Lou woke up with one of the cats sleeping over his head, hogging the entire pillow. He didn't have to reach up to know which one it was; it was Skeeze, the long haired hermaphrodite. The little fucker never really forgave him for moving in and taking its side of the bed. It seemed to Lou that he always started out sleeping firmly in the middle of the pillow, but by morning, he had slid – or been pushed – down almost to the edge. Two of the other cats – Fauntleroy and Scar – were sitting on Fiona's side of the bed, watching him with the unblinking eyes of scavengers. They're hoping I'm dead, he thought, so they can eat my eyes and my tongue.
Sitting up and putting his feet on the narrow strip of floor between the side of the bed and the outside wall, Lou almost stepped on two of the kittens. There were four of them. Lou hadn't bothered to learn any of their names because he was still hoping that Fiona would come to her senses and find homes for them. Seven cats in a small one bedroom apartment was six too many; but he knew better than to convince her to get rid any of the full-grown ones. She had made it very clear when he moved in that he would move out before the any of her cats would; she also made it very clear that she wasn't the kind of person to clean out the litter box or the entirely too frequent hairballs, or the puddles of semi-solid puke from her changing the food all the time, depending on how much money she had. And the fur. There was fur everywhere, on everything. Not even the food was safe from random blowing fluffs of cat hair.
It was daylight and she wasn't home yet; that surprised him less than the cat hair he found in the bottom of the coffee pot that Fiona had left on last night. She'd had a couple of friends over while he was at work – a couple of guys that had, once upon a time, been fuck buddies, and a particularly angry lesbian named Marie. Marie was angry because Fiona was still fucking men. Lou wasn't sure if he would've minded if Fiona went ahead and fucked Marie; because except for the fact that she was a very angry, very man-hating lesbian (the result, according to Fiona, of being tricked out by her father to his friends when she was very young), Marie was a beautiful woman. Nice big tits, slim waist, round hips and a heart shaped ass. If he had ever come home from his third shift gig at the sock factory and found the two of them in bed together, he wasn't sure he'd be all that pissed off. He pointed that out once to Fiona, who snarled and said “How is that any different than you coming home and find me in bed with another man?”
“I don't know,” Lou answered. “It's just different.”
“You're a pig.”
“At least I'm honest.”
He had tried hanging out with Fiona and her cabal of post-modern goth intellectuals before; they liked to sit around and drink cheap wine out of gaudy goblets and name drop philosophers and the authors of crap vampire fan fiction. Early on, Fiona had wanted him to make the attempt. She gave him books to read. Many books. But they all seemed like the same book. Pretty vicious vampires that bite instead of screw. Lots of homoerotic undertones. Lots of long wordy descriptions after the manner of Bram Stoker, lacking anything else that made them interesting. He found them unreadable and was embarrassed to be seen with them at the break room – not because he gave a damn about what any of them thought. Just because.
It was Friday, which meant he was off for the night. He'd gotten his check, pathetic as it was, and he wanted to spend some of it on himself. The bills were paid, but Fiona would want to spend on expensive cat food that would end up in puddles of puke dried into the cheap shag carpet.
The first thing he did was take a shower. Not that it did any good. No matter how many times he showered or washed his clothes, he always smelled like a walking litter box. When he was in the apartment, he didn't notice except for when the central air kicked on and moved all the dust around. Fiona was a lousy housekeeper, and Lou wasn't inclined to clean, either. She always complained about it. But did she ever pick up a rag to dust, or plug in the vacuum cleaner? Lou never complained about it. Not anymore. She used to at least straighten up before her cabal came over; now she didn't even bother to do that. Why should she when she could blame the mess on him?
The shower left him feeling refreshed, but he knew the feeling was fleeting. He didn't feel like risking having cat hair in his coffee (rinsing it out didn't do any good. He could rinse it a hundred times and he'd still end up with stray hairs floating in his cup. He opened the refrigerator. It was empty except for a six pack of expensive beer and there was a Post-It note on that read MORGAN'S MEAD. DO NOT TOUCH. Morgan was one of the former fuck buddies that Fiona spent all of her free-time with … free time that had grown exponentially since she got herself fired from her job. When Lou met her, she had been the manager of a men's formal wear store. She claimed the owner sexually harassed, tried to get her to sleep with him for a bump in pay. A bump for a bump. That was what she told him, anyway. Came home crying and everything, and Lou bought into it. He offered to go kick the guy's ass. He tried to convince her to get a lawyer.
“No, no,” she sobbed, burying her head in his chest. “ I'll never be able to prove anything.”
And Lou let it go at that.
The tuxedo shop fiasco had been more than six months ago, and Fiona still hadn't found a job. According to her, she was “psychologically shaken.” He accepted that for the first month or so; after all, he had no idea what it meant to be sexually harassed, or, in the words of Marie, to be “assaulted by yet another miniscule man's disgusting member.” Lou could only assume that if Marie had ever had any experience with a man's member, it must have been a man who hadn't heard of bathing. But he couldn't argue with the fundamental logic beneath the bitch's biased words. He supposed she had the right to be biased.
