"It's not that I don't believe in the possibility of Grace. I'm skeptical enough to accept the possibility that God, like Bigfoot and mermaids,does exist. But until a beautiful bare-breasted woman with a giant fish tail swims up to me and says hello, I'm holding out for more evidence other than your say so."
[Note: I'm changing the title of the novel currently in progress from In Season to The Muckraker's Chronicle.]
My trip to the bar the day before had been a waste of time; but that didn't mean I didn't have to listen to the recording, anyway.
I got in the habit of carrying a digital recorder when they got to be cheaper than the mini tape recorder I had relied on in Cincinnati. It was just easier to record meetings and interviews and make little notes to myself along the way. No missed quotes, nothing taken out of context, nothing dependent on my sometimes inaccurate memory. When I forage, I use a small microphone clipped to my shirt and I walk around recording everything. Hours and hours of everything. After all, it's better to be over zealous than under prepared. Most of the time, people didn't even notice the microphone, though I made no attempt to hide it except to run the cord inside my shirt to avoid it getting caught on things. When they did I told them I had just gotten back from a meeting and that it wasn't even on. Maude warns me time and time again that I was going to get into trouble, recording people without their consent. “Who do you think you are?” she asks me. “James Bond?”
You know a woman loves you when she knows how to make concern sound like a caustic remark on your boyish fascinations.
I've started to think of what I do less as journalism and more like cultural anthropology. The things I write about remind me more of anthropological research, like this study I read in college about the Trobrianders in Papua New Guinea. Napoleon Chagnon writes up this study of a jungle tribal culture, focusing on the things they do every day. How they live, how they get food, what they believe in, how they die. Most of these studies make for boring reading – not that they're not important or whatever. But they can get dry. Clinical. Too much science and too little art. But Not Chagnon. There's this one part of his narrative where he describes when the tribe invited him to take part in one of their rituals: ingesting a hallucinogenic drug. There were only two problems. The first problem was that this drug is made from a plant, turned into a thick green paste, and ingested by having someone else blow it up your nose through a long bamboo tube. The other problem was that Chagnon had been getting into tangles with a Christian missionary that was trying to convert the heathen Yanomamo by drawing crayon pictures of dark skinned people falling into a fiery pit. Naturally, this approach pissed Chagnon off no end, as the other representative white man who was constantly having to explain to the natives that they were not, in fact, really going to fall into a fiery pit if their women didn't start wearing western style clothes. I mean, it's fucking ridiculous, no? Why is it that missionaries end up focusing on nudity and the English language instead of the state of people's souls? So while the anthropologist was in the midst of a massive sticky green hallucinogenic fueled trip, the missionary showed up with more clothes and English Bibles and crayola pictures of dark skinned people falling into fire. The missionary was, of course, horrified to see the only other white man in the jungle going native. But the anthropologist, in his narrative, goes into great description of the sensation of raising the middle finger of his right hand and flipping the missionary off.
That's where art meets science. But that's not really what I do, either. I haven't yet discovered the art in covering a room full of grown men and women who behave with less maturity than my teenage daughter.
I'm not young enough to assume I know everything and not old enough to realize that there's nothing worth knowing; there's so much I don't understand. I don't understand how Cincinnati sports teams defeat themselves in spite of colossal talent; I don't understand how George W. Bush won two elections; I don't understand people that think Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin qualify as MILF. And when it comes down to it, I still don't understand people, or why I always feel like I'm living in a fish bowl. There's this layer of something between me and other people, and it's always been this way. Maude tells me I just need to relax and show people that I'm really a nice guy. But she herself is proof that nice people get eaten alive, bit by bit. Her resilience is one of the best things about her – but still. She spends a lot time being let down by people rather than accepting the fact that they can't live up to a standard they don't understand.
For my part, I want to understand them. Other people. I don't like them very much most of the time, and for no particular reason. They just rub me the wrong way. All the time. Maude tells me I'm disgruntled. Hell yes. Maybe if I were more pragmatic, I'd be less annoyed. But think of myself as a hold out – a bitter idealist. And that means, in order to hate more effectively, I need to understand why. So I record people without them knowing about it.
I arrived at Moose Head in plenty of time for the daily lunch session of the Mount Arliss 9. Chris Wokowski, the County Recorder and ninth member, ate his lunch there every day with eight other people whose thoughts, beliefs opinions more or less represented the heart and soul of the town. Buck Harrington was a farmer whose family owned a fair piece of the county and what his family didn't own they leased and worked. Darnell Smith worked for the Highway Department. Gary Trudell owned the local grocery store. Don Parton was a farmer, one of the few who didn't lease his land to Harrington (though it was something Harrington himself hoped would happen one of these days). George was a retired mill worker. Chuck Lauserman was a part time policeman and full-time asshole who's wife worked in the county courthouse. Tom Pruitt was the local head stone mason, and Phillip Stauggersaun made his money selling most of the buildings on Main Street when real estate was good and now spent his time hunting and playing with his investment portfolio. It would be unfair to say that Wokowski owed his election to the other eight; but it would be closer to a statement of fact. Other than Harrington and Stauggersaun, who are small town rich and county affluent enough to throw some patronage Wokowski's way, the rest of the 9 are simply situated about town so that their influence can be felt if not seen. Parton is a member of the NRA and President of the area chapter of the John Birch Society; Smith was Deacon and Treasurer of the Lutheran Church. George is tight with the WFW and the Carpenter's Union, and Lauserman, is well respected in the FOP and a leading deacon at the Methodist church. Pruitt doesn't do anything except cut head stones for cemeteries, but he has been known to take a reduced rate for the grave headstones of beloved public figures.
And, of course, they were all born and raised in Mount Arliss – except Wokowski, who moved here when he was thirteen. But the others decided that it was close enough since he more or less agreed with anything they said.
When I arrived, Wokowski had just sat down and the rest of them were eating their lunches... daily specials all around. Coletta was working the bar. She's the owner's daughter.
“What'll it be today?”
“It's cold today,” I said. “Scotch.”
Coletta doesn't bat an eye when I show up at the bar at noon and ask for a scotch. I think I've been the only reason she's had to keep buying it. Mount Arliss is a Busch Light kind of town, with a few of the old guys who like Crown Royal and one or two who insists on gin. But mostly it's beer. I can feel the eyes of a few of the 9 boring holes in my back. Don Parton's in particular. He sniffed me out as an intelligent and reasonable person fairly early on … which of course means that he has no use for me. Coletta brought my scotch and picked up the money I set on the counter.
“So,” she asked, walking back towards the cash register. “What're you working on this week?”
“Same old stuff. What doya hear?”
“Not a thing.”
Coletta, like most of the stalwart residents of Arliss County, have an insatiable hunger for gossip and like to know the inside scoop of everything that goes on; and they will, on occasion, drop a tidbit that might turn into a little scratch. But most of them will do anything short of homicide to avoid having their name mentioned in the paper. Having your name in the paper – except for a thoughtful and loving obituary – is more embarrassing than being caught walking down Main Street with no pants. We exchanged a few more pleasantries and then she went back to the kitchen to check on Wokowski's lunch. The conversation behind me was pretty much the same old thing. The bad economy. Obamacare. Meaningless calls for another revolution. A rehash of Fox News updates.
“One of these days,” Parton intoned with a dramatic foreboding that I had become used to, “one of these days people are gonna wake up and see that people like US have been right all along.”
“Yep.” George shook his head in agreement.
“We got a goddamn socialist in the white house,” Parton went on, “we got pussies in Congress ...” he looked around to make sure Coletta was out of ear shot; he was, after all, a chivalrous moron. “we got illegals invading from across the border.”
“And they're taking AMERICAN jobs away from AMERICANS,” Darnell added.
“And they're all rapists and criminals and drug dealers,” Pruitt said.
“And what're we DOIN' about any of it?” Parton demanded.
“Not a damn thing,” Harrington answered.
“Nothing,” Lauserman said.
“You know it,” Stauggersaun echoed.
Wokowski just nodded in agreement and said nothing at all.
I downed my scotch and waited for Coletta to come back so I could have another. They weren't bitching about anything new.
“And what's worse,” Parton went on, “is that they come here and take job and they still don't want to better themselves. They live like goddamn cockroaches, they leach off the American tax payer ...”
“And then they whine and say their RIGHTS are being attacked when they're caught,” Wokowski chimed in.
Listening to the 9 talk about border policy is like sitting through bad karaoke. Nothing new, but still, you can't ignore them for all the passion they put into it. Coletta brought out Wokowski's plate, refilled the table's drinks; then she came back to the bar and refilled my glass with ice and scotch. We chat some more. The 9 are stuck on border policy and the impending doom that's being brought upon the country by the brown demons flooding over the border.
“And you know WHY they think they can come here and suck on America's Tit?” Harrington always has a way with words. Or so he likes to think.
“We should get a different opinion,” Parton proclaims, raising his hand. I knew what was coming because I felt his eyes, which had drifted from the back of my head to the plate in front of him,drift back and focus on the back of my head again like a rifle sight.
"I've started to think of what I do less as journalism and more like anthropological research. I'm not young enough to assume I know everything and not old enough to realize that there's nothing worth knowing; there's so much I don't understand. I don't understand how Cincinnati sports teams defeat themselves in spite of colossal talent; I don't understand how George W. Bush won two elections; I don't understand people that think Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin are fuckable. And when it comes down to it, I still don't understand people, or why I always feel like I'm living in a fish bowl. There's this layer of something between me and other people, and it's always been this way." -- JJ Rafferty
A hangover is your body's way of telling you that sobriety is overrated.
“Are you fragile this morning?”
“A little.” Fragile is my polite term for being hungover; I'm not sure why I still bother with the distinction. Ten years ago, it made a difference. Hungover meant I wasn't making it to work and farthest I'd move from where ever I ended up sleeping the night before was maybe to the bathroom to hurl. Fragile meant that I pretty much felt like crawling back into bed and dying, but that I'd make it to work anyway. Maude, much to her credit, mostly allows me my little word play... though mostly it's out of habit than out of any agreement about the meaning of things on her part.
“What do you have going on today?”
