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I rolled up a newspaper and went down to the park looking for a kid to hit over the head, but there was nobody around, maybe because it was raining so hard. Pretty soon the paper went to mush in my fist. I peeled it open to find out what day it was, but the print was too smeared to read.
I sat down on a bench and looked out at the lake. The ducks still weren't back from Mexico or wherever they went for the winter, but they were due home any day. You couldn't set your watch by them, or even your calendar, but they always showed up sooner or later.
Hitting kids with a rolled-up newspaper was no big deal. It was kind of my hobby. The kids never minded, except the ones that started screamingand they were probably already pissed off about something, just looking for an excuse to wail. Everybody's looking for an excuse. Some of the parents, though, they lit right up, chased me around, called the police, whatever.
The last time I heard from Marie, she was down in Costa Rica. "Ann and Helen send their love"that's how the postcard ended, how they always ended. I wouldn't ever have written back even if there had been a return address, and Marie knew that perfectly well, but the postcards kept coming, once a month or so like some kind of bill.
I tossed the newspaper into the garbage. Then I unsnapped my harness and took off my fake arm. Usually I wore the extension with the metal hooks on the end in case I needed to rip something open, but yesterday I jammed the wrist swivel trying to jimmy open my toolbox, so today I went with the regular-looking hand instead. It was a real nice modeladjustable fingertips, two-position thumb, the works. It didn't look all that much like a real hand, of course, but the doctors or whoever made them, they did the best they could.
A woman came walking up the path on the far side of the park. Her hair was either black or just looked that way from the rain. She was carrying a big blue umbrella, but it wasn't doing her much good; she kept turning her back to the wind, and the umbrella would tip away and blow inside-out, and she could barely hang on.
She was right there by the swing-sets when she finally gave up and let go. Or maybe the wind was just too strong, just took it from her. The umbrella cartwheeled across the wet grass, popped up off the pavement, and flipped into the lake.
The woman didn't seem to care. She got on one of the swings and sat there for a while. She pushed off with her feet, swung back and forth, higher and higher. She was a big galthe swing-set bowed with her weight. She arched her back and pointed her toes, her feet reached up as high as the top bar, and then the bar snapped and the whole thing collapsed on top of her.
I strapped my arm back on and walked over. She was making a hollow wheezing sound like somebody dying in a movie, her hands doubled over her stomach, her eyes popping out like gumballs. I knew she was going to be fineit was just the wind knocked out of her, plus one of her arms was twisted a little funny.
She was still gasping. I hunched down and rubbed her shoulders until her breath came easier. There were pieces of swing-set all over the place.
Whoa, she said.
Yeah. You got it pretty good.
I think my arm's broken.
I held her shoulder in my good hand and her wrist in my fake hand, and stared at her arm as if I knew what I was doing.
Yup, I'd say you busted it all right. You land on it?
No, but I think the bar did.
If I were you I'd stay off the swings for a bit. Couple of days at least.
Now she was smiling.
Help me up?
So I did. I brushed the wet sawdust off her coat. She had her bad arm cradled, and it must have hurt but she wasn't going to show it.
Should I call you a cab?
Now I kicked at the ground a little.
Sorry. I was just kidding. There aren't any cabs in Fallash.
The hospital's not too far away, though. I'll walk you over there if you want.
I put my good arm around her and we headed across the grass. It wasn't raining quite so hard anymore. I couldn't tell what she was like under the coat, but she had eyes bluer than the lake had ever been.
Sorry about your umbrella.
Your umbrella. I saw how the wind took it.
Oh. Well, yeah. I'm not used to all this rain.
You from somewhere else?
Is there another one?
At the hospital I walked her around to the emergency room, through the big automatic glass doors. For once there was nobody else there and they took her right away. Her face was all scrunched up nowthe arm was really getting to her. The nurse waved hello to me and started asking her the questions that have to get answered before they'll take a look at you, and there was nothing left for me to do, so I took off.
I lost the arm at this mill I used to work at over near Ukiah. Marie and I had just had Ann, and she cried all the time so I wasn't getting much sleep. At the end of a double-shift on the chip conveyer, my hand slipped off the rail; the screw-auger drew my arm in and sliced it off and blood was shooting everywhere.
The foreman didn't fool around, drove me straight to the hospital, but he was pissed that I'd screwed up our streak of accident-free days. The whole way into town he went on and on about how he was the one who'd have to change the number on the sign back to zero.
In the emergency room the doctor said there was still time to get the arm sewed back on, and asked me where it was; I understood the question, but couldn't get my mouth to make the answer. The foreman leaned over to the doctor and whispered something about how the augers worked, and there weren't any more questions about the arm.
