19 January, 2010
“I’m glad you were able to have a good time tonight,” she said. She wanted to sound cross, but was too tired to really pull it off. I tried to apologize, but she went into the bedroom before I could muster the words into a cohesive sentence. Oh well. There was always tomorrow. There’s more than one way to say you’re sorry and I’ve discovered most of them. When you spend most of your life (it seems) apologizing, you find ways to get creative.
She walked back out of the bedroom wearing her favorite pajama pants – the pink ones (she insisted they were peach) with the Rosie the Riveter print, and one of the t-shirts she got when she joined a Smoking Cessation Program. The t-shirt was white with NO SMOKING ZONE printed on the chest in black capital letters. The t-shirt – along with the same exact t-shirt except the message was in Spanish instead of English – and a truck load of free Nicotine gum she couldn’t use because it raised her blood pressure went a long with membership. I never said anything, but I always wondered if the meetings went the way AA meetings went in the movies and on television. Did she have to stand up and proclaim “Hi, my name is Linda and I’m a smoker.”? Did they hold hands and chant the Serenity Prayer? I had often thought of asking her, but I didn’t want to sound unsupportive. I started smoking outside instead.
Linda sat down and lit a cigarette; the t-shirts lasted longer than the group, which had lost funding and had to disband two months before.
“Kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it?” I asked, nodding to her t-shirt.
“You should appreciate the irony,” she said.
I didn’t answer.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“What makes you think something’s wrong?”
“I can tell,” she blew out a trail of smoke and rolled her eyes. “I can always tell. Don’t you have to teach tomorrow?”
“You’re gonna hate yourself in the morning.”
I already hated myself, but there was no point in saying so. She knew that already.
So I told her about my evening; about Red calling and informing me of Pendleton’s death; about how he’d been dead a month and nobody saw fit to tell me; how the sound of Red’s obligatory tone pissed me off down to my bones; how I wanted to yell and scream and punch something really really hard. I hadn’t thrown a punch in more than a decade; but I knew that if Red or Brenda were standing in front of me, I could’ve beaten either of them into a bloody fucking pulp. I told her how I could close my eyes and imagine their faces mashed and smashed and pouring with blood, and how thinking about it made me laugh.
But Linda knew it didn’t mean anything. She knew it because I knew it. “I can’t believe Brenda would keep something like that from us,” Linda said. Though by her tone, she was clearly not too surprised.
“I should call the bitch,” I growled. “I should call that fat inbred cunt and tell her what I really think about her.”
“She probably already knows what you think about her,” Linda said. “Besides, that wouldn’t help anything.”
She was right. As usual. The last time we’d seen Brenda was right before we left the hospital after Pendleton’s surgery. He’d come out of it okay, and there was no reason for us to stay. Brenda had been polite; conciliatory even. She asked if I liked teaching. She asked if I was still writing. She gave Linda a disingenuous hug and said, “Don’t be strangers.”
“I should call Red back,” I said. “Tell HIM what I think.”
Linda stood up and moved next to me on the love seat where I was slouched. “Don’t,” she said. “You’ll regret it tomorrow.”
“He didn’t give you a reason?”
“For not telling you sooner?”
“Not one that matters. Not one that explained anything. The lack of clarity would’ve pleased Pendleton.”
“Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t take it out on him, either. Then you’ll REALLY feel bad tomorrow.”
“Well, he’s not here for me to take it out on,” I said. “What the fuck ELSE am I supposed to do?”
“Did Red say where they buried him?”
I knew the place; Pendleton took me there once on one of his junk jaunts. It was a small cemetery in a small town along the river in Kentucky, where he was born. Both his parents were going to be buried there, and so was he. It was the town he’d lived the first nine years of his life in before his old man sold the farm and moved to Cincinnati. In the narrative of his life, he’d been a happy, normal kid until he turned nine. And he liked the symmetry of knowing he’d end up there in the family plot.
“Do you want to cry?” Linda asked.
I wanted to cry, but we both knew I wasn’t going to. “It won’t do any good.”
She sighed and put her arm around me. She let me lay on her. She was warm and safe and loving. She ran her fingers through my hair.
“You shouldn’t drink when you’re upset. It doesn’t help.”
“Nothing helps. Nothing matters.”
“Some things matter.”
I knew she was right; but I wasn’t about to say anything. She let me lay on her until I started to pass out. I didn’t remember going to bed; but the next morning when the alarm went off, that was where I woke up, with Linda laying next to me, holding my hand.
13 January, 2010
“We have to go,” Linda told me. “We really SHOULD go.”
“Is it a ‘have to’ or is it a ‘should do’ kind of thing?”
“Don’t be that way.” She rubbed my shoulder and kissed my cheek. “If you don’t go and something happens you’ll regret it.”
I couldn’t argue with her; but part of me still wanted to. It’s hell sometimes when a woman knows you well enough to make you do what you really need to do but don’t want to do.
