29 October, 2009

Pendleton Underground: Parts 3 and 4 of 7


After I got off the phone with Red, though, I was in no mood to growl at the kids for hitting my door. I was in no mood to growl at anybody. Except maybe Brenda.

She didn’t like me because I stood her up once. Not long after my ex and I split, Brenda invited me to her house for dinner. I ended up getting drunk and forgetting about it. She never forgave me. Actually, I’d forgotten all about it until she started dating Pendleton. Naturally, she brought it up. “It’s no big deal,” she said smiling through her triple chins. Brenda was not a petite woman; then again, Pendleton liked his women on the big side. She was a pious and broken woman who was easy to impress. She didn’t think she was smart, and all of Pendleton’s books impressed her. She worshipped him – which he loved – because he ex-wife, my ex-mother-in-law, was a bitter shrew who never showed him any respect at all.

We were all friends for a while – Pendleton and Brenda and Linda and me. We went to their house for dinner all the time, and we played cards after until well after midnight. Pendleton usually cooked because the only food Brenda knew how to cook were TV dinners and frozen pizzas. Eating with them made me glad I’d forgotten that dinner date with Brenda; Pendleton was a decent cook and liked things spicy, the same as me.

We stayed friends until they got married. The small ceremony happened in Pendleton’s living room with a few friends attending and a homemade wedding cake that always seems to lean a little to the left. After she married him, Brenda took ownership of everything –including Pendleton. She didn’t mind if Red came around because he could help her husband work on the cars or fix the lawn mower; he was useful. I was all thumbs and useless and I drank too much; plus she thought I was mean to Linda sometimes. She also didn’t understand why I couldn’t seem to hold down a job, even though she’d never been able to keep one more than two months in the entire time I knew her.

“Fuck her,” I spat at the empty apartment. “Fuck her and her fat condescending head and her TV fucking dinners and fake piety and her hollow fucking prayers.”

After Pendleton married Brenda he rediscovered religion. He’d always had his own point of view on the subject; he once told me that God spoke to him and explained the purpose of evil in the world. But when I asked him to tell me, he only smiled and shook his head. “You need to find that answer for yourself.”

Give m a fucking break, I thought. Pendleton thought of himself as a spiritual man, but he didn’t go to church very much. “There’s nothing there I can’t get sitting on my back porch,” he said. Mostly I think he didn’t like the idea of having to dress up. Cleaned up with his shirt tucked in, Pendleton looked more like an irate bus driver than the misunderstood mountain man he wanted to be. But Brenda had insisted they go at least once a month; it was her family’s church and she wanted to prove to them all that she could land a husband who wasn’t either a stumbling alcoholic or her fourth cousin.

The scotch bottle was empty, but I wasn’t done drinking. I considered my options. I probably could’ve closed my eyes right then and gone to sleep; that would’ve been the smart option. But I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to stop thinking. I didn’t want to stop remembering. I didn’t want to stop the waves of anger pulsing in my arms and legs and chest. Normally Linda could talk some sense into me; but she was working an extra shift and wouldn’t be home until late. I was supposed to get up the next morning and teach. If I kept on, I wouldn’t feel like getting out of bed. All I’d feel was hungover and angry and all it would take was one stupid question and I’d bite some empty-headed student’s face off.

I put on my shoes and left. The sounds of the children playing echoed in my ears, nearly split my ear drums. So be it, I thought. If I’m deaf I won’t have hear anything anymore. No more children playing. No more silly questions. No more phone calls from Red. Nothing. Nada. Nunca. Silence.

The bar looked unusually crowded, so I didn’t go inside. I didn’t feel like being around people and having to play at being friendly. I kept walking. The scotch made my blood warm; I felt every drop of it coursing through my veins, pumping my heart, propelling me forward. Forward was all that mattered. I got as far as the corner drug store. I didn’t have enough cash for another bottle of scotch, so I settled for a reasonably cheap jug of table wine. The girl working the register eyed me carefully, but didn’t refuse my money. I walked out the automatic doors and cracked the seal. It was a serviceable burgundy; not usually to my liking, but it was the only red wine on the shelf.

If she had been there, Linda would have told me I was begging to be arrested. It was sweet that she still worried about – god knows why, since I rarely worry about myself; but she could never seem to grasp the basic laws of equilibrium. I wouldn’t get picked up because 1.) it was mid-week; 2.) I didn’t look homeless or like an illegal, and 3.) I wasn’t blocking traffic or impeding the forward progress of civilization. The only time anybody cared about a wandering drunk was when he became an affront to some respectable person’s sense of safety and balance. If we still lived in a small town, things would’ve worked out in a different pattern. Small town cops have nothing better to do than to set up speed traps and harass harmless drunks stumbling home from the bar; they have to do something in order to justify their existence. In a small town, one wandering drunk embodies the shaky line between order and chaos. In a city, especially one as self-involved as Phoenix with its image of being the new west coast, a wandering drunk in a decent pair of shoes isn’t the harbinger of anarchy; he’s a symbol of the economic recovery.

I kept the receipt, though. Just in case.


endleton was annoyed by my ability to use reason to justify what he saw as unreasonable and unjustifiable behavior. He probably cut me some slack because my drinking didn’t pick up until after his daughter (Actually, she was his step-daughter.) and I split up. Also, I think he felt a little responsible, since he was the one who bought me my first beer.

I was eighteen and my ex and I had just started dating. She was seventeen and occupied nearly all of my attention, and he was worried that we were getting too serious too fast. To try and pull me away, he started taking me with him on his junk jaunts. Almost every Saturday he’d get up early and hit every yard sale, estate sale, and junk shop he knew. And he knew them all. And they knew him. He never looked for any thing in particular. Mostly, when people collect things, they focus on something specific. Baseball cards. Comic books. Tiffany lamp shades. Native American Figurines. Rare books. But not Pendleton; he collected everything and anything. It was like unearthing rare treasure to him. He kept piles of figurines, broken machines, buttons, pins, books, records, and furniture. He had two old Victrolas that, had he put the working parts together, he would’ve had one working record player; he didn’t, though. “It’ll ruin the value,” he said.

The junk dealers laid in wait for him with boxes of knick knacks and odds and ends. Once he came home with the carcass of an iron belly wood stove that was rusted beyond recognition and use. All it needed, he claimed was some repair and it could be useful again. He had to leave it on the front porch, though, because there was no room in small trailer for it.

I tried to understand his fascination, but I never really got into it. I kind of thought he went on his jaunts to get out of the house and away from the harpy voice of his wife and her continual attempts to force him into her idea of respectable self-improvement. My ex told me, with critical tone, that he’d been “that way” since the accident. It happened at work. One of the other mechanics was moving a truck full of engine blocks and rolled over Pendleton’s feet and ankles; the guy was clearly high, apparently. But he was the owner’s son, and when the doctors told Pendleton he’d never be able work on his feet again – they didn’t even think he’d be able to walk again (mostly because the insurance wouldn’t pay for the necessary operations) – the garage made it out that he’d been working on car in the path of the truck, making the accident his fault. That meant that not only did he lose his job, but he didn’t get any worker’s comp, either. I can’t say I blamed him for being a little bitter.

