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I knew my next door neighbour Mark had started selling pills – and maybe worse – for these bad guys who showed up in town a few months ago. Mark’s mom is strung out down in Cincinnati and she never talks to him so these bad guys made him feel like pretty hot shit. “We need you, Mark. You’re the man, Mark. Can’t do it without you, buddy.” I could hear it.
On Tuesday morning he came over to my place for coffee like he’s done every morning since my Winnie passed – never calls, just beats on my storm door till he nearly tears it off the hinges. I was in bed at the time, wrapped up in a snarl of sheets that I hadn’t washed for weeks or months. To tell the truth.
I made coffee while he yammered on and I spilled some Early Times into both mugs, a little hair of the dog for me, a little treat for him. He had on a brand new black Buckeyes hat and a brand new bright scarlet Buckeyes hoodie. Brand new jeans too. And boots.
“These guys – what are their names?” I started.
“Jerry and Bill.”
“You know Jerry and Bill work for some people you wouldn’t like to meet, right?”
“People who don’t give a shit about anything for starters. Least of all you.” I rubbed my eyes and yawned.
His eyes turned into little slits and he said, “At least I’ve got a job. That’s better than most people in this shithole town. You included, I hate to say it and no offense, but that does include you. How are you going to get a job if your ass is in bed at ten in the morning?”
“They got a leg up on us,” I said. “Why, I believe, in the spirit of entrepreneurialism, Jerry and Bill have detected a snag in the fabric of our community continuum. It seems they have gotten to clawing it wide open.”
“Jerry and Bill?”
“Jerry and Bill and their bosses. And their boss’s bosses. All the way back to the little farmers over in Afghanistan or wherever the fuck.”
Mark slurped his coffee and rubbed his forehead and sat there. It was easy to be jealous of his cash flow and I guess I was. A month and a half ago I worked at Walmart managing Lawn and Garden but they fired me because they said I showed up one morning drunk and late.
“It all starts down in Mexico now, they were saying,” Mark said. “They grow the poppies down in Mexico. You could spit on the fields from a boat in the ocean. I’d like to see that. Miles and miles of flowers all the way up to the waves. Beautiful.”
“Boy, they’ve really got you, don’t they?” I said.
“I might save up and go see that.”
“You couldn’t walk two miles from your front door without turning back for home.”
“Maybe, but maybe that ain’t me anymore either. I might go see Stonehenge or the Spinx or Paris, France.”
“You said Spinx. You pronounce it Sphinx. F sound.”
“Since when do you give a shit about the F sound?”
Anyway, I’d been at Walmart three months and before that I worked for a little company that serviced and filled vending machines, but they went under, which was no surprise to me. At Walmart, I’d only applied for a grunt level sales associate spot, but I guess my resume looked alright so at the interview, Walmart said, “How’d you like to start out as a department manager?” To which I’d replied as politely as I could without completely losing my shit, “That’d be great.” I kept my hands folded in front of me while they went on about the job and when they were done, when the whole thing was done, we all stood up and shook hands and I said, “Really looking forward to it.” And they said, “So are we, most definitely.”
Mark’s phone rang in his pocket and he jumped. Really jumped out of his chair. He answered it and stepped into my tiny little living room. But if he was trying to hide something, it didn’t work. A roach could fart in the kitchen and I’d hear it clear back in the bedroom.
Mark’s side of things went like this: “Hey. Bill.” “I mean Jerry, sorry.” “Things are good.” “Real good.” “Okay, I’ll be there.” “10:00PM.” “Yep, 10:00 PM, yep.” “I’ll put it all in an attach case.” “An attaché case, I mean. Yeah.” “How are you – oh, you hung up.”
When he came back into the kitchen, I said, “Got yourself a meeting with Jerry and Bill at ten tonight? Gonna drop off the haul and pick up some more product?”
“Sorry, Dale. That’s need to know information and you happen to be a person who don’t need to know,” he said. “Company secrets.”
I started to say, “But I heard you just now conducting your shit business right in my living room,” but I let it go and just said, “Okay, Mark,” and finished my coffee.
I don’t make excuses for myself. I am what I am and right now that’s a middle-aged, unemployed redneck living in his dead fiancé’s singlewide. I also don’t mind saying that Lawn and Garden job was like a stab of white hot hope, a vein of gold scribbled on a seam of lignite. I started on a Monday and the Sunday before, I went to church which I had not done since Winnie passed. I figured it was time to give the Divine another shot. I even wore my suit. My suit, the only suit I’ve ever owned – a charcoal gray outfit with pinstripes and wide shoulders – was what I wore to my Walmart interview and to my senior prom twenty-five years ago. I slid into a pew at the very back while the people were on their feet with their hands raised up and their hands were like the faces of daisies scanning the sky for more light. But the lights were low in the church except up in the pulpit. A spotlight engulfed the pastor’s face, a face that shined down on us and shot-gunned the Good News over our heads every minute or so. I thought I was revived.
I didn’t see Mark the next day and since I didn’t have anybody to open up the door for, I stayed in bed, though one time I did get up. The cicadas were screeching and I stepped outside and pissed in the grass and sucked in a giant lungful of night air – thick and hot, filled with the reek of decaying alfalfa and the sludgy mud that builds up after a thunderstorm. Around here, the mud never seems to dry up.
My dreams were full of monstrous Winnies. In one, we were on a date to Olive Garden. Everything was normal until the waitress asked us if we wanted to pay a quarter apiece to sample the wine. I said sure and the waitress poured it, this pink sweet stuff in a green bottle. I said, “Now there’s fifty cents I’ll never get back.” I looked at Winnie and the thin, pale skin of her face was suddenly pocked with holes. Dime sized holes. Her cheek and jaw muscles and all the jaggy nerves stuck out. The holes grew and grew until everything slid away – her eyes and nose, her long brown hair – it all slid into a goopy pile on the table. Her skull said, “But you got me, baby.”
When Mark finally came around a few days later, he had a black eye, a bad one, and he was limping. The eye was swelled up and solid purple. He was in his old overalls and old boots, the laces trailing along behind him.
“I fell down the porch steps. Tripped on my own feet like an idiot.”
I passed him my menthols and matches and went to the kitchen to start the coffee maker. When I came back with a couple of steaming mugs, there were two crushed-out butts on the table and a third cigarette half smoked and hanging from his bottom lip. He was touching his eye with his fingertips and sucking in little puffs of air.
Eventually, he said, “You think Lawn and Garden is hiring?”
“Maybe. I don’t really know.”
“I was thinking you could put in a good word for me.”
“My word don’t mean much at Walmart.”
We sat at the table while the morning sun washed over us and threw our shadows onto the table top and down onto the linoleum. We smoked all the cigarettes and eventually the coffee pot was empty. It gurgled and hissed and popped on the warming plate and I just sat there and let it. But Mark said, “You better turn that off. You’ll burn down Winnie’s trailer.”