Say Goodbye to Jesus
Carl Stills sat alone in a row of empty seats. His little cardboard suitcase was tucked under his legs where he could tap it with his heels every few minutes to make sure it was still there. His cane rested across his lap and onto the seat next to him. He squinted through the afternoon sun that came through the window of the Dallas bus station and looked again at the arrival and departure board. He had studied on it thoroughly and there was no reason to look anymore, but there was little else to do in the meantime. It had been a very long while since he had been somewhere quite so unpleasant, and his anxiety had the best of him.
He winced at the loudspeaker that announced the comings and goings. Each notice started with a harsh click of the P.A engaging and the sound of the broadcaster fumbling with the microphone – every time. Carl thought it sounded like somebody falling down a flight of stairs. Her voice echoed through the cavernous room, bouncing from brick, to plastic, to glass, to linoleum - unable to find a soft place to land and die.
Several buses would be departing at about the same time as his and the station was filling up with travelers. Though he was not a fearful man, they were mostly ugly people, and he couldn’t help but be nervous around them. Rapscallions! That was the word he remembered. He joked with himself that he was an elderly Huck Fin, departing on an epic adventure. He thought of the old book, one of the few that he had read in his life, and which stood out in his mind as if he had read it yesterday. He could even picture the cover - the frayed corners of fabric and the golden letters of the title that had nearly all worn off. It left a little pang in the heart. Huck Fyn had made the voyage with Jim, the escaped slave - someone who had shared the adventure with him and who’s purpose for the journey had superseded Huck’s. There was no Jim for Carl. As his bus pulled up, he knew he would be on his raft alone, with only his own soul to set free.
He watched the riff raff gather. They were poor - the poor from the cities, the poor from the country, the poor from this country, and the poor from all other countries. He marveled that even the poor people of the world came and went. Despite several empty seats still available, a young couple huddled together on the floor in the corner. They looked dirty and exhausted. Their bags were so large that they could sprawl across them like small beds, and it was clear to Carl that they were not simply going from here to there, but that this was their life - hauling huge back packs and a guitar from place to place. Their hair was matted with dirty braids - hers were mostly covered by a soiled bandana, his hung freely in his face. They snuggled down in their own filth and appeared to be quite at home. Carl had to admit that there was something romantic about them. They were poor with youth . . . he was poor with age. There, all types of poor have been accounted for. He watched the lovers in their little vagabond camp and thought of May.
* * * * *
Carl had met May in 1957, while he was stationed in Corpus Christi. He had thought she was beautiful the moment he had noticed her and the tornado that encapsulated her. Not that anyone would agree with his assessment, and he knew it, but he didn’t care. He could see that her wispy frame and sharp features might have belonged to a magazine model, or a Hollywood actress, but that they were somehow all off. Perhaps her eyes were too close together, or her chin too pointed, her shoulders too round and discouraged, her walk too much of a shuffle, her mechanics too klutzy, her clothes too wrinkled, her skin too oily, or her hair too dry. All of these minor imperfections in one soul somehow made the perfect girl for Carl and he had known it right away. Of the group of men he had fallen in with, he was the one to be reluctant and cautious with women, but he had quickly developed a secret determination about May.
Him and three other Privates had stumbled into an all-night diner after the last bar in town had closed. May had been their waitress - a very slow and bad waitress. All four were drunk to the point of public nuisance. Carl, smashed into the middle of the booth, was teetering on being sick. His playmates, ornery and in the mood for meanness, had been ruthless to her. They made fun of her while she was within ear shot, complained constantly, and teased her by hiding a plate of toast twice, convincing her that she had never brought it either time. Carl watched through blurred vision and became sicker at the situation. It was true - she seemingly could not do anything adequately. The skinny little thing could barely handle a platter of empty dishes and her apron was soiled as a rag. Carl never did have to ask her name, as the manager and the short order cooks yelled it constantly. Shamefully, he hadn’t stuck up for her. Knowing men as he did, after a night of drinking, meddling would have only brought more attention to her, and things would have been worse. Carl suspected that as flustered and doomed as her night seemed to be, that it was probably not unlike most of her nights.
Later, as the sun crept into the barracks, he lay in bed unable to sleep, and listened to the concert of snores coming from his bunk mates. As the booze wore off and his mind cleared, he found his heart entangled. He replayed everything - her image surprisingly vivid. He was convinced that she was a match for him, and it was precisely her ineptitude that made it so. His notion of romance was vague and fledgling, full of cinematic ideas of chivalry and heroism. Happily, Ever After should start with the act of saving a woman from an undeserving fate, and he decided that May was the woman he would like to save.
A few days later he awoke early and made it to the diner just as May was counting her tips and getting ready to leave. In these hours, between after bar and breakfast, the diner was empty. He ordered a cup of coffee and watched her over the top of the morning paper, still warm from the presses, the ink smudging his hands. The signs of her all-night war were startling; her apron was again heavily soiled, and strands of hair came from all sides of what had been a bun on the top of her head that somehow still supported the two pencils stuck through it. She leaned against the counter and shifted her weight from foot to foot, fighting her fatigue. He watched her count and recount, scribble and add, and start over. In the end, she was resigned to her take for the night. She removed her apron and pulled the pencils from her bun, letting black locks fall to her shoulders. Carl counted out change for the coffee and walked to the counter. As she made her way to the door, she walked right past him, never looking at anything but the worn tiles under her feet. He followed behind until they were at the cross walk on the corner.
“Excuse me, May,” he said, as he came up behind her. She stopped abruptly and turned to him, replying with a hollow look that was patient and unthinking. There was no real anticipation, Carl thought, or real question as to why a stranger was stopping her. It was the look of someone who was used to answering to everyone around her all the time - and so why not this man on a corner at a quarter to five in the morning?
Staring glassy eyed at the bus station wall, Carl remembered how everything had been purple with the sunrise. The morning air, still wet and cool, made the moment crisp in his mind for the rest of his life. He had stood there for a moment looking at her, unsure of himself or his next move. She just waited for him to speak, never even asking how he knew her name.
“My name is Carl,” he said finally. “I saw you the other night when I was in here, and I . . . well, I guess,” he stammered, “I was just wondering if you might want . . . look I know you just got off work and all and you may just want to go on home and rest, but if you were hungry or thirsty, I thought maybe we could get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee or something.” He had blurted it out, and for a few seconds her expression did not change. Then it was as if she had first noticed him standing there. He was in his clean and pressed Navy outfit, she would tell him later, standing so straight and so tall, the sun peaking over his shoulder enough that she had to shield her eyes to tell whether he was sincere or not.
