“California Redemption Value” by Cathy Warner

 

The kid was in his face, a little guy with blue eyes and a dinosaur T-shirt. “Hey, Mr. Guy, are you a pirate?”

Bo shook his head no, but the kid didn’t notice.

“’You look like a pirate. I saw Peter Pan and the bad pirate has a gone eye like you. And there were lots of pirates with arms all marked up like you. Gammy gets mad when I draw on my arms and scrubs me too hard.”

Bo slid the box of Trojans back on the bottom shelf, his chance to pocket them gone.  It was a small town drugstore. Someone would be looking for the kid soon. He stood up and the kid gaped at his fringed leather chaps.

“Oh, you’re a cowboy! I got pants like that on my birthday. But I don’t have a gun. Gammy said No guns. Guns are bad. Guns kill people. Don’t kill people, okay?”

“Sure, kid,” Bo walked away. It was a little too late for that.

He was low on money and had been sleeping his way down from Alaska.  He could usually find a woman who’d take him home.  But, the last week he’d slept outside, hidden in burned out redwoods along 101.

Bo sat on his Harley and surveyed Main Street of this Northern California nowhere. Lucky Seven Saloon, Dale’s Market, Emma’s Beauty Emporium, Videos To Go, and Ace Hardware. Redwood Creek Drugs was the only place to buy rubbers.

Out walked the kid with a brown haired woman in her forties. “Look, Gammy, that’s my friend. He’s not a pirate.” The kid waved. “Hi, Mr. Cowboy Guy!”

Bo nodded. The boy’s grandmother pulled him closer and hurried away. Bo watched them round the corner.

Bo ducked back inside, pocketed the condoms in his jacket and bought travel sized Scope.  He could make it home in three days.  Then what?  He didn’t know.

The Lucky Seven was just like every other small town bar.  Decaying vinyl bar stools, worn wooden floor, a slew of bottles in front of a mirror to make everything look like more.  Bo ordered a beer.  He didn’t get crazy drunk anymore, he watched himself.  Kept control.

He’d been nursing the beer for over an hour when she walked in. About twenty-five, all hair and makeup and tits struggling to stay in her tube top.

“Hey, Gus,” she greeted the bartender.

“Well, Sister Mary Margaret.  Glory be!” he answered.

“Give it a rest.”  She sat next to Bo. “I’m Mag– Mary Margaret to my friend here from Saint Agnes Elementary.” She smiled and held out her hand. Bo shook it. “You’ve gotta be new in town. I know every guy here.”

“Just passing through.”

“On your way to where?”

Bo shrugged.

“What’ll it be, Mag?” Gus asked.

“Two of whatever my friend here is having.”

Gus uncapped two Coors.  Mag slipped him a five and slid a beer to Bo. “I’m feeling generous today.”

“Thanks,” Bo answered.  He kept quiet, trying to gauge his chances with her.

“Not much of a talker, huh?  Well that’s okay.  I’ve got plenty to say, people can’t shut me up, and believe me they try.

Let’s see.” She stopped and appraised Bo. “Bull dog tattoo. Animal Lover?  I could tell you about my twenty-three cats and how my tight-ass neighbor called out the pet cop. Excuse me I mean ‘Animal Protection Officer Farrell.’ Interested?”

“Dunno.”

“You should be ‘cuz it seems Officer Farrell is allergic to cats.  He was sneezing and coughing, and then his windpipe closed up or something.  He was pointing and waving, jumped back in his truck.  Didn’t even get a ticket.”  She paused.

“You allergic to cats?”

“No.”  God she did talk too much.

She ran a finger up his tattooed arm, poked one.  “Carla, huh?  She still in the picture?”

“No.”

“Drag, having to see her name every day.”

“Guess so.”

“What’s your name?”

“Bo.”

“So, Bo,” she sipped the Coors and laughed. “Where you from?”

“Nowhere right now.”

“Bullshit. Everybody’s from somewhere, and if they’re not, they’re running away from somewhere or someone. And if they run too fast, they just go slammin’ into shit even worse than they’re trying to get away from.”

“Believe me, I know about shit.”

Bo looked at her. Underneath the makeup, her eyes were tired. Her puffy hair was bleached and dark at the roots. She had tight little lines around her lips.

“I bet you do.” Bo drained his beer and stood up. “Know someplace where I could camp out?”

