|Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller|
26 December, 2018
07 January, 2011
17 May, 2010
Not that being in a hospital would do her any good. Loleen knew she was dying. So did everyone else. Mitch knew she was dying and insisted she move in. Annmarie knew she was dying and resented that she was doing it in her house. Her grandchildren knew she was dying, but didn’t have any patience with her anymore now that she was too sick to make her famous double chocolate cookies. Loleen knew that the only reason she was living with her son and his family was that there wasn’t enough money to put her in nursing home – and that would have almost been better, if she didn’t know that people got stuck in nursing homes so that their families could learn to forget about them.
The day before had been a busy day. Annmarie drove the 80 mile round trip from Mt. Arliss to Silverton to take her shopping at JC Penny’s. It was an important trip. They’d gotten up early. The kids didn’t want to go and weren’t silent about their displeasure. Annmarie wasn’t all that excited about going, either, but Loleen had impressed its importance upon her and promised to pay for the kids to eat at McDonalds. Loleen didn’t like that she had to nag and bribe her family – the people who should want to take care of her. If it were Annmarie’s mother, there would have been no question; but Annmarie’s mother lived out of state. Loleen understood that it was a maudlin reason to go shopping. And while it was true that Loleen still had some nice dresses, none of them suited the purpose.
None of them was a dress she wanted to be buried in.
And since her death was, according to Dr. Sims, imminent she wanted to make sure all the details were taken care of. Mitch wouldn’t have a clue what to do and she didn’t trust Annmarie to put in the kind of care and attention to detail that it deserved. Loleen had already picked out her casket, her headstone, and had chosen the songs and even the preacher. All that remained was the dress.
Annmarie was forced to push Loleen around in the wheelchair; this didn’t bother Loleen much except that she had to keep reminding her to slow down. Deciding how she wanted to look for all eternity was a serious task. And it was a detail most people would take for granted. It was bad enough that she’d heard Annmarie talking to her son about cremation. Cremation! Like they were some aboriginal tribe on some backwards subcontinent! And who would visit her in the cemetery if all that was left of her was a pile of ashes? Annmarie would just as soon have her cremated and put the ashes in an old coffee can and bury her in the backyard next to the dog.
Loleen didn’t like the first seven dresses she looked at. Well, she’d liked the fifth one okay; but she said she didn’t like it because Annmarie was sighing and hemming and hawing like her time was being wasted. All the woman did was work at Mitch’s bar sometimes and watch Spanish soap operas. She didn’t even really take care of Loleen. If Mitch hadn’t rebuilt the downstairs bathroom so she could use it herself, she was sure Annmarie would have let her sit in her own mess until Candice arrived. And Candice was a sweet girl; but she wasn’t family.
So she made Annmarie wait through the sixth and seventh dresses – both of which were fine, she supposed. But by the time she got to the eighth dress, Loleen was getting tired, and she was getting a headache because the grandchildren refused to behave.
The dress was a deep purple dress with a gold and silver floral design; the fabric was soft. It struck Loleen as almost royal – maybe because of the purple. And while she would have never bought a purple dress before, she knew it was the perfect one.
Propped up on pillows as she was because she couldn’t lie down and sleep anymore, she took the oxygen tube off and stared at the dress hanging over the closet door. She lay there watching the dress while her lungs filled up with fluid and her breathing became more labored and her body instinctively prepared for another round of coughing. What a beautiful dress, she thought. Then she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be perfectly still forever, clothed in that purple dress and removed to a place far away from the sounds of her grandchildren, her son’s wife, and the pain that woke her up every morning.
01 February, 2010
“Poor bastard,” Bill Watson repeated like he was talking aloud to himself. “That’s just what he is.”