We’d gotten a call from Red. At least half the time I just didn’t pick up the phone when the caller ID flashed his number; mostly he called when he wanted to complain. Sometimes he called to brag – but that was rare. Our conversations never lasted more than a few minutes because I always ran out of things to say. This time I answered because I was in a particularly good mood. I’d picked up a couple of classes at a community college and was bringing in a little money for a change; Linda was still working too much overtime, though, and I was looking around for other opportunities. I’d also had some luck publishing – a poem and short story were going to be published in two different small journals with an even smaller distribution. There was no money involved, of course; but it was nice to be noticed and appreciated, even if it was only by a few people.
Red’s call sucked all the air out of my lungs and all the good energy out of the room. He called to tell me Pendleton was in the hospital, that the doctors weren’t optimistic. Surgery would definitely be involved and because of all his health problems – high blood pressure, bad heart, kidney and liver problems (a side effect of the blood thinner) – one tiny problem and Pendleton wouldn’t wake up.
“You should be here,” Red told me. He was barely holding himself together. “In case… something… happens.”
It took us two hours to get there, driving at night in late October rain. Linda drove because I don’t like driving at night. When we got to the hospital, Red met us in the lobby and took us up to the ICU waiting room. It was full of exhausted, worried people living on vending machine coffee and bad cafeteria food. I didn’t see Brenda, but Red told us she’d gone home for a change of clothes and would be back.
“We should wait,” he said, “until she gets back before we try and see him.”
“Have you seen him?”
“How’d he look?”
Red shrugged, trying to be unemotional and manly. He was trying not to cry.
“Can’t we just see him now?” Linda asked. “There’s no harm in seeing him now.”
Red sighed and nodded. He was being very solemn. “You need to prepare yourself,” he intoned. Like a fucking undertaker, I thought. “He looks… ah... different… from the… last… time… you… saw him.”
I wanted to tell Red to shut the fuck up and cut out the dramatics. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t some dumb ass kid who’d never seen an ICU or visited someone on the edge of death. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t the pussy standing in the middle of the waiting room crying. Mostly, though, I think he was talking to himself; so I didn’t say either of those things. His calling me was simply a courtesy – one that Brenda probably hadn’t agreed to, but Red had convinced her that Pendleton would want to see me. Linda took my hand and gave it a squeeze; she knew exactly what I was thinking and was telling me it would be okay.
I found out later that he’d been in the hospital for three weeks. That was when I figured out that calling me wasn’t a reaction; it was an afterthought. I was an afterthought. I’d been out of the loop for so long that it was only Red’s sense of propriety and obligation that prompted his call. For some reason, that hurt more than the possibility that Pendleton might die and leave his bitch of a wife in charge of his memory.
Truth is I knew my exclusion was my fault. When Linda and I moved out of the cabin, I cut off all contact with Pendleton and Brenda. If there’s one thing I can do well, its hold a grudge. And hold one I did. I still did. This has been called different things over the years; my parents, friends, ex-girlfriends, my ex-wife and my ex-mother-in-law all called it stubbornness. I was too bullheaded. I was too drunk. I was too deluded. I was too proud to admit when I was wrong. I was too arrogant to consider the possibility that I might be wrong. About something. About anything. About everything.
What the hell do they want from me? I thought. I’m here. Linda and I came here and now I have to stand here and listen to Red tell me to ‘Prepare myself.’ What did he think I was doing all the way there in the car? Singing show tunes? Linda must’ve felt my muscles tighten, because she latched onto my arm and wouldn’t let go. If ever there was a woman whose love I didn’t deserve, it was hers. Maybe I wasn’t a nice guy; maybe I drank a little too much and maybe I was a stubborn son of a bitch. But Linda loved me. She understood me. Even if Red, Brenda, and Pendleton had their little goddamn sewing circle, I had Linda. The only bad part of that deal was that Linda had me.
Red was still dragging his feet when Linda asked him again if we could go back and see Pendleton. He kept talking about stupid shit. Cars and his job and his soon-to-be ex-wife and how she was using the kids against him. He made a joke about the cafeteria food and bitched about having to go outside to smoke. He told off-color jokes about some of the nurses. Red was always good at small talk; he could talk for hours and not say anything worth remembering. I was never good at small talk. Attempting it was torture. In most social situations I came off awkward or weird. First impressions have never been my forte. It wasn’t unusual for me to enter a light conversation and end up taking it somewhere serious. For years people told me I needed to relax and develop a sense of humor.
Pendleton always understood that about me. He didn’t mind when I didn’t talk, or when I inevitably led the conversation into some serious or odd direction. “If you’re going to talk,” he told me, “it ought to be something important, anyway. There’s too much static that passes for conversation.”
