In the spring of 1998, I called home this attic in a 131 year old house in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a decent place. I’d found it when the woman I was living with decided she’d rather fuck my friends and try to make money as a stripper than be my girlfriend. “You’re too moody,” she’d say to me. “You piss and moan like an old man, you read boring books, and you’re when you’re drunk, you get mean and grumpy and you can’t get it up.” I was heartbroken; she’d been my first real piece in two years since my marriage to Rhea’s mother fell apart. She was a full-bodied redhead, and every bit as crazy as people say redheads are. I was living at her place when she broke it off; she tried to convince me to stay and help her with the rent… to be roommates, she said. “I’ll have my life,” she said, “and you can have yours.” Now, I might have been heartbroken, but I wasn’t an idiot. She wanted me to stay because I was the only one of us actually working and earning a weekly paycheck, and she wanted to be able to fuck whoever she wanted while I paid the bills. I left that night and spent a few days with friends and realized that I needed my own space – if only so that I could get my shit out of her apartment before she abandoned it or sold it.
I found out later that my new landlord was schizophrenic and had nasty turns where she’d go through everybody’s apartments and steal things. She even stole a poetry manuscript that I was reading for a poet friend of mine. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for losing it, even though it wasn’t my fault. I don’t remember him giving me any manuscripts after that.
But the rent was cheap enough and mostly I dealt with Frank, who managed the property for her while she was “away.” (I later found out that when she was “away” she was locked in a padded room at Eastern State Mental Hospital.) Frank seemed like a good ol’ guy. He was a retired pipe fitter, and had known my landlady his entire life – his family and her family had been friends. He didn’t care much about what I did as long as I was quiet. A couple of times I was short on rent and he let me make it up. He was a stand-up guy. Frank knew Stanley from his long gone wild boozing days, the days before he found “God and the love of a good woman,” and he let Stanley move in to get him off the street and get him a regular address so he could draw a welfare check. When he brought Stanley in, Frank pulled me aside. He talked with a slight growl – the kind of growl common in men from the Appalachian part of Kentucky. “Watch out for him,” Frank said. “Now, “ he paused. “He’s a drunk. I won’t lie. But he’s HARMLESS. A good guy, really. I’ve known him for YEARS.” I looked at Frank and I saw what might have been a little sorrow in his eyes. “We’ve tried to get him to quit... but….”
My first conversation with Stanley happened about a week later when he bummed a smoke off of me. He bummed a lot of cigarettes in the little bit of time I knew him. I liked him immediately. Once, I was going somewhere or another… to work, I think… and I saw him walking down the side street.
“Where ya going, Stanley?”
He turned and smiled his goofy shit-eating smile. He was shaking and his face that already looked like road kill was twisted pain. “Up the way.”
“You want a ride?”
He hobbled over to the car and got in. Up the way ended up being the liquor store. It was eight or nine in the morning and he needed his morning bottle. The woman behind the counter at the liquor looked down at Stanley over the edge of librarian reading glasses, and she gave me one of those looks, too, that seemed to say How can you encourage him? I wondered if she gave the same look to broken down grandmothers who spent their entire social security check on lottery tickets. Stanley bought his bottle… a fifth of Stoli… and when he got back in the car he cracked it open and took a swig like it was water. The pain was erased from his face. He offered me the bottle. “No thanks,” I said. I have to get to work.” When I dropped him off, he bummed a smoke and hobbled back into the house.
I took him to the liquor store when he asked and when I could. I was working as a clerk at a convenience store and my schedule was flexible. Besides, I liked Stanley; he was a nice old guy in the way old drunks can be nice. He had his moments, usually when there wasn’t a bottle handy, that he could be a real asshole. But he was small and wiry. Eaten away. So even when he got in my face, it was harmless because in that condition a steady wind would have pushed him over. The short car trips gave us time to talk, and Stanley liked to talk. He was touched—afflicted really— with nostalgia. I’d be driving him to the liquor store and he’d point to trees that lined the street. “I planted them trees,” he said. “Had me this job, got paid fity cent an hour. I liked that job. Got to be outdoors, like when I was a kid and all this was open. No buildings. No streets.”
Once when I was bringing him back from the liquor store with his morning bottle, this old guy approached the car. He looked old and tired, too, but he was cleaned up. Shaven. Showered. He was driving an Acura and he wore the ugliest Hawaiian print shirt I had ever seen – which was saying something since they’re all uglier than sin. He knocked on my window. I rolled it down.
He talked past me. “Stanley? Stanley, that you?”
Stanley looked up and smiled.
