21 July, 2009

Dark Days

Half of the brain trust and Mac the Younger were sitting at the bar when I walked in. The music was up too loud – which meant Adelle had come out of hiding. The new girl was working behind the bar. She didn’t remember me. When I sat down, she smiled, pushed her tits in my face and asked me what I wanted. I wanted to ask about Suzy; she hadn’t been in for a few days and I was kind of (actually) concerned.

Miss Lift and Squeeze brought me my beer and asked if I wanted to start a tab.

“No,” I answered. “It’s easier to keep track if I pay as I go.”

She smiled and retracted her cleavage. “Okay.” Then she turned, stepped out from behind the bar and went to the patio to smoke a cigarette.

I looked up at Rico and Sammy. They were pouring over the racing program and jabbering. A few seats down, Mac the Younger was staring into his cocktail and not paying any attention to the races at all. Not that there was a lot to choose from. The Belmont Stakes were long past and Turf Paradise was closed until October. Dark Days – that’s what they call it when all the local tracks are closed and you’re stuck with off-track betting where all the races are somewhere else and none of the jockeys are familiar. The only races to be had were either at casino tracks with lousy odds or tracks in far flung places like West Fucking Virginia.

“The six,” Rico said.

Sammy shook his head. “Naw. The four.”

“Are you NUTS?” Rico asked. “Why the four?”


“Cuz WHY, pendejo?”

“I like the name.”

“Huh?” Rico shook his head. “You like the name. You like the name? What, is it named after your mother? I know a couple of whores that are, too.”

Sammy pointed a large round finger at the book and tapped it. “Right there. Dreamsrfurlosers.”

“And you wanna put REAL money on that horse?”

Sammy nodded.

“Look at six, man. This jockey is the top jockey. And he hasn’t won yet today. It’s his TURN, mano!”

Sammy shook his head. “Nope. The four.”

“But look here,” Rico said, pointing at the book with one of his narrow wrinkled fingers. “This horse has won the last five out of six starts.”


“Oye,” Rico grabbed his forehead. “Okay. How about this name then. You like names. How about ‘Starlight Express.’ Huh? What do ya think? Nice name, huh?”


Rico threw his hands up. “I give up. You wanna throw good money after a five year old nag with a pinche jockey that hasn’t placed in three years, go right ahead. I’m gonna go put money on the WINNER.”

They stood up and walked back to the mutuel together. I drained my beer and looked around for the bartender. She was still outside on the patio, flirting with one of the kitchen workers.

I grunted. “I should go back there and get it my damn self,” I said. “For all the use this chick is.”

Mac looked at me, but didn’t answer. Instead of the usual dirty look, though, Mac just looked, shrugged, and went back to staring into his drink. I thought maybe Dino was tightening the screws on him.

“Where’s the old man?” I asked. “Haven’t seen him in a while.”

He was about to answer when the bartender flounced back in. She looked at me. “You want another?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

She brought me another bottle. I paid her. Then she walked over to Mac the Younger and asked him the same question. He nodded and drained his cocktail. Then he stood up and walked back towards the pisser.

After he was out of ear shot, the bartender came over and leaned in with a conspiratorial air.

“He’s been here since nine,” she whispered.

“Day off?”

She shook her head. It pivoted on top of her neck like it was attacked with a screw. “Nooo. He lost his job.”

“That’s as good a reason as any,” I answered. “Until the money runs out.”

“But it HAS.”

“Uh-Huh.” I was imagining her as that girl in high school – the one who knew which girls gave it away, which ones were knocked up, and which ones had abortions. She was the girl who was your friend until you turned your back on her. Then she was off spilling all of your dirty little secrets to the cheerleaders with loose lips and even looser standards.

“Yeah.” She nodded and it looked like her head was going to detach from the top of her neck and roll onto the bar. “Did you hear about his dad?”


“Well,” her eyes widened and she licked her lips. Her lips were full, plush things that look entirely out of place on the dead space that was her face. Or maybe they were just over accentuated. Like a clown’s or a hooker’s.

“You know he went out to California, right?”


“He said he was going to his granddaughter’s graduation?”

“Uh huh.” I wanted to tell her to cut the damn melodrama and get to the point; but I was focused on watching her lips move. They were the most animated part of her face. Her eyebrows were penciled in. There wasn’t a wrinkle or a laugh line to suggest that she’d ever experienced anything. Her skin was a model of manufactured perfection – robotic and without blemish. And then there were the eyes. They were wide with anticipation; but otherwise, they were shit brown and dead.

But her lips – man, those lips moved. They moved like they had a mind of their own. Like they just happened to be wandering around, looking for a face to perch on, and stumbled onto hers. They were perfect blow job lips: writhing, wriggling, warm. Any other use was not only a waste of time and (I’d bet) talent; it was a fucking annoyance.

“He died.”


“Yeah.” She looked around to make sure Mac wasn’t back. “He went out to California and DIED.”

“Wow,” I said, not sure whether the point was that he died or that he had the gall to keel over in California.

“Yeah,” she breathed. Her lips turned up into a smile that her eyes couldn’t match. “But that’s not the BEST part.”

Blow me.

“He died in bed.”


“NOOOO.” She shook her head. Her lips wrapped themselves around the ‘O’. “He died in BED. Having sex. He died in the middle of SEX.”

That’s just what I need, I thought. The image of geriatric fucking to sour my beer.

“But that’s not the best PART!” she squealed.


“He wasn’t in bed with his WIFE.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He was doing some younger girl – or she was doing him – ANY-way, she was young enough to be his daughter. His GRAND-daughter, even.”

You never know what some people like.

“The wife is devastated.”

“I bet.”

“There’s a daughter, too. And she’s PISSED.”

“They usually are.”

“Yeah. And she won’t give Mac any of the money. She thinks he knew the whole time that the old man was fucking these young girls. She told him he blew through enough money while he was ALIVE.”

Blew. “Uh-huh.”

“Yeah.” Her head seemed to wobble as she nodded. “I guess THAT gravy train is over.”

“Guess it is.”

She was planning on talking some more, but she looked over and saw Mac returning to his seat. She shot me a conspiratorial glance and walked over to see if he wanted another drink. Naturally he did. She brought him another cocktail (after shooting me another conspiratorial smile) and decided to wash the empty glasses that had accumulated behind the bar. There weren’t that many; but it took her a while to get them done.

I watched Mac out of the corner of my eye. Poor bastard, I thought. There he was, sitting at the bar he came to with his dad, where everybody (secretly or not) thought he was a mooch. There he sat; maybe knowing full well that everyone around him was applauding his downfall. Never mind that maybe he’s depressed because his father died. No; everyone decided he was sad because the free ride ran out.

Sometimes people say more about what’s important to them than they realize.

Except that it wasn’t a free ride. Not really. I’d be willing to bet the old man kept a mental record of every goddamn penny. And maybe he didn’t exactly REMIND his semi-prodigal son of how much he owed. But I’ll bet he never let his son FORGET about it, either.

Against my better impulses, I move across the bar to a stool near Mac. I didn’t plan on saying anything to him. There’s never anything appropriate to say, and people invariably say the wrong thing. They send cards expressing hackneyed condolences and flowers that die three days after the funeral.

When my dad died people sent food. The refrigerator was loaded with casseroles. Tuna Casserole. Green Bean Casserole. Lasagna. Casseroles with odd names like Fanny’s Fancy Noodle Night Surprise that had been published prominently in the annual church recipe book. Then there were the non-stop phone calls from the concerned, the sympathetic, the gawkers, and the gossips. The Church Grief and Counseling Committee. The grave criers – the ones who lived just to attend funerals and show how emotive and pious they were.

I was pretty much always bored and uncomfortable during church service. I don’t think anyone was surprised; he was twenty years older than my mother and his health had never been all that good. I was told later (by a particularly pious grave crier) that when mom was pregnant with me, the general consensus of the congregation was that I was both a blessing and curse – a blessing to be born so late in my father’s life and a curse because he probably wouldn’t live to see me grow into manhood. As much as I was bored during church, I loathed sitting through it when Dad was sick. Especially when the Prayer List was announced. The stern faced preacher would stand at the pulpit and read off the names along with the hospital each person was incarcerated in. The list was always read in alphabetical order, like a school seating chart. When Dad’s name was read, I always felt like people were staring straight at me. I felt their eyes burning holes into the back of my head, into my spine, into my face. What were they looking for? Signs of worry? Of gratitude? Stress? Faithful endurance? Piety? What? I was just grateful the sensation passed as soon as another name was called and the eyes would focus on someone else.

Mac didn’t look up when I sat down, although the bartender stared at me for a minute or so. I made a point not to look at him, either. I drained my beer and waved so the shallow bar bitch would see I needed a refill. I left cash on the counter. She brought me a beer and took my money without looking at me.

She did lean into Mac, though, smiled, and did the lift and squeeze. “You want another drink, honey?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t even look up at her.

She retracted and walked away. I thought I saw her shaking her head. Tsk tsk tsk. There would be a point when they’d stop serving him unless he paid up. Without Mac the Elder to make sure the tab was paid – well, the memory of bartenders and cops is pretty short.

She brought him his drink, offered an uncomfortable smile (still not looking at me) and retreated to the other end of the bar.

I recognized the smile. It was one of those smiles people flash when they know they’d just say something stupid if they spoke. Like at a funeral.

Mom had Dad laid out in a room at the local funeral home. The night of the visitation – that’s what tea totaling Protestants do instead of a wake – there was another visitation in the room across the hall. I don’t remember the person’s name. Dad’s coffin was dark brown with brass and gold fixtures. The interior lining was white. Dad was dressed in one of his suits; he rarely wore one when he was alive. The suit was dark blue. The shirt was white. I don’t remember the tie.

