Sam and Dianna Black made a handsome couple, as their friends and families generally agreed, he with his broad shoulders, sleek, jet black hair, and dark, inquisitive eyes, and she with her svelte gracefulness, her golden hair, that was usually set in a high ponytail, and her topaz eyes—the kind that, with their deep intensity, struck the observer hypnotically. They had both done well in college. Sam had one more year to get his bachelor’s degree, and Dianna had two. With a future that looked very promising and feeling joyfully liberated for the while, free from the burden of studying, as it was the middle of July, they now found themselves happily driving their cherished, cherry red, nineteen-sixty-nine Volvo PV544 the five-hundred-and-forty miles from Denver to Salt Lake City to visit Sam’s father, Harold.
Before they knew it, they’d slipped through two-hundred miles of gray and pink sands into a landscape where hill upon dark ashen gray hill seemed to have been bulldozed into long, sweeping piles drooping with sloth resembling brontosaurs. Caught in the hypnotic lull of the long, boring amorphous stretches, the travelers hadn’t spoken for over two hours. But they’d yawned a lot, and when one yawned the other was unable to suppress a yawn, a pattern that repeated until Dianna caught Sam’s eye, and the pair had then laughed hilariously, and their yawns ceased.
Still silent, onward they traveled. Suddenly, out of the long shadows small patches of snow began floating by, and soon the indigo mountain range rose in stark elevation, in continuation of the Rockies, which had begun in Colorado and would continue, unaccompanied by the couple, to Canada.
Sam was the first to speak—“We’re getting close.”
“Thank God!” Dianna replied. “My sciatic nerve is killing me!”
“I could always pull over and let you stand up for a while.”
“No. I just want to get there as fast as possible! This ride has been dull as hell!”
Sam chuckled, answering, “Well, I guess we get used to the fact that Swedes aren’t big on comfort.”
Dianna laughed, adding, “And Utahans aren’t big on landscaping!”
The previous year the couple had married, when Sam was twenty and Dianna nineteen. Sadly, one month later, Sam’s father, Harold, had divorced Sam’s mother, Irene, then, when she had suddenly died of a heart attack, Harold had succumbed to his previously well-hidden desperation, writing checks for groceries and gasoline from her closed account. He’d gotten caught, and received a three-month sentence. Sam and Dianna had picked him up when he’d gotten out of jail in Denver that November, but, instead of “Thanks” he’d asked irritably, “What took you so long? I was processed at noon and it’s two! Do you think the people in the waiting room are the kind it’s fun to hang around with? That bunch of losers!” Miffed that he hadn’t been more humble or gracious the couple had avoided seeing him for the entire year that followed. Yet, because it seemed, after he’d moved to Salt Lake City, away from everyone he knew, in effect becoming a recluse, that he was going to grow old entirely alone, they felt sorry for him, and decided to forgive him and give him a second chance.
In fact, the year that Harold had lived alone, he seemed, from the few phone conversations he’d had with Sam, to have changed from an aggressive, opinionated, in-your-face-looking-for-a-fight-over-just-about-anything sort to a quiet, brooding loner who seemed to have embraced anonymity, a change so drastic it caused Sam to think he might commit suicide. This situation gave Sam a sense of urgency to go to see him in person. Sam worried about his will to live to even greater degree when he agreed to leave his apartment unlocked so that he and Dianna could get in if he was out at the time—a thing when he’d been a policeman that he’d warned others never to do, as he’d witnessed the terrifying results of their noncompliance.
Nightfall was only a few minutes away when the young newlyweds arrived at “Wood Creek Apartments” and exhausted with traveler’s fatigue, though energized by finally being free from the monotony of travel, they plodded heavily up the two flights of stairs and down a barren, gray hallway, to apartment 9. Sam was somewhat alarmed that the number, though a nice one, of polished brass, was hanging upside-down, as recorded in the faint shadow left behind in the wall, because at one time his father had been a neat freak–in fact, so mysophobic he even used to go around his house picking up every speck of lint or fallen thread on the carpet after having thoroughly swept it. The apartment number was not only degraded by its positioning, but stylistically misshapen, reminding Sam of a shoe, at which he had to laugh.
Finally, he knocked at the door out of habit and having manners. Perhaps Harold had merely forgotten to lock it, and was napping inside, after all. After the third knock, however, he was confident his father was out, and turned the knob. As he and his young wife attempted to enter the darkness through the doorway the dead silent air seemed, somehow, to push in vast emptiness back at them, and the tarry odor now suspended inertly left from massive clouds of cigaret smoke to fill their nostrils to the verge of gagging them.
However, determined to learn his father’s living condition, Sam groped along the wall closest to the front door until he felt a light switch, which he flipped on, causing a floor lamp to flare into life on a small table next to a brown Naugahyde Barcalounger that sat across a sea of loose-woven rust-colored Berber carpet flared expansively at the couple’s feet, on the opposite side of the room. The large room combined family room, living room, breakfast room and kitchen, and, besides the lounger, its only furniture, was a coffee table, a fake, dust-covered rubber tree in a pea-green pot, and two chrome-legged bar chairs at the dividing counter. With this prison-like barrenness, the walls seemed to be closing in, punctuated by the imposition of the dark brown door of the single bedroom that resembled a close eye sitting at the end of a hallway opposite the front door.
The travelers’ hunger waned quickly as they met the cold and uninviting kitchen, with its barren wooden counter beset by two plain bar chairs, white refrigerator, and hardwood cabinets that had been painted white, all of which merely extended the dimensionlessness of the place. Following their sudden impulse to escape, they were drawn to the curtain, that, though drawn closed on the sliding door to a balcony, seemed to beckon them with its wild dancing as one of the recurrent breezes characteristic of Utah played with it. Sam pulled the curtain back enough to look out the narrow space of the open door, hoping to discover something inspirational visible from the balcony, but, as a parking lot that could hold two-hundred vehicles filled most of the immediately-visible area that must once have been a field, he let the curtain go with a jolt of ennui and despair.
As Dianna found the switch for the plain hanging lamp rather than even the most minimally-ornate chandelier, that hung in the center of the ceiling in what would have been the dining room, but where a set of table and chairs were absent. From this vantage, the lounger seemed shinier than previously, well-polished, something at least somewhat hopeful—like a lost, wet cow.
This starkness was now wearing on Sam, as he imagined how much more inviting this place would have been if his mother had remained with his father, as she would not only have furnished it fully, but have decorated the walls, which were all blank, with paintings, and had a coffee table on which she’d have put a nice vase of flowers! As he felt the vacancy left in his spirit by her absence, he felt a surge of anger at being reminded of what had always seemed the unfairness of her death, which had been sudden, when she was only forty-six, but he could only muster a half-hearted, grousing cliché, “This place sure could use a mother’s touch!” Yet, his anger, as usual, was slowly supplanted by his own guilt for his irrational sense of blame for his parents’ divorce. Somehow, even though he knew it wasn’t true, he wanted to believe that his having left home to go to Washborne College at the time when his parents been fighting the worst had sealed the deal.
Yet, that was where he’d met Dianna, for which he wanted to feel anything but guilty. But guilt, rational or not, was damned difficult to shrug off! The truth was, in fact, that all of his life, because his father didn’t like him, he’d tended to feel guilty for any good fortune he’d received, and was therefore justified at any chance to feel sorry for himself. Continuing to feed his guilt, and knowing that this was a sore subject for her, he told Dianna anyway, “I think that if my parents had tried harder they could have saved their marriage. Apparently, they didn’t think their grown children would be affected. Now, as he’s pretty much written everyone he’s known off, Dad has to learn that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to have to go through old age solo.”
“But I thought you told me your parents fell out of love,” Dianna reminded him. “How do you try harder when that happens?”
“I think . . .” Now he hesitated, wanting to be accurate. “They just used that clichéd expression to keep others from asking too many questions. I don’t think they were ever in love. But they did sort of love each other like a brother and sister.”
“But haven’t you said the official complaint they both made in their divorce papers was mental cruelty?”
“Yes. He bullied her, and she refused to talk to him, sometimes for several days at a time.”
“But didn’t he knock her down the stairs to the basement, when she was pregnant?” she asked with an accusatory tone.
