by Alan Abrams
Larry didn't leave a lot behind: the tab from the nursing home, a broken down wife, and an old camera. I took nearly a pickup load of his stupid clothes and some other god-awful stuff to Value Village. Junk that'd been cluttering up the attic since they moved in with us nine years ago. Pots and pans, table lamps—household stuff—like they were going to get their own place again. As if. Danielle kept the old albums. The camera wasn't too bad, though; a Nikkormat, and some pretty nice lenses. Those I stashed with my own gear.
I had to take off work, right in the middle of a big project. Real quick I bought him a grave—a double decker. When she kicks the bucket, Caroline—his wife—will get the last laugh, laid out on top of his boney ass. Maybe you already guessed, but Caroline's a big girl. The funeral parlor called to ask if anyone wanted to see him before they boxed him up, so I said what the hell. Damn if he wasn't wearing my tie—Danielle must have given it to them, because she probably couldn't find one of his. He hated wearing ties. But even so, he still looked a lot more peaceful than the night he died.
Man, he was pissed—pissed when we got there, and even more pissed when we left. I'll never forget the anger in his eyes. There he was—almost 88 years old—and still feeling like he was cheated out of life. He just wanted to be home. For one thing, it was at least two hundred bucks a night, for a place that smelled worse than the monkey house. But that's the way it had to be—I guess Danielle felt she had her hands full enough with her mother. At least he had his own room and could do his dying in private. He was moaning when we walked out of there.
The dumbest thing I did was to hire that preacher to do the service. We kind of knew each other, from when I patched the leak in the bell tower roof—but I'd never been to one of his services. I mean, I hadn't gone to church since I was a kid, except for funerals and weddings. None of us did, for that matter. He probably felt about as uncomfortable as we did, praying over some guy he never met. All that everlasting life BS—even Larry was probably sniggering about it. Another two-fifty down the tubes. It was just us, anyway—except for Caroline, who of course had to sit in the car.
Most likely Larry tossed out his ties when he retired. He couldn't stand his job; got out the day his social security kicked in. Selling furniture for nearly forty years. Then they sold their house and moved down to Saint Pete.
Big dreams he had, fishing every day. A real place for family to come and visit. I don't know what Caroline wanted—besides a recliner, a big TV, and a couple scoops of Rocky Road. Larry could have bought a place in Paris France and I don't think she would have cared one way or the other.
We did go down once or twice, but what a joke. All of us packed into that house, Danielle and me sleeping on air mattresses in front of the fireplace—yeah, a fireplace—for when the temperature plummets to the sixties, I guess. And Christmas morning, that little brat—her nephew—running around at the crack of dawn, ripping open his presents and squealing, while his parents were still sleeping in the spare room.
By that time, Caroline was pretty wracked up with MS. It wasn’t long after, Larry had a massive heart attack, right on the table while they were doing his bypass. Danielle and her sister would go down, one after the other, each staying for weeks. Somehow, he got over it, doing those morning walks before the mall officially opened. I'm sure it was because they were mostly women. He was a handsome old goat—and I do mean the goat part.
It was the goat thing that got him into that mess. They were always coy about their anniversary, which didn't quite jive with big sister's birthday. Right away he joined the Navy. He had some college, so they put him in with the code breakers—spent the entire war in Hawaii.
That was when he got seriously into cameras. He showed me a shot he took of some mountain right at the edge of the water, all nice and framed. Won a prize for it. Son of a gun had balls enough to complain about his time there, chilling on the beach while my old man was in some tin can with wings, twenty thousand feet over Germany.
Larry never made it back to school, after the war. Big sister was already four, and big momma must have gotten pregnant with Danielle the night he got back. Or maybe that afternoon. Can't blame him though—I've seen pictures of her, and she was hot, back then. You could see, though, how she was going to fill out.
I never got all the details straight, but there were a couple of go-rounds in business with his old buddies. Something about a roofing company, which led to installing TV antennas. Larry was the ladder man. Then one of the partners punched out the RCA dealer and things went south after that. But the dealer hooked up Larry with the furniture store, and that was that.