On one of the jaunts he took me on, we stopped and looked at an old Chevelle. It had been beaten up and abused and left out at the mercy of the elements. The body was covered in rust. The wheel wells in the front and the back were deteriorating. The tires were rotting. The engine was locked up. The seats were torn – done by cats, the owner said. He wanted $500 for the wreck. He would’ve asked for more, he told Pendleton, but his old lady was tired of looking at it and was making him get rid of it. Pendleton stared at the car for a long time. After a while, the owner stopped talking to him and wandered away because Pendleton looked like he was in trance. Had it been somebody else, they guy might’ve made him shove off; but Pendleton was good head and half taller and half a man larger. He wasn’t someone that anybody forced to do anything.

At first, I thought he was going to buy the car; but then he looked over at me and asked if I was ready to go. We left and before we stopped at one of his usual stops – a junktique shop housed in an old gas station on Elm Street – Pendleton stopped at a 7-11 and brought a couple of 22 ounce bottles of beer. He gave me one and drank his without saying anything. He just stared out the windshield. I drank mine. I’d never had beer before, and I’d always heard that nobody liked it the first time they drank it. But I did. It tasted like ginger ale to me. I drank it down pretty quickly, and Pendleton and I went on. He never mentioned it to his wife or my girlfriend, and we never talked about it.

28 October, 2009

Pendleton Underground: Part 2 of 7

Pendleton hated my drinking; he grew up with parents who were rotten, miserable drunks that took their miseries out on him. Even after they quit drinking they still acted like drunks, and well into his adulthood they heaped whatever abuse on him they could. He called them dry drunks. Sometimes he spat on the ground when he said it. Yet while he despised my drinking, he only ever mentioned it to me twice. The rest of the time he just shook his head in his silent, disapproving way.

I drank my tumbler of cheap scotch and sat on the balcony, smoking. The sun was setting. The weather finally cooled off and Arizona was tolerable.

My voice came back just in time for Red to call; somewhere on the bus ride from Cincinnati to Phoenix I lost it. On the 21/2 day trip that had been an advantage; not being able to talk meant that other, more gregarious passengers lost interest in me. I’m not sure what it is about travel that compels people to find complete strangers to talk to. Filling the empty hours with stories and not-so-funny anecdotes from their lives does nothing to make the hours less empty. A big boned woman got on the bus at Fort Hood and sat down next to me. She started telling me that she was going to Hollywood because her high school sweetheart had cheated on her before he deployed to Afghanistan. “I’m going to be a movie star,” she said. “And when he sees me in the movies, he’ll see what he missed out on.” I guess that was as good a reason as any to get on a bus and bother total strangers; if I had been able to talk though, I probably would have told her that she was more likely to end up giving $20 blow jobs in the front seats of cars and taking it up the ass for an extra 10. She was cute enough to hook, but the camera would not appreciate her broad chest, round face, and saddle-bag hips. There was a vacant look in her dishwater eyes that made me think of dead fish. When she found out I couldn’t talk, she moved next to a nice looking old man who, (I overheard) was carrying his dead sister’s ashes to some ancestral place in order to release them.

Pendleton would’ve enjoyed eavesdropping on them, and he would’ve enjoyed talking to the jilted girl. Despite her broadness, she had firm grapefruit tits and he would have enjoyed picturing her topless. Of course, he would’ve been polite; he prided himself on being a gentleman. He called it Southern Gentility.

My tumbler of scotch was empty again, so I refilled it. The cooler weather brought people out of hiding and into the twilight. My neighbors were sitting out on their balconies and all the kids were playing in the small patch of green space that substituted for a courtyard. Sometimes when the kids played kickball one of them would inadvertently hit my door. When that happened I usually stuck my head out and told them to hit somebody else’s door. I made sure to sound mean enough to scare them off. That worked usually worked for two or three days before it happened again.

I learned about being a man from Pendleton. He was really good at it, too. Mean and scary. The first time I went to pick up my ex-wife for a date, he sat in his chair and stared at me the entire five minutes I stood in his living room. Actually, it’s unfair to call it a living room. They lived in a small rundown trailer at the time. The closet-sized back bedroom was occupied by my ex and her sister. Pendleton and his wife slept in the front room. The bed doubled as a couch, and his chair sat facing the door. I was so nervous that I never took my hand off the door knob. He told me later that it was a game he liked to play with people – especially boys who came to date his daughters. He didn’t have to talk, he said, because he was big enough to not have to. “Being silent is better than cleaning a shotgun or showing off a knife collection,” he said. Silence was a less specific threat that relied on the other person’s imagination. Then he told me he liked me right off because I was clearly scared shitless. That, he told me, meant I had a vivid imagination.

27 October, 2009

Rusted Out Minotaurs and Other Mythological Creatures: Part 2 of 7

When I got to the Graveyard the following morning, the first thing Bear asked me was if I brought my own tools. I showed him my tool box and he nodded. I stood there for a minute, waiting for some more specific instructions. Like where to start. He just looked at me. “What’s the problem? You change your mind already?”

“No,” I said. “I, ah, I’ll go get started.”

“Be careful how you stack them parts once you get things apart,” he warned. “I have to sell those, you know.”

I walked down the short hill into the Graveyard, trying to find a good place to start. There was no order to any of it. Maybe once upon a time Bear organized the place – there was some remnant of a loose organizational system. Motorcyles in the front, lawnmowers and bicycles in the back. But that had clearly been a long time ago. There was more rust then anything. Everything was left uncovered and was at the mercy of the elements. The ground was permanently muddy in places. There were pools of spilled oil, transmission fluid, break fluid, and water everywhere. Every once in a while there were things laying on tarps – like he had intended to keep them off the wet ground – but in most cases, the tarps were torn and the pools of liquid simply sat on top. Even I could tell there wasn’t much worth salvaging.

For no particular reason, stopped somewhere near the center of everything. A small pile of five or six push mowers was as good a place to start as any. I found a reasonably clean and dry patch of grass to sit on and started on an orange one that still had most of its paint. The big bolt holding the cutting blade to the bottom of the engine was rusted and difficult to break loose, and so were the smaller bolts that held the engine to the mower base. After wrestling with it for several minutes, I made a mental note to buy some WD40 before I came back. The other mowers were in similar condition. I took them apart and separated everything into piles: a pile handles, a pile of blades, a pile of motors, pile of mower decks, and a pile of bolts. Then I went to work taking apart some bicycles. By the time I finshed, it was midday. There wasn’t any point to doing anything without some WD40. When I made my way back to the top of the hill, Bear was nowhere in sight. I put my toolbox in my trunk and pulled out of the empty gravel lot.

He was waiting on me The next day. “Come on,” he pointed down the hill. Then he led me down into the graveyard, right to the spot I’d worked the day before. “Here,” he pointed to the piles.

“You did this, right?”

“Yeah.” The piles were still neatly organized amidst the rust and chaos.

“Can I ask you something?”


“How am I supposed to sell those parts when they’re not organized?”

I didn’t say anything; the piles looked organized to me. They looked a damn sight neater and more organized than anything else in the graveyard. I considered pointing out that if he wanted them organized a particular way, he should’ve said something. April had warned me against that, though. Bear apparently took a dim view of people arguing with him. So I continued to stand there and not say anything.

