27 May, 2010

Smart Young Fella

When I didn’t feel like staying home, I wandered up to the bar to hang out and attempt to forget my petty frustrations. It never works – not really. But just because it never works doesn’t mean that it will never work; besides, there was little else to do. I’d already gone through all the books in the small and underappreciated public library that were worth reading. Muriel usually had the car, which put me on foot, and the walk to the bar was a reasonable one that also presented an excuse for exercise. The place was usually deserted – at least it was during the winter when everyone was busy hibernating and shoveling snow. As long as the wind chill wasn’t too low and there wasn’t too much ice on the streets – Mt. Arliss actually did a pretty good job of keeping the streets clear in town – I’d hoof it up to the bar for a few cocktails and to watch the television.

I hadn’t managed to pick up much in the way of work yet, though, so I had to limit my trips much more than I would normally. There is apparently not much call for a freelance writer and ex-college instructor; but I had hope that something would happen with the Spring thaw that seemed imminent. Muriel continued to hope that I’d wander back into teaching – something online so that I could stay home and do something useful while still being able to not wear pants – but I resisted. Not that there were a lot of options in education, anyway. Although my resume looks decently impressive, I was sure I’d managed to burn every bridge I had. Getting let go from ASU in the name of budget cuts was only an excuse; the Department Chair had been looking for a way to get rid of trouble makers – he referred to us as “boat rockers.” And my problems there were not new ones; I’d had the same problems almost everyplace else I ever worked.

I’m lousy at office politics. I don’t have the taste for them, nor do I have any interest in developing a taste. All I wanted to do was teach and be left alone; but then there’s my OTHER problem. I can’t keep my mouth shut. People who survive the institutional politics of higher education do so because they either learn to exploit the system or they keep their heads down to avoid having it cut off. I made the mistake of getting involved with some other instructors who wanted to start a union and improve our contracts. We weren’t asking for a lot; we weren’t even asking for a raise as much as we were asking for job security. But there were more peons and lackeys than there were people who understood the meaning of solidarity; so when the part-timers got axed – in the name of budget cuts -- and our course loads and class sizes went up, they put their heads down and took it like a barely legal virgin in an underfunded porno. And when the Powers That Be started cutting instructor positions, they started with us. Our ability and evaluations meant nothing; the Department Chair and his Dominatrix the College Dean wanted pack mules, not thoroughbreds.

When I went to the bar, it was to have someplace else to go; but in Mount Arliss, my options for distraction were extraordinarily limited. So mostly I kept to myself and only talked when there wasn’t anyone there but the bartender or when I had something to say. I listened a lot, though, and figured out pretty quickly that it was better to say very little. Mount. Arliss, like most small towns, can be charming, friendly, and endearing – especially if you’re the nostalgic sort trying to convince yourself there’s still something pristine and untouched and pure on the Earth … that somewhere, away from the crowded cities, there’s some idyllic Eden that harkens back to those television reruns of Andy Griffith and Leave it Beaver. But small towns can also be breeding grounds for xenophobia and misdirected anger. And in a place like this one, where the average age is 50 and diversity is defined as owning a Craftsman lawnmower instead of a John Deere, where the economy has been in a perpetual downturn since the 1970’s, somebody has to shoulder the blame. And generally, the blame is shifted to Blacks, Mexicans, Arabs, and liberals. Usually in that order.

Every bar has a group of dedicated regulars, and the Moose Head was no exception. Bill Watson was one of them, of course. He always had something to say about anything that was going on and he did his level best to leak the news before it came out in the paper just to annoy his older brother Bob, who owned the local newspaper. Bill and I had talked before, but rarely over anything more exciting than whatever was on the TV in the bar; mostly he gossiped about local people I didn’t know and drank his four or five beers and went home. Retired from one of the companies that pulled out and closed the plant several years before, he was a regular at the bar and was there most weekday afternoons.

That particular day was no exception; Muriel was working late again and I didn’t feel like sitting at home. The weather was decent – partly cloudy and in the mid 40’s – and the drinks were always cheap. When I got there, Bill was already there, along with the other members of what I would later be told was the Mount Arliss Round Table. The five old men named themselves the Round Table as a kind of joke that was never really funny to begin with. They got the name, not from Arthurian Legend – which they only became familiar with AFTER the name had settled in – but because they often came in for lunch and sat around a large round table near the center of the bar; the table was built around a structure supporting post that ran ceiling to floor and could seat up to eight.

