Even for us it was a pitiful gathering. Jerry was drunk. Mama confused. Ellen all but numb. And I, well, I stood bewildered because Jesse, the reason we were there, lay in a cheap pine box about to be lowered to the bottom of his grave.
The pitch-black richness of the soil at Benson Lawns gave away easily to the gravedigger’s shovels, the smooth cut of the blades never hitting a pebble when I watched them work earlier in the day. When Blake Benson decided to use this hill for a town cemetery he wasted the finest farmland in the county.
Reverend Glass waited nervously after reciting his little prayer – the same one he always recited before he looked skyward and asked some unknown power why – growing more fidgety with each moment of awkward silence. By the time I counted twenty bulbous sweat beads shining on his heavy brow I waved him away. His presence was ridiculous anyway. My family didn’t attend church, except an occasional Christmas Eve, when we ran out of booze at home and think there might be wine at communion. The color returned to his round cheeks as he shot me a smile of relief and waddled down the hill. No one else noticed his departure and probably didn’t even notice his attendance.
It was too nice of a day for a funeral. A refreshing breeze softly caressed a glazed blue sky. Not one cloud. Not much of a surprise though. When Dad was buried, rain sprinkled lightly as we arrived at the gravesite before the sun soon split the clouds and cascaded down upon the whole graveyard forming a majestic double rainbow over the crest of the hill. When Billy was buried, the temperature climbed above sixty and it was January. That doesn’t happen often in Michigan. Those who toil fruitlessly on earth just might have a chance after death.
Jerry let a belch escape, but I was the only one who noticed. Since he had a habit of belching out loud, often a baritone rumble from the depths of his gargantuan stomach, the fact it was a minor chirp showed his attempt at restraint. The blue veins on his nose reached recklessly over his cheeks – roadmaps of avenues to avoid. His frayed blue blazer allowed his bare, fleshy elbows to peek out, and with no chance in hell to button it, it appeared as though he stole it from some poor child. I remembered when it fit. Others may think it unforgivable – belching over his son’s grave – but if Jesse heard it, he would shrug it off. He was that kind of a kid. His family could do no wrong. His loyalty was so overwhelming it was like a cancer – and when loyalty isn’t returned it can kill you. Perceived deception turned out to be a bullet.
Leaning on Ellen, Jerry’s meaty hand gripped her strapless shoulder, more in an attempt to remain steady than offering any kind of support and condolence, though she was so accustomed to it, she hardly noticed as she stared awestruck at the coffin. It held her one and only child.
I took Mama’s trembling hand, which startled her. Confused because she wasn’t positive of my identity and opened her chapped lips to speak, but paused as a sudden wave of recognition swept over her addled mind. With a slight hesitation she sighed, “Its Jesse isn’t it?” A sob grabbed her throat.
The gravel of the parking lot scraped as we shuffled to the car, her weight cumbersome as I balanced her, gripping her wide waist, which was pliable as a feather pillow.
Jerry and Ellen, heads lowered in shock and silent confusion – locked inside their own heads thinking God knows what – stood awkwardly over the hole. What do you feel or think when your only child dies?
The rusted car door screamed as I yanked it open and guided her into the front seat like plopping a bag of flour down. Her dress rode high up her clumpy thighs, revealing the dark bands of her knee-high stockings and fields of jiggling cellulite.
“I told him not to enlist,” she muttered, shoulders flopping forward, her profile suddenly hidden by the greasy gray locks that hung like a frayed curtain.
Her curtain of confusion, as Ellen had begun calling it, just shut again. She referred to Billy who was killed in Viet Nam.
“I know Mama.” Better to let her think it was Billy, because somewhere in her deteriorating mind, it was an accepted truth and couldn’t cause her any more pain than it already had.
Frowning, lifting her right eyebrow. “Why did we come up here today? Is it Veteran’s Day?”
I nodded as I forced the door shut, the metal upon metal whining across the cemetery, while keeping an eye on Jerry and Ellen as I slinked around and slid into the driver’s seat.
