Wednesday, December 16, 2009


[update january 2, 2010]


The camera flash brought him back into the moment. His mind had wandered, back to the last time he was busted, caught in the act with that girl from Satellite Beach. Got off easy that time, misdemeanors. A hundred each, for “being naked in his person.” Fifty for the pot. Or was it the other way around?

“Ditch the shit!” she’d hissed at him, when the searchlight interrupted their ecstasy. But by the time he wriggled back into his jeans, and fidgeted the bag out of his pocket, the two cops had shumbled down the dune, playing their five cell lamps on them all the way. All he could do was hand over the bag, grinning lamely. Wonder how long they were watching...

“Give me your right hand,” ordered the little blonde. Her hands were warm and moist, as she applied his fingers to the inkpad. His were cold. “Now the left.” He could smell her perfume. In her earlobe was a gold stud in the shape of a heart. Maybe she’s not a dyke. Maybe it’s the Kevlar vest, the blocky blue trousers, the dorky shoes—take all that away and maybe she's kind of cute.

He gave her a wellpracticed wink, one that he knew forced out a dimple. She screwed up her face, trying not to smile back, but two quick snorts erupted from her nostrils. Smiling, she shook her head and said, “Please take a seat on the bench, Mr. Wolfe.”

He sat down. He could hear the buzz from the fluorescent lights over his head. Damn. This time it’s serious. Car theft. With that stupid prior, looking at some time, for sure. What time is it? 11:30. Damn, I should be rolling around in the sack with her right now. How did things get so out of whack?


He met her at the coop, where she worked a register. Occasionally, he’d stop in to pick up something for lunch—a tray of California rolls, or a sandwich, since they started carrying meat. He’d fiddle around at the power bar display until her line was the shortest, and chat with her while she rung him up.

Her name was Shelly. She was putting in her time there to get the discount on groceries. Her massage practice brought in some cash; once in a while, she earned a little more giving yoga lessons.

Drumming was her passion; most evenings she hung out with a drumming troop, upstairs from the music shop. He’d heard the savage rhythms spilling out onto the sidewalk, the nights he was out for a walk. It seemed to him that their pounding had no beginning, no end. The beat followed him until he turned the corner, heading home.

But he forgot about her until one morning last week when his back went out.

A day prior, the boss had sent him to pick up another load of sheetrock, and deliver it to one of their projects in Ferndale. Wolfe flipped down the tailgate, and told the fork lift operator at the yard to keep loading the truck until the rubber cushions under the truckbed sat just touched the rear axel—if he brought enough back rock, maybe he’d save another long, dreary trip the next day.

The truck was only a half ton, and it wallowed in the ruts and potholes of the unpaved yard. The rock hung over two feet out beyond the tailgate, and the edge of the bottom sheets dragged when he cleared the apron and moved out into the road. He prayed no cops would see him like that, ass dragging and front end floating. He prayed harder that the tires would hold out, because there was no way the jack would lift the back end with that load, and the spare—if it had any air in it at all—was worn to the cords.

Suddenly he remembered the discs he’s been carrying for three days. Shit. More frigging late fees. So he swerved into the left lane, and barely making the light, hung a u-turn. The truck yawed sickeningly, but finally straightened out without anything slipping off, and he drove back the two miles to the video store on West 9.

He pulled up to the curb under a sign that said No Parking. He was going to shove the tapes into the slot and run, but peering through the glare on the storefront, he got a glimpse of the girl behind the counter. He pulled open the door, jangling a thong of sleigh bells. “Yo Don,” he said to the girl.

“It’s Donna to you, buster,” she replied, wrinkling her nose at him.

Donna was more than a head shorter than Wolff, with raven black hair except for a crimson streak that fell across her forehead. Indian, or Filipina, or something. How do you tell? Those mixed girls are always a knockout. She was wearing skin tight elastic pants trimmed to look like jeans, and a crinkly tube top. A tantalizing ring of flesh bulged over the top of the jeans. Man would I like to...

She notices him staring. “Hey, creep, don’t drool on my counter.”

He shoved his right fist under his T-shirt and bumpbumped it over his heart. “Kathump, kathump, kathump,” he said, while rolling his eyes. "Hey, remember that Eastwood flick you recommended? Where he plays the over-the-hill bounty hunter?”

“Yeah, it's in. Been holding it for you forever, for crissake.” She leaned to reach under the counter, and skillfully, without moving his head to give himself away, his eyes sought the momentary droop of her top. She retrieved the disc and passed it across to him.

“Thanks. You want to come over and watch it with me?”

“No thanks. Seen it, twice. Anyway, aren’t you back together with Cortney?”

“Man, I tried. All we did was drink and fight. I had to get out of there—I’m crazy enough on my own, without that...” He started to say bitch.

“You know, Don, it’s not like I hate her or anything. We just set each other off. I wanted it to work out, but maybe I’m not cut out for being married.”

“I never understood why you got married in the first place. You were the brainy one, going off to college and all.”

“Yeah, guess I wasn’t as smart as I seemed. Everyone wanted her to get an abortion—even Cortney—but I talked her out of it.”