When I asked to marry his daughter, he eyed me carefully. It was an uncomfortably long silence. I’d expected him to smile and be happy about it. My family was in a state of shock, which wasn’t surprising; but her mother had been thrilled. Looking back, I realize she was hastening the union, almost from the beginning. She needled and prattled on about us, talked about us like we were already married. She used to let me spend the night when she knew there was more than sleeping going on in her daughter’s tiny back bedroom. I had more or less extricated myself from one family and inserted myself into another. They attended my high school graduation. They took me to college. I used to sneak back and visit without telling my family. I skipped out on holidays to be with them as much as I could. When Pendleton’s daughter graduated from high school, I transferred to her university to stay with her. We’d been attending the same university for a semester when her mother bought up (in the guise of a joke) the idea that we could get more financial aid if we got married. My ex kept saying, “We’re getting married ANYWAY, right? What’s the difference if we get married now or four years from now?”
Finally, after staring at me for what seemed like forever, Pendleton asked, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”
“I think I do.”
He shook his head. “Is this what YOU want? Are you sure?”
I told him it was and he nodded his consent. Six months later I was his son-in-law. A year and half later, she moved out. A month after that, he moved in.
Red was stalling, trying to keep us waiting until Brenda got there. But when Linda mentioned it for a third time, Red looked at his watch and nodded. I noticed the hint of resignation, but didn’t say anything. Brenda would not be pleased. He led us through the doors that led to where the patient rooms were. It wasn’t a private room. I guess it was the poor man’s ICU; but the other beds were empty. Pendleton was hooked up to monitors in both arms and an oxygen machine. I noticed the piss and shit bags on the side of the bed with tubes disappearing under the sheet. His breathing was labored. His skin was so gray that it seemed almost translucent under the dim light above his bed. His hair and beard were long, mostly gray, with twisted strands of white. His eyes were puffy and his lids were closed, like he was thinking.
“Look,” Red said to him. He talked to Pendleton in that loud voice people use with the very sick, the very old, and with retarded kids. “Look who’s here.”
Pendleton opened his eyes; it took him a couple of seconds to focus. Was that surprise I saw spread across his face? Or was it pain? Maybe he farted.
“Hey,” he huffed.
“Hey,” I answered.
Linda smiled and touched his hand. “How are you feeling?” She spoke to him like we were sitting around the kitchen table playing cards. Such a sweet woman; she was always good at knowing how to talk to people. I was trying not to look at all the tube and block out the monitor sounds and keep myself from puking because that smell – that fucking hospital smell – had permeated the inside of my mouth, nose, and throat. Linda made more small talk and flirted with him in the innocent and adorable way she used to – which wasn’t all that different from the way she talked to little old men. Red stood there, arms folded, feigning machismo and still trying not to cry. I stood there, waiting.
I didn’t have to wait long. We weren’t there five minutes when Brenda’s heaved her way in. I didn’t think it was possible for someone that big to get even bigger. When she entered the room, it was clear from her body language who was in charge. She squinted at Red, who moved out of her way. She approached the bed, put her bible down on the tray next to the water he couldn’t drink and the food he didn’t want, and then she leaned over Pendleton and kissed him on the forehead like she was marking her territory. This is mine. She was wearing a small silver cross pendant around her neck; I’d seen it advertised in late night commercials; it had a gem in the center that, if you looked through it, you could see the Lord’s Prayer. That was when I noticed the framed picture of Jesus on the bedside table; it was one of those paintings where he looks like he was born to an upper class family in Connecticut.
“You can pray if you want,” Brenda said. “Everything helps.”
I didn’t answer. I hadn’t prayed in years and I wasn’t about to start at the behest of a church channel watching cunt. I wasn’t about to appeal to her god or her Anglo-Saxon savior.
“How you doing?” I finally asked him. “The nurses treating you nice? I guess with all these tubes, that limits your ability to harass them.”
Brenda shot me a hateful glance, Red held his breath, and Linda shook her head. Pendleton chuckled and coughed.
“I’m … ok…” Pendleton breathed. “I’m…”
“Of course he’s ok,” Brenda finished. “We’re just waiting for them to come and take him for surgery.” She looked over at Red. “I kind of thought you’d get here after it was over.” She went over everything the doctors had told her with the accuracy of a tape recorder. His kidneys were on the verge of failure. His heart lining was thin. His intestines were in knots. They were going to change his meds. “Gawd willin’,” she said, “he’ll be around for another 50 years.”
The sickness and Brenda’s voice were getting to me. I needed to smoke a cigarette. My stomach was turning and I was sure my complexion was going green.
“Do you want to pray?” Brenda asked again. This time she was clearly talking to Linda more than me. Linda wasn’t anymore of a believer than I was. She was about to answer, and I was curious about what she’d say, when the nurse came and told us we all needed to leave so they could prepare him for surgery. Brenda kissed Pendleton on the forehead again. Red wiped his eyes. Linda took my hand and led me out of the room. When Red and Brenda walked out, Linda and I followed him through the labyrinth of pastel walls and ugly floor tile to the outside lobby, where we could smoke and not talk about the dying man upstairs. I smoked slowly, trying to prepare for the long night ahead.
