Hippie and Ellen

They come out to the courtyard to be in the last of the October sun; it is an unintentional irony that the name of the building is The Medina Azahara. It’s crumbling, garish, fake Moroccan-Spanish style architecture boasts eight apartments; four one-bedroom and four studios. They are all dumps. Hippie lives there in a studio apartment with Ellen; Dean and Mason are there to buy dope. Hip has twisted a couple up, and the three men pass a joint. When it comes to Ellen she passes it off with a frightened wave.

“Oh no.” she says. “That stuff makes my clothes come off.”

“What doesn’t?” Dean says.

“Aww, m-man. You made me lose my hit.” Hippie says.

Ellen’s eyes narrow in Dean’s direction.

“You’re an asshole, Dean.”

Ellen, arms straight at her sides, fists clenched at her hips, walks with more attitude than purpose into the apartment. The screen door slams.

This is the first time Mason has seen Ellen outside the bar. He is astonished that Hippie could actually have such a beautiful creature with him. Of all people. Scrawny little Hip. Long stringy blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail. All nerves and shattered speech; until he has enough whiskey. Then, flat footed and high stepping, he becomes amiable and quick to offer help carrying equipment for the band. Or to sell you reefer.

“Looking to get high? Need something for the head?” he asks.

Mason stands there, joint in hand, staring at Ellen as she disappears into the apartment and remembering how one evening he had, from the stage, seen Hippie actually throw a drink in her face and storm out of the bar. She had just sat there laughing and wiping her face. Mason remembers what Dean had said about her then; that she someday she would push Hip too far.

“Mace!” Dean says. Then, “Look at him. Spaced out and Bogartin’ the joint.”

“Here. I gotta hit the head.”

Mason hands the joint to Dean and follows Ellen into the house. Neither Dean nor Hippie comment or watch as Mason goes inside the apartment. The courtyard door opens into the kitchen; and past that tiny galley is a living room with a futon. The bathroom is on his right and beyond that, the door to the street is open. Mason assumes that Ellen has gone out, and he pushes the door to the bathroom open.

Ellen is sitting on the toilet, her jeans around her ankles and her face covered by her hands. She is quietly weeping. Mason stands there saying nothing. She looks up at him, red eyed and wet.

“It’s up to you, dude. What are you gonna do?”

She reaches for the toilet paper and wipes herself.

“Well?”

“Mace! Let’s split, man!”

It’s Dean. Mason backs out of the bathroom under the indignant glare of Ellen’s icy blue eyes.

“What is her story, man?” Mason asks Dean as they leave the courtyard and walk over to Mason’s van.

Dean looks at him over the rim of his sunglasses.

“She’s Problem, man. I wouldn’t fuck her with your dick.”

Later that night at the bar Mason watches from stage as Ellen and Hippie shoot a game of pool. Hippie breaks and sinks five of the solids on his first up. Ellen pockets two stripes. Men keep coming up to the table on the pretext of watching Hippie but can’t take their eyes off Ellen as she stands in the shadow slowly chalking the tip of her stick. Hippie misses his shot. The cue ball lay is covered by Hip’s two remaining solids and the eight ball at the foot of the table. What remains of Ellen’s stripes are in the kitchen.

There is not much left. Ellen stalks the table, hunting for a shot. She is all tight corduroy jeans, fringed buckskin jacket and J toed cowboy boots.  Already tall at five ten, senselessly beautiful and possessed of an alkaloid-fueled self confidence, her movements are followed by every eye in the bar. Twice she sights along her stick down the green felt table and twice lifts her cue with out finding a shot.  She turns in mock disgust and holding the stick at her hip like Patty Hearst’s M-1 she points it at Hippie. Her shoulders are pulled back, her stance wide.

“I’m ‘SLA’, pig. On your feet or on your knees.”

Hippie is sitting; no, more like slumped on his barstool, back to the bar, waiting for her to take her shot. His pool cue bumper on the floor between his feet; he is supporting himself by holding onto the tapered end, his chin leaning on his hands. The corners of his mustached mouth are stained with Skoal. He stares a thousand yards past her. Her allusion creeps slowly into his mescaline and Jack Daniels laced mind as a tale told by an old woman. He remembers his grandmother telling him about the rich people, the Hearst’s, who built and lived in a castle off State Route 1. Once, on the way back to Salinas from visiting his father in Lompoc, Hip had determined to visit the castle, but got lost in the foothills and cutbacks leading to the tourist entrance. Mostly he remembers thinking as a child that he would go there someday and become a knight, but that has never happened.