“Let’s get you home.” The engine cranked, its lack of rings allowing the pistons to clang loud enough to wake the graveyard.
Jerry stared down at us with a combination of distraction and irritation.
The gravel crunched and flew from the tires into a metal trashcan; resounding like gunshots as we slowly lurched onto Oak Street, allowing myself one more glance over my shoulder. Ellen knelt over, gazing into the grave, while Jerry stumbled down the hill.
The tiny houses along Oak Street, each exhausted examples of the newfound poverty of Bensonville – once well kept points of pride, before The Tool Works closed up shop. Shaggy lawns where bald dirt spots didn’t wink, house paint peeling like bacon strips off the sides, hid behind bordering sidewalks that were cracked.
The hulking silent brick building stood at the edge of town – an eerie monster hovering like a giant mausoleum, once the workplace of 80 percent of the town – a haunting symbol of poverty and heartbreak.
Past Mazzoccoli’s Pizza and the old high school sat the so called better part of town, populated with two story homes, some brick, and some stone – homes of the former managers and supervisors of the Tool Works.
I once tried to escape town and the family, but they keep pulling me back like some monstrous magnet. I was back for good, tending bar in town – which was like diving into the cancerous tumor to make sure it continues to grow.
Our own driveway is cracked and crumbling to dust. “This is a sign of wealth,” Dad said when he stopped me from etching my initials in the newly poured cement when I was nine. “So don’t muck up our symbol of wealth.”
Spaghetti probably shouldn’t be served after a funeral, but since it was only the two of us, and Jesse was a fan of it, I got the water boiling and cracked the top of a Ragu jar. Removing that jar left the cupboard totally bare.
Mama collapsed into Dad’s chair – which she inherited after he died. The blank stare focused on nothing and I wondered what decade she was in at that moment. Rolls of faded fabric excruciatingly stretched over her tumorous stomach. “Do ya think Ernie Banks will win the MVP?” The late fifties was her decade of choice while I fixed spaghetti. I figured I was Dad because they were both huge Cubs fans and spent hours speculating about Ernie, because he was the only one worth watching in those days.
Slicing the Italian bread, I realized I should probably bypass this part of the meal or at least add a salad, but since Jesse was the only one who ate salad, I took the path of least resistance and opened a beer.
“Where’s mine?” Jerry asked, bursting through the front door and I handed him mine since I hadn’t even taken a swig. His meaty hand engulfed it and he tossed his head back – noisily slurping until it was empty. He gazed at its emptiness sadly, his eyes brimming with tears – but instead of breaking into an outright flood, shrugged and walked to the refrigerator for another. We did have beer.
Beer was his sustenance, had been since I met him. His reason for living when he worked at the Tool Works, and even more so when he lost that job, and without Jesse, I was sure it would be his only way to cope.
A red tie, stained with an accumulation of all the food he’d eaten at special occasions – steak juice from Ryan’s Steakhouse after Jesse’s high school graduation, when he was valedictorian, chili from the truck stop on I-94 after Dad’s funeral, mustard from Joe’s Hot Dogs after Billy’s funeral – since it was his only tie, reaching to mid-belly and not because he didn’t know better – I told him each time the tip of the tie is to meet the belt, but the circumference of his thick neck coupled with the monstrosity of his belly made it impossible. Each occasion it crept closer to his throat. The dark sweat circles under his armpits approached his belt, and before opening the second beer he swiped his arm across his glistening forehead, to no avail because, by the time he sat down across from me perspiration was puddling into a lake on his heavy brow.
I took a sip and searched his wide face for the emotions he must have felt – the pain that must be ripping him apart, but found nothing but blank stare intent on his next beer.
I wanted to say how amazingly painful this whole thing was, crushing because as I thought of existence without Jesse I contracted – all vessels shut down and the blurriness choked me. The large lug sweating in the undersize chair in front of me wasn’t going to provide any answers.