“The usual. You?”
She sighed instead of articulating an answer. That meant she was in for a long day. I was trying to remember; she'd told me a few days before what she had going on; she'd told me a couple different times, though it was in passing and sometimes mumbled under her breath like a long string of curse words. She'd been in one of those moods where she didn't like her job. I had every hope that the mood would pass, though not out of any attachment I'd developed to Mount Arliss. It was a place, like every other place, and we'd ended up here for the same reasons we ended up in Knoxville, Cincinnati, and Phoenix. A job was our usual excuse. Mostly, we moved because none of the places we lived ever really felt like home. To be fair, I expect that we both have unrealistic expectations of what home should feel like. We both want home to feel the way we think it ought to feel rather than taking it for what really is. Home is the place you never get lost driving around in. Home becomes home not out of some abstract sense of community but out of lethargy. Home is the place you're too lazy to leave and too bored to forget even if you do happen to get out.
The job that brought us to Mount Arliss was hers. Phoenix was my fault, so I told her our next move was on her. I'd landed a job – a full time one, as improbably as that sounds – because I'd been writing for this low circulation arts and culture rag in Cincinnati and one of my articles --- about the visit of a famous author at the University – had gotten someone's attention while they were surfing the internet instead of working. I ended up never getting paid for the article because shortly after its publication the rag closed up and the publisher ran off to find god in some Hindu monastery in India. I got an email from him about a year later – it was a group email and I was one of at least 100 other people that he most likely owed money to – wishing me well and thanking me for helping him on the path to enlightenment.
I tried to email him back to tell him he could thank me by paying my the $45 he owed me. The email failed to send and was bounced back to me three days later. I guess you can say I took that as a sign.
About a week after the article was published and two weeks prior to the rag's unceremonious implosion, I got a call from an arts and culture editor for a small paper in West Phoenix. His name was Carl Berger. Carl, like so many editors with more ambition than talent, had taken the job as editor of a small paper that barely survived in the long shadow cast by The Arizona Republic. Carl was desperate for good talent, he told me, and wanted to know if I'd be interested in coming out and writing for him. He read my article and liked the way I wrote and said I'd make a great addition to The East Valley Bugle. He was honest about it not paying much, which I appreciated. But he added that there were advantages to having a press pass and to moving out to desert on the wave the giant real estate driven economic boom.
“You've LOVE it out here,” he said. He spoke very fast and tried very hard to avoid answering my questions about just how “not great” the pay was.
“How much are they paying you there?” he asked.
“Well,” he said, “we can definitely pay more than that.”
I talked it over with Maude. We were both wanting to get out of Cincinnati. She was working as a scullery maid for a posh downtown restaurant, scrubbing dishes and throwing away the thrown away food of Cincinnati's upper crust and spending nights and weekends working with local independent theater companies that were too poor to pay and too avante garde to attract more than a small following. I was hiring out my keyboard to anybody who might look like it was possible they would pay. It wasn't going well. We were college educated, debt laden. Her family thought I was a hopeless reprobate who didn't want an honest job. My family thought I was causing my poor wife – who they love, probably more than they love me – endless suffering because I was unwilling to grow up and settle down and get the kind of job that mothers and fathers wish for. Like a lawyer. My mother – a good, honest protestant soul and kindergarten teacher – always wanted me to be a lawyer. Not because she liked them. No. She wanted me to study law because it is in my nature to argue. I argue even when I'm not in the mood for it. I argue in spite of any evidence that I'm wrong. I argue for the sheer pleasure of watching someone else grind their teeth in frustration. And the way she figured it, a person should get paid for doing something that comes naturally.
My dad never voiced an opinion on the subject of my future vocation, except to say that I should choose something reasonable. When I wanted to be a rock star-- and truly my ambitions exceeded my talent, but no one could tell me that – he said nothing and frowned. When I told him I wanted to be a writer – where my ambitions were unreasonable, but I had shown some small skill – he recommended an easy day job so that I could have my nights to write. After college, of course. My old man had been a smart ass kid who dropped out of high school because the principal caught him smoking behind the building and rather than listen my dad told the geezer – he never referred to the principal as a geezer, but I like to think he still thought of him that way, even as he tried to use his own life as an object lesson for his youngest son – to fuck off. Then he joined the Navy and discovered that there was more to being a man than pissing while standing. And when he was finished with the Navy, he joined the Air Force because the food was better and bases were nicer than Army bases. He wanted me to go to college so I would have an easier life than his. My mother, who eventually returned to college to become a kindergarten teacher, wanted me to go to college because she wished she had gone when she was younger.
So I probably became a writer as much because of spite as because of natural aptitude. And when I was offered an actual job – a FULL TIME job – writing, it was a nice way to win the argument I'd been engaged in since the age of 15. An argument that outlasted my dad, my first marriage, and several years of lost, drunken reverie.
As far as I know, my mother still holds out hope that I'll go to law school. But she doesn't talk about it anymore.
So there was every reason to go and not really any to stay. I called Carl back the next day to make arrangements.
“I'll get reimbursed for moving, right?” I asked him several different times in several different ways. “Yeah, man, Yeah,” he said. “It'll be awesome when you're out here! You'll love it!”
I didn't like that I could hear the exclamation marks in his voice. And when we got out there, I found out there was good reason. The editor-in-chief wasn't exactly behind Carl hiring me. The editor-in-chief was a member in good standing of the Maricopa County Republicans, the NRA, and contributed regularly to the campaigns of the jack-booted county sheriff. Art for him was a warbly and out of tune church choir. Culture was something that liberals talked about. It didn't take him long to see that he and I had very little in common. Compared to him, Sam is a goddamn editorial saint, and I try to remind myself of that whenever he cuts up what I send him. The job at the East Valley Bugle was a miserable one and I stuck at it for as long as I could. But eventually the economic wave that brought me there broke. It broke, the paper was broke, Carl ran crying like a burned out hippie to Flagstaff, and I was shit out of luck.
Maude's job landed in her lap serendipitously. We were sitting around talking about getting out of the East Valley and the phone rang. Her friend Ferdinand called because the Managing Director position opened up at a theater company he was the Artistic Director for. It was a perfect job at a perfect time. She applied, interviewed, and was offered the job in less than two weeks. It took us less than that to get ready to go.
The problem was that there is very little to do in Mount Arliss that didn't involve corn, the production of corn, or discussing the future of corn. That corn is in virtually everything doesn't seem to change the fact that corn growers feel abused, neglected, and back stabbed by the entire world. Seriously. Every garbage bag, every car tire, every bottle of diet coke they buy at the corner gas station, they are all made of corn. Corn is in food that should have no business having corn in it. Fruit juice, for fuck's sake. Fruit juice has corn in it. Steak has corn in it because the cow was fed corn. So were the chickens that used to be attached to every drumstick in the refrigerated poultry case.
Of course none of that matters; the farmers still know they're being screwed over. And up to a point, they're not wrong. But the fact is that farmers are just one more segment of the population that gets the shaft. Not to minimize the importance of corn or of the suffering family farmer … but that's one of those myths best left to commercials. The family farmer, I mean. Yes there are still family farms, but mostly the families live in the houses and lease the acreage out to somebody who leases farm land all over the county. I'm talking thousands and thousands of acres, because that's the only way to break even if you're a farmer in America's Breadbasket.
“So what have you got going on today?” Maude usually only asks me questions twice when she thinks I'm too hungover to remember the first time. I have learned not to take this personally. I know that I never look like I'm paying attention, or that I'm thinking, or feeling. Which is funny because I think I'm the most obvious person in the world.
I didn't have much of anything. My trip to the bar the night before netted me nothing except the usual stuff. Nothing new. Nothing that Sam would think was timely enough to put in the paper. Nothing that I could convince myself was worth spending the time on. Nothing. Nada. Nothing worth digging deeper into and turning into something that paid at least $50. That would make for another long and desperate day.
I got into freelance writing because my dream job – if I've ever had one – disappeared. I used to tell people... including my high school guidance counselor Mrs. Glick … that I wanted to write for The World Weekly News. Bat Boy was my favorite item, a brilliant little ironic nugget I found buried in the black and white pages – pages that still had that ink smell newspapers used to have. The cover story about a toilet possessed by Satan was my second favorite. People underestimated the WWN because it looked like every other grocery line rag; but it wasn't. The other ones pretend – in a badly affected tongue-in-cheek kind of way – to be real news sources. They write about celebrity fat camps and California divas giving $5 blow job on Hollywood Boulevard to buy crystal meth. The WWN never had that kind of pretense, which is what made it brilliant. Fantastic stories with only a pinky toe hold in reality; and they all worked because the honesty of it all wasn't sidetracked by something as abstract and subjective as Truth. People who don't know any better, or people who are still naively optimistic, look for Truth. In absence of Truth … and it's always absent … they replace it with many little truths. Little puzzle pieces meant to make feel better and to justify what they think they already know. That's the problem with journalism today; it barters in what it considers The Truth, and leaves honesty by the side of the road. Bat Boy and the the possessed toilet spoke to something deeper in the human psyche, something more honest than “accidentally” released sex-tapes. Down deep we want our monsters to be soft and cuddly because really down deep we're still afraid of beasts under our beds and demons in our toilets. Urban legends about alligators in the sewers and snakes sneaking up sewage lines are some of the things that highlight who we are as scurrying bipedal critters under the sun. We can identify genomes, we can see atoms; we've mastered the art of mutually assured self-destruction and happiness in a pill. But we're still afraid of something crawling up the pipe and biting our nuts off.
The digital age and people's need for more objective-sounding lies killed The World Weekly News. And now all that's left is Rush Limbaugh, John Stewart, and a corporate owned media structure that looms over a dying small town press establishment.
