Back when they were separated, Dot lived in a house out in Pangburn Hollow. It was a smallish place with a stream out back, but big enough for her and the girls. Thelma and Denise were Irish twins, born-generously-eleven months apart. Let’s just say they were the same age 42 days out of the year. So, when they went off to the state university at the same time Dot was left alone in that little hollow house. Which was fine with her. More than fine actually. She had never lived alone in her life and it was a pleasant change to only have herself to look after. She had her cashier’s job down at Maracinni’s, which was five days a week, then she had card club on Tuesdays and of course, she had church, which wasn’t just a Sunday thing, what with choir practice and bible school and all. But then, before too long, she started to having Bud back again usually on Saturday nights. He first said he was “in the neighborhood” but that didn’t hold water because Pangburn Hollow wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere. She just accepted that he’d be showing up on the odd Saturday night when he was done cattin’ around, as she called it. He was still her husband after all and his railroad job paid for the girl’s school, so it was a small price to pay. He’d smell of liquor and cigarettes and she kept a bottle in the house for when he showed up. Sometimes they’d just set on the couch and watch the late movie and sometimes he’d fall asleep in the chair and she’d cover him before going up to bed. But sometimes he wanted what a man wanted, and she’d give him that too. But never in bed. It being Saturday night, her hair would be done up for church in the morning and she didn’t want to ruin it by laying in bed with Bud. So she would bend over the couch and he’d take her standing up from behind. He grouched about it at first, but he was getting what he wanted after all, so he shut up. Dot would never come like that, but she seldom did with Bud anyway. He was too quick. When girls used to call him Rabbit behind his back it wasn’t because he liked carrots.
Standing there in front of the open garage I thought of Joe for some reason. He was in his seventies when I took over managing the bar for him and he was tied up with Sherry who was a good thirty years younger. I knew Sherry for having a kid with my buddy Bull a couple of years before he killed himself. It wasn’t his only kid, just his only with Sherry and they are all still knocking around town, fun house mirror images of him. Even the girls, which is a shame. Don’t know what happened to Sherry but back then I’d find Joe’s Viagra everywhere; in the register, on the bar, the desk in the office, the floor…He couldn’t see too well but was too vain for glasses. I’d sweep them up into a small bank envelope and leave them in a drawer. I wished I’d have kept them. We buried Joe two years ago when the second fall cast a shadow over his brain. At ninety-six he wouldn’t have survived any surgery which was fine as he was pissed to have outlived everyone. Holly, the tenant in 703, was talking to me but I really wasn’t focused. Since the library was closed for this shit she was out of work and couldn’t make rent which I’d inferred. It was fine. Ma had really liked her, so she had a pass, which she didn’t know about. She was a nervous type who I’d once described as looking like a dark little man with long sideburns. Which was unfair but today she was dressed like a pile of dirty clothes left behind at the laundromat. I’d seen her out and about though, when we could go out. I’d seen her on the outside of a few vodka and crans. She cleans up well and, me being me, I’d watched her walk away a time or two or lean over a bar. I knew what she was bringing to the table. She was saying something about unemployment, and she’d have some of the rent next month for this month then when she got her big check…and on and on. She was squinting or smiling, I couldn’t tell. But then I heard her say something about making it up to me. That she could do that. That was it. That’s what made me think of Joe. And his pills. I wished I’d have kept some of those. I bummed a cigarette off her. She tossed me the pack. “I didn’t know you smoked”, she said. “I don’t”, I told her.
He leaned out of the doorway toward me, just far enough for the reflected muddy glow of the streelight to hit his hands and up his chest, leaving everything above the cigarette in shadows. By the tilt of his hat, his gaze seemed off-as if he were looking over my head, off into the distance. Where there was more nothing but stacked higher.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, voice dry and dusty.
“I’d like to be high”, I told him.
“We got you. Lotta people in your shoes.”
“Yeah, but only for a half hour or so…”
“I need to be high for a half hour.”
“Half hour. Like thirty minutes?”
“Maybe forty-five tops. Got some things to do that a buzz would definitely help with. I don’t need to tell you how long it’s been! But then, I’d like to be straight again.”
“Yeah I got shit to do later that would definitely require…a level of straightness. Like I have now.”
“Whyn’t you go do that shit now? Then come back?”