Then the Hawaiian shirt guy talked to me. “I love this guy,” he said. “I’d heard he was living here.” He looked over at Stanley. “We used to run together, didn’t we Stan?” Stanley kept smiling and nodded his head. “Yeah,” the guy said. “I knew Stanley back when I was on the street. Good guy, Stanley. A real good guy.”
I looked at the gold-plated watch hanging on his skinny wrist. “So how come you’re not on the street anymore?” I asked.
“Settled out,” he proclaimed. “Found me a good woman with a nice house and warm bed. She doesn’t care what I do so long as I don’t fuck around and I drink at home.”
Class act, I thought. “Cool.”
“Listen,” he said to me, “you take good care of this guy. Stanley’s one of the best.”
Stanley smiled. The Hawaiian shirt guy got in his pearl colored Acura and drove off. “You know that guy?” I asked.
Stanley nodded. “Yup. He’s WEIRD, though.” Stanley rolled his eyes a little. “WEIRD. If you know what I mean.”
I didn’t ask any more questions. It was the 90’s after all. Don’t ask don’t tell was still an acceptable social concept.
On another one of our jaunts he saw a book laying on car seat next to me. “You read?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “I like to read.”
“You been to school?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I went. Don’t know that it did me any good, though.”
He looked a little sheepish. “I never learnt to read,” he said. “Dropped out and ran away from home when I was a kid.” He kind of shook his head. “fity-five years old, can’t read shit.”
The only thing that surprised me more than the fact that he couldn’t read was that he was only fifty-five. He looked much older, but a hard life will do that. He’d spent forty years drinking and working odd jobs, failing at relationships and living in alleys and homeless shelters. He never once mentioned trying to sober up. He never once indicated that stopping had ever crossed his mind. I never mentioned it because I didn’t want to be a judgmental prick, and well, it wasn’t like I had any room to talk. So I kept taking him back and worth whenever I could, let him smoke my cigarettes, and when I had a little food left over, I offered it to him. What the hell, I figured. He is who he is.
Eventually he drew some friends. Frank had apparently figured out that if he moved people into the house who drew a check and controlled their money for them, he could actually start turning a profit. He moved in another old buddy from his wild drinking days, got him in the system. I later found out that all the checks went to Frank and Frank’s wife, who “kept” their money… paid the rent and gave them each a weekly allowance, so they wouldn’t “drink all the money up.” The new tenant’s name was Clarence. Clarence was a big ugly drunk, and something of a bully. He liked to push Stanley around when they were drinking, and it bothered me, but I didn’t interfere. He and Stanley were old friends, had done a lot of drinking and sleeping in alleys together. I figured if he wanted Clarence to stop, he’d handle it himself. They even drew a follower – some dark haired kid whose name I never bothered to learn. He tried bumming a smoke from me once after he’d seen me give one to Stanley and I told him he could when he was old enough to buy his own fucking cigarettes. They would give the kid money and send him on errands for booze or food or whatever. They started hanging out on the front porch. Stanley didn’t need a ride from me anymore, but he still bummed smokes when Clarence wasn’t looking.
I started working a regular white collar job – I’d dug myself into a clerical job at the University, the first job I’d ever had with paid vacation days, PTO (paid time off) plus medical and dental. I saw Stanley less and less… mostly because I was working during the day and hanging out with friends at night, spending my new money in the bars. I passed Stanley on stairs sometimes when I’d be stumbling home, and we smiled at each other said hello. I saw him trying hobble down the street towards the liquor store on crutches once or twice. He went through two bouts of TB, one crazy skank who followed him home from the bar, and a few tumbles down the stairs. I was spending less and less time at home because the summer turned the attic into a sauna.
I came home from work one afternoon in late August and Clarence, the kid, and Frank were all standing on the front porch. They had been crying. Or at least, Clarence had been crying. As I approached Frank asked me if I’d heard.
“Stanley,” the kid said.
“What about him?” I was expecting to hear that he’d either gotten arrested or had settled out with a nice woman who would dress him up in ugly shirts.
“He died,” Clarence said.
Clarence couldn’t answer me because he was too broken up. The kid was clearly high. Frank broke the silence. “He was walking to the liquor store, and he tripped and fell into the street. He was run over. Dead.”
“Dead?” I repeated.
Frank nodded. Clarence looked at me with deep baleful jaundiced eyes. “Did they get the guy who did it? The car?”
Frank shook his head. “Nope. Probably not going to either.”
I stood there for a couple of minutes. I didn’t know what to say. Death, as an inevitability, usually invites comment – but only because nobody knows what to say. I turned and went upstairs, and took a shower. Then I opened all the windows. Then I sat down at the kitchen table with a bottle whiskey I’d been saving for no particular reason, and drank until it was late into the night.