I got full disability for as long as I live, and started up drinking not too long after that. The blackouts came and went for a couple of years. I woke up one day and the house was emptyjust totally cleaned out. Nothing left but the sofa I was sleeping on, my clothes dumped in a pile, and a note stuck to the door with a thumbtack.
"We're gone," it said. Marie'd had enough. Enough for anybody. She'd tried and I hadn't and three years was a long time. So she and Ann and Helen were heading south, and I shouldn't try to follow them, or ever expect them to come back.
Helen was this dyke who ran a bar over in Cobb. Looking back now there were signseven before the accident, that bar was the only place Marie ever wanted to go on week-ends. She and Helen would talk while I shot pool with my buds from town. If there weren't too many customers around, Marie would throw some money in the jukebox, and she and Helen would dance around the tables. I thought it was kind of kinky the way they danced together, looking over at me every now and then, but the truth of it, they were laughing all the way to Costa Rica.
Plus there was the baby shower Marie set up right before Ann was born. Helen brought a bunch of her dyke friends up from Forestville or somewhere. They gave the usual gifts, booties and pajamas and hats, except they were all made of black leather with little metal studs. They danced together in pairs, Helen and Marie bent forward at the waist, Marie's big pregnant stomach between them like a pillow up under her shirt.
I wasn't supposed to be there at all, was supposed to be at work, but I went home over lunch break and took a peek through the window. When I saw them cheek-to-cheek like that, their eyes closed as they sang along, I started to wonder, but not nearly enough.
The next day it wasn't raining so hard, just a drizzle that faded in and out like bad reception. After lunch I did a little work on my fake arm. They need a lot more upkeep than you'd thinkI had to oil the elbow cam, replace a couple of grommets, and adjust the socket to keep it from rubbing my stub raw.
That rubbing wasn't much fun, but it was cupcakes compared to the phantom aches I got every so often. You've probably heard about them on television: just because you've lost a limb doesn't mean it can't hurt like a bitch where the limb used to be. I couldn't say which was worsethe pain itself or the way it reminds you of what you aren't anymore.
When everything was set I strapped on the harness, picked up a magazine, and headed for the park. The ducks were finally back from their winter down south. I watched them for a while, pairs of mallards swimming in circles, and a canvasback hen that looked a little lost; every time she got close, the mallards snapped at her for no reason I could tell.
There was a kid from down my street playing alone on the teeter-totter, so I tip-toed up behind him and smacked him over the head. He screamed and started crying. Everybody looking for an excuse. Maybe I should have waited around for the kid's older brother, who was a whole lot tougherwhenever I smacked him he did this dying act, hands over his heart as he tumbled into the sawdust. He wasn't as tough as he thought, though. If I got him just right, tears came to his eyes too.
Gerry Hadler, you stay the hell away from my children!
That was the kids' mom. I could never remember her name. Ingrid or something. Foreign, anyway, though she was from right here in Lake County.
I waved to her and walked off. Across the way were a couple of city maintenance guys trying to fix the swing-set, and the gal from yesterday was there with them. She had her arm in a cast and a sling, and she had a new umbrella, red this time, but it wasn't raining now and she had it tucked away. Her hair was black after all, long and wavy and nice.
I'll pay for it, she was saying to them as I walked up. It was my fault. I broke it.
It was shoddy equipment, I said. You ought to sue their asses for a million damn dollars.
The city guys didn't look up, but the woman did. She smiled, and it was a great smile, big and white, and her eyes went crinkly at the edges.
Hey you yourself.
You snuck out of there pretty quick yesterday.
I'm not too big on hospitals.
Nobody is. But I never got to say thanks.
Buy you a cup of coffee?
She looked back over her shoulder, and I looked too. There was nobody there but a kid maybe fourteen or fifteen years old standing at the edge of the lake. He was throwing gravel around the ducks, and they thought it was bread and swam over to the splashes. You can't teach anything to a duck.
She took my good arm with her good arm, and we walked across the park. There was a little coffee shop called Belinda's up on Towhead, better coffee than you'd think for a town like Fallash, but no free refills. We sat down at a table in the corner. I called over to Belinda for a couple of cups. The umbrella-woman scratched around the top of her cast.
So, she said.
Thanks for yesterday.
You already said that.
I know. I'm saying it again.
Belinda brought the coffee, set it down with a tray full of creamers.
You still playing it straight? Belinda asked me.
Five years next month.
I'll be damned. More power to you.
Belinda took up the creamers I'd emptied, and walked away.
What was that all about?
Booze. I used to hit it pretty hard.
But not anymore?
Good to hear.
Good to say.
She took a sip of her coffee.
Wow. This is great.
I told you.
No you didn't. You didn't say a thing about it.
Oh. I guess I must have just thought it.
I guess so.