What is worse, the lug wasn’t even looking for answers.
“Where is Ellen?”
The question lingered unanswered in the space between us, and as I was about to ask again, he snapped out of it, jerking his head off his chest, and focusing on me for the first time since he received his beer.
“Work. Had to go to work at the Inn.”
I winced at the thought, until I looked over at Mama, snoring, and then back at Jerry. She was better off at work.
Jerry married a pregnant Ellen when I was ten. They were both sixteen and because of it, neither graduated from high school. He joined his father and mine at the Tool Works, which would have happened anyway after graduation, so it really made little difference in the direction his life took.
While Benson Tool Works flourished, their marriage remained unspectacular, but solvent. It wasn’t unlike my parent’s marriage. Jerry joined Dad and his own father at the Elm Street Tavern each night after work. They’d each consume a few beers before heading home to meet the spouses, who could have cared less if they did or didn’t, as long as the paychecks showed up.
Ellen and Jerry moved into her childhood bedroom. She was too immature to raise Jesse on her own and needed help at every turn. Mama didn’t mind. And I certainly didn’t mind having them around because Jesse was like a brother to me.
There was always something strangely special about him, even as a baby. Coming from Ellen and Jerry who were mediocre students at best, it was more than odd, and we sat in awe of him as he passed the rest of us in all phases of development as a young child.
At the age of four he was tackling books, which made him a point of reference in the family. We suddenly had our own library. I used to tease Ellen that at that age he was already smarter than she was, but she never seemed to mind, nor did she seem surprised.
“Ellen, it’s a damn miracle! All I can say,” Mama gasped, hugging him as though she was concerned someone would steal him away because we might be an unfit family for such a genius. And let’s face it, we probably were. We certainly weren’t going to add anything positive to his cerebral growth. The love his parents provided was average at best, because struggling to climb out of bed, survive the day and get back to bed, was a challenge for both of them.
“There’s a letter in here from Mr. Baker,” Jesse announced one October afternoon as he yanked off his hand-me-down coat, one of my old ones, and dug deep into his book bag, producing a wrinkled manila envelope. He was in the second grade.
Ellen took it and slung it on the kitchen table as though it was poison. Frowning, and shaking as she lit a cigarette, she looked at me with a shrug. The fear in her eyes was familiar; it wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed it, but its source had always been a mystery to me.
I laughed. “Afraid he’s been expelled? Remember this is Jesse not Billy, or even me for that matter.”
“But, a letter from the principal?”
I walked over and picked it up, sliding my fingers under the metal clip. “I’ll read it and if its ugly news I’ll take care of it and you’ll never have to know.”
“Okay.” She was serious.
“Come on!” I cried in disbelief. “I’m kidding.”
She was befuddled, unable to grasp the concept that all correspondence from school or work, for that matter, wasn’t negative.
I quickly scanned the letter, written on official school stationary, and began beaming. Nervous to the point of paralysis, she missed my reaction. I quoted, “‘Jesse is such a high performing student, we feel our second grade curriculum does not provide enough of a challenge for him and suggest we move him into third grade immediately so he doesn’t lose interest in his studies.’ How is that for bad news?”
Her expression was still frozen in an anxious pout as she dragged hard on her cigarette.
I remained quiet as I folded the letter and neatly placed it back into the envelope.
“We’re saving for his college,” she finally sighed. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to save enough, but having him graduate high school that much sooner won’t help the cause.”
Ellen and her family never moved out of the house. It wasn’t Jerry’s fault, because he always harped about moving into another house, but Ellen wouldn’t hear of it. She had no desire to grow up. She remained the same girl I remembered on our trip to Florida before she and Jerry were married. The one and only family vacation we ever took froze her in time.
After two long days and a night on the road we arrived at a worn Holiday Inn in Naples, which happened to be clear across the state from our destination of Ft. Lauderdale. Dad took a wrong highway.