“Too early. And I doubt my ability to hold on till then without…”
“Yeah. I need it to hit me real fast.”
“Then, like that…”, he tries to snap his fingers, but instead his pointer finger snaps off at the top knuckle with a small pop. He pauses to follow the track of the top of his digit disappearing among the detritus along the curb. “…be straight again. That what you mean?”
“Yeah. Something that snaps on and off. Well not like….” I looked down to where his finger had fallen to watch the roiling under the rags and sodden papers as the vermin vied for the prize. Something must have won out as a skittering of tiny claws rattled away. “You got anything like that?” I asked, looking back up. “With switches?”
“On and off.”
“Neh, man. Our ride takes a while to get to cruising speed. And once there it lasts…a good long while. Then it takes some time to come back down. Four-hour minimum commitment. Results may vary.”
“Come back when you have a couple of seconds”, he said leaning back into the shadows. “A day…a weekend maybe. And I’ll fix you up.”
“Thanks”, I said hustling away. Who has that kind of time?
He was careful on the path down to the barn. The first snowfall-not yet finished-had made it slick and he had somehow forgotten his cane back on the porch.
Inside, the cows milled about desultorily eating the hay he had pulled down from the loft earlier. He loosened his collar a bit to suck in some of the damp warmth from their breath when he heard the unmistakable song of a blue bird. He scanned the rafters and immediately picked him out from the stray, gray sparrows and wrens that flitted about the place.
“What you do, little guy?” he asked aloud. “Miss the last train south?”
Up at the house he left his boots inside the door and peeled off his old coat. The glow of the television leaked out of the living room in back. There his wife sat in the chair that the medical company had sent over-the one that would help her get up and down.
“Saw a bluebird in the barn”, he told her speaking loudly.
“Oh?” she answered. “He shouldn’t be here now, should he?”
“Guess the weather had him confused. Now he’s stuck I guess.”
“Bluebird in the barn”, she said almost to herself in a sing-song childish way. Then, “I wisht I could see him.”
He glanced at the mute aluminum frame of her walker. “You’ll see him and plenty more in the spring. We’ll have them all over the place…”
She said nothing more, just looked out the window where the snow still fell and it was night-dark at suppertime.
The next day dawned bright and cold. He made his way unsteadily down the hill relying overmuch, he thought, on the cane he clutched firmly. He was kicking away snow from the sweep of the barn door when he saw the small splash of blue over by the trough. He walked over and scooped up the dead bird and a little puff of snow besides. It wasn’t cat-mauled or damaged at all. Just dead.
He didn’t realize he was crying until a heavy tear spattered on the tiny blue head.
“Fuck.” he whispered, chilled at using a word that hadn’t passed his lips since Korea.
“Are the doors locked?” she asked suddenly from her corner of the passenger seat.
Jolted by the question, he caught himself feeling along the top of the door for the plunger to press to lock it. That was years ago-when he was a kid. Cars don’t have those kinds of locks anymore. Just sleek buttons and mechanisms that lock automatically at a certain speed. He knew that. Why couldn’t he tell her?
Instead he said, “What are you afraid of?”
“You don’t have to be afraid to be cautious,” she said.
Cautious. The word struck him as strange just then. He’d have said, ‘careful’ as would most people. Why ‘cautious’?
The drizzle had turned into full-on rain pinging off the roof and sheeting down the windshield. The pressing sky atop the black night made it impossible to see the woods and fields that were out there. “There’s nobody out here to be…cautious of”, he said.
“All the more reason”, she answered looking out her window as if there were something to see.
She’s too young for me, he thought. The scent of roses he thought she wore was really bubble gum-or smelled like it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t her youth. Maybe she was too smart for him. Or too dumb. Or too tall-maybe too short. Too whiny, too cold, too butch, too soft, too dark, too light. Too something, he knew that. But why worry about it now? He didn’t have to win her. Didn’t have to impress her. She was here.
His wife was right. He thought too much about everything-drove himself crazy. Last week he’d had a nosebleed right at the kitchen table. She’d said it was high blood pressure from him worrying so much over every little thing. Like she was a freaking nurse.
Back home she sat at the same table listening to hockey on the radio. She liked it better that way; watching it made her too nervous. She poured a thick toss of Sambuca into her cup – the only way she could abide decaf. Her ma had called, worried the rain was going to turn to snow. “It’s forty degrees, Ma!” she had to yell into the phone. “It won’t snow.”