17 November, 2009
To call Brenda a vampire would be giving her too much credit; that would bestow on her a predatory instinct she fundamentally lacked. Even classifying her as a leech is an overstatement, though that would be an apt enough description. The thing that motivated her was fear – fear of rejection, fear being laughed at, fear of being alone. She’d been heckled and put down her entire life, which, instead of giving her something to overcome, merely shaped her into a spineless lump of insecurities. She didn’t think beyond what other people told her to think. Before she met Pendleton, she took her cue from her narrow-minded religious father, her self-righteous martyr mother, and her dimwitted brothers whose success in the world was admirable only because of its improbability. After she met Pendleton, her thoughts and words echoed his thoughts and words; then she gradually dug in and the relationship took on truly parasitic proportions. She gained strength and he, proportionally, began to diminish.
True, his health had been poor. Losing the ability to work and suffering under my ex-mother-in-law’s harpish and vindictive nature had worn him down over the years. His first heart attack happened when I was still married to his step-daughter. That heart attack changed everything; and even though it was subtle at first, I noticed how he just seemed to … slow down. He blamed the additional medications. The blood thinner made him bruise more easily and it also made him more sensitive to sunlight. The gray in his hair started to stand out in contrast to the hawk feather black it had always been. He gradually lost interest in things –even his junk jaunts. His reading habits changed and took on a more theological bent. Not being someone who felt the need to explain himself to anybody, he said nothing about any of these things.
The break up of his marriage seemed to rejuvenate him. He stopped taking all the medications and read up on homeopathic and herbal medicine. Vidalia onions, he told me, were good for blood pressure. Garlic was a natural anti-oxidant. Certain fruits and vegetables, in combination with the right herbs, could control heart disease.
I didn’t know that I believed him; but it seemed to work for him, so I didn’t say anything.
By the time he married Brenda, he’d managed to regain most of his former self, though his physical strength had continued to steadily decline. That was one of the reasons Red was so handy to keep around; he could pick up the slack whenever Pendleton got tired, and he thought nothing of it. He was nothing if not reliable – and Brenda always made sure he felt welcomed.
At the time of his marriage to Brenda, he lived in small A-frame cabin in the lower Appalachians, near the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest; that had been his dream for as long as I’d known him. And while the cabin wasn’t much to look at, it was everything he needed: a ten thousand gallon cistern and a simple kitchen. He took out the wood burning stove that came with it and had the old iron belly refurbished and installed. It was the primary source of heat in the winter and a constant source of satisfaction. “She always said it was a piece of junk,” he told me, referring to his ex-wife. “Well, look at it now.” With the right kind of planning, a person could live out there and avoid going into town for months at a time – even during the winter when it wasn’t uncommon to be snowed in for days and weeks on end.
Brenda liked the idea of the cabin, but the lack of certain creature comforts – like central air and heat – quickly got to her. After the first winter there she convinced Pendleton to leave the cabin and move into a nice modular home closer to town with city water, city gas, and weekly garbage pick up. The cabin then became a large storage shed for all of Brenda’s things that they didn’t have room for in the new place. But Pendleton didn’t like leaving the place empty. When Linda and I were between places (after making the mistake of moving in people we considered good friends) we all struck on the idea of us moving into the cabin. Pendleton told us (much to Brenda’s chagrin) that as long we took care of the place, kept the grass mowed, and paid our own utilities, we could live there rent free.
The mistake we made was actually moving in.
Life was okay for a couple of months. Linda and I settled in and cleaned the place up – which was no small task, since Pendleton and Brenda had let it go since the move to town. We moved things around, put a lot Brenda’s things either upstairs or in the airtight prefabricated storage building Pendleton had erected with the intention of using it as a workshop. Linda planted a little garden of peppers and tomatoes. I chopped wood to stock up for the winter and tried to keep the grass under control. That was mostly a futile effort. The mower was shot and the weed eater didn’t cut. Deer and rabbits decimated our tomatoes. Hornets moved in under the front porch. That summer it didn’t rain and the cistern nearly dried up.
Brenda began dropping by unannounced. At first, she brought Pendleton with her. Then she started showing up alone. She’d poke around the cabin and want to dig some stupid thing or another out of the attic or the storage shed. She made catty comments about the grass. When I pointed out that the mower was a piece of shit, she shrugged her oxen shoulders and said “You knew that when you moved in. Why don’t you fix it? It’s not like you pay rent.”