With measured words, she had said, “Well, I guess that would be alright,” then looking back at the diner, “but I would rather not have that bite or cup of coffee here, if you don’t mind. I don’t think I could stand to go back in there before I’ve got to in another twelve hours.” Carl shrugged.
“Anywhere,” he said.
“There’s a little cafe I pass on my way home, it looks real cute and I’ve always wanted to go. It’s only a few blocks from here.” Carl answered that that would be just fine. She turned and started that direction and he fell in with her.
“You say your name is Carl? Is it with a C or a K?”
“C” He answered.
“I’m May, which you seem to know, I reckon you know from the diner? Everybody seems to know from the diner. They sure do yell it a lot.”
The café had been a perfect setting for a first date. Rather than the typical dirty orange and brown Naugahyde and glaring florescent lights of the diner they had just come from, there were little wooden chairs and tables covered with table clothes, like giant doilies, that made for a nice country feel. The patrons were all older folks - retired and up before the working class, with leisure time to dine. Their voices had lost all of their harsh edges years back, and combined to make a pleasant hum that wrapped the room in a soft blanket of sound. Carl and May sat at a table next to the window. He would always remember the blue curtains that seemed as warm as the morning sun that pressed through them.
May ate very little, and Carl figured it was not on his account. It seemed food was an obligation to her that she went about with little interest. She did most of the talking while he chewed, but her eyes never met his fully. Her gaze didn’t dart about, but rather calmly watched her own hands from afar as they tore a piece of toast and stirred it through her broken egg yolk, pausing as if to take a bite, her eyes would float from her plate to the window and settle far into the clouds, then as if the atmosphere had failed to support them, they would fall like a dead bird into her lap. She might then take a quick glance at Carl, or taste a tiny bite of her yolk-soaked toast, or squint her eyes and itch her nose, before starting over, watching her hands play in her plate as if they were someone else’s and she was only somewhat curious as to what they were doing. Carl, having already decided he was hearing from the woman he would one day marry, listened carefully, glancing discreetly at his watch under the table.
She had come to Corpus Christi from Tyler, Texas after being accepted to the University, a feat not yet accomplished by anyone in her blood line. But after just one year she could no longer make the tuition and had to drop out. Rather than return to a family she saw as hopelessly and shamefully ignorant and poor, and a father irate with the burden of constant struggle and failure, she had decided to stay in Corpus Christi, the only other place in the world she knew. She was hired on at the diner, and despite the fact that she only managed to pull in half of what the other waitresses collected, it was enough to support her small apartment and to buy food. She had grown up with nothing and needed nothing. She relished the peace of her own room and a city without ghosts. She favored the silence to the screaming, and welcomed her own lonely burden as opposed to the collective of her miserable mother and sisters. Though she felt guilty and wrote them often, she had no thoughts of returning home.
Soon the sun was bright in the sky and shining over the blue curtain. He was going to be late, but he walked her home the few blocks anyways. At the front steps to her building, she turned to him.
“Well thank you Carl for breakfast, and for the conversation. Or for the listening anyway, I suppose I talked enough for the two of us. It’s been a while since I had regular conversation I guess.” For the first time, she looked him in the eyes, as if she had had the ability the whole time.
“It was my pleasure May. I like hearin’ all about you. I would like to know more if you would be so kind as to see me again.” May stared longer before answering, perhaps looking for the trick to be played at the end.
“I’d like that,” she said finally. “Wednesday is my night off. I am free then.”
“That sounds good,” Carl said, trying not to let slip his giddiness, “How about dinner and a movie?” Her eyes refocused on him as if she were just realizing his sincerity.
“Dinner and a movie?” she said. “That sounds really . . . nice.”
“Good then, can I meet you right here at six o’clock?” May smiled firmer than any expression Carl had seen her exhibit, nodded and turned up the stairs. He watched her go through the doors before running all the way back to the base.
The two dated quietly through the summer and into fall. There were perplexed rumblings and a curiosity that scorched the imaginations of May’s coworkers and Carl’s military pals. They were each so awkward individually - people had to admit that it was as natural a match as they had ever seen. For a while there was gossip and conjecture. May heard the whispers and saw the glances. Carl endured the teasing. But the new couple stayed so quiet and to themselves that soon the interest in them blew over. Carl’s presence at the diner each morning, sipping coffee and waiting for May to get off, became as commonplace and easy to ignore as the clang of the dishes from the back.
Despite their clashing schedules, they spent as much time together as they could. Carl felt bad for her but admired her persistence. There seemed to be nothing for her in Corpus Christi, but he knew there wasn’t anything for her at home, or in the rest of the world either. She was determined to stay gone from the family in Tyler, but in all other things she appeared to be short of ambition, or even a clear desire. She would like to return to the University, Carl knew, but that was no longer a reality to her. Rather than look upon it as a goal, a failure, or something to pine about, she looked at the year she had been there as the piece of her life that was to be cherished and remembered, possibly never to be topped. Her expectations were minimal and her ability to accept life as it was, enormous. She saw the awful ten hours of each workday as no different than anyone else’s and was so accustomed to being barked at and directed, that she was aimless and ambivalent to the rest of her waking hours. It took Carl some time to assume his role as the decider and decision maker. He had never dated very well, and never gone this far with a woman, but he understood that there was not the stress or worry of trying to impress her, or to keep her interested in him, that he had felt with other women. She was as happy at the suggestion of a movie, or coffee and pie, as she was a walk in the park, or a night of Parcheesi.
Though she never troubled him about it, and didn’t seem to ponder it, Carl felt that they were reaching the point in their relationship that the future should be on his mind. He had had it in his head from the beginning that they would someday be married and could have proceeded at any time. He was also sure that May would have him whenever he chose to pop the question but figured that a fair courting time would be a comfort to her.
On a cold and rainy morning in autumn, when he went to the diner to walk her home, the manager told him she had already left. He had not noticed the fact that the manager had kept his eyes on what he was doing and did not look Carl in the face, and not thought it strange that May had already gone. Because she was the weakest of the waitresses, she was the also first to be cut for the night if the clientele was thin. He knocked at her apartment door for several minutes before she opened it. She was still head to toe wet from her walk home and Carl could see through the strands of dripping hair that she had been crying. She let him in with out a greeting and turned away, throwing herself onto the couch and hiding her face. Carl picked up the umbrella from the middle of the floor where it had been thrown - wet, but apparently never opened. Hanging it on the little coat rack near the door, he noted that May’s jacket was missing as well.