Visitations are usually around three hours long. At a minimum. Church people came early. Lots of hand shaking, pats on the back, and cutesy bible related comments. One person in particular – an elder who was known as much for his long winded benedictions as for the narrowness of his doctrine – shook my hand a long, long time. A long time. He had my hand gripped with one of his hands, and with the other he took hold of my elbow. It was the Venus Fly Trap of handshakes.

“I prayed,” he proclaimed. “I prayed hard. I prayed for a miracle.”

I didn’t bother asking if it turned out the way he wanted.

The extended family showed up. Most of them weren’t local and had to drive at least two hours. They were all mom’s relatives. They got teary eyed and hugged and laughed and cried. They told me how tall I was getting. They told me how much I resembled my father. I wondered: did any of them realize how much Dad despised them? And if they found out, would they grieve as hard?

Aunts, uncles, cousins. Ruby and Denis. People Dad had known when was growing up. People he’d gone into the military with. They all shuffled though: they walked slowly past the casket, whispering things like:

“He looks like he’s asleep.”

“Doesn’t he look peaceful?”

“I heard the end was nice and quiet.”

The air was full of piped in air, religious musak, and nervous avoidance. People formed little groups and talked about Dad – the kind of THIS IS YOUR LIFE/CELEBRITY ROAST tactic people use to avoid mentioning the obvious. I tried listening to some of the stories; but it seemed like they were talking about someone else. Some guy I didn’t know who happened to have my Dad’s name. I was seventeen when he died; and maybe by that point I should’ve started seeing him as more than my Dad. Maybe I should’ve started seeing as a man. As a human being. But I hadn’t. I still saw him as just my Dad – as close to infallible (even though I knew better) as I had ever seen; as close to god as I would ever imagine.

Mom couldn’t pull herself away from his side. She stood next to the casket while people shuffled by. She stood there while the funeral home attendants started setting up folding chairs for the short memorial for the people who weren’t planning on attending the grave side service the next day. Even after the chairs were set up and everyone took their seats, Mom was still standing by the casket, rubbing the top of head and talking to him.

No one said anything to her. The minister stood off to the side, looking around and waiting. He would occasionally look at her – especially when it was clear that she was talking to her dead husband – and then he’d cast a hard glance at me. An uncle who was sitting behind me muttered to his wife (loud enough for me to hear), “Why don’t somebody DO something? It’s just pathetic.”

I looked over at Ruby, but she was too busy looking dignified to act. I didn’t want to do anything. After all, who did these people think they were here for? It was her husband – my father – who had died. I told myself she should be allowed to mourn without having to act in some “appropriate” way to make them feel more comfortable. Who do these people think they are, anyway?!

When I stood up, there was a general sigh of relief. I looked over at the preacher, who nodded in approval. Fucking asshole. I didn’t go up there for him. I didn’t go up there for any of them. They could sit in those fucking folding chairs until their asses went numb and fell off for all I cared. I stood up and approached the casket because I couldn’t stand the thought of people whispering about her. I didn’t think Dad would have wanted that. My mom and I didn’t always get along – she could be pretty severe in her own way – but she was still my MOTHER, goddammit.

Mom was holding his hand and stroking his wedding band with her finger. She was whispering something to him that I couldn’t make out. I looked down at him. It was the first time I’d looked at him since I saw him lying dead in the ICU.

It didn’t look like him. Not at all. I mean, it clearly was him. But it wasn’t. Not really.

That only compounded the feeling I’d had when people were standing around telling stories. None of it seemed like Dad. None of it made sense. It would culminate later in what some people called my “inability to mourn properly.” For some reason, people get stuck on what kind of mourning makes them the most comfortable. What seems the most normal to them. I think it’s interesting that all that normalcy goes out the window when they’re the ones who are grieving.

I touched her arm. “Mom?” She looked up at me. “They’re ready to start.”

Tell me to make them leave. Tell em you want to do this alone. Tell me.

She didn’t tell me. Instead, she let me lead her to the empty chair next to mine so the preacher could do his bit.

“You ant another?” I looked up. The bartender was staring through me. Her tone was impatient. I looked down at the bottle. It was nearly empty. I looked around. The bar was still mostly empty.

“Sure,” I said. “Another.” I smiled. Obnoxious cunt. She walked over to the cooler without asking Mac if he wanted a refill. His glass was empty. He was holding his head up, but barely, and staring deep into the wood grain of the counter.

“And bring one for my friend, too,” I called, nodding towards Mac. Miss Lift and Squeeze shot snarky glance over at me. I put extra money down on the bar for his beer. When she came and set the beers in front of us, Mac looked up.

“On me,” I said to him.

“Oh,” he said, almost smiling. “Thanks.” He grabbed the bottle and took a long drink. It seemed to revive him a little. Then he looked at me.

“You… you… ah… you knew my Dad,” he slurred. “Right?”

“I talked to him once or twice.”

“You know?” he asked. “You know, he, uh… he died. Right?”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “Seemed like a nice enough guy.”

Mac nodded. “He was. He was. He was … SOMETIMES.”

“Yeah, well,” I shrugged. “You can say that about anybody.”

He looked at me and for a brief flash his eyes cleared. Then he nodded. “Yeah. I guess so.” He tipped the bottle back and emptied it. Then he brought a big wad of tangled cash out of his pocket and tossed it on the bar. “Make sure she gets all that,” he said.

Only if Dino doesn’t wander in. “Ok. You sure you don’t want another? Maybe a cup of coffee?”

He smiled. “Nah. Gotta go. Got ta go. Time ta go.”

I watched him leave. So did the bartender. For a moment I thought she was going to pick up the phone and call the cops. Instead, she came over and picked up her cash. She didn’t look at me.

It rained the day of the funeral. The grave side service took place during one of those cold September rains with rain drops the size of golf balls. Rain that large falls heavy. It also falls fast and slow at the same time. Fast enough that it’s difficult to see more than five inches in front of you slow enough that I felt each and every drop fall, hit, soak through my clothes, through my skin, and down into my bones, where it created a permanent chill. I’ve never been able to get rid of the chill.

The crowd was significantly smaller than the previous night; it was mostly family and a few close family friends who showed up. Everyone was dressed in black. Some had umbrellas. Everyone looked at the ground. It was the first time since Dad got sick that I didn’t feel everyone’s eyes on me. The burial plot was right between his parents’ shared headstone and a smaller headstone of mine and Ruby’s older brother who was stillborn. I never liked to look at his grave because he and I shared the same name. Mom cried a little, but I knew she would do most of her mourning in private. She stood along side my sister and Denis (who looked like he was thinking about a baseball game he was missing.) The American Legion Rifle Corps – three old drunks who came out whenever a fellow war veteran died, were a little ways down a small incline and off to the right. The graveyard workers were a respectable distance off to the left, smoking and waiting. The preacher was standing at the foot of the grave.

I was standing at the head of the grave, opposite the preacher, where the trumpeter usually stood. I was standing there because I had insisted on playing Taps. I’d been in band since fifth grade, and had moved up into marching band when I hit high school. After I made first chair, the band director, Mr. Colburn, asked if I was interested in playing Taps for American Legion Funerals. I’d get twenty bucks, he told me, and it would get me out of school sometimes.

When Dad died they line up another kid; but I wanted to do it. I didn’t even really know why. So I stood there in the rain, trying to focus on keeping my mouthpiece warm and not fucking everything up.

The preacher droned on and on about Heaven and Salvation and That Time When All Pain Shall Cease. When he finished, he intoned Psalm 23. And when he was finished with that he nodded at me. I raised the trumpet to my lips, not really sure if anything would come out.

The tones rang out despite the rain. I closed my eyes to block out the image of my mother, my sister, and the obsequious mourners in black with their sniffles, tears, and coughs. For the short length of time I was playing, everything stopped. The rustling of the wind through autumn trees stopped. The sound of traffic from the street stopped. The sounds of people crying and sniffling, and whispering stopped. The thoughts in my head stopped. Even the rain seemed to stop. And when I finished there was a brief second of pure and absolute silence; the only way to understand it is to understand that moment when music stops and there is nothing – that moment between tracks on a record or a cassette tape when there’s nothing. It’s one of those moments that have been lost to the digital age, along with cover art and concept albums. It may be the closest to the silence of universe as most people will ever experience.

The silence was shattered by three rounds from the drunks with rifles. They echoed like thunder. When the rifles went silent, time began again. People filed away from the grave, trying to achieve that impossible balance between solemnity and hurrying the hell out of the torrential downpour. The rain, as if it felt the need to catch up, was coming down even harder. Ruby and Denis led Mom away. The preacher shook my hand briefly as he passed.

I stood at the grave for a moment trying to figure out how I should have felt. The man they were burying… that my mom was mourning… that I had just played Taps for.. still didn’t seem like the man I recognized as my father. I turned to walk away. As I did, I saw the graveyard workers out of the corner of my eye, stamping out their cigarettes and starting to move forward.

As I walked away, the head rifleman stumbled up to me. His eyes were puffy and red. So was his nose. He grabbed my hand with both of his and shook it with a little too much vigor.

“That was just beautiful, son,” he said. “Just beautiful.” He tried to hand me a twenty. I told him to keep it.

“Save it for the next guy,” I said. “I can’t do this anymore.”

The old drunk shook his head like he understood. He pocketed the money and then he reached into his coat and pulled out a small flask. He offered it to me. “It’ll help dry ya out,” he said. I took it from him, uncapped it, and took a sip. It burned down my throat. But the warmth spread through my body and for a little while, I didn’t feel that coldness that had crept into my bones.

You want another?” I looked up. Miss Lift and Squeeze was finally looking at me again, though there was no conspiratorial smile on her lips.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll head out after this one.”

She didn’t answer me, but walked over to Rico and Sammy and got into their conversation.

“I can’t believe it!” Rico said. “I just can’t believe this son of bitch! He put money on that NAG – and the fucker came in! First! What the FUCK?!”

Sammy didn’t answer. He was too busy smiling.

I left a small tip on the bar and left.