Thirty eight years, I think it was. They wouldn't let them sit down, even when nobody was in the store. Said it made them look lazy. All that standing gave him those plantar things. I can't figure out why he never told his boss to shove it, but I guess he convinced himself he was stuck.
Big sister gave him grief, too. Running off with the kid from the gas station when she was fifteen. A year in reform school didn't do much good either. I don't know if her current old man is her third or fourth husband—or even if they're really married. Four kids, none of them with the same dad.
He took it out on Danielle. She told me he'd come into her bedroom and lecture her for hours, and if she looked away, he'd make her turn around and look him in the eye. Then it was back to how the boys just had one thing on their mind—at least he was right about something. But you’d think seeing what happened to her sister might have taught her enough already. On the other hand, maybe it taught her a little too good.
What kept old Larry going were vacations. As soon as they got back from one, they'd start planning the next one, but it was always the same. Some ratty bungalow along Hatteras, and his surf fishing gear. In the pictures he's always grinning, wearing a mashed up pork pie hat, dangling a string of croakers. Two skinny girls in swim suits, and big momma casting the wide shadow.
After the kids left, they started going down to the Gulf. Caroline couldn't sit very long, and she was afraid to fly, so he got her there by taking the car train. That way she could lie in a bunk all the way down. In the end, they wound up in Saint Pete.
Maybe they had one good year together down there. Then, the heart attack—and by the time he got back on his feet, Caroline had started going down the tubes. Pretty soon she got to where he couldn't go out except a couple hours at a time, because she needed help going to the can. They hung on another few years like that, but it was grinding him down. Finally they called us and said they were throwing in the towel.
Danielle had me take her all around to look at apartments—she doesn't drive either. Just like her old lady. They all looked the same to me, the ones they could afford. Trampled lawns, too many kids running around, too many vans and pickups in the parking lot. Too much like the places I used to live at.
Then I came up with my bright idea, and told them to stay with us. Puh-lease—if I ever come up with another dumb idea like that, just get the Beretta and shoot me in the back of the head. Danielle was shocked I said it. But they ate it up, and just like that they were here.
They each had to have their own room. I thought that was insane but Danielle said they were used to it, and that they would drive each other nuts because each of them had their own TV's and their own shows, and no way they could share a bathroom. Jesus Christ—it's his own damn wife. It wouldn't kill him to sleep with her. No surprise that didn't go over. Every time I’d bring it up she’d give me that look—which means you’re already out of luck this week—do you want to go for two?
So Big Momma got my den, and Larry got the middle bedroom upstairs. I fixed up the little room next to the boiler and moved Angie down there—but it was ok, because she liked being out of the way, and anyway by that time she wasn't staying home all that much. Danielle didn't mind either, not being her mother and all. They basically just tolerated each other. Not that it was easy for either of them. Me bringing Angie home when she was thirteen—right after Danielle and I finally got hitched—when her own bat-shit crazy mother couldn't handle her any more.
Then Danielle made me redo the downstairs bath for Caroline. I put in a big roll-in shower. Ripped down the joists so it all sat down flush with the floor—came out real slick. I think she used it maybe once.
At first, Larry wasn't too bad to be around. Always cheery, full of jokes. Whenever I came in, it was how ya doin, boss, but as soon as I'd start to tell him, right away he'd switch the subject and start talking about himself. And after about the tenth time I heard the same old story I'd just grit my teeth and grin, and duck out as fast as I could. Pretty soon I'd cringe just seeing him. Always hanging out in the kitchen. I had to give up cooking, it got so bad.