“Yes. I was there.”
“Like I’ve told you before, that’s beyond mental abuse! But she never attacked him with a knife or even her fist, right?”
“No. I mean yes, she didn’t.”
“Was she ever treated for depression?”
“Like I’ve told you, her generation generally thought that if you went to a shrink you were admitting you were nuts. Or else rich and frivolous and just wanted attention. I guess to brag.”
“But I thought you also said once she feared he might kill her.”
“Not exactly . . . It’s complicated. Like I’ve said, I don’t think he would ever have gone that far. He wasn’t cold blooded. He just grew up very hard, poor during the Depression.”
“But . . . didn’t she go through the Depression, too?”
“Yes, but she had wealthy parents, and could weather it out.”
“All the more reason, as I’ve said a million times, for her to have been . . . normal!”
“Well, like I’ve said, she wasn’t! I think something traumatic happened to her that she never talked about—maybe she was molested by a family member. All I know is she was often very difficult to live with, when not just Dad, but the rest of us, wanted to ask her important questions, and she would just sit frowning, staring into space, and wringing her hands!”
“That would be frustrating, I admit. But I also always thought your father seemed immature to you, so maybe some of his requests to her were unreasonable.”
“Well, he was only nineteen, and Mom was only eighteen, when they got married.”
“Oh? You mean like us?” Dianna quipped.
“Well, hopefully we won’t make bad decisions like they did.”
“Not us!” she joked, feigning imperiousness.
Sam was getting uncomfortable since the conversation seemed to be moving toward ever-greater condemnation of his father, who he felt he’d never really known, any more than his father had known him, and leaving his mother sounding more innocent than he felt she was, so he finally had to tell Dianna, “I . . . really don’t like talking about the dead, as that kind of thing always seems to gravitate toward judging them. They are simply out of reach of the considerations of the living, not only unable to speak for, but to defend, themselves. My mother was simply a very private, unassuming being who’d just wanted to live a while in relative peace. Her biggest fault was that she’d trusted others who meant her no good—a trait I seem to have inherited.
“Get off it!” Dianna scoffed. “You’ve talked about the dead plenty! But I won’t mention your mother any more, since I know we’ll get nowhere analyzing her, okay?”
“It’s not that,” he told her now with rising pique. “I feel that I don’t even have a right to judge the living. And I didn’t really know either of my parents well. Besides, that, to tell you the truth, I had my own disappointments and frustrations to deal with. At one time, I thought I might even have become psychotic.”
“Because your dad never forgave you for not being a good football player?”
“That was part of it. But, then, looking at it from his point-of-view, isn’t it kind of unforgiveable when a guard, like I was, apologizes to his opponent every time he hurts him trying to protect the quarterback?”
“Like you’ve told me a thousand times, you just didn’t like hurting people. What’s wrong with that?”
“In a culture of violence, it forecloses you from the Name-of-the-Father.”
“Now you’ve lost me!”
“We all have an ego, but the superego is its development in imitation of the father, who represents the law, which is supposed to be just, so there’s something wrong with you if you go against it.”
“You don’t have to feel bad you weren’t like him, especially when he tried to hurt you! Do you forget what you told me about the belt spankings he gave you—so bad you had bruises on your face and your mother kept you home from school for two or three days because she was embarrassed and afraid?”
“I can’t deny they were unforgiveable. But I can still understand that to guys like my father my attitude was an insult to their way of dealing with life.”
“Sure!” she scoffed. “Didn’t you tell me that football didn’t make sense to you, that it was just a bunch of sado-masochists bouncing off of each other, just to get a stupid little ball over the goal line! You’ve said that so often I’ve memorized it!” She complained, though grinning, punching him gently in the shoulder.
“The real men!” Sam groused under his breath.
“Well, just remember your dad’s perspective will never change, so if he brings the topic of football up just let him keep talking. If you keep your responses minimal he’ll soon change the subject. As you know, since you’ve followed this routine quite often!”
“He knows, though, when I’m shining him on. I don’t want him to feel bad.”
“Has he ever worried about making you feel bad?” Dianna asked incredulously.
“If I was vengeful I might let him have it. But, as you’ve said, he’s not going to change, so why get into an argument? I’ve just come to accept the fact that I don’t think like other people, in general. In fact, there wasn’t a single man in my upbringing who I wanted to be like.”
“So? Weren’t they all assholes?”
“Yes! Flaming! My male models all came from literature. Have I told you that Benvenuto Cellini, in his biography, was most like a mentor to me than anyone?”
“Yes. But you don’t know what he was really like. Didn’t you tell me he fought as a swordsman for the Médicis? Weren’t they evil? As in the Saint Bartholomew Day Massacre? But they sponsored art, which he benefitted from! I think there’s a lot you don’t want to admit about him just to support a blind ideal!”
“You’re right. And my hang-ups aren’t your problem.”
“Yes, they are my problem, because they’re your problem! But we’re running out of time—I just have one favor to ask for now.”
“Don’t act like you’re desperate for your dad’s approval. Always let him know you’re your own man.”
“I thought I generally ignored him,” Sam answered contentiously.
“There are subtle signs, though, like I’ve told you before, that signal your unconscious fear of him.”
“Right!” Sam scoffed. “Like what?” he challenged irritably.
“I’ve told you before—you cower when he gets adamant about a point he’s making.”
“Well, I’ve asked you before—why don’t I realize it when I do it?”
“I don’t know. I’m just relating what I’ve witnessed.”
“What else do I do?” he challenged.
“You stand with your right shoulder noticeably lower than your left.”
“Anything else?” glaring he asked.
“You wring your hands . . .”
Interrupting, he yelped disbelievingly, “Wring my hands?”
Unsmiling, Dianna nodded silently now.
“Well, I certainly have a lot to keep track of, don’t I!” he scoffed. “I suppose I shouldn’t tell him I had another poem published last week?”
“No! You tell him! Proudly! He needs to know who you are, whether he cares or not!”
“Okay,” Sam replied nearly whispering now with resignation. “Can we change the subject?”
“Look,” Dianna said, not yet finished with subject. “You should pity him. In a way, he’s like a child, wanting everything his way. You can humor him without letting him dominate you, though. Just . . . just get him laughing.”
“Yeah, you’re right, as usual,” he replied now unemotionally. I think he has undiagnosed dyslexia and maybe even ADHD.”
“Well, that would explain why he hates to do ‘paperwork’, as you said he calls it.”
“Yeah. I’m sure he’s been embarrassed plenty because of that, though he never says anything about it.”
“Bullies are bullies because of low self-est . . .”
Dianna’s reply was lost to the sudden screeching, electric explosion of cats that had startled each other into a fight nearby. And now, in the deep moonless darkness that had infused the world unnoticed by the couple, the wind rose, floating up and amplifying two men’s voices in mid-conversation from a nearby sidewalk next to the parking lot, as the curtains danced sedately, yet somehow sensually, from side-to-side in the tight embrace of themselves. The rediscovery of human presence caught in nature’s embrace lent a sense of wildness, even chaos, to the unseen distances, and, as though nature understood this inversion of power, and very soon the wind was pulsing with the hissing rush of giant wings, speeding toward some disastrous unforeseen consequence or mystery. A rumbling crack of distant thunder echoed tangentially through the rushing disruption, now, as well.
“Sounds like a heck of a storm coming,” Sam told Dianna. “It’s a good thing they don’t get tornadoes here! At least not yet!”
Dianna was so intent on deciphering the promise of danger in the rumbling undercurrents of the mounting noise she forgot to answer.
And now one of the distant men’s voices whined, “No, John, I don’ wanna hur’cha. ‘Fi don’ hafta.”
In the darkness Sam and Dianna each went to an end of the balcony door, and peered silently through the glass. The dim streetlamps gave them little more than the murky outlines of the arguing men.
And now the second man answered the first—“Yez ya do, Jim. Bud you gan’t. Schtoopid drungk! Gan’t e’en wog straid! So whud does id all brove? Juz whud?”
“Hey! I wanna b’lieve ya. Godda b’lieve id. Z’this mage shensh, Jhawn? Zwear i’does.”