“That the way Cinque taught you to do it?” he says finally.

Moving toward him Ellen takes the cue stick between his legs and shoves the shaft toward his crotch.  Moving her hand down to where the shaft is resting against his rat and badgers, she says “No, this is how he taught me how to do it.”

There is not a man in the bar who would not change places with Hip for the sake of Ellen’s hand in their jeans. As far as any other part of Hippies life; anything else that he has or ever will have; in fact anything that he is or will ever be is of little or no interest to anyone in the bar, inSalinasor anywhere else in the world. Staying high and defending attempts to take Ellen from him are his primary and secondary motivators for living. Delivering pizza and selling a little weed, mostly $15 lids of Mexican dirtball is what passes for a career in his mind.

“You look good tonight, baby.”

Hippie entertains a view of himself as a man of chivalry, and it is this quality in him that Ellen finds so amusing and necessary to provoke.

“Good enough to fight over?” she says, looking down the bar toward Mason, sitting there now with Dean.

It is not an idle inquiry. It is a challenge meant to reassure Ellen and to determine Hippies readiness to fulfill for her what would be, had their union any sacrosanctity, his sacred vow. Twice in the last month Hip had met his obligation with determination and resolve, though not without some cost.

The first, a loud drunk who had snuck up behind Ellen as she danced with a girlfriend and to amuse his friends had imitated doing her doggy style went down hard with a blow from an empty bottle of Lambrusco that Hip threw at him. So hard, in fact, that when he saw the tiny trickle of sticky blood coming from the unfortunate drunk’s ear canal, Hippie was afraid he had killed him. He had not, but Hippie, whose real name is Edward Leon Carter, caught a battery case on that and spent a night in jail.

The last incident did not go nearly as well. At closing time push turned to shove on the way out of the bar between Hippie and a fat young Chicano who Ellen claimed cupped her ass as they were leaving.

Before he entirely realized what had happened, Hippie was on his hands and knees in front of the bar spitting blood, looking for his tooth and telling Hector Perez, “OK, I’m sorry.”

No matter. Win or lose it is the dispensation of gallantry that counts in Ellen’s ledger.

“You love me so much, don’t you?” she said as she knelt beside him on the concrete.

Lester’s High

Everybody in the band is sitting in the studio just staring at me or the looking at the floor studying the pattern on the Chinese rug. A joint is going around, but I don’t smoke that shit so I just pass it to Les. My first mistake.

Go outside and look if they’re still there Dean tells me. We got to get going.

You’re the road manager, I said. You go.

Dean laughed at me.

I walk out on the porch into the night and they are all still sitting in the old white Impala.  Illinois plates, with whiskey bumps and rail rash.  Waiting for us to leave. At least four of them, maybe five. I see heads and shoulders bobbing up and down moving from side to side. Studded leather jacket at the wheel. Mullet head turns around in the back seat and looks right at me.

I come back in. I tell everybody I think we need the gun.

Really, you think we need the gun Daddy Cool says.

I had gone over to Franks and borrowed it earlier that afternoon. A heavy stainless steel Smith and Wesson with a five inch barrel. He didn’t have a holster for it so I just stuck it in my waistband put my jacket on and got back in the truck. I really didn’t think we would be needing it so soon.

Daddy, there are all kinds of reasons to have or not have it I say. Best to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Just to chase them off, if for no other reason Dean says.

If Bobbies dog would have done what we thought he was going to do, then no we wouldn’t need one. Last time, ninety pounds of Doberman turned into a rug pissing pussy as soon as he heard the sound of glass breaking, I guess.

How many times can you let yourself get ripped off by the same assholes? It just isn’t done. Studio gear is expensive and that time they got my Strat and Daddy Cool’s Alto.

Les passes the joint to Daddy and holding his hit wheezes, lemme see that piece. Against my better judgment I grab the .357 around the cylinder and hand it to him butt first. Don’t fuck around Les I tell him. I am not shitting you.

Daddy groans, like omigosh please oh please what the fuck is you doing? Les just sits there with it in his lap for a good 10 seconds or so, lets out his hit and says Model 686. This is a wonderful, wonderful piece. A batty grin spreads out over his face.

We tried to keep Lester away from the herb. You just never knew what he would be like when he got high.

Like the time we were jamming with Donny who happens to be African Merican and Les just stopped playing picked up a jay that somebody had parked on the top of his Twin Reverb and said I can’t play this nigger music.

