An excerpt from
An easy and convincing case could be made that my life has been short on successes, both financial and romantic, but no one could say with any conviction it has been uneventful.
In fact, of late, it had been so full of events, I concluded I had outlived my allotment of outlandish moments, and now the law of averages was on my side for pursuing a relatively tame existence. At least until old age set in and I took up residence in a cardboard box beneath the overpass on Highway 59, taking a dump behind a bush and licking secret sauce off old Big Mac wrappers for sustenance.
That was how I figured most of us baby boomers would finish the race. No Medicaid. No Medicare. No insurance. No couple of million stashed back for our dotage. Maybe not even the cardboard box. Hell, for that matter, we couldn't even be assured of a bush to shit behind.
My dotage was a ways off yet, but a lot nearer than I liked to think. Though I had days when I wished I wouldn't make that geriatric goal—end up in a cardboard box, stiff and rotting beneath an overpass with one of those Big Mac wrappers clutched in my fist—nor did I wish to gain the better scenario of passing on to the great beyond via a crisp white bed in a nursing home with a plate of mashed green peas on my dinner tray and a tube in my dick. My best friend, Leonard Pine, always says the best way to go is lying in bed listening to a Patsy Cline song, or watching the last fifteen minutes of Championship Wrestling, which was funny enough to kill you.
None for me, though. Times like that, when I was blue and thinking of my exit, I wished to go out between the legs of some wild redhead while striving for a double on a cool winter night, her hot breath in my ear, her fingernails buried in my ass like tacks in a bulletin board. It could happen.
Currently, I knew the wild redhead. She was my age, forties, her life full of her own unique events including setting fire to the head of an ex-husband and beaning his brainpan with the business end of a shovel. But even though she might worry me some when near matches or farm implements, going out between her legs was, as I said, not such a bad way to pass; so I tried to stay within her proximity as much as possible these days, least I feel a bit of a murmur, a flashing of life's events before my eyes. I could only hope if such a dire situation arose, she would be in the mood and that I could fight off the inevitable for whatever time was necessary for me to selfishly satisfy myself.
But redheads have drawbacks. They can be trouble and they can mess up your law of averages, even when they don't mean to, even when they aren't directly responsible. Trouble sticks to them like pork to a pig's ass, and if the trouble isn't on them, it's on someone close to them.
I know that sounds a little like astrology—the stuff about redheads, not pork—but then again, you been through what I been through, you might come to believe it. And even if I don't believe it in the long run, in the short run, well, I got to consider it.
For me all this got to rolling on a day when I was sorting my stuff in Leonard's barn, where it had been stored for the last few months.
Leonard had owned a house in town for some time now, and when a tornado took my place away, I moved into his old country place, and it was not so bad. Then he sold his house in town for pretty good money, had to move back to his country place, and now we were house-mates.
Frankly, I felt put out. Even if it was his house. I went from sleeping in the bedroom to sleeping on the couch, and he made me clean up the place more than I liked. We had roomed together before, for a short time, and it had been okay, but now I had gotten used to living alone again, and I was having a bad time of it. Worse yet, way things were going, I might be moving in with my nasty redhead any day. Brett had invited me, and I wanted to, but I was having so much trouble readjusting to Leonard, and I had known him for years, the idea of living with someone else was goddamn scary. I was suddenly concerned about skid marks in my underwear. Socks that didn't match. Farts, burps, and stink from the bathroom.
I wished my house hadn't blown away.
I wished I weren't so set in my ways.
I even wished I could find a good deal on a mobile home to move to the acreage where my house once stood. And if you knew how much I dislike mobile homes—those plyboard and aluminum tornado magnets in the pleasing shape of a rectangle—you'd realize just how desperate I felt.
Then there was the other side of me. The one that always wanted a relationship. I didn't have a woman in my life, I was pouty and blue, and even watching the September lovebugs hump made me horny. Now I had met someone who had more to offer than just sex. Brains. Humor. A way with fire and shovels. Kind of a middle-aged man's dream, I suspect. And still, I hesitated.
Guess, when you come right down to it, you just can't make me happy.
Anyway, I was on my knees, sorting my stuff in Leonard's barn, which was essentially a gray, peeling, clapboard shell with a dirt floor. I had all my things in cardboard boxes, and I was trying to figure what I should keep and what I should get rid of. During the storm, a large part of my junk had been rained on, wind-blasted, and just generally screwed. Rats had been in it since, and some of the paper and cloth items had been chewed.
Over the last few months I'd been halfheartedly going through the stuff I'd gathered up after the storm. Going through it, not so much afraid of what I might find, but more afraid of what I might not find. Some part of my life gone.
The twister had knocked the largest part of my goods ass over tea kettle, blown them to hell, or maybe worse, all the way to New York City. Maybe up North some Yankee was looking at my books, wearing one of my shoes. Laughing at my photographs. My favorite pants might be in a tree somewhere. My record collection at the bottom of a lake. It was too goddamn depressing to contemplate.