“Don’t you know ANYTHING?” he snarled. “Lookee here. You got the Briggs and Stratton parts mixed with the Tecumseh parts. All the bolts are mixed in together. Plus,” he pulled one of the handles out of the pile, “you didn’t take off the gears or choke chord.” He tossed it back in the pile and looked at me like he wanted to spit. “I’m not paying you to half-ass out here. Do the job right or I’ll find somebody who will.”

Fat fucking chance, I thought. “Yes sir.”

He nodded and stomped out of the graveyard. I lit a cigarette and stood there for a moment, considering my options. If I quit my only other option was a one of those plastic name tags, an ugly hat, the smell of canola oil and wilted lettuce. I finished my cigarette, sighed, and went back to the piles I’d made the previous day to begin again.

“You need to watch out for him,” April warned me that night when I told her what had happened. “He’ll make you work and then fire you so he won’t have to pay you.”

“Doesn’t he have to pay me?”

She rolled her eyes. “He’s paying you cash under the table. He doesn’t have to do anything.”
I didn’t show up at the graveyard until after noon; there wasn’t a set schedule and I didn’t feel like waking early. Bear wasn’t around when I got to the graveyard; so I just grabbed my toolbox and headed down into the graveyard. It was Thursday. I was trying to keep my mind on the weekend coming up. April and I were going to be hanging out, as usual. I agreed to go to church with them on Sunday – not so much because I was interested in all the hellfire and holy talk, or even to score points with April’s old man – but because I wanted to see April in a skirt and she hardly ever wore one during the week. Ok; so it wasn’t the best of reasons. But it was a reason; and if I had to sit through a couple of hours of moaning and hymn whining bullshit to get a quick view of her thighs, so be it.

April and I had been going out for months – and beyond the heavy petting, we hadn’t gotten anywhere. Not for my lack of trying. But there was always something. An early curfew. A big test. The emergency break in the car. The small back seat. Always something. The closest I’d ever come to anything with any girl up to that point was when Suzie Parks’ swim suit top came undone in the lake two summers before. She was most of the way out of the water before she noticed. (The only thing that saved her was that this was life before cellphone cameras.) It would be unfair to say I was desperate; I’d had girlfriends before and I’d gotten to cop several feels; but that was as far as it went and I was, after all, out of high school and almost in college. The clock was ticking.

It was difficult to think about April’s skirt when I had to actually pay attention to what I was doing and make sure I put everything in the correct piles. I never bothered to ask Bear what would happen if it rained – the nuts and bolts would most likely sink into the mud and the exposed motors would be waterlogged and more prone to rust. I wasn’t a mechanic, but I understood not to leave anything metal out in the elements. I’d left my bike out overnight once when I was younger. It rained that night. When I went out the next morning, the chain was drying out and the tires were waterlogged because the rain collected where I had left my bike. Plus it looked like stray cats used it as a scratching post / litter box. But I knew better than to say anything to Bear. Clearly he had a system that worked for him, even if it didn’t work for anybody else. Towards sunset I packed up my tools and walked out of the graveyard.
Bear was waiting for me at the top of the hill. Fucking great, I thought. He surprised me by smiling. From the look of it, though, he didn’t smile often.

“So how’d it go in there today?” he asked, slapping me on the back.


“Why don’t you come on over and sit for a bit. It was a little hot today. How about something cold to drink?”

It had been humid that day the way late June can be in southern Ohio; I’d brought water with me, but something cold sounded good. Bear directed me to a kitchen table and four wicker back chairs sitting outside the small trailed he lived in. “Have a seat.” I chose the chair that looked the sturdiest and sat down while he went into the trailer and came back out carrying a couple of cans. “All I have is this Hamm’s Ice,” he said, handing me a beer. That wasn’t the first beer I’d ever had, but it was probably the greenest. Even though the can was ice cold, the beer went down sickly warm and left an aftertaste like dirty socks in my mouth. He must’ve noticed the face I made because he chuckled to himself and shook his head.

“So, Kid… how you like the graveyard so far?” he asked.

“I like it fine,” I said, lighting a cigarette to get the taste out of my mouth. I looked aound, hoping a customer would pull in and give me an excuse to leave. Highway 67 was empty.

“There was a time when this was a good location,” he said. “Used to get a lot of traffic out this way.” He took another drink, draining his can. “Not so much now.” He crushed the can and tossed it in a pile of empties next to the trailer. “Recycling,” he remarked, with a chuckle. Then he stood up. “You want another?”

I shook my head. “I’m good.” When Bear walked back inside to grab himself another beer, I looked at my watch. It was nearly six. I could tell him my mom expects me at home, I thought. Then I thought better of it. A guy like Bear McGee wouldn’t respect a guy who ran home to his mother. He came back out and put another can of beer in front of me. Then sat down and cracked his open.

“So,” he said, “Carl says you’re seein’ his daughter.”


Bear smiled. “I wouldn’t worry,” he said. “Carl’s a push over. That girl’s got him wrapped around her little pinky finger.” He took an swig and smiled. “Like she proly has you wrapped around the other one.” He laughed. “I haven’ seen her in a while. I hear she’s all grown, though.”


“Carl says she’s gonna go to college.”


He nodded. “Well, that’s good. I always wanted to go, myself. But it just wasn’t in the cards,” he

shook his head. “What about you?”

“What about me?” I was bus trying to get to the bottom of that can without puking.

“Are you going to college?”

I shrugged. “Yeah. I guess. They’re always telling us we need to think about it. My mom wants me to go. Ape thinks I should go.”

“And what do you think?”

“I think they both sound like the guidance counselor,” I said. “And I don’t like her very much.” When the words left my mouth I immediately regretted them. After all, I wasn’t being exactly honest. I wasn’t so much excited about going to college as I was about the prospect of getting out. But that was something, right?

Bear laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He nodded. “Yeah, I felt the same way. Fucking people telling you what to do what to do and what to be. It’s all damn useless.”
I nodded and looked down into my can of beer. It was almost empty; but the second was was sitting there, getting warm and waiting for me.

“I think you’ll do just fine here once you get the hand of things,” Bear remarked. “And there’s plenty there to keep you busy. I was wondering, though, if you’d like to help me with something.”

I drained the first can and steeled myself for the seond. “What’s that?”

“I need to put up a fence, he said. “Around the graveyard. Just in front. So nobody can see it from the road.”

“Why? You can’t really see it from the road unless you’re looking."

Bear’s eyes narrowed and darkened. “It’s the goddamn Sheriff. He’s been trying to close me down for years. He dropped by this morning and gave me a ticket. Told me people were complaining. Called me a public blight.” He grunted and took a another drink of his beer. “Told me if I didn’t get it cleaned up, or at least get a fence around it, he’d get a judge to close me down.”

“Can they do that? You live here, right?”

He nodded. “Don’t matter. The Sheriff, he’s been trying to close me down for years. Even back when he was just a local cop.” Bear shook his head. “Anyway. I tried telling him about you… about how you’re going through and cleaning things up for me… but that’s not enough. Nope. He told me if I didn’t get it take care of by Monday, he’d come back with a court order.”