Donny was cool. He leaned over and took the jay from Les got right in his face and said I like your drummer a lot better than you. You’re an idiot.

We all laughed, but really it wasn’t that funny.

Les flips open the cylinder and six rounds slide out into his left palm. He takes one and puts it back in the cylinder, spins it, snaps it shut, cocks the hammer, points it at the ceiling and pulls the trigger.

Click.

Godammit, Les! Daddy says. You are a sick mother fucker.

Les hands the gun back to me. Your turn he says.

He is remorseless.

Time to go Dean says.

Laurel and Stewart

Laurel

Laurel stands at the corner sink, her apron untied and her slippers on; stands with heart bowed and head haloed by the circular fluorescent light above her. She is quietly weeping. Dishes from dinner are still not done; the laundry is still not done. There is a button in her apron pocket. The mending is still not done; tomorrow’s lunches are still not done. She is undone.

Laurel’s Playtex gloved hands plunge deep into the hot soapy dishwater, retrieve a greasy plate, then a cup; wipe and rinse. The ten-thousandth dish. The windows over the sink fog and rivulets of water run into the frame and on the sill, ruining the caulking and painting she did in the fall. The girls are bathed and sleeping, an hour or more.  His dinner sits plated on the Formica tabletop, wrapped in tinfoil, cold as death.

Laurel starts; her breath is taken from her, as if it were she who had just flown from the cold night into the window. As if it were her neck broken and she who lay there dying in the snow on the window ledge. As if it were she who had mistaken the light and warmth of her own kitchen as being attainable. The moment of sudden movement and the sodden thud has passed and she stares at an imprint on the glass, a wet imprint of the sparrow that had tried to flee the frigid dusk into the light of the kitchen. Ah! Well, she thinks, it’s for the best.

Laurel sees, for the thousandth time, the blue ceramic plaque that sits on the shelf between the windows, sees once again its painted mortised borders. Implements of a happy kitchen; a hearth afire and in the center of the hearth, and over the mantle and the fire below,  a printed poem: “Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I’ve no time to be a great saint by doing lovely things, or watching late with Thee, or dreaming in the dawnlight, or storming heaven’s gates, make me a saint by getting meals, and washing up the plates.”

Laurel can see a lot from the kitchen window: the mocking moon, the unfinished garage. She can see the failed flower bed, the sandbox half buried and softly outlined in snow, the clothesline canted with icicles; across the yard and into the neighbor’s window she can see Blaine settling into his lazy boy for an evening of Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.  And she can see there is to be no more ‘dreaming in the dawnlight’ for her, there is to be no more ‘doing lovely things’. She can see the boxed oil paints in the basement. The stacks of sketchbooks. The letter from Miss Costigan at the Detroit Art Institute: “Laurel is an unusually talented illustrator. It would be the institute’s loss to see her leave.”

Laurel knows the Ford’s headlights will sweep the driveway when he pulls in. She shall see that from the kitchen window, steamed as it is. And he will come in, and stamp the snow from his feet on the linoleum floor, and ask “What’s for dinner?” And she will say “its right here, let me heat it up for you… how was your day, do you love me, do you love me, can you let me go?”

Stewart

Stewart is not worried about getting home in time for dinner. He knows when it is time to do business and when it is time to play house. Stewart watches Paul, Cookie and Jack as they drink and smoke and drink and reel off to the pisser, disappearing in the fog of cigarette smoke, elbowing their way past the crowd at the bar and then reappearing at the table. They are not his friends. They are customers. He knows how much his business and his family depend on them. He knows what pricks they can be. Demanding. Threatening. Disloyal. Powerful.  There is a purchase order in his pocket that absolves them for this.

Stewart loosens his tie. He listens to their stories. The stories he will tell Laurel. He edits and anthologizes. Stewart replaces ‘cocksucker’ with ‘bonehead’; ‘motherfucker’ becomes ‘jerk’; ‘cunt’, gal. Some are irredeemable. He considers the order in which he will tell them. Stewart will sit and eat re-heated meatloaf and tell her these stories. She will sit and listen, apron folded on her lap. Stewart will show her the purchase order he has received. He will not understand then that what he sees in her eyes is not adulation but hope given over to shattered wonderment at what she has become.

The little Formica four-top fills with empty brown longnecks and Stewart keeps buying rounds. Three Dutch and a Coke; three Dutch, three shots of Kessler’s and a Coke.  Three more shots of Kessler’s. Another round of Dutch. And a Coke. As the verbal violence and ambiguous laughter assaults his spirit, Stewart reaches into his suit coat pocket and touches the folded purchase order.

