass under control. That was mostly a futile effort. The mower was shot and the weed eater didn’t cut. Deer and rabbits decimated our tomatoes. Hornets moved in under the front porch. That summer it didn’t rain and the cistern nearly dried up.
Brenda began dropping by unannounced. At first, she brought Pendleton with her. Then she started showing up alone. She’d poke around the cabin and want to dig some stupid thing or another out of the attic or the storage shed. She made catty comments about the grass. When I pointed out that the mower was a piece of shit, she shrugged her oxen shoulders and said “You knew that when you moved in. Why don’t you fix it? It’s not like you pay rent.”
Naturally I understood the subtext. She knew damn well why I hadn’t tried to fix the mower; I wasn’t mechanically inclined. When I did try and fix something, it all when to shit and I ended up fucking it up worse than it had been to begin with. What she was REALLY saying was “Why don’t you act like a man and fix it?” I wasn’t sure how she had any real conception of men. The only other man to touch her before Pendleton was probably a drunken redneck who did it either on a dare or out of the same desperation that would have been equally served by a hole in the wall. Her dad wasn’t all that handy and none of her brothers especially liked getting their hands dirty. But because Pendleton was increasingly allowing her to conduct his business, I had to suffer her moralizing and condescension. Then Linda told me Brenda came around when I was gone, too, just (it seemed) to put me down.
One day, fueled by frustration, I tore into the mower. The piece of shit ended up in several pieces and I had no idea how to fix it or how to put the damned thing back together. So much for my manliness. After that I went to Pendleton and told him Brenda was dogging me to Linda behind my back.
“Relationships are hard enough,” I told him, “without OTHER PEOPLE making them more difficult.”
He nodded in agreement and said very little. All I really wanted him to do was say something to her about it. Or at least pretend he had some interest in how she was running his affairs. But he didn’t seem all that concerned. His complexion was going gray, and so was his hair. I didn’t know it then, but (at Brenda’s insistence) he started taking the meds again. The rest of our conversation was trivial. He was growing his hair and beard, which made him look even older. When I stopped by I had interrupted his reading; he was pouring over apocryphal texts and making arcane notes on yellow legal pads. I made sure to leave before Brenda got home in order to avoid a confrontation.
One week later, Linda and I came back from a grocery run and found an envelope stuck in the screen door.
“What’s that?” Linda asked, setting her bags down.
I had set mine down to open the envelope. It contained a letter:
“Dear Nick and Lynda,
“As you know, when you moved in to the cabin, you agreed to take care of the property and pay your own utilities in lew of rent. This was a very genrous offer, since you know we could rent it out for quiet a lot of money. But since you were family, we decided to extend our hospitality to you and Lynda and alow you to live there.
“But you have not lived up to your part of the agreemint. The grass hasn’t been cut in more than a month and when we have tried to get you to do something you find excuses not to.
“For this reason, we have decided to start charging you rent. You will pay us $100 on the first of each month, starting with this month or you will move so we can rent to someone who is more responsible.”
It was already the fifteenth; that meant we had to pay them immediately or get out. Pendleton’s signature was at the bottom of the letter, but I knew he hadn’t written it. It didn’t sound like him; besides, he knew how to spell Linda’s name. He’d been schooled to believe – like public schools used to teach but don’t anymore – that misspelled and misused words were an insult, only to the language but to the person who made the mistakes and the person forced to read them. It was clear that Brenda, whose abuse of the language was not only common but engrained through generations of neglect, had written the letter and the Pendleton had signed it. I wondered if he bothered to read it.
“What the fuck?!” I showed Linda the letter.
She quickly read it. “What the fuck?” she echoed, handing it back to me. “Where the hell is this coming from?”
“You know where,” I answered. “Give that dumb bitch a little power and she acts like she owns us.”
“But he signed it.”
“He didn’t write it.”
“How do you know?”
“I just KNOW.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We’re moving,” I said.
“Somewhere. Soon. Let them try and find somebody else to live here who’ll take care of it. Bitch. Cunt.” I turned to walk back out the door.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to tell them both to shove this letter up her fat ass!”
I walked out the door before Linda could talk me out of it or calm me down. As I was getting in the car, I heard her tell me not to do anything I would regret later. Not likely, I thought. After everything we’d gone through – the years of friendship in spite of my ex, his ex, and everything that had passed in between us since I had turned eighteen – after almost ten years – all of it meant nothing, now that Brenda bent his ear and dug her pudgy claws into him.
I didn’t have to go far. Just as I was getting ready to pull out, they were coming up the drive. They brought Red with them. I guess Brenda wanted to make sure we saw the letter and she brought him along as a witness. Stupid twat. When I approached them, Red didn’t greet me with his usual smile and over wrought badly timed joke. Pendleton nodded at me, which was all he ever did anyway. Brenda was the first to talk.
“Red’s here to fix the mower,” she began, sounding glib.
I ignored her completely. Pendleton was still sitting in the passenger seat of the truck. When approached he rolled the window down. “What’s this?” I demanded.
“Did you read it?” he asked.
“Yeah, I read it. I tried to, anyway. What is this? If there was a problem, why didn’t YOU come and talk to me?”
“We tried,” Brenda broke in. “But every time…”
“Shut up,” I said, not looking at her. My eyes didn’t leave Pendleton’s face. He didn’t react; there was a time he would have at least tried to scare me. But there was none of that left in him. “I know you didn’t write this,” I said. “She did. And you signed it. Did YOU read it?”
He shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” I repeated. “If you had a problem with me, you should have come to me. But instead, you let HER write me a goddamned letter? Really? After everything?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
Red was standing off to the side, watching. He was tense. He would want to jump in soon. I didn’t care, but I didn’t feel like dealing with anybody else. There was only one person who mattered. I tore the letter into four pieces and dropped them in Pendleton’s lap. “That’s what I think about that,” I said. “We’ll be out of her by the end of the week.”
“You don’t have to move,” Brenda tried to cut in.
I didn’t answer her. I was still looking at Pendleton for some sign. Something. Anything. There was nothing. I turned and walked back inside. Linda was sitting on the couch reading. I opened the fridge and took out a beer.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
I didn’t answer.
11 November, 2009
“Shouldn’ta been in the street,” Sammy said, and spat on the sidewalk, just to see if the goober would freeze. He was always so cool. Detached. We’d been friends since elementary school, and he was even cool back then. The only thing that ever seemed to affect him was the tightness of Marissa Hency’s shirt on any given day. Her freshman year she was a gangly little girl with mousy hair and big eyes that nobody noticed. But when she walked to the school building at the beginning of her sophomore year –our senior year – her tits crossed the entrance well ahead of her. Since then, the sight of her put Sammy into a dreamy-eyed frenzy and robbed him of the ability to speak coherently.
“Somebody should have tied him up,” Fremont added. He had the car, so he drove. Sammy parent’s wouldn’t let him drive one of theirs, and I totaled mine; Fremont was also a sophomore – a fact that Sammy often resented, since he was in the same homeroom as Marissa Hency – but he was a good kid. Super smart. He was in all the advanced classes and all the teachers loved him. The only thing that saved him from being bullied was the fact that his old man had been biker and taught him how to fight. He was also the school artist; people always wanted him to draw them pictures because they just knew he was going to be a famous artist someday.
“We can’t just leave him there,” I said. The dog was in the gutter across the street from Sammy’s house. The legs were stiff. The frost that had settled the night before was still covering his coat. It was still cold enough that I could see my breath when I talked.