Naturally I understood the subtext. She knew damn well why I hadn’t tried to fix the mower; I wasn’t mechanically inclined. When I did try and fix something, it all when to shit and I ended up fucking it up worse than it had been to begin with. What she was REALLY saying was “Why don’t you act like a man and fix it?” I wasn’t sure how she had any real conception of men. The only other man to touch her before Pendleton was probably a drunken redneck who did it either on a dare or out of the same desperation that would have been equally served by a hole in the wall. Her dad wasn’t all that handy and none of her brothers especially liked getting their hands dirty. But because Pendleton was increasingly allowing her to conduct his business, I had to suffer her moralizing and condescension. Then Linda told me Brenda came around when I was gone, too, just (it seemed) to put me down.
One day, fueled by frustration, I tore into the mower. The piece of shit ended up in several pieces and I had no idea how to fix it or how to put the damned thing back together. So much for my manliness. After that I went to Pendleton and told him Brenda was dogging me to Linda behind my back.
“Relationships are hard enough,” I told him, “without OTHER PEOPLE making them more difficult.”
He nodded in agreement and said very little. All I really wanted him to do was say something to her about it. Or at least pretend he had some interest in how she was running his affairs. But he didn’t seem all that concerned. His complexion was going gray, and so was his hair. I didn’t know it then, but (at Brenda’s insistence) he started taking the meds again. The rest of our conversation was trivial. He was growing his hair and beard, which made him look even older. When I stopped by I had interrupted his reading; he was pouring over apocryphal texts and making arcane notes on yellow legal pads. I made sure to leave before Brenda got home in order to avoid a confrontation.
One week later, Linda and I came back from a grocery run and found an envelope stuck in the screen door.
“What’s that?” Linda asked, setting her bags down.
I had set mine down to open the envelope. It contained a letter:
“Dear Nick and Lynda,
“As you know, when you moved in to the cabin, you agreed to take care of the property and pay your own utilities in lew of rent. This was a very genrous offer, since you know we could rent it out for quiet a lot of money. But since you were family, we decided to extend our hospitality to you and Lynda and alow you to live there.
“But you have not lived up to your part of the agreemint. The grass hasn’t been cut in more than a month and when we have tried to get you to do something you find excuses not to.
“For this reason, we have decided to start charging you rent. You will pay us $100 on the first of each month, starting with this month or you will move so we can rent to someone who is more responsible.”
It was already the fifteenth; that meant we had to pay them immediately or get out. Pendleton’s signature was at the bottom of the letter, but I knew he hadn’t written it. It didn’t sound like him; besides, he knew how to spell Linda’s name. He’d been schooled to believe – like public schools used to teach but don’t anymore – that misspelled and misused words were an insult, only to the language but to the person who made the mistakes and the person forced to read them. It was clear that Brenda, whose abuse of the language was not only common but engrained through generations of neglect, had written the letter and the Pendleton had signed it. I wondered if he bothered to read it.
“What the fuck?!” I showed Linda the letter.
She quickly read it. “What the fuck?” she echoed, handing it back to me. “Where the hell is this coming from?”
“You know where,” I answered. “Give that dumb bitch a little power and she acts like she owns us.”
“But he signed it.”
“He didn’t write it.”
“How do you know?”
“I just KNOW.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We’re moving,” I said.
“Somewhere. Soon. Let them try and find somebody else to live here who’ll take care of it. Bitch. Cunt.” I turned to walk back out the door.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to tell them both to shove this letter up her fat ass!”
I walked out the door before Linda could talk me out of it or calm me down. As I was getting in the car, I heard her tell me not to do anything I would regret later. Not likely, I thought. After everything we’d gone through – the years of friendship in spite of my ex, his ex, and everything that had passed in between us since I had turned eighteen – after almost ten years – all of it meant nothing, now that Brenda bent his ear and dug her pudgy claws into him.
I didn’t have to go far. Just as I was getting ready to pull out, they were coming up the drive. They brought Red with them. I guess Brenda wanted to make sure we saw the letter and she brought him along as a witness. Stupid twat. When I approached them, Red didn’t greet me with his usual smile and over wrought badly timed joke. Pendleton nodded at me, which was all he ever did anyway. Brenda was the first to talk.
“Red’s here to fix the mower,” she began, sounding glib.
I ignored her completely. Pendleton was still sitting in the passenger seat of the truck. When approached he rolled the window down. “What’s this?” I demanded.
“Did you read it?” he asked.
“Yeah, I read it. I tried to, anyway. What is this? If there was a problem, why didn’t YOU come and talk to me?”
“We tried,” Brenda broke in. “But every time…”
“Shut up,” I said, not looking at her. My eyes didn’t leave Pendleton’s face. He didn’t react; there was a time he would have at least tried to scare me. But there was none of that left in him. “I know you didn’t write this,” I said. “She did. And you signed it. Did YOU read it?”
He shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” I repeated. “If you had a problem with me, you should have come to me. But instead, you let HER write me a goddamned letter? Really? After everything?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
Red was standing off to the side, watching. He was tense. He would want to jump in soon. I didn’t care, but I didn’t feel like dealing with anybody else. There was only one person who mattered. I tore the letter into four pieces and dropped them in Pendleton’s lap. “That’s what I think about that,” I said. “We’ll be out of her by the end of the week.”