We sat there at the corner table and drank our coffee, and little by little the sun came out.
It took a couple of weeks before Allison would stay over. Then it was terrific. I thought maybe the thing with my arm would bother her, but she didn't hardly seem to care. She was big all over but not a bit of fat anywhere, and she spun me and knocked me back and picked me up again. Just terrific.
It was always late at night when she showed up. We'd tumble for an hour or two, and when I woke up in the morning she was gone. It got to be something I could count on. Then one night she told me.
I've got a boy.
A boy. Jared. A young male person.
I know what a boy is.
So why'd you ask?
Why the hell didn't you tell me before?
I thought it would change things.
Of course it does.
See? And I didn't want things to change.
Well, hell. How old is he?
Twelve. Big for his age, though. Real big. Like me. Like his father.
Where is he?
At home. Asleep, I hope.
No, the dad.
Oh. Tucson. The one in Arizona.
Why'd you leave him?
Is that any of your business?
I guess it is now.
Allison sat up against the headboard, and all of a sudden she looked old.
He used to beat up on me.
She rubbed her face and looked at me.
If it's a problem for you...
I don't know. Maybe not.
You should at least meet him.
Does he know about me?
A little. Enough. Look, tomorrow's Saturday. We'll be at the park.
Allison got up, started getting dressed.
Where are you going?
Home. It's late.
But you always
I'm tired. It's late. I'm going home.
The next morning I showered and shaved, dug some cologne out of the closet, and splashed on way too much. The cologne is what did it, I think. All those years, a shower and Old Spice right after work, and off to the bar with Marie. I almost made it to the park, but there was this liquor store. I came home and stayed drunk for days.
That thing about five years wasn't a total lie, but there were always times. Once or twice a year, and it lasted a couple of days, or a week, or a month. This is how it goes: you never turn the television off. You call the liquor store, the one that delivers, every other day. And you know there are things out there, big things, but you can't quite finish your sentences, not even in your head.
Then you quit all over again. You do the best you can.
I finally woke up sour and sore and didn't want it anymore. The radio said it was Thursday. I decided on nothing but coffee and take-out until Saturday, and I made it that far. Barely, but I made it. So I tried again. A shower and a shave, but no cologne. My best shoes even though it was raining. By the time I got to the park, my hair was slicked back and my jeans were soaked.
There was nobody at the park. I waited around for an hour or two. The mallards were gone, probably huddled up under the pier, so it was just that canvasback hen paddling back and forth, diving every so often and coming up empty. What was she doing here anyway? I'd seen plenty of canvasbacks before, but always in the air, headed south for the winter or on their way back home in the spring, Oregon or Washington or wherever it was they nested.
The hen dove once more, then flew away. I went and sat in the gazebo and read the magazine I'd brought, trying to keep it out of the rain whenever the wind kicked up. Finally I said the hell with it.
I stopped off at Belinda's to warm up. She brought a cup of coffee and the creamers.
Allison's been asking about you, she said.
What did she say?
Nothing much. Just asking.
I stirred two creams into my coffee.
You know where she lives?
Up on Violet. The big blue place where the Strattons used to live. I'd have thought you'd know that by now.
You ought to stop by and say hello. She's been asking.
I didn't say anything, and Belinda finally walked away. I finished my coffee and asked for another cup. Belinda just stared at me. I shrugged, put a couple of bucks under the mug, and headed back into the rain.
It was a long walk from Belinda's up to the old Stratton place. I rang the doorbell and backed off to the edge of the porch. After a while Allison answered the door.
Hello, I said.
You ditched us.
No I didn't.
You never showed up.
Not very hard.
Maybe not hard enough. But I tried. And I'm here now.
So I see.
I came to meet the boy.
She turned around and shut the door. A minute or so later it opened again. The kid took up most of the doorway. He stepped out onto the porch all surly and scared, hair hanging in his eyes, and Allison came out behind him.
Jared, this is Gerry. Gerry, Jared.
Nobody moved. Finally I stepped forward and so did he. We shook hands. I smiled. He looked down. So I smacked him with the magazine.
He smiled a little, and punched me on the shoulder, hard but not too hard. I smacked him again and he punched me again, I smacked him and he punched me, and then something snapped and my fake arm came loose. I pulled it out of my sleeve and drilled him across the face.
I heard Allison say something sharp but I couldn't tell you what it was. Blood poured out of the boy's nose and he came after me, hit me at the waist like a linebacker, and we tumbled off the porch and rolled around in the muddy grass. We punched each other as hard as we could, and I heard Allison shouting, and then she landed on top of us. The kid was bleeding all over everybody, and he was crying and I was crying and Allison was begging me to stop. I wrapped my one good arm around them and pulled them in as tight as I could.
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