“May honey, what happened?” he asked, squeezing onto the sofa and lifting her feet into his lap. From deep within the cushion he could hear the beginning of a stifled sob. She didn’t answer and he figured to let her go on for a bit. Her shoes were dripping cold dirty water into his lap and as he gently pulled them off, he deduced that not only had she not worn a coat or bothered to open her umbrella, but that she hadn’t evened cared but to walk around a single puddle. He peeled off her socks and dried her feet with a dishtowel before trying again.
“May honey, just tell me what happened.”
When all the tears were gone, and after blowing her nose on the wet dishtowel, she said, with a pathetic sniffle, “It finally happened, they finally fired me.” After pressing her about what had caused them to let her go, Carl found that it was no significant event, that the night had gone more smoothly than most, but that they had just given up on her and any hopes that she would get any better at the job. He understood that it would be too easy for them to find someone who could immediately do better, and that they had been good to stick with her as long as they had. Still, it tortured him to see her rejection. As she whispered to herself that she would almost certainly have to go home to Tyler, Carl knew that the time had come. He had known all along that he would know. He cleared his throat.
“Well, I think it’s time you gave up that old grease hole and marry me anyhow.” She had nearly interrupted his proposal by blowing her nose again. Stopping just short, the dishrag held to her face, Carl thought she looked like an outlaw or a belly dancer, as she was suddenly just a pair of eyes, searching for a pending joke, something so cruel that even she would not be prepared for it. Carl could feel himself unsteady, trembling, maybe even blushing. May could only look at him without speaking and it was time for him to leave. He let her stay still as he gathered his hat and coat.
“Sorry, I’m gonna be late if I don’t get. But listen here, I’ve been knowing it since the day I saw you that I wanted you to be my wife. I’m not apt to rush things, but I think now has presented itself as the right time.” He stopped fidgeting and looked at her as straight as he could. “May, if you’ll be fine enough to have me, I promise that I will take good care of you and that you’ll never have to work in a dirty old diner again, and wont one other person, so help me, every get away with raising their voice to you neither.” He paused, wondering if he should go on, then muttered. “You won’t ever have to go back to live at your folks.” As he stood dressed and ready to go, she just stared at him, shivering from the cold and from the world. “Think about it will ya? I’ll come by tonight and see you. Why don’t you get in the bathtub and get warm? Don’t worry about that stinky old job. You just get warm and get some rest. I’ll be by tonight and we will get out for a little bit – maybe find you a nice dress to put on. Think about it, will ya?” She could only effort a bewildered nod. He kissed her on the forehead and left for duty.
It was the proudest moment of Carl’s life, and it came on that awful gray day. The rain poured down as he ran from awning to awning back to base, a smile so big on his face he was mortified to have to hide it. He knew she wouldn’t say no. He knew that even if he wasn’t the most handsome, or the strongest, smartest, or funniest, that he was the man for her and that he knew how to keep her safe - and he knew that she knew it too. It was the longest day of his life, not so much because of the wait to see May, for he was savoring the time she would have to sit with it before she could see him again, but for the burden of his joy and having to keep it under wraps. He was clumsy with preoccupation and could hardly believe that nobody noticed. When his shift was done, he showered and dressed in his nicest shirt and lone dinner jacket. The only nice pair of pants he owned were his Navy uniform slacks, and he hoped they wouldn’t be too obvious.
When he got to May’s door, he found she was ready and waiting, and was bewildered at the sight of her. She wore a forest green dress with white flowers that he had never seen, and he believed she had gone to buy just for the occasion. Her hair was let down and curled up at her shoulders. Atop her head, and just to the side, she wore a white silk bow. Her lashes seemed longer, and her lips were redder, and Carl realized that she was wearing makeup in a way that he had never seen. It had always seemed a burden to her to use any at all, but she had clearly taken deliberation and pride and Carl felt his knees start to buckle under the weight of the occasion.
“My goodness May, I don’t even know the right words to tell you how pretty you look.” He handed her the rose he had bought from the street vendor. He could barely take his eyes off her big red smile. “Don’t say anything just yet. I aim to ask you the proper way.” In the doorway of her apartment, he took her hand and knelt before her. “I’m sorry I don’t yet have a ring to give you. I guess it would be better if you were to pick one out that you liked rather than me try to guess for you . . . but May Fleishman, will you marry me?” Careful not to smudge her makeup, she wiped a tear from her eye with the tip of her thumb.
“Yes Carl, it would be what I would like more than anything.” He stood and kissed her fully.
“I was sure hoping you were gonna say yes, cause I made us a dinner reservation at The Kingsman, and I would have hated to eat there alone.”
They had passed The Kingsman Steakhouse every day on their way to and from May’s apartment and it had been a source of much speculation between them. After seeing the people come and go from the restaurant, dressed as though they were headed to the Queen’s Ball, they had examined the menu posted at the front door. The prices had made them chortle for the rest of that evening and each time they had passed it since. How could people even think to pay that? What on earth could possibly be the difference in a steak, or potato, or salad?
Inside the door, they stepped through a thick velvet curtain. Save for the fixtures on the far walls, the dining room was lit entirely by the candles and glowed a deep red that faded into darkness. May flushed as shadowy faces, so severe and so in their rightful place, scrutinized her and Carl. Once they were seated and their host had left them, May whispered across the table.
“I think you are supposed to put your napkin in your lap right off.” Carl stole a glance around the room, finding that it did in fact seem to be the case, and realized for the first time that maybe they were in well over their heads.
“My, my, my,” he muttered and unfolded the napkin that had been shaped like a newspaper hat in the middle of his plate.
“Don’t worry about doing right. It’s a special night. What can they do, throw us out for being common?” May’s eyes danced at him in the candlelight, and she smiled, the red of her lips augmenting her feeling of mischief. Her exhilaration moved him. He smiled back.
“I reckon not.”
“I don’t imagine we will be making a habit of coming here. Just relax and enjoy.” His heart swelled at her words. She was determined to make the most of it, and her appreciation was not lost on him. He had never seen her so confident and engaging in a moment. The scene would both fill him with pride and haunt him for the rest of his days, when he would reflect on it and think, maybe that was just it . . . maybe May hadn’t been meant for the humble life . . . the common life. Unlike him, who had always, and would always, feel best staying low to the ground, maybe May had been meant for the good life.
Carl had set it in his mind to order a bottle of wine for the occasion. He stared at the list, struggling in the dim light to read each name and description despite the fact that none of it meant a thing to him. He was searching for a clue - something that would tell him, “order this one.” But there were no life rafts.
“What’cha think about wine?” he whispered to May. “I can’t make heads nor tails of this.” May glanced at the list and appeared for a moment to be shocked.
“Let’s just ask the waiter what he recommends,” she decided finally.