“You don’t have to move,” Brenda tried to cut in.
I didn’t answer her. I was still looking at Pendleton for some sign. Something. Anything. There was nothing. I turned and walked back inside. Linda was sitting on the couch reading. I opened the fridge and took out a beer.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
I didn’t answer.
29 October, 2009
After I got off the phone with Red, though, I was in no mood to growl at the kids for hitting my door. I was in no mood to growl at anybody. Except maybe Brenda.
She didn’t like me because I stood her up once. Not long after my ex and I split, Brenda invited me to her house for dinner. I ended up getting drunk and forgetting about it. She never forgave me. Actually, I’d forgotten all about it until she started dating Pendleton. Naturally, she brought it up. “It’s no big deal,” she said smiling through her triple chins. Brenda was not a petite woman; then again, Pendleton liked his women on the big side. She was a pious and broken woman who was easy to impress. She didn’t think she was smart, and all of Pendleton’s books impressed her. She worshipped him – which he loved – because he ex-wife, my ex-mother-in-law, was a bitter shrew who never showed him any respect at all.
We were all friends for a while – Pendleton and Brenda and Linda and me. We went to their house for dinner all the time, and we played cards after until well after midnight. Pendleton usually cooked because the only food Brenda knew how to cook were TV dinners and frozen pizzas. Eating with them made me glad I’d forgotten that dinner date with Brenda; Pendleton was a decent cook and liked things spicy, the same as me.
We stayed friends until they got married. The small ceremony happened in Pendleton’s living room with a few friends attending and a homemade wedding cake that always seems to lean a little to the left. After she married him, Brenda took ownership of everything –including Pendleton. She didn’t mind if Red came around because he could help her husband work on the cars or fix the lawn mower; he was useful. I was all thumbs and useless and I drank too much; plus she thought I was mean to Linda sometimes. She also didn’t understand why I couldn’t seem to hold down a job, even though she’d never been able to keep one more than two months in the entire time I knew her.
“Fuck her,” I spat at the empty apartment. “Fuck her and her fat condescending head and her TV fucking dinners and fake piety and her hollow fucking prayers.”
After Pendleton married Brenda he rediscovered religion. He’d always had his own point of view on the subject; he once told me that God spoke to him and explained the purpose of evil in the world. But when I asked him to tell me, he only smiled and shook his head. “You need to find that answer for yourself.”
Give m a fucking break, I thought. Pendleton thought of himself as a spiritual man, but he didn’t go to church very much. “There’s nothing there I can’t get sitting on my back porch,” he said. Mostly I think he didn’t like the idea of having to dress up. Cleaned up with his shirt tucked in, Pendleton looked more like an irate bus driver than the misunderstood mountain man he wanted to be. But Brenda had insisted they go at least once a month; it was her family’s church and she wanted to prove to them all that she could land a husband who wasn’t either a stumbling alcoholic or her fourth cousin.
The scotch bottle was empty, but I wasn’t done drinking. I considered my options. I probably could’ve closed my eyes right then and gone to sleep; that would’ve been the smart option. But I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to stop thinking. I didn’t want to stop remembering. I didn’t want to stop the waves of anger pulsing in my arms and legs and chest. Normally Linda could talk some sense into me; but she was working an extra shift and wouldn’t be home until late. I was supposed to get up the next morning and teach. If I kept on, I wouldn’t feel like getting out of bed. All I’d feel was hungover and angry and all it would take was one stupid question and I’d bite some empty-headed student’s face off.
I put on my shoes and left. The sounds of the children playing echoed in my ears, nearly split my ear drums. So be it, I thought. If I’m deaf I won’t have hear anything anymore. No more children playing. No more silly questions. No more phone calls from Red. Nothing. Nada. Nunca. Silence.
The bar looked unusually crowded, so I didn’t go inside. I didn’t feel like being around people and having to play at being friendly. I kept walking. The scotch made my blood warm; I felt every drop of it coursing through my veins, pumping my heart, propelling me forward. Forward was all that mattered. I got as far as the corner drug store. I didn’t have enough cash for another bottle of scotch, so I settled for a reasonably cheap jug of table wine. The girl working the register eyed me carefully, but didn’t refuse my money. I walked out the automatic doors and cracked the seal. It was a serviceable burgundy; not usually to my liking, but it was the only red wine on the shelf.
If she had been there, Linda would have told me I was begging to be arrested. It was sweet that she still worried about – god knows why, since I rarely worry about myself; but she could never seem to grasp the basic laws of equilibrium. I wouldn’t get picked up because 1.) it was mid-week; 2.) I didn’t look homeless or like an illegal, and 3.) I wasn’t blocking traffic or impeding the forward progress of civilization. The only time anybody cared about a wandering drunk was when he became an affront to some respectable person’s sense of safety and balance. If we still lived in a small town, things would’ve worked out in a different pattern. Small town cops have nothing better to do than to set up speed traps and harass harmless drunks stumbling home from the bar; they have to do something in order to justify their existence. In a small town, one wandering drunk embodies the shaky line between order and chaos. In a city, especially one as self-involved as Phoenix with its image of being the new west coast, a wandering drunk in a decent pair of shoes isn’t the harbinger of anarchy; he’s a symbol of the economic recovery.