“Jeez, I never knew. Hey, how old is Willow now, six, seven?”

“No, she just turned five, but she’s smart as hell. A smart aleck, too. I guess in the long run, I’m glad it turned out the way it did. She’s really cool.”

“Hey, is that your truck? The meter maid just parked across the street.”

“Shit! Gotta go. But hey, why don’t come over tonight; we’ll get a pizza.”

“I’d really like to, but I’m sorta seeing someone.”

“Oh. Oh well, lucky guy, I guess.”

“You better go, looks like she’s gonna write you up.”

A short, heavy set, grey haired woman in a uniform was waddling across the street toward his truck. He grabbed the tape and dashed out the door. The grey haired woman was already jotting down his tag number.

“Sorry—I didn’t mean to go in. I was just going to put some tapes in the slot. I’ll move it right now. Please don’t give me a ticket.”

He smiled down at her. She was not impressed, and looked up at him with a haggard face. “Once I write down a number, son, I have to issue a ticket.”

“Ok, but please don’t cite me for a no parking zone. That’s fifty buck, right? Please! Just make a meter offense. Please!” He folded his hands like he was praying and rolled his eyes upward. “Oh please!” he repeated, holding his pose.

“All right, son, just this once. If I see that truck parked illegally again, I’m going call for a boot. She smiled back at him and shook her head. On the form, she checked off Expired Meter. Then she signed it and ripped it off the clipboard, and handed it over.

“Now move it quick, before someone sees us,” she said.

“Thankyouthankyou.” He wanted to lean over and kiss her on her head, but had enough sense to quit while he was ahead. Instead, he jumped into the truck and rolled down the window. He shouted to her as she walked back across the street, “Thankyouthankyou, I won’t forget it.” Then he started the engine, shoved it in gear, and pulled away, slipping the clutch like crazy so as not to leave a pile of sheetrock on the pavement.

By the time he arrived at the site, the chiroqueros were piling into their rusted out Corolla. He dashed out of his truck and up to their car. He looked in and saw the guy in the back pulling six Dos Equis out of a cooler. The driver rolled down the window, but did not kill the engine. “Pasa,” he said.

“Yo, Carlos, give me a hand unloading this rock.”

“No way, dude. I waited for two hours for you. I gotta pay these guys for nothing, sitting around waiting for your sorry ass. Unload it yourself.” Carlos rolled down the window and pulled away, blown muffler spluttering.

He walked back to his truck and stewed. He could drive back home, and return in the morning when there would be someone to help unload. But the old man would be expecting him at the office in the morning. How could he explain being so late? Then a big raindrop plopped on the hood, then another.

Shhhhit. Wolfe got back into the truck once again, and backed it up the driveway, and across the lawn, right up to the stoop. Fuck them goddam azaleas.

Then he got out of the truck, and started unloading the rock, at first tearing the tabs that bound the books, and carrying in the sheets one by one. The rain gradually intensified. Halfway through the load, it was pouring. His shirt was drenched. So he began carrying in unbroken books, two sheets at a time. Instead of distributing the sheets throughout the house, he stacked them just inside the front door. As the pile grew, the floor sagged.

At last he was done. His shoulders ached, and there was a dull pain in his back, just below his belt. He fired up the truck and started to pull out. The tires spun in the wet grass, but he feathered off the throttle until the truck slowly caught enough traction to ease back to the driveway. As he turned into the driveway, the tire on the pavement caught full traction, but the one still in the grass spun wildly, slinging mud across the front of the house. Bloody fucking hell. I’m outta here. On his way home, he picked up two six packs of Bud, a big bag of Doritos, and a tub of bean dip. He fell asleep somewhere into the second six, while Hackman worked over Eastwood with his pointed toe boots, as Eastwood lay helpless in the dirt.

Next morning he woke with a full bladder. As he swung his legs over the bed to get up, there was a sudden stab of pain in his lower back, like a jolt from a cattle prod. Any movement produced sheer agony. He could not stand. But he had to pee, urgently now.

He managed to roll himself onto the floor, prone, and slither along, grasping at furniture and door jambs, and creeping on his elbows, until he made it to the bathroom. He paused next to the tub and laid his head down, his cheek on the cold tile. His bladder now nearly bursting, he raised his knee over the rim of the tub, and heaved himself over. The pain was so intense he saw flashes of light before his eyes, but at least he was able to release himself.

Then he just lay there in the tub, concentrating on his breathing, After a few moments, he groped for the shower valve, and turned on the shower as hot as he could stand it. Slowly he worked himself up on his knees, and let the water work on the spasm. Finally he was able to stand.

He found the bottle of Tylenol 3 left over the bike accident, when he broke his collar bone. Two tabs left. Down the hatch. He went back to his room and found the three left over Buds. They were warm, but not too bad under the circumstances.

Then he called the boss and begged off for the day. All the old man cared about was whether he was going to make a worker’s comp claim.

The Tylenol started taking hold, and his back began to relax a little. He opened another Bud and rewound the tape. Then he fast forwarded back to where he left off. But once again sleep overtook him before he reached the end.