“When the hell did that happen?” His frustrated gargling accompanied by multiple swift smacks of his fist on the steering wheel woke me out of a deep slumber.
In my confused state, rows of streetlights staggered by as he navigated the local streets. Mama fretfully flipped the map to no avail. If she had told him about the turn he would have ignored her. He was the only one that knew the correct path.
It was still afternoon, but from all the grumbling I figured he was too tired to take a left and head to the east coast of Florida that night.
“Thirty more damn dollars!” Another hollow spank of the steering wheel.
That finally stirred Ellen, who had been curled in the corner and was now stretching and yawning, totally clueless as to what was happening.
“For another five dollars we can rent you a cot,” the desk clerk at the Holiday Inn offered as he surveyed our motley group.
I winced, waiting for the bright red colors in Dad’s cheeks to explode in a tirade of vulgarities, but Mama grabbed his bicep and squeezed. After exhaling loudly, he shook his head and sighed. “No. We’ll be fine.”
We lugged two suitcases into a room with two double beds decorated in a cacophony of green, orange and yellow to which Mama commented, “This is the kind of color scheme we should have at home Danny.”
He ignored her and flopped onto the first bed, laying his right arm across his forehead, letting out an abysmally frustrated whistle. “You’re gonna have to pay more attention to the roads, damn it! I’ve got enough responsibility trying to drive safely midst all those damn trucks.”
“I will,” she promised as she motioned Ellen and me out of the room. Our presence only made things worse. “I’ll get the beer,” Mama offered as she followed us outside.
Ellen took a left while I followed Mama to the car, shadowing her until she went back inside with a six-pack she pulled from the cooler. “Wish me luck!” she called with a wave.
I romped in the tropical heat, imagining I was with Billy in the jungles of Viet Nam. Crawling on my stomach through the intense colors of the flowerbeds that surrounded the cement siding of the hotel, I rounded a corner and spied Ellen sitting on the edge of the pool. Her legs dangling in the water, her thoughts far removed, she cut a sharp thin silhouette in the glow of the sinking sun. Her black hair reached the pool deck as she lifted her face into the rays. Then gazing into the water, so entranced by the flickering light on the pool’s surface she was startled by the appearance of a tall shirtless blonde boy. He stood silently over her a few moments, and I crawled to the closest edge of the garden to watch incognito. He wore a confused expression.
“Are you awake?” he finally chuckled. From my vantage point I saw just how tall he was, long tan legs extending from a pair of short white tennis shorts. Sharply toned muscles spread across his bronze chest.
She jumped – her spastic gyrations almost making me burst out in laughter. Self consciously adjusting her T-shirt and messing with her hair as she stood up, she was shocked by his height. She barely reached his shoulders. Flipping her black mane, which brushed her buttocks she explained, “I was in a daze.” She looked around. “Are you alone?”
He was obviously in a hurry, hardly listening at all as he searched the pool area curiously. “You doing anything now?”
I thought it was a stupid question, but she smiled with a blush as she turned and stared shyly at the water. “Nope.”
“Good. I’ve got a friend who needs a date. We have a party going in Room 122…”
She hesitated, glancing back at our room. From the flush in her cheeks and the baffled expression, I knew she was trying to appear calm while weighing the risk of joining him. I already knew her decision, and understood this was her attempt to alleviate guilt. I’d seen it done many times at home.
The youngest of three children I matured faster than either of the other two because I learned from their mistakes and could compile a bucketful of knowledge for my later years. I had the best of both worlds, witnessing their trials from the immune bubble of youth – while being entertained by their antics.
“You’re welcome to join us,” he continued, though he was walking away.
“Okay,” she finally acquiesced and skipped quickly to catch up to him.
Since I knew the room number I took my time to make sure I wasn’t noticed, dashing past the pool to the corner of the building where I caught them disappearing inside Room 122. It faced a parking lot that backed onto a swamp. Crickets buzzed in the oppressive dusk. I crouched over and dashed into bushes outside their window.