“Tha’ss up da you!”
Jim’s voice grew louder, now—“Hey! Loogkee here! She’s ma wive! Gotta ‘fend ‘er!”
Yet John continued to whine—“ ‘Fend ‘er ‘til a cows gum ‘ome! ‘Til hell freezens o’er!
Whud in a name o’ Chrise ya tellin’ me vor? Hey—d’I juz say freezens?” Now, as he was laughed impishly to himself.
“Whudever! Say! We been bes’ frien’s now . . . how long? I know’z a long dime!”
“ ‘Fen’ away, bes’ frien’! Ged it? Fen’ frien’?” He laughed again. A sudden, dull thud followed.
Expecting to see two clownish pugilists swinging and missing each other with their fists.
Sam commented, “I suppose no news is good news.”
Dianna was laughing so hard that she couldn’t answer him, though.
From this point on the newlyweds watched in silence, laughing so hard the whole while the drama developed they couldn’t have said anything if they’d wanted to.
The men, having fallen to the ground, had become a pair of grubs rendered naked and pink by the glow of the street lamp that towered over them like a strange flower on a black, steel stalk. And now, with the tactile assertiveness of exhausted athletes, the pair, groping to help each other, managed to crawl up onto hands and knees, and finally face each other nose-to-nose. After a few unmoving moments they continued to struggle upward, mirrors of each other’s diminished being, until they could embrace and help each other stand erect. When they were finally standing, in order to maintain their still-precarious position, they continued to lean into each other, pawing at each other’s shoulders.
Jim suddenly quit wobbling and stiffened into a statuesque pose, with his hand on the John’s shoulder. Then he held up a warning index, his head tilted, jaw thrust out, but said nothing, apparently still thinking about something, or else a thought had suddenly eluded him.
As John continued to sway rubber-kneed, his head wobbled like that of a boxer who’d been punched once too often, yet, at regular intervals, he still managed to continue lifting his free arm intermittently to take a drag on his cigaret.
“If id was ‘nyone elz, Jhawn, ‘nyone’d all,” Jim finally said, “I woulda . . . I woulda . . .
you know whud . . .you gan feel id, gan’t ya?”
“Oh yeahsh, I vfeel id!” dramatically sarcastic John retorted. “Yeah! Ooh yeah! Bud I never e’en feld her up!” Now he laughed, blubbering at his own inflated wit, waving one arm high, causing the lit eye of his cigaret to loop in an eloquently-flourished curlicue. “ ‘Felded!’ Z’that a real word?”
“Hey--loogit!” Jim barked angrily, reeling.
“I know I know I know—I know you know I know you know!—Din’t put a han’ on ‘er.
Or a foot—I swear on’t!” He laughed—“Ya hear? A foot?” Now he was laughing so hard his gleeful spasms were coming in gasps.
“Vunny’z ‘ell! An’ mine’s gonna go ubp yer butt . . . ox!”
“Butt ox?” Now he laughed hilariously. After half a minute of laughing he continued, “Thing you mend butt! But kig away, chump! Ya coon’d hid a barn door!”
“Don’ keep movin’!”
“I did, got-damnidall!”
“Jus’ did, stoobid!”
“Okay! keeb yer zhorts on!”
“No, a ‘mean ya godda really zwear!”
“On a stag o’ bobbles—a snag o’ boddles—a sag o’ birdles—a bag a boobles!! Ah hell, you know whud I mean! On ma granny’s gravy yard . . . or whudever!” John blubbered, reeling.
Jim made no reply.
John nearly begged, “Loogit! Jim! Are you liz’nin’ a me? HEY!”
“If ya trus’ me, WHY DON’ . . . YA . . . JUS’ . . . TRUS’ ME? Tha’s all!” Trying to keep his balance, John was suddenly thrown into a spasmodic, snaking twitch, which, as he flailed his arms to regain his composure, forced him to accidentally shove Jim away from himself.
“Hey! I said don’ poozh yer lug!”
“Yer a one poozhin’ it! Thad was’n agzident! An’ ‘sides, with her—she’s some kin’a ugly a‘yway—U . . . G . . . L . . . Y—so why ya worry so mush?”
“You’re jushta ‘bouta go way way way too far!” Jim warned.
“I only mean . . . I’m nod her . . . mean she’s nod my . . . type! So zhair!”
“Boy’re you a dumbass drungk! Don’ e’en know she’s b’yooful, an’ ev-er-y-one says so!
D’I say ‘drung-k?’ ”
“Yeah! Don’ e’en know whus gumin’ ouda yer mouth! But hey--whud air you zay, bud!
S’godda be true you zay sho! Bud ya godda know’f I’da wanud ‘er, I’da jus’ . . . you know . . .
Gan ya vfeel it? Whud I’d do . . . to . . . ?” John said, cutting himself off as though unable to finish.
“Done it, ‘zall!”
“Jush toogen ‘er.”
“Oh, jus’ lige thad, eh?” Jim scoffed.
“Yeah! Hey! I ain’t no sneagk!”
“So, you’d o’ juss toog ‘er, huh? Where wou’ja a toog ‘er to? France, francy pants? Or mays be you’d a gone shoodin’ rads in a dump, juss ta show ‘er whad a good shod y’are, or how mush of a man y’are! Hey—mays be you’d o’ toog ‘er bowlin’!” he mocked. “Show’er a whole bunja new balls!” He laughed.
John made no answer.
“D’I juz say ‘mays’ be?” Jim finally said, laughing uproariously now.
“Wrong! I’da toog ‘er juss ‘bout anywheres—how would I know where? Ya don’ know! An’ anyways, I tole you I don’ care, ‘cause she ain’t appealin’ a me anyways!”
“She wouldn’a went anyway, no madder whud you’d a done!” Jim shouted triumphantly and laughing, as though having just then realized a confession couldn’t be irrational.
“Oh shure, f’you zay sho!” John laughed.
“You god id, Jhack!” Jim retorted, as he continued to wobble in short half-circles.
“Oh yeah?” John leaned forward, stuck his jaw out, and raised a clinched fist.
“Bo-zo! Hey—whud I zay?”
“Nothin’, Glarabell! I knew I wasn’t wrong ‘boud you! No, nod in a leasht!” Jim declared bravely. Suddenly, he leaned back and, without warning, launched his fist roughly in John’s direction, but in an instant the thrust, like that of a poorly-thrown rock, took a nearly-vertical trajectory, inevitably missing John, and he was spun around with centripetal force a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees and fell, landing on the ground onto his back with a thunderous “OOF!” with a simultaneous explosive fart.
Now John stood over Jim, frowning but ready to laugh, as he shook and wobbled, tipping slightly to and fro on his toes and heels, fists clenched; finally, he laughed in singsong, “Humbdy dumdy sad ona wall, humbdy dumdy had a gread vfall!”
Jim was finally able to push himself up onto his own knees, where he challenged—“See, you ain’ nobo’y’s bes’ frien’, ‘cause a real frien’ don’ laugh a’s frien’ when ’ese down! An’ a bes’ frien’ if he thod I was guildy would o’ made zhure a catchoff me! “D’I say catchoff?” Somehow, he didn’t laugh, though. Finally, he groused, “An’ I ain’ fvat, e’er!”
“Twat? Cunnet hear! Bear ass me ‘gin, gotta bad ear infucktion!” John answered sarcastically, his voice having risen with incredulity. Nevertheless, he offered his hand to help Jim get up.
But Jim refused to take it.
John thrust his hand out further, demonstratively, several times—“Iniot! You tagke airything I zay serious? Don’ you thingk I mide only be tryin’ a juss shage hans wi’ you now?”
Finally, Jim took his friend’s hand and, as he submitted the mass of his body utterly to gravity, he was pulled the rest of the way to his feet. Immediately he reached out his hand and declared, “Zo le’me shage id anyways! For ole time sagke! Maybe you listen for once you’ll ‘gree!”
“ ‘Gree? On whud?”
“You gonna give me a chanz, now, or do I have a wade for’t?”
“Gowon gowon!” John wiggled his fingers in the air as though tickling it for emphasis.
“Now juss hang on!”
“Aw quid sudja sdoobid game!”