“Yeah. Listen, I just need help,” Bear said. “I can get the fencing. I just need someone to help me put it up. Interested?”

“Sure.” Even I knew that Sheriff Tom Ainkle was a pain in the ass. He’d been Sheriff for as long as I could remember, and he was one of the principle reasons why the township was still dry and why the only two non-white families – a black family from Cincinnati and a family of Mexicans looking for work – had decided to pack up and leave. Naturally, though, the older folks and the church goers liked him; and he made sure to exploit that every election season. “I’m in.”

Bear nodded approvingly. He made no mention of money. “It’ll have to be done Saturday. Can you get here Saturday morning? Say around 8? I should be awake by then.”

I nodded and downed the second can so I could get out of there. “I gotta go,” I choked. “Ape’s expecting me.”

“You don’t want to keep a girl like her waiting,” he smiled. “I know I wouldn’t.”

21 October, 2009

Rusted Out Minotaurs and Other Mythological Creatures: Part 1 of 7

“It ain't a hard job,” Bear McGee said to me through his cigarette. “All you’re doing is taking things apart and organizing them into piles.”

Looking around the piles of old lawn mowers, motorcycles, and bicycles, it was difficult to know where to begin. None of the piles were tall – but they covered a lot of territory. Bear McGee’s Motor Graveyard took up every bit of three acres, right next to Highway 67 about ten miles from town in either direction. He’d been in the same location for more than 20 years and lived in a small trailer on the same property. Bear was a tall, intimidating guy who lived up to his nickname in appearance and demeanor. All he ever wore was a pair of faded blue jeans, worn out steel-toed engineer boots, and a black leather vest, t-shirt optional. His beard was as long and knarly and black as his hair. Rumor was that Bear McGee used to ride with a motorcycle gang. I never heard him deny the rumor; but I never really saw him ride a motorcycle, either. He owned eight or nine of them – but none of them ran. Each one of them were either missing a part, or needed some small bit of repair. He used to tell me he didn’t want to work on motorcycles anymore; that it was easier to just pay somebody else to do it. Then he’d tell me in the same breath that all mechanics were crooks and they just wanted to rob him.

“So Kid, you want the job or not?”

I looked around. I needed the job, even if it didn’t pay that much. Bear never brought up money, and neither did I. He was good friends with my girlfriend April’s dad – who, oddly enough, acted like he liked me – so I figured it would all work out. It was the summer after my senior year of high school; in a couple more months I’d be off to college and free of the small town whose borders seemed to close in a little more every day. I had just quit my last job – my second job ever – as a grocery store stock boy because the manager Alice, an aging bar cooz with topographic face and tits as saggy as her jowls, kept trying to corner me in the back room. I couldn’t see myself working at McDonalds, wearing that ugly ass uniform and trying not to spit on people’s food in between cleaning up kiddie puke in the restroom. No thanks. At least at Bear’s I could wear what I want, smoke if I felt like it, and I didn’t have to worry about how I looked. I told him I’d take the job.

He grunted his approval. “Start tomorrow,” he said. “Bring your own tools.”

Later that evening when I saw April, she tried to warn me about him. “He’s creepy,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

She shook her head. “It’s just the way he looks, and… the last time I was there I caught him … STARING at me… you know?” She shivered. “It was just creepy.”

“You weren’t wearing the red tank top were you?” I asked. I liked it when she wore the red tank top.

She slapped me hard on the arm. “You’re disgusting,” she said. Then she kissed me. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

20 October, 2009

Pendleton Underground: Part 1 of 7

He was dead and buried for a month before anybody called to tell me.

“I wasn’t s’posed to tell ya,” Red said through the phone. “Brenda made me PROMISE. But I jus’ didn’t think it was RIGHT. Ya know?”

That Brenda didn’t want me to know didn’t surprise me. She and I didn’t get along even before Pendleton married her. She was about the same age as me, which made Pendleton 20 years her senior. He and I had managed to stay friends even though my marriage to his daughter didn’t last; I suppose it had something to do with the fact that his marriage to my bitch of an ex-mother-in-law failed not long after and he moved in with me instead of living in his truck. Even though we got along alright, the two of us in the same living space wasn’t ideal for a lot of reasons – not the least of which that it caused tension between him and my soon to be ex-wife. By the time my divorce was final, I had abandoned the trailer we’d been living in (that I had been living in with his daughter before she left) and moved on to less greener pastures. We managed to stay friends, though, and when he married Brenda I did my best to be happy for him.

The last conversation I had with Brenda was in a hospital waiting room. Prior to that, I hadn’t spoken to her or Pendleton for about two years.She told me to keep in touch. I knew she didn’t mean it. So I didn’t. I liked to think he understood; it’s hard being friends with someone when you don’t get along with his wife, and I didn’t want to cause any trouble. It was easier to move on. It was Red who called to tell me Pendleton was in the hospital and that his condition was pretty serious.

Red first came around because he was dating a friend of my future ex-wife’s; and when that relationship ended because he wanted to settle down and have kids and she wanted to collect stuffed animals and relive the sexual abuse heaped on by her step-daddy, Red stuck around. He and Pendleton could talk about cars. Before the accident that ruined him for work and eventually contributed to his death, Pendleton was a mechanic… and from what I could tell, a pretty good one. He had that magic touch. All he had to do was put his meat hook hands in an engine and regardless of what was wrong or how long it sat, the fucker started every single time. With me, Pendleton talked about books. He never went to college; but he thought it was important to be educated, and he read everything he could get his hands on – from history and sociology to theology, new age medicine, and economics. He told me once that he thought of himself as “a student of human nature.” I asked him what he thought of my nature. He laughed and didn’t answer. Before long Red started reading books so he and Pendleton could talk about that, too.

“Did he go back to the hospital?” I asked. I could hear Red breathing through the phone and he sounded like he’d been drinking. “Was he there for a while? In the ICU? Was he…”

“It was kind of sudden,” he cut me off. “He died at home. It was his heart. It just gave out, ya know? I mean… hell. It was under so much strain anyway, and along with everything else…”

Pendleton was a big man. He once bragged to me that he caught an engine block when the chains holding it up came undone. If he hadn’t caught it, he said, his boss at the garage would have been crushed.

“Thing is,” he also told me, “if I HADN’T caught it and he had died, I probably would’ve ended up getting his job. And if that had happened, I’d probably still be working.”

Red was trying really hard to get off the phone. So I let him. There was no point in prolonging the conversation anyway. Without Pendleton as a common factor, I wasn’t sure there was anything left for us to talk about. I wondered briefly how he felt about breaking his promise to Brenda; but Red clearly saw a larger obligation. That was just the way he was; his days were ruled by his obligations the way a dog is ruled by a leash. Red lost sleep if he got to the end of his day and some small thing was left undone. That was another thing we didn’t have in common; my only obligations have always been to myself. And if I can’t sleep, I drink until I do.

We exchanged our goodbyes. He said he’d call again. He said for me to call him. He told me not to be a stranger. He told me I should visit him so that we could go out drinking the way we used to. I said goodbye and thanked him for telling me. I told him to take care of his family. Then I hung up and poured myself a drink.