The waitress reaches over his shoulder to deliver shot glasses of Kessler’s, bottles of Old Dutch, and a Coke. Placing the Coke in front of him, she asks “What else do you need?”  Her breasts touch his back, and she stays there for a long moment. She doesn’t have what Stewart needs.

Stewart does not know that the crush of the waitress’s breasts against his back as she serves the drinks is one offer of fate. The purchase order in his pocket to supply Goods and Services for The Marblehead Quarry Operations in the amount of Thirty-eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-eight dollars, dated this 18th day of December, 1959 is a document of propitiation. The desperate fidelity that Stewart will leave the Sportsman Bar and Grill with and go home  is fate’s offer denied. The devotion of the two little girls who kissed him goodbye this morning is grace.

Stewart waits for a signal; waits to be guided from within as to the precise moment to leave.  He waits to shake on his overcoat and step into the falling snow. He reaches under the table and pushes his heavy wingtip shoes into their overshoe rubbers, snapping their back over the heel of his wingtips with a practiced pull.  He knows swirls of cigarette smoke following him out of the bar will mingle with the mist as warm air from the crowded bar hits the winter evening. He waits in satisfied anticipation of the fresh, cold air; of the long drive home through the indifferent night. The bawl of the jukebox and Cookie’s parting shots will fade as the door shuts. The snowy night will offer only silence at first as Stewart stands there on the sidewalk, smiling. A car will creep down the street and stop for the light at the corner. The illuminated sign above his head will creak as it swings in the winter wind, and send him home.

Every Bird Must Fly

How far is it to Cleveland if the gull has to walk and carry a broken wing?

Whatta buncha lousy godamm luck…whassamatta buddy you ain’t never seen an old grey gull with a godam broken wing? Twenty-eight miles to Cleveland as the bird flies? Hey! How far is it if the gull has to walk and carry a broken wing? Ha ha ha! That’s a good one.

Damn, this hurts! Ya know, when you break a wing bone, even a little one, it really hurts! The street is really hot on my feet. Hey! There’s Gus …yeah Gus. Hey! Hey, Gus!

I’m fucked up, man. I’m about outa my fuckin’ mind here. Gotta get to somewhere cool. Can you believe I broke my wing like this? Just trying to unload one on a couple tourists. Hit that freakin’ guy wire. What? What? The bridge is about to close? So that’s why there’s no traffic on this side. I didn’t realize I was on the road until just now. Shit.

Oh man. The bridge is going down. Here comes the traffic. Forward or back? Back, yeah back. OK Gus I hear ya! I’m cool.  Shit. Damn wing. Can’t fly. Shit.

Hey buddy! Slow down! I’m walkin’ here! What the fuck? Hit? I’m fuckin’ hit? He hit me! Godammit! Godammit! They finally killed me. What’s fuckin’ next?

The Colt (Part 1)

I’m in the back seat with everything I own. Not that I have that much. I am bringing my canteen though, and I wore my cowboy boots. I have packed myself and all my stuff in the Nash. I couldn’t put any of it in the trunk; that’s where my Grandmother’s dogs ride. I believe I will be here for a spell. For now I just sit here waiting to go; sweating, and wishing I could smoke a cigarette.

The back seat splits in two and each half folds down and you can crawl right into the trunk if you want or out of the trunk if you want. If it wasn’t for me in half of the back seat, my Grandfather could recline his drivers seat all the way back and sleep there, right in the car every night. If it wasn’t for the dogs, so could my Grandmother.

That’s what’s special about the Nash. What’s special about me is I’m always in trouble. For standing up for my rights. For protecting my Mom from her husband. For telling the truth about falling in love with an older woman. It’s what got me here in the backseat. If Ellen was 16 and I was 18, instead of the other way around like it is, then I guess you could say I deserved it. Mom’s looking at me from the porch with that sad “why can’t you behave” look.

Behaving to her is me letting a bastard like Edgar run my life. Behaving to her is letting him smack her around for having too much lipstick on or for telling the TV repair guy he could come over in the afternoon and look the old TV that doesn’t work. The next time after that when he came for her, I laid him out.

Edgar leans in the front window looks back at me and says “Son, you will have to learn that in this life that there are consequences for your behaviors. To live under my roof you have to play by my rules.”