“So where you from, young fella?” The unofficial leader, a guy named Don, asked me. I turned around on my stool at the bar to face him and told him we’d moved there recently.

“From where?”

“This time it was Phoenix.”

So we talked about Arizona… the weather, mostly, and life there after the real estate bubble finally burst. While we were talking, another member walked in. This one was another crusty old fucker named Jed. He was short, with cloud white hair that was mostly gone at the top, with a big bushy mustache and a thick pair of tri-focal glasses. When he sat down, Madge the owner, who was working the bar, got his usual beer for him without his having to ask. We were introduced and the conversation moved on to immigration.

“So what do you think about all a them pouring over the border and ruining the state?” Don asked.

“All of WHO?”

“Them MEXICANS,” Bill cut in.

“God damn illegal aliens,” Don said.

“Should fuckin’ kill ‘em all,” Jed said.

“I don’t know that I’d use that word,” I answered.

“What word?” Don asked.

“Ruin,” I answered. “I don’t know that it’s fair to say they’re ruining the state.”

“They’re taking OUR jobs,” Jed defended.

“They’re mostly CRIMINALS,” Bill added.

“And they’re coming over here, stealing and killing and raping women,” Don finished.

The three of them sat there looking at me, waiting for my response. From the expressions on their faces, I thought they were expecting me to recant.

“I’m not saying,” I chose my words carefully, “that something doesn’t need to be DONE about border policy…”

Bill cut me off. “Damn right!”

“… but it needs to make sense. And so far, it doesn’t.”

Now the expressions on their faces were a mixture of confusion and contempt. “And just how,” Don finally asked “how should it make sense?”

The bar was quieter than usual – which is saying something considering it’s deserted most of the time – and I again chose my words very carefully. I talked about Arizona Red State politics and how it’s extreme pro-corporate stance means that the tax base is mostly made up of the dwindling middle-class and the working poor; I talked about how construction companies during the real estate boom used undocumented workers because they could pay them a fraction of what an American worker would accept and far less than anybody can actually live on; I talked about Sheriff Arpiao and his random racial profiling raids; then I told them that border policy will never really change because that would eliminate a large and inexpensive work force that the pro-corporate structure needs to do the grunt work. When I was finished I noticed the tone of my voice from the last word that hung on the air in uncomfortable silence. Muriel hated it when I used that tone with her. She called it my teacher tone.

Don, Bill, and Jed stared at me a while longer. “You seem like a smart young fella,” Don said.

“I have my moments.”

“Then you’ve read the CONSTITUTION, I presume?”

“Yeah. The Bill of Rights, too.”

He ignored the last part of my comment, but I thought I saw Jed roll his doughy eyes. “And what does the Constitution say about the role of government?”

I knew where this was going. I can tolerate most idiots, but an unoriginal idiot is intolerable. “To protect and defend,” I said.

“EXACTLY!” Don sat back in his chair with a triumphant expression on his face.

“We need to NAIL DOWN that fuckin’ border,” Bill proclaimed.

“What about Canada?” I asked.

“What about it?”

“Well,” I said. “It’s a much bigger border. If a drug mule or a terrorist is gonna get through, they’ll have a much better chance of coming in through Canada. Or are you saying there aren’t any white drug dealers?”

“Now I wasn’t saying that AT ALL,” Don protested.

“Or what about port security?” I went on.

Bill started to look confused. “Huh?”

“Most cargo containers go through unchecked,” I said. “We don’t have any idea what’s in most of them. If all you’re worried about are criminals and terrorists, why don’t we do a better job with our ports.”

“You have a point,” Don said.

“And did you know that most of our ports aren’t even owned by US companies?” I asked.

“Huh?” That was Jed.

“It’s true,” I said. “Look it up.”

“But that’s not what we’re talkin’ about,” Don said.

“We just need to shoot all those fuckers,” Jed added.

“I know I’d like to be down on the border checkin’ green cards,” Don said. “No green card…” he held the thumb and forefinger of his right hand like a gun. “ ..BOOM!”