As the waiter stood over the two of them Carl wondered if he didn’t need to duck under street signs. His face hovered so far above the candlelight of the table as to be almost in darkness. He could discern a fine mustache and high cheek bones, but little else. There was just a strange wheezing voice that descended from the area of his face.
“Can I start you with something from the bar?”
“Well, we were thinking on a bottle of wine, but neither of us are too familiar. We were hoping you could recommend something,” Carl ventured.
“Of course, red or white?” Carl looked at May. She shrugged.
“We don’t know I guess.”
“Have you decided what you will be having as an entrée this evening?”
“May?” Carl asked.
“I think I will have the baked chicken,” she said, “and a house salad.”
“And for the gentleman?”
“I think I will have the porterhouse steak with the baked potato,” Carl answered.
“And how would you like that cooked?”
“Well done,” Carl said. From the darkness came a moment of awkward silence.
“Sir, the chef strongly recommends that you order it rare to medium rare.”
“He really prefers his meat well done if it’s not too much to ask,” May piped in. Carl was surprised at her forwardness but felt thankful. He had been caught off guard by having said the wrong thing and had had no idea how to respond.
“Very well then. What price range do you have in mind for the wine?”
“Something middle of the road I guess?” Carl said.
“Carl, it’s ok,” May whispered, “We aint gonna know the difference anyway. Something more affordable will be fine,” she said to the waiter.
“I have something I think you will be very happy with,” he replied and left them. Carl wondered how the hell he thought he knew so well. He added it in his head, a chicken, a well-done steak, and a modestly priced wine. He couldn’t wait to see what the sum of it all might be.
The waiter popped the wine and handed Carl the cork. May motioned that he should sniff it. Carl did, nodded and grunted, though he was sure that he was fooling no one. The waiter poured a fraction of a glass in front of Carl and the three sat in silence.
“Please sample it,” he said finally. Carl downed the fraction of a sip and grimaced. “Is it to your liking sir?” May smiled funny and nodded at him.
“Yea that’s fine,” Carl said.
“Very good. I recommend you let it breath for a few minutes before enjoying,” he said as he poured.
They had each sipped and crinkled their noses, giggling and whispering that it was awful, and wondering what all the flimflam could be about. They left their glasses half full and the bottle fuller. Carl admitted to himself that the steak was better than anything he was used to and wondered how it would have been had he taken the waiter’s advice. May, as usual, went at her chicken in a roundabout way and left most of it on her plate.
Out on the street the rain had started again and blew sideways, soaking them even as they huddled under the awning. Neither had thought to bring an umbrella, but despite the surprise weather, they were both relieved to be out of the Kingsman. They ran the half block to their diner and waited out the storm over coffee and pie.
* * * * *
Carl realized that he had started to tear up, as was his nature whenever he thought too hard about May. He looked around the bus station. That won’t do, he thought, wiping his eyes. I’m already a mark for being old. Last thing I need is someone seeing me get cry face all alone here. He would always remember how May had taken over that night, how he had let her, how he hadn’t felt the least bit emasculated, or embarrassed . . . but how he had never seen that face of hers with the red lipstick in the candlelight or heard that sureness in her voice again.
They were married the following Friday. Though May had never brought up religion before, she worried that it would be bad luck not to get married in a religious way. Carl didn’t mind. After asking around, they had found a preacher willing, and they had commenced. When they arrived at the address given, it was not a church, but a modest little house, non-descript and nestled in the center of the block, smaller than anything around it. No one had bothered to explain to them that the preacher, a very hefty man with greasy black thinning hair and beady little eyes that were determined not to stay put, was currently between churches. You mean unemployed, Carl thought to himself. After explaining to the couple that anywhere was as good as any, so long as it was a religious man doing the proceedings, the preacher had given them a moment to talk amongst themselves.
“You alright with all this?” Carl asked May, hushed as possible. “I figure we can find a preacher with a church.” May chewed her lip and he could tell she was disappointed.
“I guess I’d rather not have to put it off, would you?”
“I’d rather just be married as soon as possible May, but I don’t want you feeling bad down the line on account we got married by some preacher can’t seem to have his own church to preach in or people to preach at.” May shrugged.
“Well, he’s got a bible and cross and he’s all dressed in black to where he looks alright. I suppose he’s right that it doesn’t matter where, so long as it’s done in a Holy way. We aint got a whole crowd to bother a church with anyways.”
“So long as your happy May.” She smiled and nodded and squeezed Carl’s hand.
They were married in the tiny parlor. The preacher’s wife, Joy, had to be the witness as there was no one else the couple cared to have present and hadn’t known it was a necessity. She was as large as her husband and between the two of them there was almost no room left for Carl and May to join hands. Joy had stood quietly by in her floral print dress as her husband did his sermon. Carl snuck peeks at her as her eyes rolled back in her head and she silently mouthed the words as her husband spoke them. The preacher’s sermon was delivered on a raspy cloud of breath that was labored and loud as the words that traveled upon it. May would reflect later that it was so long and tedious and hard to follow, that it must have certainly been legitimate. When the preacher finished and the last Amen was said, he cleared his throat and nodded to his wife.
“Joy.” The silent woman burst into an acapella rendition of Be Though My Vision with a volume that was meant for a church and not a domicile. She had startled Carl so much that he might have peed his pants just a bit. He’d never thought one song could be so uncomfortable or endless.
Carl moved into May’s little apartment where they began their quiet life together, but it was not long after that he was transferred, and thus was the beginning of their nomadic military life. May never minded the moves. Through their mutual simplicity, they wanted for little and could unpack and set up in a single weekend. She loved seeing whatever new town they ended up in. A new grocery store, a new Montgomery Wards, a new café, and movie theater; these were all May needed to be excited. They lived a quiet life in their own world and never had many friends to say goodbye to. And for the most part they were happy.
* * * * *
Carl grimaced at his memories and glanced again at the young lovers in the corner. They were awake now. They shared a candy bar then began to gather their bags. It seemed to Carl like a tough life the two had chosen. He had a hard time imagining what had called on them to live in that way. They were younger than they had appeared while sleeping. Maybe their lifestyle wasn’t a choice at all . . . or maybe whatever choices there were had been that much worse. At any rate, he wished them better.
May never did toughen up like Carl had hoped and expected. Regardless of the world he had built around her and his endless reminders that she need not be afraid, her shoulders never straightened, her shuffle never turned to a stride, and her smile was always apologetic. Though Carl never gave up completely, after a few years he was resigned. Perhaps if he had yelled at her to stop being afraid - perhaps if he had made her afraid to be afraid - she might have understood. But yelling at May was something Carl did not have the heart for. And besides, she had never given him cause.