I am not his son. But he is my Mom’s husband and I guess she loves him more than me, even with his hollering and slapping. Because they have decided that I ride with my Grandparents all the way from Stockton to Pierre South Dakota in the back seat of the Nash, and be left there with my Grandfather’s brother and his family “for a season or two”. They say they have a ranch, but it sounds a lot more like a farm to me.

Now I am lying on my back across my half of the back seat and play fighting with Riley. He is pulling on an old rag and growling. Tippy is looking out from the trunk trying to decide if she should join the action.

“Dean can’t you be still, boy!” my Grandmother says.

The back windows of the Nash do not roll up or down; they open a little bit at the back with a kind of snap is all. We are having a good time. Riley is pulling so hard that I have to brace my feet against the window and the snap opens. I see my Grandfather’s eyes in the rear view.

“Get your boots off the window, boy.” he says from behind the wheel. Then he says, “Like havin’ a goddam colt in the back seat.” He thought I couldn’t hear that but I could.

I might have told him that being a colt was better than being a worn out old bull, but I didn’t. He worked thirty years for the Railway Postal Service after he hurt his back busting broncs and riding rodeo while his brother worked their farm outside Pierre.

One time he told me, “Orville got the ranch and I got a pension.”

He also got a .45 ACP Colt 1911 from the RPS that he keeps in a holster in the glove box of the Nash. He doesn’t think I know about that, but I do.

I sit up and lean on the back of the front seat close to my Grandmother. She is slicing a yellow apple with a little wooden handled knife. I let her put a piece in my teeth. She smells like lilacs. I think she is at least fifty but still kind of pretty. Her hair is pulled up and I can see her sweat in the creases on the back of her neck. I want to wipe her neck off with the rag Riley and I were playing with but I realize she would not cotton to that.

“Open your window more if you’re hot, Gramma.” I say.

“Oh, I’m fine Dean.” She says.

Then, “There’ll be lots of girls your age there. They have dances on Saturdays.”

Like I care about dances, I might have said. I’m being sent away from the most beautiful women ever and you think that squaring up with some heifers at an American Legion hall dance will make it better?

“Will they be pretty as you, Gramma?” I say.

A truck in front of us slows down to 30 as we go around a curve.

“Son of a bitch.” my Grandfather says.

Going up the Sierras toward Tahoe, the Nash keeps overheating. My Grandfather says that we get the other side of Tahoe, it’s all downhill to Carson. We’ll have to worry about the brakes then. But for now we have to pull over every hour or so, let her cool off, and top off the radiator. We got a little routine down. My Grandfather hollers at me “Water Boy!”, and I holler back “Right, Pops!”

I push the latch on the back of his seat and roll out his door to get the jerry can of water off the back bumper while he goes to the front of the Nash and opens the hood. It’s like a drill; a game with us.

Taking a rag in his hand, he’ll slowly open the radiator cap to release the pressure. I’ll hand him the tin funnel and he’ll nod at me to pick up the 6 gallon jerry can and pour the water in.

“How much water we got left, boy?”

“About half, Pops.”

We’re at a little roadside rest stop. My Grandmother is sitting in the shade at a beat up old picnic table with the dogs at her knees. She is feeding them little chunks of milk bone. She is always feeding something or somebody. There is a well head with an iron hand pump a couple yards from the table.

“Better get us some more water, boy. We can’t be without water. You remember that. Being without water out here can get a man in real trouble, real quick.”

“Right, Pops.”

On the way to the pump I reach in the back seat to get my canteen and head over to the shade with that and the jerry can. The mouth of the jerry can is nice and wide, so I set it under the spigot of the pump and start working the handle. It’s squeaking and making sucking noises but nothing is happening.

My Grandmother looks over. “You’ve got to prime it Darlin’. You’ve got to pour some water in the top first, just there; that’s right.”

I pour water from my canteen in the hole at the top of the pump and start working the handle. It spits out rusty red water and reminds me of what Edgar looked like after I took him to school; then it begins to gush out clear as it pulls through the head. It is too much flow to go right into the jerry can and it splashes all over. At first I worry that I’m wasting water. I look over at my Grandfather. He is on the passenger side of the Nash now, doing something with the battery, it looks like. Probably checking the cables. Just making sure everything is OK. He looks up from under the hood when he hears the squeaking of the pump handle and now he sees that I am getting good water. He waves his approval with the back of his hand, like ‘carry on’.