It was nearly 3 when he awoke. The pain had returned. That’s when he remembered Shelly. Her card was in his wallet. It had two blue handprints on it, like a child would leave on a finger painting. The card read:

A Nurturing Blend of Swedish Massage, Caring Touch,
Deep Tissue Massage, and Intuitive Energy Work

He dialed the number, and she answered the phone.



“This is she.”

“Shelly, hi. This is Terry.”


“Terry, you know, the guy, uh, the guy with the California rolls.”

“Oh yeah. Hi Terry, what’s up?”
“Uh…” He paused. His head was spinning. Eastwood was cringing in the dirt.

She could hear his heavy breathing. “Are you ok?”

“It’s my back,” he croaked. “I can barely move. Can you help me?”

“I’ve got someone coming in at three thirty. Can you make it over here at five?”

“Yeah. If I don’t blow my brains out first.”


He sighed a deep sigh. “I’m sorry. Thanks for letting me come in. I’ll be there at five.”


The drive to the address she gave him was hell. Pushing in the heavy clutch pedal caused him jolts of pain so sharp that it seemed like arcs of light were flashing before his eyes. He faked it through stop signs, coasting in third, and when he had to come to a complete stop, he’d just mash on the brakes and let the engine stall. Then he’d shift into granny gear without clutching, and hit the ignition switch, letting the starter motor get him rolling again. Then just bang it into third. Pure brutality. On top of his back spasm, he sensed the agony he was causing to the gear train. It was close to six when turned down her street.

The address was for a trim little bungalow. Attached to a porch column was a flag with some cartoon character on it. He limped up the walk, which ran along a chain link fence on the side of the property. His T shirt snagged the branch of a rose bush that grew from the other side. As he tugged to free it, a german shepherd came flying across the neighbor’s yard, barking furiously, and reared up with his front legs against the top of the fence. It barked so savagely that it made sucking sounds when it inhaled.

He lurched back at first, but then approached the dog and said soothingly, “Cool baby, be cooool.” The dog paused, and he offered it his hand to sniff. The dog calmly studied the hand for a moment, and then suddenly snapped at it. He drew it back quickly.

“Alright, alright now, you be cool, and I’ll be cool. Just be cooool.” He slowly, very slowly, offered his hand once more, and this time the dog sniffed it.

“There, there, now, baby, it’s cool, reeeeal cool.” He extended his hand and stroked the dog’s head, and then worked the soft flesh behind its ear. The dog licked at his hand.

“Alright, baby, gotta go now. You be good now.” He turned and walked up to the porch steps. He ascended a step with his right foot, and swung the left up to meet the right on the same step, and so hobbled to the top.

To one side of the porch was a small pink bicycle with training wheels and streamers attached to the end of the hand grips. On the other side was a three wheeled baby buggy, the kind joggers use.

He gently rapped on the screen door, and a man wearing a loosened tie and a plastic ID badge on a lanyard answered.

“Yes, may I help you?” he asked. A young woman carrying an infant on her hip peered around an interior doorway.

“I’m here for a massage, but maybe I have the wrong place.”

“Oh, you want Shelly. She lives in the basement. Go around to your left—she’s all the way round back. Watch out for that dog next door; she’s vicious.”

He thanked him and hobbled back down. As he walked down the sloping side yard, muddy from the last night’s rain, the dog walked parallel to him, across the fence, making a high pitched whining sound.

Around the back there was a garden patch, maybe six by six. He could smell a rosemary plant at the corner of it, and saw some other herbs he couldn’t identify. A few neatly staked plants bore tiny bright green tomatoes.

Under a deck that served the main floor were some concrete steps that led to the basement door. A cat was sleeping on the brick wall flanking the steps, where some slanting sun had penetrated. He did his best not to wake it as he one-stepped it down to the door.

She was waiting by the door, and held it for him as he entered. At the same time, the cat jumped down and darted past him, into the basement. They were standing in a narrow hallway, barely enough room for the two of them.

“I had given up on you. I’ve got to be at practice at seven. We’re doing a drum-vigil at city hall tomorrow. It’s just too late to do anything…oh, but look at you! Turn around.”

He turned, and she ran two fingers of each hand down the sides of his spine, and then back up again. She stopped just above his kidneys and circled a point with her fingers. He grimaced and tensed up. She lifted his shirt and put her palm over the spot. “Right here, isn’t it. I can feel the heat.”

Her hand was soothing. “That’s it,” he said softly. “It’s like a dagger that someone keeps twisting.”

“You know I should charge you for a no-show. Never mind, come on in. I usually do ninety minutes, but I’ll give you an hour. OK?”

“Anything, I’ll take anything. Thank you.”

She led him through a small kitchen that smelled of curry, and then through an interior room with a boiler and water heater on one side, and a toilet, sink, and stall shower on the other. He had to duck under radiator pipes to make it through, into a small room with a massage table. There was one window with a sill about five feet above the ground, with a silk scarf for a curtain. Under the window was a small stand with a lamp and a carved stone statue of a man with an elephant head sitting in a yoga pose. On a shelf at the bottom of the stand was a boom box and some containers of oil. On the opposite wall was a print of a Hindu looking man and woman, flying on the back of a half-man, half-bird creature. The man had blue skin. A thin, colorfully patterned carpet covered the middle of the concrete floor. Otherwise the room was bare.