“We gotta get to school,” Sammy said.
“Like you give a shit about school,” Fremont said, smiling. “You’re just going to pass out behind the wrestling mats until lunch, anyway.”
Sammy gave him the finger. “Shut the fuck up.”
“We can’t leave him here.” I didn’t really care about school. Besides the fact that it was my senior year and I didn’t give a shit anyway, first bell was Introduction to Business, Ms. Stockdale’s class. She was a horrible teacher and it was a horrible class. She talked on and on and on about things like how to keep a balanced checkbook and about the nature of supply and demand. I took the class because I needed an elective and there weren’t any art classes; my only other option was a typing class that would have been worse torture than listening to Ms. Stockdale. I would have taken a shop class, if only to have an excuse to hang out with Sammy – but the guidance counselor made sure that none of the college-track kids, which I was, never got into any of the shop classes.
The dog wasn’t the first dead animal I’d ever seen; you grow up in a small town like New Leeds and you see a lot of dead animals. Mostly cats. Nobody really cared about cats. In the spring, squirrels and raccoons were regular road kills. More skunks in the summer. Far enough out of town, sometimes you’d see a deer get tagged by a speeding truck. There were plenty of stray dogs – but they were either adopted or shot or, sometimes, even poisoned. But they weren’t road kill very often.
“It’s DEAD,” Sammy rolled his eyes. “Who gives a shit? The road crew’ll come and pick him up in a couple of hours, anyway.”
Sammy was right; eventually somebody would call it in and the Road Department would send out a truck. They’d scrape him out of the gutter and take him to be incinerated. Animals that were owned or loved were generally buried. One of my cousins told me about a friend of theirs who had his dog stuffed; he had it made to look like it was curled up sleeping and then put in what had been the dog’s favorite corner. I thought that was disgusting; nobody would ever do that to a person. Why do it to a dog?
“How would YOU like it?” I asked Sammy, “if you were dead in the gutter and nobody gave a shit about you?”
Sammy spat on the sidewalk again and lit a cigarette; he wasn’t worried about getting caught because his parents had already left for work. “I wouldn’t care,” he said. “I wouldn’t care at all. “ So cool.
I bent down to take a closer look, and I patted the dog’s head. He’d had a hungry life and probably didn’t get petted that much; I could count a couple of his ribs. I looked at the dog’s snarling face again. One of the eyes was shut, like it had squinted – looking straight into oncoming headlights, probably. But the other eye was wide open. It was a lifeless grayish-blue color. It made me think of what I’d heard once about wolves having blue eyes; for some reason, it made me feel sadder than I already did.
“Don’t do that,” Sammy coughed. “Dead bodies carry disease. You’ll get one of those worms that crawls up your dick.”
“It’s too cold for that,” I said.
“Yeah,” Fremont agreed.
Sammy shot him another dirty look. Then he looked over at me. “Come on, Nick,” he said. “Let’s go. What’re you gonna do? Have a funeral for it?”
I looked up at Sammy. He looked like he was making a joke. I looked over at Fremont. He was looking at me. He nodded, and I nodded back.
“Jesus fucking CHRIST!” Sammy Scoffed. “Are you SHITTIN’ me? It’s not even your dog, man! What if the owner comes looking for it? Don’t you think THEY’D want to bury it?”
“No tags,” I said as I stood up. “No collar at all.” I looked around the head again. No blood, except right around the mouth. When I moved to stand between Sammy and Fremont, I felt the eye following me and I shuddered. Just a little.
“Not everyone buys tags,” Sammy said.
Fremont and I decided to take Sammy to school and come back for the dog. At first, he didn’t believe that we were really just dropping him off. He told us we’d end up getting in trouble. We ignored him.
“Whatever,” he muttered when he got out, slamming the door behind him. Fremont reached over and opened the door so I could get out of the back and sit in front. After I moved and closed the door we pulled out of the parking lot. Fremont said he had to stop at his house; he said his dad had some shovels we could use.
I didn’t like the idea; but if anybody would understand, it would be Fremont’s mom. She was an artist and had a couple of poems published in this anthology made of leather with gold trim. I showed her some of my poems once; she gave me my first honest critique and encouraged me to keep writing. That meant a lot, so I was hoping she would understand why Fremont wasn’t at school.
I waited in the car while Fremont went inside. The frost was starting to thaw. What few leaves were left on the trees had fallen off during the night. It had been the first real frost of the year; that meant winter was coming. We’d probably end up living though another ugly, brown, snowless winter. The last time it had really snowed, I was eight or nine years old. They had to call off school – which hardly ever happened, before or since. (The Superintendent was one of those grumpy old fucks who told stories about walking to school uphill both ways in a blizzard. The parents all loved him and were just waiting for him to retire or die so they could name one of the school buildings after him.) Everybody had to stay home that day; it was so cold that it was even cold in the house with the heat one and Dad made me a cup of coffee to help stay warm. He loaded it down with cream and sugar. It had an awful taste. I didn’t try a cup of coffee again until after he died. I drank it black, like he did.
Fremont walked out of the front door carrying a ratty old blanket and two pairs of work gloves. “For the dog,” he said. “She doesn’t want us to touch him.”
“Right.” We went to the small unattached garage and found the shovels. Then we tossed them and the blanket in the backseat and drove back to where the dog was.
He was still there. Fremont pulled the car in the driveway nearest the corpse. It didn’t look like anybody was home.
“We should probably hurry,” he said.
When we got out, I grabbed the blanket, gloves, and shovels, and Fremont opened the trunk. We both put on a pair of gloves. Then we decided that the best thing to do was to put the blanket over the dog and try to roll it over so that the dog would be on top; that way we could carry it by holding on to the blanket. But the body was heavier than we thought; Fremont and I struggled to flip the dog out of the gutter without accidently breaking off one of its legs. The body was still stiff and felt frozen; the frost had started to melt, which left the fur a little wet and made it even harder to get a handle on the dog. Fremont was working the tale end, and I working the head. That eye stared at me the entire time. The whole operation took on determined air of desperation. There wasn’t any traffic, since everybody else was where they were supposed to be; but it was taking too long. A few cars passed by, but none of them even bothered to slow down. All those stories about the how close knit small towns are and how everybody is in everybody’s business must have been started by people who never lived in one. Unless you set something on fire, nobody notices anything.
After a few grunts and shoves we got the dog turned over. Then we each picked up our corners of the blanket and carried it over and set it down as carefully as we could in the trunk. When Fremont closed the lid, that eye was somehow still face up and looking straight at me.
The car heat felt good. “Where you want to go?” he asked.
“I don’t really know,” I confessed. “It should be someplace, you know… private. The woods or something. But we shouldn’t go too far. It’ll take too much time.”
He nodded in agreement. “I think I know a place.”
Suddenly I wanted a cigarette. I usually bummed one off Sammy in morning, but the dog distracted me and I forgot to ask. He didn’t offer, either. Damn him, I thought. Like he really cares about school. He won’t even see Marissa Hency in hallway until lunch.
Fremont drove towards the edge of town. I thought I knew where he was going, and when we got there, I was saw I was right. On the edge of town, next to the cemetery, there was a small patch of woods; you had to drive through the Baptist Church parking lot and down this one lane gravel road to get to it. The woods were next to this small field where the Baptists held outdoor summer revivals and Vacation Bible school functions. When we got to the clearing, Fremont drove right onto the grass clearing and parked next to the trees on the side closest to the cemetery.