I’m lugging the full jerry can back to the Nash when I see them. Three guys in an old pickup truck with Nevada plates go past down grade real slow and look us over. I wave with my free hand, but none of them wave back. My Grandfather is still under the hood and I don’t know if he’s seen them or not. I’m about 50 feet from the Nash when I see them coming back and turn in to the gravel cut where we are. The driver stops and the other two guys get out. They are a raggedy-ass looking pair; not like the cowboy types we saw around at the fuel stop. One of them takes something out of the bed of the pickup and holds it behind his back. The other one, a skinny, mean looking guy with a brown hat mashed low over his eyes has got a tire iron. They start walking toward my Grandfather; the pickup creeping slowly behind them, tires crunching on the gravel as they roll up on the Nash. It takes me a couple seconds to realize that they do not mean us well.

I drop the jerry can and holler “Pops!” I did not think he saw them, but he did. In one move he reaches in the open passenger window and pulls the 1911 out of the glove box.

“Far enough, boys!” He has pulled back the slide, cocked the gun, chambered a round, and is holding it steady on them over the passenger door, before I can get three steps. “Drop the toys!” he hollers at them. Then to me, “Go pick that stuff up Dean.”

The bigger of the two starts to head toward me. The 1911 barks and a round kicks up dirt and gravel at his feet. An empty shell casing pings off the hood of the Nash. The skinny guy has already dropped his tire iron and now the big guy drops what I can see is a baseball bat. Grinding gears from reverse to first the driver is trying to turn around. Skinny is in the cab just quicker than hell. The other guy? What is all of a sudden about 250 pounds of chicken shit is trying to get about and into the bed of the moving truck. He grabs the side and tries to jump over into the bed but the truck fishtails in the gravel. How he hangs on is a miracle, but I guess the thought of the next round from that 1911 going up into his big ass gives him what he needs and he finally makes it, landing on a roll of barbwire coiled up in the back of the truck. The old truck disappears down the highway and around a curve. I never hear it come out of first gear.

“You OK, boy?” my Grandfather asks.

“Yeah, Pops.”

“Pick up the brass, Dean.” Then to my Grandmother, “Come on Shirl. We should get moving.”

She is already gathering up her sketchbooks and putting the pups in the trunk. Riley jumps right in but Tip can’t jump, she is so old.

“I got her Gramma.” I say. I’m holding the still warm shell casing in one hand and hand it to my Grandfather. He puts it with a dozen others in a cigar box that was under his seat, to reload. Tippy whines a little bit when I scoop her up and put her in the trunk.

Edgar hated dogs. Especially old dogs like Tippy. He would never say anything when my grandparents were around, but before they would come to visit he would bitch at Mom something awful.

“Them goddam dogs ain’t coming in the house. You make sure they stay out of my way, Marie. I am not shitting you one little bit. I will beat the living shit out of either one of them if they get in my way.”

Mom would come up to him and shush shush him, putting her finger on his stupid looking trout lips; looking up at him like he was just a big baby who needed a little comforting. I will never understand why she just didn’t tell him, “Those dogs have been in the family longer than you, Edgar Johnson. You will not touch them.” But I suppose if she wouldn’t tell him that for me she sure as hell wouldn’t stick up for the dogs.

We never seen the guys in the pick-up again. When we made grade and were rolling downhill I pulled out some postcards I had bought in Placerville. I wanted to write one to my Mom and one to Ellen, but mostly Ellen. I wanted to explain to her why I left her the way I did, and ask her to keep an eye on Mom. I knew anything I wrote to Mom, Edgar would read. I picked one for Ellen that had a cowboy on a white horse with a big brand on its flank. He was leading a mule with gear on behind him and the card said “Cowboy Looking for a Job”. I thought it might have reminded Ellen a little of me. We used to talk about how if I could find a job this summer, I could quit school, being sixteen now and we could elope and be together. No need for a fancy wedding or anything.

Mom and Edgar sure didn’t have one. Him and Mom just showed up one day after a trip to Vegas. Mom gave me a picture of them in a cardboard folder. He was in a tie and Mom had her real pretty blue dress on and a big flower pinned to it. She looked real happy. He looked like his regular dumb ass self.

“Honey, we’re man and wife now; me and Edgar.” She said.

“Yep. Justice of the peace.” Edgar stood there looking at me like, what are you gonna do about that now, Sonnywax?

It took me a minute to understand what they were telling me. I had just come back from Ellen’s house. We had spent the afternoon watching TV and making out. I had a serious case of blue balls and was thinking of jerking off. You might say I was not in the mood for an announcement like that.

“You’re married?” I said.

“That’s what ‘man and wife’ means, Dean. Look it up. Man and wife. Wife and man. The twain shall become as one.” Getting all Biblical and shit on me.