15 July, 2009

Where You Are

False advertising is a pain in the ass.

I finally got around to picking up a can of bug spray. It was an off brand. I figured I could kill off my roommates the roaches and still have money left for a few drinks. Actually, I would have been content just to kill one. The one. The fat fucker. He didn’t make an appearance as often; mostly I think he came out just to remind me he was still there. Sometimes I’d come in and he’d be there, gimping from the bed to the dresser or making his way across the tile in the bathroom; there wasn’t any skittishness to his movements at all. In many ways, he reminded me of my last roommate; a guy who slept 20 hours a day and smoked more weed than anybody grew in the entire state of Kentucky. When he wasn’t sleeping or getting high, he sat on the couch and ate Cheerios. That roommate – like the roach – didn’t pay rent, either.

After stepping on the roach a few more times, I broke down and bought the spray. It was a large orange can with a picture of a dead bug. I’d put it off because I thought I was making progress; I’d squashed I don’t know how many of them, and I continued to make a conscious effort to keep the room more picked up. Once I accidentally killed one that had managed to crawl into my shoes during the night – don’t ask me how – and from then on I kept my shoes up off the floor, too.

When I was choosing between all the various brands of roach killer, I went with the one with the biggest dead bug and the lowest price. I didn’t think that roaches saw in the way we see things – I remember being told they didn’t have eyes, per say – I still thought that maybe a brightly colored can with a big dead bug might intimidate the fat fucker into dying without my help. Kind of a cockroach coronary.

Too bad there wasn’t a money back guarantee.

I walked in carrying the can in my right hand. In my left hand was a bottle of cheap scotch I’d picked up to celebrate the roach king’s demise. I looked around. The sensation was visceral; I felt alive because I was sure that day would be the roach’s last. Naturally, he was nowhere to be seen. None of his minions were out, either. I set scotch bottle on the small table next to the radio and stood there for a moment, surveying every inch of carpet, tile, corner, light, and shadow. He was pretty wily for a roach; I knew he could be hiding anywhere. He was nowhere to be found. I was annoyed; but I told myself to be patient. That nothing came easy, but when it did, all the frustration was worth it. I gave one more careful look around the room, even looking under the dresser (which I had neglected to do initially). Nothing.

I decided to wait him out. I told myself that if I was quiet enough or nonchalant enough, that the fat little fucker would make his appearance. So I sat down at the table, set the large orange can next to the bottle of scotch, and turned on the radio. It was tuned to station that played a lot of old tough guys. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop. Some World War II music, like the Andrews Sisters. Some Sammy Davis, Jr. Bing Crosby. Music, according to the announcer during one of the breaks, “from when men were men, the drinks were all martinis, and life came up aces.” I suddenly felt like drinking a martini; but (of course) I didn’t have any of the mixings. So I decided to go ahead and open the scotch. A little sip wouldn’t hurt. I told myself that it might even give me something to look forward to.

While I waited for him to make his appearance, I thought about things. I thought about smiling Dave and mean Marta. Mac the Elder and Younger. Adelle and her regular lineup of cocaine and porn hooked boy toys. Loyce and her cop.

I thought Ruby and her offer to go home. Home. Go Home. Sometimes that kind of consistency is nice. You live around people who have known you your entire life. They know all the stories. They know when your birthday is. They know how you like your chicken cooked, how rare you like your streak. They care about how much you smoke, how much you drink. They compliment you if you lose weight and say nothing if you gain it. They make fun of your dimpled cheeks. They put up with you regardless of your lack of fashion sense. You know all the streets and you never get lost. Sometimes you run into the first girl you ever kissed in the bread aisle at the grocery store. You can even visit the old high school and see your senior picture on the wall, all smiling and hopeful, along with the other smiling hopeful faces who graduated with you, as well as those from years past. You find your mother’s picture. Your father’s picture. You start to see the commonality of all things – how much you look like your parents. How much they look like you. How much things never really change. You start to feel the weight of that word. HOME.

And then I thought about how sometimes how easy it is to stay, to accept the weight of the word and all the other words to follow. Family. Life. Wife. Children. Mortgage. Retirement. Death. Sometimes we get so used to having certain people around us because they establish our boundaries; they create and embody the niche our life becomes. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. Like a blanket someone uses to suffocate you. The presence of those certain people confirm for us everything we ever felt about ourselves and everything we were ever told.

Ruby and I had never really gotten along. I guess it was nobody’s fault. She was so much older and living a much different life. We never really got to know one another very well; and one thing I did pick up from her visit was that she was beginning to regret it. But there wasn’t any point to regret. There rarely is. Ruby had made up her mind about me a long time ago; and even with all her regret, spurred on by fresh sobriety and the twelve step morality, her view of me was fundamentally unchanged. Back when I was a kid she saw maybe two or three times a year, she had made up her mind that I was her fucked up baby brother. The spoiled, selfish, and inconsiderate boy who got everything she didn’t and who took and took and took but never gave back. If I took her money – if I accepted her help – there would be strings attached. There were always strings.

I was shaken out of my thoughts by movement. There was a roach skittering around by the foot of the bed. Just a small one. Good test subject. I took a drink (for luck) and stood up slowly. The roach didn’t seem to notice. I crept up slowly. The little fucker didn’t seem concerned at all – had he been, I might have been less pissed off. Little fuckers, I thought. They’re not even scared of me anymore.

When I thought I was close enough, I shook the can – giving the dirty little bastard one more chance to act like the frightened little bug he was. The sound made it stop – but that was all. Then I pointed the can downward and sprayed. Gave it a good dose, too. At first, the roach tried to out run the mist; but the poison must’ve acted quickly, because the little son of a bitch stopped, rolled on its back, and died.

“See that?” I stood and said out loud so that the roach king could hear me. (I knew he could.) “See that? You’re next, you fat bastard!”

I walked back to the chair wrapped in an air of triumph, and allowed myself a generous swig from the scotch bottle – strictly celebratory. But I didn’t get carried away. I knew it wouldn’t be long, though. There’s never just ONE roach. I took another drink and looked at the directions on the back of the can:

Kills on contact. For more effective coverage, spray along base boards and in corners. Do not use as an open air spray. Harmful if ingested. Do not spray in eyes. Do not crush can. Contents under pressure. Flammable.

Hmmm. Maybe I was going about it all wrong. Maybe I was taking the wrong approach. Sitting and waiting for him to appear was giving him the home field advantage. Fuck that. I took another drink and stood up. Then I proceeded to spray along all the baseboards, in all the corners. I sprayed along the bottom of the bed and under the dresser. I sprayed behind the toilet. I sprayed around the sink. I sprayed around the electrical outlets. I sprayed so much that a cloud of bug spray hung heavy in the air and I had to step outside. I shook the can. It was mostly empty, but felt like there was still some more in there. Gotta love that economy packaging, I thought. Try and get that amount when you buy a brand name. Raid, my ass.

My lungs cleared up in a few minutes. I wanted to smoke a cigarette, but I didn’t want to take the chance with all the bug spray lingering in the air and on my clothes. I walked back in the room, but I left the door open. Then I sat down and waited to see what happened.

My mind wandered again and I thought about the last Christmas I was home. I was unusual in that the gathering was a large affair. My sister hosted, of course. Our small family was there – what was left, anyway – me and my mom. Plus, Ruby had invited all of her in-laws and a few of her husband’s cousins. Lots of children running around. Lots of noise and hustle and bustle. My extended family had long developed the common sense not to try and get together except for weddings and funerals; and I didn’t really go to any of those. But there was something in Ruby – something that cried out for normalcy. Or at least, as close to a Rockwellian normalcy as she could achieve. She cooked a huge meal while her husband passed out cocktails with ridiculous holiday names and traded golf stories. My mom offered a few times to help but was shooed away; and she ended up off by herself, sitting in a corner chair near the fireplace. At one point, the men went out to the garage, the women (except for Mom) congregated in the dining room/kitchen area, and I sat on the couch, watch television and drinking Denis’s high-priced beer that he kept stashed in a mini-fridge down in the basement.

I didn’t have any money for presents and I didn’t really know anybody. I hadn’t seen any of Denis’s people since the wedding. I was maybe ten at the time. (He made me an usher – I was too old to be the ring bearer – so I had to go.) I was stuffed into an uncomfortable tuxedo with extremely shiny and uncomfortable shoes. The church was hot and packed to all four walls with hordes of wheezing, whispering, crying relatives. I met a lot of people back then, but didn’t bother remembering them.

When I showed up for Christmas, Ruby introduced me around. Then came the inevitable question/answer exchange. What do you do. Are you in school. What are your plans. After several rounds of not having the appropriate answers, people got the hint and left me alone.

Large family gatherings let you know right away where you are in the pecking order. Typically, level of success (as determined by general consensus) indicated Where You Are. Since the gathering was taking place at Ruby’s, that placed her pretty high in the food chain. The pinnacle, really. Which meant her husband was too, and so were her kids. (Hierarchy and birthright go hand in hand.) Mom filled the Queen Mother role, placing her, by proxy, near the top – though not even close to Ruby’s level. The middle ground was filled with in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Denis’s brother the cop figured prominently – both by birth and by the fact that he showed up in uniform. (He glared at me pretty early and we kept a safe distance between us. Types always know types, and both of us had our experiences to tell us it was probably better for everyone if we just nodded at one another from across the room.)

As the somewhat disappointing and outcast younger brother I played at a role similar to Richard the Second; though I think a hump back might’ve made me more sympathetic to the uber-Southern Baptist faction that frowned behind their fruit punch at the rest of us.

Bugs also have a pecking order based on function. Every bug has a job. When a bug dies, it is immediately replaced so that the whole colony doesn’t suffer. Bugs. Families. Governments. Corporations. PTA groups. People fill a role and that’s how people identify them. Ruby was corporate. Denis was a teacher. Mom was a housewife. I was the lost drunken baby bother. And when people die, someone immediately takes up the role so that society doesn’t suffer. This seems normal and natural when it comes to accountants, politicians, teachers, and corporate executives. People just don’t like to accept that there’s always some bug in the mix, not giving a shit about any of it.