“Ber! I found you a friend…”
The blonde pulled the curtain across the window, but left it open a crack and the sliding window was also open. Not wanting to give away my position, I stayed low and just listened.
“So you did, Joe.” He had a rumbling voice.
“Ber?” Ellen commented, confused by the name.
“I’ve never heard it before.”
From the proximity of their voices I figured they were either still by the door, or had moved next to the window, closer to me.
“And you are?”
“A beer, Ellen?”
She hesitated before saying, “Sure.”
“Joe, throw us a couple of beers, will ya.”
Joe mumbled something unintelligible followed by sharp giggles coming from another girl.
I heard a bed squeak, and then Ellen gasped loudly.
“Let’s turn on the T.V., so we don’t have to hear each other,” a third girl suggested.
My curiosity was overpowering and I lifted up so my nose rested on the brick windowsill. The television’s gray light illuminated Joe, naked at the foot of the bed.
Ellen, just a few feet from the window, was gulping thirstily at a beer with her gaze intent on him.
The growing darkness made me more confident and I lifted higher. Both double beds were occupied. Joe stood by the farthest, the bedspread and sheets in a heap on the floor and a naked girl lay on her back spread-eagle, resting on her elbows, gazing at the television. I gulped hard and tried to manufacture some saliva. My stomach had crawled into my throat. In the closest bed was a gyrating, large lump hidden under the bedspread, muffled moans coming from beneath the covers.
“So, are you here on Spring break?” Ber asked, handing Ellen another beer. I’d never seen her ever take more than a sip from Dad’s bottle.
She was transfixed by Joe and his partner and had difficulty paying attention to Ber. His dark hair hung just above his shirtless shoulders.
“Yes,” she gulped.
Joe’s girl screamed with delight, a mixture of giggling and gurgling and I almost swallowed my tongue. They had crawled under the sheets.
“Patsy! Try and control yourself. You’ll wake the neighbors,” Ber laughed, as he led Ellen over to the chair right in front of my window. “Where do you go to school?” he asked as he sat her down and then kneeled in front of her.
I heard Ellen gasp. I held my breath. “Michigan?” She stiffened until he mentioned the name of his college. “Is there anymore beer?” she asked, hoping to change the subject.
A symphony of grunts, groans, giggles, sounds I’d never heard, mixed with the blend of squeaking mattresses while the moon rose over the swamp behind me, and the stars began to blink. I was paralyzed. Ellen had moved into a fantasyland, her utterances unintelligible, but obviously ones of joy between continuous declarations of her love for Ber.
The activities continued for close to an hour. I was a participant, my part the role of the voyeur – and was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to compare notes with Ellen because I couldn’t divulge my part. The gray glow of the television created shadows of the moving shapes.
“We’re going for a walk,” the girl from the first bed announced as she emerged from beneath the covers in a swim dress.
I dashed behind a parked car until they reached the pool then reestablished my position.
Ellen emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a bedspread.
Ber sat naked on the edge of the vacated bed.
She let out a scream when Joe jumped up and blocked her path. “How about switching?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but she stiffened and stepped away. Eyes growing wide in the gray glow, she whimpered, “Ber?” Her chin bounced nervously under an alarmed frown.
“Cool it, Joe,” Patsy warned.
He shrugged and walked to the bathroom. “Thought it was worth a try.”
Ellen dropped the bedspread and jumped into Ber’s arms. “I won’t ever leave you.” Her speech was slurred; reminding me of Dad’s when he came home from the tavern.
“Okay,” he chuckled, his tone one of amusement.
“Really,” she declared. “I’ll meet you and I can come back to your school. We can get married there.”
I couldn’t hear his response because of a loud banging on the second floor and the panicked appearance of the first couple scampering around the corner from the pool. I dropped to my belly in the bushes just in time to avoid discovery. Bursting back into the room they cried in unison, “Ellen!”
I lifted up. She scuffled about and covered up again with the bedspread.
“Are you with your parents?” asked the girl.