Madge filled his glass from one of the two working taps and waddled back across the length of the bar to where Bill was sitting. Most days Bill was her one and only customer. That was especially true in the winter, when the farmers had no reason to come into town and it was too cold for anybody else to linger longer than they had to; sometimes it got busy on Thursday or Friday afternoons – which meant that maybe a handful of people showed up instead of just Bill – but the bar had long been a place where old men (who were all friends of her Harry’s) could safely sit and talk the way bullshitting way old men talk without having to worry about the interruption of their wives or the impatience of the younger generations. The younger and noisier crowd went up the street to Mitch Bausendorfer’s place. She was tired and knew she would only be more tired by the time she closed the bar for the night; in fact, she hadn’t felt right all day. Normally, she would have had somebody cover for her; but there was no one who could. She’d had to let go of Thom, who tended bar for her husband. She also had to let go of one of the cooks; the only one left was that underage girl Kimmy – who had the night off – that Madge kept on account of her condition. The girl was pregnant, unmarried, and not even out of high school. The father, naturally, was nowhere to be found. And after Kimmy couldn’t work anymore, Madge figured on closing the kitchen.
“He knew what he was getting into with her,” Madge sighed and set the glass down in front of Bill; she was self-conscious of her hand shaking and spilling a few drops on the worn wood counter top. She wiped her hand on a bar towel and continued. “That woman wasn’t nothin’ but trouble from the word go.”
“Yeah, sure was,” Bill nodded. “But wasn’t YOU the one hired her?”
“HARRY hired her,” she corrected him. “Right before he couldn’t run things no more.”
“Ah, yeah,” Bill agreed and took a penitent sip of his beer. He’d been Harry’s oldest friend and best customer; once upon a time Madge even thought of marrying Bill. But that was years and years ago, when she was younger and Bill wasn’t such the crusty old drunk. Besides, she’d stood as Maid of Honor for Hilda, his wife and her childhood friend. They’d all grownup together, the four of them, in Havensham. That was a lot of years. Sometimes she thought it was too many, considering what she had to show for them. “But YOU fired her ass, didn’ ya?”
“I never wanted to own no bar,” Madge announced. “But I ain’t about to let some whore turn Harry’s place into a brothel.”
“Oh, don’t I know it.” Bill smiled like he was remembering something with great fondness. “But what’s wrong with a pretty girl trying to make a living?”
“Hah. That’s just like you Bill. Dirty old goat; you get a sniff of somethin’ young and you lose what little brains the good lord gave you. What if I told Hilda what you said?”
Bill snorted and chuckled. “She’d appreciate the break. She don’t like me hangin’ ‘round the house anyway. You know,” he paused to take another drink. “I wish somebody’d TOLD me retirement was so damned DULL.”
“Poor, poor you,” Madge spat. She didn’t try to cover her bitter tone.
”So,” Bill changed the subject, “you gonna close the place or what?”
She shrugged and didn’t answer. Her son had been telling her when he called earlier in the day that she needed to either close the place or sell the place. Her daughter Coletta, though, wanted her to keep it open and wait for business to pick up. But Madge knew that business wasn’t going to pick up; all the younger men who drank all the beer and all the liquor wanted to be where all the young pretty girls were. And all the young pretty girls were up the street at Mitch Bausendorfer’s, because he didn’t care what anybody did as long as there wasn’t a big mess to clean up and as long as nobody called the cops. Every day that she got up to open the bar, Madge thought about closing it down; but Harry’s bar gave her someplace to go and something to do and it also gave her something to bitch about.
“Have you seen Ricky lately?” Madge asked.
Bill shook his head and frowned. “Nah. He don’t go out much. Well he CAN’T really, unless somebody drives him. And since Lizzy, he hasn’t really had anybody.”
“He can hire somebody,” Madge said. “His insurance’ll cover a home health aid. It’s good insurance. He got it through the mill.”
“Huh. Ain’t as good as it used to be.” Bill drained his glass and held it up, signaling that he wanted another. “She still shouldn’ta done him thataway.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Cruel. It was just cruel.”
Madge picked up the glass and started towards the tap. “Everybody knew she was after his disability check,” she said. “Even Ricky knew that.”
“He said he loved her.”