He turned around and once again they were face to face. He couldn’t decide if she was attractive or not. She was tall and slender, and carried her head high. Her cheek bones and chin were prominent, almost manly. Her hair, just beginning to grey, was pulled straight back and fastened with a leather clip. She had wide-set, soft grey eyes, but they were distorted by the thick lenses of her metal framed glasses. A crack ran through the corner of on lens.

She was wearing a black sleeveless tank top and billowy, almost translucent pants cut like pajama bottoms. Her feet were bare. The muscles of her arms and shoulders were well defined. He could smell a trace of garlic in her breath.

“Thanks again,” he said. “I’m really sorry…”

She cut him off. “Never mind, Terry. I’m going to step outside so you can undress. If you want, you can leave your underpants on. There’s a hanger on that pipe for your clothes. When you’re undressed, you can lie face up on the table, and pull the blanked over yourself.”

Then she handed him a glass of water. “I want you to drink this before we begin. It’s to carry away the toxins. OK, I’ll be back in a minute.” She left the room and closed the door.

He downed the water, not realizing how thirsty he was until the first gulp. Then he took off his clothes, stopping at his shorts. How many girls have seen me buck naked? None of them complained, either. But he didn't want to embarrass her, so he left them on.

She returned carrying a CD, and walked across the room to the little stand, and then put the disc into the boombox. It played the alien sounds of a sitar and some sort of handstruck drum. “I hope you like ragas,” she said. “It helps me to listen to your body.” She went back to the little stand, and applied some oil to her hands. As she stood in front of the lamp, he could see the silhouette of her thighs through her gauzy pants. They seemed firm. Would they yield, would they embrace him? Would they shut him out?

Then she started the massage, beginning with his upper body. Looking up at her as she worked on his temples and scalp, he noticed the hair in her arm pits. Thick, black and curly, like a man’s. Then he saw that her eyes were closed. Was there something about him that turned her off, too? That silly tattoo? He got it that night he took Cortney to get the morning glory vine up her back, around the back of her neck. How ugly it got, when the colors faded and the blue ink smudged beneath her skin.

“Your eyes are closed.”

She laughed softly. “I think I see better with my hands sometimes.”

Yeah, right. He tried to relax. The bending notes of the sitar sounded weird; he could not pick up a rhythm or a melody. The ceiling above was unfinished—bare joists, some electrical cables, some pipes. Above the joists was a diagonal pattern of rough sawn boards. It’s weird to think all those guys are dead--the carpenter who nailed all those boards down, the plumber and electrician, dead.

“Try and concentrate on your breathing,” she said, working his legs and feet. “I want you to relax. Imagine the toxins flushing out of your muscles.”

When she started working on his arms, she noticed the bump in his collar bone, and gently traced with her fingers where the halves of the bone had overlapped and knit back together. “That must have hurt,” she said.

“I guess. I was high at the time. Riding my bike and hit a patch of wet leaves. Going way too fast, as usual.”

“I like bicycling,” she replied.

“I had to bicycle because my license was suspended. I haven’t ridden much since they gave it back, though. Maybe I should take it up again and break the other collar bone. The shoulder on the broken side doesn’t stick out near as far as my good shoulder. It makes me look deformed.”

She gripped his upper arm, and pulled her oiled hands down to his wrist. She smiled and said, “You have a beautiful body.” Then she closed her eyes and worked silently.

The music began to take on a shimmering quality, and as she worked, he discovered an underlying rhythm that guided his breathing. He watched her work, her own muscles tautening and relaxing with each stroke. He noticed droplets of perspiration in the hair under her arms.

“I like your body, too,” he told her.

“OK, I need you to turn over. Let’s get to work on this knot.” He turned and she worked his shoulders, his spine, his buttocks. He gazed at the woman on the poster, with her gold headdress, and bare midriff. She had those almond eyes, that sly smile, like Donna. The notes of the sitar became the woman’s lips, her darting tongue; the drum beats the tireless driving force of the blue skinned man. His breathing animated the wings of the bird-man creature. All the while her hands worked, in long continuous strokes, or pausing at intervals up his spine, silently whirling, drilling, pulsing.

After the massage, his back still hurt, but the pain felt somehow in proportion to the rest of his body. She handed him another glass of water, and invited him to sit down at a table by the back door. She sat down in the other chair, and for a while they chatted about odd stuff. He told her a little about his job, but when she asked more personal questions, he changed the subject. The she launched into a monologue about his diet, how he was functioning in a state of semidehydration, how growth hormones in mass produced meat could be causing stresses that leave him vulnerable to injury. He liked her voice, and the way she emphasized her points by pulling her shoulders back and thrusting out her chest.

