I was hanging out with my sister-in-law because my wife was stuck on the night shift. Usually, I entertained myself on Friday nights—a coffee house or a hockey game. But if Merrill called to whine about the heebie-jeebies, we’d figure out something to do.
It was snowing again at the end of a grey day of slush, at the end of a greyer than normal February. After I’d taken Merrill to cancel her car insurance then to apply the refund to her phone bill, we’d been arguing about where to eat.
I was ready for chili in a bread bowl at Border’s. They usually have free entertainment on Friday night. Merrill wanted the endless breadsticks or bottomless minestrone at Olive Garden. Her appetite was coming back. I had to make sure she could pay for her own meal if we went there. I reminded her that I wasn’t made out of money. So then her mind drifted to Acropolis Coney.
Merrill had been in recovery for awhile, herself, so she just rolled her eyes when I told her it was Richie O’Malley on my lame, pre-paid cell phone. He said he was holed up in his dinky house with all the doors locked. I hadn’t seen Richie but once or twice since I retired and left him behind, chasing the line at the auto plant. He came to my stepson’s wedding last October. He didn’t look like he was using again—he has a skinny build to begin with.
“Listen, man,” he whispered. “Whataya doing? Is this a bad time?”
“Richie, speak up! This phone sucks.”
“Are you in town? I need ya do me a favor.” He was still whispering. He sounded like he might begin to weep. “We don’t know what we’re doing yet. Taking Merrill around on some errands first. Her car crapped out. What can I do for ya?”
The mention that my sister-in-law was along seemed to throw him for a moment.. “You still there?” I asked.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here. Shit, man. Merrill’s with you?” He wasn’t whispering now. He sniffled. “She can’t see me like this, man. Can’t let her see me.”
“Fine. She’ll stay in the car,” I said. “What do you need from me?”
“Dude, I’m still kinda sick and I’m outta cigarettes,” he coughed. “No way can I leave the house. I’m avoiding some people. Bring me a couple a packs a Winstons and I’ll pay ya back.”
“O.K. We’ll be right there. We’re on Bristol now.”
“Can you get them in the box. Not the pack?”
I holstered the cell phone and whipped into the first place I saw, a 7-ll. “What’s his problem?” Merrill asked.
“We’ve gotta make a run for him,” I told her. “He’s flipping out over at his place.”
“Woah, man. I can’t be around him if he’s fucked up,” she said. But then she started brushing her hair in the visor mirror.
“Guess what. He feels the same way about you,” I said. “You’d think you people would try to help each other.” Merrill cracked the passenger-side window and lit a cigarette while I tried to park close to the entrance.
“Sometimes. Or you end up stealing from each other.” She pursed her mouth an inch from the opening to exhale. “He’s called me twice since the wedding.”
“So? At least you two have something in common.”
“I’m just not attracted. He’s a nice guy but he hypers around like a Chihuahua or something. When we danced at the reception? He was, like, shaking.”
I knew the irony of this was probably lost on bony Merrill, who was still trying to fill in the junky shadows on her own face.
Big, wet flakes splatted on the windshield when I came out of the store. I got back on Bristol Road and headed west. “You know what I think it is?” I said. “It’s the nice guy part that doesn’t appeal to you. Richie isn’t dangerous enough. And you can’t sit still five minutes either.”
“Yeah, well. When I do sit, I’m not rocking back and forth like a meth freak.”
It was almost dark for the rush hour. We waited through two long traffic lights. So many cars hauling ass, then creeping, trying to get to the banks. A line of vehicles backed out onto the street at the Credit Union by Holy Redeemer Church. Get the money on a Friday night and take the wife and kids for franchise burgers. Take them all to Wal-Mart afterward for entertainment. Cheap shoes and video games for everybody. Someone must still be working.
I turned north onto Fenton Road, headed back across the unguarded frontier into Flint. The neighborhoods deteriorated with each block. Past South Flint Plaza, it was all check-cashing- 40 ouncer stores and used tire places that had once been gas stations. The Plaza used to be one of the first shopping malls ever. Now they were down to a few nail salons, a video warehouse, and one huge showroom full of mobile home furniture. “Lincoln Street, I think,” I said.