Carl kept his own pains to himself. He would have liked to have shared them with May on occasion, just to get the thistles out of his britches and the rust out of his guts, but it wouldn’t have done much more than trouble her, and any trouble that came to her was just trouble to him. He harbored in himself the weighty secret that he didn’t necessarily love his country or the act of serving it. Not that he hated it, or felt ill will, or even minded his duties - he just didn’t feel a spark for it the way so many others did. Each time his service term was close to up he secretly thought about leaving, torturing himself with the decision to flee or stick it out. But each time it arose, he had come a little further than the last time and was a little closer to the end. And there still wasn’t one damned thing he could think of to do besides stay with it.
His father had died in Korea when Carl was 14 years old. He had died in one of the final battles, perhaps only weeks from coming home - bombed to death, his body burnt to shriveled ash to where there was nothing to see when they sent the coffin home. Carl could feel the wound deep inside, but his father had been gone from home for so long, the pain was as abstract a thing as he would ever know. His mother had been strangely calm as well. She had barely shed a tear upon finding out – and even at the funeral. But she was not the same. Carl could tell that it wasn’t a lack of sorrow, but a sorrow so big that it could not be administered through the simple makeup of one human woman. He wasn’t even surprised when she died a year later without notice or reason. She had held on too closely too grief and to a sense of duty. His mother should have been a soldier, he had often thought. Her fanatical patriotism was front and center to the family life and Carl’s upbringing. So much so that he had wondered if it wasn’t his mother that had kept his father marching. Perhaps he, like his son, had secretly longed for something else. Before his father’s death, and for all life up until, she had been zealous and demonstrative in her devotion. But in the year after, she had grown so quiet. Carl would arrive home from school to find the shades drawn, the lights off, and his mother sitting in a candle lit living room. She would preach to Carl in near whisper, her eyes somewhere far away, reminding him again of his father’s service and letting him know that there could be nothing more important than a man dying for his country. But Carl had always doubted it. His father had been blown to bits and all Carl had left was a mother who was slipping away and a mounting sense of culpability. Her dark lectures terrified him and sometimes went on endlessly and repeatedly, the same point being made over and over. He knew that she was speaking more to someone other than him; was it his father, herself, God? He had always suffered a guilt for the relief he felt when his mother’s misery had suddenly come to an end, and he thought they were both finally free. But once she was gone, Carl had gone to live with his grandmother. She had taken up the same torch of constant rhetoric, and though the lectures were more what Carl remembered his mother had been before - the grandiose, the emphatic, like a one-woman parade marching back and forth through the living room - the torture had gone on through the rest of his teenage years. Had Grandma died the year before Carl joined the service, rather than the year after, he likely would have never joined at all, but once his course had been set, he found he was ill equipped to change it.
It was surreal at first, as he watched the Vietnam War become full scale, to believe his luck as he was never called to action. After several years, he knew that he never would be called. He both wondered and knew; the U.S. doesn’t believe in me. Despite seeing his fellow service men come back in pieces, men he called friends, he struggled to feel guilty, and what was left of his patriotism continued to erode.
Carl had been dragged from town to town his whole childhood. He blamed the lifestyle that he had never learned to make friends easily and that he had never learned to be so easy about the friends he did make. He was the newest member in any group and the first to be turned on or turned out. Despite how he tried, he had always been two steps behind the pack, and when he finally started getting the feeling that he was catching up, his family had been on the move again. He was sure that it couldn’t be right to keep a child so unsettled and the last thing he wanted was to drag a youngster around as he had been dragged. Because of this, he had made May wait. It was the one thing he had held over her - that they would not have a child until he was retired from the Navy. Looking back, he knew, those were too many years. By firmly trying to undo what his parents had done to him, he had ruined his own chances at an ideal life.
May had been good to understand him. She waited patiently. Carl’s story about his own childhood had broken her heart and she had never questioned him, but retirement couldn’t come soon enough. Towards the end, May’s fatigue had been obvious, and she was overjoyed to finally settle down. Carl couldn’t have been happier either. He had done his time as was expected of him. He had put his wife through years of waiting, telling her it would all be worth it. Once it was done, he could finally believe in the plan that he had adhered to for so many years. He could feel an eternity of tension and resent melting away the day he put his plastic covered uniform in the closet to stay.
* * * * *
Carl’s family had all been long dead, so it was the logical thing to settle in May’s hometown of Tyler, Texas. Her father had passed a few years before and the anger and anxiety that had clung so long to her family had dissipated ever since. May was happy to be around her mother and sisters again and Carl saw a spark of what he hoped would be her second coming. Her eyes were brighter, and it seemed like home was what could finally blow the dust off her smile. He couldn’t think of a better place for her to start her own motherhood. They bought a small two-story house just blocks from her family home and started the next part of their lives. Carl opened a small bicycle repair shop around the corner and between his modest earnings and his military pension they made enough to see a decent life in their future. But it wasn’t to be. The carrot dangling in front of them all those years had shriveled and rotted right under their noses.
The doctor had questioned their choosing to wait, admonishing them that birthing a baby at an older age as May was riskier for a healthy pregnancy as well as recovery. Carl had scoffed. But even before, May had often been sick. Her pregnancy was hard and her delivery harder. When the little girl was born, Carl showed her to May. May managed a smile that suggested that she was happy it had all come off, but it was clear to Carl that she could not enjoy the moment. Already her mind was in pain as to how she was to ever have the strength to raise a child. Before she drifted off, they decided on the name of Margaret, then she was gone, into the sleep of the physically, morally, and spiritually exhausted. She had done her duty, Carl thought, feeling that the worst was behind them, but May would never leave her bed for more than a few hours again. What started as a long and arduous recovery, turned into a steady fade. There were no real complications to speak of - May just didn’t have the magical strength that woman reserve for childbearing. She practiced an abbreviated motherhood as best she could, but she tired easily, and Margaret’s energy was impossible for her to keep up with. By the time Margaret was two, May could not leave her bed and the inevitable was upon them. Carl watched helplessly as he did his best to raise a small child and keep up the house. Margaret visited her mother a few times a day, and May saved all of her remaining will to live for these short visits.