After I ceased to be of interest, the night went on. Dinner was served. (Seating and pecking order are directly related.) People laughed. Children played. Later on, presents were opened and the carpet turned into a difficult to navigate cesspool of cheery wrapping paper, torn open boxes, and instruction manuals written in every language but English. Lots of pictures. Lots of smiled. I was asked to help once. I held the camera and pushed the button while Ruby smiled and hugged her father-in-law.

My bottle was scotch was almost empty and the roach king hadn’t shown up. Every once in a while I’d pick up the can and shake it, like some pathetic battle taunt. It didn’t do any good.

Patience, I thought. I took a deep breath. Then I smoked a cigarette and waited some more. I took another drink. I smoked another cigarette. I finished off the scotch. Not one single god damn roach.

“They’re plotting against me,” I complained to the empty room. How is it that these mindless little fuckers always one-up me?

Finally I stood up again and turned off the radio. I was tired of waiting. I was tired of listening to the radio. I was out of booze. I was almost out of smokes. I wanted to watch TV and pass out. I closed and locked the door – the room had aired out enough – and walked over to the television. Maybe I’ll find dead roaches tomorrow, I thought. That thought had a certain appeal. The potential for real progress.

I turned on the set; but instead of tuning in to some reality show with fake drama and plastic people, the screen flashed, fizzled, and went dark.

The first thing I did was check to make sure the plug hadn’t come out of the socket. That was fine. I hit all the buttons, thinking maybe I’d accidentally hit the off button. The set was dead. I went back over to the table and picked up the bug spray to see if the back of the can said anything about it not being good for televisions. Nothing. I put the can down next to the TV and started looking around the set to see if I could notice anything. Maybe there was a loose wire, like Dave had said. Maybe I just need to jiggle the set or slap the top of it and it would work.

I don’t know what the hell I was thinking; my knowledge of television repair starts with me turning it on and ends with me turning it off. But I was looking around for something, anything. I wanted to pass out and deal the roaches and the TV in the morning. But I kept looking around anyway. I looked at the plug at least five times.

I should go tell them. That would be the normal thing to do. But that wouldn’t do me any good. If Dave was working, he’d shrug and smile. If Marta was working, she’d just give me a dirty look and horde her 13 inch television. Plus, they’d find a way to blame it on me. Fuck all that.

I was taking the tactic of trying to turn it on and off again, when I saw a roach running from under the television across the top of the dresser. I picked up the TV and smashed the roach under it.

“Take that motherfucker.”

Then I saw another roach. This one was climbing out one of the heat vents in the back. And then there was another. And another.

The motherfuckers were IN the television.

“SONS OF BITCHES!” I cursed. I put the TV down, picked up the orange can, and killed the roaches that escaped from the set.

I kept on cursing them for another couple of minutes, when it occurred to me. The nest was IN the television. No more TV. No more roaches. That fat fucker was probably in there hiding and getting fatter chewing on the circuit board. Let him.

I turned and opened the door. The parking lot was quiet. Loyce was in her room, entertaining. The dumpster was behind the building. If I walked down the stairs and turned walked between the building with the rooms and the small house where the office was, I could probably get away with tossing the TV. No one would be the wiser. Who would know? The cleaning staff??

I pulled the plug out of the wall, picked up the set and walked quickly out the door. It was heavier than I expected; but it was worth it. I’d be rid of the roaches once and for all. Let them have the TV. Let them have the whole dumpster. They can have their space and I can have mine. Everybody’s happy. I could probably get a TV out of one of the empty rooms if I really wanted another one.

When I got back to the dumpster, the lid was open. So I hurled the thing as best I could. I heard it crash at the bottom of the dumpster.

“There, you son of a bitch,” I said. “Gorge yourself to death. Have at it.”

When I walked back in my room, the air conditioning felt wonderful. I closed the door behind me and locked the door. Sweet relief. I looked over at the empty bottle on the table. I told myself that after I cooled off for a bit, I’d run and get some beer. After all, I deserved it, didn’t I? I walked over to the sink (I could still smell the bug spray) and splashed water on my face. I wanted to go out for the beer and get back so I could strip and get out of my sweaty clothes.

That was one of those tricks I learned in New Orleans. This guy came up and asked me for a dollar. “For a burger,” he said. But I knew from looking at him that he wasn’t going to buy a burger. He looked like man who valued a bottle of Mad Dog over an overcooked quarter pounder. I gave him a couple of bucks – thinking that someday I’d need the same kind of assistance. It never hurts to build up good karma. When I handed it to him, he thanked me. Then he said, “You look uncomfortable.”

“I’m just not used to the climate yet,” I said.

He cackled. “Don’t let them sweaty clothes dry on your back,” he said. “People do that, they get pneumonia and die.”

I’d never heard that before, but I had no reason to doubt him. After all, if anybody knows how to survive in the elements, it’s probably a homeless drunk.

When I walked up to the liquor store, there was a spring in my step. I bought a six pack and got back to my room as quickly as possible. When I walked into my room, I closed the door, locked it, and proceeded to strip down.

Then I saw him.

It was him. The fat bastard roach king. He was waddling on the tile floor, heading towards the toilet. From the looks of him, he was only using three of his legs. The shell, which had been cracked, was starting to call off. I rushed over to the dresser, grabbed the big orange bottle, and held it right over the little fucker. He didn’t even bother to stop.

When I pushed down, the only thing that came out of the bottle was air. I shook the bottle. There’s no way this fucker’s empty. I sprayed again. That time nothing came out.


I threw the can and thought about stepping on him one more time. Surely to god one more time will kill him!

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I didn’t have anything left. I let him go and cracked open a beer.

“Fuck it.”

14 July, 2009

Even Whores Need a Holiday

The next time I saw the fat cockroach I was coming back from the bar. I’d managed to stick with one job for an entire week and I needed relief. The job was doing grunt work for a professional landscaper in Scottsdale: digging up perfectly good lawn to plant bushes, trees, and flowers; hauling rocks and dirt in wheel barrows; pruning trees and weed wacking for condominium communities where the guy had contracts. He basically hired me because I was first guy who spoke English that applied for a job for as long as he could remember. (He inherited the business from his dad, he told me, and Mexicans always did the grunt work.) It did his heart good, he said, to give a job to someone he knew was from America. Not that the guys he had weren’t good guys, he said. He was SURE they were all legal. “I sure am glad though,” he winked and smiled, “that I don’t have to worry about that with YOU.”

His name was Zack. He let me ride in the truck with him to the first job site. Along the way he told me to keep an eye on the guys in my crew.

“So I can get the hang of it?” I asked. I didn’t remember there being anything complicated about back breaking work.

“Naw,” he nodded. “I hire all of ‘em TEMPORARY – until I hear back about their status.” He lowered his voice, like there was somebody else in the cab listening. “I think one or two of those boys may be border jumpers.”

“So when you find out,” I asked, “you let them go? Or do you turn them in?”


“You don’t call the cops?”

“Ahhhh,” he winked again. “Naw. I get them ‘special status.’ They stay so long as they work for me. But if they cause one bit of trouble, it’s back to Mex-ee-co they go!” He laughed at his bad rhyme.

Uh-huh. How much of their checks do you keep? “Nice truck,” I commented.

“Yeah. Thanks. You know,” he said, looking at me very earnestly, “landscaping is a good job. It’s hard work sometimes, but it keeps you strong. A smart fella can make a good living at it.”

Really Mr. Man? Geez, even ME? “I can see that.”

“Yep,” he said. “You work hard,” he said. “A guy like you can make a life out something like this.”


“Yeah. So, just WATCH ‘em. Let me know if they’re goofing off or getting lazy. If they’re not doing what they’re s’posed to be doin’, you let me know. Okay, brother?”

Brother. I puked a little in my mouth and swallowed it. I wanted to ask him if those white hoods and sheets got hot in the summer. Instead, I stuck it out a week and ignored the other guys on my crew. At the end of the week, I collected my pay (he paid in cash) and I never went back. Suck my left nut, brother.

So by the time I got to the Dutchman, I was feeling pretty good. Better than I’d felt in a long time. I was a week ahead on rent. I had a little cash in my pocket. Adelle hadn’t been at the bar (Dino was looking for her) and it had been Suzy’s night to work. She told me she was going to name her baby Isabella. I told I thought that was a pretty name.

And when I opened the door, there he was. It? He? Anyway, there the LITTLE FUCKER was – gimping his way towards the bathroom from the edge of the bed. I walked in and turned on the light, and he (it) didn’t even slow down. He kept on at his half dead pace.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” I roared. What was there about this place that kept squished cockroaches from dying? After I started seeing them, I made more of an effort to keep the room clean. I picked up. Made sure there wasn’t any food left lying around. I took out the garbage more often. I mean, I didn’t go NUTS about it; but I did TRY. Really.

Apparently, it hadn’t worked. I stood there watching it (him?) make his way. I was at a loss. Stomping didn’t work. Swatting him with a rolled up paper didn’t work. Cleaning didn’t work. I’d managed to take out more than two dozen of his minions; they went down easy, the way bugs are supposed to.

Frustrated and losing my buzz, I walked up to him and stepped on him again. I heard the crunch and I thought, surely THAT will do it. Then I lifted my foot. He (it?) didn’t move. I watched for a second, holding my breath. No movement. Satisfaction washed over me and I breathed a sigh of relief. I looked around for something to sweep him up with; I considered taking him down to the office and showing whoever was working what I had been contending with. I wanted to say, You see this? THIS roach had to get stepped on three times before it died. You think maybe you should put out for somebody to come here and SPRAY? I found a copy of the local free alternative weekly paper – The New Times. The cover had some band on it. They all looked twelve, and the lead singer, a girl, looked like a hooker.