Sam has problems. His biggest problem is that he actually cares. He and I don't agree on much, other than a few large and abstract principles; but I do think he cares. He cares so much that he makes deals on advertising and doesn't squawk when they don't pay on time or at all. He sees himself as anti-establishment, even though the conservative slant of the paper is more in tune with the general attitude of people around here than any of the other local rags. There are a few principles he will actually go to bat for; but like all small town newspaper publishers he will cede in the end to the will of his advertisers. Which is why he guts my articles down to unintelligible drivel, because unintelligible drivel will not, by it's nature, offend anyone's sensibilities. I tried to explain to Maude once why his linguistic clear cutting bothered me; her response was that there would always be somebody cutting my words because I would always have an editor. In other words, I should get used to it. Probably the reason why I'm still freelance – and why I have always been freelance – is that I don't handle editors or the editing process very well. It's not that I can handle criticism. I (mostly) ignore criticism. Editing is not the same as criticism. A critic will spout a thoughtless, pointless, gutless critique – like my Victorian Literature professor in college, Dr. Mortise. They'll go through with their red ink and redder eyes; but in the end, the work stands in spite of the deluge of bullshit. An editor has the god-like power to change the words themselves, to alter them in such a way that the message itself is alter, changed, or lost. Sam has the power to make me sound like not me at all.
This makes having to hustle a bit more complicated, because now I have to decide whether it's worth it to put my time and sweat into doing the footwork for an article that'll come under his editorial scalpel. But what other options do I have? Work at the DQ? Try and get a job bagging groceries at the IGA? We knew moving here that there would be nothing for me to do; that was part of the appeal. For me, anyway. At least life in Mount Arliss is cheap; of course that also means that the options are limited and what options there are – for entertainment, for food, for libation, for camaraderie – are also limited.
Halfway through my next cup of coffee I decide to take a shower and get started. It's after 10 in the morning. Most everyone in town is looking forward to lunch and I've barely moved. This is the story of my life. Starting later than everyone else and not nearly as motivated.
The shower feels nice, though. I always make the water hotter than it probably ought to be because that's the only way I feel clean. Maude makes fun of me, tells me I obsess about being clean. But I never really feel clean unless I'm just out of the shower or unless I'm halfway through a bottle of scotch. I switched from bourbon to scotch because Maude says bourbon brings out the redneck in me; she's the only one in a position to know, so I rely on her observations when I lack the proper context. Of course, like all criticism, I take her observations with a certain skepticism; but in the end, when they are useful, or not too contradictory to my daily life, I listen and adjust accordingly.
It's all about the burn, really. Hot water burns. Liquor burns. And with the burn I know it works, that I'm clean... in the way that medicine should taste bad and the way my father's mouthwash always burned. Listerine. I don't trust things that don't have some burn or bitter taste on the tail end, whether it's mouth wash or booze or anything else. People that can take the bitterness may not always be the best people to be around, but they're reliable. I may not be the most pleasant person, but I like to think I'm reliable.
The mornings are predictable, in the way that all small town mornings are. The only real difference is that today is garbage day. Tuesday. I set the garbage out last night and this morning when Maude left for work, she had to come back in to tell me that something had gotten into the garbage after I set it out the night before. I knew which little son of bitch it was, too. And if I didn't already know I could sure as shit guess by looking at it. Big dogs throw trash all over the place, leave big gaping holes in the bags. Whatever had gotten into the garbage gnawed tiny holes in the corners and sides of the bags. Small mouth. I told myself that at least the little fucker hadn't strewn our garbage all over the place; it was relatively easy to clean up. Maude left for work and I picked up the garbage, re-bagging it all so that the garbage men would pick it up and so that when they did it wouldn't make an even bigger mess. After that I go back inside, wash my hands two or three times, pour another cup of coffee, and light a cigarillo to get the morning chill out of my bones.
Winter's coming. Summer hung on longer than I expected it to and Fall has been shorter than I wanted it to be. I wanted to enjoy the changing the of the leaves. That was one of the things I missed. Leaves changing. Though I'm starting to realize that my brain, yet again, played another massive trick on me – the same trick it always plays. Things never work quite the way I remember them. I remember Fall in Eastern Kentucky and in the Ohio Valley where I was born and grew up. I can almost see them again when I close my eyes. Lots of vibrant colors; greens exploding into red, orange, yellow, like the last charge of the light brigade. I always think of that poem when I think about Fall. My 7th grade English teacher, Miss Mallory, made me memorize that poem and then stand in front of the class and recite it. Maybe it was the Fall when that happened. I don't really remember all that precisely because I didn't pay much attention to things when I was a kid. All I really remember about that year was that I had to memorize two poems – Charge of the Light Brigade and Poe's Annabelle Lee – and recite them in front of the class. I also remember that Miss Mallory had the biggest set of tits I had ever seen, and that was around the time I started noticing those kinds of things. Tits and poetry. When faced with the weight of those things, most teenage boys simply aren't bothering to look out the window and pine over the beauty of the changing leaves.
But when I close my eyes, I can almost see the leaves as I think they should be. And in my imagination, they are invariably brighter and more beautiful than they ever really are. Maybe I've watched too much television. Or maybe I stayed out of of the Midwest too long. I thought that maybe moving back to the Big Empty would unearth something in me; that small town boy, the one I also remember with probably too much revision and creativity. Over the years through the different places I've lived, I have always identified myself as a small town boy. I suppose the problem is that when a small town boy becomes a man somewhere else, those things that really made him a small town boy disappear.
These are things I mull over, trying to get the idea out of my head that I should walk across the street and tell the neighbors to pay more attention to their dog when they let it out. It's a chow mix; one of those hairy little snarky ankle biting bitches. That it's a tiny mop of a dog isn't the most annoying part. No, the most annoying part is that the people who's dog it is have a fenced in back yard and they don't let the dog shit there because they don't want to have to clean it up. Even if I did walk over there and thank them for the mess their useless little dog left me this morning, nothing would change. I'm already the neighborhood oddball because I don't obsess over manicuring my lawn and because I'm not a Bears fan. Being the neighborhood freak puts me in the running for town rube. There's already a couple of town drunks, a few trailer park whores, and the dog catcher ahead of me. But the drunks work, the whores perform a necessary, albeit frowned upon, public service, and the dog catcher grew up here. I'm a freak AND an outsider.
And that means, among other things, that when people's ill-mannered dogs get into my trash on an early Tuesday morning, my only option is to clean it up and say nothing. Because even though other people's trash has been similarly attacked in the past, they get around it by not putting it on the curb until after the dog has done it's business.
I suppose I should forgive the people their little snarky dog. They're from Ohio, originally. I know that because we've gotten their mail in our box by mistake before. But they're from Wooster, which might as well be in a different state. And while I remember being told about the divinity of forgiveness, I'm fairly certain that nowhere in the bible does it say I have to forgive people for not wanting to clean up after their pets. Although from what I hear at the bar in town sometimes, everything is in the bible, in spite of the fact that I don't remember it being there. One of the bartenders will, whenever the discussion borders on politics, say that all the troubles we're having are “in the bible.” I like the bartender well enough, so I haven't bothered to inquire as to her meaning, or ask her to prove it. I know how that'll work out, anyway. I'll be godless AND a freak AND most likely a communist … because here, they're all the same thing. Plus there will be the added bonus of wearing out my welcome at the only bar in town I can tolerate.
Maude keeps trying to tell me I need to be nice. “If people knew how you really were,” she tells me, “maybe you'd make some friends.”
“If people knew how I REALLY was,” I tell her, “they'd run me out of town on a rail. I'm sure they still do that here.”
I wonder sometimes if she wants me to act How I Really Am or How She Would Prefer Me to Be. That's probably unfair, I know. Sometimes she reminds me of how I wasn't always so bitter. That's what she calls it. Bitter. When my general demeanor gets in the way, I'm bitter. When it's funny, or poignant, she says I'm turning into a Cranky Old Man. She smiles when she says that.
Nice doesn't seem to fit into things, though. Nice gets you a smile and a handshake not much else. Nice is the trait bullies look for when they want someone to beat the shit out of. Nice. I was told once that I act like an ass because I'm overcompensating. Because down deep I'm really insecure. Well no shit. Everybody overcompensates for something. Everybody has some thing about them they don't like. Maude overcompensates for her deeply anti-social feelings by being nice to everyone. We're more alike behind closed doors than most people would think. I'm a little nicer. She's a little meaner. We share a bitter disappointment in the human race, and we both laugh about it on a regular basis. The difference is that I don't mind voicing my disappointment for everyone to hear. But I also know that she'll get where I am eventually. I used to try and be nice. But the world wears you down.
Everything about it wears you down until all that remains are those honest feelings and true thoughts that don't go away, that stay with you. The ideas that dance behind your eyes when you're busy mediating your way through another day, the ones that give you solace and feed your darkest revenge fantasies. I went to a counselor once at the urging of my family because they thought I was too depressed. I told the counselor that I had violent fantasies, that I used to imagine myself ripping someone's throat out. I described the sound I thought the esophagus made as it tore free... like hundreds of suction cups being ripped off hundreds of windows. A pleasantly gory series of syncopated pops. The shrink asked who I pictured in these fantasies. I told him I was imagining him at that very moment.
He offered to medicate me. I told him to go fuck himself. My anger and depression may annoy the shit out of everyone around me. But at least they're mine, goddammit.
Randall caught me on my fifth and final trip to the dumpster; the bags were filled to capacity and with every step I worried that one of them would split and dump everything in the alley.
“Hole-ee shiit!” he gawked. “Is hell freezin’ over?”
“Nope.” I heaved one of the bags into the dumpster. The plastic lid came slamming down and I was punched in the face with a breeze that stank of old garbage, warm beer, and melted plastic.
“You get evicted?”
“Nope.” I opened the lid to heave my last and heaviest bag into the dumpster. Randall, in an act of misdirected kindness, held the lid for me. “Thanks.”
“Lynda coming back?”
“You’re funny.” I dropped the bag in and managed to move before Randall let the lid drop, narrowly avoiding another blast of Eua De Garbage.
“Whatever the reason,” he said, “it’s about fuckin’ time. Your place was turnin’ into a fuckin’ sty.”
“You’d know. I hear they let the pigs roam the streets like child molesters in Georgia.”
Randall didn’t like when I made fun of Georgia, his accent, or the South in general. He wasn’t one of those “The South Shall Rise Again!” mother fuckers; but he was often critical of movements to stop flying the Southern Cross over government building. I didn’t make fun of it often because watching him get pissed stopped being fun. But he had to go and mention Lynda.