The banging above was growing closer.
“Uh huh…” Turning her head to the side, she nodded in quick spurts.
“Well, I think your mother is looking for you.”
With this I sat straight up and looked inside. She had dropped the bedspread and was racing around gathering her clothes.
“Calm down,” Ber chuckled as he slipped into a pair of jean cutoffs.
“I have to go right away.” She pulled her T-shirt over her head and bent in front of the mirror, clawing at her hair with her fingers.
“I’ll go with you and we can tell her we took a walk.”
I could tell from her hesitation she was deciding whether or not to come clean. “I’m sorry, I can’t take the chance.” Her lips quivered. “I’m only sixteen.”
Those words carried the power of a punch and he took a step back. He was speechless for a moment, a shocked expression on his face. “But Michigan?”
She moaned like a wounded animal and reached for him, but he sidestepped her and skipped to the door.
“I’ve got to get out of here.”
“Hold up, love,” Patsy sighed as she calmly crawled out of bed and slipped into a pair of red panties.
Ellen was stymied – hands reaching out to Ber, mouth wrenched in pain.
Ber shook his head. “In Florida to boot! Jail for sure.”
“No panic. Patsy will take care of it.” She slipped a flowered beach dress over her head. Short, a bit heavy in the hips, she had a pretty square face framed with thick, brown curls. “Come on, Ellen, Patsy’ll fix it up,” grabbing her hand.
Ellen slipped from her grasp and bounded across the room. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, Ber.”
Patsy’s involvement had calmed everyone and he whispered, “You just get back and make things okay with your parents.”
I was back behind the car when they emerged. Ellen wiped her tears with a Kleenex.
“You have to straighten up kid. You can’t let on or you’ll never see him again. Just let me do the talking.”
Mama had descended the outside stairs and ran into them at the pool.
“Ellen!” It was a cry of relief.
“Hi Mama.” Her voice was steady.
She grabbed her arms and peered into her face. “You been crying?”
“That’s what I was just saying, Mam,” Patsy laughed. “That’s the chlorine effect from the pool. She said she didn’t have a swimsuit, so I let her borrow one of mine. She explained you were probably sleeping and didn’t want to wake you. We just came from my room where we went to towel off. I gave her a beer to warm her up. Course she didn’t mention her age til she finished, so sorry about that.”
Mama wasn’t listening. She was so relieved, any excuse would have sufficed. “God! What a scare!
We woke up and both of you were missing.”
“Where’s Petey?” asked Ellen.
“He’s over in the parking lot playing.”
Oh well. I used it as my cue to appear, as if I was heading home anyway. “Hi guys.”
“I wish you’d remember to run a comb through your hair as soon as you get out of water. Look at the tangles!” Mama rambled as she touched Ellen’s hair. It was dry, of course, but Mama wasn’t looking for mysteries.
“Well, I’ll be going now,” Patsy announced. “It was nice meeting you all.”
Ellen watched with dismay as Patty turned the corner. I could relate to her feeling of loss – it was as though we’d been to an exciting movie, one we hated to see end. She tensed for a moment and I thought she would sprint after her.
The sound of the door clicking softly woke me. Her musty scent of beer and sex still lingered in the bed. Dad’s soft gurgling snores punched the steamy darkness. Mama’s shape loomed at the edge of the next bed and I wondered if she was awake.
Carefully setting a foot onto the floor, I waited. No reaction. I couldn’t blow it for Ellen. Certainly waiting would have been the safer choice, but this night had been mine too. The thin mattress moaned as I lifted. Dad cackled wetly. Mama remained still. Shutting the door carefully, I was determined to say goodbye to Ellen before she ran away with Ber.
The moon floated in frothy clouds, the light enough to spread my shadows across the lawn and bend normal objects into eerie shapes – the swing sets into a Walking Stick, the pool a glowing ice rink. The air was stifling and was so damp I could drink it. The salty scent of the Gulf filled it.