The three of them laughed.

“You don’t have a problem with guns, do you?” Don asked me.

“Guns? No. Idiots with guns? Yeah.”

“That’s alright, then,” Don said. “For a while there you were sounding a little liberal.”

And you were sounding a little retarded. “I use my brain,” I said.

“You’re a smart young fella,” Don repeated. I didn’t know whether he was paying me compliment or not; from his tone I suspected maybe he wasn’t. I knew better than to think that I’d change their minds, and that wasn’t really the point. No one changed their mind about anything. Not really. I looked at my empty scotch glass; I’d drank four or five in the midst of my exchange with three of the five and spent more than I had planned to. I didn’t feel drunk, but the conversation had ruined the relatively peaceful mood I’d been in. Sure, I was a little bored; but not bored enough to walk into a fight. I drained the last bit of scotch and tried to erase the homicidal fantasies that were fomenting in my mind.

I used to be able to tolerate dumbasses. Someone had told me once – my dad maybe – that people mellow as they age. And while I was certainly not old, I knew that I certainly wasn’t getting more mellow as time marched on and my hair turned grayer. It was the exact opposite; with each passing day I was less and less patient with the misguided, the confused, and the ignorant. No wonder I needed to get out of teaching. At least I was still sure it had nothing to do with the students.

I turned around and looked at Madge; she was trying not to look at me. I left a few dollars for a tip and left.

When I got home, the cats were hiding from one another: Che was under our bed and Nine was hiding under a pile of Muriel’s clothes in the unused bedroom. The sound of the door opening and closing drew each of them out into the open. Che took one look at me and growled. Nine started growling because Che growled, and then the eyeballed one another and prepared to pounce.

“Get!” I yelled. “I don’t feel like dealing with your bullshit today!”

Che snarled, but he turned tail and retreated back under the bed. Nine, with his usual punch drunk thickness, prepared to follow Che and finish the confrontation. I yelled at him again and he turned tail and scampered back under the pile of clothes.

“Too much disharmony,” I said aloud. Sometimes it was just too difficult; dealing with people, dealing with the cats, dealing with Muriel’s absence. That, at least, was better; used to be she’d come for the entire summer. Last summer I was left on my own and it was miserable. At least now I saw her every morning before she left and every night when she came home. At least I could feel her next to me in the bed at night. It was unfair; so unfair that hers was the only company I could handle for any length of time. So unfair for her.

I drank some water and then poured myself a scotch from the half bottle under the kitchen sink. It was almost five in the afternoon. Muriel wouldn’t be home for a few more hours, and I wasn’t hungry. So I turned on the radio, found the classical station, and sat back in my rocking chair – listening and drinking myself back into the harmonious and peaceful center found only in the absence of others.

25 May, 2010

Nondenominational: Part 1

After Sunday service, Pastor Stan began thinking about how to approach the new couple who had just moved to town; well, they hadn’t JUST moved. In fact, they had been living in Mt. Arliss for several months. Outreach wasn’t typically an issue because everyone, at some point, gravitated to one of the several churches in town; it was just something people did. Even if people claimed they weren’t especially “religious” (Pastor Stan had heard that one many, many times) people eventually found their way somewhere. Going to church was a good way to meet people, get involved in the community, get a sense of things. It also gave other people a chance to meet you and begin to get a sense of who you were. Young couples with children generally attended church to meet other parents and to help their sons and daughters meet people and make friends. Going to church – any church – was a signal to people that a new comer wanted to be part of the goings on of the town. It also let people know Where You Stood, which was crucial to social acceptance.

Not that there was much difference in the churches; except for those Unitarians one town over in Jonston (which Pastor Stan had trouble understanding) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses that had taken root one town over in another direction (which Pastor Stan considered only slightly less dangerous than Mormons), the denominations were conservative because the people in the area were conservative. They supported prayer in schools, the right to bear arms, low taxes, the war, and abstinence instead of sex education. They were farmers, or the children of farmers, and understood that the Good Lord had given them the Earth to use and take care of. And except for the Catholic Church (which Pastor Stan didn’t personally have a problem with, but many in his congregation did), the different churches got along pretty well. As a Methodist, Pastor Stan knew his place in the local hierarchy, and he was grateful that the Evangelicals, the Charismatics, and the Apostolics hadn’t taken hold. That they were extreme had been their undoing in Mt. Arliss because Mt. Arliss wasn’t a town that liked extremes. Which meant that, as a Methodist, Pastor Stan was generally liked or (at least) treated with a modicum of respect by people outside of his pastoral concern.

