It doesn’t take many words to end a thing. Sometimes one. One measly word. Maybe two or four if they’re the right ones or many times, none at all. He sat on the edge of the bed thinking about putting on pants. There was plenty of time for that. The morning sun-somehow different here in the city-sliced through the rheumy window spotlighting his feet which he always hated-short and square and now with bright purple starfish bursting spidery on his ankles. She has them too! Don’t for a moment think he was the only one getting old. Had she ever seen the backs of her own knees? She’s not special-time marches on for everyone regardless of what anyone thinks. Standing, he gazed at the rooftops around him. He’d done business in this part of town back when. Just couldn’t remember with who. And it wasn’t because he was old! People forget things, that’s all. They had to-there was too much new stuff every minute of every hour of every day. Things had to be jettisoned to make room, that’s all. Were the water towers on the buildings new? Couldn’t be, they looked older than fuck, he just had never seen them that he could remember. He wished he had a cigarette. He’d given them up years ago but they would at least give him something to do with his hands. His old man wielded a cigarette as a maestro did a baton-directing, punctuating, prompting: allegro, lento-the smoke leaving whirling white trails drifting to the ceiling. He wondered if he could smoke in here. These rooms weren’t bad by the week, considering. He’d have to think about it. For now though, checkout was at ten. It would be no problem. He could leave earlier if he had anywhere to go.
The snow fell straight in thick, white ribbons from a sky so low and gray he felt he should stoop. In front of him fanned the prayer cards-a final legacy from his mother. Arranged in tight phalanxes of friends and family, as in life, the favorites closer. Mother, Father, the Grands, all the progenitors, then out to close friends, friends, acquaintances then finally tangential hangers on.
When there wasn’t a card, or she hadn’t been able to get to the funeral home, she made her own by taping the newspaper obituary onto an index card and cutting it in half making it the same size as the others. She’d draw a cross or a sunrise on the front of it with colored pencils that were, to him, prettier than all the Jesuses and Marys on the printed cards. He moved his glass to the side and studied the array like a nervous chess player, recalling, ranking, touching them all, then finally switching a friend of his father’s (an officious prick that the old man never really liked but worked with for ten years) to the back and promoting the druggist who was good to his grandma back in the days when pills were easier.
He didn’t get a paper himself, so he made his own prayer cards with the same stack of index cards she had in her desk. The one he just finished he put in the fourth row. “Jack “Bones” Kerklo” it said, in his crimped hand. “Age 72. Good guy. Fell drunk down 4th Street steps. Died AT HOME three days later.” He underlined “AT HOME” with a purpose and grinned. Not having his mother’s artistic talent he relied on his cheeky wit.
The kids had made noises about him coming out for Christmas but he didn’t see how that could work. That had always been their mother’s time with them. He’d be fine just where he was-feeling more like a presence than a person. In front of him was a blank card with his name printed at the top.
He found himself at sea; alone, misfiled, misplaced: a spoon among the forks trying To understand where he fit. What did he know about menopause? About what years did down there Turning wetlands into deserts; Lush marshes into Craggy rocky places. One adapts, he was told. She had a plan. Will you take off your pants At least? he asked. She played tennis and knew her legs drove him wild. Of course, she said. But strip now. He did as he was told and she, Like a mom with a recalcitrant toddler, Took him by the ear and patted his bum Toward the bedroom. Am I going to regret this In the morning? he asked. Of course darling, she purred. That’s what mornings are for.
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 pandemic 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.
What I wouldn’t give to drink like I was sixteen again. When two six packs, a pint of peach schnapps and two joints in a Sucrets tin could last a weekend at the cabin but would not be enough to even make the drive now. To not have to spend forty dollars on high end IPA’s and brown liquor just to bend the mood enough to make me tolerable at home in the evening. Back then I’d be smiling on a half can of Stroh’s and laughing out loud by the time it was finished. Those. Those were the days.
Ma still had most of her teeth at the end. At least parts of most of them and it was one of the few sources of vanity she had left. There were gaps, of course, mostly along the sides and in the back but they weren’t too obvious unless she wide smiled which she really didn’t.