13 October, 2009

Dad’s Car -- Part 2 of 2

October rolled around and things at the car wash started to slow down. Saturdays were still sort of busy – as long as the sun was shining. But during the week – nothing. I usually got to work by 3:30; but when I got there all the guys were just sitting in the break room, waiting. That was the thing about at the car wash: we only clocked in when there were cars in the dock and we only got paid when we were on the clock. My checks weren’t that much – barely enough to cover gas – but that didn’t matter. I was still pocketing lunch money, and she’d been giving gas money on top of that. She never explained. I never asked. It was what it was. That meant, though, that there was a lot of down time; so I usually took a book with me. Not school books, since I never spent much time doing homework. St. Augustine’s Confessions. Plato’s Republic. Keats. Shelly. Byron. Thomas Carlyle. The only school book I ever took to work with me was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; we were reading it for College Prep English. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who actually read the book. Everybody else bought Cliff’s Notes.

Of course, that only made Vance and the other guys at the car wash hate me more; if they read anything it was an old issue of Hot Rod, and mostly all they did was talk about how each and every one of them would drill the whorishly draped models and how they wished to God that their wives were built like that. Eventually, Russ started sending me home when there was no work for me. I left and the carpenters stayed until the last minute – whether they were on the clock or not.

One Friday, I got to work and all the guys were working. It was late October. Fall had set in. It was a cloudy day. I was a little surprised that the car wash was so busy; but I figured it meant more money, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I even thought about taking some tips that day – instant gas money. On my way to clock in, Vance stopped me.


“Hey,” I answered. “Looks like business picked up.”

He smiled. “Those are ours.”

“You’re paying to get your cars washed?”

Vance kept smiling and shook his head. “We’re washing them for free.” Then he told me Russ was gone – off at some corporate meeting in Mariemont. He said Russ would be gone all day. Then he asked me if I wanted to wash my car. He was watching me to see how I reacted; he looked like he expected me to tell Russ. He never knew that I had found out about them taking tips from customers; if he had, maybe he wouldn’t thought I’d rat him out to Russ.

I told him I’d like to run my car through because I couldn’t remember the last time it had gotten washed. That made Vance smile. But it was a lie. Dad was recovering at home from his second to last hospital stay, and he said the car was filthy and that he wanted to wash it. But he wasn’t allowed to do anything really physical, and he didn’t like taking the car to an automatic wash because he said they always missed spots. So he told me to do it. And while I was out in the driveway washing the car, he sat on the front porch, drank iced tea, and watched me. He wasn’t critical and didn’t tell me I’d missed spots, though I was sure I did. He just sat and watched me and he had this funny little smile on his face. He hadn’t smiled in a long time – not since he’d gotten really sick. The only things he said the entire time was “Don’t forget to lift the wipers when you clean the windshield,” and “Make sure you clean that front grill good and get all the dead bugs out.” It was a pretty day, early in the summer. The sun was shining. Since he was smiling, I tried to put out a little more effort to wash the car the way he liked.

Before he got really sick and had to go to the hospital, mostly all we talked about was my grades. I never did badly in school; but I never did as good as he thought I could. I maintained and did much as I had to in order to get by – except in math, which was always my worst subject. Dad always told me he knew I was just being lazy. He had already tried punishing me. He’d tried NOT punishing me. He even tried paying me for higher grades; but since I always pocketed my lunch money, I didn’t really need it. So mostly he yelled and lectured. There had been a time, back before he first started getting really sick, that he might’ve taken the belt to me; but he only ever really did that in extreme situations, like when he caught me lying or if I talked back to him or Mom. When he lectured, he told me he wanted me to go to college and make something of myself, and that all any father wants is for his kids to have an easier life than he did. I think that was why he never showed me how to work on cars and why he and Mom pushed into college prep classes in high school when my friends were taking shop. When he lectured and told me these things, I always told him I understood even though I didn’t. And even if I had understood what he was trying to tell me, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was young and stubborn and nobody could tell me anything.

I remembered that was the last time the car got washed because three nights later he woke up screaming in pain. Mom drove him to the hospital in his car. That trip was his last one. I sat up that night and watch TV. An old black and white movie was on – The Mark of Zorro.

Vance stood with me and watched the Pontiac roll through the wash. He seemed pleased. When it was done, I pulled it out front and dried it off. I made sure to lift the wipers when I cleaned the windshield with the blue window cleaner, and I put an extra shine on the rims. Russ came back later that day to close everything down. By then we’d all pulled our cars around back where we normally parked. He didn’t say anything; but he told me to take Saturday off since I stayed the entire time that day.

The following Monday I got out of dad’s recliner and got ready for school. I made coffee, but it wasn’t enough. I was out of cigarettes and I couldn’t find my ephedrine – though it had stopped working, anyway. I had to take four pills instead of one just to keep my eyes open. When I walked outside, there was a thin layer of frost on the windshield. I should’ve turned the engine over and turned on the defroster and waited; but the defroster took forever to work. Besides, I was running late and I still needed to stop to buy gas and mini-thins. My first class was Algebra – and while I knew that I’d never understand it, I couldn’t nod out during class because the teacher Mr. Auger would throw erasers at anybody who slept. I tried washing off the frost using the wipers and wiper fluid. It would clear off for a second and then the wiper fluid would start to freeze and make perfect crystalline structures on the windshield, then everything would fog up.
But I still had to haul ass to get to school on time; I didn’t really do anything while I was there, but I hated being late. The road we lived on was narrow and windy, but I’d driven it so much that I figured I could still make it. I hit ever curve like I was driving in the Indy 500; the car left the ground after every little dip in the road. My mind was on getting to the gas station; if the right person was working I could buy a pack of cigarettes and not have to worry about being carded. Half way between home and the main road into town there was small bridge over a dried out creek. I had never seen water in the creek, even after it rained. That bridge had been a boundary back when I first started riding my bike. It was barely wide enough for two cars, but I knew that time of day there’d be no one coming the other direction.

As I came around the corner right before the bridge, the windshield was starting to ice over and fog up again. I took one hand off the wheel to turn on the wipers. Right then I hit a small dip in the road and because I only had one hand on the wheel, when the car bounced I lost control and went off the road. When I pulled on the wheel to put the car straight, I pulled too hard and went off the road, off the bridge, and into the creek bed.

I woke up with the emergency brake lodged in my back. I didn’t feel hurt, even though I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt. I kicked the door open and stood up. car had gone over the bridge and hit a tree stump. The stump had taken out the grill, the radiator, and was lodged between the axle and the engine. Green coolant was dripping into the creek bed. I looked around. The nearest house was up the hill. There wouldn’t be anybody driving by. So I walked up to the house on the hill, knocked on the door and asked the little old lady who answered if I could use her telephone. The first thing I did was call the police. Then I called Mom at work and told her. She cried and asked if I was ok.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “But the car…” I didn’t want to tell her, but there was no getting around it. “The car’s totaled I think.”