While she was speaking, the cat leapt into his lap—so softly, he almost didn’t notice—more like it just materialized there. He stroked it gently and half listened to her. His core muscles needed to be strengthened. He should stretch before exerting himself. The cat kneaded his thigh and then snuggled its head into his crotch. He expressed agreement with her from time to time, mostly just a silent nodding. Once in a while he’d catch her eye and smile, but otherwise he watched her hand gestures as she spoke, or gazed around the room at the glass canisters of rice, beans, and grain. A pair of sticks with padded balls hung on one wall. The last slanting rays of sun came through the window, falling on the side of her face. It illuminated the down on her cheek, and highlighted the line of her nose, lips, and chin.

“May I...may I...kiss you?” he interrupted. She fell silent, her lips slightly parted. He leaned over toward her; she sat motionless, eyes locked on his. He leaned further and placed his lips against hers, and closed his eyes. Easy boy. Don't push it. Wait for a sigh, a touch of her tongue. For a moment, she remained inert, then her lips awoke, parted wider, and she leaned her head to gain better purchase with his lips. OK then. He reached under the table and put his hand on her knee. At that movement the cat sprang from his lap and landed on the floor. Thu-thud. She pulled back abruptly and said, “You have to go now.”

Damn. Always moving in too fast. He rose up and said “I’m sorry. How much do I owe…”

“Please…GO!” She stood up and faced him, her arms at her side, fists clenched.

He backed away, knocking his chair over. The seatback hit the floor with a crash.

“I’m sorry, pleases let me pay you for…”

“Just…GO!” These words broke into falsetto. She covered her face and sobbed something he didn’t understand. Holy shit, I’m outta here.

He turned and bolted out the screen door. It slammed shut behind him. As he passed by the little garden, he saw the man from upstairs leaning over the back porch. The man’s wife was behind him, asking what’s going on. He turned and said to the man, “Nothing happened. Nothing!” Sobbing came through her kitchen window. As he rounded the corner and started walking up the side yard, the german shepherd flung itself against the fence, barking and snarling at him all the way to the front yard. The dog continued to bark even as he got back into the truck and pulled away.


At the sound of the sleigh bells smacking the door, she looked up and saw him come in. “Boy, do you look rugged. That life in the fast lane is catching up with you.”

His gait was still stiff, and his shoulders were hunched. “Hey Don. It’s not what you think, it’s my back. Had to hump a load of sheetrock by myself.” Not to mention, feeling like I was worked over with a crowbar, after that scene at Shelly’s.

“What, that tightwad you work for too cheap to hire enough help?”

“Naw, it’s my own fault. Long story. I’d tell you about it over a beer sometime.”

“Maybe sometime.”

“Maybe tonight.”

“Sorry, no can do. I told you I’m kinda going with someone.”

Damn she looks good today. Those soft brown shoulders. "Give me hope," he said.

"I hope you put a quarter in the meter."

“Shit, thanks for reminding me. Anyway, here’s that Eastwood disc back. Never did finish it, though.” He set the jacket on the counter. “So who is this lucky guy?”

“You wouldn’t know him. Someone from that class I’m taking.”

“Moving on up in the world…”

She cut him off. “Dammit, Terry, cut the crap. You should be taking classes yourself. Do you honestly want to be unloading trucks the rest of your life? “

“I dunno.”

A spasm grabbed his back. He winced, and turned away from the counter and walked back into the stacks. He flashed on the image of the blue skinned man and the woman with almond shaped eyes. What would it be like, to do it with that sitar music? Just then, her cell phone rang. He eased closer to the counter, concealed behind the shelves, and overheard her say, “Yeah, I get off at nine. Great, I’ll meet you in front of the shop.”

That's a relief. At least she didn't make it up just to blow me off. He pulled another jacket off the shelf and walked back to the counter. “You know, it’s not all that bad. The old man let me build a set of bookshelves for that big house over on Jackson Place, and they came out real nice. He even said so.” He slid the jacket over to her.

“Dead Man Walking. Good choice for you, dude. Hey, isn’t that your girlfriend out there?”

It was the meter maid. The bells slapped the door again as he vanished.

When he got back to the office, the old man handed him a small envelope. It was addressed to him, care of the office. The handwriting was tiny, fashioned in rounded, upright strokes. Shelly’s name and address was on the flap.

He was stunned. “Looks like you have an admirer,” said the old man.

“Yeah, right,” he replied. Must be a bill for the massage. He took the envelope back into the shop, and tore it open. Inside was a card dated a few days earlier, it read:

Dear Terry,

I don’t know where you live, so I sent this to your office.

I’m so sorry about how I behaved this evening. I hope your back is better.

Maybe this is crazy, but I thought we could have dinner together some time. I know a great Indian restaurant, Annapurna's, not too weird, they even serve some chicken dishes. Please give me a call any time. And remember to stretch out every morning, and drink plenty of water.

Namaste, Shelly

What’s with this namaste business. Have to look it up sometime. Anyway, is she whack or what. Screaming at me one minute like I was raping her, and now this. Like I need another nut case on my hands, anyway. He shoved the card in his shirt pocket and went back to work.

He was at his mom’s house, watching a Tigers game on TV in the living room. She had made him dinner, and had just come up from the basement with a basket of his laundry, clean and folded.

“Terry, you said you’d take care of that toilet down there. I got tired of jiggling the handle, so I finally just shut the valve. But sometimes I need it…”

“Ma, I’m sorry, I keep forgetting to pickup the part.”