“You know, you’re a clazzic drungk! Typal tykipal alchy! Yeah—ya won’ shud up, ya tell stoobid joges, zen ya ged angry an’ won’ talgk! Bud, juss wade! Pre’y soon you won’ e’en be able a answer adall!”
“Firs’ ya wanna be a buddy, talkin’ an’ tellin’ jokes, zen, all’va sudden ya wanna fide alla
dime, an’ you ged full o’ neg-a-div-i-dy! Nex’ you’ll be suizidal and beggin’ for zymbathy!” Jim
“Aw, quid za game!
“You fool aroun’ too--damit! ‘Mean amit id, damn id!”
“I don’ ‘dulterate, like some ‘dult-er-er . . . whudever! If tha’s whud ya mean!”
“You thing jus’ ‘cause you ain’ married you’re ‘mune?”
Jim was swinging his head, now, to measure his vehemence, in wide arcs, left and right.
“Nudts!” he finally shouted, fists clenched overhead, into the sky.
“D’you fine oud whud you’re a mizzin’?”
“Cud id out!” Jim said, then, suddenly, began laughing.
“Now wha’s zo fvunny?”
“This’s zo sdoopid!”
“How can it be sdoopid if’s’funny? Funny should be shmardt!”
“Ged offa yer high horze!” Jim implored felicitously now, with a broad grin, reaching his right hand out again to shake hands with John. “I truss ya! Who elz’my gonna truzd?”
But John refused his hand, shrugging as he ducked away, tucking his hands under his
armpits and finally turning to face in the opposite direction. “You sdill thingk I been alone with Mary a whole bunja times, an’ doan truss me, but, allva zudden you do?” John whined.
“ ‘Cording da you how d’you ever really know any any any body truzd you? Allz I g’n do’z shay zo, an’ I juss said I did, so tage id or leave id!”
“I thing i’ss her you don’ trusd!”
“Aw bull!” Jim declared, but tentatively and without conviction. He turned now, and began hobbling toward Main Street, tossing his nearly-spent cigaret so violently that when it hit the ground it bounced several times, sending out a meteoric trail of sparking red. Then, with apparent afterthought, the young man thrust his hand up high over his shoulder flipping John the bird.
John now dropped with a hard thump to sit on the ground, where he remained crossed-legged, his head propped on his palms, his elbows against his knees; he seemed, now, to be moaning, his voice eerily high-pitched.
“I think he’s crying!” Sam whispered, moderately surprised, to his bride.
“Yeah—his face looks like a big red moon, too, under the streetlight!” Dianna
scoffed, adding, “Perfect, for a phony—I didn’t believe a word he said!” She didn’t laugh.
“Well, I feel sorry for him. I think he was telling the truth,” Sam replied.
Dianna scoffed, “If he was innocent he would have just gotten away from Jim instead of staying to argue!”
“But drunks aren’t in control of their emotions,” Sam objected.
“True, but they also tend to reveal things they’d want to hide!” Dianna countered.
“But how could he have proven his innocence?” Sam challenged.
“He couldn’t have! And Jim couldn’t prove he wasn’t innocent, either!”
“So, this was just another tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“I can’t believe you just said that!”
“It always matters whether we believe each other or not!”
“But we don’t know either of these guys,” thinking quickly he complained. “And it wasn’t even clear what, exactly, they were talking about!”
“Weren’t they speaking in English?” sarcastically she admonished.
“Is that what you’d call it? Okay. But anyway, Miss Smarty Pants, what would you advise them to do if you could?”
“For starters they should never drink together. And they need to include Jim’s wife in the discussion, if they’re really serious and not just acting out a classic male drama in order to feel important!”
“That’s all well and good, but . . .” Sam started to say, stopping when his wife disappeared from his range of vision to go and sit in the Barcalounger.
The young man continued gazing out the window, content to end the silly discussion in exchange for silence, and unable anyway to think of anything reassuring to say to her.
Suddenly, Dianna sniffled loudly, as though she wanted him to hear her.
Knowing better than to let her sit alone for long, Sam now went to her, and seeing that she was crying, he leaned down—“What’s wrong?”
Yet she only held up one palm to hide her already-reddened eyes and to keep him away from her, wiping her cheeks dry with the back of her other hand.
“Seriously! What’s wrong?” he asked again, unable to think of anything more to ask.
“I can’t help it.”
“Did I upset you?”
“No. It’s not you.”
“Then, what is it?”
“Those guys make me sad.”
“Why? They’re strangers to us—unknowns to be forgotten the minute they stop arguing!”
“It’s because they represent the human condition—why do some people have to get drunk to tell each other what they really think of each other? Why is truth such a difficult thing?”
“Because truth forces us to admit each of us is both good and bad by nature, but we’re rarely willing to suspend our inhibitions in order to become humble enough to admit it.”
“You’re talking about men. Women don’t generally have that sort of hang-up.”
But now, although he agreed with her that women were more apt to tell other women what they thought of them, that they were often as reticent to as men, but, having had enough of arguing for the day, Sam held out his arms, feigning a pout, and asked, “Would you like a hug?”
Apparently tired of argument too, Dianna now stood, hastening to her husband.
Embracing, the couple kissed.
Still embracing Dianna, his loving smile pressed into her neck, Sam said softly in her ear, “I think, despite the silliness of the show, we just proved at least that we’re each other’s best friend!”
“We did, didn’t we,” Dianna replied, through her hidden smile, into his shoulder, lovingly as well.
Suddenly, in the near distance, a man cleared his throat deeply and resonantly.
The newlyweds jumped and disengaged, shocked and embarrassed.
Sam’s father, who’d always been able to materialize this way, stood in the open door, and, laughingly joked, “Glad I got here before things got out o’ hand!”
Allowing a smile of surprise quickly to displace her frown of irritation, Dianna asked, “How’d you get in here so quietly?”
“Don’t you remember he used to be a cop?” Sam told her, chuckling.
Harold quickly added, “Yeah, cops’re like Santa Claus—they see everything you do, then, when they c’n catch you doin’ somethin’ you probably shouldn’t, pop up out o’ nowhere!” Harold replied, turning to set the sack of groceries he’d been carrying onto the counter.
“Come on, Dad! Cops don’t bring gifts and they don’t go down chimneys!” Sam joked.
Harold challenged him—“Are you sure? I seen some hide in pretty tight places!” Now he laughed, and, nodding at the grocery sack, added, “An’ you talk like that you might not get t’ eat! You know, I consider food a gift these days!” Quickly, now, he went to the entrance door and pushed it shut. Returning to the couple, as he held out his arms, he added, “Like I always say, you two don’t hear real good, either!” Now approached Dianna for the first hug.
After he’d embraced her for ten seconds, the young woman quickly patted his back, then, mildly embarrassed, pushed herself away from him.
Harold’s eyes were watering, his smile saturated with sadness, when he turned and shook Sam’s hand, and said half-jokingly, “Don’t ever argue with a cop, if you know what’s good for you!” Finally, he gave his son a hug.
“We’re not arguing about anything,” Sam told his father, adding, humorously, “Trust
me—since we’d obviously have nothing to gain!”
“Well, be sure you keep it that way,” Harold quipped, then added, “As a cop, too, ‘cause you learn you can get used to just about anything, nothing surprises you, but you do always tend to worry you might of missed something, so the downside is if you sleep at all, it’s with one eye open!”
“Maybe you’ve just needed glasses all these years,” Sam joked. “Didn’t you once tell us for a while once you kept seeing people you thought you knew, but when you got closer to them you realized you were mistaken, but it was too late for them not to get mad, since you’d already called them by the wrong name?”
Ignoring his son’s affectionate impudence, with sudden seriousness Harold declared, “You know your mother never dreamed I’d find her out, though!”