He ran out of sympathy, though, when he overheard her talking about how she really got fired. Apparently she had been stealing from the till in order to buy expensive cat food and gaudy cheap wine goblets and badly written books. And the owner-- having caught her twice on hidden camera – fired her. When he confronted her the following morning, she cried again and accused Lou of being part of the “global patriarchal conspiracy to claim ownership” of her vagina. They argued, then she stormed out and didn't come back for three days. And when she did come back, she claimed it was because she was worried about what he would do to the cats.
“You're nothing but a neanderthal with a college degree,” she said.
“Morgan's Mead,” he muttered. “Fucking moron.” Does he even know the difference between beer and mead? Or does he think he's being cool? Leaving his beer in the fridge like he paid rent was worse than fucking Fiona. At that point, the dumb son of a bitch could have the malicious cunt; but he was going to be damned if he was going to let Morgan move into the goddamn refrigerator. Lou took one of bottles, opened it with a bottle opener sitting on the kitchen counter that was supposed to look like a medieval mace, and emptied it down his throat.
I keep beer out on the covered front porch. It’s winter in Northwest Illinois and the relentless cold makes for great refrigeration. My wife hides my beer behind an old school desk she bought at an auction; she says she doesn’t want it to be the first thing people see when they visit. I laugh and tell her her worries are cute and that somebody, (not me) ought to be concerned. It’s possible to derive some comfort from knowing all your paranoia is justified. Our neighbor notices when I take walks, asks me when I see him at the post office if I’m looking for work, and he pays attention to whether we use our car, or when we leave the garage door open. I can tell in people’s faces when I see them on the street, or at the (only) bar they’re trying to decide if I’m “ok” enough; I want to tell them the beer on my porch is probably their best indicator, though most of them will never come close enough to notice.
When she brought the desk home, she (proudly) informed me she only paid 50 cents. (She said) It was too good a deal to pass on and besides (she insisted) she was thinking of me. It would be cute upstairs, where I write; It could sit in the corner and I could use it to put books on. But the desk has done its duty; the seat is smooth and splinter free – worn by countless student asses, made sore by the wood and by the hours spent learning cursive and reading from old primers and struggling with long division. The wrought iron legs are rusted from years of exposure through creaky floor boards and clapboard windows, wet boots, and the dry heat of a coal or wood burning stove. The desk top is splinter and graffiti free, and has a hole in the right hand corner for a bottle of fountain pen ink. When I carried the desk in from the car, I left it on the porch where the orange rocking chair was that she left to sit in when she goes out on the porch to smoke. The desk will hide a couple of cases of beer and some liquor, too. Every night when I lock the front door I think about locking the screen door too; but then (I remind myself) this is not a town where people steal your beer; it’s much more intoxicating to take note of visitors and driving habits and the frequency with which I (do or don’t) leave the house
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.
Eddie, an old guy in one of the second floor rooms moved her in – just brought her home from the bar one night like a stray. She was a short, skinny woman with straight greasy dark hair and sallow, olive looking skin that, had she taken better care of herself, might have been lovely. Her eyes were large, round, and midnight black. Whenever she looked at me I felt uncomfortable. Like prey. I liked the old guy well enough. He was nice, a little goofy. Prone to drink. Some evenings when it was cool outside we’d sit on front stoop and share a bottle of cheap wine or drink a couple of 40’s and talk – about how expensive cigarettes were getting, about the government, or about how the Saints could never seem to catch a break. New Orleans offered plenty things for a couple of guys to sit and shoot the shit about, even if it was the man-sized roaches that strolled down the street at sunset like aristocrats. Eddie was a good guy who’d lived a long time in flop houses and homeless shelters, but had settled out after he was old enough to draw social security. “Not much money,” he told me once, “but it’s enough to keep me in this place. And in booze and cigarettes.”
But he was also lonely. I tried several times to make him feel better about it. It was a topic we spent entirely too many of our stoop sitting sessions on.
“There are plenty of girls around,” I told him. “Just ask.”
He scowled at me. “I don’ want no WHORE.”
“What?” I asked. “All I’m saying is, you can probably walk four blocks in any direction and find a little companionship. What’s wrong with that?”
He shook his head.
“You’re not looking for a girlfriend, are you?” Eddie was a nice guy… but he was also old enough to be my grandfather. And there weren’t many geriatric single women around aspiring to squeak by on a measly monthly check living in rooming house that had once been a prominent crack den— before it was closed down by the city and sold to a developer that slapped on a new coat of paint and started renting out rooms at $80 a week.
“Don’ want to be alone,” he said, all sullen. “Tired of being alone.”
