29 September, 2010

100 Pumpkin Hill

He woke up each and every day when the sunlight broke in through the curtains of the small, barely furnished bedroom. It was so small that there was only room for the full-sized mattress and box spring and a short three drawer night table that doubled as his dresser. There was no clock there, or anywhere else in the tiny house on top of Pumpkin Hill. Randall had no need for clocks; he didn’t need a contraption whose function was to remind him of the passage of time. After he got up, he washed his face and put on fresh clothes – sometimes they were clean, if he had just done laundry. Sometimes he simply rotated his five shirts and three pairs of pants until they were beyond filthy. He had exactly seven pairs of socks, seven pairs of underwear, and seven t-shirts. For the winter he had two pairs of long underwear and two sweaters. He liked that he could pack his clothes up in a single-suit case in case he ever decided to leave.

Randall shuffled into the kitchen and made his breakfast. It was the same breakfast he had every day: coffee, three fried eggs, half a grilled onion, and three prunes. After he finished his breakfast, Randall drank three beers and listened to the radio. His favorite station was the public radio station. When they talked, it was only when they had something important to talk about, like the weather, or news. After he drank three beers, he poured himself a scotch and looked through the photo albums. The albums contained pictures of his family. His wife. His brother Zack, Zack’s wife Deidre, their kids Sarah and Isaac. His and Zack’s mother and father. Birthday parties, Christmas parties, Halloween costumes. Randall wasn’t in most of the pictures. He never liked getting his picture taken. That was why he learned to take pictures. And he learned it so well that he opened a shop of his own and took pictures. Senior Year. Prom. Homecoming. Family portraits. Baby pictures. People had liked him. They liked his wife, Carolyn, better. Everyone liked Carolyn.

If he got hungry around mid-day, Randall ate a piece of bread with butter and jam. Mostly, he didn’t get hungry. Food had very little taste for him, and he only ate to stay alive. That was the promise he made to Carolyn when she was dying. That he would stay alive no matter what. She wouldn’t have liked him staying in all day, looking through the same photo albums over and over again. She had never liked his drinking; but he only ever tapered off because of her. And without her, he saw no reason. There was no reason for any of it. He kept his promise as best he could; but there were some things he was simply too angry about. He knew Carolyn would want him to stop drinking, to start taking pictures again. But as much as he loved her, he was angry at her, too. Angry because she died. Angry because in the decade since her death, he had been unable to leave their house, or even get rid of her things.

The only time he walked outside was to check the mail. He did this once a week, on Fridays. As he sat drinking and looking through the albums and listening to the radio, he realized it was Friday. So he stood up, slipped on house shoes, and walked outside. The sun was shining and the light hurt his eyes. He wasn’t always sensitive to sunlight; he didn’t become sensitive until after Carolyn died. Then everything about the world seemed too bright, too shiny.

The mail box was stuffed full of junk mail. Hiding amongst the junk mail, there were a few bills. They were all past due notices. Nothing else. Carolyn’s family cut off contact when he followed her wishes and donated her body to science. They wanted something to cry over, a tombstone to put flowers on. Randall knew the lifeless body wasn’t Carolyn’s anymore. They probably knew that, too. But grief does strange things to people. Everyone has their own way of not letting go.

Randall dropped the mail in the empty chair by the door, walked into the kitchen, and poured himself another drink. He knew it was getting late because the neighborhood kids were home from school and running through his yard. The kids ran through his yard because it was a short cut and because he never yelled at them. The grass needed cutting, but he simply couldn’t force himself out to get it done as he had managed in past years. He knew it was pissing off his neighbors. Not that any of them had bothered to talk to him about it. He knew it by the way they looked at him when he was in the grocery store or the way they pointed at the little old house and shook their heads. If they had their way, the little old house would be torn down. It was the oldest house on the street. It was falling apart, and they were tired of it hurting the value of their homes. He knew this because he’d gotten a letter from the town council saying as much. They were going to give him fifteen days; then they were going to evict him. Today was the fifteenth day.

Randall knew that if it were Carolyn that was alive instead of him, there wouldn’t have been any letter from town council. Everybody loved Carolyn. And they liked him until he stopped taking pictures. A drunk who takes nice pictures is still useful. A drunk who is nothing but a drunk is not. Randall knew they were going to send the Sheriff for him. Then the house he had lived in with Carolyn would be demolished so that the neighbors could look at an empty field instead of a dilapidated house.

Randall didn’t know when they would come for him. But he knew it wouldn’t be much longer. The only things he would take with him were his suit case and the photo albums. The albums were heavy, and he intended to make the Sheriff and his deputies carry them out. He drained his glass and poured more scotch on top of the same ice cubes. He had promised to stay alive. But that didn’t mean he was going to like one minute of it.