Although this implicit insult to his mother’s memory, spiritually bullying and possibly revenge for his having teased the old man, since she couldn’t defend herself, sent a wave of hot nausea through Sam’s cheeks and flashed through his body down to his feet, so that he glared at his father, he held his tongue. This condition, nonetheless, caused him to recall the ride to the House of Memories where his mother would be entombed in white marble for eternity, where, closed in by the thick padding of the hearse’s walls, the dead, non-resonant silence seemed to intensify the emotional content of conversation. At that time Harold had told his nephew, who was his own third cousin on his mother’s side, “She’s definitely someone I’m not going to miss!” The fact that Harold hadn’t shed a single tear during the service didn’t surprise him, but he was thoroughly shocked that after having said this his father had even laughed, albeit humorlessly, shaking his head listlessly to himself. Sam imagined that this ironic situation meant he was possibly feeling great secret chagrin, shame and guilt for his having implicitly disparaged someone he actually felt he could never have matched morally or intellectually.
Although he felt that his mother had been faithful to his father, one factor that made him somewhat uncertain about his father’s faithfulness was his jealous suspicion of her, which he might even have actually feigned, out of guilt. She couldn’t even go to the grocery store without him grilling her afterwards—“Does that bald-headed little manager still watch you walk down the aisle and tell you you’re lookin’ good?” Although some might have considered it admirable and manly that he was ever ready to fight for her honor, in fact, he was always ready to fight for just about any reason. Sometimes Sam wondered if his father’s having grown up in the Great Depression, wherein fighting was a way of life, might have given him PTSD. Yet, he’d always made his motives for fighting sound imminently reasonable. After all, how many times had he said that when another man had angrily asserted to him that he’d never liked cops because they were all mean, or that everyone lied from time to time, and wouldn’t back down, he’d always ended up feeling the moral obligation to tell him, “Well, just meet me behind the building later, and we’ll settle it!” A few times, too, he’d gone to the grocery store and confronted one or another bewildered guy who, as he’d later bragged, had begged him not to fight him.
As though having read his son’s mind, Harold suddenly told him, “You know, I miss your mother like hell.”
Sam was bewildered by this revelation--this was the last thing he thought he’d ever hear!
“Really?” he asked, genuinely confused and fearful his father was, at least in part, joking, as he had such an odd sense of humor.
“Yeah,” Harold replied, unwilling to share his son’s feeling. Surprisingly, Harold suddenly stated, “Well, I’m no angel, an’ gI’m zhure you won’t mizz me. How g’n you resbeck someone who lost three houses at the horze tragk?”
Now Sam felt the despairing sadness and sorrow for him that he often did, a feeling exacerbated by the speech impediment the old man seemed to have developed recently, but, not wanting to appear to want to humiliate him, genuinely wanting to feel better about him, he declared cheerfully, “But you’ve changed—didn’t you quit gambling?”
“Yeah—gamblin’s not easy to do iv you don’t have ‘ny money!” the older man scoffed, with a humorless chuckle, then, immediately, with the same harsh voice, asked, “Whadda you two wan’ vor dinner?”
“We really don’t know what restaurants are here,” the young man stated.
Dianna smiled passively, shrugged her shoulders and asked Harold, “Would you pick something for us?”
Harold, without looking at either of his guests, offered, “I know a pretty good Messican restaurant, an’ I’ll dell you that’s more than anyone’d expect in thiz good ole Mormon town.”
Although he didn’t want to humiliate him to keep him docile, Sam couldn’t let such an obvious problem he was having with speaking go untended, so he asked, “Dad, now don’t get mad, but, is there something wrong with your teeth?”
Ignoring Sam’s affectionate insult, Harold continued, “I think it’s called ‘El Torcido’ or ‘Toril-ly-o’—somethin’ like that.”
“Maybe ‘El Torito’,” Dianna suggested, laughing now—“I’d hate to eat at ‘The
Pervert’, but the Little Bull is okay! And, come to think of it, Torillo means the same thing.”
“Come on!” Harold chided, frowning with embarrassment—“Perzonally I’m zo hungry I don’t care if it’s ‘El Torpedo’! ‘Course, what could go wrong there?” Now he laughed, adding, “All’s I know’s they got good fvood!”
“Well, Dad, we know what beans and jalapeños always do to you!” Sam teased.
Once again, the older man ignored his son and asked the couple, “You two need to change your clothes, or are you ready to go the way you are?”
“We’re as ready as we’ll ever be,” Sam answered.
“You don’t need to take a shower or anything?” his father persisted.
“No, we’re fine,” Sam replied.
“But you don’t have air conditioning in that old heap of yours, do you?” Harold asked knowingly.
“No. But trust me, Dad, we didn’t sweat,” Sam replied, wanting to end the discussion. Why
did Harold suddenly care about such personal aspects of his and his wife’s lives? When Sam, his
brother Will and his sister, Melody, were young, however, he had demanded that they wash up
and wear clean, tidy clothes to dinner. More than likely, though, currently feeling guilty about
his failure as a father, he wanted to be nurturing, but didn’t know how to. In fact, it had always
seemed to Sam that his frequent boasting about his accomplishments was, from his self-centered
perspective, an attempt to make himself appear worthy of respect as a father.
While he wanted to sympathize with him, Sam still had to fight back the sadness and resentment he felt as he perceived he’d cheated him, since, rather than when he’d wanted his guidance on how to resolve personal problems, like how to deal with so-called friends who were two-faced, his father had always seemed to want to discuss something merely utilitarian, such as that he needed to change his spark plugs. Not that he hadn’t had good conversations with him, such as when his father caught a ten-pound trout and he hadn’t caught anything, and, rather than humiliating him by saying he wasn’t fishing correctly, he’d explained that his bait was landing on the water too noisily, so that if he jerked slightly upward on his pole just prior to its hitting, he would likely catch a nice fish. Yet, when he’d brought home a report card with straight A’s or when his school journal had published one of his poems, the old man had only stared silently, as though not knowing what to say.
But now, driven by the hunger he shared with his guests, Harold, as he was always wont to do, immediately led the way out of his dwelling, stopping to turn and lock the entrance door. “By the way, there’s just one catch—you gan’t get margarítas at this restaurant—only wine. They expect you to take your own boddle o’ booze to bars here, too. We could stop at a liquor store, though, if you want. No matter what, you see, the powers that be in this place don’t mind the revenue! A damn funny town!” he concluded with mild disgust, shrugging his shoulders, as he turned to lead his guests the rest of the way down the hall.
Realizing that Harold had probably offended Dianna with his gruffness, to reassure her he was sympathetic and watching out for her, Sam reached for her hand, which she eagerly gave him for the rest of the walk. The only sound now was that of three pairs of feet shuffling with zipping scratchiness across the painfully-thin, beaten-down, industrial carpet of the narrow tunnel of a hallway that led through the building to its rear, where the parking lot hovered darkly. Since everyone breathed shallowly, too, to avoid taking in the dead, musky air as much as possible, nobody spoke any further, until they’d emerged into the open.
As the trio finally crossed the parking lot toward Harold’s silver Dodge Dart, two animal screams suddenly echoed from out of nowhere, and with such a singular shrill that everyone fell silent on the verge of fear, stopping to look around themselves as though for attackers.
Now Harold snapped, “Damn cats! They’ve been gedding worse lately! Even with my airgondizhioner magin’ a steady hum that should blot it out, bud they’re so loud that they keep me awage a lod o’ nides!”
“Dad, I think those were raccoons,” Sam corrected, though he knew what the older man’s reaction would probably be. As he considered it, too, he added, “Dad, really—are your teeth okay? Are they loose or something?”
But Harold ignored his question, replying with a little heat, “Bull! I think I know a ragoon when I hear it! There was a ness of ‘em just last winner livin’ in the roof of this abartment building!” Finally, he repositioned his teeth, and said, presumably to make sure to humiliate his son for questioning him, “Watch out, Dianna—Old Sam’s imagination’s goin’ wild!” Finally, bent over his car’s passenger door, with oblivious fixity and fumbling with his laden key ring, he got the key in the keyhole, so with a singular click all four doors unlocked. “Come on!” he declared, disappearing into the interior.
Briefly, the couple gazed at the sky, which was known for spectacular displays of stars and a few planets, since Salt Lake City was still small enough that it projected a fairly low level of ambient light. But that didn’t matter, as the moon was currently a sliver, and the sky black.
As Sam and Dianna continued to stare hope against hope at the sky for celestial signs, Harold warned, though politely, “We godda get goin’, t’avoid a crowd. The resaurant’s pobular.”