“Sweetheart, I’ll pay you…”

“Ma, it’s not like that, I just keep forgetting, that’s all. I promise I’ll take care of it soon. Just quit nag…”

“Terry, darling, please stop. I’ll just call a plumber.”

“Ma-aa, for crissakes, I said I’ll take care of it.”

She walked over to where he was sitting and picked up his beer can and gave it a wiggle. It was empty.

“Want another one, darling?”

Yeah, Ma.”

“By the way, I found this note in your shirt.” She reached into her apron pocket and pulled it out. “From a ‘Shelly.’ Who’s this? I thought you and Cortney were getting back together.”

“Aw Ma…”

“Oh, Terry, Terry, Terry. You were crazy about that girl. But you were so young. Maybe your father was right about her—but even he liked her, too.”

“Yeah, when he’d had a few.” The inning was over and a commercial had started up. He picked up the remote and flipped through some stations.

“Oh Terry, sometimes I’m glad he’s not around anymore, to see you so sad. Anyway, who’s this Shelly? Is she nice?

“I dunno, she’s just some girl I met.”

“Well I hope it works out. Anyway, please bring Willow by sometime, I never get to see her. You have her on weekends, right?”

“Every other, Ma, every other. Yeah, I’ll bring her over.” He flipped back to the game.

“And remember that part for the toilet.”

“All right, Ma, all right,” he said. She turned and walked toward the kitchen to get him his beer.


“Shelly—hi, it’s Terry.”

“Oh, hi Terry. How are you? Is your back better?”

“I’m OK—sort of. Almost back to normal—but I can’t pick you up this evening. I had some construction adhesive on the seat of my truck—you know, in those big tubes—and I parked in the sun this afternoon. The cab got so hot that some of the tubes burst, and there’s this goo all over the seat.”

“Oooohh, sorry about your truck. I’m working at the coop this afternoon--why don’t I pick you up after I get off, and I can drive us to the restaurant.”

“Hey, thanks, that’s a great idea. You’re a real life saver.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that. But I get off at four. So I'll pick you up at four thirty--we can get the early bird special--it's half price.”

“ OK then, see you at four thirty. I promise I won’t be late this time.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

something of value

( Note:  This pulls together some previous sketches--which have been removed from this blog--and adds a conclusion.  There is a bit more material that may get inserted at some point, but otherwise, this piece can stand alone.--aa)

Something Of Value

I PULLED MY TRUCK into the driveway, and Pat’s Tornado swerved in behind me.  Lurching out of his car, the bill of his hunter’s cap hit the doorframe, knocking it sideways across his head.  He did not seem to notice.  As he staggered toward the stoop, still singing ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, I began to realize the magnitude of his condition.  I was drunk, but Pat was at the edge of oblivion.  Annamarie appeared in the doorway.
==     ==

AFTER TURNING WRENCHES for four years back east, and in Santa Fe for Boddy’s, and then the Kawasaki dealer, and some anything-that-rolls-in-the-door auto repair shop, I’d had it with the oil and grease, the brake dust and exhaust fumes, the bone deep slices in every knuckle—and most of all, the grimy stains that no soap, no solvent would wash out of my hands.

A classified ad sought carpenters in White Rock.  I contacted old man Sandoval, the SnapOn dealer, and met him out at his house in Arroyo Seco.  I carried in a carton with a couple of air wrenches, an air chisel, and some other tools I knew I wouldn’t be using again.  I walked out of the house with a battered Skil Model 77, a wellworn leather tool belt, and some odd chisels and planes.  No money changed hands, and each of us thought he got the better of the other.

==     ==

NEXT DAY, I put the tools in my truck and hauled myself across the Rio, and up the highway that scales the rugged slopes of the Pajarito Plateau.  The Sandias and the Sangre de Cristos panned in and out of view as I negotiated the switchbacks.  Up on the flats, a trim young jogger loped along the road that ran to Los Alamos.  A fox, half hidden the brush, watched his progress.  Beyond the fox, the terrain rose to the Jemez. 

A little ways down the road, this tentative wilderness gave way to a convenience store.  I stopped and bought a quart of grapefruit juice and a bag of barbecue chips.  Another hundred yards, and suburbia spilled out to the east.  This was my turnoff.  At first, I missed the street named in the want ad, and wound down the lane all the way to the rim of the plateau.  The land fell off more than two thousand feet to the Rio.  I heard a plaintive wailing, almost like a child.  A thousand feet below me a string of geese were working their way south.

I probably took the longest possible route back along the coiling lanes to La Senda, and found the house.  It was a timberframed structure, with slumpblock walls and great glass panels.  Sitting on a rolling five acre lot, surrounded by stubby piƱons, its form was ranging and aggressive--a prairie style house in the high desert.  A carpenter was nailing up cedar shakes on a curved section of wall. 

I pulled into the driveway.  A lanky, weatherbeaten man was standing nearby with a clipboard in his hand and a roll of drawings under his arm.  He wore tooled leather boots with pointed toes, and a straw hat with the brim rolled up on the sides, so the front also came to a point.  I got out of the truck and asked him if he knew about the job offer.  With his free hand, he took the cigarette out of his mouth. 