“How are we gonna do this?” I asked, getting out.
“We carry the dog back,” he said, “then I come back for the shovels.”
After Fremont opened the trunk, he immediately grabbed the tale end, leaving me the eye. Again. I tried not to think about it watching me as our little procession made its way past the line of tree line, with its leafless limbs sticking up in the air. We walked ten or twelve yards until we came on a small clearing that had probably been a bum’s campsite at one time. There was a small circle of rocks somebody had used for a makeshift fire pit. We put the dog down and Fremont went and grabbed the shovels. It was starting to warm up, but the air was still chilly. If we were lucky, the ground wouldn’t be too frozen or full of rocks.
It wasn’t too frozen; that would take a few more weeks. But we once we got past the thin layer of dead grass, the ground seemed to be more rock than dirt. Originally, we had intended to dig a six foot hole, like a real grave; but after about hour of digging, we realized it would take us longer than we had. I looked my watch; it was almost the middle of third period. We had to get to school by lunch or Sammy would never let us hear the end of it.
We dug the plot deep enough that he wouldn’t be bothered, and we left him wrapped in the blanket when we lowered him down. Somehow we’d managed to put him in there so that that damn eye was still staring up at me.
“Your mom won’t get upset about the blanket?” I asked.
Fremont shook his head. “She won’t want it back.”
Filling in the grave didn’t take nearly as much time as digging did, and when we were finished, we lined all the rocks, including those used for the fire pit, along the edges. Then we stood there for a couple of minutes.
“You want to say something?” Fremont asked.
“No,” I answered. I didn't want to say anything. There wasn’t anything to say; nothing anybody said over a grave was worth hearing, anyway. We stood there for another couple of minutes. Then we walked back across the tree line, got into Fremont’s car, and left. We returned the shovels and work gloves before we went to school, and Fremont’s mom made us scrub our hands raw before she let us go.
We reported to the office when we got to school. When I filled out my tardy slip, I wrote “buried a dog” as my reason. The secretary eyed me carefully, her gray eyes peering at me over the top of rhinestone speckled bifocals.
When we saw Sammy at lunch, he gave us shit. We ignored him. He talked and laughed and cracked jokes until Marissa Hency walked into the cafeteria. She was wearing a tight blue sweater.
09 November, 2009
smacking against my flip flops
echoes in the grand halls
of the art museum. We’ve
lost one another, as usual,
taking in the frenetically organized
collections to suit our own likes.
You take pictures, while, in my mind,
I’m stealing the things I like
for the memory palace under construction
(that looks suspiciously like the
the library from graduate school)
so that I can enjoy them all later
Most everyone else
wanders in crowds
like they’re on tours
being told about how
murdered his lover
or how that sculptor
as a martyr for feminism.
People who can’t make art try
to turn themselves into
their favorite artist’s creation
though none would ever claim it: wear
just the right clothes and
modular eye glasses, strike the pose as
among the Abstract Expressionists. The
surrealists are confused. Everyone’s
a lesbian around the Georgia O’Keefes.
The guards eyeball me as I wander the galleries
free form. My flip flops echo loud,
announcing my movements
and helping drown out
the hollow talk of the investor-patrons
and amateur critics
who paint their faces (obsessively staying within the lines)
with expressions of self-satisfaction and
deep, deep loathing. They watch me, too, as I flop by
unaffiliated. They distrust my well-worn hat,
the smell of cheap beer,
and the stench of my last cigar.
In one of the installations
(a dark closest with tiny twinkling lights)
I run into to a couple of kids
taking advantage of the dark space
to giggle and grope. He’s hoping
for good locker room talk. She’s expecting
a cable TV inspired adult romance.
They kiss loudly. It’s sloppy. I push
by them and back into the main gallery
littered with classics and moderns
and one or two contemporaries
(i.e. alive and poor) whose work
is political enough
to be installed near Rothko
and Chuck Close.
She finds me in front of the de Kooning
(not his best.) I hear her approaching. I know
it’s her by the sound of her flip flops. She’s
smiling and hugging her camera. Now
that there are two of us, the guards
have moved on. I hear the girl giggling, and
the echoes of well-fed conversations. I know
we’ll stop in the gift shop
on the way out,
and it will be that much longer
before I can smoke
or get something to drink.
29 October, 2009
After I got off the phone with Red, though, I was in no mood to growl at the kids for hitting my door. I was in no mood to growl at anybody. Except maybe Brenda.
She didn’t like me because I stood her up once. Not long after my ex and I split, Brenda invited me to her house for dinner. I ended up getting drunk and forgetting about it. She never forgave me. Actually, I’d forgotten all about it until she started dating Pendleton. Naturally, she brought it up. “It’s no big deal,” she said smiling through her triple chins. Brenda was not a petite woman; then again, Pendleton liked his women on the big side. She was a pious and broken woman who was easy to impress. She didn’t think she was smart, and all of Pendleton’s books impressed her. She worshipped him – which he loved – because he ex-wife, my ex-mother-in-law, was a bitter shrew who never showed him any respect at all.
We were all friends for a while – Pendleton and Brenda and Linda and me. We went to their house for dinner all the time, and we played cards after until well after midnight. Pendleton usually cooked because the only food Brenda knew how to cook were TV dinners and frozen pizzas. Eating with them made me glad I’d forgotten that dinner date with Brenda; Pendleton was a decent cook and liked things spicy, the same as me.
We stayed friends until they got married. The small ceremony happened in Pendleton’s living room with a few friends attending and a homemade wedding cake that always seems to lean a little to the left. After she married him, Brenda took ownership of everything –including Pendleton. She didn’t mind if Red came around because he could help her husband work on the cars or fix the lawn mower; he was useful. I was all thumbs and useless and I drank too much; plus she thought I was mean to Linda sometimes. She also didn’t understand why I couldn’t seem to hold down a job, even though she’d never been able to keep one more than two months in the entire time I knew her.
“Fuck her,” I spat at the empty apartment. “Fuck her and her fat condescending head and her TV fucking dinners and fake piety and her hollow fucking prayers.”
After Pendleton married Brenda he rediscovered religion. He’d always had his own point of view on the subject; he once told me that God spoke to him and explained the purpose of evil in the world. But when I asked him to tell me, he only smiled and shook his head. “You need to find that answer for yourself.”
Give m a fucking break, I thought. Pendleton thought of himself as a spiritual man, but he didn’t go to church very much. “There’s nothing there I can’t get sitting on my back porch,” he said. Mostly I think he didn’t like the idea of having to dress up. Cleaned up with his shirt tucked in, Pendleton looked more like an irate bus driver than the misunderstood mountain man he wanted to be. But Brenda had insisted they go at least once a month; it was her family’s church and she wanted to prove to them all that she could land a husband who wasn’t either a stumbling alcoholic or her fourth cousin.
The scotch bottle was empty, but I wasn’t done drinking. I considered my options. I probably could’ve closed my eyes right then and gone to sleep; that would’ve been the smart option. But I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to stop thinking. I didn’t want to stop remembering. I didn’t want to stop the waves of anger pulsing in my arms and legs and chest. Normally Linda could talk some sense into me; but she was working an extra shift and wouldn’t be home until late. I was supposed to get up the next morning and teach. If I kept on, I wouldn’t feel like getting out of bed. All I’d feel was hungover and angry and all it would take was one stupid question and I’d bite some empty-headed student’s face off.