From what he could tell, no other church had bothered to reach out to the new couple and they hadn’t reached out to anybody else. According to the Pussmans, who were part of his congregation, the woman worked and the husband didn’t. He could be seen around town, either at the library or at the Moose Head, and no one really knew what to make of him. Peter Pussman seemed leery of him because he drank and Brenda wasn’t sure what to make of him because he seemed to have no ambition at all. There was some word around town that the husband had been a teacher before moving to Mt. Arliss; but he seemed to have no interest in finding a teaching job. Pastor Stan had also heard from Bob Watson, the publisher of the Mt. Arliss Standard, that the husband was a writer, or wanted to be.

He waited until Tuesday to pay a visit. Monday was never a good day for outreach; people were moodier on Mondays, and if they going to be having a bad day, the chances were better than average that it would happen on a Monday. Tuesday was a neutral day. Not frustrating like Mondays and not Hump Day. He hardly ever did any outreach on Fridays, except for shut ins who already knew him. Thursdays could be a good day or a bad day; and if, for some reason, the husband wasn’t home when he dropped by, Pastor Stan would try again on Thursday so he could at least say he’d done his due diligence.

Actually, the thought of another young couple was pretty exciting. Most of his congregation was significantly older than him; he wasn’t yet 40 and some people still thought of him as young. Of course, they liked what they saw as his passion and vigor; and they liked that his wife Patricia was also young and vigorous. His and Patty’s kids, seven year old Casey and ten year old Madison, attended Arliss County Incorporated Schools. Those things lent him the authority that his age denied him. The new couple was around his age, and he imagined what it would be like to have another couple around his own age to talk to. Similar backgrounds. Similar memories. The new couple didn’t have children – which would give them one less thing to talk about. But maybe, he thought, maybe once they settle here for a few years they’ll have kids and will come to him and Patty for advice. The thought made him smile.

He made sure to wear his lucky tie Tuesday, but once he got in his car to drive over to the house he thought better and took the tie off. He didn’t want to appear too stuffy; older people expected a certain level of decorum, but this man was his age. They came from a similar place and a similar time and (he hoped) had similar notions about things. He thought about all the other things they could talk about. Attending college in the 1990’s. Music. Growing up in the 1980’s. Grunge. Pastor Stan was trying to remember the names of the bands he’d like when he was a kid. Banabanabingbong? Whambam? Madonna? Black Hole Sunshine? He expected – because the man had been a college professor – that he would be more liberal than most in town; Stan prepared himself for that. And he kept telling himself the man’s name. Someone said his name was Boone and that he was originally from Kentucky. Boone, he repeated. Jarvis Boone. His wife’s name was Muriel. She worked at the theatre – another indication that they might be a more modern couple than what he (and Patty) had become accustomed to.

The Boones (Pastor Stan kept telling himself to think of them as The Boones) lived in an old house on top of the hill on North Teetum Street. It was one of the last old houses in town and the other houses, over a period of 75 years, had grown up around it. Old Mrs. Chisum had lived there before she died at the ripe old age of 101 – she’d been an old time Baptist, so Pastor Stan had only known her slightly – and the house sat empty for about year until The Boones moved in. The house was on a large corner lot that needed mowing.

He pulled his car in front of the house carefully. There wasn’t a car in the driveway; but it could be in the garage. Plus he’d heard that the husband – Jarvis – Mr. Boone – Boone – didn’t drive much and that he walked everywhere. They only had the one car and his wife – Muriel – Mrs. Boone – usually drove it. Before he got out of the car, he looked at himself in the vanity mirror and smiled his friendliest smile. Instinctively, he grabbed his bible that was sitting on the passenger seat; but then he thought better of it and left it in the car. “There will be time for that,” he said to his reflection.

When he knew someone, Pastor Stan would enter the enclosed porch and knock on the interior door; but he didn’t want to presume. Luckily the doorbell was on the outside instead of the inside. He took a deep breath, straightened his back, and rang the doorbell.