With the gaps she had to chew her nicotine gum in the front where you’d see it flopping about threatening to drop out at any time which it sometimes would but never threatened a fire or left a burn mark as her Pall Malls did. She’d just pick it up off her lap or the table (if it made the floor it stayed there) and popped it back into her mouth.
Things changed the day she broke off one of her front teeth in a sandwich. “The hell?” she asked angrily looking at the small yellowish nubbin stuck crookedly like an old gravestone in the bun. Her dentist was long dead and she wasn’t interested in finding another. Just smiled less, talked into her chest and concentrated hard on chewing away front the new jagged hole in her mouth.
Eventually, for a short time, she went back to smoking. She was shaky then and needed both hands but knew enough to move the whole operation out onto the sunporch where her plastic chair and concrete floor presented less of a fire hazard.
Wasn’t much of a cup really;
Heavy and thick, appearing to hold
Much more than it actually did.
Bought a couple of generations ago from
Some failing diner where small cups
Were the rule. Purchased by the case,
This was the lone survivor of its’ race
Plucked like some Mayan artifact
From the mud eddied against
A crumpled wall of a flood-ruined cabin.
This cup had come a long way.
It had held a child’s milk and cookie crumbs,
Tea and later, whiskey with ice.
It had held cowboy coffee fire-brewed thick
And bitter on dewy West Virginia mornings.
It had survived two years of college holding
Everything from broth to tequila
Then, coming full circle, my two kids
And their crumbs. It came through the divorce
Unscathed and, after the move, found itself
Beside me greeting every Florida sunrise.
She knocked it off the bed stand last night,
Bitching that it shouldn’t have been there
In the first place.
“Did a lot of work in this town years ago.”
I wander the city, a ghost,
Remembering those who wandered with me.
Some now dead, which is sad,
Some just gone;
Which is worse.
Down East 9th from the water and new stuff,
To the bottom.
Buildings are still here, otherwise named or purposed.
This was this, this was that.
Was I ever here? in this one?
What’s that? Is that where I went to the
With the thick wafers and sweet red wine.
Did she live there?
He worked here on the tenth floor.
Did we lunch over there?
Was it raining?
I remember an umbrella and puddles.
Does anyone see me as I walk by?
Nobody’s busy today-not this early.
They could, if they cared to look.
I’ll touch one of them,
See if they notice.
Would I have?
Back when I had substance and bustled
Rather than wandered?
The news box lies empty and open,
Broken on its side.
Gulls peck calmly at popcorn
Strewn in the gutter
As I pass by dragging my shadow behind.
© – TDR 2019
“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.
I’m BOOZER! he roared
Slamming his fists on the bar,
Rattling glasses and tipping Baldy’s beer.
Jesus Walter, Baldy said catching what he could.
He’d been quiet, blinking behind his glasses for hours.
A man and his whiskey.
I’m BIG BOOZER!
You’re Walter Tattalega, old white shirt said,
His officious head up his ass.
That was it from them for now.
When Boozer got started they melted into the dark paneling like oil
Leaving me alone to manage him
Because I was the bartender and bigger than them
But no way the size of Boozer.
Plus, I was a kid. The only battles I’d fought were on the football field-
Which counted for shit.
He had a bad war, they said. Whatever that meant.
Didn’t seem to be having a good peace neither.
He’d a killed me if he had a mind to. But he didn’t.
Word was he served with my uncle who didn’t come home.
He’d always let me walk him to the door, my hand resting on his shoulder
A giant breathing, ham.
Never pushing-just resting there-feeling the strength and the tension.
He touched me on the chin as he left-a soft cuff that
Made me wince.
They oozed back around the bar once Boozer was gone.
You think you could play ball, one said. You shoulda seen Walter when he was a boy.
Shame what happened to him.
Shame what they did to him.
I was suddenly too small to see over the bar.
Had to jump up to sit, legs dangling, on a stool,
Having a Pepsi and chips while the old man shot pool.
Christ, he’d a killed me if he had a mind. to.