He sighed and reclined the seat slightly. Fumbling, he loosened his belt and unsnapped his pants. Rising on her knees, she bent over the console and gently pulled him out of his pants; a soft crippled bird. “Ok”, she said low. “Let’s see what we can do with you.”
He closed his eyes and tried not to think about it.
“Did ye eat the body?”
“Ye saw me walk up. Of course I et the body.”
“Did ye drink the blood?” he asked with an accusing tilt of his head.
“Ye saw me up there!”
“Yeah, but. Did you actually drink it or jest swish it around in the cup?”
Ah, fer Crissakes, he thought. Then blessed himself. Sorry, he thought, but it’s flu season. “I drank some”, he settled.
“Ye barely put yer lips to it!”
“Fer Gawd’s sake…”
“Don’t ye dare!”
“Did ye not hear all the hackin’ and coughin’ and snottin’ goin’ on all aroun’ us?”
“Say what you will. You dint have a proper communion is all I’m sayin’. Not proper.”
“I didn’t see YOU drinkin’ it!”
“Ye low bastard! Ye know I can’t drink of the blood since I took the cure.”
“Wait a bloody minit! By the time it gets to yer lips it’s not wine anymore, is it? It’s the blood of the Divine.”
“Ya betchyer ass it is. And there’s enough alcohol innit to kill off all the germs yer so fraid of.”
“Wait…what? If it’s blood how can there be alcohol…?”
“Shhh…here comes Father…”
They nodded without really looking up from the nothings they were kicking about.
“Boys”, he said and walked on.
“I don’t know if I liked the way he said that.”
“Nor the way he looked just now…”
“Don’t be a mutt-you dint even look up. Why dint ye look a’ him.” He said nothing, just worried the ground with the toe of his shoe. “It’s a ringing indictment it is. Yer feckin’ silence.”
“You got a extra cig?”
“Why would I give you one? You don’ even inhale! Ye jest roll the smoke aroun’ in yer mouth.”
“I don’! I do so inhale!”
“You suck a cig the same way you mouth the Lord’s blood. I’m not wasting a cig on you. Hey! Where you goin?”
“Pub”, he said wandering off down the cobbles.
“Ye know I can’t go in there.”
Thank Christ, he thought raising the back of his hand in farewell.
“Satan has a plan for you, buddy boy…” he said, inhaling deeply. “You’ll see.”
“You think living this long, I’d know all there was to know about myself”, I said not expecting an answer.
“What are these?” she asked, fingering the thin white caplets only half-listening.
“Tramadol”, I told her. “Five bucks a pill.”
“They any good?”
I shrugged but she didn’t see it.
“No oxy, no hydro…that’s dry. Maybe some perc’s end of the week.”
“Huh”, she said knocking the pills around with a blood red fingernail that matched her lipstick.
“So whatta you think”, I asked after a moment. “Am I frightening?” She looked up with a crinkle around her green eyes that could have presaged either a smile or a wince. “Do you think I’m frightening? Am I scary?”
She wriggled her ass deeper into the chair and crossed her legs; a bit of stage-business while she fashioned an answer. “You do tend to lean in a bit”, she said finally. “But you always did that.”
“Huh”, was all I could come up with. “But I never saw myself as scary.”
“We’re all used to you, sweetie. You get to be a particular way, we leave you be.”
Fuck, I thought, taking a turn at spinning the pills across the dark Formica tabletop.
“Poor Tommy”, she said reaching across the table and patting my cheek.
“Don’t say that”, I said more sharply than intended. “My mother always says that.”
“How is she?”
“Same. She’ll never die. Too busy killing me.”
“Christ, boyo…” she pulled back a little and reached for her purse. “You wanna get high?”
“Naw. I might get all scary and shit.”
She smiled and took it as a joke, which is probably not how I meant it. “This is bugging you bad, isn’t it? Who said you were scary?”
“I was at a party last weekend up in Mifflin and a girl said…”
She sniffed. “Mifflin? Shit. You have to stop trying to mix with new folks. They don’t know you like we know you. Play in your own sandbox.”