May’s goodness eased all that could be eased in such tragedy. Though feeble, she always tried to smile when anyone came to see her. The room where she lay never blocked out the sun with the dark of death - the air didn’t go stale - the walls didn’t sweat with burden. May’s sisters brought flowers and helped to keep her bed and linens clean, and her mother watched Margaret while Carl worked at the bicycle shop. The presence of May herself was like a sweet heavy sigh. Though tragedy looms largest in people’s hearts when it is the kindest and the gentlest who are afflicted - May’s passing felt a due course of things. Carl knew this was not truer anywhere than in May’s own heart, and though she harbored the sorrow of leaving Carl and Margaret by themselves, she understood that they had already learned to live without her. The grace by which she accepted her early exit went miles to ease the hurting hearts around her. With whispers and tip toes, life went on delicately outside of her door until just before Margaret was three. Carl had sat with May most of the night, holding her hand. Towards dawn she had awaken him from his doze.
“Carl honey. . .” He had been startled awake and started to get to his feet. She held on to his hand for him to stay put. “Carl, it won’t be much longer now,” she said in the still dark.
“May don’t go saying that.”
“It’s okay. I’m not afraid,” she whispered. “It’s time for me to get up on out of here so you and Margaret can get on with your lives. I just wanted to say thank you for being so kind to me, for marrying me, for bringing me home - and mostly for being patient over these last few years. I know I have been a burden, but I just had to hang on as long as I could to see what Margaret was going to be. She’s going to be fine Carl. She aint like me. She’s got the whole world in front of her, and they better just be looking out.” Carl laughed and choked back a sob. “You’re gonna be alright too Sweetheart. I just know it. I’ve been watching. You’ve done real good so far and it’s going to be easier still once you don’t have to bother about me.”
“You never been a bother May. You aint never been anything but sweet and I aint had it so good as since I’ve met you.” She squeezed his hand as the morning broke, closed her eyes, and lay back.
“I love you Carl. I’ll always love you.”
“I love you too May”
Over the next two days she only opened her eyes to take a sip of water. Then, as meekly and quietly as she had lived - May passed.
* * * * *
Carl watched a child wandering away from his parents. They hunched together over their bags and seemed to be frantically searching for something. The child walked deliberately - stiff little motions - watching his own feet meet the floor one after another, his bright red sneakers against the worn pale tile. What was once a large peppermint stick, was smeared across his lips, cheek, and tongue. He licked the nub absentmindedly, as if it were fuel for each step. Just a toddler. His britches bulged where Carl could tell he was still in diapers. Another couple hurried by just inches from him and without a glance - so close that the boy’s little blonde locks ruffled slightly at the breeze of their motion. Carl’s heart raced a minute as he thought they would trample the child over. The little guy turned to watch them walk off, gnawing absently, until his eyes caught Carl’s. As he saw Carl seeing him, his crystal blues focused in - no longer a silent observer, but the observed - his existence in the world verified. He smiled a pink, one toothed grin as if to say, “isn’t it funny, that only us is noticing anything?” Carl’s heart melted. It was the only nicety he had seen since walking into the station. The boy glanced away just long enough to find his parents. When he looked back, he was questioning. Carl wondered what was in that little head. Perhaps, “Why out of all these people are you choosing to look at me,” or “why is there an old man all alone over there?” But there was an obvious pleasure and intrigue at a secret alliance formed. Carl thought of how a child must often feel so overlooked. Much like an old man might. He could barely remember Maggie’s days in those size clothes. He felt bad for it. As if every moment should be cerebrally catalogued and attainable. Such power in innocence - a knowledge so long forgotten by him and everyone else in the station.
When his parents finally noticed him drifting away, momma grabbed him by the hand and dragged him towards the ticket counter. He let his eyes linger for just a second, saying so much like, “ah well, this is how it is you know.” But resignation was in his nature. The world was a wonderful place, and everything was in front of him.
Carl knew right off that Margaret wouldn’t be a pretty girl - he wasn’t pretty, and neither was May. He was thin and tall with a large nose, protruding square jaw, and a hairline that had been retreating since he was only nineteen. He had looked old when he was young and now that he was middle-aged, he looked much older. His daughter was rugged and stout, but despite her unrefined façade, there was something striking about her. She had his strong male jaw line and May’s bright green eyes and jet-black hair. Carl worried about what the cruel world held in store for a girl who was not so pretty, but he was thankful every day that she had not inherited her mother’s health or inertia. Unlike May, she was hearty in her constitution. Never the little lady - she was unwavering and almost brutish and seemed always to benefit from a forward momentum of some sort. He realized soon enough that May had been right - appearances be damned, the world was bound to relent.
Though he had prepared himself for the struggle of single parenthood, Margaret was almost no effort at all. May’s mother and sisters had hovered about the home for too long before taking the hint and realizing that perhaps they were needed less than they wished to be. Gradually, they left father and daughter alone to sort out their life.
By the time Margaret was ten, Carl wondered on the need for a babysitter, realizing that his daughter already showed more sense than the young lady he paid to watch her. Night after night he had arrived home to find the teenager melted into the sofa, staring glassy eyed at the television, popping bubbles from her gum, and twisting her hair. She looked like she had been that way for all the hours of the day and seemed barely able to stir herself even when Carl walked through the door. In the meantime, Margaret was off playing by herself in her room, or in the yard, or down the street at her grandmother’s - all on her own account. Carl took Margaret to her favorite spot at the Tasty Freeze to have what would be the first of many straightforward - eye to eye - father-daughter talks.
“So, Maggie,” he said, “What do you think of Anabelle?” Margaret had looked at him so matter of fact, stopping mid-pull of her chocolate shake.
“In what way?” He let out a quiet harrumph, thinking that the frankness of her question back to him had already made up his mind.
“I mean do you like her. You think I should keep her on? Is she nice enough to you?”
“Well, she’s not mean or anything. But she sure is boring. She don’t play and she hardly ever even says anything.”
“Mmmm, I guess I figured. So, you won’t miss her if I cut her loose?”
“No,” she said, then thought for a second. “But who else you gonna get? She’s boring, but she aint mean.”
“She’s not mean,” Carl corrected. “Remember, aint aint a word.”
“I mean she’s not mean.” She pursed her eyebrows and nodded affirmatively to suggest that her father was right in catching her slip.
“Well, I was thinking of not getting anyone else. Anabelle doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of guidance to you. Would you be scared to just watch yourself after school?”
“I figure on those days MeMaw aint working you can go to her house, but other days you just . . .”
“Dad!” she interrupted, “MeMaw isn’t working, remember? Aint aint a word.”
“Right, sorry. Good catch. Well on days that MeMaw is working you have to promise that you would just come straight home from school and stay there, stay inside with the curtains shut and don’t answer the door should anyone ring.”
“Sure,” she said, thinking nothing of it. “Do I have to go to MeMaw’s all the time if she isn’t working?”
“You’d rather be at home alone?”
“Not all the time, but MeMaw isn’t really any more fun than Annabelle. She mostly just watches her TV and smokes cigarettes and pets on her cat.”