“I suppose you can stay in my shed.” Mag cleared her throat. “If you don’t see me tomorrow morning Gus, be worried.”

Bo followed her truck, and heard the rolling of empty bottles every time she turned a corner. It was too easy, he thought. She must have a leaky roof, an asshole boyfriend who was running around on her, something that she needed him to fix.

She drove slow and he maneuvered the Harley around the cloud of dust and potholes. She turned off the dirt road and pulled up beside a small cabin with peeling green paint.

“Hey, Bo. Gimme a hand with the bottles will ya?”

She flipped down the tailgate. “I recycle. Make okay money that way too. See the bins over there.  We need to sort clear and colored.”

Bo picked up an empty bottle and threw it across the yard. It landed in front of the bin and shattered. “C’mon now,” Mag said. “There goes a dime. I can’t redeem it if it’s totally smashed. I can’t save that one.”

“Sorry,” Bo answered. He grabbed a handful of bottles and carried them to the recycling bins. A corrugated tin shed sat behind them.

She fixed him dinner and did his laundry while he took a shower, then a bath. He sunk into the water. God he was tired and everything ached. He was tired of drifting. And the drifting kept bringing him closer to home, as if he was stuck in a current and too weak to fight it anymore.

Mag rapped on the door, came in and stuck a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt on the toilet.  “Probably too big, but your stuff’s drying by the stove.”  She kneeled by the tub and handed Bo a cup of coffee.

“Sit up and I’ll scrub your back.”

Bo leaned forward, “God that feels good.”

“I know.”

He let her wash his back. She massaged his shoulders, neck and back. “Man are you ever tight.  Neck like iron bars. You hold way too much in.”

About now, he thought, would be a good time to have sex. Pull her into the tub, finish his end of the bargain. But then she pushed him back and cupping her hands, poured water over his hair. She started to pull off the eye patch when he put a hand on hers. He looked at Mag. Her blonde hair was in a ponytail, makeup washed off, and she wore an apron––Goofy with blue checks––over her tube top and jeans.

“Don’t,” Bo said. It was too intimate, too personal.

“Trust me, I’m in beauty college.” She set the patch on the pile of clothes. She poured some Vidal Sassoon on her palm then rubbed it into his hair, scrubbing hard. “A good shampoo increases circulation to the scalp, releases those natural hair oils. Plus, it feels like a million bucks.”

She hummed something he didn’t recognize while she washed his face with peach exfoliating gel, and gently circled the scarred eye socket. The soapy smell of her hands reminded him of his mother, holding his young face between her dishwater damp hands and admonishing, “Be good,” before he left for school.

Mag opened the drain, turned on the hot water and rinsed his hair and face.  “I’ll let you finish up.”

He took a long time getting dressed. The clothes were too big, but comfortable. Mag waited at the kitchen table set with two bowls of soup, hunks of bread and plastic tumblers of tap water. Five cats curled at her feet.

“You want me to chop some wood, fix a leak or something?” Bo asked.

“Nah,” she brushed away the thought and pulled out a chair for him. “If it helps, think of yourself as a stray cat I picked up. I give you a bowl of milk, some food, brush out the burrs and the fleas. And you wander off in the morning. That’s just how it works.”

Mag talked all through dinner, and Bo felt himself relaxing. They washed dishes together and he told her a few stories. Safe stories about working in a salmon cannery on Kodiak Island. She laughed at the one about the bear who caught him taking a dump in the woods.

She made more coffee and they sat at the table.  “You want to know about the shit?  You look like a guy who needs to get over the shit?”

“Some things you just can’t get over.”

“Why not?”

“Cause some things aren’t,” he tried to find the right word, “forgivable.”

“You’ve done the unforgivable?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, me too. And I know you’re just not a talker. So, I tell you my shit, and it makes you think about yours right, and how maybe you’re not so terrible, after all. Alright?”

Bo nodded.

“So, I had seven abortions by the time I was eighteen. Seven. Mary Margaret Delaney, pregnant at thirteen, and on and on. No excuse, I was just stupid. Forget the Catholic part. You can always find someone to do the job. But, you won’t believe how much money I had to get. Every time. Made the boys pay a lot of it, too. But, then, you get used to doing things for money. Got a reputation. Finally got some rubbers too. But, anyway, last time, number eight, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was twenty. Still stupid, but I had some idea, buried inside about what I did. So, I had the baby. A little boy. It was supposed to make me grow up, you know, having the baby. But you know what I saw when I held him? I saw all those babies I killed.  Screaming crying babies, and I was drowning them, like kittens, holding them by the neck and shoving them under water until they stopped kicking.”