“Good lord! Love. Maybe so. but that don’t mean she loved him. And that don’t give him the excuse to take leave of his senses.”
“Still nothin’. He should of knowed better. He knew what kind a girl she was. Hell. Before she sunk her claws into Ricky, she’d a laid down and spread her legs for anything with button fly.”
“Still NOTHIN’.” Madge filled the glass and kept an eye on it as she made her way back to make sure she didn’t spill too much. “And even after she moved in with Ricky, she was still whorin’ around with those boys down at Bausendofer’s.” She snorted. “That ain’t no kind of woman to move into your house.”
“You know what I heard,” Bill leaned in like he was telling a secret when Madge arrived with his mostly full glass of beer. “I heard he got him one of them … pumps ... you know?”
“Good lord. All the good that done him.” Madge scoffed. “He wasn’t gonna feel nothing anyway.”
Madge shook her head and didn’t answer. Men, she thought. Don’t know nothin’.”
Bill drank two more beers before he left. Madge carefully washed the glass he’d been using and put it away. There were no other dishes to wash. She wiped off the counter top and went around to the other side of the bar to make sure all the stools were straight. She cast her eyes around the empty bar room and sighed. The cloth on the pool table was still torn from New Year’s Eve when Mary Taylor’s husband (The durn fool, Madge thought) drank too much Evan Williams and decided to dance on it. Of course Mary had apologized the next day and promised that her husband would repay the damages; but he’d been laid off from the chicken plant for a year and hadn’t found steady work since. The juke box was lit, but still broken. The walls were covered with hunting trophies: deer heads, a fox, some raccoons, and the above the bar, the big moose head that had given Harry the idea for the name. Sometimes all the dead eyes staring down at her gave her the heebie jeebies. Moose Head. She’d always hated that name; but it was useless to argue with Harry. He’d gone off on one of his hunting trips and when he came back he announced to Madge that he was going to sink their money – what little they’d had – into a bar. “It’ll be great,” he’d told her. “Things are going to be fine. You’ll see.”
Things were fine too, she supposed. Until Harry came down with the cancer. She watched him die for a year; towards the end, he wasn’t even awake and the doctors had to tell her when it was time to pull the plug and let him go. Sometimes when she was alone in the bar, Madge allowed herself to feel the things she didn’t normally let show; like anger. Some days and nearly every night she was so mad at Harry she could barely see straight. Mad because he’d opened his stupid bar with what little money they’d had left. Mad at him for dying first. The anger well up in her and caused to shake uncontrollably; she shook so much she had to sit down until it passed. A few times she allowed herself a shot of peppermint schnapps – just to settle herself down. But when the anger subsided, all she wanted to do was cry and cry and not stop until there were no more tears and no more emptiness and no more her to sit around and worry about whether she should have the hardwood floors of The Moose Head stripped and revarnished.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Harry. Not at all.” Madge looked at her watch. It was only 8:30. She was supposed to keep the bar open until midnight; but she wanted to go home. Well, not so much go home as much as she was tired of sitting in the bar. She told herself she’d sweep the floors in the morning and maybe look for a realtor. Or maybe she’d let Harry Jr. handle it.
She locked the cash register even though there wasn’t enough money in it to worry about. As Madge waddled out from behind the bar, she pulled on her coat. It had been Harry’s old field coat, but the cancer shrunk him so that towards the end it fit him more like a large tent. Walking past the bar, she noticed the small brass plate where Bill had been sitting. The plate read “In Memory of Skip ’07.”Skip Saunderson had been one her son’s friends; he had died in Iraq. When news of the death hit Havensham, her husband decided to put the plaque there, hoping that might convince their son to come home and help them with the bar. It didn’t, of course. Young Harry liked his life in Minneapolis and he could mourn Skip just as well from there. Madge thought of Skip’s mother, Carol Ann; she’d been devastated by the death of her only son. For a moment, Madge allowed herself to feel lucky; she had only buried an old man, not her son. After Skip’s funeral, Carol Ann sold the house and moved in with her daughter, who lived in Florida. Madge thought about closing the bar, selling the house, and moving to Minneapolis. She didn’t want to live with Harry Jr. permanently; only until she found her own place. No grown man would ever find a wife if he lived with his mother; and she sure thought it was past time for him to get married and have a family. But things worked different in the city, she supposed.