I turned back to scoop him (it?) up. God damn if he wasn’t moving! I swatted at him with the paper. He stopped for a heartbeat and then kept moving. I swatted him again. Again, he tried to fake me out. I screamed and swatted him again. That time he didn’t even pretend to be dead; he just kept on his pilgrim’s path.

“You’re being so fucking unreasonable,” I said to him. “Why don’t you just fucking die?”

I needed to get out of the room; I couldn’t stand there and watch the roach mock me. Even though it was still hot (even though the sun had been down for hours), I stepped out of the room and lit a cigarette. Loyce was leaning on her door frame smoking.

“What’s your problem honey?” she smiled lazily.

“Fucking roaches,” I muttered, lighting my cigarette. “I think they’re out to get me.”

She laughed and shook her head. “You funny.”

I nodded towards her room. “You got roaches?”

“No,” she said. “but I had crabs once.” She roared, laughing at her own joke. Then she stopped. “No, honey. When I see a bug, I don’t DANCE wit ‘em. I spray the SHIT outta them.”

“Good point.”

She nodded towards the rolled up newspaper under my arm. “Is THAT what you usin’?”

“Yeah.” Come to think of it, a rolled up newspaper is pretty fucking stupid.

“Go buy some of that Raid shit,” she said. “Spray the fuck outta them.”

“I don’t suppose they ever spray for bugs here?”

Loyce laughed. “See? I told you. You funny. Why don’ you go ask?”

“I did?

“What they say?”

“They didn’t.”

“That’s because,” Loyce said as she dropped her spent but and smashed it with her bare foot, “if they sprayed they’d end up killing most of the residents.” She laughed.

I shook my head. “I need a drink.”

Loyce cocked her head at me. “I got a little gin,” she smiled. “An’ a little weed.”

“What about your prospective suitors? Won’t I scare them off?”

“She-e-e-e-it.” she said. “Come on. Even whores get a holiday.”

I turned to close my door. The roach finally made it from the carpet to the bathroom tile. I shook my head, closed the door, and walked over to Loyce’s room. She welcomed me in and poured me a gin and tonic in a plastic tumbler. I guess the finer glassware was reserved for paying customers. “No ice,” she said. Not apologetically. Just matter of factly. Then she rolled a joint, lit it up, and passed it over. We drank and smoked and talked. I felt myself start to relax a little more and the week started to take a positive spin again.

I was surprised to find out that Loyce and I were the same age. Her voice had the sound of an older woman. And she looked older too – especially around the eyes. Even when she laughed there was a deadness to her eyes that made me a little sad. We drank more gin and smoked more weed. She told me she had crack, too, if I wanted some – but she’d have to charge me for that. I said no thanks.

When the gin bottle was almost empty, she asked if I wanted to stay over. “I like you,” she said, running her long nailed fingers through my hair. “I think if I had an old man like you, maybe I’d be okay.”

I thanked her again, but said I should be getting back to my room. “Besides,” I joked, “I’m probably too drunk for anything too aerobic.”

She laughed. “Well, okay honey. Whatever you say.” She stood up slowly, making sure I got a full view of her in her silky night gown and sheer robe. Very little was left to my imagination, and all in all she wasn’t a bad looking woman. She was kind of attractive, really. I briefly reconsidered her offer; but then I remembered her joke about have crabs. Better safe than sorry. When I stood up, she wiggled her finger at my crotch. “If you little thingie needs some exercise, you let me know.” She kissed my cheek. “I’ll have to charge you, though.”

I left Loyce’s room and went back to mine. When I opened the door, two cockroaches were scurrying across the carpet. I stepped on them both. “I’m getting some spray TOMORROW, motherfucker,” I warned the empty room. “Then we’ll see what happens.”

I turned on the radio. It was set to a classic station. Bach was playing. I sat on the bed and passed out before my head hit the pillow.

13 July, 2009


The round bitch was working the front desk when I went to pay my rent. She was plowing her way through a tub of chili con queso using a bulk size bag of generic Fritos and watching The Tyra Banks Show about cheating men and the women who put up with them. When I spoke, she turned her head slowly, using all the force of her triple chins, and glared at me. Then she licked off the dip stuck to her fingers, wiped them off on a napkin she’d carefully laid over one enormous trunk of a leg. Then she stood – slowly – and faced the counter. Each move looked deliberate – as if she wanted to make sure I knew I was disturbing her.

By the time she had the receipt book open and her pink ball point pen with the treasure troll top on it poised, I had the cash laid out and ready for her.

“One more week,” I said, smiling with what I thought was a friendly and gracious smile.

She grunted.

I handed her the money; she counted it, then she looked up at me. Her rotund face was inscrutable. “Price went up,” she spat.


“The PRICE … WENT … UP.” She spoke slowly and louder, the way people do when they talk to small children, the retarded, or the dying. “Cost you… another ten bucks.”

When she talked or moved at all, her ginormous boobs jiggled and millions of freckles ebbed and rolled like the Mississippi River. Clearly, parts of her enjoyed ruining my day. I stood there a second or more, transfixed on the pale, freckled, rolls of cleavage. There was no way she could buy a bra in the store, I thought. She’d have to special order. I often wanted to ask her if there was an actual size or if the chart even went that big. Whenever I had to talk to her, as much of a bitch as she was, I couldn’t help but fantasize about what it’d be like to fuck those giant fleshy orbs. Just one of them was the size of my head. It was maddening. It pissed me off as much as it turned me on.

She sighed, clearly annoyed. Any woman worth her salt would have had the dignity to be offended; but not her. When I looked up at her face, she was glaring at me even harder.

“Sorry,” I shrugged and smiled, even thought I wasn’t sorry. “When did the price go up?” It’s certainly not seasonal.

“This week.” She was smiling. Like she thought I didn’t have the money. Like she expected me to beg. Like she expected me to kiss her ass.

“You think it might’ve been a good idea to notify people?”

“You’re being NOTIFIED,” she sneered. “Right now.”

“Timely,” I said. “And considerate, too.” I took another ten out of my pocket and held it out to her. Enjoy it, bitch, I thought. Enjoy your little power play. That wouldn’t leave me with much for the week; but it wasn’t like I had a choice. She snarled like a hungry animal and grabbed at the bill. I pulled it back. She grabbed again and I let her have it.

“Listen,” I said as she was writing out my receipt, “I’ve been noticing roaches lately. I’ve killed maybe ten or twelve. When was the last time you got an exterminator in here?” Probably the last time you saw your feet.

She didn’t answer. She filled out the receipt, put the cash in the drawer, and handed me the receipt. “One week.” she said, like I’d expected more.

“What about the roaches?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, she waddled over, fell back down onto her chair jiggling, and focused her attention back on Tyra Banks and her chili con queso.

“Listen,” I asked, “how does somebody as pale as you deal with the sun? I’d think you’d burn all the time.”

She turned her head and glared at me again. “I’m Mexican,” she said. Then she rotated her head back into position, facing the television. I didn’t ask her what that had to do with anything. I just turned and left.

I stomped back up to my door. Loyce was standing outside smoking a cigarette.

“Let me ask you something,” I said.

“Yeah, honey?” She smiled at me like she was high.

“Why smoke outside?”

“’Cause,” she blew out a long, thin train of smoke, “some of my clients prefer a non-smoking environment.”

“Oh. Okay.” Who knew?

“I take it you not so picky?”

I didn’t answer her. “Did you know that rent went up?”

She laughed. “You just pay?”


“That red headed bitch Marta working?”

“Yeah.” I never knew her name.

“She-e-e—it,” she let out another long train of smoke and chuckled. “It didn’t go up. She just charge you extra.”

“Are you serious?”

She nodded, clearly amused. “Yep. Now you a regular contributor to the Fritos and cheese dip fund.” She laughed.

“Do you pay extra?”

“Fuck no,” she said, almost too matter of factly.

“So why me?”

“She must like you.”

“Well that’s just fucking great.”

“Hey,” she winked. “Them big girls, they need love, too.” She laughed. “If you good enough, you might even get a DISCOUNT.”

“Uh huh.” I unlocked my door.

“Jus’ be sho an’ tie a board ta yo ass first,” she called after me. “You might fall in!” She cackled.

I walked in and closed the door behind me, and flipped on the light. When I did, I saw at least seven roaches spread out over the carpet near the door. I managed to get one. Then another. The rest scattered.

“FUCKERS!” I yelled. “Dirty nasty little fuckers! I’ll kill all of you!”

I looked down. There was one roach left. A big one – must’ve been the size of a fifty cent piece. It was clearly in no hurry and was making it’s way – waddling almost – between the bed and the chest of drawers. I’m not sure what pissed me off more; the red headed bitch’s extortion, the roaches, the fact that I was now paying an extra ten bucks a week for a roach infested room, or the gall of a fat little fucker of a roach who acted like the room was his.

I stepped on him. Hard. “Take that you cocky little son of a bitch!” It felt like stepping on a flat stone or small rock. Then I heard the crunch that usually meant the roach was dead.

There’s an evil sort of joy that comes from stepping on a bug. It’s one of the few ways any person can assert his authority over the immediate environment. Most people become accustomed to Powerlessness. The ice caps are melting and the oceans are rising. Spotted owls and bald eagles are endangered species. The pandas in the Chinese zoo aren’t fucking. The forests are disappearing. The air and the water are polluted. There are wars and rumors of wars, and tragic Hollywood starlets are gang banging D-list celebrities in direct to DVD releases. Unemployment is up. So is inflation and the price of gas. But squash ONE bug – just one – and even the most beaten, downtrodden, henpecked, and kicked around asshole can, for one brief moment, feel like a god.

Not this time.