“Hmmm, well let me think on that. The less you are alone the better I’d feel, but let’s just see how it goes.”
“OK,” she said. “I’ll show you that I’m fine alone first.” Carl was impressed with her negotiation. Thinking of her grandmother’s house, he couldn’t blame her one bit for preferring to be alone. She loved to visit her MeMaw, but never wanted to stay too long. Carl felt the same.
“I tell you what. If you do as we agreed here today, I’ll give you a split of the money I was giving to Annabelle for you to do as you please, and with the rest we will go get you a savings account so you can start saving for something down the road.”
“Really? Wow that’d be great.”
“You need to keep up on the chores of the house and on your homework just like usual.”
“I know that.” She said as a matter of course.
“One more thing. You can’t tell nobody about it. It’s just our secret.”
“Not even MeMaw?”
“Of course, you can tell MeMaw. I’ll tell MeMaw. But no kids at school, no teachers even. Some folks would think it reckless of me to let you be on your own that much.”
Within the first month of the arrangement and by her own accord, Margaret had frozen TV dinners cooked and waiting for Carl when he arrived home.
“When did you learn your way around the oven,” he asked, suspicious and a bit scared that she was taking too quickly to her independence.
“Baking cookies with MeMaw. She doesn’t even help me anymore. She just lets me do it.”
“Well, that’s when she’s around. I don’t know if you should be using the oven all by yourself with no adult supervision.” She looked shocked at the idea.
“Dad I’ve been doing it since I was only five.”
“Five huh? You don’t ever forget to turn it off? You wear your mitts all the time? You don’t need MeMaw to remind you?”
“MeMaw taught me. She said I should know.”
“Well, I guess she’s right. You promise always to be extra careful.” She slurped her Salisbury steak and nodded.
Soon television dinners turned to simple dishes - macaroni and cheese, baked potatoes, hamburgers and hot dogs, spaghetti. He saw quickly that she was going to be a much better cook than he or her mother ever thought to be, and that it behooved both of them to let her handle meals. Each Sunday when they went to the grocer, she would have her list made up that she would need for the week’s meals. Carl bought her the Betty Crocker children’s cookbook. She had been incensed, complaining that she could figure all those things out on her own and insisted on a grownup cookbook.
After dinner, he would wash the dishes and she would dry as they discussed their days. Carl was fascinated. Being married to May had in no way prepared him for the life of this young girl. Aside from her time at the University, May had seemed to only start living on the day she met Carl. She had rarely spoken of her childhood, and he had very little idea of her as a youngster. After May had passed, Carl had started to think of these things, and though he never thought to love her any less, he had grown to pity her. Margaret on the other hand, was an entity fully realized from birth, and he listened without tiring.
* * * * *
The marquee on the bus changed to Muncie and Carl’s heart beat a little faster. He looked at the clock again. It wasn’t much longer now, but he was eager to be going. The waiting was the worst part. Many people in the station dozed with their bags under arm or under foot. He could not even think of closing his eyes. He was running away from home, or as much of a home as he had left. The adventure was just in front of him, and he thought of the irony, that he would live so long just to become a child again.
He was shaken from his thoughts when a large man cleared his throat and eyed the seat next to him. Carl muttered an apology and moved his cane, setting it between his knees. As the man slowly turned and lowered himself, folds of fat gathered around the arms of the chair. Carl grimaced and moved his elbows into his own body, but no matter how he tried to make himself small, his shoulder touched squishy flesh. The man’s bag, as big and overstuffed as he was, sat on the floor in front of him and blocked most of the isle. People walked around it and stepped over it with apparently little thought.
Again, Carl eyed the strange collection of folks with sad wonder. He knew that he was connected to them somehow. He had always known it, though he had never figured quite how and never felt the need to think too much on it. He deliberated now . . . his daughter and her uncanny compulsion to name it made him anxious, but he held fast to himself. Nobody knew - that was part of the big mystery. Call it Jesus if you want to, he thought, glancing at the different faces. He tried for a moment to feel kindred with them but couldn’t. Sure was a sorry lot.
May’s mother and sisters stayed tight with them, expecting them for dinners on Sundays and Holidays. Carl would have just assumed skip them as he never could get past the awkward space May had left behind. Both sisters had stayed single and there were no men for him to kill the time with and no cousins for Margaret to run off and play. There was no football on the television, even on Thanksgiving, and no beer in the fridge. Carl had only met May’s father once, years before he had passed, but he reflected at each visit that it was like he had never been at all – not a trace of him left. The three women behaved like they hadn’t ever been in the same room with a man for more than a how d’ya do? He knew that the man that had been there was no-account and painful to everyone near him, but he regretted that he either hadn’t left masculine air worth breathing behind, or that it had been so toxic they had managed to air it out, like a burnt pie, or a cheap cigar. There was almost no hope of not boring each other to tears. When it came to conversation, the sisters could not muster or cared not to try, leaving Carl and MeMaw to stab at it, year after year. But bicycles, military, and sports, just did not mix well with afghans, Bric-a-Brac, or Days of Our Lives. Margaret was all they mutually cared for, but they relied too heavily on her to fill in the silence. As she got older, she resented the burden and held back, adding to the discomfort. Still, Carl knew that his daughter benefited greatly from her aunts and grandmother and was relieved for those times when a young girl would find her father empty on female advice. So even when Margaret, at 13 years old, had had enough and started complaining, asking each week if they couldn’t skip just this one time, Carl made himself and her go.
“Dad I just can’t stand it tonight. I’ve got lots of homework still to do and it just drives me crazy that I could be doing something else besides trying so hard to think of something to say.”
“Maggie, you know I’m not partial to it myself, but some things are important enough that you gotta make room. They’re the only real kin me or you got. You know they love you and would do anything for you. You just gotta give some back sometimes. It’s just a couple hours a week you have to part with. It’s not so much after all that they’ve done for us.”
“I know,” she said and got quiet. Carl wondered how much she remembered the three women practically living in their house during May’s last years. “It’s just so God awful boring over there.”
“Amen,” Carl said, and they snickered all the way to MeMaw’s front door.
Looking over Margaret’s shoulder at her homework, she might as well have been studying Chinese, as Math or English, and Carl was thankful every day that she was a good student. She had never had to ask for his help, and whether she knew already or not, he had never had to confess to all the things he didn’t know. It was understood from an early age that if she wanted to go to college, she would have to do it on scholarships or loans, as Carl could provide a modest household for her upbringing, but no more. She had grasped the concept early and studied hard.