I made my way through the courtyard. The only sound was a lonely cricket calling out in search of a mate.
Slipping around the corner anxiously, I found Ellen curled into a ball at the door of Room 122. Only darkness appeared through the split in the curtain. I slinked into the parking lot and hid behind a car. The swamp was silver, reflecting the moon glow between the reeds. She reached over her head and knocked softly on the door. No one came. She wrapped her arms around raised legs and rocked and rocked, chin on her knees. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open, but she hummed softly.
I finally decided we had better return, since it was obvious Ber wasn’t going to take her with him.
“Ellen!” I whispered as I crept up.
“Ber?” The hope and excitement in her voice broke my heart.
“Huh?” She was confused, as though she’d been jostled from a dream.
“We have to get back before Mama wakes up.”
“To our room.”
She was still drunk. She shook her head fitfully. “Waiting for Ber.”
I sighed, “He’s not coming.”
She reached out and rubbed her palm over the door. “He’s inside.”
“Come on. Mama and Dad will kill us.”
Mentioning Dad had an affect and she slowly stood. After one last pining gaze at the door we left.
We never spoke of that night again until she got a job at the Holiday Inn on the southern outskirts of town.
Dad collapsed in the backyard while working in the garden. His beer belly was the size of two basketballs. The doctor warned him his heart wouldn’t support the weight. That plus the stress of The Tool Works lay offs proved a lethal combination. We buried him next to Billy on a beautiful spring day two years before the plant shut down permanently. The fifty workers still employed showed up, along with those that had retired or had already been laid off. I stood by Jesse.
“I thought he was indestructible,” Jesse whispered as we left the grave. Sixteen and already six feet tall, his deep blue eyes filled with tears and his bottom lip quivered. “That morning he was telling me I had to enroll in junior college once I graduated.” He gazed into the sky. “He looked fine.”
“That way you can get out of town. Bensonville is dying. Has been for years.”
“But it’s all I know…”
I nodded. “I’ve been out of town and really liked what I saw. You will too.”
“I can’t go now. I can get a job somewhere close. They need me.”
“What you really need is to go to school. You can’t waste your mind.”
Jerry accosted us, wrapping his arm around Jesse, more for balance than to exhibit love and solace. The stench of beer filled my nostrils and his red eyes drooled. “Nice service,” he stammered, stumbling forward, and skidding onto a knee, dragging both of us to the ground with him.
Jesse glanced at me once we were all standing again and said, “See what I mean.”
Jesse took a night clerk job at the Holiday Inn to help with the finances. He suggested the job of cleaning woman to Ellen when he saw it posted at the hotel. She grabbed at the chance.
Existing in a daze as he wandered between work and school, he caught a catnap when he could.
I approached him one afternoon. “You don’t need to do all this…”
He smiled sadly, eyes betraying the heavy responsibility he felt. “We’ve never had much money. They need my support in other ways. Dad is sick. Mama’s sick. And Mom can’t do it alone.”
As I stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room I felt his frustration and surrender as he walked slowly to his room. Even the furniture looked exhausted. Life beat up on my family and they lacked the strength to fight back. It wasn’t in our genes.
Ellen tipped the bottle back and swallowed a quarter of the beer before she spoke. Gray streaked her black hair as though someone had taken a paintbrush to it. Swollen knuckles, red and chafed from the first week of her cleaning job, were wrapped tightly around the bottle to steady the tremors. Her bloodshot eyes avoided mine, remaining fixed on the bottle. The black funeral dress had shiny worn areas and though it had been cleaned before the funeral, the wrinkles etched in from so much use stood out like scars.
We hadn’t had a chance to catch up since she started the new job. Two siblings who had just buried their father but had nothing much to say. “How is the new job?”
“Great. I was so relieved when Jesse got it for me.” She nodded at Jerry. “That ass is unemployable and I couldn’t let Jesse carry the load alone any longer.”
I nodded, sipping at my beer.