Madge braced herself for the cold and switched off the lights on her way out the door. Then she walked out into the February night. Before she turned to walk to over to her car, she looked up the street at all the life going on at Mitch Bausendorfer’s bar. The rest of Main Street was quiet and the laughter and music emanating from the bar echoed through the streets. “Good night, Harry,” Madge said. Then she waddled to her car, not bothering to lock the door behind her.
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.
11 November, 2009
“Shouldn’ta been in the street,” Sammy said, and spat on the sidewalk, just to see if the goober would freeze. He was always so cool. Detached. We’d been friends since elementary school, and he was even cool back then. The only thing that ever seemed to affect him was the tightness of Marissa Hency’s shirt on any given day. Her freshman year she was a gangly little girl with mousy hair and big eyes that nobody noticed. But when she walked to the school building at the beginning of her sophomore year –our senior year – her tits crossed the entrance well ahead of her. Since then, the sight of her put Sammy into a dreamy-eyed frenzy and robbed him of the ability to speak coherently.
“Somebody should have tied him up,” Fremont added. He had the car, so he drove. Sammy parent’s wouldn’t let him drive one of theirs, and I totaled mine; Fremont was also a sophomore – a fact that Sammy often resented, since he was in the same homeroom as Marissa Hency – but he was a good kid. Super smart. He was in all the advanced classes and all the teachers loved him. The only thing that saved him from being bullied was the fact that his old man had been biker and taught him how to fight. He was also the school artist; people always wanted him to draw them pictures because they just knew he was going to be a famous artist someday.
“We can’t just leave him there,” I said. The dog was in the gutter across the street from Sammy’s house. The legs were stiff. The frost that had settled the night before was still covering his coat. It was still cold enough that I could see my breath when I talked.
“We gotta get to school,” Sammy said.
“Like you give a shit about school,” Fremont said, smiling. “You’re just going to pass out behind the wrestling mats until lunch, anyway.”
Sammy gave him the finger. “Shut the fuck up.”
“We can’t leave him here.” I didn’t really care about school. Besides the fact that it was my senior year and I didn’t give a shit anyway, first bell was Introduction to Business, Ms. Stockdale’s class. She was a horrible teacher and it was a horrible class. She talked on and on and on about things like how to keep a balanced checkbook and about the nature of supply and demand. I took the class because I needed an elective and there weren’t any art classes; my only other option was a typing class that would have been worse torture than listening to Ms. Stockdale. I would have taken a shop class, if only to have an excuse to hang out with Sammy – but the guidance counselor made sure that none of the college-track kids, which I was, never got into any of the shop classes.
The dog wasn’t the first dead animal I’d ever seen; you grow up in a small town like New Leeds and you see a lot of dead animals. Mostly cats. Nobody really cared about cats. In the spring, squirrels and raccoons were regular road kills. More skunks in the summer. Far enough out of town, sometimes you’d see a deer get tagged by a speeding truck. There were plenty of stray dogs – but they were either adopted or shot or, sometimes, even poisoned. But they weren’t road kill very often.
“It’s DEAD,” Sammy rolled his eyes. “Who gives a shit? The road crew’ll come and pick him up in a couple of hours, anyway.”
Sammy was right; eventually somebody would call it in and the Road Department would send out a truck. They’d scrape him out of the gutter and take him to be incinerated. Animals that were owned or loved were generally buried. One of my cousins told me about a friend of theirs who had his dog stuffed; he had it made to look like it was curled up sleeping and then put in what had been the dog’s favorite corner. I thought that was disgusting; nobody would ever do that to a person. Why do it to a dog?