20 May, 2010

ANNOUNCING: LIVING BROKE, a short story collection, from PublishAmerica

From the back cover:

These stories are a collection of darkly humorous, visceral, and honest, and sometimes images of life in America since the turn of the century. The characters are all trying to survive and get by in spite of living in a world where there is never enough, where hard work is not rewarded the way we are always told it will be, and where the divisions between the Haves and Have Nots are increasingly obvious. These are the In-Between People – the people who believed in the Middle Class American Dream and who have found it failing, but have nothing tangible to replace it with. The victories expressed are small and short lived, while the over arching machinations – institution, ambition, greed, loneliness, and isolation – are constants.

Release date and other information soon to follow!

19 May, 2010

Guilt By Association (735 words)

Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly (With His Song) was the number one Billboard song for the week I was born; although I don’t remember hearing this song when I was a kid – my parents listened to country and western music – hearing it fills me with a deep sadness.

I was 5 years old and I heard it accidentally when I was at a friend’s house. His older sister was visiting from college and she was listening to the radio. I had never noticed her before that moment; she was simply my friend’s older sister who ignored us and didn’t want to be bothered having to watch us while their mother ran errands. Her name was Shauna Jo; she was tall and blonde and the older boys seemed to like her. My friend and I were coming up out of the basement to get some juice; since we weren’t allowed to pour it ourselves, we had to get her to do it, which meant knocking on her closed bedroom door. I could hear the music playing and I thought I heard her singing; but my friend kept beating on the door until, because it wasn’t actually closed all the way, it opened.

She sat in front of her mirror, topless and combing her hair. The mirror was large enough that I saw most of her. That moment seemed to freeze and for an instant. I hadn’t ever considered how she might look different from me with her shirt off; I knew girls had to wear a different kind of bathing suit and that they had their own bathrooms; I knew girls were different because they were girls and I was not. But it wasn’t until that moment, when I saw her bare back, her breasts staring back at me in the mirror, that I began to understand that the curves and the shape of girls meant something more than what was covered and what was exposed by a bathing suit. But as enamored as I was by the sight of her, seeing her topless also accentuated and illuminated the rest of her; her neck line was smooth, melting seamlessly into her chin, which poured beatifically into her face. A young woman’s skin looks different from an older woman’s even at a distance; I had caught random glances of women before – women my mother’s age – because when you are young no one worries about what you see; they assume you’re too young to know what any of it means. But the falling and rolling skin of mothers is different from the taut skin of a woman in her prime; and even though I wasn’t able to articulate that, the understanding came to me in that moment. Differences inside of differences. She was smiling and her lips were moving, hypnotic as she sang Roberta Flack. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glistened. She looked up and saw me seeing her. Our eyes locked. Her eyes were the brightest and deepest blue.

Then the moment moved forward and she screamed, dropped her comb, and covered her breasts. GET OUT, she screamed, turning, lunging at the door and closing it in a single movement. I stood in front of the closed door for a while and listened. The music played on, but the singing had stopped; but so had the rage. In a couple of minutes she opened the door, fully clothed. She pushed past me and towards the kitchen to interrupt my friend – he was trying to climb up on the counter to get in the cabinet and so he could pour our juice. As she pushed past me she hissed, you fucking little pervert.

For a week I was worried that I would get into trouble. I knew I had done something wrong, though I wasn’t sure why. The things we learn are wrong we learn not from direct instruction but indirectly. We come to know certain things are wrong because other people act like they are wrong and we learn to act and behave from the how the people around us behave. And so I was worried, even though I hadn’t really done anything except for being thirsty.

But nothing ever happened. I was invited over many many timed after that, but Shauna Jo was rarely there and whenever she was, all she did was roll her eyes and dismiss me whenever I looked at her.