But we actually went fishing once, even though I stink at it, and it's about as boring as watching these ice cubes melt in this glass of gin. It was spring. We took my brother's old Grumman canoe up the Potomac. He’d wrapped it around a boulder one time, and had pounded it back out more or less straight, but the aluminum skin leaked through a dozen pinholes where it had buckled. I tried stuffing the holes with that gummy crap they use for lures, but it didn't do much good. While I was fussing with that, we got caught in the current between some island and the river bank. The bank was steep on both sides, with no place to land. Besides, it had rained the night before, and the current was wicked. I didn't know whether we'd sink first, or get washed ass over tea kettle down Great Falls. I was in back, chopping so hard I thought I would bust an artery—but Larry was up front, paddling away like a champ. Long, smooth, powerful strokes. That doc in Saint Pete must have done one hell of a job on his ticker, because we made it back to the landing ok. I don't think I could have done it myself.
One time he talked me into going with him down Rock Creek to take pictures. He liked this old stone bridge, near a hairpin bend in the road. Stony outcroppings, big boulders in the stream bed. I was more into the girls jogging by in their spandex tops, but Larry scrambled down the bank and tiptoed out on the stones into the creek. What a sight, this goofy old geezer in his goofy crumpled hat, big camera bag swinging around his neck. Still some spring in those skinny legs.
I figured Danielle would never let me forget it if he fell in and drowned, even though it wasn't hardly up to your knees. So I caught up with him and we sat there on a boulder in the middle of the creek. He started talking about the old days, when he had to work on his step father's ice wagon all summer long. Sundays was his day off, and he'd take girls down here, and get them to pose on the bridge, taking their picture with his Brownie Bull's Eye. Then he'd talk them into hiking up the slope to some spot he knew, and bang them bare ass in the bushes. If he was telling the truth, he screwed half the high school girls in Washington DC.
Suddenly he got up—he had to take a dump. It was his damn diverticulitis. I got him back in the car and we tore off to the park police station, the closest shit house we could think of. But the damn cops wouldn't let him use their toilet, and we had to go a few more miles up the road to a public bathroom. All the way I was praying he could hold it, or if he couldn't, that it wouldn't leak through his britches and ruin my seat. Thank god we made it in time.
But sitting in the lot waiting for him, I recognized the hill behind the building. It was the same place I'd parked with Jennie, that summer after high school was over. It was drizzling that night, and we were really steaming up the windows. But she didn't want to go all the way in the car, so we got out and walked up the hill to a flat spot, under some big trees where it was still dry.
She'd done it before, but it was my first time. That was the night she got pregnant with Angie—assuming it was me who was the father, of course. (Then again she does have my nose.) Anyhow, it was no more school for me. I got into framing, electrical work, even some plumbing—a little of everything at some time or another. We stayed together a few years, and then I just wound up with one after the other.
I've been with Danielle the longest, but no kids. I wanted more, but I just couldn't see it with her. There's something walled off about her, something out of whack. Can't put my finger on it. Plus we’ve hardly been doing it anymore—and then with Larry on the other side of the bedroom wall—damn! Tell the truth, the way she is, it's better to take matters into your own hands, if you know what I mean. At some point, you get tired of trying to please someone who just doesn't want to be pleased.
* * *
After some years went by, Caroline was no good for anything except lying in bed and being diapered and spoon fed. Danielle would hang out with her and watch TV, every night, straight through Letterman. Every so often, Larry would pop in for a minute or two, and ask, how ya doing, ma. She'd reply, just ducky, Mr. Lucky, and he'd say that's good, ma, and go back to his room. Unless there was some babe on, in a skimpy outfit. Then he’d hang out for a while. But no matter how good looking, he’d always say, why doesn’t she do something about that nose, or don’t ya think her eyes are kinda close together, or if I had legs like that I’d wear pants. Jesus—as if any of them would even give him a second look. Then Danielle would shoot him a dirty look and he’d go back up to his room.