I had just put a batch of ruined books in the trash box when Leonard came into the barn. He was wearing sweats and carrying two cups of coffee. He looked as if he were straight from the shower. His short kinky hair glistened and his face looked like buffed ebony. The sunlight shone brightly through the door behind him, and I could see steam rising up from the coffee, blending with the dust motes in the air. Leonard said, "You going to move in with her?"
I stood and brushed the dust off my hands. Leonard gave me a cup. "I don't know," I said, and sipped the coffee. It was good rich coffee with some kind of chocolate flavoring in it.
"You ought to."
"You trying to get rid of me?"
"Some. You're fuckin' up my house."
"Like it's anything special."
"Hey, it may be a shack, but it's better than your shack, which, I might point out, would be harder to put together than one of those thousand-piece landscape puzzles. If you had all the pieces."
"And the way you handle your domestic business, man, it's tiresome. Think I want to have your old smelly drawers hanging on my couch arms for dollies! Goddamn shoes in the middle of the floor, dirty old socks up under the chair. Hell, man, smells like someone's been wiping their ass and hidin' the paper somewhere."
"All right, then, your shoes are slightly off center of the middle of the floor. But I still trip over them. Now what about Brett? You movin' in with her, or not?"
"I've been burned so many times in love I'm not sure I want to go through it again."
"Yeah, but all your other relationships were stupid. This one isn't."
"She set her husband's head on fire, burned his car too."
"Don't forget she beaned him with a shovel and he's in a home somewhere trying to decide if blue socks go with a paper hat and a fart."
"Maybe she should have left the car alone, Hap, but way I see it, far as his head's concerned, sonofabitch had it comin'. Besides, she didn't burn his whole head up, just some of it. Guy beats a woman on a daily basis, and one day she's had enough, it's okay she sets the guy's head on fire."
"This coming from an arsonist."
"Don't bring that up. You're tryin' to change the subject. Law let me go, didn't they?"
"It was a miracle." And it was. Leonard had burned down three crack houses, and each time he'd managed to get off. 'Course, I helped burn down one of them, so I couldn't be too self-righteous.
"They let Brett go, didn't they?" Leonard said.
"The judge was a lecher. She was young then. She wore tight shorts and a halter top, I'm surprised they didn't throw her a parade and give her the key to the city. Way she looks now, back then, man, she must have been something."
"Being queer, it's hard for me to know what a goodlookin' woman's supposed to look like, but I figure Brett's it. She's got all her workin' parts, don't she?"
"You get along, don't you?"
"Yeah. She's funny. I like being around her. We seem to have something going besides dating and rutting, although I hasten to add I don't want to undervalue rutting."
"Then what's the holdup?"
"I just don't want to screw up again."
"Hap, that's what you do best. And if you ain't willin' to screw up, you ain't ever gonna get any of the good out of life either. That's the way of the world, according to Leonard Pine. And keep in mind I just went through somethin' worse, and I'm out here lookin' for love all over again. It's the way of our species."
"We're a stupid species."
"Yeah, but we're consistently stupid. So, you get what I'm sayin'?"
"You're as big a screwup as me?"
"No one is, Hap. But thing is, even though you fuck up more than most, everyone fucks up. Only difference with you is you think your fuckups matter more than anyone else's. Strangely enough, there's a kind of conceit in all that."
"I reckon you're right."
"Good. Why don't you tell her you're moving in?"
"Because I'm still not sure."
"You see her today, right?"
"She's expecting an answer, right?"
I drank my coffee, sorted my junk awhile longer, put on my sweats, and Leonard and I went jogging along the road in front of his house and past my place, which now consisted of a bathtub. It was the only thing the tornado hadn't taken away. And good thing too. Brett had been hiding in it.
Sad as it was to pass the place by, I remembered the tub fondly. I had found Brett there after the storm. We had lain together inside the tub, and after the rain passed and the sky cleared, we held each other beneath the bright stars and the cantaloupe slice of quarter moon. Early in the morning, before full light, there in the cool damp tub, we had made love.
"You're dragging ass," Leonard said, jogging ahead of me.
"I'm getting fat," I said.
"I've noticed. Too many doughnuts. Too much late-night eating."
"It's a habit I've got. I eat when I think about Brett. I think about not being with her, I eat. I think about moving in with her, I eat."
"Frankly, Hap, ole buddy, I think you just eat."
"I hate it when you're right."
We jogged down the road a ways, then back again. It was a cool September morning, moving toward a warm afternoon, and the lovebugs were so thick in the air, you swatted at them, you brought down a whole squadron. They were present every year, but this was a bumper year, and according to old weather philosophy, the year they were the thickest meant the fall and winter would be extremely cold or rainy or both.