I put on my shoes and left. The sounds of the children playing echoed in my ears, nearly split my ear drums. So be it, I thought. If I’m deaf I won’t have hear anything anymore. No more children playing. No more silly questions. No more phone calls from Red. Nothing. Nada. Nunca. Silence.
The bar looked unusually crowded, so I didn’t go inside. I didn’t feel like being around people and having to play at being friendly. I kept walking. The scotch made my blood warm; I felt every drop of it coursing through my veins, pumping my heart, propelling me forward. Forward was all that mattered. I got as far as the corner drug store. I didn’t have enough cash for another bottle of scotch, so I settled for a reasonably cheap jug of table wine. The girl working the register eyed me carefully, but didn’t refuse my money. I walked out the automatic doors and cracked the seal. It was a serviceable burgundy; not usually to my liking, but it was the only red wine on the shelf.
If she had been there, Linda would have told me I was begging to be arrested. It was sweet that she still worried about – god knows why, since I rarely worry about myself; but she could never seem to grasp the basic laws of equilibrium. I wouldn’t get picked up because 1.) it was mid-week; 2.) I didn’t look homeless or like an illegal, and 3.) I wasn’t blocking traffic or impeding the forward progress of civilization. The only time anybody cared about a wandering drunk was when he became an affront to some respectable person’s sense of safety and balance. If we still lived in a small town, things would’ve worked out in a different pattern. Small town cops have nothing better to do than to set up speed traps and harass harmless drunks stumbling home from the bar; they have to do something in order to justify their existence. In a small town, one wandering drunk embodies the shaky line between order and chaos. In a city, especially one as self-involved as Phoenix with its image of being the new west coast, a wandering drunk in a decent pair of shoes isn’t the harbinger of anarchy; he’s a symbol of the economic recovery.
I kept the receipt, though. Just in case.
Pendleton was annoyed by my ability to use reason to justify what he saw as unreasonable and unjustifiable behavior. He probably cut me some slack because my drinking didn’t pick up until after his daughter (Actually, she was his step-daughter.) and I split up. Also, I think he felt a little responsible, since he was the one who bought me my first beer.
I was eighteen and my ex and I had just started dating. She was seventeen and occupied nearly all of my attention, and he was worried that we were getting too serious too fast. To try and pull me away, he started taking me with him on his junk jaunts. Almost every Saturday he’d get up early and hit every yard sale, estate sale, and junk shop he knew. And he knew them all. And they knew him. He never looked for any thing in particular. Mostly, when people collect things, they focus on something specific. Baseball cards. Comic books. Tiffany lamp shades. Native American Figurines. Rare books. But not Pendleton; he collected everything and anything. It was like unearthing rare treasure to him. He kept piles of figurines, broken machines, buttons, pins, books, records, and furniture. He had two old Victrolas that, had he put the working parts together, he would’ve had one working record player; he didn’t, though. “It’ll ruin the value,” he said.
The junk dealers laid in wait for him with boxes of knick knacks and odds and ends. Once he came home with the carcass of an iron belly wood stove that was rusted beyond recognition and use. All it needed, he claimed was some repair and it could be useful again. He had to leave it on the front porch, though, because there was no room in small trailer for it.
I tried to understand his fascination, but I never really got into it. I kind of thought he went on his jaunts to get out of the house and away from the harpy voice of his wife and her continual attempts to force him into her idea of respectable self-improvement. My ex told me, with critical tone, that he’d been “that way” since the accident. It happened at work. One of the other mechanics was moving a truck full of engine blocks and rolled over Pendleton’s feet and ankles; the guy was clearly high, apparently. But he was the owner’s son, and when the doctors told Pendleton he’d never be able work on his feet again – they didn’t even think he’d be able to walk again (mostly because the insurance wouldn’t pay for the necessary operations) – the garage made it out that he’d been working on car in the path of the truck, making the accident his fault. That meant that not only did he lose his job, but he didn’t get any worker’s comp, either. I can’t say I blamed him for being a little bitter.
On one of the jaunts he took me on, we stopped and looked at an old Chevelle. It had been beaten up and abused and left out at the mercy of the elements. The body was covered in rust. The wheel wells in the front and the back were deteriorating. The tires were rotting. The engine was locked up. The seats were torn – done by cats, the owner said. He wanted $500 for the wreck. He would’ve asked for more, he told Pendleton, but his old lady was tired of looking at it and was making him get rid of it. Pendleton stared at the car for a long time. After a while, the owner stopped talking to him and wandered away because Pendleton looked like he was in trance. Had it been somebody else, they guy might’ve made him shove off; but Pendleton was good head and half taller and half a man larger. He wasn’t someone that anybody forced to do anything.
At first, I thought he was going to buy the car; but then he looked over at me and asked if I was ready to go. We left and before we stopped at one of his usual stops – a junktique shop housed in an old gas station on Elm Street – Pendleton stopped at a 7-11 and brought a couple of 22 ounce bottles of beer. He gave me one and drank his without saying anything. He just stared out the windshield. I drank mine. I’d never had beer before, and I’d always heard that nobody liked it the first time they drank it. But I did. It tasted like ginger ale to me. I drank it down pretty quickly, and Pendleton and I went on. He never mentioned it to his wife or my girlfriend, and we never talked about it.
28 October, 2009
Pendleton hated my drinking; he grew up with parents who were rotten, miserable drunks that took their miseries out on him. Even after they quit drinking they still acted like drunks, and well into his adulthood they heaped whatever abuse on him they could. He called them dry drunks. Sometimes he spat on the ground when he said it. Yet while he despised my drinking, he only ever mentioned it to me twice. The rest of the time he just shook his head in his silent, disapproving way.
I drank my tumbler of cheap scotch and sat on the balcony, smoking. The sun was setting. The weather finally cooled off and
My voice came back just in time for Red to call; somewhere on the bus ride from
Pendleton would’ve enjoyed eavesdropping on them, and he would’ve enjoyed talking to the jilted girl. Despite her broadness, she had firm grapefruit tits and he would have enjoyed picturing her topless. Of course, he would’ve been polite; he prided himself on being a gentleman. He called it Southern Gentility.
My tumbler of scotch was empty again, so I refilled it. The cooler weather brought people out of hiding and into the twilight. My neighbors were sitting out on their balconies and all the kids were playing in the small patch of green space that substituted for a courtyard. Sometimes when the kids played kickball one of them would inadvertently hit my door. When that happened I usually stuck my head out and told them to hit somebody else’s door. I made sure to sound mean enough to scare them off. That worked usually worked for two or three days before it happened again.
I learned about being a man from Pendleton. He was really good at it, too. Mean and scary. The first time I went to pick up my ex-wife for a date, he sat in his chair and stared at me the entire five minutes I stood in his living room. Actually, it’s unfair to call it a living room. They lived in a small rundown trailer at the time. The closet-sized back bedroom was occupied by my ex and her sister. Pendleton and his wife slept in the front room. The bed doubled as a couch, and his chair sat facing the door. I was so nervous that I never took my hand off the door knob. He told me later that it was a game he liked to play with people – especially boys who came to date his daughters. He didn’t have to talk, he said, because he was big enough to not have to. “Being silent is better than cleaning a shotgun or showing off a knife collection,” he said. Silence was a less specific threat that relied on the other person’s imagination. Then he told me he liked me right off because I was clearly scared shitless. That, he told me, meant I had a vivid imagination.