He held up Moms left hand and waved it in my face, like he was giving me the finger. She had on about the skinniest gold ring I had ever seen.

“Isn’t it pretty?” my Mom said.

I sat there in the Nash for the longest time with that postcard in my lap and a stubby little pencil in my fingers. Between bumps in the road I wrote “Dear Ellen. Will write more later. We are almost to Carson City. My Grandfather shot at two bandits today. Would you please tell my Mom I am OK. I still love you. Dean.”

I was going to say “with all my heart”, but I don’t believe I do.

“Dean, darlin’. Who are you writing that card to?”

My Grandmother has turned around to check on the dogs who have made their entrance into the back seat from the trunk. She is feeding Tippy the little in-between sections of a navel orange she has peeled.

“Mom, Gramma.” I say.

“Liar.”, I hear in my head. I do not think of myself as a liar, but I just told one. And that’s what liars do.

The week before we left for Pierre, I nearly added murder to my sins. I thought I killed my stepfather. He was lying on the kitchen floor just twitching a little bit and his left arm was flopping back and forth like he was trying to pull something off his nose, which I was pretty sure I broke. Uncle Mark, my real dad’s brother had been in the US Army over in Germany. He killed a German soldier he surprised one day who was just sitting around eating lunch. The story goes that Uncle Mark came up on him and said the only German words he knew, “Mach Schnell” or something like that, the German soldier went for his pistol and Uncle Mark shot him twice in the chest with his Garand. He still has that guy’s helmet. It has “Wolf” scratched inside the back neck protector that the Kraut helmets had. He told me the way you can tell that a guy is dead is if he is twitching. Wounded guys just lay there real still. But I guess he was wrong about that because pretty soon Edgar started to moan and swear.

“Goddam you Dean. Youdun it dis time. You definadly craught the line. You will regret dis til da day you die.”

As he talked bubbles of blood and snot were coming out of his nose, and I could taste the blood in my own mouth where he had caught me with a windmill just as he was going down. I know it was pretty much dumb luck that I connected that hard with a good left
jab after Edgar took his first swing at me. I’m really not much of a fighter, but after Gary Schneider kicked my ass on the last day of my freshman year I pretty much decided that
wasn’t going to happen again. I did study up on it some. Edgar was on his elbow, trying to get up. My Mom heard us crashing around and came running in.

“Edgar! Dean, what have you done! Daddy! Mother! Oh, Edgar!”

It was like she didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. Finally she went to the fridge and cracked open a tray of ice cubes and wrapped a dish towel around them. I just stood there to make sure that Edgar didn’t have any more fight left in him, which he didn’t.

By now the whole family was there. My grandmother was already wiping up the blood spatters on the floor and the kitchen cabinets. Mom knelt down next to Edgar and was holding the ice on his nose, saying “Oh my baby, my poor baby.”

“Looks like a murder happened here. My Lord.” was all my Grandmother said.

My Grandfather was standing in the door, just looking things over. With two fingers on his right hand he motioned for me to come over to him. I did.

“I think a strategic retreat is in order here, boy. Make yourself scarce.”

“Right, Pops.” I said.

I knew what he meant, but just the same I kind of resented it. Ever since Edgar moved in with us and especially since my Mom married him, I’ve been getting scarcer and scarcer. I had told my Grandfather about the time Edgar slapped Mom and how he hollered at her all the time. About what he said at the table the night of their first anniversary.

My Mom had made a cake and cooked a meatloaf. As she was cutting the cake, Edgar held up a glass of beer and said “Here’s to one year of marriage and two years of great sex.” That just isn’t something you say in front of your wife’s son. The thought made my stomach turn.

“It’s none of our business, boy. Your Mom has got a good head on her shoulders. She’s just a little love struck right now. She’ll straighten him out.” is all he said. But I told Edgar that if he ever touched my Mother again or said a mean word to her, I’d whip his ass or die trying. He just laughed at me, but he’s laughing out of the other side of his face now.

I didn’t know it then, as I walked over to Ellen’s house, but pretty soon I would be so scarce it would be like I never existed in her life at all. Now who would have thought that would be possible? I saw pictures in my science book last year of the night sky that there were just rivers of stars in and Mr. Delamater said that each of those little pinpoints of light were whole galaxies. So I guess if that’s possible, anything is.

Proper Preparation

I know I was a fuck off in school. I got no problem admitting that. All I cared about was getting high and getting girls, and it was kind of shocking to me when I got out most of my friends either went to college or got drafted and here I still was, in town and thanks to a high lottery number, not at Da Nang Tech. 