“How would YOU like it?” I asked Sammy, “if you were dead in the gutter and nobody gave a shit about you?”
Sammy spat on the sidewalk again and lit a cigarette; he wasn’t worried about getting caught because his parents had already left for work. “I wouldn’t care,” he said. “I wouldn’t care at all. “ So cool.
I bent down to take a closer look, and I patted the dog’s head. He’d had a hungry life and probably didn’t get petted that much; I could count a couple of his ribs. I looked at the dog’s snarling face again. One of the eyes was shut, like it had squinted – looking straight into oncoming headlights, probably. But the other eye was wide open. It was a lifeless grayish-blue color. It made me think of what I’d heard once about wolves having blue eyes; for some reason, it made me feel sadder than I already did.
“Don’t do that,” Sammy coughed. “Dead bodies carry disease. You’ll get one of those worms that crawls up your dick.”
“It’s too cold for that,” I said.
“Yeah,” Fremont agreed.
Sammy shot him another dirty look. Then he looked over at me. “Come on, Nick,” he said. “Let’s go. What’re you gonna do? Have a funeral for it?”
I looked up at Sammy. He looked like he was making a joke. I looked over at Fremont. He was looking at me. He nodded, and I nodded back.
“Jesus fucking CHRIST!” Sammy Scoffed. “Are you SHITTIN’ me? It’s not even your dog, man! What if the owner comes looking for it? Don’t you think THEY’D want to bury it?”
“No tags,” I said as I stood up. “No collar at all.” I looked around the head again. No blood, except right around the mouth. When I moved to stand between Sammy and Fremont, I felt the eye following me and I shuddered. Just a little.
“Not everyone buys tags,” Sammy said.
Fremont and I decided to take Sammy to school and come back for the dog. At first, he didn’t believe that we were really just dropping him off. He told us we’d end up getting in trouble. We ignored him.
“Whatever,” he muttered when he got out, slamming the door behind him. Fremont reached over and opened the door so I could get out of the back and sit in front. After I moved and closed the door we pulled out of the parking lot. Fremont said he had to stop at his house; he said his dad had some shovels we could use.
I didn’t like the idea; but if anybody would understand, it would be Fremont’s mom. She was an artist and had a couple of poems published in this anthology made of leather with gold trim. I showed her some of my poems once; she gave me my first honest critique and encouraged me to keep writing. That meant a lot, so I was hoping she would understand why Fremont wasn’t at school.
I waited in the car while Fremont went inside. The frost was starting to thaw. What few leaves were left on the trees had fallen off during the night. It had been the first real frost of the year; that meant winter was coming. We’d probably end up living though another ugly, brown, snowless winter. The last time it had really snowed, I was eight or nine years old. They had to call off school – which hardly ever happened, before or since. (The Superintendent was one of those grumpy old fucks who told stories about walking to school uphill both ways in a blizzard. The parents all loved him and were just waiting for him to retire or die so they could name one of the school buildings after him.) Everybody had to stay home that day; it was so cold that it was even cold in the house with the heat one and Dad made me a cup of coffee to help stay warm. He loaded it down with cream and sugar. It had an awful taste. I didn’t try a cup of coffee again until after he died. I drank it black, like he did.
Fremont walked out of the front door carrying a ratty old blanket and two pairs of work gloves. “For the dog,” he said. “She doesn’t want us to touch him.”
“Right.” We went to the small unattached garage and found the shovels. Then we tossed them and the blanket in the backseat and drove back to where the dog was.
He was still there. Fremont pulled the car in the driveway nearest the corpse. It didn’t look like anybody was home.
“We should probably hurry,” he said.