27 October, 2009
“No,” I said. “I, ah, I’ll go get started.”
“Be careful how you stack them parts once you get things apart,” he warned. “I have to sell those, you know.”
I walked down the short hill into the Graveyard, trying to find a good place to start. There was no order to any of it. Maybe once upon a time Bear organized the place – there was some remnant of a loose organizational system. Motorcyles in the front, lawnmowers and bicycles in the back. But that had clearly been a long time ago. There was more rust then anything. Everything was left uncovered and was at the mercy of the elements. The ground was permanently muddy in places. There were pools of spilled oil, transmission fluid, break fluid, and water everywhere. Every once in a while there were things laying on tarps – like he had intended to keep them off the wet ground – but in most cases, the tarps were torn and the pools of liquid simply sat on top. Even I could tell there wasn’t much worth salvaging.
For no particular reason, stopped somewhere near the center of everything. A small pile of five or six push mowers was as good a place to start as any. I found a reasonably clean and dry patch of grass to sit on and started on an orange one that still had most of its paint. The big bolt holding the cutting blade to the bottom of the engine was rusted and difficult to break loose, and so were the smaller bolts that held the engine to the mower base. After wrestling with it for several minutes, I made a mental note to buy some WD40 before I came back. The other mowers were in similar condition. I took them apart and separated everything into piles: a pile handles, a pile of blades, a pile of motors, pile of mower decks, and a pile of bolts. Then I went to work taking apart some bicycles. By the time I finshed, it was midday. There wasn’t any point to doing anything without some WD40. When I made my way back to the top of the hill, Bear was nowhere in sight. I put my toolbox in my trunk and pulled out of the empty gravel lot.
He was waiting on me The next day. “Come on,” he pointed down the hill. Then he led me down into the graveyard, right to the spot I’d worked the day before. “Here,” he pointed to the piles.
“You did this, right?”
“Yeah.” The piles were still neatly organized amidst the rust and chaos.
“Can I ask you something?”
“How am I supposed to sell those parts when they’re not organized?”
I didn’t say anything; the piles looked organized to me. They looked a damn sight neater and more organized than anything else in the graveyard. I considered pointing out that if he wanted them organized a particular way, he should’ve said something. April had warned me against that, though. Bear apparently took a dim view of people arguing with him. So I continued to stand there and not say anything.
“Don’t you know ANYTHING?” he snarled. “Lookee here. You got the Briggs and Stratton parts mixed with the Tecumseh parts. All the bolts are mixed in together. Plus,” he pulled one of the handles out of the pile, “you didn’t take off the gears or choke chord.” He tossed it back in the pile and looked at me like he wanted to spit. “I’m not paying you to half-ass out here. Do the job right or I’ll find somebody who will.”
Fat fucking chance, I thought. “Yes sir.”
He nodded and stomped out of the graveyard. I lit a cigarette and stood there for a moment, considering my options. If I quit my only other option was a one of those plastic name tags, an ugly hat, the smell of canola oil and wilted lettuce. I finished my cigarette, sighed, and went back to the piles I’d made the previous day to begin again.
“You need to watch out for him,” April warned me that night when I told her what had happened. “He’ll make you work and then fire you so he won’t have to pay you.”
“Doesn’t he have to pay me?”
She rolled her eyes. “He’s paying you cash under the table. He doesn’t have to do anything.”
I didn’t show up at the graveyard until after noon; there wasn’t a set schedule and I didn’t feel like waking early. Bear wasn’t around when I got to the graveyard; so I just grabbed my toolbox and headed down into the graveyard. It was Thursday. I was trying to keep my mind on the weekend coming up. April and I were going to be hanging out, as usual. I agreed to go to church with them on Sunday – not so much because I was interested in all the hellfire and holy talk, or even to score points with April’s old man – but because I wanted to see April in a skirt and she hardly ever wore one during the week. Ok; so it wasn’t the best of reasons. But it was a reason; and if I had to sit through a couple of hours of moaning and hymn whining bullshit to get a quick view of her thighs, so be it.
April and I had been going out for months – and beyond the heavy petting, we hadn’t gotten anywhere. Not for my lack of trying. But there was always something. An early curfew. A big test. The emergency break in the car. The small back seat. Always something. The closest I’d ever come to anything with any girl up to that point was when Suzie Parks’ swim suit top came undone in the lake two summers before. She was most of the way out of the water before she noticed. (The only thing that saved her was that this was life before cellphone cameras.) It would be unfair to say I was desperate; I’d had girlfriends before and I’d gotten to cop several feels; but that was as far as it went and I was, after all, out of high school and almost in college. The clock was ticking.
It was difficult to think about April’s skirt when I had to actually pay attention to what I was doing and make sure I put everything in the correct piles. I never bothered to ask Bear what would happen if it rained – the nuts and bolts would most likely sink into the mud and the exposed motors would be waterlogged and more prone to rust. I wasn’t a mechanic, but I understood not to leave anything metal out in the elements. I’d left my bike out overnight once when I was younger. It rained that night. When I went out the next morning, the chain was drying out and the tires were waterlogged because the rain collected where I had left my bike. Plus it looked like stray cats used it as a scratching post / litter box. But I knew better than to say anything to Bear. Clearly he had a system that worked for him, even if it didn’t work for anybody else. Towards sunset I packed up my tools and walked out of the graveyard.
Bear was waiting for me at the top of the hill. Fucking great, I thought. He surprised me by smiling. From the look of it, though, he didn’t smile often.
“So how’d it go in there today?” he asked, slapping me on the back.
“Why don’t you come on over and sit for a bit. It was a little hot today. How about something cold to drink?”
It had been humid that day the way late June can be in southern Ohio; I’d brought water with me, but something cold sounded good. Bear directed me to a kitchen table and four wicker back chairs sitting outside the small trailed he lived in. “Have a seat.” I chose the chair that looked the sturdiest and sat down while he went into the trailer and came back out carrying a couple of cans. “All I have is this Hamm’s Ice,” he said, handing me a beer. That wasn’t the first beer I’d ever had, but it was probably the greenest. Even though the can was ice cold, the beer went down sickly warm and left an aftertaste like dirty socks in my mouth. He must’ve noticed the face I made because he chuckled to himself and shook his head.
“So, Kid… how you like the graveyard so far?” he asked.
“I like it fine,” I said, lighting a cigarette to get the taste out of my mouth. I looked aound, hoping a customer would pull in and give me an excuse to leave. Highway 67 was empty.
“There was a time when this was a good location,” he said. “Used to get a lot of traffic out this way.” He took another drink, draining his can. “Not so much now.” He crushed the can and tossed it in a pile of empties next to the trailer. “Recycling,” he remarked, with a chuckle. Then he stood up. “You want another?”
I shook my head. “I’m good.” When Bear walked back inside to grab himself another beer, I looked at my watch. It was nearly six. I could tell him my mom expects me at home, I thought. Then I thought better of it. A guy like Bear McGee wouldn’t respect a guy who ran home to his mother. He came back out and put another can of beer in front of me. Then sat down and cracked his open.
“So,” he said, “Carl says you’re seein’ his daughter.”
Bear smiled. “I wouldn’t worry,” he said. “Carl’s a push over. That girl’s got him wrapped around her little pinky finger.” He took an swig and smiled. “Like she proly has you wrapped around the other one.” He laughed. “I haven’ seen her in a while. I hear she’s all grown, though.”