Not long after that, he brought her home. She was much younger than him; I think she was younger than me. It wasn’t hard to see what the deal was; she carried most of what she owned in large bag of a purse. She probably wandered into whatever bar Eddie was in looking to turn a trick, saw Eddie and smelled blood. When he introduced her to me, his chest was all puffed out and he was standing straight as a telephone pole. He smiled a wide, semi-toothless smile that looked all wrong on his face. I shook her hand and watched Eddie follow her back to his room.
Once, I tried talking to him about her – to try and warn him – but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I got a right to be HAPPY,” he told me.
I didn’t push it. Anyway, I told myself. He seems happy enough.
That she borrowed things didn’t bother me at first. I try to be neighborly. Not only is it a nice thing to do, but you never know when you’ll need them to return the favor. A cup of sugar. A fork or a spoon. I gave her coffee. I lent her a few bucks here and there – though it took me a while to notice that she only asked right after I got paid. I never figured out how she knew, since I wasn’t an extravagant spender.
I learned the sound of her knock. It was a quiet knock. Quiet the way a hungry dog scratches on the back door. When she knocked, a knot formed in my stomach. There was a point where I wanted to tell her no – but there was Eddie to consider. Somebody had to be around for when she got into one of her moods and yelled at him. She even hit him a couple of times, though nothing ever came of it. He wasn’t going call the cops and he wouldn’t have forgiven me if I had. It got to the point where she was knocking on my door every other day, and on the days she didn’t, he did. “Taking time to cool off,” he always said.
“Yeah,” I’d say. “You don’t want to go and lose your temper.”
He never understood the tone; or if he did, he ignored it. We’d drink a little and he’d hobble back up the stairs to bed after she’d passed out.
The second to last time she knocked on my door, she wanted to borrow a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Those were her words, too. I didn’t want to get into exactly how one borrows a sandwich, or the fact that I had no interest in her returning it to me when she was finished. While I was getting out the bread, the peanut butter, and the jelly, she looked over at the milk crate that operated as my bookshelf.
“Do you like to read?” she asked, looking impressed.
“Oh!” She clapped her bony knobby hands together like a small child. “I like to read too! Can I borrow some books?” She didn’t ask so much as tell me as she was grabbing a couple of my books. Lending out books always made me nervous, and at that point I had very few because I didn’t want to worry about how I was going to move them around. I mumbled, “Sure,” while I made her two sandwiches. At least, I told myself, Eddie’ll get something to eat, too. She never returned anything she borrowed, even if it was something that COULD be returned. So I expected not to see my books again. But I didn’t like having her in my room, invading my space. I didn’t look at what she borrowed until after she left. She stayed away from the poetry – no surprise there. She took my copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet, which I had finished the previous week. The selection was odd. I assumed she picked Thompson because she had seen the movie (probably snuck into a theater), and I figured she nabbed De Quincey because it had opium in the title. I could only assume that she thought Genet would have pointers and tips to help her be a better mooch. I wasn’t happy about it, but it could have been worse.
Two days later she knocked on my door again with my copy of Genet in her hand. “Do you know what this book is about?” she asked me. I could tell by the sour expression that she’d gotten at least past the first 10 pages.
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”
She squinted at me. For a moment, I thought I could see her teeth glistening under the dim hallway light. “Oh.” Then she smiled again. “Can I borrow another?”
“Why don’t you finish the ones you have?” I answered, taking Genet out from between her fingers. She was holding it like a dirty diaper.
She shrugged. “Ok.” I thought she was going to turn to leave. She kept talking to me instead.
“Can I ask you somethin’?”
She pointed upstairs. “Eddie and I haven’t been getting along,” she began.
“No? Really?” I tossed the book on my bed and leaned against the doorframe, blocking her path into my room.
She nodded. “Yeah. I mean, he’s a nice guy… when he’s not drunk. But he’s always drunk.” She drew herself closer. “He gets MEAN” she whispered. “Sometimes he hits me. Makes me do… things….”
I didn’t interrupt.
“I just… I need to get away,” she said. “Can I move in here with you? I promise I’ll get a job and help pay rent.” She smiled in a come on kind of way that made me want to throw up. “I could maybe even …”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I answered, pulling away from her and getting ready to shut the door. “I know Eddie drinks, but I’ve also seen some of the bruises you leave on him. Where are yours?”
“Faggot!” She hissed at me. “I knew you were a fucking faggot. Reading faggot books about faggots! FAG. Cock Slurper…”
I just looked at her. I’m not gay, but I wasn’t going to lower myself by trying to prove it. She hissed at me some more and walked off, still spitting and hissing.
The week after that, she disappeared. Eddie was sad for a while, but eventually, he got over it. About a month later, we were sitting on the stoop one particularly comfortable evening. He was drinking Steele Reserve. I was drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor. There was a slight breeze. There were a couple of street walkers across the way who looked like they were just getting started. Eddie looked over at me.
“You think I could get one of them girls to come upstairs with me?”