He must’ve realized his faux paus because he raised his hands to declare a truce. “I tried callin’ you,” he said. “You know what TODAY is, right?”
“It’s THURSDAY, son!”
He shook his head at me and smiled. “It’s THIRSTY THURSDAY. Come on, let’s go.”
“The bar, jackass.”
“You need a reason to drink? Besides, weren’t you just there?”
He shook his head at me, disapproving. “It’s got nothin’ to do with it BEIN’ Thursday. It’s… IN SPITE of it bein’ Thursday. So come on.”
“Is Eunice running specials? Trying to get that TGIT crowd?”
“Shiit.” He spat on the broken parking lot cement. “You’d think you were AGAINST drinking all of a sudden. S’got nothin’ to do with Eunice; she’s not even working today. It’s not that. It’s just a THING, okay? Come on. Everybody’s there.”
“Quit bein’ such an old woman and come on. “Everybody. Steve, Paul, Chris. The important people. So COME ON already. I don’t put out this much effort to get laid.”
I went inside and washed up a little to get the garbage smell off of me. The kitchen looked better, even if the stench still lingered. I supposed I could’ve opened the windows, but that would’ve meant opening the curtains and letting all the people who complained about me see just how decayed my little world had become. Besides, Marie Rubio might stop by, and even though she had a key, she couldn’t enter without good reason. Granted – she was trying to get rid of me, and that might give her the probably cause she needed; but I doubted it. She thought very little of me at that point, but she still wasn’t sure how I’d react. Besides, she was the kind who’d follow the letter of the law and give me enough rope to hang myself. That, at least, bought me a little time.
When we got to the bar, the music was loud with a thumping bass beat; I looked behind the bar and there was Eunice, in all of her blonde bleached, tan sprayed and stretched glory. It was actually Lindsay’s night to work, and she was pouring drinks for some regulars; Eunice was behind the bar mixing free shots for her posse of users, abusers, and hangers on. She exemplified the rule that governed the universe: the person with the best stuff runs everything. And though she’d lost her stuff physically a long time ago and had gone the route of the saggy and haggy club druggie, Eunice still had the hook up for good drugs, free shots, event tickets and swag, and for forcing naïve young waitresses with nice bodies into perpetual sexual servitude. The only real difference between Eunice and a pimp was that Eunice didn’t take a cut from each girl; she took their souls instead, and used them to keep herself going a little longer. And when the girls got too coked out, dried out, or got knocked up, she kicked them to the curb like an unwanted cat.
I looked over at Randall, who was flashing his shit-eating grin. “I thought you said she wasn’t working.” I had to pretty much yell over the lousy music.
He laughed and yelled back. “I lied.”
“Great. You know that bitch doesn’t like me.”
“So what? Who cares? Lindsay is working and wearing a low cut shirt. Who gives a fuck about ol’ Sag Bags?”
To answer him would have required me to yell again; besides, my throat was dry and I was already there anyway. Might as well drink and hope somebody would change the music. When I sat down at the bar between Chris and Hugh, who was one of Eunice’s, Lindsay saw me and poured me a beer. Darling girl, that one. And while I didn’t like Randall’s hyper-piggishness, he at least had taste in women. I waved at Lindsay when she placed the cold beer. She smiled a short smile and went back to work.
Chris was staring into his beer and Randall was on the other side of him trying to talk Paul and Steve into going in on a horse. I looked over at Hugh. He was drinking his usual Rum and Coke and laughing at whatever it was Eunice had just said. Hugh was an older guy – maybe his late 50’s – and besides buying and frequently sharing Eunice’s medium grade cocaine, he was also fucking Emma, a former waitress turned arm candy. Emma wasn’t my kind of girl. Nice enough body, and the high strong cheekbones and dark eyes that betrayed her Mexican heritage; but she had this huge beak of a nose, and you could just tell by looking at her that the years wouldn’t be kind to her. She was the kind who peaked early, maybe in her teens, and had learned to get through the world on her tits and the occasional backseat hand job. But that can only carry a girl – even a pretty one—so far, and she had begun realizing it. So, she latched on to a grateful old man who liked fucking girls the same age as his daughters and was just riding the slow slope down, waiting for her looks to give out before she “accidentally” got knocked up. I didn’t like her, but Chris did. When she worked there as a waitress, he made special trips during her weekend shift just to see her. Chris was a friendly guy; the women liked him, but he never pressed the advantage. As far as I could tell Chris was one of the few noble men left in the world; he wouldn’t turn something down if she dropped in his lap, but he didn’t hound after pussy like Randall, and he didn’t play wingman like Steve and Paul did. Except for the horses and his fondness of beer and Mexican food, Chris had no vices. Except Emma.
I let Chris stew over his beer and focused on Hugh, the lecher. Hugh reminded of a stock character in a black and white noir movie; everything he did was predictable. Hugh always told the same stories, always cracked the same jokes, and never deviated from the script. His latest string of jokes, which I was certain he’d heard from somebody else, were about Michael Jackson. As a matter of fact, most of his jokes focused on child molesting and that form of lukewarm racism that lingered deep in backwater red states like Arizona. He was one of those guys who’d look around and check the demographic layout of the bar before he muttered the word “nigger” or “spick”, but as time wore on and the drinks and nose candy got to him, he cared less and less. Randall wasn’t much better; but at least he didn’t bother to act ashamed of his ignorance. The only thing that probably made Hugh attractive to Emma was the fact that Hugh, besides having a taste for acting thirty or forty years younger than he was, also had a lot of money. She tolerated his stupid jokes and inane stories, and even managed to push out a forced giggle when he called out “Where’s my Spick Princess?” when he couldn’t find her. Which meant, as far as I was concerned, that they deserved one another.
He looked like he was about to put out the arm candy mating call when she appeared and latched onto his arm. Chris looked over, but didn’t say anything. He barely seemed to notice me. It wasn’t fair. Granted, I figured Emma for a manipulator; but what the hell? Don’t people deserve a little happiness?
“So how’s it going, Hugh?”
He looked up and smiled to return the greeting; right when he did, I sniffed and rubbed my nose. It was a casual movement; Hugh didn’t seem to notice, but he sniffed and rubbed his nose, too, like a subconscious response. I could tell by his eyes that he’d probably already been to the back room with Eunice and had done a few lines.
“Fine, fine,” he said like he was trying to remember my name. I didn’t help him. “Hey, did you hear about Michael Jackson? When they went through his room they found a thousand pairs of little boys’ tightey whiteys.”
“Oh yeah?” I sniffed and rubbed my nose again. So did he. This time, he blinked and stopped for a second.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, yeah.” He took a drink and I took the opportunity to sniff and rub my nose again.
“Yeah,” he sniffed and rubbed his nose again and looked around like he was nervous. “Yeah… he ah… apparently he used them as air fresheners.”
I sniffed and rubbed my nose. That time sent him off his stool, walking quickly to the restroom to check himself in the mirror. Too easy.
The minute he left Emma’s face went to stone and she stared off into the distance. I elbowed Chris break him out of deep meditation. He looked up at me like he hadn’t seen me the entire time. I nodded over at Emma. He smiled.
“Hey there girl,” he said. “What’re you doing staring off into the distance? How the hell have you been?”
She turned towards him and smiled. Then she breezed by me and hugged him the way girls hug old men and paraplegics. What the hell? It was something. They chatted it for a while and Chris seemed to instantly reanimate.
Meanwhile, Eunice was pouring another round of some pink colored shot for her crew and she set one for Emma right between me and Chris without so much as a hint of a hello or a recognition of our existence. Then she took her shot and walked out from behind the bar, heading for the back office. On her way there she ran into Hugh, who, after a few words, went with her to the back office. I looked over at Chris and Emma. They were chatting it up and Emma was leaning on him and laughing… just letting her boobs brush up against his arm. Poor, poor bastard.
Since I had the cash, I went against my better judgment and decided to pay rent. The next day I woke up in the late afternoon and walked up to the gas station on the corner and bought a money order, two corn dogs, and a 40 of Miller High Life. On the way back I stopped by the manager’s office, the money order through the mail slot near the bottom of the locked door, and went back home to burrow in and avoid the day light. When I got back, there were two more messages on my phone. One was another message from Lynda, wanting to talk to me. The other was from my mother, asking if I’d talked to Rhea lately.
The corn dogs were hard from sitting under the heat lamp too long, but I added enough ketchup that it didn’t matter, and the beer washed it all down nicely. I tried watching TV for a while, but I couldn’t talk myself into sitting through any of the shit on any of the channels. They’d be doing me a favor, I thought, if they just shut the fucking cable off. How many years had I wasted watching television? Over my lifetime? It’s enough to stupefy the imagination. The time people waste never occurs until it’s well past reclamation; I spent my life doing what I thought was living. I worked – sometimes. I married. I had a child. I divorced. I worked – sometimes. I remarried. I got a career. I paid taxes, amassed debt, missed car payments and rent payments and utility payments. When I had the money I always tried to tip at least 15 percent when I went to bars and restaurants. I spent recklessly. I survived hangovers, evictions, break ups, break downs, deaths, funerals, births. In my mid-30’s I was able to look back and see a life not unlike the lives of other men my age. I wasn’t so different.
So why did most all of it feel like malingering death?
There were only two things I did right in my life, as far as I could tell: having Rhea and marrying Lynda. But Rhea was getting too old to visit and Lynda took a job out of town for a few months. She told me when she left it wasn’t me; but I knew it was.
“You never do anything. You don’t go anywhere except that bar. You don’t have any hobbies. You don’t even write anymore; and it used to be so important.”
“It still is.”
She shook her head. “But you’re not doing anything about it. You’ve been moping around the apartment for a year, Nick. A YEAR. I can’t take it.”
“So you’re leaving me because I’m a little depressed.”
She shook her head. “I’m not leaving you. I’m working out of town for a few months. I need to get out of here. I need to do this for ME, ok? Besides, the time apart might be good for us.”