27 September, 2010

Third and Long

They were desperately trying to lose. It was nothing new. As long as I’d been watching them play, the Bengals have tried to lose more consistently than any other professional football team. Other teams that sucked continuously sucked because they lacked the talent. With the Bengals it’s never a question of talent; they lose in the grand tradition of the art of losing. Watching them play is like watching Greek Tragedy. So much hope. So many dreams. Every game I watch, I think about the time I went to watch the Bengals play in 1984. It was a home game against the Chicago Bears; this was back when they had Walter Peyton and Refrigerator Perry. That was the year they were unstoppable. The day of the game it snowed, and Dad took a thermos of hot chocolate. The Bengals were near the end of another bad year and everyone thought the game was done before it started. The Bengals won that game. Even though it was cold, my dad stood up and cheered – which was something he never did.

There was something in them … in their wiring … that seemed to propel them towards defeat. It wasn’t that they wanted to lose. They didn’t. In fact, the Bengals want to win more than any time in the NFL because hardly anyone every thinks they deserve it. Ever.

I was sipping on a beer and watching the offensive line crumble for no particular reason when my cell phone went off. It was a text message from Rhea, telling me to call her.


“What’s wrong?” Maude was into the game as much as I was. I showed her my phone. “Rhea. She wants me to call.”

I called her back and she told me her grandmother was dying. Her mother’s mother. She’d been dying for a long time… years. Even before she got cancer from smoking cheap menthol cigarettes, she’d been dying. Eaten bit by bit over the years. Eaten by life. Back when I was married to Rhea’s mother and the dying woman was my mother-in-law she told me a story about how she died once before. She was on the operating table. You’ve heard those kinds of stories before, where the patient dies on the table and floats above everything and wanders into a bright light. She told me she was pulled back to life because her family couldn’t live without her. She said that sometimes when she thought about the heaven she’d been pulled away from, she was angry. Angry at her husband. Angry at her daughter. Angry at still being alive.

When Rhea had told me a year before the old woman was stopping the treatments and letting the cancer take its course, I knew why.

I called her back and asked her how she was handling things. Fine, she said. She said she was fine. It was a little weird. But fine. I asked about the dying woman’s condition. Mostly asleep and moaning, she said. On morphine, once every hour. I knew what that meant. She was all but gone. The odd moments of clarity becoming increasingly rare and short. Lucidity slipping away. All of who the woman had once been – slipping away. She’d been family once. Of course, when Rhea’s mother and I split up, the two of them went about attempting to destroy my life. Turned friends against me, trying to guilt me into “doing the right thing.” Used little baby Rhea against me, trying to compel me to fill the role of husband and father as they understood it – which of course meant handing over my balls in a silk purse. The marriage not working out was tragic enough. Rhea’s mother and I were both at fault for that. But trying to manipulate me into staying in miserable situation by turning me into a local pariah? That had the old woman’s bitter manipulating fingerprints all over it.

“How are you?” I asked Rhea. “How are you feeling?” I knew there wasn’t anything I could say about her grandmother. I couldn’t commiserate. I could sympathize in as much as I’d lost people I loved. But because people I loved had died, I knew there was no point in spouting all the usual bullshit people say when someone dies. The only person who feels better is the person spouting the bullshit… about how the dead person is out of pain / in a better place. That may or may not be true. But it’s also true that death after a long illness is a blessing for the people have had to sit and watch death take hold. At first, you feel guilty about feeling relieved. And then the guilt goes away and you just feel relief. But no one talks about that.

“I’m okay,” she said. I could almost hear her shrugging her shoulders over the phone.

“Is she saying anything?”

“Not really.”

I asked Rhea to describe her breathing, and knew from the description that it wouldn’t be long. Rhea told me she was going to stay home from school the following day. Then she said it would take anything from an hour to three days.

“Not three days,” I said. Nowhere near that long.

“I have to go back inside,” she said. Outside was the only quiet place left. Her house was filled with people who were sitting and waiting for the old woman to die. Family. Relatives. Thiers was always a large, unwieldy family. One I never felt comfortable with. Not really.

“Call me when something happens.”


I told her I loved her. She hung up and I went back to watching the game. They were still trying to lose, even though they were three points ahead. The other team didn’t want to lose; but they didn’t have the talent to win the way they wanted to, either. The other team fumbled the ball and the Bengals turned it into a touchdown. If it had been a home game, the crowd would have gone cheered. Since it wasn’t, they jeered and booed. All they had to do at that point was play out the clock. Sometimes it’s not about scoring. Sometimes it’s about waiting for the clock to run out. A simple strategy that ends up being much more complicated than it should be.

About an hour after the game ended, the phone rang. It was Rhea. She was crying. Her grandmother was dead.

“She’s not in pain anymore,” I said, trying to console her.

“I know,” she answered through her tears.

I wanted to hug her. Words never help. Hugs do. She told me she had to make other phone calls and that she’d call me the following day.