I lifted my foot expecting to see a dead bug. The roach’s shell was cracked right down the middle and the white, gooey stomach was visible. I thought I saw it jiggle a little. When the roach didn’t move I thought, God, what a fat little fucker! I thought about taking it down and giving it to Marta. Then I turned my attention to looking around for something to scoop it up with. When I turned my head back to look at it – maybe to gloat, I don’t know – it was MOVING. Goddamn if it wasn’t limping; but it continued in the same general direction it had been going when I stepped on it.

I should have stepped on it again. I thought about it. Finish the job, I thought. I had plenty of time. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just couldn’t. I was amazed that something so small and so brainless could survive being stepped on – and I stepped down HARD. I was incredulous. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and I watched it limp off into the darkness.

When it was gone, I sat down and turned on the radio. It was tuned to a classical music station. Tchaikovsky was playing. I uncapped a half empty bottle of vodka, took a drink, and closed my eyes.

08 July, 2009

Adapt and Survive

Sometimes the cable went out. When you beat around and live cheap, you learn to accept certain things. That was one of them. The TV set was a piece of shit anyway, but it was my only real entertainment. I left it turned on for days at a time just to combat the silence and to drown out the noise. Noise from my neighbors. Noise from the foot and street traffic. Noise from the endless street construction. Noise from the random drunks wandering the parking lot and from the ranting religiholics who would occasionally “protest” in front of the adult book store when they got tired of marching around the abortion clinic seven blocks away. There were more than a few nights that it was the last thing I heard before I passed out, only to be the first thing I heard when I woke up the next day. I looked around. I had a few swallows of wine left in a bottle of Mogen David Loyce had given me. (It was left behind by one of her less orthodox circumcised customers.) I tipped the bottle back and emptied it. When I looked around for the garbage can, I noticed a cockroach crawling near my foot.

Most of the time, they hide during the day and only come out at night; but sometimes they get brave and act like they own everything. I hate cockroaches. I don’t just hate them because they carry disease. I hate them because I remembered reading about them in a junior high biology class. They’re brainless little fuckers that, even if you squash their heads, they don’t die. They crawl and eat and lay eggs until they die – and then the young eat the dead ones so that they can get fatter, bigger, and eggs until they die. Cockroaches only die naturally when they’ve eaten so much that their outer shell is too small for their stomach. They serve no function other than to reproduce. And if there were ever a nuclear war, they would be the only thing that survived. I saw a picture once of a lair of some gigantic Amazonian cockroaches; they got to be as big as a full grown man’s hand.

But not that one. I stepped on it, tossed the empty bottle in the garbage, and opened the door, sweeping the roach carcass out with my foot.

Then I went down to the main office and complain; I felt pretty safe doing that, since I knew Dave was working. I walked in and he smiled; he always smiled. When I told him about the cable, he told me there was a loose wire.

“What do you mean, ‘a loose wire’?”

He shrugged. “There ees a loose wire, sir. We Weel geet eet feexed.” He smiled. He didn’t blink. It was hard to be pissed off at Dave. I think that’s why he smiled all the time; it wasn’t like his job was anything to be happy about.

“Loose wire, huh?”

“Yes sir.”

“And you’re, uh, working on it?”

He nodded like we had achieved a deep understanding. “Yes sir.”

I don’t know why he just didn’t say they didn’t pay the fucking cable bill. But there was no point in bringing it up.

“Thanks Dave.”

He kept smiling and waved. I waved back.

When I stepped outside I looked up and down the street. I had a decent wad of cash left over from a job I’d had and lost. It was a particularly degrading and meaningless job as a night shift clerk in a 7-11. Mostly I sat behind the counter, but I had to broom and mop and refresh the coffee and hot snacks whenever they were empty. My boss was an impish, weasel looking guy named Lester. He hadn’t achieved much in his life besides growing dreadlocks and being a 7-11 manager – but he derived a lot of satisfaction from lording it over the heads of his employees. I ended being robbed twice and finally got fired because Lester claimed to have video tape of me stealing beer. I’d managed to squirrel away some money, in spite of myself, even after paying two weeks rent. And I had nearly all my last check. I didn’t feel like going to the bar. I started walking towards the liquor store.

On my way there, I remembered there was a little consignment shop a little further up the street past the liquor store. Maybe I can find a cheap radio, I thought. Then they can have all the loose wires they want.

The consignment shop was jammed into a small space in one of the older strip malls; I knew it was an older building because the stucco had faded to a grayish off-white and because the roof wasn’t covered with the orange tile that was crucial in establishing a southwestern motif, and it had clearly been built before the city mandated a strictly enforced southwest aesthetic for newer construction.

When I walked in, I almost walked right back out. The place was in no particular order at all. Racks of clothes and coats were shoved up against furniture. The display shelves were crammed with stuff. The bookshelves, which occupied the front corner next to the counter, were completely disorganized – except for the single shelf at the top where the bibles were. That shelf as meticulously organized by translation. It even looked cleaner. Next to the register there was a glass jar (that almost looked like an old mayonnaise jar). Taped to the front of the jar was a small sign which read: THANK YOU FOR HELPING THE CHILDREN OF ST. ALICE. Behind the cash register there was a dowdy old church matron. Small and shriveled with pince nez glasses balanced on the tip of her narrow nose. Her carefully constructed coiffeur was so silvery white that in the right light it matched the faded blue flower print dress she was wearing.

“Good day,” she croaked.

I mumbled a response and pushed my way down the first narrow aisle. Baby bottles. A ceramic statue of a sad hobo clown sitting on a tree stump and holding out a tin cup. Coffee makers with no pots. Coffee pots with no coffee makers. Napkin holders. Wooden spoon. The handle to a kitchen knife. Tea kettles. Plastic tumblers. Old ash trays. Chipped dinnerware. Shot glasses from Cancun, The Bahamas, Rocky Point, and other places where booze was requires and clothing was optional. Blankets and handmade quilts.

It was impossible. How the hell can anybody find anything in this place? I was thinking that I would have been better off going to Goodwill – but that was farther away.

“Can I help you find something?” the old lady croaked after I fought my way up the second crowded aisle of mismatched and misplaced things. She smiled, which only made her already deeply wrinkled face look more like worn out leather.

“I’m, uh, looking for radio,” I answered. “Just a small radio.”

“Ah,” she replied. “So you like music, young man?”

“Uh, yes ma’am. I do.”

After lifting her right arm with what seemed like massive effort, she pointed a narrow spindly finger towards the far back corner of the store. I started to excavate my way back, when I turned to look at the old woman to make sure I was goin the right direction.

That was when I noticed that the hand she was pointing with only had one finger on it. The middle one.

It took what seemed like forever to push my way through furniture, small appliances, baby clothes, and other random crap I couldn’t imagine anybody being interested in. When I got to the back wall, damned if there wasn’t a couple of display shelves holding different radios, old stereo equipment, and VCRs. I pushed some of the pieces around and found a small portable stereo. It was an older one, but in decent shape. It had a cassette player. The case looked in decent shape. The antenna wasn’t broken or bent. The tuning dial was readable and the knob worked. The price tag read $10.

“Cheaper than a new one,” I said out loud. I was about to take it and make my way back up to the cash register when the old woman said,

“I think there’s an empty plug back there if you want to make sure it works. No refunds, I’m afraid.”

I looked around and sure enough, there was a double wall socket. I plugged in the radio and flipped the small switch. Nothing. I unplugged it and tried the other socket. Dead.

Shit! I tried a couple of other newer looking radios. None of them worked either. I was starting to think there was something wrong with the socket, not the radios. The last one picked up to test was older than the other ones I’d tried. It was a small box that was all speaker with a round tuner dial. The dial worked. The antenna was fine. The cord wasn’t chewed or taped together. If this doesn’t work, I told myself, it’s the goddamn plug. I decided in case that I would buy the first radio – the ten dollar one – pay, and get my ass to the liquor store and back to my room.

When I plugged it in and turned it on, the radio dial lit up and sound came out of the speaker. I turned the dial to make sure some stations would come in. Then I turned it off, unplugged it, and looked at the price tag: $7. Go figure.

I wrestled my way up to the register and the old lady smiled at me again. “Did you find what you came for?”

I set the radio on the counter, and she stooped a little to read the price tag. When she punched the price into the register, I noticed that her left hand only had a pinky and a thumb. I wanted to ask. But I didn’t.

“Seven dollars and a nickel,” she said.

I put the exact amount in the palm of her two fingered hand. Then she hit the cash rendered with her single-fingered hand, put the money in the drawer, and closed it. Using her thumb and pinky like pincer claws, she tore off my receipt and handed it to me. “Do you want a bag?” she asked.

“No thanks,” I answered. Then I wrapped the cord around the radio, tucked it under my arm, and turned to leave.

“Bless you,” she croaked and smiled. I turned (almost instinctively) to thank her. She was still smiling at me. She was also waving goodbye with the single finger of her right hand.

After that I stopped by the liquor store and bought myself a large jug of Carlo Rossi. When I got back to my room, I opened the door and was greeted by three more cockroaches. They were standing there, in the middle of the floor, like they were taking a damn smoke break. I stomped them immediately. I only got two of them. The third scurried away.

“That’s right,” I said a loud, setting the wine and the radio down on the small round table. “Tell all your bug friends about me.” Then I plugged in the radio, found a decent station, sat down, and opened the bottle of wine.

06 July, 2009

Quiet Please

If I walked three quarters of a mile up to the next main intersection and took the southbound bus, I could get out at the public library and have another air conditioned space to spend time in. I’d worn out the couple of books I brought with me – the only books I owned, anyway, and buying more was out of the question. Besides, living in a place like Phoenix, you learn quickly to jump from air-conditioned space to air conditioned space. I was one of the lucky ones in that I’d still managed to hold onto my room at the Lost Dutchman; but a guy can only spend so much time looking at the same four walls before he starts to go a little nuts. Since I technically didn’t have a permanent address, getting a library card was out of the question; but I could spend a few hours there, reading books off the shelves and relaxing.