She didn’t seem to care. She blubbered and cried and said that things didn’t matter. The car didn’t matter. That wasn’t what Dad would have said, but I didn’t tell her that. Between the police report and waiting for the wrecker, I was two hours late for school. When I got there, I had to fill out an excuse form. I wrote “Totaled a car” and the secretary gave me a funny look. During lunch I called Russ and told him what happened. I told him I quit. He wasn’t happy, but he couldn’t blame me, either. He said he had to let Vance and the others go because of theft and so he had a whole new crew. When he told me that I wondered if he fired Vance to his face or if he did it over the phone. I hung up and went back to lunch. When school was over, Mom picked me up and drove me home. She looked like she’d been crying all day. I wanted to apologize for the car; but she wouldn’t let me. I guess she had other things on her mind.

08 October, 2009

Dad’s Car -- Part 1 of 2

My first job was at a car wash. My job title was ‘Detailer’. When the cars came out of the automatic wash, I dried it by hand using a towel, used blue window cleaner on the front and back windshields and passenger windows, vacuumed it out, and put a polish on the rims. Sometimes the customer would try to give me a tip; but the manager Russ told me on my first day that we weren’t allowed to accept tips, so I never did. I was supposed to work every day after school until closing and four hours on Saturday. The job wasn’t time or physically intensive, and as long as my grades didn’t go down any lower my Mom didn’t care.

I got that job during my Senior year of high school, right after my Dad died and I inherited his car. I’d driven it a lot since I turned 16 and got my license; I even took the driving test in it. But up to that point, it had always been HIS car. After he died, Mom gave me the keys and told me it was mine as long as I paid for my own gas and kicked in on repairs. Her expectations were low, but she had other things on her mind. She was mourning Dad’s death. He had been much older than her, and I wasn’t sure if it was just the fact that he was dead or the thought of living alone, or both. But, honestly, both her and my Dad had stopped expecting anything out of me. So I figured it was a pretty good deal.

The car wasn’t a classic or anything; it wasn’t sporty or cool. But then, my Dad wasn’t a sporty or cool kind of guy. He wasn’t one of those guys who turned 40 and had to drive a little red sports car or have an affair. He was a stand-up guy who had married late in life and who bought stand-up cars that he didn’t trade in until he had to. It was a metallic green 1989 Pontiac Grand Am with two doors, cloth bucket seats, faux wood interior, a pokey V6 engine, and a factory Delco AM/FM stereo. It was most definitely NOT a cool car. But it was a car. And it was paid off. And, if I didn’t take it Mom said she was just going to let it sit in the driveway and rust.

“Nicky,” she said with an intense and earnest tone. “You need to take care of this car.”

“No worries, Mom. I will.”


“I know, okay? I’ll take care of it.”

At that point I almost tossed the keys back at her; but she didn’t mean it the way it sounded. The next day I found an ad in the paper looking for car wash attendants, so after school I drove the car there to apply for the job. That morning Mom gave me 20 bucks for gas, on top of the two bucks she usually gave me to buy lunch (which I usually pocketed anyway. The cafeteria food was a god damn gastric nightmare.) I topped the tank off with 5 and pocketed the rest. It wasn’t the good ol days Dad used to talk about when gas was a quarter a gallon; but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it is now. At least gas was still hovering under a dollar.

The drive to the car wash was a half hour if traffic was good and if I hauled ass – and I usually did. It was near the new mall at Eastgate, spitting distance to the county line and the Cincinnati city limits. My friends and I had been driving downtown since the first one of us had his license; as far as I was concerned, it was the Promised Land. We used to sneak into some of the bars and clubs and check out the hookers that walked the sidewalks on 4th and Vine. The four or five block section of Vine Street between Columbia Parkway and Washington Street was an open-air market for anything you wanted. As long as you had cash and as long you didn’t look like a cop, nobody cared and nobody messed with you too much. I figured since I was getting a job – and one so close to the city – that I’d have even more excuses to go downtown. And while I would still pocket the lunch money Mom gave me, I’d have a little more money to blow on bootleg 40’s and weed.

Russ, the car wash manager, was extra nice to me when I applied. After he hired me and started showing me around, I figured out why. I was the youngest one there. Everyone else on my shift was an out of work carpenter. All of them but one was at least 40 and had families to support. They were beaten up, scraggly, tired looking men who didn’t really do a good job on the cars and who openly disrespected Russ and ogled the attractive female customers like horny stalkers. They’d all been union carpenters and when the economy was good they’d put down payments on houses and started families; but another recession hit and construction tanked. So their bosses laid them off to hire non-union workers who would work for much less money – usually kids or Mexicans who didn’t leave after tobacco harvest. Naturally they didn’t like me and didn’t bother to talk to me on breaks or try to include me in any of their banter. I wasn’t One Of Them. Even the youngest one – he couldn’t have been older than 25 – ignored me. They liked him because he was One Of Them, even if he didn’t have kids and a wife to worry about.

I found out later that they all took tips when the customers offered. I never told Russ about it, even though they didn’t like me.

They did notice the car, though. Vance – who lived way the hell out at the edge of Brown County and drove an hour and half one way to work at the car wash – did say something to me about it on break once.

“That’s a nice car.” He had this look on his face like he knew what I was going to say and was planning to use it later to make fun of me behind my back.


“Where’d YOU get it?”

“I inherited it.”

That stopped him. “Huh?”

“It was my Dad’s,” I explained. “He died and I inherited it.”

I learned to talk about his death from watching late night TV. I wasn’t sleeping very much. I hadn’t been since he went into the hospital for the last time. And so I read or wrote or watched TV. There was always an old movie on at 3 in the morning. Sometimes it was a black and white one. My favorite was this early Cagney flick where all he did all day was sit in this bar wearing a nice suit and drinking gin and tonic, and people would come in to ask his advice. Sometimes it was a more recent movie – a Lee Marvin or a John Wayne or a Charles Bronson. They each handled death in a very specific way. They didn’t break down and cry the way Mom did all the time; they bore it up, sucked it in, and never showed that it bothered them. When they talked about it, they spoke very matter-of-factly. If it was an unjust death, they had a few drinks and took care of the people responsible. Dad’s death wasn’t unjust; he just wore out the way people do, so I didn’t feel obligated to go out seeking justice.

Vance must’ve felt bad; he mumbled his condolences and stopped talking to me.

Not sleeping much made it difficult to go to school and go to work; I drank a lot of coffee, took up smoking, and took those pep pills you used to be able to buy at gas stations until the FDA made them illegal. Once, just to see what it was like, I bought some speed on Vine Street; but it gave me the shakes and kept me up for two days straight and made my heart beat so fast I thought I was going to die. After that I stuck to coffee, nicotine, and ephedrine. What little sleep I did get was usually in Dad’s recliner. It wasn’t a nice one – he’d had it for years and refused to get rid of it even after Mom talked him into new living room furniture; but it was comfortable. I usually managed to get a half hour or so of sleep before I had to get ready to go to school. Mom never said anything to about it. She had her own stuff to deal with.

When I wasn’t working or at school, I stayed away from home as much as possible. Saturdays after work I drove into the city and let myself disappear. Sometimes I met up with friends; mostly I went alone. Sometimes I went to the library and listened to records or found books nobody had read in years and read them. Sometimes I hung out in coffee shops or I sneaked into bars; a lot of times I just walked around and took in the city. Downtown Cincinnati after the 5pm Friday was a ghost town. The people who worked all week in the office buildings commuted from safer places like Milford, Glen Este, Mariemont, or Anderson; when the weekend came, they deserted the city until Monday morning, leaving it in the control of the people who still lived downtown and kids like me who drove in trying to escape small town suffocation. When I was downtown, I never really worried about the car. Of course I rolled up the windows and locked the doors; but there wasn’t anything about the car that would inspire any would-be car thieves or joy-riders.