“You carpenter?”

The right answer was no.  The biggest thing I’d ever made using a hammer and saw was a plywood camper shell for Annamarie’s Datsun.  But I was pretty good with motors and transmissions—how much harder could this be? 

I glanced over at the building.  Even though it was chilly, the carpenter who was nailing up the shakes had taken off his shirt.  I flashed back to when I was in school, and Linda was pregnant, and I got that summer job working at the library.  It was the main branch, and my job was opening cartons of new books and gluing the envelope under the back cover.  A new wing was being added to the library, and I would look out the window of the dingy storeroom and watch the guys tiptoeing across a run of open joists carrying sheets of plywood, out under the open sky.

“I’m pretty good with wood,” I replied.

He peered into the truckbed.  “Ah see ya use a worm drive,” he said, nodding at the Model 77.  “Anything else is a piece a shit.  Kin you start now?  Ah’ll give ya four-fifty.”

==     ==
IT WAS CHRISTMAS EVE, and we had knocked off early to drink a beer.  We got our regular table at The Fat Man's, and Pat launched back into his life in western Massachusetts, weaving his spell on me again, while outdrinking me two to one.  After a few rounds, the other guys shoved off, but Pat and I stayed for another few pitchers.

Pat Maloney was older than the rest of us.  Having served a formal apprenticeship as a joiner, he took a paternal interest in our work, teaching us how to sharpen a chisel or plane iron, testing the edge by shaving the hair on his forearm.  Using hand tools, he could layout and cut a mortise and tenon joint with machinelike precision, probably as fast as someone using a router and power saw.  He mesmerized us with stories of living and working on a pheasant hunting resort, raising the birds, maintaining the incubators and coops, guiding the hunters.  He described an idyllic existence.

During that time, he met Rosa, a sophomore at Amherst.  When she got pregnant, she dropped out, and moved in with him for a while, in his gamekeeper’s apartment above the workshop.  But she left him behind to have the baby, back with her family in Santa Fe.

Pat followed her out west to marry her, but soon grew uncomfortable in what to him was an alien environment.  He could not persuade Rosa to move back east, so he left her, and began a pattern of wandering back and forth across the country, in and out of the lives of his wife and daughter.  Pat was a pendulum that swung between the people and places he loved, repelled from one pole by the unbearable burdens of marriage and fatherhood, and from the other by the desperate forces of loneliness and sentiment.

Our mutual oscillations coincided in White Rock.  Pat was already working on the project when I got hired, but it took a while to get to know him.  For one thing, I was canned a day after I started.

I was a disappointment to the man who assumed I was equal to the merits of my tools.  That first day on the job, he assigned me to frame out for a big bathtub within the circular walls.  While the shirtless carpenter pounded on the walls from the outside, I struggled to resolve the interplay of arc and rectangle.  It was a task for a top notch, experienced mechanic, and by the end of the day I had maybe two illfitting boards nailed up.

The next day, the foreman walked in and watched me struggle for a while.

“Son, yer buildin a house, not a pie-anner,” he advised.  By the end of the day, he’d let me go.

“Ain’t gonna fuss with a check, son.”  He pulled out his wallet and peeled off three twenties.  “S’more than ya earned, but don’ worry bout it.  Good luck.”

A few despondent days later, I got a call from Orlando, one of the carpenters.  “Where have you been, dude, we need you.”  It turns out that the carpentry contractor had been fired, the day after they fired me.  The owner of the house—Cal O’Ryan—a physicist at the lab—was taking over finishing the project.  He had gotten the names of the carpenters from the subcontractor before he sent him packing, and apparently knew nothing of my limitations.

Nevertheless, it was back up the hill for me.  Someone else had finished the bathtub frame, so I fell in helping the best I could, humping materials, rerouting extension cords, retrieving tools dropped from above.  At some point, I was working with Pat, who was installing a wood cap on top of a parapet—a continuation of the curved wall that was my earlier downfall.

Pat had divided the half circle into twelve segments, but he couldn’t figure out the angle of the joint where the segments met.  He tried determining the angle by eye, and cut out the segments.  When he set them in place, the last one would not fit.

I started to explain to Pat how to calculate the cut by dividing angle of the arc by the number of segments, and he started getting annoyed.

“Here, dammit,” he swore, and handed me his pencil.  Then he began taking the tools out of his apron, handing them to me one by one, and when I could not hold anymore of them, and they started falling to the deck, he took off his hat and threw it down and started to walk away.

“Pat, wait a minute, let me just lay one out for you.”  It took me a while, because I needed Pythagoras to work out the length, and I couldn’t remember the square root algorithm.  (but oh how clearly I remember Nancy Swope, who sat on my left in Mrs. Byers’ math class.  She wore these button front blouses, and when she would lean forward, I could steal a glimpse of heaven between the puckers of the fabric.  It was a wonder I passed the course.)

Nevertheless, I worked it out close enough so that when Pat cut out a new set of caps, all he had to do was trim the ends that met the main wall of the house.  It was cherry.  Cal noticed, and gave Pat a compliment on the work that afternoon.  From then on, Pat and I were tight.