“Whatever.” I didn’t believe for a second that she planned on coming back. She’d go off with her gypsy theatre friends and send me postcards that read Wish You Were Here (Not!).
A car honked outside. “That’s my taxi.”
“I could have taken you to the airport.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
It would have been, I thought. Once.
“I’ll call you when I land.”
She sighed. “I still love you, Nick.”
She walked out of the apartment and got into the taxi. I stood there watching her leave. It felt like my entire life was riding off in a yellow taxi.
That I wasn’t working wasn’t the issue, although that played a role. Lynda, unlike most of the women I’d had dealings with in my life, wasn’t obsessed with money. She worried over it sometimes, but not out of some shallow social-status issue. Her fears of poverty had deeper roots than even I understood when we first got married, and I had come to take them seriously – even if my own nature got in the way of doing anything about it.
I walked downstairs because I was tired of standing in the middle of the bedroom. Of course, once I reached the bottom of the stairs, I hit the wall of smell that encased the entire first floor. What had Randall called it? Dead fish and dirty ass? He was often an intolerable human being, but he could be (entirely too often) astute in his observations.
“I really need to clean,” I said. My voice echoed. It was a wonder that Marie Rubio didn’t say anything about it when she dropped off the delinquent rent notice. For all I knew, the odor was starting to creep out under the door and out the edges of the window. Hell, it could’ve been seeping through the walls; the walls were painted concrete blocks, which gave the place a cave-like quality. It also dated the construction of the complex to the late 1960’s to early 70’s. Before advances in central air and energy efficient building materials, the best way to build houses in the desert was out of cement blocks; they kept the cool air longer. It made for shitty insulation of course… but the winters were mild except for the nighttime temperature and the cold always burned off by ten the following morning. That was one of the things about living in the desert Lynda and I didn’t realize; I suspect that most people don’t realize it, either. The winter nights get cold – sometimes below freezing. It’s not the same kind of cold; it’s not that mid-western cold that gets into your bones the way it gets into the ground and freezes solid to stay until the spring thaw. The desert ground doesn’t hold onto the cold in the winter. There’s not enough water or soil or clay for that to happen. The temperature simply drops, and maybe there’s a micro-thin layer of dew the following morning; but that, along with the cold, disappears quickly and leaves no trace of its existence.
The cave-like atmosphere of the apartment held the smell in like it held the cold; sometimes I had to hold my breathe from the time I walked in the door to the time I made it up the stairs to the bedroom, which was the only sacred place left. When Lynda first left, I couldn’t sleep upstairs; trying to sleep alone in our bed was simply too much for me. And no matter how much I drank, I couldn’t sleep in our bed without missing her – the feel of her next to me, her radiating warmth, the little snoring sounds she always made (and always denied making). I missed the way she talked in her sleep and didn’t remember it the next day, and the way she used to cling to me in the night when she had a nightmare. I missed the weight of her when she’d lay on my chest, listen to my heart, and play with my chest hair, always pulling out the gray hairs and accusing me of turning into a monkey. So for the first month or so, I passed out on the couch downstairs and slept with the lights on to erase the memories that lingered in the darkness and kept me awake.
Eventually, though, the smell downstairs and the uncomfortable couch pushed me upstairs; and I made sure to drink enough that I wouldn’t wake up, and I kept the television on to block out the sound of all those memories whispering at me from the shadows in every corner of the room.
Coffee, I thought. I need a little coffee and then I’ll scour the place clean. I steeled myself and waded into the kitchen. Dirty dishes stacked in high in the sink and spreading onto the counter top when the space ran out. Old, dried out food encrusted on the plates, the bowls, the silverware. Empty, crushed beer cans and drained bottles that once held wine, bourbon, and scotch. The floor was sticky. The stove was covered in layers of crud and stained with meals I didn’t remember trying to cook and the burners were riddled with acne-like little circles from Randall lighting his cigarettes on the burner. Old pizza boxes. Rancid delivery and take-out containers. I had to clean the place; if Lynda walked through the door at that moment, the sheer horror of it all would have pushed her right back out again. It was not evidence of a Man Debauched – which she probably expected – or even of Dedomesticated Man – which might have been forgivable. There was some other evil at work there altogether; it was something older and more rotten. In the light of the morning – and why that morning I didn’t (and still don’t) know – I began to understand that it was more than my laziness or depression or drunkenness. The thing I faced in my kitchen was not months of neglect, but that ageless decay that all civilizations succumb to in the end. It was the thing that took down the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Roman Empire. It was that impulse that lived on in the stories of the Christ’s crucifixion, the murder of Osiris, the death of Mohammed, the execution of Patrick Henry, and the railroading of Sacco and Vanzetti.
I found the coffee pot much in the same condition it had been in when I abandoned it the previous morning. How bad do I want this cup of coffee? I told myself I could walk back up to the gas station and buy a cup of their burned, yet still amazingly weak java. Then I could come back reinvigorated with something resembling caffeine and the fresh air, and take on the filth of the centuries that had taken root in my kitchen. The beer and the shitty corndogs were brewing in my stomach, churned by the deadly cornucopia of smells I had no choice but to breathe in.
Lynda would have a fit if she walked into this. She wasn’t a clean freak or anything; if anything, she was as absent minded as I was when it came to the daily futile chores of eradicating the dust, grime, and filth of living. But she would know what it was before I had a chance to try and explain it.
My stomach was in knots and I knew I was going to throw up if I didn’t do something. So I went back upstairs and took a fast shower; I made sure to turn the water up as hot as I could take it so I could burn the filth off my skin. Then I dressed, held my breath as I went down the stairs, and retreated from the apartment.
Instead of stopping at the gas station, I kept walking until I got to the bar.
Rent was due, I was out of booze, and the only food I had left was half a jar of off brand jam. There wasn’t any work to be had. I tried several places that had placed ads for unskilled labor; but none of them would interview me on the spot and they all refused to even accept my application because I didn’t have a phone. I tried going back to Ready Labor, but they kept turning me away. I even tried the plasma bank; but the pillar legged phlebotomist who tried to toss me without paying me for my time was working the desk and she had no intention of letting me through. Vindictive bitch.
With the couple of bucks I had left in my pocket, I bought a half stale loaf of bread and a bottle of cheap wine. That didn’t solve my rent problem; so I knew it was only a matter of time. I could’ve slipped off; but I didn’t relish the idea of sleeping outdoors. Especially in August. Better to hold out and leave when I was forced to – which, I figured, gave me a day. Maybe half a day at the most.
I managed to sneak upstairs without anybody in the front office seeing me. The rush of air conditioning washed over me as I slammed the door behind me and locked the deadbolt and chain. I told myself I was getting ready for a stand off. “If they want me out,” I said to the empty room, “They’ll have to break down the door to get me out.”
After I sat down, I wanted a cigarette. Only two left. I needed to conserve, so I decided to hold off. I made myself a jam sandwich instead. At first, I was only going to eat one slice of bread, so that I could make the loaf last as long as possible. But then I told myself there wasn’t any point. I may not even get through the whole loaf anyway, before it goes bad or they kick me out. I wondered briefly if Monkey Man would be the one to boot me, or if they’d send a plain uniform to do it. I took out a pocket knife that I’d found in the parking lot outside of the bar. It was a decent, clean blade. I used it to spread the jam over one piece of bread. Then I wiped the blade on another piece of bread and put it on top. After I closed up the loaf of bread and the jam jar, I sat down to enjoy my dinner feeling oddly self-satisfied.
When you’re hungry, you want to eat really fast. You want to gobble up food in front of you and every bit of food that’s near you, without even bothering to chew it first, much less taste it. I fought the urge. I ate my sandwich in small, careful bites. There was no point in behaving like an animal until there was no other option. Sometimes the simplest food has the best flavor, and I had learned to treat every meal – regardless of the quality or quantity – like my last. When you do that, you enjoy it just a little more.
I finished my sandwich and cracked open the bottle of vino. The label said merlot. The price tag said rot gut. But it would work. I found my coffee cup – they only kitchenware I owned besides the pocket knife – filled it halfway and drank it down slowly, letting it pour down my gullet. Then I poured another half cup, lit a cigarette, and turned on the radio. It was tuned to the classical station. Dvorćek was playing. I closed my eyes, inhaled the smoke along with the music, keeping the flavors of everything in my mouth.
A knock on the door interrupted my revelry.
Fuck, I thought. They came for me sooner than I expected. I hadn’t even bothered to pack up the little bit of shit I had.
I sat for a moment, hoping it was a fluke. Maybe it was somebody looking for Loyce. Maybe it was a lost pizza boy. I told myself there was no need to panic.
There was another knock. This one was more insistent.
I turned off the radio. Maybe they’d take the hint and go away.
The knocking came again with even greater urgency.
“Well fuck,” I said aloud and standing up. “All right,” I called out. “All right, goddammit. Let me pack my shit before you make me homeless, you bastards.”
I opened the door expecting to see a not-so-smiling Smiling Dave or an grumpier than usual Fat Marta. Instead I found a couple kids dressed in white button down shirts, dark ties, dark pants, and gym shoes. Each of them had a rectangular plastic name tag pinned to their shirt pocket, identifying themselves as Latter Day Saints.
“Good day,” the taller Sandy haired one said. “Have you heard the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ?”
“Uh. No.” I moved to close the door.
“Well,” the dark haired one said. He was shorter and little pudgy. “Have we come at an inconvenient time?”
Yes. I didn’t want to stand there with the door open. For one, it was letting in the summer heat; more importantly (maybe) I didn’t want to chance being seen by Smiling Dave or Fat Marta. “Yeah. I mean, no. Listen,” I said looking around to make sure there was no one out and about. Naturally there wasn’t that time of day. “You guys want to come in? I don’t want to let the air conditioning out.”
I had no idea why I let them in, but it seemed to please them and they agreed immediately. The minute the words left my mouth, I regretted them. Why didn’t I slam the door in their round, beardless little faces and tell them to fuck off? I had this image of Dad standing on the front porch of the old house screaming at a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses to get off of his property. Why didn’t I follow suit?
They thanked me as they stepped in. “It’s pretty hot out there,” the tall one said.