“Don’t ask me.”
The side street was narrowed by unplowed snow and derelict cars stuck in grimy drifts.
“This area is really going down. He should have sold the place after his last divorce.”
“Welcome to my world,” Merrill said. “But guess where the money would’ve gone. He’s lucky he still has a place.”
“We’ll see.” I had been to Richie’s house only a few times. There were lots of unpainted drywall repairs and carpet remnants. I didn’t know the address and there were hundreds of one-story-frame places cloned in the fifties for auto workers with VA loans. I crept the car down the middle of the street, looking for his S10 truck with the capper, or his beat-up Cavalier. The back of his truck was always packed with camping and fishing gear. He’d always have that stuff, at least. There wasn’t much hock value in any of it. Maybe the Coleman stove or the fly casting reels.
I found the Cavalier, which I remembered was red. I could see enough red under a week’s worth of undisturbed snow. The truck was not in the drive or by the curb. Merrill had had cars stolen by friends and associates and had stolen cars in turn.
“Be right back,” I told her.
“I’m about starving, ya know.”
The front walk hadn’t been shoveled but was trampled passable. Same situation with the porch. I scuffed at the thick, icy build-up. A sizeable chunk broke loose and ricocheted off the aluminum storm-door frame. I followed that up with some hefty pounding. There was no glass in the frame. It clattered on its hinges. There were no lights on inside, that I could see.
“Richie! C’mon, man,” I called. The Good Samaritan business was going to wear thin if he didn’t meet me halfway. “Winter out here!”
I heard footsteps then, stopping short of the door. I knew he must be in the vestibule. You’d think someone with his history would have one of those peep-hole gizmos in a heavy, steel door. But this was a peely, painted wood job, delaminating at the bottom. Richie would be trying to take a peek out the drapes of his front window. Then the dead-bolt clanked back and the door opened about the width of his nose, still secured on the sort of chain you’d use for a cat leash.
“I ain’t got anything. Go the fuck away.”
“It’s me, numbnuts! Geez-us! Did you or did you not put in an order for smokes?” I tried to peer into the gloom. Richie wasn’t backlighted by so much as a stove light, candle, or even his aquarium.
“Cliff? You got a new car?”
“No. Same car. Holy shit! What’s going on in there?”
The chain slipped from its track and rattled against the door. “Well, guess,” Richie said. He turned on a tiny table lamp which sat on the floor of the vestibule. It gave off the glow of a child’s night light.
The door parted enough for me to angle in. Sure enough, the aquarium which had been his pride and joy in sobriety was shut down and devoid of life. On a pedestal in one corner, a portable TV had replaced his big flat-screen.
“Tell me you didn’t eat your fish,” I said, handing him the Winstons.
Richie stared at the tank for a moment. He ran his fingers through nearly white hair slicked back into a thin queue. “I guess I did, in a way,’ he said. “The shop gave me a sick-leave after Christmas, but I only just got a check yesterday.” He dug in his pockets and pulled out a wad of bills. He handed me a ten. “I needa get rid of this fast, while I’ve got it.”
“Oh, that makes sense. How come you’re not in rehab, anyway?”
He scratched his neck and shoved the money deep. “No need now, pardner. This run has just about petered out. I meant I needa get out an’ pay up my bills before I get tempted.”
When Richie turned to find a lighter on the dinette table, I saw the grip of a gun in his back pocket. It was a small piece, a chick’s purse weapon, maybe a .25 automatic, but huge on his faded buttocks in the dim front room; big enough to defend a narrow doorway, I supposed; accurate enough across his warped porch. “I’ll be alright now,” he said. “If these assholes’ll quit draggin’ me back in. I gotta go back to work next week.”
“So you better pull it together,” I said. I stood in the arch between the front room and kitchen.
“I’m gettin’ there.” Richie shrugged. “I may leave the house tomorrow if no one else visits.”
“Is the bathroom still through here?”
“Straight on back. The kitchen switch is behind you. Don’t mind the mess.”
It wasn’t that bad. A fluorescent tube flickered on above the sink, both halves of which were surprisingly empty. His trash basket, however, had overflowed with Styrofoam plates.