I kept the receipt, though. Just in case.
Pendleton was annoyed by my ability to use reason to justify what he saw as unreasonable and unjustifiable behavior. He probably cut me some slack because my drinking didn’t pick up until after his daughter (Actually, she was his step-daughter.) and I split up. Also, I think he felt a little responsible, since he was the one who bought me my first beer.
I was eighteen and my ex and I had just started dating. She was seventeen and occupied nearly all of my attention, and he was worried that we were getting too serious too fast. To try and pull me away, he started taking me with him on his junk jaunts. Almost every Saturday he’d get up early and hit every yard sale, estate sale, and junk shop he knew. And he knew them all. And they knew him. He never looked for any thing in particular. Mostly, when people collect things, they focus on something specific. Baseball cards. Comic books. Tiffany lamp shades. Native American Figurines. Rare books. But not Pendleton; he collected everything and anything. It was like unearthing rare treasure to him. He kept piles of figurines, broken machines, buttons, pins, books, records, and furniture. He had two old Victrolas that, had he put the working parts together, he would’ve had one working record player; he didn’t, though. “It’ll ruin the value,” he said.
The junk dealers laid in wait for him with boxes of knick knacks and odds and ends. Once he came home with the carcass of an iron belly wood stove that was rusted beyond recognition and use. All it needed, he claimed was some repair and it could be useful again. He had to leave it on the front porch, though, because there was no room in small trailer for it.
I tried to understand his fascination, but I never really got into it. I kind of thought he went on his jaunts to get out of the house and away from the harpy voice of his wife and her continual attempts to force him into her idea of respectable self-improvement. My ex told me, with critical tone, that he’d been “that way” since the accident. It happened at work. One of the other mechanics was moving a truck full of engine blocks and rolled over Pendleton’s feet and ankles; the guy was clearly high, apparently. But he was the owner’s son, and when the doctors told Pendleton he’d never be able work on his feet again – they didn’t even think he’d be able to walk again (mostly because the insurance wouldn’t pay for the necessary operations) – the garage made it out that he’d been working on car in the path of the truck, making the accident his fault. That meant that not only did he lose his job, but he didn’t get any worker’s comp, either. I can’t say I blamed him for being a little bitter.
On one of the jaunts he took me on, we stopped and looked at an old Chevelle. It had been beaten up and abused and left out at the mercy of the elements. The body was covered in rust. The wheel wells in the front and the back were deteriorating. The tires were rotting. The engine was locked up. The seats were torn – done by cats, the owner said. He wanted $500 for the wreck. He would’ve asked for more, he told Pendleton, but his old lady was tired of looking at it and was making him get rid of it. Pendleton stared at the car for a long time. After a while, the owner stopped talking to him and wandered away because Pendleton looked like he was in trance. Had it been somebody else, they guy might’ve made him shove off; but Pendleton was good head and half taller and half a man larger. He wasn’t someone that anybody forced to do anything.
At first, I thought he was going to buy the car; but then he looked over at me and asked if I was ready to go. We left and before we stopped at one of his usual stops – a junktique shop housed in an old gas station on Elm Street – Pendleton stopped at a 7-11 and brought a couple of 22 ounce bottles of beer. He gave me one and drank his without saying anything. He just stared out the windshield. I drank mine. I’d never had beer before, and I’d always heard that nobody liked it the first time they drank it. But I did. It tasted like ginger ale to me. I drank it down pretty quickly, and Pendleton and I went on. He never mentioned it to his wife or my girlfriend, and we never talked about it.
28 October, 2009
Pendleton hated my drinking; he grew up with parents who were rotten, miserable drunks that took their miseries out on him. Even after they quit drinking they still acted like drunks, and well into his adulthood they heaped whatever abuse on him they could. He called them dry drunks. Sometimes he spat on the ground when he said it. Yet while he despised my drinking, he only ever mentioned it to me twice. The rest of the time he just shook his head in his silent, disapproving way.
I drank my tumbler of cheap scotch and sat on the balcony, smoking. The sun was setting. The weather finally cooled off and
My voice came back just in time for Red to call; somewhere on the bus ride from
Pendleton would’ve enjoyed eavesdropping on them, and he would’ve enjoyed talking to the jilted girl. Despite her broadness, she had firm grapefruit tits and he would have enjoyed picturing her topless. Of course, he would’ve been polite; he prided himself on being a gentleman. He called it Southern Gentility.