06 October, 2009

Scotch and Semantics

The Department Chair was a dumbass and everybody knew it. Everyone knew it so well that nobody ever brought it up – least of all, to him.

I’m supposed to see it as one of those All Too Common Petty Injustices of Life. When people find out what I do for a living, they either act impressed or they roll their eyes; construction workers tend to roll their eyes more than anybody else – like, Oh. A TEACHER. Actually, they could almost respect that. But when they hear I work at the university they think Oh. A COLLEGE PROFESSOR – which means I’m further removed from real life than a corpse. It doesn’t matter that I’m not really a professor. I used to try and explain how that’s a rank and not a job title. I used to try and explain how Professors were tenured and taught half the load I teach, with fewer students, and made more money. Then when I talked about money somebody would usually say, “But no one gets into teaching for the MONEY, right?” That’s supposed to make it all okay; but you try telling a pipe fitter that passion for his work is more important than how much money he makes. You’ll get laughed out of the bar. It didn’t do any good to explain that I wasn’t some hot shit PhD, but really more of an academic ditch digger, that I taught general ed classes that everyone had to take but no one wanted to. So I stopped. And I avoided talking about my job as much as possible.

Linda, my wife, tells me I need to be happy. She’s in league with my mother, trying to convince me that the problem is me. Every job, they tell me, has things about it that make it horrible. My mother calls from Ohio to just to tell me over and over that I need to “just play the game.” That I need to do things to improve my standing in the department. “Why don’t you go back to school,” she asks, “and get your doctorate? Then you can get a tenure-track position and you’ll feel better.”

I always tell her the same thing. I tell her there’s no point. I’d been out of school for nearly ten years. I’d have to retake the GRE, find money for application fees, and there was no way I could work full-time. We’d probably end up having to take out more loans, and Linda and I were both still paying ours off. Linda echoed my mother’s sentiments, though not her solution; she’d never say so, but the added financial strain of me going back to school would be too much for us. She doesn’t have to say it because we both know it. Besides, I didn’t really want to go back. Too much hassle for too little pay off.

Linda worked in a home for troubled children; it wasn’t a state agency, but one of those for-profit agencies that state governments use to cut spending. She liked her job most of the time; she enjoyed working with the kids because it fed something inside of her. Maybe it was the maternal instinct that went unsatisfied because we didn’t have any kids of our own. When she first started working there, sometimes she came home and cried because of the stories she heard about the families the kids came from. She didn’t make a lot of money, but there was plenty of over time since turn over was so high.

Usually I beat her home; one night, though, I stumbled home drunk because I stopped off at the bar after work and she was standing in the kitchen waiting for me.

“You need to be happy,” she said to me.

“You make me happy.”

She wasn’t convinced and the expression on her face told me so. It also told me it had been my turn to cook.

I tried to look as apologetic as possible. She just shook her head and opened the cabinets. I took a beer out of the fridge and got out of her way.

“You need to find something to DO that will make you happy,” she repeated after I sat down on the couch. “I can’t be the only thing.”

“I have other things.”

She started banging around in the kitchen – her way of telling me she didn’t feel like cooking, but that she would anyway because she didn’t want me to set myself of the apartment on fire. Christ. One small grease fire after a few scotch and waters and you’d think I started the Chicago Fire. It looked like she was going to make pasta alfredo. “Like what?” she asked.

“The track. The casino.”

She snorted. “Yeah. Between your bad luck at the track and your worse luck at Blackjack, I’m lucky we’re not living in a cardboard box.”

“I didn’t see you complaining when you were do so well at the slots.” She chopping fresh garlic and putting water on to boil. Try as she might, she couldn’t be really upset with me. I was grumpy and crude and, as my nearly adult daughter told me on her last visit, “prone to unhealthy behaviors,” But I always came home, didn’t fuck around, and we didn’t really fight all that much. Plus, she liked that I was a little crude. A little rough around the edges. Sometimes, anyway.

“You need to be happy,” she repeated. “Do what you need to do so you can be happy.”

If only it was that easy. I had stopped off at the bar because I needed to get the bitterness out of my mouth. The previous week, the Department Chair Dr. Nealy announced an instructor meeting. I didn’t usually go to meetings – they were a waste of time. But with all the recent budget cutting initiatives – which included a hiring freeze, enforced furloughs, pay cuts, and ratcheting up class sizes and course loads – not to mention all the gossip about more impending lay offs for the Spring Semester, I thought it was a good idea to go and listen. After all, it was in my best interest, right? It meant canceling my office hours, but it wasn’t like any students were going to stop by anyway; they’d rather send panic inspired emails filled with spelling errors and misused vocabulary. So I left a note on the door of my windowless basement office and trudged upstairs.

When I got to the room where the meeting was going to be held – it was an empty classroom – there were already about a dozen people there. Mostly women, but since the majority of the instructors were women, that was no shock. Colleagues, though I use the term loosely. Collegiality had gone out the window the previous year when the first round of budget cuts put us all at odds. There were more of us than there were jobs. The recession meant less state money and, in the words of the University President, “some belt tightening.” I survived the cut – fuck if I know how – but my year long contract had been reduced to a semester to semester one. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents had been so pleased with the President’s handling of the budget crisis that they awarded him with a $10,000 bonus. I guess their definition of belt tightening was giving him 10 instead of 20.

There were two other guys, sitting near the back. I’d talked to them once or twice and occasionally got listserv emails from them about irrelevant things. I didn’t say anything to them when they looked at me, but I nodded. They nodded back. I found a seat in the back corner, catty corner to the door, wishing I’d had a drink beforehand.

The first three rows were filled with women. Some things never change. During the first few weeks of classes, the girls filled the front rows; they were dutiful, polite, and raised to be people pleasers and respecters of perceived authority. They sat up front so they could make a good impression because they believed that I’d assume they were smarter because they sat in the front. The ditch diggers sitting in the first three rows sat there because they wanted Dr. Nealy to notice them. He was a tall, distinguished black man – the first black man to hold the position of chair in the history of the department. He was authoritative and looked cool at the same time. His PhD was in Southern African-American Children’s Folk Tales. He’d learned public speaking from growing up in a church deep in Southern Georgia; and though his accent had been meticulously educated out of his mouth, he still spoke with the cadence of a southern preacher. And like every sermon I’d ever heard, the cadence meant more than the content. Usually, by the time Nealy was finished speaking, the gaggle of women were absolutely entranced and suffering from the kind of rapture I’d only ever seen in porno movies.

I’d explained this to Linda before; but she just shook her head and told me I related everything to sex. “If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d think you just didn’t like women.” Then she called me misogynist. But she smiled when she said it.

The room was filling up. More people showed than I expected; but there were always a few hold outs. I was little jealous not to be among them. I didn’t want to care, and the bigger part of me didn’t. I didn’t want to worry; but the bigger part of me was. That’s what becomes of young cocky assholes; we get older and get married and find careers. We set ourselves up so that we have no choice but to wake up and go to work and whittle away the minutes of our lives until retirement or daily frustration gets us in the end.