She pulled a crumpled pack of Pall Mall greens out of her purse and squeezed it open to peek. She’d need a new pack soon. “Five bucks a pill seems steep for something I never tried.”
“You should get out more”, I grinned. “Three for you.” She was thinking-counting how many were on the table. I’d go down to two.
“Do you…?”, she asked haltingly, then stopped.
I let the silence ride a little. She was waiting for me. It was my turn to say something. But I wasn’t. I saw how this whole fucker was going to play out. I had the high hand. I didn’t have to do anything to win. All I had to do was sit there and shut up, collect a few bucks and she’d be out of the picture until she was dry again. But I didn’t. Instead I said, “…What?”
“You interested in doing a deal like we used to do?” she asked. “It’s been awhile.” Fuck! It had always been my idea. My suggestion. My task to pull her in. Of course I wanted to, but… “Cause, I’m fine with it, if you are. I’m ready. “
I closed my eyes and leaned back in the creaking chair. For whatever reason, it was Joe Pesci’s voice in my head saying ‘Don’t do it! You better not do it!” When I opened them the first thing I saw was the smattering of faded freckles across the bridge of her nose. And the lines around her eyes were gone, the skin unetched by time. I knew I was seeing memories; not what was in front of me. But I was seeing it that way.
If she only hadn’t smiled just then, I’d a’ been fine. But of course, she did.
“Sure”, I said. “Why not?” Playing it like it had been my plan all along.
There had been a light snow around midnight so now I could see the bunnies in the yard, little dark blobs against the light gray. Hadn’t seen them for a while-it never occurred to me that they were haunting the yard all night, nibbling the frozen clover invisible in the darkness. She had stayed over and even the cats were on edge. She slept soundly upstairs allowing me to slip away for a glass of ice water and a pill. Quick shower against the funk of the night sweats while waiting for the tranq to take over. Had to stay ready when she was here. Didn’t know when she would come to me strapped, needing me to roll over and bite down on the pillow. It wasn’t as painful as it had been, but not comfortable, that’s for sure. Actually, after a few times, it felt more sad than anything. She no doubt got more out of it. She forbade haircuts recently-wanted to yank at it. Probably got the idea from that bumper sticker; you know the one: ‘If you’re gonna ride my ass at least pull my hair’, or something like that. She’s gotten pretty handsy lately. We were having dinner a couple of weeks ago over on the South Side at a new place-no one knew us. Everything seemed fine and I said something, can’t even remember what, and when I looked up she slapped me-full across the face. The restaurant was a white tablecloth place, all muted and quiet like and the slap rang out like plates hitting the ceramic floor. Her eyes were not flashing, like they would when she was angry. More questioning-curious. I rubbed the sting out of my cheek and said nothing while the diners settled back into their grazing, masticating and murmuring. Later that night she caned me beforehand and the pain was a true distraction leaving no time to feel anything- which I guess was the point. Over the last four months I’d pared my book collection from over twelve hundred to eight and sent two closets of suits I never wear to the Veterans. I sold the motorcycle, still in pieces, that had been a project for years so I’m making progress. Still, when I told her once-I think it was the weekend of the slap-that I was in the mood for sex she said ‘Sure. What kind?’ I was stuck for an answer which probably led to what happened. It was fine though-she made it worth my while in the long run. But I have to have a ready answer next time.
A December warm front had filled the valley with a thick drizzling fog that turned midday to dusk. I had just left the Vet’s club heading for Tony’s Wild Irish Rose on the corner because I had a thing for the daytime bartender. Too early to tell if she was open or interested, but it seemed promising. Had to put in the time to find out but things had started to look up over the past couple of weeks.
I stopped short noticing a distinctive shadow down the block in the fog.
He was less a person from here than a dark smudge on a dirty gray sheet.
“Mark! What the fuck are you doin?”
Mark was below me through a gap where a church had burned, across the alley on the railroad track. From what I could tell, he was more than half way through Master Chen’s 60 movement tai chi form. I knew the form well enough; he’d been trying, with varying degrees of success, to teach it to me over the last two years. But that was in his dojo, two blocks up next to the bodega. Not down on the tracks.
He would do this kind of stuff when it struck him. And it was much easier to deal with him when he was drinking. Then he knew, on some level, at some lizard brain level, that what he was doing might be stupid and would allow himself to be talked out of it. He lived with the hard-wired assumption that he might be wrong because he was a drunk.