“Carl says she’s gonna go to college.”
He nodded. “Well, that’s good. I always wanted to go, myself. But it just wasn’t in the cards,” he
shook his head. “What about you?”
“What about me?” I was bus trying to get to the bottom of that can without puking.
“Are you going to college?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. I guess. They’re always telling us we need to think about it. My mom wants me to go. Ape thinks I should go.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think they both sound like the guidance counselor,” I said. “And I don’t like her very much.” When the words left my mouth I immediately regretted them. After all, I wasn’t being exactly honest. I wasn’t so much excited about going to college as I was about the prospect of getting out. But that was something, right?
Bear laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He nodded. “Yeah, I felt the same way. Fucking people telling you what to do what to do and what to be. It’s all damn useless.”
I nodded and looked down into my can of beer. It was almost empty; but the second was was sitting there, getting warm and waiting for me.
“I think you’ll do just fine here once you get the hand of things,” Bear remarked. “And there’s plenty there to keep you busy. I was wondering, though, if you’d like to help me with something.”
I drained the first can and steeled myself for the seond. “What’s that?”
“I need to put up a fence, he said. “Around the graveyard. Just in front. So nobody can see it from the road.”
“Why? You can’t really see it from the road unless you’re looking."
Bear’s eyes narrowed and darkened. “It’s the goddamn Sheriff. He’s been trying to close me down for years. He dropped by this morning and gave me a ticket. Told me people were complaining. Called me a public blight.” He grunted and took a another drink of his beer. “Told me if I didn’t get it cleaned up, or at least get a fence around it, he’d get a judge to close me down.”
“Can they do that? You live here, right?”
He nodded. “Don’t matter. The Sheriff, he’s been trying to close me down for years. Even back when he was just a local cop.” Bear shook his head. “Anyway. I tried telling him about you… about how you’re going through and cleaning things up for me… but that’s not enough. Nope. He told me if I didn’t get it take care of by Monday, he’d come back with a court order.”
“Yeah. Listen, I just need help,” Bear said. “I can get the fencing. I just need someone to help me put it up. Interested?”
“Sure.” Even I knew that Sheriff Tom Ainkle was a pain in the ass. He’d been Sheriff for as long as I could remember, and he was one of the principle reasons why the township was still dry and why the only two non-white families – a black family from Cincinnati and a family of Mexicans looking for work – had decided to pack up and leave. Naturally, though, the older folks and the church goers liked him; and he made sure to exploit that every election season. “I’m in.”
Bear nodded approvingly. He made no mention of money. “It’ll have to be done Saturday. Can you get here Saturday morning? Say around 8? I should be awake by then.”
I nodded and downed the second can so I could get out of there. “I gotta go,” I choked. “Ape’s expecting me.”
“You don’t want to keep a girl like her waiting,” he smiled. “I know I wouldn’t.”
21 October, 2009
“It ain't a hard job,” Bear McGee said to me through his cigarette. “All you’re doing is taking things apart and organizing them into piles.”
Looking around the piles of old lawn mowers, motorcycles, and bicycles, it was difficult to know where to begin. None of the piles were tall – but they covered a lot of territory. Bear McGee’s Motor Graveyard took up every bit of three acres, right next to Highway 67 about ten miles from town in either direction. He’d been in the same location for more than 20 years and lived in a small trailer on the same property. Bear was a tall, intimidating guy who lived up to his nickname in appearance and demeanor. All he ever wore was a pair of faded blue jeans, worn out steel-toed engineer boots, and a black leather vest, t-shirt optional. His beard was as long and knarly and black as his hair. Rumor was that Bear McGee used to ride with a motorcycle gang. I never heard him deny the rumor; but I never really saw him ride a motorcycle, either. He owned eight or nine of them – but none of them ran. Each one of them were either missing a part, or needed some small bit of repair. He used to tell me he didn’t want to work on motorcycles anymore; that it was easier to just pay somebody else to do it. Then he’d tell me in the same breath that all mechanics were crooks and they just wanted to rob him.
“So Kid, you want the job or not?”
I looked around. I needed the job, even if it didn’t pay that much. Bear never brought up money, and neither did I. He was good friends with my girlfriend April’s dad – who, oddly enough, acted like he liked me – so I figured it would all work out. It was the summer after my senior year of high school; in a couple more months I’d be off to college and free of the small town whose borders seemed to close in a little more every day. I had just quit my last job – my second job ever – as a grocery store stock boy because the manager Alice, an aging bar cooz with topographic face and tits as saggy as her jowls, kept trying to corner me in the back room. I couldn’t see myself working at McDonalds, wearing that ugly ass uniform and trying not to spit on people’s food in between cleaning up kiddie puke in the restroom. No thanks. At least at Bear’s I could wear what I want, smoke if I felt like it, and I didn’t have to worry about how I looked. I told him I’d take the job.
He grunted his approval. “Start tomorrow,” he said. “Bring your own tools.”
Later that evening when I saw April, she tried to warn me about him. “He’s creepy,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She shook her head. “It’s just the way he looks, and… the last time I was there I caught him … STARING at me… you know?” She shivered. “It was just creepy.”
“You weren’t wearing the red tank top were you?” I asked. I liked it when she wore the red tank top.
She slapped me hard on the arm. “You’re disgusting,” she said. Then she kissed me. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
20 October, 2009
“I wasn’t s’posed to tell ya,” Red said through the phone. “Brenda made me PROMISE. But I jus’ didn’t think it was RIGHT. Ya know?”
That Brenda didn’t want me to know didn’t surprise me. She and I didn’t get along even before Pendleton married her. She was about the same age as me, which made Pendleton 20 years her senior. He and I had managed to stay friends even though my marriage to his daughter didn’t last; I suppose it had something to do with the fact that his marriage to my bitch of an ex-mother-in-law failed not long after and he moved in with me instead of living in his truck. Even though we got along alright, the two of us in the same living space wasn’t ideal for a lot of reasons – not the least of which that it caused tension between him and my soon to be ex-wife. By the time my divorce was final, I had abandoned the trailer we’d been living in (that I had been living in with his daughter before she left) and moved on to less greener pastures. We managed to stay friends, though, and when he married Brenda I did my best to be happy for him.
The last conversation I had with Brenda was in a hospital waiting room. Prior to that, I hadn’t spoken to her or Pendleton for about two years.She told me to keep in touch. I knew she didn’t mean it. So I didn’t. I liked to think he understood; it’s hard being friends with someone when you don’t get along with his wife, and I didn’t want to cause any trouble. It was easier to move on. It was Red who called to tell me Pendleton was in the hospital and that his condition was pretty serious.
Red first came around because he was dating a friend of my future ex-wife’s; and when that relationship ended because he wanted to settle down and have kids and she wanted to collect stuffed animals and relive the sexual abuse heaped on by her step-daddy, Red stuck around. He and Pendleton could talk about cars. Before the accident that ruined him for work and eventually contributed to his death, Pendleton was a mechanic… and from what I could tell, a pretty good one. He had that magic touch. All he had to do was put his meat hook hands in an engine and regardless of what was wrong or how long it sat, the fucker started every single time. With me, Pendleton talked about books. He never went to college; but he thought it was important to be educated, and he read everything he could get his hands on – from history and sociology to theology, new age medicine, and economics. He told me once that he thought of himself as “a student of human nature.” I asked him what he thought of my nature. He laughed and didn’t answer. Before long Red started reading books so he and Pendleton could talk about that, too.