I was puffing pretty hard when we got back to Leonard's place. Leonard wanted to hang the heavy bag in the barn and work it some, but I decided it was time I bucked up and went over to see Brett, made a decision one way or another. She wasn't expecting me at an exact time, just before lunch, and it was now ten o'clock.
I showered, had another cup of coffee, went out to the barn and watched Leonard hammer the heavy bag for a while, then drove to Brett's in my junky Chevy Nova. I had owned the wreck about three months, and it was already due for the scrap yard. It clattered and coughed and blew black smoke out the rear like an old man with a gastric condition. I was ashamed to be seen in it, ashamed to pollute the air like that.
I had purchased the rolling calamity for three hundred dollars after my truck got destroyed during the tornado, and the way I saw it now, I'd paid about two hundred and ninety-nine dollars too much, even if it had come with a pack of rubbers in the glove box, half a cigar in the ashtray, and air in three tires.
I had put air in the fourth tire, and one of these days I was going to toss out that cigar and the rubbers. There was also a row of hardened gum that had been mashed underneath the dash, and I had plans to remove that as well. So far the urge hadn't hit me. The most I had done to redecorate the Nova was put my .38 Smith & Wesson in the glove box on top of the pack of rubbers.
As I drove over to Brett's, I tried to decide what to say. What to do. Everything I thought of struck me wrong. Maybe we could just keep things like they were? Then again, I did that, eventually I'd lose her. I had to make up my mind one way or another, and suddenly I knew what the problem was.
I didn't feel worthy.
I worked a night job at a club, beating people up who misbehaved. What kind of job is that for a grown man? What did that offer a woman like Brett? I didn't even have a home, a decent car, or, for that matter, any decent clothes. I was just a goddamn vagabond living day to day on the grace and goodwill of friends like Leonard and Brett.
I had been raised by solid blue-collar folk, and they had reared me to respect and like myself, to have confidence, and for years I had plenty. But these past few years, it had begun to erode. I was a middle-aged man who still didn't have a career, and it looked less and less like I would ever have one.
What could I do? I was smart enough, but what were my credentials? Lifting big rocks? Eating dust in the rose fields? Slapping drunks upside the head, twisting their wrists, and throwing them into a parking lot? It wasn't much of a rèsumè. And my looks weren't going to carry me through either. I was graying at the temples, balding at the crown, growing thick, and my face had a look of hound dog sadness about it, as if I had second sight and knew bad things were coming.
When I got over to Brett's she was sitting in an aluminum chair on the front lawn fighting lovebugs and mosquitoes. I could see her from the curb where I'd parked. I got out and went over there, smiling. Brett wasn't smiling, however, and I got a nasty feeling in my gut, like maybe I'd waited too long to make up my mind one way or another.
"You like bugs?" I asked.
"Not really," she said, and this time she smiled. It was a little strained, but it was a smile.
"You look like maybe you're smiling around something sour."
"I'm glad to see you," she said. "Especially now."
"Yeah. Let's go inside."
Inside, we picked lovebugs out of each other's hair and opened the screen and threw them out. There was a pot of coffee on, and Brett poured us cups. We sat at the table, then she looked at me and tears began to squeeze our of her eyes and run down her cheeks. "Brett, what's wrong, honey?"
"It's Tillie, Hap."
Tillie was Brett's wayward daughter. A young woman who had gotten mixed up in drugs and prostitution and whose last letter home was hopeful because her pimp had stopped beating her as much and her limp was better. Brett had tried to talk her out of the life, had offered to have us come get her, but she didn't want out, or didn't know how to get out, or it was some kind of stubborn pride thing. It was hard to say. Frankly, I tried not to involve myself unless Brett involved me.
"What's the score?" I asked.
"There's a man in a motel wants to talk to me about her. He called this morning. Says she's in trouble and I should talk to him."
"He didn't tell you what about over the phone?"
Brett shook her head. "He wants money."
"To tell you what kind of trouble she's in?"
"I'm supposed to go over there around one o'clock and bring five-hundred dollars. I told him I had to have someone drive me. I didn't want to go there by myself."
"That's a smart idea."
"He said that was okay."
"I don't like the sound of it," I said.
"Neither do I, but he said Tillie was in deep shit and I ought to know about it. He said Tillie paid him some to tell me she was and that I'm supposed to pay him some before he tells me what the problem is, and he said if cops come he won't tell me anything and everything is off. But I come with one person and five hundred dollars, he'll tell me what I need to know."
"A real Good Samaritan."
"I got a gun," Brett said. "I can use it, and it's legal. But I still don't like going over there by myself, gun or not. Me with all that money. I don't know he's got someone with him or not. But him talking about Tillie like he knows her, I got to go see."
"No problem. We'll both go."
Rumble Tumble © 1998 Joe R. Lansdale. All rights reserved.
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