There wasn’t a time I when I could remember not liking libraries. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of summers there. I’d wake up, throw on some clothes, and tell mom I was going to ride my bike. Then I’d ride into town (I wasn’t supposed to) and hide out in the library, reading books. I had a card, but I didn’t check anything out to take home, otherwise I’d have to explain it and I’d get in trouble. Mom used to take Ruby to the library all the time, and she asked me a lot if I wanted to go. I always said no. First of all, I didn’t want the little old biddy of a librarian to say something that might get me in trouble; but mostly, I liked keeping it to myself. Nobody knew I went there. I liked being able to go there and not having anybody know where I was. It was like being free. The library was my place. Mom had church. Dad had football. Ruby had – whatever the hell she did. I had the library. It was MINE.

The Public Library had a decent selection of books to choose from, and I jumped around depending on my mood. I was surprised by the large selection of poetry, but disappointed by most of what I read. Sometimes I read fiction. Biographies. If I couldn’t find something I was in the mood to read, I’d read the paper – usually the Washington Post or the LA Times. Never the local rag; I picked that piece of shit up once. That was enough. Local news was easy enough to guess anyway. More foreclosures. Higher unemployment figures. More brown-skinned people harassed. More businesses folding. Fewer places to hide.

I found an interesting read and settled in to an empty chair in the corner, near the historical section. If I wasn’t too conspicuous, I could stay in the library through the heat of the day. The staff didn’t scare as long as you weren’t noisy and didn’t scare the other patrons. I’d even seen people come in with a sack lunch, eat a sandwich, and read for hours. I envied them a little – their little sandwich and their bottle of juice. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a decent sandwich. I didn’t like thinking about it, either.

The book I chose was nothing too heady – a hard-boiled crime yarn by Lawrence Block called A Diet of Treacle. I liked his stuff when I read it before. Crime and detective fiction are good reads when you want to relax and not think about things. They’re unsentimental, bare-boned, and the ending always made sense. Plus there’s an added benefit: you’re less likely to run into people who want to sit down with you can have some deep critical discussion. People like that wander the classics section in search of other unknown self-proclaimed literary critics to commiserate with. I despised that shit in school. I hated it more out of school. Like once, I was there reading Sister Carrie. I’d never read Dreiser and that was supposed to be his best book. It was long, but once you get into the plodding rhythm of it, it’s readable. I was about a third of the way through it when I was interrupted by the warbly, throaty voice of a woman.

“It’s a great novel, isn’t it?”

I looked up, annoyed. Novel. A book is a book unless it’s literature. Then it’s a NOVEL. I never understood that. The voice belonged to a mannishly large woman wearing one of those sack dresses that any woman can wear and no woman looks good in. The thick round glasses gave her moon-shaped face a mole-like look. She was smiling at me. I didn’t notice a staff ID around her neck. I made like was getting ready to leave.

“I was just leaving,” I said, closing the book. “Sorry.”

She laughed. “No, silly. I don’t WORK here. Although I AM here enough that they might as WELL pay me.”

I’m avoiding the heat. What’s your excuse? “Oh.”

“No,” she went on. “I was just coming back here, looking for the new biography on Sarah Hemming and I noticed what you were reading. What do you THINK about it?”

I think you have a gay ex-husband. “Uh, I don’t know. It’s okay, I guess.”

“OKAY?” She was nearly incredulous. “How can you say that it’s just OKAY? You must not be very far into it.”

I was about to say something back to her – what, I had no idea-- and she grabbed the book out of my hand. “Oh,” she said. “You’re getting into the good part of it. So what do you think? I think Dreiser does a good job at painting an objective picture of…”

I tuned her out. I didn’t know what I thought of the book but I wasn’t all that interested her take, either. Everyone’s a fucking expert. She was going on about how Carrie may have been one of the earliest examples of a modern woman in literature. I was looking around for the best way to get around her.

“… and I think it’s just AMAZING? Don’t you think it’s just AMAZING? Wait until you get to the part – no I shouldn’t spoil it for you. But I think you’ll think it’s pretty amazing, too.”

“I think its okay,” I repeated. “Decent read. He takes for fucking ever to say what he means to say, but it’s an okay read. I think he needed an editor.”

She was aghast. “How can you say that?” She pointed to the book. “This is REALISM. He’s painting a GRAND PICTURE. Every little bit. Every detail. It’s all IMPORTANT. Otherwise…”

I pointed out of the large window behind me and interrupted her. “THAT’S real.” Then I pointed at the book in her hand. “That is a book written by a guy who looked at reality through a window. So of course he could pay attention to the color of people’s shoe laces. He had nothing better to do.”

She left me alone after that. I still saw her in the library when I was there, but she was careful to avoid me.

A couple of pages into the crime book I was reading, I looked up and saw one of the staffers go by, pushing a cart full of returned books. She was maybe sixteen or seventeen. She looked incredibly bored. The gig probably didn’t pay that much, but at least she got to work in air-conditioning. Plus, it wasn’t some mindless office job where she was lost in a labyrinth of cubicles occupied by people who were tied to their computer screen for eight hours a day. And it sure as shit couldn’t have been as bad as working in a factory. No a/c, and by the end of the day your feet are sore from being on them all day and your back is killing you because you were standing on a concrete floor all day. I’d had to work a couple of days the week before, and the temp agency had stuck me in a warehouse punching out little plastic parts. I never knew what they were for, and nobody told me. Of course, I thought, she probably has to answer a lot of stupid questions, too.

She looked up and saw me looking at her. She nodded. I nodded. She went back to shelving books. I went back to reading mine.

After another hour or I started feeling the heat pouring in from the large plate glass window behind me. I decided to get a drink of water and take a piss. I left the book on the seat so people would know it was taken; I’d seen other people do that, so I didn’t feel like I was being too much of a prick. The restrooms were near the front door, and the nearest water fountain was in the children’s section near the back wall. I didn’t hurry. The library was filling up. There were kids all over the place; parents who were trying to keep their kids entertained and away from television and video games, but were wearing themselves out in the process. Tables and chairs were full of people like me who were simply trying to stay out of the heat. I took a piss and got a drink of water from the water fountain. The water was warm and tasted like minerals.

When I got back to my chair, it was being occupied by a kid. He’d knocked the book I’d been reading on the floor, and he was sitting there reading a Batman comic. He was maybe eight or nine. I looked around. There was no adult in sight who could be responsible for the little brat. He looked up from his comic briefly, stuck his tongue out at me, and went back to reading.

Sometimes there’s no winning. I knew I was in the right; I’d saved my seat. But I also knew if I said something about it, I’d end up being kicked out of library. Or worse. I was thinking something about a cliché I’d heard before; about how sometimes retreat can be the better part of valor. It sounded like bullshit the first time I heard it. It still sounded like bullshit.

Outside, the heat was really piling it on. The sky was cloudless, and there wasn’t even a breeze. I told myself that it was probably good that the little asshole took my seat; I could catch a bus soon, maybe stop by the bar for a cold beer.

“Excuse me? Sir?”

I looked up. There was a woman standing under one of the trees outside the entrance to the library. She was holding a clipboard and wearing one of those sun visors that women wear when they don’t want to mess up their hair. She looked overly primped, prepped, and fussed over – the way aging wives look when they’ve given up on nutrition and resorted to surgery. She was decked out in red shorts (that matched the visor and her socks) t-shirt with a picture of the American flag on it.

Fuck. I tried to walk by and ignore her. But she knew she’d already made eye contact. There was no escape.

“Sir? Excu-u-u-u-se me? Do you have a moment for your children?”

I didn’t know I looked so paternal. “I don’t have any.”

“But that doesn’t matter; the safety of America’s children is EVERYONE’S responsibility.”

Uh-huh. “I have to catch the bus, lady.”

“It won’t take that long,” she smiled. Her porcelain veneers were blinding in the sun. “I’m sure you won’t miss your bus.”

She had managed to grab a hold of my elbow. I could’ve pulled free and walked away. The only excuse I can give is that her unnaturally large (bought and paid for) boobs hypnotized me. “Are you registered to vote?”


“Would you be interested in registering?”


“Are you a resident of Arizona?”

Pause. “Yeah.”

“Then you care about our state and the issues that affect it?”


She hurried on. “Did you know,” she talked like she was preparing to tell me something shocking, “that this VERY library – paid for in part by tax dollars – subscribes to PLAYBOY MAGAZINE?”

“Really?” Who knew?

“Yes!” She clearly thought she had my attention.

“I didn’t see it on the magazine rack.” I definitely would’ve noticed.

“They keep the issues behind the counter,” she pouted and made a face liked she’d just swallowed something bitter. “Hmm! Can you imagine? They HIDE them because they KNOW there’s something wrong with it! Disgusting perverts!”

While she went on with her tirade about how pornography was a societal ill and led to drug abuse and child abuse and date rape and children born out of wedlock – I didn’t bother to ask her how that chain of events tied together – I studied her a little more closely. I wondered if her anti-porno stance was something deeply felt or maybe a response to, oh I don’t know, finding her husband’s stack of porn dating back to the good ol’ days when Suzanne Sommers (Three’s Company years) posed for Playboy? Maybe she found some porn on Junior’s computer during the weekly sneak and peak to make sure he’s not on drugs. She didn’t strike me as a religious freak – but they’re harder to spot than they used to be.

“…and I’m circulating this petition to send to the library insisting that they stop spending tax money on SMUT!”

She paused and took a breath. I took that to mean she was finished and that it was my turn to talk.

“But they’re behind the counter. Right?”

“Ye-e-e-s,” she drew the word out. I could tell by the way she pursed her Botoxed lips and squinted at me that I was responding the way she expected. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

“So it’s not like they’re sitting out with the Ladies’ Home Journal and Time Magazine, right? Anybody who wants to look at them has to go to the circulation counter and ASK… right?”

“Yes,” she said. “They’ve turned OUR public library, the repository of all our best cultural ideas, into a dirty book shop!”