“These are killing the planet, ya know,” I said. I pushed down on the heap as I stepped past. The hatch on the cover slapped closed as I entered the bathroom. Two bare bulbs glared above the vanity when I found the chain. I shoved the door closed with my foot.
“My sister brought those after she cashed my check,” Richie called. “She did up the dishes, too, last…It was…Christ, Tuesday? No, that was somebody’s girlfriend. I dunno anymore.”
“Sorry I brought it up, dude.” I let go a sustained trickle of all-afternoon-coffee drinking while holding the seat up with a free hand. It wobbled on loose hinge pins through the pube-grubby porcelain. I didn’t think the sister or anyone else had made it this far with the 409 and a sponge. The tub spigot leaked its own steady drizzle. Two rolled-up towels at the base of the toilet stanched the linoleum.
“It’s O.K.,” Richie said from the kitchen. “Did this to myself, right? Lucky Barb’d even come over. My brother-in-law took the truck for safe-keeping.”
I took my shakes in the harsh shadows.”Hey, Richie. Can I flush this bad boy?”
“Far’s I know.”
I didn’t wait for the slow whirlpool to choke down. I killed the light and backed into the kitchen. “You need anything else, man? Have you got any food in the place?”
“Ummm,” Richie’s scratching moved from collar bone to abdomen. He opened the refrigerator. “I had some Doritos when I got up. Around lunch? There was pizza in here. I think Barb said she boiled some eggs. I was sleeping.”
Just then, Merrill beat the door a sharp rap and stuck her head in. Richie nearly leaped out of his slack skin as he whirled. He recognized her before he could find his back pocket.
“Hey, Rich.What’s the deal, Cliff?” Her eyes popped wide, like someone had awakened her with a cattle prod. “I’m getting lightheaded out there.”
“How are you?” Richie mumbled. He eyed her quickly then turned back to the hollow appliance.
“She’s jonesing for some buffet.” I told him. “And forgetting her roots. Listen, we’re gonna go get you something, unless you can force yourself to come with.”
He reached into the refrigerator and touched the eggs in a bowl. “Awww, guys, c’mon. I’ve held you up long enough.”
“Screw that,” I said. “We’ve all been there, one way or another. And Merrill used to do-good with Catholic Outreach, if you can believe it. Grab your coat.”
“Nahhh, man. I can’t do it yet,” he said. “Word hasn’t gotten around yet, I’m dry. They’ll pull out my wiring if I’m not here.”
Merrill slipped in and leaned back against the door, hugging herself in her hooded mackinaw. “I’m sorry, Richie. I can wait. I think I saw wild-cherry Hall’s in the glove box.”
“You stay out my glove box,” I said. “O.K., then. Arby’s, Big John Steak ‘n’ Onion? Just name it.”
Richie straightened, empty handed, and gently closed the refrigerator. He turned toward us but stared at the floor. “Anything with nutrition to it, I guess. Nothin’ that’s gonna blow right through.” He handed me a twenty.
“You got it. We’ll be right back.” I followed Merrill out the door and down the steps, surprised when Richie turned the porch light on behind us.
We drove back the way we’d come. I tried to remember where I could find the nearest KFC. Hill Road, I thought. Chicken strips in original batter, mashed potatoes, or maybe mac’n’cheese were probably harmless.
“Was that actually a gun in his pocket?” Merrill asked, two lights south on Fenton Rd.
“Nah. He was just glad to see you,” I said.
“It was in his back pocket,” she said. “Believe me, if he’s burning rock, pussy’s the last thing on his mind.”
“Well, then. He was just showing you a nice fruit basket,” I laughed.
“You jerk. Hey, pull in here!” Merrill blurted. We’d gone through the Bristol Road intersection and were nearly past the entrance of a neighborhood Kroger.
“Why?” I hit the brakes. “Their delis aren’t that great and he won’t wanta cook anything.
We don’t want him monkeying with the stove.”
“I’ll take care of it,” she said. “Once you do-good, you won’t go back. Haven’t you ever heard that one?”
The parking lot was nearly full. We ended up at the back. I handed Merrill the twenty.