Yet, just as they started to duck into the back seat of the car, they were stopped and stalled in place, as Jim’s voice, having long been lost, floated back up on the gusty breeze in broken snatches—“Got-damn liar! . . . If I’d o’ wanted . . . no sonabitch gonna keep us apart! . . . Even so with your got-damn dirty mind! . . . Who’d o’ thought anybody’s . . . but my bes’ frien’! . . . not e’en him! . . . so whud’s the use?”
Since the back door of the car was still open Harold had heard Jim, and hissed “Nuts!” adding, “There seems to be more and more people around here with mendal problems! I hear ‘em at night alla dime, arguin’! Gome on! Ged in!”
Sam and Dianna didn’t move, though, as they were still listening for more from Jim or John, ready to call an ambulance, or the police, if they felt it would have been necessary.
From the dark hollow expanse of the car’s interior, cigaret smoke now swept through the open door into the shadowy atmosphere, as Harold barked, “If you two don’t get in ‘ere, I’m taygin’ off withoud you!” Sam remembered how often he’d also said this to Irene before actually driving off, so he knew that the old man meant it!
Harold hadn’t asked Sam to sit in the passenger seat, though he would have any other male, so, like children, the young man and woman now finally ducked into the Dart’s back seat.
Harold turned the key in the car ignition for twenty solid seconds, forcing the starter to whine in ratcheting surges, as he angrily pumped the gas pedal. But the motor didn’t start. From out of the blue, too, he finally answered Sam’s question of two hours previous—“An’ yes! I do have falz teeth! Two sets! Tha’s whad habbens when you get pyorrhea! So . . . I don’t wan’ to hear ‘boud it ‘gain, ogay?”
At the same instant that Sam told his father, “Sure,” a wind gust slapped the car so that it rocked once. Down at the horizon, a single flash of lightening revealed a band of black rain clouds, but so far away the travelers heard no thunder.
“That storm seems to be heading south,” happily Sam declared, adding “Let’s hope it stays there!”
“Well, we need some rain,” Harold told him with a corrective tone, as the ignition continued to whine and he pumped at the accelerator for twenty more seconds, without the desired result—“Damn!” he hissed under his breath, then paused for a few seconds. Finally, he said, to no one in particular, “She’ll start. I just flooded the garburedor.”
“Are you in a drought here?” Dianna asked Harold.
“You could say thad,” Harold answered, as he turned the ignition a third time and the engine roared into life. He chortled, “They zay the third dime’s a jarm!”
Sam said, “Hip hip hooray!” with a fist pump toward the ceiling.
“Gyou always were weird!” Harold told him.
“You should talk!” Sam teased—“A man driving an antique car!”
“What about your old heap?” Harold scoffed, adding, “Lige father lige son!” “You just bedder not tell me I need a tune-up!” though he nodded with a grin in his direction, as he smashed his cigaret butt, which was already nearly-spent, into the ash tray. Immediately, then, he pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from his breast pocket, quickly packed the pack, then tapped out a new long white tooth. Swiftly and deftly then, his stainless-steel Zippo lighter flickered up a blue flame, which he applied to the end of the cigaret, which had suddenly appeared in his mouth, tilting his head and cupping his hands around the glowing orb of captive fire as intently and artfully as he’d have tied a fishing hook onto a leader. Taking a long drag, he snapped the lighter cap shut to extinguish the flame with a hollow, tinny, “ca-ching,” precisely in the manner he had since Sam had been an infant. Now blue smoke filled the air, creating what had always seemed to Sam to be the old man’s personal, fabricated atmosphere, as it groped and snaked outwardly to form a living cloud that soon obscured the windshield.
As the car moved, now, slowly toward the exit of the parking lot, Harold joked, “Well, I guess id’s obvious where you god your weirdness!” Harold finally joked in reply to Sam’s most recent insult. “But you do know that old saying, don’t you—‘The abble don’t fall too far fvrom the tree!” With this, he lifted his chin and blew a stream of smoke from his mouth so forcefully that it seemed to gather and punch the windshield.
But having heard this expression once too often, Sam had a quip ready—“Unless some dumb sonofabitch picks it up and throws it!”
His father laughed heartily at this, shaking his head, and declared to Sam, “I never thought you could get weirder, son, but you did!” Still laughing, he added, “I gotta take what I said back, then, as you just proved you were the milgman’s son!” He exhaled a cloud of smoke, and held his cigaret out to the side, now. Quickly, then, he reached up and adjusted his lower plate of teeth.
As Harold had referred to him this way since he was very young, he no longer felt its demeaning sting, but, instead, found it humorous as a feeble attempt at humor. In order to rub in his sublimated disdain, Sam replied, “And the milkman was so dumb he didn’t even remember the time he got hit over the head when someone tried to rob him--right?”
“Absolutely!” Harold replied, still joking, then added, “You got a hard row to hoe, buddy!”
Sam had to tell his father, though, “But Dad, there are no inherited characteristics!”
“Bull! You gan’t dell me peoble don’t inherit their brains!” Yet, leaving his cigarette to hang, stuck in place, off of his lower lip, he was still laughing, therefore joking, so he’d clearly meant no harm.
“They inherit the genes, Dad,” Sam scoffed humorously, laughing too.
“Well, he had gene damage!” Harold said, finishing the joke, blowing smoke out of his nose and mouth at the same time.
Dianna suddenly asked, a little testily, as though she was tired of listening to the banter between father and son, and hoped, by changing the subject, to be taken seriously, “Mister Black, you sounded like you might know who that guy was who was yelling tonight. Do you?”
“Do me a favor, Dianna—call me Harold. Okay?” the old man replied, exhaling a little cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Okay,” the young woman answered her father-in-law.
“How did I sound like that?” he asked now.
“You said you heard him and the other guy arguing all the time,” she replied.
“Do either of them live in your complex?” Sam asked his father, too, wanting to show support for Dianna.
Harold replied glumly, “One did. But I should say I don’t know ‘im, juss of ‘im. Unfortunately. I guess he losht his job lasht monthv. He used to live in an abartment here. The other one, gthough, I never saw bevore.” He now pursed his upper lip, so that the smoke he blew out of his mouth splayed downwardly, like a waterfall.
“Did you ever talk to him, though? How did you know he lost his job?” Sam asked, hoping there was a chance he hadn’t lost it, as he was weary of bad news.
“Naw!” Harold replied, forcefully exhaling a plume of smoke. “I got nothin’ to say to someone lige thad! He’s . . . he’s just plain nuds! All ‘e dime ‘e walks aroun’ the barkinglot talkin’ to himself! He argues, I guess, with himself, since you’ll hear ‘im yellin’ all’ve a sudden every other minute how his boss haded ‘im when he was a good worger, but he just had it in for ‘im,” Harold explained, with a hint of resentment in his tone, presumably for being questioned on something he considered irritating because it was a waste of time. The smoke cloud that he emitted from his mouth this time hovered in a ball in the air for several seconds, before evaporating.
“That explains a lot,” Dianna remarked under her breath, as though she was afraid to pursue the subject further, seeing that it seemed to irritate Harold, which might cause him to insult her to make sure she’d drop it, to which she would have fought back, and helped spoil the evening.
“Well, it sounds like both guys are out of work,” Sam told his father now, glad, at least, to be able to have a serious, if brief, discussion with him about a life event.
Harold adjusted his teeth, then told him, “Birds of a feather would be my guess. But they’ve been goin’ through this routine forever, so it shouldn’t be a zurbrize--ev-ery frig-gin’ Sataday!”
They were doin’ it the last dime you came oud here, too, an’ you di’n’t say a word!”
Sam told him, “Dad, this is the first time we’ve been out here.”
“Well, maybe it was your brother, Will, who came out, then,” Harold replied, without
apologizing for his mistake.
Wishing to avoid an argument, which would only have gotten everyone upset and resolved nothing, as Harold never admitted when he was wrong, rather than rubbing his mistake in, Sam refrained from pursuing the subject.