I sat down in the chair and motioned for them to use the bed. No point in not being a good host, I guess. Then I drank down the last of my wine and poured more, filling the cup. I lit my last cigarette. “No worries, I said. I knew I had to get rid of them quickly and hope that Dave or Marta didn’t notice the opening and closing of the door. The pudgy one coughed a little when the cigarette smoke reached him. The other eyed it like he wanted one. This might be more interesting than I thought. I pointed to the wine bottle. “You guys want some? It’s quality stuff. Guaranteed to sprout hair on your balls.”
They laughed uncomfortably in unison. I was going to ask if they shared a brain when the sandy haired one – his name tag identified him as Bartholomew Romney – pulled a bible out of his knapsack. “We just wanted to talk to you about God,” he said, “and about letting Him into your life.”
“I doubt God would want to live here,” I said. “The walls are being held up by legions of mutant cockroaches bent on world domination.”
The dark haired one – Amos Sanford – looked around nervously. I thought I heard him make a nervous squeaking sound.
“Don’t worry,” I smiled. “They only come out at night.”
“Well,” Bartholomew continued. “God made the cockroaches, too. But you’re special. We’re all special – all people that is – because…”
I hadn’t intended to give him an intro. Have to keep them off script. “Let me ask you something,” I asked, draining my cup and pouring another. “So you’re traveling around, knocking on doors, trying to convert people. Right?”
“Right,” Amos squeaked.
“Riiight,” I echoed. I stamped out my last cigarette in the ash tray. “So you endure the weather, lousy food, rude people, and risk bodily harm. Right?”
“Right.” That time it was Bartholomew.
“Riiight,” I echoed. “So why do it?”
“We’d really like to focus on this,” Bartholomew said, trying to focus on the bible in his lap. He opened it in preparation the hard sell.
I catch him mid-sentence while he’s quoting John 3:16. “Sure sure sure,” I said. “We can get to all that. But really. This is important to me. I want to know. Why go through all the shit? What’s the point?”
“Faith,” Amos finally found something to say. “We do it for our faith. Because of our faith.”
“And the Great Commission,” Bartholomew added.
“Faith,” I echoed. “Commission. Riiight.” I down the cup of wine I had just poured. It was going down easier and easier. “You guys SURE you don’t want some of this? You look thirsty.”
“We’re sure,” Bartholomew answered. His tone was unconvincing.
I kind of felt bad for them. Kind of. I mean, they looked more like bad door to door vacuum cleaner salesmen than missionaries from God. I didn’t think they’d be much help if Smiling Dave or Fat Marta kicked in the door. I thought maybe they’d at least be reliable witnesses to what I saw as my eventual unlawful beating and subsequent arrest. After all, it was a sin to lie. Right?
“Suit yourself,” I said, and sat back.
Bartholomew let the silence settle for half a beat before he went into his bit. I didn’t feel like talking to them anymore, and clearly I wasn’t offending their moral sensibilities enough to make them leave. I either had to listen to them talk or I had to it up.
The thing that amazed me was how little it had all changed. Verse after verse. Salvation. Damnation. Obligation. I watched more than I listened to them they were babbling on and telling bible stories – using the old parable approach, I guess, because it worked so well for Jesus. In the past, when other well intended people went out of their way to save my soul and used the parable method to make it all sound so circular and reasonable, I pointed out (if you took the book seriously, which I didn’t) that it hadn’t worked out so well for Jesus in the end. I didn’t bother pointing that out this time, though. Bartholomew did most of the talking. Amos mostly interrupted with qualifiers and addendums – sometimes to his partner’s annoyance. The sandy haired kid was moving on to the compelling lives of prophets, like Stephen (who was stoned) and Moses (who made the mistake of taking too much credit) and John the Baptist (beheaded). Then the disciples, like Peter (who was crucified upside down.) But mostly Paul (died in prison.) The only ones who focus on Peter are the Catholics. Bartholomew spoke about these characters the way some people talk about celebrities. “Oh, wasn’t Angelina Jolie just WONDERFUL in that film?” or “I wish Paris Hilton would get a real job,” or “I really liked Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele; but James Bond? Give me Sean Connery!”
After a while I got more tired of listening than I had been of talking. “So,” I interrupted another great story of faith and a bloody awful death, “what about Joseph Smith?”
Amos seemed to get more animated. Apparently that was his part of the show. He dove straight into the story of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the great Mormon Revival. Eden was in Missouri. Native Americans were lost Israelites. Special secret languages, mystical rocks, angelic visions. I wanted to ask about the wonders of polygamy and the castration of boys in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; but he didn’t give me a chance. He talked and talked. It was Bartholomew’s turn to fidget and look uncomfortable. I drank.
“Listen,” I finally interrupted. “I don’t suppose one of you has a cigarette, do you?”
Amos looked over at his partner, who had been staring off into outer space – whether he was seeing angelic visions or fantasizing about Mary Magdalene I couldn’t tell. “How about you, Bart?” His attention snapped back to the present. “You don’t happen to have a smoke, do you? ONE cigarette for a poor sinner, please? Pretty please?”
He hesitated, but (much to his partner’s annoyance) he pulled a pack with two cigarettes left out of his knapsack. He stopped short of giving me the pack – mostly because he felt Amos glaring at him – but he handed it over nonetheless.
I tapped out one and handed it back. He promptly put his last cigarette in his mouth. After I lit mine, I let him use the lighter. “Thanks, man,” I said. “You know how it is.” I pointed at the quickly dissipating bottle of vino. “You sure you don’t want a taste?”
Bartholomew inhaled and shook his head. But Amos, apparently sick of his partner being the only one to indulge, said “I will.”
“Greeat,” I smiled, handing him the bottle. “Take a swig. I only have the one cup, I’m afraid.” Amos looked at me; I wasn’t sure if he worried he might catch something from the bottle or if he found it impossible to believe I didn’t have a whole cabinet of dinnerware. “Go on,” I encouraged. “No worries. Really.” I smiled. For a second I thought the smile changed his mind. He took a healthy swig and handed it back to me, trying not to look like he was gagging on the stuff.
“Be careful, man,” I said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.” I held it up to Bart. “You’re welcome, too,” I said. He took the cigarette out of his mouth, grabbed the bottle, and tipped it back. At first I thought he was going to choke, too. But he didn’t.
“Listen,” I said to both of them, “you don’t happen to have any money do you? If the three of us are going to drink, we might as well get more. Don’t you think?”
“I…” Amos was fumbling through his book.
I stood up. “Listen. I don’t suppose either of you is actually 21. Are you?”
“I am,” Bart answered.
“Bart!” I crowed. “My boy Bart! And you have money? right?”
Bart nodded. “Uh huh.”
“Greeat! Why don’t you go up to that liquor store on the corner and get is a big jug of wine. Amos’ll stay here and keep trying to convert me. He’s close, I can tell ya. I want to hear all about Jesus and Joseph Smith and magical underwear.”
Bart stood up. Amos looked up like he was nervous, but it was clear that Bart was the one in charge. “Sure. I guess that’s ok…”
“Good good good!” I slapped him on the shoulder. It was bony. “While you’re there, get a couple packs of smokes too, okay?” He nodded. “Alllrightee then!”
Bart left on the booze run and I offered Amos another drink. He took a bigger drink than before. I filled my cup and offered him the bottom of the bottle.
“Listen kid,” I said. “How old are you?”
Amos hiccupped. “Eight… eight… eighteen.”
“And you LIKE this gig?”
For a second he looked defensive. But for only a second. “Sure,” he said. “It’s import… hic…import…hic… impor’nant to …”
“Right right right,” I interrupted him. “Faith and works and all that.”
“Have you ever gotten laid?”
He looked shock, but I could tell by the crimson color his face was developing that he hadn’t. “Laid? You know? Sex? Gettin’ some? Shooting your load? Getting your rocks off? Pussy?” With every derivation his complexion got redder and redder. “What?” I asked finally. “You don’t like girls?”
That got him to talk. “I like girls,” he said. “I just… we’re not s’pose to…”
“Ah. I see. Tell me kid,” I slapped him on the knee. It made him jump a little. “Is there a particular girl you have in mind?”
“Amy.” He sighed. God, what romantic crap.
“Is she back home?”
He shook his head. After a few deep breathes and some more hiccups he told me she was the daughter of the family they were staying with locally. He didn’t describe her; but I could tell by the mushy dreamy look in his big round eyes that she was the most beautiful thing in the world for him. At the moment.
“You know,” I went on, “girls usually like a little experience. Know what I mean?” I leaned in. “You know… there’s a woman two doors down… a nice woman. Her name’s Loyce. And I bet if you went over there and asked real nice, she might, eh… loosen you up a little.” Amos almost looked horrified. Almost. I didn’t push it. “Whatever, man,” I said. “It’s all you.”
Bart got back not long after that. He brought a huge jug of burgundy wine, a twelve pack of beer, and a carton of cigarettes. Blessed be the young and the egomaniacal. For they shall over do themselves every time.
“Great timing, Bart!” I chirped. We’d run out of wine and were talking about Amos’s girl troubles.”
Bart smiled and Amos looked ashamed. I cracked open a beer, tore open one of the new packs of smokes, and went on. “I was telling Amos here that there’s a really nice lady two doors down who might like a couple of guys like you. And, if you was to treat her nice and pay her for her trouble, she might unburden you of your virginity. I can almost bet that she’s probably never seen a virgin before… let alone met one.”
Amos and Bart each drank a beer. Then Bart had another. Amos tried to smoke a cigarette, but he ended up coughing and putting it out half spent. “Those things are expensive,” I cautioned. “Don’t waste ‘em like that.” I kept on with the sex talk. It became clear pretty quickly that while young Amos fancied the daughter, Bart thought himself man enough for the mother. Naturally I encouraged them. Amos and Bart were both blushing and coughing and looking around. And the more uncomfortable it got for them, the more they drank. Blessed are the virginal. For they shall be better entertainment than television.