Clearly, I thought, you haven’t read anything in a while. “But they’re not going to just give those magazines to ANYBODY? I think the children are safe. The librarians seem like okay enough people.”

“But how do you KNOW?” she countered. “Do they do background checks? How do we know that the people working there aren’t PERVERTS? We have to take the library back! For the sake…”

“...the sake of the children,” I finished for her. “Look,” I said, leaning in, “it’s hot here. You’re not going to get a lot of signatures on a day like today. Why don’t we go somewhere air conditioned, have a drink, and you can tell me why this is so important to you.”

She recoiled from me and screeched. “PERVERT!” she screamed. “You’re one of THEM! A DIRTY DISGUSTING PERVERT!”

“Come on, hon,” I said. “Let’s go get a drink. Relax.”


“Now is that any way to talk?” I asked as I walked away. “That’s not very Christian of you.”

She screamed and hissed some more. I got to the bus stop just in time to watch the bus pull away. The thought crossed my mind to run after it; but it was too hot and there was no way the bus was going to stop anyway. Neither of my options was all that appealing. It was too hot to stand there, even under the shelter. It was too hot to walk. As I stood there, considering my options, I felt the sweat evaporate off of my skin. Cars sped by, splashing hot air and exhaust fumes in my face. The lingering stench of exhaust made it difficult to breathe.

I decided to walk.

02 July, 2009

Once Upon a Time in a Laundromat

Sunday mornings at the Laundromat were generally quiet. When I scraped the quarters together to wash my clothes rather than ring them out in the sink, I tried to get my ass up early and go when all the good folks were at church and all the rest were sleeping off their Saturday nights. It wasn’t like I had a lot of clothes – but sometimes that works against you. With just a couple of shirts, two pairs of pants, some t-shirts, underwear; if I did laundry when everything was dirty I’d be living in a washing machine. You learn to get by.

But my shirts were starting to stand up on their own, and there’s only so much grime you can hand wash out. When I got to the Laundromat, the only person there was the attendant; he looked at me over the top of his news paper, squinting through layers of fat, nodded, and went back to reading the sports section.

It was nearing the end of July. Pre-season football would be starting up soon, and all the fanatics would come out of their summer hiding places decked out in football jerseys, team hats, sun visors, earrings. Most of the jerseys were from some other team because most everybody was from someplace else. Lots of Cowboys fans, Browns fans, Eagles fans. One bar was known for strictly being a Vikings bar. That was just the way it was. The southwest is still the depository for all the people who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. But when they come, rather than shake off the memory of the place that didn’t want them, they hold onto parts that become part of their identity. Sometimes they add the city to their name, so they won’t be confused with some one else. St. Louis Steve. Indianapolis Pete. I once watched a guy get into a yelling match over Cincinnati Chili.

Luckily the place I went was running a summer special; that meant I might actually have enough money to toss them in the dryer for a little bit, too. I put my clothes in and sat down. I found a couple of magazines. One of them was an outdated US News and World Reports. The other was a Watchtower Magazine – one of those rags the Jehovah’s Witnesses leave around. Seeing that magazine reminded me of this girl I dated in high school. Lily. She was a sweet girl and had the most beautiful singing voice. She used to take singing lessons after school from the choir director and I’d hang around just to listen. I’d sit in the hall, close my eyes, and focus on her voice. Her family was Jehovah’s Witness – which meant, of course, that they didn’t want her dating me. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere. I couldn’t pick her up. I couldn’t take her home. Whatever time we spent together was in school. And that was ultimately how it all ended. Summer came and we made all those promises that kids make when they think they’re in love. But it ended nonetheless.

I picked up the US News and World Reports.

The cover story was a retrospective of the Bush Administration. Successes, failures. Concerns. Impacts, as always, on business. The recession. The war. In one picture, there was a crowd of protesters (in another country, of course) burning an effigy of Bush. Pictures of New Orleans after Katrina. People wading through torso deep water trying to keep twelve packs of Pepsi dry. People stranded on roof tops and waving signs. rows of cots filling the Superdome as the roof started to collapse.

I put the magazine down. I thought I should’ve brought a book.

The doors opened and a woman with three little kids stormed in along with an arm of the early morning heat. The youngest was crying and the other two were squabbling. The mother was ignoring them carrying a bag of clothes on each arm as well as a basket full of dirty clothes. She looked exhausted and it wasn’t even eight in the morning. She made her way to an empty row of double washers and set to work.

“Shut up!”


“You’re stupid!”

“Give it back!”

“Make me.”


“Baby. Cry to mom like a baby, baby.”


But she would have none of it. I never understood how parents tuned out their kids – especially when their voices hit that ear drum shattering, spine breaking pitch.


The baby was still crying when she was finished stuffing the washing machines, so she picked the baby up and sat down near the door. Then she shot the kids a dirty look and the settled down immediately and sat around in the chair next to her.

I looked over at the attendant. He was eyeing the woman and kids, but had settled back into the scores after she quieted them down. For a few minutes the only sounds were washing machine sounds. It was almost soothing. I looked over at the woman. Looks familiar. After watching her a little more closely, I realized where I’d seen her before. She lived at the Lost Dutchman, along with the kids and a guy who I suppose was her husband. They had moved in not all that long ago. According to Loyce (who seemed to know everything about everybody) their house had been foreclosed on and the guy had lost his job. So instead of living out in Queen Creek in a two thousand square foot three bedroom two and half bath dream house, all of them were crammed into room seven at the Lost Dutchman. At least it was one of the rooms with a kitchenette. They weren’t the only family living at the motel; there was a family of Mexicans in number three; they were before the sun, didn’t come home until after dark, and they never spoke to anybody but themselves. Loyce thought they were illegal; but I had noticed that she thought anybody who looked Mexican was illegal. I never bothered to find out what she said about me. That was probably a good thing.

When the washer was finished, I put my clothes in an available dryer. One time around was all I’d need. The woman had kept the kids quiet, and now they were playing quietly on the floor. The attendant was back hiding behind his newspaper. What does that fat bastard do all day? I thought. What does he do when he finishes with the sports page? Home and garden? Lifestyle?

A few minutes later, the guy walked in. More like he staggered in. He looked around, saw his family. She saw him immediately, and the look on her face went from exhaust to panic.


“I’m just doing laundry Jake.”


She looked over at me briefly; but clearly she had been taught the consequence of not answering quickly. “I just wanted to get it done, that’s all.”


“Because,” her tone took on an edge of bitterness, “you were passed out drunk.”

“BITCH! I CAN WATCH M’OWN GODDAMN KIDS.” He staggered a little. For a second, I hoped he would fall down and crack his head.

“No,” she stood and looked at him with a defiant eye. “You can’t. You’re a drunk and you’re embarrassing your children.”


The kids were huddled around her legs, looking up him all wide eyed and scared. I looked over at the attendant, who was keeping an eye on everything from behind the sports page. I looked at my dryer. My clothes were done. But in order to get to my clothes, I had to walk closer to the unfolding family drama. I didn’t particularly want to get closer because I knew what was coming next.

“Look at what you’re doing to them!” she said. “Will you look at your children? They’re scared to death of you, Jake! You didn’t used to be like this. We didn’t used to be like this! You…”

And that was when it happened. He reached out and smacked her. The sound of his open hand hitting her cheek echoed. The kids scrambled to a corner and put their heads down. Clearly this was a drill they’d learned before. I saw it happen from the dryer. Clearly the guy was drunk. But that was no excuse. Drunks don’t have any business hurting anybody but themselves.

My clothes were still a little damp, but they would dry quickly once I got back to my room. I stuffed them in the cheap laundry bag I’d brought them in and was preparing to leave.


“You told me it was okay,” she cried. “You said…”

He slapped her again. A little harder this time. I looked up at the fat attendant. He had put down the sports page and picked up the phone. That meant the cops would be there soon and break it up – assuming it didn’t break itself up.

I’d watched the kids play in the parking lot sometimes, and every once in a while the mother would be outside, smoking a cigarette and walking around, or coming back with grocery bags. The husband wasn’t out so much, and I’d never seen him it at the MTP. That meant he was probably sitting in the room all day drinking, yelling like a dumbass and smacking his family around.

Once upon a time I liked to imagine I was one of those heroic guys, like the movies I watched when I was a kid. Superman. Batman. They always seemed to show up in time and the bad guys were always beat down. I thought about the cowboy movies my mom loved to watch. John Wayne. She was also really into the old black and white cowboys. Audie Murphy. Hopalong Cassidy. Roy Rogers. Gene Autry. Lash LaRue. They always did the right thing and shot the black hats in the gun hand so they could stand trial. That was a nice way to picture yourself; everybody wants to think they’re one of the good guys. But mostly, they’re like the fat ass attendant… hiding behind a badly written newspaper, waiting for the evil to pass.

He smacked her again. She started crying. Whatever it was she was trying to say was drowned out in her crying, his yelling, and the rhythmic sound of his hand hitting her face. I looked over at the kids. They were still huddled in the corner, watching. Scared. I looked over at the attendant. He was off the phone, but he nodded at me as if to say “I took care of it.”

I tossed the bag over my shoulder and headed for the door. The most direct path to the door was to pass right by them.


He paused briefly when I walked past. “An’ what’re YOU lookin’ at numb nuts? Huh? Got somethin’ ya want ta say?”

I didn’t answer. I kept my eyes on the fat attendant, who looked like he was looking for good fight to watch. As I walked past Jake, Wanda started crying even more. Out of the side of my eye I saw him raising his hand again. Instead of turning around, I kicked my leg back and hit him in the back of his right knee. This caused him to lose balance and he fell sideways and backwards. He hit his head on the large window, bounced off, and landed flat on his ass. I looked over at the attendant. He was eyeing me. I nodded at him and walked out the door.

Just then the cops pulled up, and I hurried back to my room.