“Did he go back to the hospital?” I asked. I could hear Red breathing through the phone and he sounded like he’d been drinking. “Was he there for a while? In the ICU? Was he…”
“It was kind of sudden,” he cut me off. “He died at home. It was his heart. It just gave out, ya know? I mean… hell. It was under so much strain anyway, and along with everything else…”
Pendleton was a big man. He once bragged to me that he caught an engine block when the chains holding it up came undone. If he hadn’t caught it, he said, his boss at the garage would have been crushed.
“Thing is,” he also told me, “if I HADN’T caught it and he had died, I probably would’ve ended up getting his job. And if that had happened, I’d probably still be working.”
Red was trying really hard to get off the phone. So I let him. There was no point in prolonging the conversation anyway. Without Pendleton as a common factor, I wasn’t sure there was anything left for us to talk about. I wondered briefly how he felt about breaking his promise to Brenda; but Red clearly saw a larger obligation. That was just the way he was; his days were ruled by his obligations the way a dog is ruled by a leash. Red lost sleep if he got to the end of his day and some small thing was left undone. That was another thing we didn’t have in common; my only obligations have always been to myself. And if I can’t sleep, I drink until I do.
We exchanged our goodbyes. He said he’d call again. He said for me to call him. He told me not to be a stranger. He told me I should visit him so that we could go out drinking the way we used to. I said goodbye and thanked him for telling me. I told him to take care of his family. Then I hung up and poured myself a drink.
13 October, 2009
Of course, that only made Vance and the other guys at the car wash hate me more; if they read anything it was an old issue of Hot Rod, and mostly all they did was talk about how each and every one of them would drill the whorishly draped models and how they wished to God that their wives were built like that. Eventually, Russ started sending me home when there was no work for me. I left and the carpenters stayed until the last minute – whether they were on the clock or not.
One Friday, I got to work and all the guys were working. It was late October. Fall had set in. It was a cloudy day. I was a little surprised that the car wash was so busy; but I figured it meant more money, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I even thought about taking some tips that day – instant gas money. On my way to clock in, Vance stopped me.
“Hey,” I answered. “Looks like business picked up.”
He smiled. “Those are ours.”
“You’re paying to get your cars washed?”
Vance kept smiling and shook his head. “We’re washing them for free.” Then he told me Russ was gone – off at some corporate meeting in Mariemont. He said Russ would be gone all day. Then he asked me if I wanted to wash my car. He was watching me to see how I reacted; he looked like he expected me to tell Russ. He never knew that I had found out about them taking tips from customers; if he had, maybe he wouldn’t thought I’d rat him out to Russ.
I told him I’d like to run my car through because I couldn’t remember the last time it had gotten washed. That made Vance smile. But it was a lie. Dad was recovering at home from his second to last hospital stay, and he said the car was filthy and that he wanted to wash it. But he wasn’t allowed to do anything really physical, and he didn’t like taking the car to an automatic wash because he said they always missed spots. So he told me to do it. And while I was out in the driveway washing the car, he sat on the front porch, drank iced tea, and watched me. He wasn’t critical and didn’t tell me I’d missed spots, though I was sure I did. He just sat and watched me and he had this funny little smile on his face. He hadn’t smiled in a long time – not since he’d gotten really sick. The only things he said the entire time was “Don’t forget to lift the wipers when you clean the windshield,” and “Make sure you clean that front grill good and get all the dead bugs out.” It was a pretty day, early in the summer. The sun was shining. Since he was smiling, I tried to put out a little more effort to wash the car the way he liked.
Before he got really sick and had to go to the hospital, mostly all we talked about was my grades. I never did badly in school; but I never did as good as he thought I could. I maintained and did much as I had to in order to get by – except in math, which was always my worst subject. Dad always told me he knew I was just being lazy. He had already tried punishing me. He’d tried NOT punishing me. He even tried paying me for higher grades; but since I always pocketed my lunch money, I didn’t really need it. So mostly he yelled and lectured. There had been a time, back before he first started getting really sick, that he might’ve taken the belt to me; but he only ever really did that in extreme situations, like when he caught me lying or if I talked back to him or Mom. When he lectured, he told me he wanted me to go to college and make something of myself, and that all any father wants is for his kids to have an easier life than he did. I think that was why he never showed me how to work on cars and why he and Mom pushed into college prep classes in high school when my friends were taking shop. When he lectured and told me these things, I always told him I understood even though I didn’t. And even if I had understood what he was trying to tell me, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was young and stubborn and nobody could tell me anything.
I remembered that was the last time the car got washed because three nights later he woke up screaming in pain. Mom drove him to the hospital in his car. That trip was his last one. I sat up that night and watch TV. An old black and white movie was on – The Mark of Zorro.
Vance stood with me and watched the Pontiac roll through the wash. He seemed pleased. When it was done, I pulled it out front and dried it off. I made sure to lift the wipers when I cleaned the windshield with the blue window cleaner, and I put an extra shine on the rims. Russ came back later that day to close everything down. By then we’d all pulled our cars around back where we normally parked. He didn’t say anything; but he told me to take Saturday off since I stayed the entire time that day.
The following Monday I got out of dad’s recliner and got ready for school. I made coffee, but it wasn’t enough. I was out of cigarettes and I couldn’t find my ephedrine – though it had stopped working, anyway. I had to take four pills instead of one just to keep my eyes open. When I walked outside, there was a thin layer of frost on the windshield. I should’ve turned the engine over and turned on the defroster and waited; but the defroster took forever to work. Besides, I was running late and I still needed to stop to buy gas and mini-thins. My first class was Algebra – and while I knew that I’d never understand it, I couldn’t nod out during class because the teacher Mr. Auger would throw erasers at anybody who slept. I tried washing off the frost using the wipers and wiper fluid. It would clear off for a second and then the wiper fluid would start to freeze and make perfect crystalline structures on the windshield, then everything would fog up.
But I still had to haul ass to get to school on time; I didn’t really do anything while I was there, but I hated being late. The road we lived on was narrow and windy, but I’d driven it so much that I figured I could still make it. I hit ever curve like I was driving in the Indy 500; the car left the ground after every little dip in the road. My mind was on getting to the gas station; if the right person was working I could buy a pack of cigarettes and not have to worry about being carded. Half way between home and the main road into town there was small bridge over a dried out creek. I had never seen water in the creek, even after it rained. That bridge had been a boundary back when I first started riding my bike. It was barely wide enough for two cars, but I knew that time of day there’d be no one coming the other direction.
As I came around the corner right before the bridge, the windshield was starting to ice over and fog up again. I took one hand off the wheel to turn on the wipers. Right then I hit a small dip in the road and because I only had one hand on the wheel, when the car bounced I lost control and went off the road. When I pulled on the wheel to put the car straight, I pulled too hard and went off the road, off the bridge, and into the creek bed.
I woke up with the emergency brake lodged in my back. I didn’t feel hurt, even though I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt. I kicked the door open and stood up. car had gone over the bridge and hit a tree stump. The stump had taken out the grill, the radiator, and was lodged between the axle and the engine. Green coolant was dripping into the creek bed. I looked around. The nearest house was up the hill. There wouldn’t be anybody driving by. So I walked up to the house on the hill, knocked on the door and asked the little old lady who answered if I could use her telephone. The first thing I did was call the police. Then I called Mom at work and told her. She cried and asked if I was ok.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “But the car…” I didn’t want to tell her, but there was no getting around it. “The car’s totaled I think.”