As a sign of praise for his restraint Dianna now squeezed Sam’s hand. Nonetheless, as his Dad always making him feel insignificant as an individual, for which he always forgave him, he fell into what seemed to be an unavoidable funk. Suddenly, though, as he caught a brief glimpse through the car window of a little fireball streaking across the sky, he was jolted from his depression, so that he sat up quickly, pointed at the external world, blurting with enthusiasm to no one in particular, “Hey! I just saw a meteor! I hear that’s supposed good luck!” His deferential laugh, however, betrayed him.
Dianna answered him with affectionate sarcasm, “I’m glad you’re not serious, Dear!”
“But didn’t you see it?” he asked, pretending to be hurt by her sarcasm, wondering how she could have missed such a thing.
Grinning as though she thought his wish was silly and immature, she answered, “I’d like to say I did, just to see you happy, but . . . no, I missed it. Don’t’ worry, though, there will be more, as there always are!” But now, as though still preoccupied with previous thoughts, she asked no one in particular, “Do you think that guy—wasn’t it Jim—really got hurt?”
“Neither one of those guys ever gets hurt!” Harold scoffed in answer to her. “Don’t let ‘em fool you! They just like attention--believe me, they know people are lizenin’ to ‘em! I even used to wonder if they were actors!” Now he adjusted his teeth, as previously.
“What are they, then?” Dianna asked him seriously.
“Did you look at their clothes?” Harold asked her.
Sam, wondering to himself why his father was concerned again about clothes, merely deferred, for himself and his wife, “We couldn’t see them very well.”
“They’re all tore up!” Harold declared, with a scoffing little laugh. “That should tell ya somethin’!”
Sam now considered that perhaps clothes represented class distinction to his father, a subject with which he was obsessed because he’d grown up so poor. In this context, he ventured an interrogative reply, “They’re construction workers?”
“No!” Harold scoffed. “They’re homeless! I told you one lost his job, an’ why would he hang around with another guy if that guy had a job? They’re plain up to no good!” He was silent for a half a minute, as he shifted his jaw from side to side. Then he concluded, “The fight they put on is fake, believe me! It’s so people’ll give ‘em food, which they do all‘e time! They sure don’t deserve id, an’ don’t gmean a thing they say! They’re con-men!”
“Then, weren’t they really drunk?” confused, Sam asked him.
Dianna now posited to everyone in general, “You know . . . now that I think of it, there was a theatrical—phony and insincere—aspect of Jim’s tone! Maybe he actually wasn’t depressed!”
Sam disagreed, though—“No, I heard real pain in his voice!”
“Hell—life’s tough all over!” Harold muttered soberly, adding, “But things c’n ged a hell of a lod worse, believe me!” Now, with greater determination than previously, forming a sort of set of pliers with his thumb and forefinger, he pinched his lower plate of teeth between his thumb and forefinger, twisting from side to side to seat it better.
Sam had to ask him, “Dad, I realize I agreed not to talk about your teeth, but . . . well, don’t you think you should get your dentures adjusted?”
“Since you godda be so damn nosy—I ran out o’ Polident!” he replied.
“But can you chew okay?” Sam persisted.
“Hey! You cjhew your way an’ I’ll chjew mine!” Harold replied with a little heat, pointing his finger to the side, unable to aim it the full necessary two-hundred-and-seventy degrees, before, once again, jiggling his lower, then his upper, plate, vigorously, to seat them.
“Why don’t we just stop somewhere so you can get some?” Sam asked innocently.
“I will later. My teeth sdill have some on ‘em, juss nod ‘enough to hold ‘em for more’n ten minutes or so.”
“Okay,” Sam replied, deciding, though sadly, to drop the subject, for the greater good.
“If they fid ride in ‘e first place, they’d o’ been fine! Bud the deniss never sized ‘em right in the first blace!” Harold explained.
“I’m sorry,” Sam answered.
“Don’t feel zorry’ for me!” Harold warned him. “They’ll go bag in blace! What you fail to understand is my health inzuranze ran oud a month ago, so I have to cut down on my esbenses!” This time he held his teeth in place with his fingers longer than previously.
Sam didn’t feel like talking to his father now, since every discussion with him usually led to disappointment and angst anyway.
Suddenly Harold was grinning, and asked nobody in particular very cheerfully, “Did I ever tell you the sdory ‘bout the time I was a detegtive, and me an’ my buddies answered a call to a house on a missing person rebort?”
“I don’t think so,” Sam said, leerily, as he was imminently alert to his father’s perverse delight in telling stories that tended to kill the fun of the upcoming social activity—a trait he felt came from his father’s youth, when happy events rarely turned out as people wished, so that, psychologically, he got the jump on them in their inevitable disappointment, which, vicariously, made them feel luckier than they were, and thereby to like him.
“Well, this was another one that shows you just what can happen when people fall asleep at the switch . . .”
“I hope it isn’t about motorcycle wrecks, to teach us why we shouldn’t ride!” Sam scoffed half-seriously, grimacing as he tried to grin purely in the spirit of hopefulness the goriness would be avoided.
“Naw!” Harold replied chuckling, as though delighted so far merely to torment his son with uncertainty. Still laughing, he quickly added, “Nothin’ ‘bout guys with their head cut off or car wrecgks with mutiladed babies! But I am proud you seem to remember the lessons in the file photographs from wrecks I brought home!” he declared with authoritative pride.
“Yes,” Sam answered, not wanting to think about such horrors.
“Well, this case toog the cake! You won’t be able to help laughin’!”
Sensing the distress she’d probably suffer if she heard the rest of the story, nervously Dianna stared straight ahead, though a grin flickered as quickly as lightning through her somber expression, suggesting, “Harold, maybe you should save it for another time.” Then, more overtly suggesting that she sensed he might be putting her and her husband on, she joked, “You’re not trying to spoil our appetites, are you? You know we can afford dinner!”
“Hey! I’m paying! But no, it’s not that bad—I promise!” the older man told her, stifling a smirk, before continuing, “Anyway, we went to this guy’s house—a real nice house, probably a million dollars—an’ rang the bell. But we go no anszer. Zo we banged and banged on ‘e front door—for a solid fifdeen minuds! Sometimes when they don’ hear the bell they’ll hear knockin’. But nobody came. Finally, my partner, old Jerry Hudson, said id at the same time I thought id—“Somethin’s wrong—we better break in!”
Zo we broge down ‘e door, an’ ‘mmediately we were blazded by a wall o’ heat! We thought at first the houze was on fire—it was a good four-hundred degrees! An’ talk about a smell!
“I really don’t think I want to hear the rest of this,” Dianna told Harold genuinely nervous, now.
“Come on!” her father-in-law told her. “This i’n’t any worse ‘an what you see in three quarters of all the TV zhows, so don’t give me that bull about spoilin’ your abbedites, scarin’ you or makin’ you sad!” the older man persisted. “Besides, I’ve never seen a time when either o’ you gouldn’t eat someone oud ‘o house’n home! An’ what was that movie you both wajhed the last time you came to my place?--Hellbender, wa’n’t it? Where they tore bodies down and rebuilt ‘em from skeletons? How could my story ever be worze’n that?”
Feeling it would be no use to remind him again, Sam refrained from telling him verbally, “Dad, this is our first time here!” though he did it with his eyes.
Presumably not wanting to argue Dianna merely advised, “All I’ll say, then, is I hope this has a point—something we can learn from.”
Harold asked her, “Or what?” Chuckling, and not waiting for her reply, he continued, “Well, we foun’ this guy in ‘e sauna.”
“I think I know what’s coming!” Dianna declared, covering her ears.
However, when Harold got started with a story nothing between Heaven and Earth could
stop him. So, screwing up his face into a grimace of nearly-painful intensity, and gesturing with his forefinger as though giving someone instructions, “He musd’ve been there cookin’ for a good week! That’s dead body times ten!”
“Thanks, Dad!” Sam quipped. “You’re succeeding at getting our appetites good and stirred up!” He still remained open to the possibility that, since it was common social practice for a parent, like a boss or a friend of the greatest wealth, that Harold would cover the tab for dinner, and, having little money, he may very well have been, though likely unconsciously, attempting to insure that the bill was minimal!
But now Harold’s forceful voice obscured all other considerations, as obviously enjoying the stultifying effect on his captive audience, he persisted, “This guy was just like a broiled chicken!”