Finally, after some prodding, I had them prepared to go see Loyce. I got them on their feet, gave them their knapsacks and the rest of the beer – minus one for me – and ushered them out the door. “Be sure and tell her I sent you,” I told them. Both of them nodded. “You treat her nice, okay? She’s a nice person.” I looked around again and made sure that Smiling Dave or Fat Marta wasn’t around. The coast was clear. I turned them in the right direction and reminded them of which door it was. “Be nice,” I told her. “Offer her a beer. Be friendly. Save the Jesus and Joseph Smith stuff for another time.” They both nodded like they were being sent off on a dangerous mission.
I closed the door I heard them talking to Loyce. Then I heard the door close. She let them in. I knew she would. Good ol’ Loyce. I looked around. The big jug of wine hadn’t even been cracked open yet, and there was most of a carton of smokes left. I sat down, opened the beer, turned on the radio, took a drink, and closed my eyes. Debussy was playing.
Half of the brain trust and Mac the Younger were sitting at the bar when I walked in. The music was up too loud – which meant Adelle had come out of hiding. The new girl was working behind the bar. She didn’t remember me. When I sat down, she smiled, pushed her tits in my face and asked me what I wanted. I wanted to ask about Suzy; she hadn’t been in for a few days and I was kind of (actually) concerned.
Miss Lift and Squeeze brought me my beer and asked if I wanted to start a tab.
“No,” I answered. “It’s easier to keep track if I pay as I go.”
She smiled and retracted her cleavage. “Okay.” Then she turned, stepped out from behind the bar and went to the patio to smoke a cigarette.
I looked up at Rico and Sammy. They were pouring over the racing program and jabbering. A few seats down, Mac the Younger was staring into his cocktail and not paying any attention to the races at all. Not that there was a lot to choose from. The Belmont Stakes were long past and Turf Paradise was closed until October. Dark Days – that’s what they call it when all the local tracks are closed and you’re stuck with off-track betting where all the races are somewhere else and none of the jockeys are familiar. The only races to be had were either at casino tracks with lousy odds or tracks in far flung places like West Fucking Virginia.
“The six,” Rico said.
Sammy shook his head. “Naw. The four.”
“Are you NUTS?” Rico asked. “Why the four?”
“Cuz WHY, pendejo?”
“I like the name.”
“Huh?” Rico shook his head. “You like the name. You like the name? What, is it named after your mother? I know a couple of whores that are, too.”
Sammy pointed a large round finger at the book and tapped it. “Right there. Dreamsrfurlosers.”
“And you wanna put REAL money on that horse?”
“Look at six, man. This jockey is the top jockey. And he hasn’t won yet today. It’s his TURN, mano!”
Sammy shook his head. “Nope. The four.”
“But look here,” Rico said, pointing at the book with one of his narrow wrinkled fingers. “This horse has won the last five out of six starts.”
“Oye,” Rico grabbed his forehead. “Okay. How about this name then. You like names. How about ‘Starlight Express.’ Huh? What do ya think? Nice name, huh?”
Rico threw his hands up. “I give up. You wanna throw good money after a five year old nag with a pinche jockey that hasn’t placed in three years, go right ahead. I’m gonna go put money on the WINNER.”
They stood up and walked back to the mutuel together. I drained my beer and looked around for the bartender. She was still outside on the patio, flirting with one of the kitchen workers.
I grunted. “I should go back there and get it my damn self,” I said. “For all the use this chick is.”
Mac looked at me, but didn’t answer. Instead of the usual dirty look, though, Mac just looked, shrugged, and went back to staring into his drink. I thought maybe Dino was tightening the screws on him.
“Where’s the old man?” I asked. “Haven’t seen him in a while.”
He was about to answer when the bartender flounced back in. She looked at me. “You want another?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
She brought me another bottle. I paid her. Then she walked over to Mac the Younger and asked him the same question. He nodded and drained his cocktail. Then he stood up and walked back towards the pisser.
After he was out of ear shot, the bartender came over and leaned in with a conspiratorial air.
“He’s been here since nine,” she whispered.
She shook her head. It pivoted on top of her neck like it was attacked with a screw. “Nooo. He lost his job.”
“That’s as good a reason as any,” I answered. “Until the money runs out.”
“But it HAS.”
“Uh-Huh.” I was imagining her as that girl in high school – the one who knew which girls gave it away, which ones were knocked up, and which ones had abortions. She was the girl who was your friend until you turned your back on her. Then she was off spilling all of your dirty little secrets to the cheerleaders with loose lips and even looser standards.
“Yeah.” She nodded and it looked like her head was going to detach from the top of her neck and roll onto the bar. “Did you hear about his dad?”
“Well,” her eyes widened and she licked her lips. Her lips were full, plush things that look entirely out of place on the dead space that was her face. Or maybe they were just over accentuated. Like a clown’s or a hooker’s.
“You know he went out to California, right?”
“He said he was going to his granddaughter’s graduation?”
“Uh huh.” I wanted to tell her to cut the damn melodrama and get to the point; but I was focused on watching her lips move. They were the most animated part of her face. Her eyebrows were penciled in. There wasn’t a wrinkle or a laugh line to suggest that she’d ever experienced anything. Her skin was a model of manufactured perfection – robotic and without blemish. And then there were the eyes. They were wide with anticipation; but otherwise, they were shit brown and dead.
But her lips – man, those lips moved. They moved like they had a mind of their own. Like they just happened to be wandering around, looking for a face to perch on, and stumbled onto hers. They were perfect blow job lips: writhing, wriggling, warm. Any other use was not only a waste of time and (I’d bet) talent; it was a fucking annoyance.
“Yeah.” She looked around to make sure Mac wasn’t back. “He went out to California and DIED.”
“Wow,” I said, not sure whether the point was that he died or that he had the gall to keel over in California.
“Yeah,” she breathed. Her lips turned up into a smile that her eyes couldn’t match. “But that’s not the BEST part.”
“He died in bed.”
“NOOOO.” She shook her head. Her lips wrapped themselves around the ‘O’. “He died in BED. Having sex. He died in the middle of SEX.”
That’s just what I need, I thought. The image of geriatric fucking to sour my beer.
“But that’s not the best PART!” she squealed.
“He wasn’t in bed with his WIFE.”
“He was doing some younger girl – or she was doing him – ANY-way, she was young enough to be his daughter. His GRAND-daughter, even.”
You never know what some people like.
“The wife is devastated.”
“There’s a daughter, too. And she’s PISSED.”
“They usually are.”
“Yeah. And she won’t give Mac any of the money. She thinks he knew the whole time that the old man was fucking these young girls. She told him he blew through enough money while he was ALIVE.”
“Yeah.” Her head seemed to wobble as she nodded. “I guess THAT gravy train is over.”
“Guess it is.”
She was planning on talking some more, but she looked over and saw Mac returning to his seat. She shot me a conspiratorial glance and walked over to see if he wanted another drink. Naturally he did. She brought him another cocktail (after shooting me another conspiratorial smile) and decided to wash the empty glasses that had accumulated behind the bar. There weren’t that many; but it took her a while to get them done.
I watched Mac out of the corner of my eye. Poor bastard, I thought. There he was, sitting at the bar he came to with his dad, where everybody (secretly or not) thought he was a mooch. There he sat; maybe knowing full well that everyone around him was applauding his downfall. Never mind that maybe he’s depressed because his father died. No; everyone decided he was sad because the free ride ran out.
Sometimes people say more about what’s important to them than they realize.
Except that it wasn’t a free ride. Not really. I’d be willing to bet the old man kept a mental record of every goddamn penny. And maybe he didn’t exactly REMIND his semi-prodigal son of how much he owed. But I’ll bet he never let his son FORGET about it, either.
Against my better impulses, I move across the bar to a stool near Mac. I didn’t plan on saying anything to him. There’s never anything appropriate to say, and people invariably say the wrong thing. They send cards expressing hackneyed condolences and flowers that die three days after the funeral.
When my dad died people sent food. The refrigerator was loaded with casseroles. Tuna Casserole. Green Bean Casserole. Lasagna. Casseroles with odd names like Fanny’s Fancy Noodle Night Surprise that had been published prominently in the annual church recipe book. Then there were the non-stop phone calls from the concerned, the sympathetic, the gawkers, and the gossips. The Church Grief and Counseling Committee. The grave criers – the ones who lived just to attend funerals and show how emotive and pious they were.
I was pretty much always bored and uncomfortable during church service. I don’t think anyone was surprised; he was twenty years older than my mother and his health had never been all that good. I was told later (by a particularly pious grave crier) that when mom was pregnant with me, the general consensus of the congregation was that I was both a blessing and curse – a blessing to be born so late in my father’s life and a curse because he probably wouldn’t live to see me grow into manhood. As much as I was bored during church, I loathed sitting through it when Dad was sick. Especially when the Prayer List was announced. The stern faced preacher would stand at the pulpit and read off the names along with the hospital each person was incarcerated in. The list was always read in alphabetical order, like a school seating chart. When Dad’s name was read, I always felt like people were staring straight at me. I felt their eyes burning holes into the back of my head, into my spine, into my face. What were they looking for? Signs of worry? Of gratitude? Stress? Faithful endurance? Piety? What? I was just grateful the sensation passed as soon as another name was called and the eyes would focus on someone else.
Mac didn’t look up when I sat down, although the bartender stared at me for a minute or so. I made a point not to look at him, either. I drained my beer and waved so the shallow bar bitch would see I needed a refill. I left cash on the counter. She brought me a beer and took my money without looking at me.
She did lean into Mac, though, smiled, and did the lift and squeeze. “You want another drink, honey?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t even look up at her.
She retracted and walked away. I thought I saw her shaking her head. Tsk tsk tsk. There would be a point when they’d stop serving him unless he paid up. Without Mac the Elder to make sure the tab was paid – well, the memory of bartenders and cops is pretty short.
She brought him his drink, offered an uncomfortable smile (still not looking at me) and retreated to the other end of the bar.
I recognized the smile. It was one of those smiles people flash when they know they’d just say something stupid if they spoke. Like at a funeral.