17 May, 2010

The Day After

She hated the panicked feeling of gasping for air. But the pain that shook her body down to the bones whenever she coughed and spit up pieces of her lungs was worse; and even with the oxygen, the cough never really stopped because her lungs never stopped filling with liquid. Whenever Loleen Bausendorfer took off her oxygen and tried to remember what it felt like before her body turned against her, tried to drown her in her own fluids, she couldn’t sit for more than two minutes. She couldn’t take more than a step out her wheelchair or off her bed without getting dizzy and feeling like she was about to die. Annmarie, her daughter-in-law, was always giving her a difficult time and insisting that she leave the oxygen on and that she not move around so much; but Loleen was tired of the noise the tank made and tired of the plastic itching under her nose and tired of being stuck in her son’s house. She was particularly tired of Annmarie, who Mitch had married in spite of his mother’s objections; but living there was better than being in the hospital, and at least Candice the hospice nurse came in the evening to check on her.

Not that being in a hospital would do her any good. Loleen knew she was dying. So did everyone else. Mitch knew she was dying and insisted she move in. Annmarie knew she was dying and resented that she was doing it in her house. Her grandchildren knew she was dying, but didn’t have any patience with her anymore now that she was too sick to make her famous double chocolate cookies. Loleen knew that the only reason she was living with her son and his family was that there wasn’t enough money to put her in nursing home – and that would have almost been better, if she didn’t know that people got stuck in nursing homes so that their families could learn to forget about them.

The day before had been a busy day. Annmarie drove the 80 mile round trip from Mt. Arliss to Silverton to take her shopping at JC Penny’s. It was an important trip. They’d gotten up early. The kids didn’t want to go and weren’t silent about their displeasure. Annmarie wasn’t all that excited about going, either, but Loleen had impressed its importance upon her and promised to pay for the kids to eat at McDonalds. Loleen didn’t like that she had to nag and bribe her family – the people who should want to take care of her. If it were Annmarie’s mother, there would have been no question; but Annmarie’s mother lived out of state. Loleen understood that it was a maudlin reason to go shopping. And while it was true that Loleen still had some nice dresses, none of them suited the purpose.

None of them was a dress she wanted to be buried in.

And since her death was, according to Dr. Sims, imminent she wanted to make sure all the details were taken care of. Mitch wouldn’t have a clue what to do and she didn’t trust Annmarie to put in the kind of care and attention to detail that it deserved. Loleen had already picked out her casket, her headstone, and had chosen the songs and even the preacher. All that remained was the dress.

Annmarie was forced to push Loleen around in the wheelchair; this didn’t bother Loleen much except that she had to keep reminding her to slow down. Deciding how she wanted to look for all eternity was a serious task. And it was a detail most people would take for granted. It was bad enough that she’d heard Annmarie talking to her son about cremation. Cremation! Like they were some aboriginal tribe on some backwards subcontinent! And who would visit her in the cemetery if all that was left of her was a pile of ashes? Annmarie would just as soon have her cremated and put the ashes in an old coffee can and bury her in the backyard next to the dog.

Loleen didn’t like the first seven dresses she looked at. Well, she’d liked the fifth one okay; but she said she didn’t like it because Annmarie was sighing and hemming and hawing like her time was being wasted. All the woman did was work at Mitch’s bar sometimes and watch Spanish soap operas. She didn’t even really take care of Loleen. If Mitch hadn’t rebuilt the downstairs bathroom so she could use it herself, she was sure Annmarie would have let her sit in her own mess until Candice arrived. And Candice was a sweet girl; but she wasn’t family.

So she made Annmarie wait through the sixth and seventh dresses – both of which were fine, she supposed. But by the time she got to the eighth dress, Loleen was getting tired, and she was getting a headache because the grandchildren refused to behave.

The dress was a deep purple dress with a gold and silver floral design; the fabric was soft. It struck Loleen as almost royal – maybe because of the purple. And while she would have never bought a purple dress before, she knew it was the perfect one.

Propped up on pillows as she was because she couldn’t lie down and sleep anymore, she took the oxygen tube off and stared at the dress hanging over the closet door. She lay there watching the dress while her lungs filled up with fluid and her breathing became more labored and her body instinctively prepared for another round of coughing. What a beautiful dress, she thought. Then she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be perfectly still forever, clothed in that purple dress and removed to a place far away from the sounds of her grandchildren, her son’s wife, and the pain that woke her up every morning.

10 May, 2010

The Problem With Jewelry

When Bill Watson spoke – which was entirely more often than most people thought he should have – every sentence that left his mouth carried a sense of finality. Whether he was talking about the weather or the government or the price of corn or the state of somebody’s marriage and the fates of their ill-conceived children, his tone was convincing even when his words were not.