She didn’t seem to care. She blubbered and cried and said that things didn’t matter. The car didn’t matter. That wasn’t what Dad would have said, but I didn’t tell her that. Between the police report and waiting for the wrecker, I was two hours late for school. When I got there, I had to fill out an excuse form. I wrote “Totaled a car” and the secretary gave me a funny look. During lunch I called Russ and told him what happened. I told him I quit. He wasn’t happy, but he couldn’t blame me, either. He said he had to let Vance and the others go because of theft and so he had a whole new crew. When he told me that I wondered if he fired Vance to his face or if he did it over the phone. I hung up and went back to lunch. When school was over, Mom picked me up and drove me home. She looked like she’d been crying all day. I wanted to apologize for the car; but she wouldn’t let me. I guess she had other things on her mind.
08 October, 2009
I got that job during my Senior year of high school, right after my Dad died and I inherited his car. I’d driven it a lot since I turned 16 and got my license; I even took the driving test in it. But up to that point, it had always been HIS car. After he died, Mom gave me the keys and told me it was mine as long as I paid for my own gas and kicked in on repairs. Her expectations were low, but she had other things on her mind. She was mourning Dad’s death. He had been much older than her, and I wasn’t sure if it was just the fact that he was dead or the thought of living alone, or both. But, honestly, both her and my Dad had stopped expecting anything out of me. So I figured it was a pretty good deal.
The car wasn’t a classic or anything; it wasn’t sporty or cool. But then, my Dad wasn’t a sporty or cool kind of guy. He wasn’t one of those guys who turned 40 and had to drive a little red sports car or have an affair. He was a stand-up guy who had married late in life and who bought stand-up cars that he didn’t trade in until he had to. It was a metallic green 1989 Pontiac Grand Am with two doors, cloth bucket seats, faux wood interior, a pokey V6 engine, and a factory Delco AM/FM stereo. It was most definitely NOT a cool car. But it was a car. And it was paid off. And, if I didn’t take it Mom said she was just going to let it sit in the driveway and rust.
“Nicky,” she said with an intense and earnest tone. “You need to take care of this car.”
“No worries, Mom. I will.”
“You REALLY need to TAKE CARE of THIS CAR…”
“I know, okay? I’ll take care of it.”
At that point I almost tossed the keys back at her; but she didn’t mean it the way it sounded. The next day I found an ad in the paper looking for car wash attendants, so after school I drove the car there to apply for the job. That morning Mom gave me 20 bucks for gas, on top of the two bucks she usually gave me to buy lunch (which I usually pocketed anyway. The cafeteria food was a god damn gastric nightmare.) I topped the tank off with 5 and pocketed the rest. It wasn’t the good ol days Dad used to talk about when gas was a quarter a gallon; but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it is now. At least gas was still hovering under a dollar.
The drive to the car wash was a half hour if traffic was good and if I hauled ass – and I usually did. It was near the new mall at Eastgate, spitting distance to the county line and the Cincinnati city limits. My friends and I had been driving downtown since the first one of us had his license; as far as I was concerned, it was the Promised Land. We used to sneak into some of the bars and clubs and check out the hookers that walked the sidewalks on 4th and Vine. The four or five block section of Vine Street between Columbia Parkway and Washington Street was an open-air market for anything you wanted. As long as you had cash and as long you didn’t look like a cop, nobody cared and nobody messed with you too much. I figured since I was getting a job – and one so close to the city – that I’d have even more excuses to go downtown. And while I would still pocket the lunch money Mom gave me, I’d have a little more money to blow on bootleg 40’s and weed.
Russ, the car wash manager, was extra nice to me when I applied. After he hired me and started showing me around, I figured out why. I was the youngest one there. Everyone else on my shift was an out of work carpenter. All of them but one was at least 40 and had families to support. They were beaten up, scraggly, tired looking men who didn’t really do a good job on the cars and who openly disrespected Russ and ogled the attractive female customers like horny stalkers. They’d all been union carpenters and when the economy was good they’d put down payments on houses and started families; but another recession hit and construction tanked. So their bosses laid them off to hire non-union workers who would work for much less money – usually kids or Mexicans who didn’t leave after tobacco harvest. Naturally they didn’t like me and didn’t bother to talk to me on breaks or try to include me in any of their banter. I wasn’t One Of Them. Even the youngest one – he couldn’t have been older than 25 – ignored me. They liked him because he was One Of Them, even if he didn’t have kids and a wife to worry about.
I found out later that they all took tips when the customers offered. I never told Russ about it, even though they didn’t like me.
They did notice the car, though. Vance – who lived way the hell out at the edge of Brown County and drove an hour and half one way to work at the car wash – did say something to me about it on break once.
“That’s a nice car.” He had this look on his face like he knew what I was going to say and was planning to use it later to make fun of me behind my back.
“Where’d YOU get it?”
“I inherited it.”
That stopped him. “Huh?”
“It was my Dad’s,” I explained. “He died and I inherited it.”
I learned to talk about his death from watching late night TV. I wasn’t sleeping very much. I hadn’t been since he went into the hospital for the last time. And so I read or wrote or watched TV. There was always an old movie on at 3 in the morning. Sometimes it was a black and white one. My favorite was this early Cagney flick where all he did all day was sit in this bar wearing a nice suit and drinking gin and tonic, and people would come in to ask his advice. Sometimes it was a more recent movie – a Lee Marvin or a John Wayne or a Charles Bronson. They each handled death in a very specific way. They didn’t break down and cry the way Mom did all the time; they bore it up, sucked it in, and never showed that it bothered them. When they talked about it, they spoke very matter-of-factly. If it was an unjust death, they had a few drinks and took care of the people responsible. Dad’s death wasn’t unjust; he just wore out the way people do, so I didn’t feel obligated to go out seeking justice.
Vance must’ve felt bad; he mumbled his condolences and stopped talking to me.
Not sleeping much made it difficult to go to school and go to work; I drank a lot of coffee, took up smoking, and took those pep pills you used to be able to buy at gas stations until the FDA made them illegal. Once, just to see what it was like, I bought some speed on Vine Street; but it gave me the shakes and kept me up for two days straight and made my heart beat so fast I thought I was going to die. After that I stuck to coffee, nicotine, and ephedrine. What little sleep I did get was usually in Dad’s recliner. It wasn’t a nice one – he’d had it for years and refused to get rid of it even after Mom talked him into new living room furniture; but it was comfortable. I usually managed to get a half hour or so of sleep before I had to get ready to go to school. Mom never said anything to about it. She had her own stuff to deal with.
When I wasn’t working or at school, I stayed away from home as much as possible. Saturdays after work I drove into the city and let myself disappear. Sometimes I met up with friends; mostly I went alone. Sometimes I went to the library and listened to records or found books nobody had read in years and read them. Sometimes I hung out in coffee shops or I sneaked into bars; a lot of times I just walked around and took in the city. Downtown Cincinnati after the 5pm Friday was a ghost town. The people who worked all week in the office buildings commuted from safer places like Milford, Glen Este, Mariemont, or Anderson; when the weekend came, they deserted the city until Monday morning, leaving it in the control of the people who still lived downtown and kids like me who drove in trying to escape small town suffocation. When I was downtown, I never really worried about the car. Of course I rolled up the windows and locked the doors; but there wasn’t anything about the car that would inspire any would-be car thieves or joy-riders.