Mag paused, looked at Bo, and took a big swallow of coffee.  Bo felt numb, like just a corner of his brain was in the room.  He’d been buzzed every night for months, and tonight he felt unreal, like he was watching a movie of himself.

“That’s pretty unforgivable, don’t you think? But it gets worse. I left my baby with my mom. Took off a few weeks after he was born, didn’t leave a note, just walked out the door. I couldn’t stand the sight of him. I did shit for two years.  Two fucked up years.  Then I woke up behind a dumpster one day, and I thought ‘This sucks. I’ve got a baby. Someone to love me, someone I should be taking care of.’  So, I came home. But when I got there, I just hung around outside my mom’s house in the bushes for two days, wanting to see my son and too scared to. The third day, Mom spotted me on her way to the mailbox. ‘Mary, Margaret.  Mary Margaret,’ she couldn’t stop saying my name. She was crying and I was crying and we just stood there in this hug that lasted forever, and then there was this little voice saying ‘Uppy, uppy.’ Mom picked up my baby, I’d never even named him, you know, and said, ‘Seamus, this is your mommy.’”

Mag stopped to add wood to the stove.  Bo held the coffee cup in his hands, trying to ward off the chill that was coming in through the windows.  He got up and stood by the wood stove.  Mag closed the curtains and stood next to Bo, poking the fire.

“This isn’t a fairy tale. Nobody lives happily every after. Mom said she forgave me for running off, and for all the abortions. She said she didn’t do it for me. She said she did it partly because she knew God already had. Mostly, she did it for her. She forgave me because she didn’t want to turn into a bitter old lady. But, she didn’t give Seamus back. She sued for custody. I’ve got supervised visitation, every other weekend.”

She smiled and the tired lines around her mouth and eyes grew darker in the fire’s shadow. “I’m a shitty mom. But I’m learning to love Seamus. I’m trying to be a person he deserves. And I did one thing. I forgave myself, even though I don’t deserve it, I’ll never deserve it. But I don’t want to be a bitter old lady either.”

Bo curled up in the hollow of Mag’s shoulder on the sofa bed. She stroked his hair in the warm room. He held on to her like a young boy holds a teddy bear. “It was my brother,” Bo said. “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.”

“I know,” Mag answered in a hushed tone. She kept stroking Bo’s hair. “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”

At the moment, it seemed possible.

She woke up when he got out of bed. Bo hadn’t counted on that. He wanted to sneak away without seeing her. He’d told her too much last night. And he’d let her in. He didn’t do that. She had been too kind to him. He didn’t deserve it. Now he had to go.

“So, you’re a leave in the morning cat?”

“Usually.”

“It’s okay. I’m not expecting anything.”

Mag stirred the embers of the fire and added more wood. She pulled on her robe. “Do you want breakfast before you go?”

“No, thanks,” Bo answered.

She handed him his clothes and headed to the bathroom. When she came back he was just pulling on his boots.

“Take care of yourself,” she said.

“Thanks.”  Bo nodded and left the cabin.

He walked to his Harley. There was a bottle, broken at the neck that had rolled out of the truck, under his tire. Bo picked it up, ready to throw it across the yard.

“Don’t do that! Mommy saves ’em. She says they got deption value, if you don’t break em.”

Bo turned toward the small voice. It was the kid from yesterday. “What?” he asked.

“You know. If it’s not all smashed up, you save it. Then you go to this place and the man gives you a dollar or five cents. But if it’s broke you just got to throw it away. Mommy said the broke stuff is sharp and cuts. Cuts hurt. I don’t like cuts. So I can’t save the broke stuff.”

“Seamus, where are you?” It was the kid’s Grandma calling from a Pontiac at the edge of the driveway.

“Coming Gammy!” Seamus shouted. Then he turned back to Bo. “I’m visiting Mommy today.” He looked at the bottle, “You could save it. Right, Mr. Cowboy Guy?”

Bo looked at the broken bottle. Written on the side of the label was California Redemption Value.

“I don’t know, kid,” he answered. Bo started his bike and rode away, broken bottle in his pocket.

 

 

Cathy Warner serves as lay pastor of a United Methodist Church in Northern California. She writes poetry, short fiction, and faith columns for her local paper.

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