He suffered through his retirement with all the nobility he could muster by running a semi-permanent garage sale in his front yard. When it wasn’t raining and when it wasn’t the dead of winter, he sat in his front yard behind three large tables full of stuff he dug out of his basement and his barn to sell. Late Spring and Summer and early Fall were his best times because he took advantage of the traffic of people visiting the unusually large number of antique and junktique shops in Mt. Arliss and unincorporated Arliss County. There were nearly as many of these shops as their were churches, except that the churches did a little better financially and the shops were a little more interesting to outsiders; and Bill Watson, who believed unerringly in the tenets of Democratic Capitalism as well as the divine notion that Arliss County was the true center of the universe and potentially the true location of the biblical Eden, took full advantage as best he could. He was not one to haggle on a price; but as he often remarked, when he asked $5 for a solid metal pipe wrench in workable condition, it was significantly cheaper than having to buy a new one.

Bill stayed at his tables until 3 in the afternoon during the week, and after that he could be found at his usual stool at the Moose Head, where he had been a regular since the bar opened its doors. He had first walked in the door a middle-aged man and had, like the bar and the entire town, aged to a functional decrepitude. He had weathered changes by not changing at all; and like most men who dealt with the world in this fashion, his resilience had made him a little cocky. He did not like the world and did not apologize for it – but he would be damned if that was going to make him lie down and quit.

On good days, the television in the Moose Head would be showing an old rerun, like Bonanza, Bewitched, or The Rifleman. He liked Bonanza and The Rifleman, and he thought Elizabeth Montgomery had had nice legs back the day; but that was only when Bob and Ethel were in the bar because Bob only watched reruns of old television shows he had watched when he was younger and flush and things were good. (Ethel still watched her soap operas and enjoyed Wheel of Fortune; she thought Pat Sajak was still cute and that Vanna White was still a Hollywood slut who got lucky.)

On this particular day, I was sitting next to Bill and Gary was tending bar. Gary was the only non-family member who bartended and it was generally thought that he was kept on because he couldn’t do much else besides play a mean game of pool and beat any video game out on the market. After Bob and Ethel left – earlier than usual – Gary switched the channel to VH1.

“Christ,” Bill muttered. “Why people want to WATCH music, I’ll never know. Used to be, we’d LISTEN to music.”

“It’s more than music,” Gary tried explaining. “They have their own shows now.”

“REALITY television,” he countered. “What a stupid idea. People watch TV to get away from reality, not live in it. Or…” he paused to take a sip of his Old Style Beer, “… they USED’ta.”

He looked up at the television, probably to find something else to bitch about. It didn’t take him long. “What the hell is THAT?” Bill pointed at the screen. On it, there was a former basketball player going into rehab. This presented two problems for Bill: 1) he was rich and 2) he had pierced not only both ears several times, but both nostrils and he had two loops in his bottom lip. To Bill’s credit, that the man was also black didn’t matter so much, though others would have made that more of an issue.

“It’s one of those rehab shows,” Gary answered. Gary was a large man whose very existence some claimed was proof of the existence of god because most people of his size would not still be able to walk around… though he did wheeze considerably and was heckled mercilessly about his love of pretzels and potato chips and was happily engaged in a long term relationship with a woman everyone but me had met.

“Rehab,” Bill scoffed. “Will ya LOOKIT that guy? What’s all that shit in his face?”

Gary shrugged.

“Piercings,” I said.

Bill turned and looked at me, his head bobbing up and down the way it did when he was about to make a pronouncement. “Well, ya SEE that? THAT’S what’s wrong with things.”

“What is?” Gary asked.

He turned and nodded at the television. “That’s why THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY ARE.” Bill said.

“Jewelry?” I asked.

He turned and looked at me again and we locked eyes. He stared, shook his head, and then turned his attention back to his beer.

“I’ve heard a lot of things,” I went on – probably because I’d had two scotches too many – “about why the world is screwed up. But I never considered that it might be jewelry.”