When we got out, I grabbed the blanket, gloves, and shovels, and Fremont opened the trunk. We both put on a pair of gloves. Then we decided that the best thing to do was to put the blanket over the dog and try to roll it over so that the dog would be on top; that way we could carry it by holding on to the blanket. But the body was heavier than we thought; Fremont and I struggled to flip the dog out of the gutter without accidently breaking off one of its legs. The body was still stiff and felt frozen; the frost had started to melt, which left the fur a little wet and made it even harder to get a handle on the dog. Fremont was working the tale end, and I working the head. That eye stared at me the entire time. The whole operation took on determined air of desperation. There wasn’t any traffic, since everybody else was where they were supposed to be; but it was taking too long. A few cars passed by, but none of them even bothered to slow down. All those stories about the how close knit small towns are and how everybody is in everybody’s business must have been started by people who never lived in one. Unless you set something on fire, nobody notices anything.
After a few grunts and shoves we got the dog turned over. Then we each picked up our corners of the blanket and carried it over and set it down as carefully as we could in the trunk. When Fremont closed the lid, that eye was somehow still face up and looking straight at me.
The car heat felt good. “Where you want to go?” he asked.
“I don’t really know,” I confessed. “It should be someplace, you know… private. The woods or something. But we shouldn’t go too far. It’ll take too much time.”
He nodded in agreement. “I think I know a place.”
Suddenly I wanted a cigarette. I usually bummed one off Sammy in morning, but the dog distracted me and I forgot to ask. He didn’t offer, either. Damn him, I thought. Like he really cares about school. He won’t even see Marissa Hency in hallway until lunch.
Fremont drove towards the edge of town. I thought I knew where he was going, and when we got there, I was saw I was right. On the edge of town, next to the cemetery, there was a small patch of woods; you had to drive through the Baptist Church parking lot and down this one lane gravel road to get to it. The woods were next to this small field where the Baptists held outdoor summer revivals and Vacation Bible school functions. When we got to the clearing, Fremont drove right onto the grass clearing and parked next to the trees on the side closest to the cemetery.
“How are we gonna do this?” I asked, getting out.
“We carry the dog back,” he said, “then I come back for the shovels.”
After Fremont opened the trunk, he immediately grabbed the tale end, leaving me the eye. Again. I tried not to think about it watching me as our little procession made its way past the line of tree line, with its leafless limbs sticking up in the air. We walked ten or twelve yards until we came on a small clearing that had probably been a bum’s campsite at one time. There was a small circle of rocks somebody had used for a makeshift fire pit. We put the dog down and Fremont went and grabbed the shovels. It was starting to warm up, but the air was still chilly. If we were lucky, the ground wouldn’t be too frozen or full of rocks.
It wasn’t too frozen; that would take a few more weeks. But we once we got past the thin layer of dead grass, the ground seemed to be more rock than dirt. Originally, we had intended to dig a six foot hole, like a real grave; but after about hour of digging, we realized it would take us longer than we had. I looked my watch; it was almost the middle of third period. We had to get to school by lunch or Sammy would never let us hear the end of it.
We dug the plot deep enough that he wouldn’t be bothered, and we left him wrapped in the blanket when we lowered him down. Somehow we’d managed to put him in there so that that damn eye was still staring up at me.
“Your mom won’t get upset about the blanket?” I asked.
Fremont shook his head. “She won’t want it back.”
Filling in the grave didn’t take nearly as much time as digging did, and when we were finished, we lined all the rocks, including those used for the fire pit, along the edges. Then we stood there for a couple of minutes.
“You want to say something?” Fremont asked.
“No,” I answered. I didn't want to say anything. There wasn’t anything to say; nothing anybody said over a grave was worth hearing, anyway. We stood there for another couple of minutes. Then we walked back across the tree line, got into Fremont’s car, and left. We returned the shovels and work gloves before we went to school, and Fremont’s mom made us scrub our hands raw before she let us go.
We reported to the office when we got to school. When I filled out my tardy slip, I wrote “buried a dog” as my reason. The secretary eyed me carefully, her gray eyes peering at me over the top of rhinestone speckled bifocals.
When we saw Sammy at lunch, he gave us shit. We ignored him. He talked and laughed and cracked jokes until Marissa Hency walked into the cafeteria. She was wearing a tight blue sweater.
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.