We worked together through the autumn, and under his tutelage I gained some skill.  He had a tender side, too.  Once—it was the day before Thanksgiving—I was nailing up blocking inside a closet, using a brand new twentytwo ounce Estwing.  As I began the swing of the hammer, its claw caught for a moment on a stud behind me.  I remember watching the hammer head, with its razor sharp waffle pattern sparkling, as it wobbled by on its way to my ring finger—which I had not yet learned to tuck behind my thumb when holding a nail.

It seemed like the hammerhead just tagged the fingertip, but it tore a nice flap of skin loose.

“Damn,” I cried, and dropped my hammer.  Pat noticed, and went out to his car to get a bandaid.  By the time he returned, it was red beneath the fingernail.  The pain was excruciating.

Once again, Pat went back to his car, returning with needle nose pliers and a tiny brad.  He put the brad in the pliers and heated it with his lighter until the tip started to glow.

“Gimme your hand,” he ordered.  I gave it to him.

“Now look away.”

Then he poked the brad through my fingernail.  Blood spurted from the little hole, but the pain immediately subsided.

“All set,” he said.  Now let’s get back to work.”

==     ==

I CALLED UP from the driveway, “Hey Annie, I brought Pat Maloney with me.”

“I see.  Is he coming in, or is he just going to stand there singing?”

Then Pat saw her in the doorway, hands on her hips.  Immediately he fell silent and stiffened up.  He straightened his hat out and hitched up his trousers.   

“Pat, come on in.  This is Annamarie.”

We clambered into the little trailer house.  I gave Annamarie a peck on a stony cheek.

Pat greeted her.  “Mrs. Wolfe, how do you do?  ‘Sa pleasure to meecha.”  Pat knew we weren’t married, but called her Mrs. Wolfe anyway.  Annamarie grimaced but let it go.  She asked him, “Pat, can I fix you a cup of coffee?”  I was about to have a cup myself.”

He cocked his head toward her and raised one eyebrow, and replied, “No, but I’ll take a beer if you have one.”

I groaned audibly.  “Pat, for crissakes...”

At those words, Pat’s head sank.  The corners of his mouth pulled down, and the twinkle in his eyes vanished.  “That’s right.  Enough is enough.”

We sat down, me on the couch, and Pat in a chair on the opposite side, near the door.  The little trailer house was so narrow, our knees were almost touching.  Annamarie brought in some coffee and sat down next to me, about as far away as the little couch would permit.

So I started telling her about our plans to subcontract the carpentry work for the Gant house.  Pat began to beam again.  Some force filled his sagging body, and his arms and head became animated again.  He rambled on about the plans for the house, how it would be even greater than O’Ryan’s.  About our partnership, and the beginning of creating an enduring relationship.  Through it all, he kept using the term, “something of value.”

But there was something incongruous about it all.  One minute, he seemed stupefied; the next, he was actually making sense.  But I was in no condition to explore the issue.  I felt even drunker than when I had arrived, and Pat’s remarks rolled in my head like the shifting baubles in a kaleidoscope.

Then he talked about how proud his wife, Rosa, was of these prospects.  He wanted to introduce me to her.

“I want you to meet Marcella, too.”  Marcella was his daughter.  “Smart girl; she’s going to Saint Johns.  Beautiful, too.  I think you would like her.”

Annamarie was sitting with her arms folded across her chest and legs crossed.  Except for the slow flexing of her elevated foot, she could have been carved out of a block of stone. 

But I was in another world, imagining the lovely Marcella.  Somewhere in the background, I remember Pat comparing his knockout of a daughter with Annamarie, my Annamarie, who took fierce pride in the severity of her looks; somewhere deep in my suppressed consciousness I knew I should be outraged.  But instead, I just sat there, lapping it up.  Annamarie sat in silence.

Finally I told him it was time to wind it down, and he got up and went out to his car.  Annamarie was still on the couch, still crossarmed and crosslegged, but she had turned her head away, gazing out the south window at the desert beyond.

I started to say something, knowing there was nothing to say.  Then I looked out front and noticed that Pat’s car had not moved.  He had passed out behind the wheel.

So I got up and went outside.  Then I opened the drivers side door and shoved him over, and drove him back to Santa Fe.  Pat rode slumped against the passenger side door, his right arm extended, and his head on his shoulder.  The sun was setting, turning the snow on the Sangre De Cristos a salmon color.  He lived all the way on the other side of town, somewhere way out Agua Fria.  Annamarie followed us, and drove me back.  By this time, the sky was black, and snow on the mountains was luminous.  I chattered lamely, pretending it was all in good fun, a few drinks, a crazy old guy, no?  Maybe she even believed me, a little bit, anyway.

==     ==

I DON”T KNOW how many years, after it was all over with her, it took me to realize what I’d lost, or how much pain I caused.

Why couldn’t I have said to Pat, “Listen up, old man.  Annamarie is my woman, and I’m her man.  She is beautiful to me, and I don’t give a damn what you think.”

It was because I was not a man, not then.  Annamarie, I am weeping.