Gary chuckled a little, but checked himself when Bill glared at him. Bill refused to look at or address me and when he left, he didn’t acknowledge me either. By the time he left, I’d switched to beer; after Bill left the bar, Gary bought me a beer and switched the channel to a baseball game.

05 May, 2010

Between the Rush

Lili sat down with a cup of coffee after the last of the breakfast rush paid and left. They were regulars – an old married couple who didn’t like her. Their son had died in Vietnam and they blamed her because she was Japanese. The dishes were still on the table; but there was no hurry. No one would be in until later that afternoon or maybe even that evening. Tuesdays were slow. The only times that downtown Mt. Arliss were really busy that time of year was on Mondays, because of court day and everybody was across the street at the courthouse. She hoped that summer would pick up like it usually did; but people weren’t buying antiques the way they used to, and there was more to do further up in places like Galena or across the river Clinton where the casino was.

The noise from the kitchen meant that Nikita and Raul were cleaning down and getting ready for lunch service. They would want her to bus the table, but they wouldn’t get onto her about it for a few minutes. Lili’s feet hurt from her worn out shoes and she couldn’t shake the tired feeling from her bones. Because business was so slow, tips had been bad and she couldn’t afford a new pair of work shoes. Maybe when summer comes, she thought. Maybe it will pick up this summer.

Most of the people who came into the restaurant knew Lili because they’d been eating there since even before she started working there; even still, they couldn’t help but stare at her, and they were always surprised when she didn’t sound like an extra from a Charlie Chan movie. It didn’t matter that she’d grown up on an American military base or that she was only half-Japanese and that she happened to take more after her mother than her father. It didn’t matter that she learned English before she learned Japanese. It didn’t matter that her husband had was a local boy and that everyone had known him since before he was born. None of that mattered. People were mostly nice to her, even if they did eye her a little bit. Sometimes the old women treated her with suspicion because they were afraid that she might steal their crotchety old husbands. Lili knew they all thought all oriental girls were geishas because they’d seen it in a movie.

But they didn’t worry as much anymore. Lili was older and was probably not as pretty as she had been when her husband Arley got out of the Army and moved them back to his hometown.

At least Nikita and Raul liked her; they understood what it was like to be treated with suspicion. They were from Uzbekistan. In Mt. Arliss that was the same as being a Russian, so everyone took them for commie spies when they first arrived. But eventually, when enough people met them and heard their story and saw how they loved all things American – they even started calling their french fries Freedom Fries and still called sauerkraut Liberty Lettuce – people accepted them as more or less an equal part of the community. After Arley died, they were the only ones who would really talk to her, and they gave her the waitress job so that she could support herself.

That had been more than 15 years ago; and even though Lili had long forgotten the little bit of Japanese her mother had taught her and she dressed and talked like everybody else, she was still an outsider and she had to struggle more for her tips than young Delores, the single mom who had grown up in Mount Arliss and had been pregnant before she got out of high school. She would have to bring her son with her to work sometimes. Customers almost always tipped her better when she did.

Lili looked up when she heard the bell above the door ring. It was a youngish man – which meant he was in his mid-30’s. He was new to town. People didn’t know what to make of him because his wife worked but he didn’t. He sat down at the lunch counter and waited without saying anything to her. She smiled at him, stood up, and smoothed her dress.

“Do you need a menu?” she asked.

He shook his head and smiled. “Just a cup of coffee,” he answered. There was none of the usual wariness in his eyes. He didn’t look like someone who had a lot of money to tip. And besides, all he wanted was coffee. But she found herself relaxing just a little anyway.

She poured him a cup of coffee. “Cream and sugar?” she asked.

He shook his head again. “No thank you,” he answered.

She left him at the counter and bussed the table, which made her feet hurt. The old couple left a nickel tip for a $10 check. Most people left at least a dollar, but she knew they’d left a nickel because neither of them had a penny, which was the usual form their derision took. Nikita and Raul were talking in the back and arguing about what the dinner special was going to be. The man at the counter wasn’t watching her; he was staring into his coffee, lost in thought.

What does a man like that think about? she wondered.

He finished his cup, without saying another word and left money on the counter. Then he got up to leave. He smiled and waved at her – a nice, polite wave – before he walked out the door. She rang up his coffee. He’d left a small tip. Lili smiled and pocketed the little bit of change.