Lighting another cigarette, she continued. “I get home about six and fix dinner. Jesse goes over at 10:30 after an evening nap. Shift begins at 11:00. He is so damned run down.” Flicking her ash in a large round ashtray that had been on the kitchen table since I was a kid, she broke a half-smile. “Jesse keeps teasing me about how happy I am since I started.” She wore a wary smile, lips curling even though her brow was furrowed. “Work really has nothing to do with it.” She gulped the rest of the beer and sliding the chair noisily across the linoleum, retrieved another from the refrigerator. “Want one?”
I checked mine and shook my head.
“Remember Florida?” She pulled up her chair and picked the cigarette out of the ashtray.
I nodded. “Our only highlight reel.”
“The very first day on the job I found myself in Room 122.” Her cheeks flushed and she sniffled, and sniffled again. “Surreal.”
I drifted back as she spoke. The sweltering air surrounded me as each detail of the swamp returned.
The roar of the vacuum gliding over the carpet in Room 122, her consciousness cascaded into the clouds and the sawing songs of crickets filled the room as she turned to meet Ber emerging from the bathroom.
The glare from the widescreen color TV blurred to gray and the tacky air climbed over her naked skin.
His hands grasped her thin boyish hips and peered down into her eyes. He smiled easily.
“I knew you would come back to me,” she mumbled.
In one sweep of his muscular arms he lifted and carried her across the room to the king size bed.
The hunger, the uncontrollable emotion returned and for the first and second time in her life she raged relentlessly – losing herself in the beauty of the need and overwhelming satisfaction.
“Told ya, I’d be back,” he sighed as he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling.
“Waited. Never stopped waiting,” she whimpered as the salt of her tears rolled onto her lips. “I sat for hours…”
“As did I, but you were gone come morning.”
Jesse watched the shadows from outside the courtyard window. The movement in the dark room was obscured, but he recognized the sound of satisfaction and glee. Overhearing his mother and me earlier, he was curious and followed her when she went to work in Dad’s old Chevy. It was his inheritance. He went inside and slipped the room key quietly into the lock.
“I was prepared, am prepared to leave now forever with you.”
Jesse was shaken… He couldn’t make out another figure in the bed across the room. But it was Ellen’s voice.
“I was meant to be yours. I’ve never given up hope.”
With those words it seems all hope left for Jesse. Somehow all his loyalty which was his strongest trait – the trait he was most proud of suddenly exploded. It had been a myth and without this foundation he was shaken and questioned everything he believed. And instead of walking in and asking questions which would have let him in on the truth behind his existence – he chose to turn around and make sure he never found out.
So distracted, so distressed he must not have seen the light change at the corner of Main and Tool Works Rd. It was only one of two traffic signals in town. Broadsided, the Chevy was crunched on the Jesse’s side. Immediate.
Environmental death. His environment didn’t provide the support to survive. We failed him miserably because we passed on the weakness in our genes, and those genes were too weak even with outside help. As it turns out, he was the strength that kept us alive and without him there was little reason to continue.
Ellen is now next to Jesse, next to Dad, next to Billy in the most fertile ground in town. And I can’t help wondering if somewhere, somehow, Ber isn’t feeling a pang of loss and wondering why.
After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow has lived in nine states before currently living in the Charlotte, N.C. area.
His short stories and poems have most recently appeared in The Scrambler, The View From Here, The Gloom Cupboard, Indigo Rising, Litsnack, Full of Crow, FeatherLit, Curbside Splendor, Literary Juice, The Dying Goose, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Five2One, Poydras Review and Potluck, and Dirty Chai.
“My work explores the way we shape, reshape and are shaped by the natural and built world. From desire paths, de-population, decay and renewal, I’m interested in exploring the lived sonic realities and histories of human places.
I use sound to interrogate the ways we come to understand, cherish and mark special places whether these be sites of important memories, or everyday places which soothe. I’m interested in the ways we get lost in places physically and emotionally and the ways we find our way again.”