You know, I think Caroline enjoyed being cared for. Like she was entitled. I'll bet if she was offered back her health she'd say no thanks. And the more helpless she got, the more Danielle got sucked into it. Look at the stuff she feeds her—nothing but cookies, candy, cake and ice cream. Chips are out because she might choke. She says she just wants her to be happy. But if I was the one rolling her big butt around to change her sheets and her diapers, it would be nothing but dry toast and iceberg lettuce. I just don't get it. Danielle's starting to sprawl a little herself, like it’s contagious. What I can’t figure is how she stands it, night after night after night. She even calls her mommie, in this little girlie voice. It’s like she gets some kind of comfort out of it all. Go figure is all I can say.
When we first hooked up, Danielle was different. She was working for some some hotshot stock broker—his secretary, basically. A big outfit. He was a real lech, in my humble opinion. According to her, the most he ever did was stick his tongue in her mouth during a Christmas party. I don't know if I believe her—or even if I care—I mean, that was a long time ago. And, you know, she was actually kind of uptight, even with her boobs swinging free under those silky blouses. So maybe she didn't. Still, we had some good times, back then. She was proud of the closet full of shoes and dresses, her fancy little coke scale. Her apartment was awful funky, but it was close to where I was working, so we started hanging out pretty steady.
She did real good at the firm. Making real money—more than you'd expect for a secretary. Of course, she was picking up his dry cleaning and booking his flights, and writing school papers for his daughters. By the time she quit, she was making more than what I did in a good year—which, by the way, I haven't had since way back when we bought the house.
And that's two more mistakes I ought to be shot for. One's buying that house, when we had that perfectly good little shack in Old Town. It had a concrete foundation and nice, meaty joists. A nine millimeter would probably bounce off the stucco. But Danielle got in a feud with the neighbors when they built that big addition, sucking me into all that pure stupidity over nothing. This piece of you know what we've got now, it's as big as the neighbors—including the addition—and the mortgage is killing me. Plus if it wasn't so big, maybe I wouldn't have invited Larry and Lard Butt as permanent overnight guests.
The other was letting her quit. She'd been working there for twenty two years, and was doing all kinds of stuff, like analyzing trends, talking to clients, talking about portfolios. If I ever had two dimes to rub together, I’d have given it to her to invest. The big boss even gave her an office all by her self. But the the shit hit the fan when he hired a new girl, some babe who should have easily been a model or a movie star if she wanted. Of course, she had a master's degree, and Danielle didn't even finish junior college. It was bad enough when the boss would take Miss Smart Ass to lunch and leave Danielle to answer the phone, or write up his daughter's college application, but when the she bumped Danielle out of her own office it was the end.
All that seniority, she could have transferred somewhere else and hung on another eight years, to make out like a bandit. But to hear all about it, day after day, got me riled up too—so I finally told her to tell them to shove it, and she did. Never got a real job after that. Now look at us, this house starting to fall apart, and I can barely pay the taxes, much less get it painted.
* * *
Larry started falling apart, too. Prostate cancer began eating him up, and all kinds of bizarre things happened to his heart. Nobody seemed to have a handle on it. Between the two of them, it seems like all I did was shuttle them around to doctors and chemo and ER's. When he couldn't make it up the steps anymore, I moved him into Caroline’s room, and made a new bedroom for her in the dining room. Of course I had to build another damn bathroom right there in the front corner. It broke my heart to drill through those beautiful oak planks. You can't get wood like that anymore. But you know how the story goes—no way they could share the one room or the one bath. I put it all together with screws, so it'd come apart easy whenever she goes—although she's taking her sweet time of it. Who knows, she might outlast me.
Anyway, the camera. Damn if there wasn't a roll of film in it, half exposed. So I wound it back up and had it developed. When I picked up the prints, there he was, that son of a gun, staring right back at me. His eyes all hollow and his cheeks sunken in. The shots are dark and blurry, and he was having trouble aiming, because some were just his mouth or just his forehead and eyes. You can't imagine anything creepier.
What the hell were you trying to tell me? You damn sure knew where things were at. And you knew I'd find them. Well I guess it's only fair—did my best to duck you while you were kicking, now you get me back by shoving your old dead face back at me again. In a crazy way, it’s like looking in a mirror.
You win, you old bastard, you win.