My tumbler of scotch was empty again, so I refilled it. The cooler weather brought people out of hiding and into the twilight. My neighbors were sitting out on their balconies and all the kids were playing in the small patch of green space that substituted for a courtyard. Sometimes when the kids played kickball one of them would inadvertently hit my door. When that happened I usually stuck my head out and told them to hit somebody else’s door. I made sure to sound mean enough to scare them off. That worked usually worked for two or three days before it happened again.
I learned about being a man from Pendleton. He was really good at it, too. Mean and scary. The first time I went to pick up my ex-wife for a date, he sat in his chair and stared at me the entire five minutes I stood in his living room. Actually, it’s unfair to call it a living room. They lived in a small rundown trailer at the time. The closet-sized back bedroom was occupied by my ex and her sister. Pendleton and his wife slept in the front room. The bed doubled as a couch, and his chair sat facing the door. I was so nervous that I never took my hand off the door knob. He told me later that it was a game he liked to play with people – especially boys who came to date his daughters. He didn’t have to talk, he said, because he was big enough to not have to. “Being silent is better than cleaning a shotgun or showing off a knife collection,” he said. Silence was a less specific threat that relied on the other person’s imagination. Then he told me he liked me right off because I was clearly scared shitless. That, he told me, meant I had a vivid imagination.
20 October, 2009
“I wasn’t s’posed to tell ya,” Red said through the phone. “Brenda made me PROMISE. But I jus’ didn’t think it was RIGHT. Ya know?”
That Brenda didn’t want me to know didn’t surprise me. She and I didn’t get along even before Pendleton married her. She was about the same age as me, which made Pendleton 20 years her senior. He and I had managed to stay friends even though my marriage to his daughter didn’t last; I suppose it had something to do with the fact that his marriage to my bitch of an ex-mother-in-law failed not long after and he moved in with me instead of living in his truck. Even though we got along alright, the two of us in the same living space wasn’t ideal for a lot of reasons – not the least of which that it caused tension between him and my soon to be ex-wife. By the time my divorce was final, I had abandoned the trailer we’d been living in (that I had been living in with his daughter before she left) and moved on to less greener pastures. We managed to stay friends, though, and when he married Brenda I did my best to be happy for him.
The last conversation I had with Brenda was in a hospital waiting room. Prior to that, I hadn’t spoken to her or Pendleton for about two years.She told me to keep in touch. I knew she didn’t mean it. So I didn’t. I liked to think he understood; it’s hard being friends with someone when you don’t get along with his wife, and I didn’t want to cause any trouble. It was easier to move on. It was Red who called to tell me Pendleton was in the hospital and that his condition was pretty serious.
Red first came around because he was dating a friend of my future ex-wife’s; and when that relationship ended because he wanted to settle down and have kids and she wanted to collect stuffed animals and relive the sexual abuse heaped on by her step-daddy, Red stuck around. He and Pendleton could talk about cars. Before the accident that ruined him for work and eventually contributed to his death, Pendleton was a mechanic… and from what I could tell, a pretty good one. He had that magic touch. All he had to do was put his meat hook hands in an engine and regardless of what was wrong or how long it sat, the fucker started every single time. With me, Pendleton talked about books. He never went to college; but he thought it was important to be educated, and he read everything he could get his hands on – from history and sociology to theology, new age medicine, and economics. He told me once that he thought of himself as “a student of human nature.” I asked him what he thought of my nature. He laughed and didn’t answer. Before long Red started reading books so he and Pendleton could talk about that, too.
“Did he go back to the hospital?” I asked. I could hear Red breathing through the phone and he sounded like he’d been drinking. “Was he there for a while? In the ICU? Was he…”
“It was kind of sudden,” he cut me off. “He died at home. It was his heart. It just gave out, ya know? I mean… hell. It was under so much strain anyway, and along with everything else…”
Pendleton was a big man. He once bragged to me that he caught an engine block when the chains holding it up came undone. If he hadn’t caught it, he said, his boss at the garage would have been crushed.
“Thing is,” he also told me, “if I HADN’T caught it and he had died, I probably would’ve ended up getting his job. And if that had happened, I’d probably still be working.”
Red was trying really hard to get off the phone. So I let him. There was no point in prolonging the conversation anyway. Without Pendleton as a common factor, I wasn’t sure there was anything left for us to talk about. I wondered briefly how he felt about breaking his promise to Brenda; but Red clearly saw a larger obligation. That was just the way he was; his days were ruled by his obligations the way a dog is ruled by a leash. Red lost sleep if he got to the end of his day and some small thing was left undone. That was another thing we didn’t have in common; my only obligations have always been to myself. And if I can’t sleep, I drink until I do.
We exchanged our goodbyes. He said he’d call again. He said for me to call him. He told me not to be a stranger. He told me I should visit him so that we could go out drinking the way we used to. I said goodbye and thanked him for telling me. I told him to take care of his family. Then I hung up and poured myself a drink.