“I think I might throw up!” Dianna now muttered to no one in particular.
Sam felt frozen in place, and remained in stunned silence.
Determined not to be deterred, however, Harold continued, “So, whadda you thing happened when we went to pick ‘im up?”
“The gas still in him made him explode,” as though disgusted Sam muttered under his breath.
“His head fell off!” Harold said, apparently refusing to let Sam have the satisfaction of getting the final word. He shook his head, chuckling mirthlessly, then continued, “an’ it rolled clear across ‘e floor! Well, ad this point we should o’ guessed his arms’n legs’d fall off, too, even before we had time to drop what was left of ‘im!”
“I don’t want to hear any more of this!” Dianna said seriously, angrily pulling her hands from her ears.
Smirking mischievously, Harold told her, “You can’t hear any more, ‘cause that’s the end of the story. Forensics game in ride afder thad, to clean ub.” Now he was laughing to himself in wheezy gasps, each heave like the autonomous boom of an exploding depth charge, and soon went into a coughing fit so violent his eyes were watering.
Sam waited until he was silent to tell him, “Thanks for that inspiring story, Dad!”
“I bed you think I made that ub!” Harold told his son, glancing at Dianna to include her as a recipient of his statement.
“I don’t think that’s something you could make up,” Dianna replied. “It’s just too . . . bizarre!”
After he’d adjusted his teeth, insouciantly Harold continued, “All I can say is I would o’ hated t’ve been on the cleanup crew!”
Just as the car jolted forward through an intersection so Harold could clear a yellow light,
Sam was slammed backward into his seat just as he asked, “Who had to tell the guy’s family?”
Harold told Sam, “The Notification Officer. An’ I sure wou’n’t a wanded his job either.”
“Why? Do they get threatened?” Sam asked him.
“Worse than that,” Harold told him. “Their the ones thad get shod at all ‘e time!”
Dianna asked Harold, “I bet it’s hard sometimes not to get emotionally involved with the cases you got. Don’t you feel sorry for that guy you found?”
“Sorry! This may sound cold, but it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for some guy who didn’t have enough sense not to tage a nab in a sauna! In fact, he was so fat, he shouldn’t of been allowed in a sauna ‘th‘out a doctor’s note—he was just askin’ for a heart attagk!”
Suddenly Sam reminded himself, as he considered he and Dianna might well have been suckered by the old man, as he’d always made up shocking stories only later to laugh, at those who’d been more than willing to be his audience, for their gullibility, finally declaring he’d made the whole thing up just to see how they would react. Ironically, too, he always seemed imminently believable because he also told true stories of horrific suffering and death. Despite the deviousness of this practice, Sam believed that he may have relieved himself of some of the actual horror through this muddling of truth and fiction. What he truly resented was that Harold had never refrained from telling true stories about his job, no matter how gruesome they were, in front of his children, no matter how young they’d been! He just couldn’t keep a good story to himself for long! Yet, as his father had never told him the story about the man in the sauna before, he suspected he’d concocted it. Hoping to catch him contradicting himself, he asked him innocently, now, “So, when did the sauna story take place?”
“Oh, let’s see . . .” Harold thought aloud for half a minute, then said, “It was about . . . oh, five years ago.”
“I was fourteen then, and I’d never have forgotten a story like that. But this is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“You probably weren’t baying attention,” the old man replied.
“No. I wouldn’t have been bored by that story!” Sam replied with rising pique at the game his father was playing—especially in that it was to no clear purpose.
“I guess I could o’ forgot to tell it,” Harold replied, poker faced.
But since Harold never would have forgotten a story like that, Sam realized—chortling, he told him, “Okay--you got us, Dad!”
“Got you?” Harold asked his son, as though confused.
“In the first place, who would ever believe a story like that, anyway?” Sam asked.
“That’s the point o’ telling it! Because it’s so un-believable!” Harold admonished.
“Come on, Dad! It’s unbelievable because it shouldn’t be believed!” Sam disagreed. “Besides that,” he continued, “you’ve never ever criticized crime victims—that was something I always admired—that you sympathized with them!”
“I guess I’m the one that’s been got!” Harold finally admitted to Sam, with a laugh. “You wouldn’t’ve made a bad detective!”
Dianna, suddenly angry at the deception, told both men at once, “So now I suppose the joke’s on me, since at first I thought it was a joke, then later, as it got really gruesome, I bought the story hook, line and sinker! And you two just let me sit here and suffer!”
Sam, sympathetic to her sensitivity, rubbed her shoulder and told her, “Not exactly.”
“Not exactly what?” still angrily she asked.
Sam told her, “Well, if it makes you feel better, even after all the times he’s suckered me with his stories, you’d think I’d have wised up—but he suckered me this time anyway, as well!”
“The joke’s still on me!” Dianna nearly yelled with anger.
“Dianna Dianna Dianna! You take life too seriously!” Harold informed her. He continued, “It was my way of getting Sam back for his comments about my deeth.”
Dianna stared at Harold, then replied, “At first I even thought you two were playing the game of who would blink first, so, I guess I got doubly suckered!”
Harold was laughing as, humorously incredulous, and replied to his daughter-in-law, “In effect! You just gotta always remember in life to keep things in perspective! Sam told you the real truth in the matter, though, that he was never sure ‘til the very end of what I was up to.”
“Then you weren’t actually offended by the joke about your teeth, but just wanted to pretend you were?” Dianna demanded interrogatively of Sam’s father.
Sam answered for his father—“Of course! It would take a lot more than that to offend him!”
Harold, still laughing, now punched his son affectionately in the shoulder. “Actually, that’s a story we used to tell our new recruits when I gwas on the Denver Force, to see if they had what id took to be a cop!” Quickly now, he reached up and adjusted his teeth, once again.
Suddenly, the approaching lights of a strip mall snaked with the imposing brightness of a squadron of UFOs onto the horizon.
Dianna asked Harold, “But that story you just told really could happen, couldn’t it?”
In his most convincingly-smug, authoritarian voice, Harold growled, “Yes. Actually, it did happen, just not to me—my sergeant told me about it. Supposedly it habbened in Chigago. Of course I gouldn’t ever tell if he was putting me on. So, I kept it, as a kind of test of . . . how much a person could tage before he had to stob lizening to it.” After a few moments of silence, he asked, with a tentative tone, as though he couldn’t remember, “Son, what was it you asked earlier, about the restaurant?”
Realizing that his father was urging him to make up a story, to thoroughly tease Dianna, as there had actually been no such earlier question, Sam replied, “Oh yeah, I looked up El Torillo on my phone, just to check out the menu, which is pretty standard, so I didn’t bother you or Dianna with it. However, there’s a unique game they let you play, for free drinks.”
“Sure!” Dianna scoffed, shaking her head. “And it was on the menu, right?”
“Seriously!” Sam replied. “I . . . I actually called them. So, what happens is they blindfold you after you order, then, when your meals come to the table they switch everyone’s entrées, then give you one try to guess what it is. But you have to sit still and not taste it, and all you’re allowed to do is lean forward a little, but no more than necessary for you to inhale deeply to smell the plate in front of you. If you guess right, you get a free carafe of the wine of your choice—even the really expensive ones, if that’s what you like.”
“Hey, that sounds like fun!” Harold declared, but with a little too much fun-loving enthusiasm.
“It is, it is!” Sam replied with a little too much reassurance.
“You two!” Dianna scoffed, now. “Who would fall for that? Why don’t they just give you a long stick and have you hit a piñata? It would be a lot more fun! Maybe they could fill it with gift certificates! Or sopapillas, covered with honey! How much fun would that be! Or . . . think of this! Someone might hit you in the head and knock some sense into you!”
Through his own laughter, too, Sam replied, “A brilliant idea!”
Harold declared joyfully, “You know, Dianna, when you and Sam first got married I wasn’t sure about you, but you’re all-right!”
Dianna, getting used to his roughness and that he didn’t often think his responses through completely, decided to let the insult, which Harold didn’t even recognize as an insult, go this time, for the sake of a harmonious meal.
The three travelers were still laughing hilariously when they entered the adobe structure where they eventually had one of the best meals they’d ever had.