Mom had Dad laid out in a room at the local funeral home. The night of the visitation – that’s what tea totaling Protestants do instead of a wake – there was another visitation in the room across the hall. I don’t remember the person’s name. Dad’s coffin was dark brown with brass and gold fixtures. The interior lining was white. Dad was dressed in one of his suits; he rarely wore one when he was alive. The suit was dark blue. The shirt was white. I don’t remember the tie.
Visitations are usually around three hours long. At a minimum. Church people came early. Lots of hand shaking, pats on the back, and cutesy bible related comments. One person in particular – an elder who was known as much for his long winded benedictions as for the narrowness of his doctrine – shook my hand a long, long time. A long time. He had my hand gripped with one of his hands, and with the other he took hold of my elbow. It was the Venus Fly Trap of handshakes.
“I prayed,” he proclaimed. “I prayed hard. I prayed for a miracle.”
I didn’t bother asking if it turned out the way he wanted.
The extended family showed up. Most of them weren’t local and had to drive at least two hours. They were all mom’s relatives. They got teary eyed and hugged and laughed and cried. They told me how tall I was getting. They told me how much I resembled my father. I wondered: did any of them realize how much Dad despised them? And if they found out, would they grieve as hard?
Aunts, uncles, cousins. Ruby and Denis. People Dad had known when was growing up. People he’d gone into the military with. They all shuffled though: they walked slowly past the casket, whispering things like:
“He looks like he’s asleep.”
“Doesn’t he look peaceful?”
“I heard the end was nice and quiet.”
The air was full of piped in air, religious musak, and nervous avoidance. People formed little groups and talked about Dad – the kind of THIS IS YOUR LIFE/CELEBRITY ROAST tactic people use to avoid mentioning the obvious. I tried listening to some of the stories; but it seemed like they were talking about someone else. Some guy I didn’t know who happened to have my Dad’s name. I was seventeen when he died; and maybe by that point I should’ve started seeing him as more than my Dad. Maybe I should’ve started seeing as a man. As a human being. But I hadn’t. I still saw him as just my Dad – as close to infallible (even though I knew better) as I had ever seen; as close to god as I would ever imagine.
Mom couldn’t pull herself away from his side. She stood next to the casket while people shuffled by. She stood there while the funeral home attendants started setting up folding chairs for the short memorial for the people who weren’t planning on attending the grave side service the next day. Even after the chairs were set up and everyone took their seats, Mom was still standing by the casket, rubbing the top of head and talking to him.
No one said anything to her. The minister stood off to the side, looking around and waiting. He would occasionally look at her – especially when it was clear that she was talking to her dead husband – and then he’d cast a hard glance at me. An uncle who was sitting behind me muttered to his wife (loud enough for me to hear), “Why don’t somebody DO something? It’s just pathetic.”
I looked over at Ruby, but she was too busy looking dignified to act. I didn’t want to do anything. After all, who did these people think they were here for? It was her husband – my father – who had died. I told myself she should be allowed to mourn without having to act in some “appropriate” way to make them feel more comfortable. Who do these people think they are, anyway?!
When I stood up, there was a general sigh of relief. I looked over at the preacher, who nodded in approval. Fucking asshole. I didn’t go up there for him. I didn’t go up there for any of them. They could sit in those fucking folding chairs until their asses went numb and fell off for all I cared. I stood up and approached the casket because I couldn’t stand the thought of people whispering about her. I didn’t think Dad would have wanted that. My mom and I didn’t always get along – she could be pretty severe in her own way – but she was still my MOTHER, goddammit.
Mom was holding his hand and stroking his wedding band with her finger. She was whispering something to him that I couldn’t make out. I looked down at him. It was the first time I’d looked at him since I saw him lying dead in the ICU.
It didn’t look like him. Not at all. I mean, it clearly was him. But it wasn’t. Not really.
That only compounded the feeling I’d had when people were standing around telling stories. None of it seemed like Dad. None of it made sense. It would culminate later in what some people called my “inability to mourn properly.” For some reason, people get stuck on what kind of mourning makes them the most comfortable. What seems the most normal to them. I think it’s interesting that all that normalcy goes out the window when they’re the ones who are grieving.
I touched her arm. “Mom?” She looked up at me. “They’re ready to start.”
Tell me to make them leave. Tell em you want to do this alone. Tell me.
She didn’t tell me. Instead, she let me lead her to the empty chair next to mine so the preacher could do his bit.
“You ant another?” I looked up. The bartender was staring through me. Her tone was impatient. I looked down at the bottle. It was nearly empty. I looked around. The bar was still mostly empty.
“Sure,” I said. “Another.” I smiled. Obnoxious cunt. She walked over to the cooler without asking Mac if he wanted a refill. His glass was empty. He was holding his head up, but barely, and staring deep into the wood grain of the counter.
“And bring one for my friend, too,” I called, nodding towards Mac. Miss Lift and Squeeze shot snarky glance over at me. I put extra money down on the bar for his beer. When she came and set the beers in front of us, Mac looked up.
“On me,” I said to him.
“Oh,” he said, almost smiling. “Thanks.” He grabbed the bottle and took a long drink. It seemed to revive him a little. Then he looked at me.
“You… you… ah… you knew my Dad,” he slurred. “Right?”
“I talked to him once or twice.”
“You know?” he asked. “You know, he, uh… he died. Right?”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “Seemed like a nice enough guy.”
Mac nodded. “He was. He was. He was … SOMETIMES.”
“Yeah, well,” I shrugged. “You can say that about anybody.”
He looked at me and for a brief flash his eyes cleared. Then he nodded. “Yeah. I guess so.” He tipped the bottle back and emptied it. Then he brought a big wad of tangled cash out of his pocket and tossed it on the bar. “Make sure she gets all that,” he said.
Only if Dino doesn’t wander in. “Ok. You sure you don’t want another? Maybe a cup of coffee?”
He smiled. “Nah. Gotta go. Got ta go. Time ta go.”
I watched him leave. So did the bartender. For a moment I thought she was going to pick up the phone and call the cops. Instead, she came over and picked up her cash. She didn’t look at me.
It rained the day of the funeral. The grave side service took place during one of those cold September rains with rain drops the size of golf balls. Rain that large falls heavy. It also falls fast and slow at the same time. Fast enough that it’s difficult to see more than five inches in front of you slow enough that I felt each and every drop fall, hit, soak through my clothes, through my skin, and down into my bones, where it created a permanent chill. I’ve never been able to get rid of the chill.
The crowd was significantly smaller than the previous night; it was mostly family and a few close family friends who showed up. Everyone was dressed in black. Some had umbrellas. Everyone looked at the ground. It was the first time since Dad got sick that I didn’t feel everyone’s eyes on me. The burial plot was right between his parents’ shared headstone and a smaller headstone of mine and Ruby’s older brother who was stillborn. I never liked to look at his grave because he and I shared the same name. Mom cried a little, but I knew she would do most of her mourning in private. She stood along side my sister and Denis (who looked like he was thinking about a baseball game he was missing.) The American Legion Rifle Corps – three old drunks who came out whenever a fellow war veteran died, were a little ways down a small incline and off to the right. The graveyard workers were a respectable distance off to the left, smoking and waiting. The preacher was standing at the foot of the grave.
I was standing at the head of the grave, opposite the preacher, where the trumpeter usually stood. I was standing there because I had insisted on playing Taps. I’d been in band since fifth grade, and had moved up into marching band when I hit high school. After I made first chair, the band director, Mr. Colburn, asked if I was interested in playing Taps for American Legion Funerals. I’d get twenty bucks, he told me, and it would get me out of school sometimes.
When Dad died they line up another kid; but I wanted to do it. I didn’t even really know why. So I stood there in the rain, trying to focus on keeping my mouthpiece warm and not fucking everything up.
The preacher droned on and on about Heaven and Salvation and That Time When All Pain Shall Cease. When he finished, he intoned Psalm 23. And when he was finished with that he nodded at me. I raised the trumpet to my lips, not really sure if anything would come out.
The tones rang out despite the rain. I closed my eyes to block out the image of my mother, my sister, and the obsequious mourners in black with their sniffles, tears, and coughs. For the short length of time I was playing, everything stopped. The rustling of the wind through autumn trees stopped. The sound of traffic from the street stopped. The sounds of people crying and sniffling, and whispering stopped. The thoughts in my head stopped. Even the rain seemed to stop. And when I finished there was a brief second of pure and absolute silence; the only way to understand it is to understand that moment when music stops and there is nothing – that moment between tracks on a record or a cassette tape when there’s nothing. It’s one of those moments that have been lost to the digital age, along with cover art and concept albums. It may be the closest to the silence of universe as most people will ever experience.
The silence was shattered by three rounds from the drunks with rifles. They echoed like thunder. When the rifles went silent, time began again. People filed away from the grave, trying to achieve that impossible balance between solemnity and hurrying the hell out of the torrential downpour. The rain, as if it felt the need to catch up, was coming down even harder. Ruby and Denis led Mom away. The preacher shook my hand briefly as he passed.
I stood at the grave for a moment trying to figure out how I should have felt. The man they were burying… that my mom was mourning… that I had just played Taps for.. still didn’t seem like the man I recognized as my father. I turned to walk away. As I did, I saw the graveyard workers out of the corner of my eye, stamping out their cigarettes and starting to move forward.
As I walked away, the head rifleman stumbled up to me. His eyes were puffy and red. So was his nose. He grabbed my hand with both of his and shook it with a little too much vigor.
“That was just beautiful, son,” he said. “Just beautiful.” He tried to hand me a twenty. I told him to keep it.
“Save it for the next guy,” I said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
The old drunk shook his head like he understood. He pocketed the money and then he reached into his coat and pulled out a small flask. He offered it to me. “It’ll help dry ya out,” he said. I took it from him, uncapped it, and took a sip. It burned down my throat. But the warmth spread through my body and for a little while, I didn’t feel that coldness that had crept into my bones.
You want another?” I looked up. Miss Lift and Squeeze was finally looking at me again, though there was no conspiratorial smile on her lips.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll head out after this one.”
She didn’t answer me, but walked over to Rico and Sammy and got into their conversation.
“I can’t believe it!” Rico said. “I just can’t believe this son of bitch! He put money on that NAG – and the fucker came in! First! What the FUCK?!”