Only thing left to do was get a job. Buying gas one day at JB’s Gulf, Auto Repair & Towing I saw “Help Wanted” in the window and pretty soon I was pumping gas and changing oil for old Jim Brandenburg. I was a fuck off there too, and one day after I forgot to put the oil back in the crankcase and the customer’s engine seized up, old Jim came to me and said “Dean you can stay and work this off and I’ll teach you how to be a real mechanic, or you can get the fuck out right now.”

For eight years me and Jim worked ass crack to elbow in that little two bay gas station. There was nothing you could put a wrench on that him and me couldn’t fix. I was there every day at 6 AM and did everything he told me to do. If I come up on something that seemed like it was impossible to do, he would stop what he was doing and come over, wiping his hands on a shop towel and say, “Well, what would you do here if you did know what to do?” Just do the next right thing, that was Jim’s motto. I’ve tried to live by those words ever since.

When he died he left me all his tools. After the funeral, a company suit came into the station and told me that Gulf was going to make our station a ‘pump it yourself’ place with no service bays. I could stay on and maybe work my way to manager but I said no, I’m a mechanic, not a peanut and cigarette salesman.

For two years I bounced around and took whatever work I could find. I was working five eights for Brown and Root as a maintenance mechanic in Pensacola and 10 to 2 AM as a bouncer at a bar in when I met Char. We were married in two weeks. We talked about having kids. At the time there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to be with her until the end of time. There’s times now when I wish her legs would grow together.

When things started to go south for us I decided to take the next job that got us out of town. That ended up being out here in bum-fuck North Dakota. Frack city.

It is unbe-fuckin-lievable how things run around here. Do they think vehicles just fix themselves? I tell them you don’t know what you got until you get into it and they’ll just stare at the axle or the trannie, like, ‘bwoop-bwoop’ – something is supposed to go from their head into the gear case, take out the planetaries, lube them and reset. They don’t know a sun gear from a ring gear.

Management? In their own little world. Not a clue as to what it takes to get a vehicle back on the road. I walk by Marty’s office and for no real reason he calls me in.

“Ready for the battle today, Tiger? You prepared?”

I’m here on time everyday. I have my own tools. All of them. I’m prepared. It’s not like I’m trying to do everything with a fire wrench and a multi-tool like Goose. It’s like I told him the other day, showing him my tool box; you think a set of sockets and open ends like that just grow on trees? Hell no. All Matco drop forged made in the USA. The 5 ‘P’s”, dude. Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. You got to prepare for every eventuality, because this shit is real. Try to use a 1 inch socket when you really need a 25 millimeter socket and you don’t have one?  You’ll see how fast lack of preparation bites you in the ass.

Danny is always asking me “Dean, what is your goal for eliminating vehicular downtime this quarter? What kind of plan do you got for achieving that goal?”

Planning. That’s what I need. Planning and a goal.

With a plan I’ll know what I’m doing everyday. Right now I’m like a cat trying to cover shit on a marble floor. Sixteen trucks. Four mechanics, if you count Goose. Fucking Goose. He’s more of a parts changer. Saw him trying to wrench out an inch and a quarter boss plug the other day. He was about to put the fire wrench on it when I came by. I could not believe he was using an adjustable wrench. I put a box on it and torqued that bitch out. I told him bring your arms to work tomorrow, Goose. Leave your old lady’s at home.

A goal is like what you do in football; it’s a target, something you shoot at. So no problem. I’m shooting at totally eliminating vehicular downtime this quarter, dude. Keep all those g-wagons and vactors running every day. 100 per cent satisfaction, Danny. You like me now?

 Just the same, you can make your plans but you can’t really plan on the outcome. I never have been able to figure why some things seem to work out the way they do. Like when Char was taking those ‘modeling’ classes. She had big plans. New York City. Then one day I found a video tape she had brought home and thought it was some of our vacation stuff. Popped it in the old VHS. There she was, fucking some guy with her shoes on. Bunch of other people without their clothes on; all in knots. Don’t work for me. I thought I had a wife but I had a whore.

I got back in the shop just in time to see Goose getting ready to fire up the wire welder. I said, Goose! Did you change the wire? I was doing stainless this morning. Real smug like he hollers back, yes I did Dean, drawing out my name like “Dee-anne”.

Well you gotta change the gas too, dumb-ass, I told him.

He was gonna weld regular steel with tri-mix gas. What a loser.