21 September, 2010

Sketch of An Important Man

 The only thing Dolf Packer despised more than news reporters was when some stupid son of a bitch parked in his parking space in front of the County Courthouse. And when it was a god damned reporter parked in his space – that was both despicable and unforgivable.
He was already in a bad mood when he pulled his truck onto Main Street.  His business wasn’t at the courthouse, but at Town Hall across the street. Dolf Packer was going to have a sit down with the mayor and tell him what’s what. He knew that dwarf motherfucker, Leslie Banes, would be there. It was Thursday, and that was the day he came into the office.  Thursday was also the day that Sarah, the college intern, was working. Sarah did the filing and the typing. She was learning about government and administration because that was what she wanted to do. Dolf Packer didn’t like her; well, that wasn’t quite right.  A more precise way of describing his feelings is this: whenever Dolf fucked his wife Janine, he imaged he was fucking Sarah. Sarah was young and had a young woman’s body. Janine’s body had been destroyed over the years from carrying Dolf’s four sons and from taking care of them and Dolf. Janine was old; but she knew her place. Sarah was young, and like all these young girls going to college, they thought they deserved more. Dolf knew she needed a real man – not one of these college boy pussies – to point her in the right direction. But that wasn’t his job. Banes only came into the office on Thursdays because he was chasing after Sarah the way he chased after every young woman in town. Dolf figured that she was too smart to give herself over to a midget; but then again, he reasoned, she was just a dumb pretty twat with delusions of being a city manager.
He knew Banes would see him. He damn well better, he told himself.  Banes needed Dolf Packer’s support to stay in office. He needed Packer’s money. He needed Packer’s influence. He needed Packer’s backing, because nothing got done in Arliss County unless Dolf Packer wanted it to get done. And the purpose of his visit to Leslie Banes was to make sure something DIDN’T happen. 
What Dolf Packer didn’t want to happen was for an ordinance to pass at the next Town Council meeting. Most ordinances aren’t that big of a deal, and since Packer didn’t live in town, most of them never impacted him.  However, this ordinance would. There were a lot of old buildings in town, and there had been a push to either fix them or tear them down. The historical society wanted to save them, because they were all college educated pussies or bored housewives. They squawked in the paper about remembering the past and how this or that building was an important piece of architecture. Sentimental bullshit.  The common sense approach, Dolf knew, was to simply tear them down. That would be cheaper. That was also the way of the world. Old things crumbled and new things were built right on top of them.
And that was exactly what he intended to do. He’d bought old man Thompson’s old garage at the base of Main Street because he intended to demolish it and put up a new building… then he’s sell the new building, or lease it if there weren’t any immediate takers. Packer paid old man Thompson’s son pennies on the dollar of what it was worth, and he intended to triple (at least) his money.
But then Paterson and those Historical Society pussies decided it was “architecturally significant,” and started petitioning Banes and the town council to pass an ordinance that would limit what he, Packer could do. With his OWN property. Besides the fact that it was un goddamned American, he told himself and everyone else who would listen, it was also just goddamned inconvenient. And by the time he paid for all the changes the new ordinance would require—preserving the “architectural integrity” and “historical accuracy” of the crumbling pile of bricks – he’d be stuck with a white whale of a building that he could never unload, except at a loss. And Dolf Packer didn’t take a loss on anything. Not ever.
The mayor could care less, but Packer had it on good authority that he had managed to tap Paterson’s college age daughter when she visited over Christmas. The twat was clearly a whore… and a freaky one at that, Packer figured, since she spread her legs for that dwarf… but Packer figured maybe she threatened to yell rape if he didn’t support her daddy’s idea.  That was the only reason Banes would even let the thing get as far as it has. Banes was too much of a pig fucker to fall in love with a piece of ass, and he could give a shit less about historical preservation. So Dolf planned on reasoning with him. And if that didn’t work, he’d tell the midget son of a bitch that maybe it was time for a new mayor come November. “The world’s full of dip shit midget who want to be mayor,” he’d planned on saying.  He even practiced it in the mirror while he was shaving that morning, he liked the sound of it so much.
 And then… that fucker was parked in his spot.
Packer knew him. His name was Rafferty. He had come from some other  place, started writing for one of the papers, and started making trouble. He’d been the one who wrote the article that got ol’ Paterson tied up in knots, which led to the ordinance that was going to be voted on at the next council meeting. Packer had it on good authority that the ordinance would pass, whether he showed up at the meeting or not.  He wasn’t sure where all this backbone on the town council was coming from; he’d helped all of the council members but one get elected. But he knew that somehow, Paterson had leverage and that goddamned outsider Rafferty stirred up the pot.
The spot next to his spot was empty; and actually, that spot was closer to both the steps leading to the courthouse doors and to the town hall.  But that wasn’t the point. Instead of parking in the empty spot, Packer parked right behind Rafferty’s car – blocking him and the street.  Rafferty was leaning against his piece of shit primer orange ’84 Subaru sedan, smoking and staring off into the sky. When Packer put his truck in park and got out, Rafferty looked over at him, smiled, and waved.
I’m going to get that little son of a bitch, Packer thought. He’s made my life difficult one too many times.