I had closed my eyes to wait until the meeting started. The usual kinds of chatter was filling the room. I wanted to relax, but the desk was uncomfortable. That hadn’t changed much either. I never remember the desks being comfortable. When I was a student, I thought it was some plot to keep us from getting too comfortable. As an instructor I had come to know that was gospel.

I knew when Nealy walked in because the women hushed themselves. When I opened my eyes, he leaned back and sat down on top of the desk. Like cool teachers did. And then he spoke.

“I understand,” he began, “that there’s been some concerns – some GOSSIP circulating.” He smiled and chuckled. The women chuckled with him. “Some GOSSIP and MIS-conception about hiring and firing and recent economic inconvenience.”

You know you’re dealing with semantics when your boss calls the worst recession since the Great Depression an “economic inconvenience.” I closed my eyes again and kept listening.

“It’s a difficult time for us ALL,” he went on. I could hear him flashing his bleached smile, along with the subtle sound of quickly melting resolve. Nealy’s changed quickly; he picked up the pace. He probably sensed that he was in control of the meeting and he didn’t want to linger any longer than he had to; he probably had a tee time to catch with the Dean. “And I UNDERSTAND, that SOME people MAY BE NERVOUS…”

My head was starting to hurt and my throat was dry. I should’ve brought my flask.

“But there’s NO REASON to be CONCERNED.”

Pompous jackass.

“Excuse me…?”

I opened my eyes because I heard a little birdie speak. The little birdie’s name was Jun Van Oort. By some fuck up of fate shed was one of the most senior members of what Nealy often referred to in mass emails as “the instructor pool.” When I read that it reminded me of some 1950’s office with rows of typists in pleated skirts succumbing to sexual harassment. June had been an instructor longer than anybody, except for another pedantic crone named Teryl Meeks who smiled a lot and spoke up very little except to say “Don’t rock the boat.” And at some point June had decided to take it upon herself to be our representative.

Her voice was tiny and warbly. We’d talked before, and even though I couldn't see her face from where I was sitting, I knew exactly what she looked like: a small face, long narrow nose, deeply wrinkled skin, shallow cheeks like pock marks, and little bird like eyes that peered out from behind thick reading glasses that she wore all the time. She liked to wear make-up, but it did more to accentuate her age than conceal it.

“Excuse me?” She repeated herself.

Nealy shined his bleached smile down on her and I thought I saw her body quiver just a little.

“But we’ve heard there will be more cuts in the spring.” I imagined that she practiced her little speech in front of the bathroom mirror while she was slathering on Mary Kay. “Won’t that mean larger classes for those who stay?” There was a twittering of agreement from the rest of the gaggle. “The language in our new contracts is a little vague on…”

Nealy raised his hand in a way that reminded me of DeMille’s Ten Commandments. June and twittering gaggle fell silent.

“I’m not responsible for the language in the contracts,” he boomed. “That comes from the Dean’s office. All I can tell you…”

Here we go.

“… is that we’re still going to need to staff classes, and with our student retention rates improving, chances are we’re going to need all the people we can get.”

I looked over at Teryl Meeks. She was at the end of the third row, close to the door. Her hands were folded neatly on her desk. She wasn’t too concerned. Of course, it helped that her Dad was a Professor Emeritus in Linguistics. She knew she wasn’t going anywhere.

“But,” June chirped. “But we’ve heard…”

“Gossip,” Nealy pronounced with an expression of judgment that shamed June into looking down at her desk. Then he smiled his most radiant, cunt melting smile. “I KNOW,” he said, standing to address us at full height, “there have been RUMORS saying THIS and saying THAT…”

Praise fucking Jesus. The desks creaked and cracked as the women all sat up to take in his every syllable that fell from his lips.

“… but you KNOW what THEY say about IDLE GOSSIP!” He laughed and the gaggle laughed with him.

My head was hurting worse. Shit.

“LADIES…” he spoke grandly, and then, as if he just noticed the three of us who pissed standing up, “… and GENTLEMEN,” he smiled. The benediction was coming soon. “Times are HARD all AROUND.”

Really? I thought. I knew how much money he made. He wasn’t struggling like the rest of us. Not by a long shot.

“But we’re SURVIVING. And we will CONTINUE to SURVIVE.”

I half expected a musical refrain. Maybe a verse of Glory Hallelujah or I Will Survive. The other two guys sat stone faced. They knew Nealy was a dumbass. The women knew it, too – so long as he wasn’t around. Again I was jealous of the ones who had the sense to skip the meeting. I could’ve stayed in my office and surfed the internet or gone ahead to the bar to ring in happy hour. I looked at June Van Oort. She was nodding like a true convert. Teryl Meeks was smiling. Nealy was basking us all in his bleached shiny fucking smile.

Just when I thought the meeting was over and I could escape, Nealy kept talking. He went on and on about how many times he’d been in the Dean’s office trying to get us a fair shake. He told us he was on OUR SIDE and that nobody knew BETTER THAN HIM just how much we contributed and just how important we were. Money and security were important, he said. But he knew we aspired to MORE.

“After all,” he said, “No gets into teaching for the MONEY.” He laughed at his own joke. The gaggle laughed with him.

I groaned audibly.

The room fell silent and everyone turned to look at me.

Nealy stopped smiling. “Did you want to add something…?” He was trying to remember my name. I didn’t bother to fill in the blank for him.

“Yes, Rick,” June said. She wasn’t smiling anymore either. “Did you want to say something?”

My name’s not Rick, either. The bitch had been getting my name wrong since first time I met her. Though, to be fair, if you’re not really paying attention, Rick sounds a lot like Nick Rafferty. I wasn’t going to bother correcting her, either.

“Nope,” I said standing up. My ass was numb from sitting in the desk. “Looks like you all have everything sewn up. But I do have a STUDENT coming to SEE ME, so…” I walked out of the room without finishing the sentence, left the building, left campus, and headed straight for the bar.

After I explained all of this to Linda, she kissed me and told me she knew I was brilliant. I didn’t believe her, but I liked to think she believed it; and sometimes, that had to be enough. Her dinner was fantastic; better than anything I could’ve cooked even if I hadn’t come home drunk. She brought me a large tumbler of ice water – her way of telling me I needed to stop drinking for the night – hugged me, then put her shoes on.

“Where you going?”

She sighed. “I told you,” she said. “I’m picking up an extra shift tonight. Over time.”

I’d forgotten. That was why I was supposed to cook. “Tonight?”

“All they do is sleep,” Linda said. “It’s easy. Somebody just has to be there in case.”

She grabbed her purse and the car key. “Will you be alright?”

I wasn’t sure. “Sure.”

She kissed me. I really like her kisses. I hated when she picked up overnight shifts because I didn’t sleep well when she wasn’t home. But we needed the money, and it would give us the weekend together.

After she left I dumped the water and took out the bottle of cheap scotch I kept stored in the cabinet above the sink. I had class the next day; but I also wanted to be able to sleep, and I didn’t want to have to think about any of it anymore.