“Nothing spicy. There should be spuds on the menu somewhere.”
“Relax. I can do this,” she said.
The snow was falling quicker. The wipers patted it into clumps. It whirled in the floodlights and collected on the salt-bleached asphalt. It wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on, but it wasn’t my job to talk her down. Richie didn’t have a bad bone in his body, not really. I didn’t know him like a brother, exactly, but I couldn’t see where he’d find the abuse, mental or physical, to keep Merrill amused. Any more than I could picture him pulling that trigger. Maybe it was just her sporadic Christianity talking. But then, my status as a shrink was, admittedly, amateur.
In spite of my caffeine level, I nearly dozed off to that wiper and heater duet. Merrill’s hood was tugged forward like an undersized unibomber as she perp-walked the last few feet. She kneed the door a couple of times for me to look alive and open. A bag dangled from each bare hand.
“That was only a twenty,” I said.
“He owes me five, then.” She swung the bags into the back seat. “I got round steak. I got au gratin in a box. dinner rolls and ice-cream. One of those jello parfaits. I think they’re caca, but they’re easy on the stomach.”
“That should do the job, alright, if he’ll eat. Better buckle up.”
The rush-hour jam had abated somewhat, but there were still plenty of cars forcing their way through the elements to start the blue-collar weekend. A few knuckleheads tested their antilock brakes on the veneer of slush trying to crystallize on the street. Merrill braced her hands on the dash, her eyes wide with a return of survival instincts.
“Oh, do I love the straight life,” she said. “Would you slow down?”
“It’s not me, darlin’.” I eased down to the Bristol Rd. light for what seemed the umpteenth time that day. “I gotta tell ya, though. This isn’t what I had in mind for my evening. If you’re broiling that, you’ll have to pound the crap out of it first.”
“Really?” Merrill cracked the window and started another cigarette. “Don’t you wanna wait around while I marinade the damn thing?”
“No, I don’t,” I told her. “I wanna hear some live music and listen to strangers talk on their cells. I want chili in sourdough, damn it!”
Merrill chuckled. “Caca. Those bread bowls have sat in the display case all day. Better hope one of those kids doesn’t lose a tongue stud in it.”
“Whatever,” I said. My traction broke loose in the first two gears. We were nearly back to Richie’s neighborhood before I dropped it into sixth. “So I’m coming back for ya? Is that the plan?”
She gave me a dirty look. “No way am I staying overnight. You keep your phone on, alright?”
“Sure. They close at ten, though. Let’s just say ten.”
“I’ll call,” she repeated. “Company comes, I want out of there.”
A salt truck roared south like a one-lane avalanche. I waited for it to clear then turned onto Richie’s street. Merrill relaxed enough to flip down the make-up mirror in her visor. She went to work with a tube of gloss as I tiptoed, again, down the constricted street. Now there were adolescents and preenys with shovels and snowballs to be watchful of. I suppose that wasn’t the worst thing, to be out getting some fresh air, unless they were too
poverty stricken for X-Boxes. Nah, I thought. They’d have to be homeless first.
“O.K., here we are,’ I said. I inched into Richie’s short driveway. There were no other vehicles at the curb on either side. “Looks like the coast is clear. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“You heard him say he was done,” Merrill said. “And he claims he isn’t holding.” She hoisted the groceries out of the back seat. “That’s usually true when a run is over with…for awhile. Besides, I’m good.”
“Baby, you are do-good.” I laughed.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. She pushed the door closed with a slushy sneaker.
I backed out and plugged my cell-phone into the lighter to make sure it was charged. For just a heartbeat, I considered that it might be kinda crazy to drive to the other side of town now. It could take twenty minutes in this slop and then the chili would be gone. But I kept going. It was too late to do anything but let nature take its course. Let poor Richie stutter his gratitude. Merrill’s relentless sort of 12-step empathy was probably enough to make any sentient person shiver like a Chihuahua—no matter what those motivations, buried in the scar tissue, might truly be.
Christopher Dungey has published his work in Zone 3, Asphodel,
Pinyon, Timber Creek Review and is forthcoming in Rockhurst Review.