Now, four months sober, there was no reasoning with him. He could not be dissuaded from ANYTHING! Today he was frighteningly sober. The kind of aggressive-sober only drunks could get. And he was doing tai chi on the railroad tracks.
“I smell the booze coming off you”, he growled when I got close enough.
Better a shot of CC than getting hit by a train, I thought. But said nothing. His movements were crisp but flowing. Hundreds of years of meditative body mechanics brought to bear on the rocky ballast in the down side of town.
“Put me on the list”, he said.
“Your pallbearer list.“
Shit, I thought. I had forgotten I’d told him about that. It wasn’t like I’d written it down or anything. And it wasn’t final. There were ten or twelve possibles that moved in and out as the mood struck. Unless they died, then obviously, off for good.
“I said I didn’t want to do it”, he went on. “But that will be fine. I’d like to speak too. Say something about you being weak and a drunk who shoulda died years ago and saved the air for the rest of us.”
“I don’t know if that will go over. I’m sure I’ll have family there.”
“Betcha I won’t get an argument”, he said, still never looking my way.
There was a growing rumble in the tracks. The afternoon CSX, filled with coal, was winding its way down river but was slowed by the big curve and the bridge on the other side of the switching yard. Still-by the sound of the whistle-it was no more than a half mile away.
“Train’s comin’”, I said.
He ignored me and kept to his pace. He’d probably finish in time. Nothing to be done.
I walked up to The Rose and sat at the end of the bar where I could still see him through the window. Treena, following my eyes, placed a beer in front of me and poured a shot. “He was in here earlier looking for you.”
“I was at the Vet’s earlier. What time did you start?”
“Trying to get an extra couple hours”, she explained. “Hadda take tomorrow off. Headin’ down to West Virginia. My old man’s gettin’ outta jail.”
“No dipshit. My husband. Did eighteen months. Early release.”
“Didn’t know you were married.”
“Who wants to talk about their husband in prison? Went in with the meth-hope he’s coming out clean. Said they fixed his teeth.”
She smiled. Her teeth were good, except for the cracked one in front.
I pounded the shot and chased it with the beer as the train blew by a little too fast; it’s whistle, loud and bawling, rattling glasses behind the bar. Couldn’t see Mark anywhere.
I signaled for another round.
Someone once told me that Jerry Garcia died getting straight. If he had stayed an addict, he’d still be alive. I don’t know about that but Mark Krajack never woulda faced down a train drunk. He woulda joined me someplace outta the fog for a beer and tried to converse over the roar of the whistle. That’s what he woulda done.
(It’s isn’t “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or “A Wonderful Life” but after posting, then reposting, this the last two Decembers, I beg your indulgence again… )
On his knees, head cocked against the smoke from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, he spun the tree slowly.
“How’s this?” he asked knowing it was not so good. It had looked OK in the lot.
“It’s fine”, she said. “Better than fine. Beautiful.”
“Just like this then?”
He tightened the screws in the stand and sat back on the floor. It had been two years since she’d been cancer-free and half that since he’d had a drink. They had decided that drought would end tonight though-an exact year from when it started. One year in the desert was enough.
He’d bought a bottle for the occasion. Later though. First he had to turn two boxes of too many parts into Tony’s spaceship and Tammy’s dollhouse.
“I can see the twins have been good this year”, he nodded at the toys. “What about you?”
“Me? I’ve been good…I’m always good…” she said with a slight-almost shy- smile. “Mostly…”
“Mostly? Do you have something you want to tell me?”
“Nothing specific…just general…things…”
“Well”, he drawled, “I might have to take care of that.”
She reached for his pack and tapped one out. She held it between her fingers but made no move for the lighter.
“It’s been awhile.”
“Like you said, you’ve been mostly good…”
A light blush dusted her cheekbones. “You won’t break me, you know.”
He ground the cigarette out in the ashtray beside him and exhaled into the silence.
“What will we drink to?” he asked.
“Yeah, like what will we toast?”
She looked up at the spruce that was really too big for their living room.
“How about ‘being’.”
“Being?” he asked.
“Yeah.” She said. “Being. Sometimes that’s enough.”
He followed her eyes to the bare tree top.
“Sometimes that’s plenty.”
Wishing you Peace and All Good Things…