She made varsity in her freshman year and played catcher for the softball team. Carl loved taking in her games on spring evenings. Despite being painfully self-conscious as to how much younger all the other parents were, it was nice to get out of the house and rub elbows; the cool of the evening under the lights and the sound of everyone swatting newly hatched mosquitos, the ball smacking the leather of gloves, and his own flesh and blood belting Home Runs until it was expected every time she picked up a bat. The other parents knew he was Margaret’s father. They knew that her mother had died long ago, and that Carl was doing it on his own. It was one of the rare times in her life that he had allowed himself to feel the pride of a job well done. They all knew he was raising a star.
By the time she was 16, the fireplace mantle was full of trophies and ribbons. Her bedroom was bedlam - filled with baseball bats and gloves, helmets, shin pads, tennis rackets, soccer balls, and golf clubs. To Carl’s consternation, it smelled like a locker room as well. Though he had bought her a desk from a yard sale years ago, it was always covered with duffle bags and dirty laundry. Rather than keep it clean, Margaret studied at the kitchen table or at the school library. She had always been diligent about keeping up the rest of the house. Carl couldn’t understand when she even had time to do that and was thankful. Her room reflected every minute she did not have to spare. He figured he owed her that and avoided it as best he could.
He was also thankful that Margaret seemed to have little interest in boys, though he had wondered to himself, after getting a good whiff of her bedroom, if they had much interest in her either. He didn’t have the heart to mention anything to her about hygiene and hoped that either her aunts would take notice and mention it, or that she would simply come to realize herself one day. He knew that boys would be something he would have to reckon at some point, but she was either too busy to fit them in, or too serious to gush about them the way he assumed other girls her age did. As her prom approached, he wondered harder. She didn’t seem to be worried at all, and though he had never seen her lose at anything she cared about, he worried that he would finally see her Achille’s heel, on a sorrowful night, because no boys had bothered to ask her. He wondered what kind of young man wouldn’t be at least a little bit scared of her. When she told him that she was going with Brody Jensen from down the street, a boy that she had grown up with, he had been dumbfounded.
“You mean Brody, Brody? Your old friend Brody?”
“Dad! How many Brody Jensens you think live in Tyler?”
“Hmm, I didn’t know he was in the picture . . . I mean, still in the picture.”
“It isn’t a picture Dad, it’s a prom.”
He hadn’t had the slightest idea of what she had meant by that and wasn’t going to embarrass himself further by asking. She had spoken to him more and more that way lately and he was at a total loss as to what to think about it. Brody Jensen was an awkward and strange young man. The kind of young man that would have a girl for a best friend. Margaret and him had played everything together from hide and seek and Chutes and Ladders as children, to Soccer and Golf later on. They had drifted apart as they grew older. Carl suspected that Margaret had bettered Brody at most of the sports they played and that it was more than the young man wanted to be reminded of regularly. He was surprised that she would consider him eligible. However, the arrangement smelled of the sort of convenience Margaret would think up to handle a situation she found unshakable, but unimportant. Little to Carl’s surprise, he never saw or heard from Brody again after prom.
* * * * *
Looking back, Carl was thankful for those high school years. They had been necessary to diminish the shock of Margaret going off to college. It had eased him into it. She had been so busy that he only saw her from the bleachers of her games. She was gone early and home late, but at least he could see the signs of her and know that she had been there. He could find her sweater on the sofa that needed hanging, or leftover pork chops that she had cooked and left for him, or a note on the counter saying she would be late.
After graduation, she had gone off to college in Dallas. She had been ready to go yesterday for her entire senior year. Those last months and last classes had been little more than a formality and nuisance. He had frowned a little when all of her applications were away to schools in larger cities. The University of Texas had a campus right there in Tyler, but she had just rolled her eyes when he mentioned it. She insisted that Tyler was about as limiting as anywhere in the world could be. He wondered on the truth of that and for the first time could see the limit of his own vision as compared to his daughter’s. The military had shipped him all over tarnation, he had seen plenty of places and plenty of difference in each place. He had known the whole time that it should mean something to him, but it never really took. All those cultures and classes, from one kind to another, just flew by him or over him, the same way so many books had in school. He felt some guilt over it. He could see his fellow service men soaking it in, putting it away for later as a meaningful memory. Margaret’s longing and excitement for it all brought back the bewilderment and caused him a quiet humiliation, that perhaps he just hadn’t ever had the aptitude. All he had ever wanted was to find a home to go home to. He felt more humbled every day that grew closer to sending her off. She didn’t appear to be angry or resentful of her upbringing, but she didn’t seem like there was much to miss about it either. She had grown out of it, just like she was supposed to, he supposed, and here he was . . . caught off guard.
She had received a nice scholarship to Southern Methodist University. Carl had been so proud of her and had at first been under the impression that it was nearly as good as a retirement. It was a revelation to him that hundreds of girls and boys, that were just as smart and just as hard working as his daughter, were all along for the same ride. Even after the scholarship, all of her years of savings, and even some student loans, Margaret needed to work to pay for her books and living expenses and any sort of fun that might be had with her spare minutes. Much to his chagrin, she had taken a job at a diner near the campus, so much like the one he had met her mother in. Unlike May however, Margaret took the experience with less than a grain of salt. So immersed in collegiate life, the hours at the diner seemed barely to factor in as an ingredient of her reality. Whenever he asked her about the job, she seemed to have forgotten she even had one. She would dismiss it, saying, “It’s just a means to an end Dad. Its fine. There’s nothing really to tell. It’s about what you would expect from working in a diner.” He wondered if she remembered, how her mother and him had met, all his hours under fluorescent lights, waiting on her to get off. There seemed to be no significance to it at all.
Carl had been ashamed that he had nothing left of his own pay to send her each month and even more disappointed when she had told him she hadn’t gone out for any of the college athletics.
“I need that time to work and study Dad,” she had said. “Besides, there is a lot more to life than sports. I think I’ve just about outgrown them anyhow.”
It hadn’t crossed his mind that such a significant side of her had been just a part of adolescence. It was sad to him that it was the part he knew and liked best, the part that they had always bonded over and talked about freely, the part he understood. He had felt insulted. He realized perfectly well that there was more to life than sports. But what was so wrong with them? She was going to school for business.
“What business?” he asked. She had smiled, what he thought it was a sympathetic, pardoning smile.
“Just business in general Dad.” Well, it sure wasn’t the bicycle repair business, he thought. He didn’t even know the first thing to ask her about.
It was an awfully long day, that day his life changed yet again, and forever. She had taken him on a tour of the campus and some of the area around it. A city within a city - everybody coming and going - looking so sure of where, what, and when - bicycles weaving in and out of cars, adult children on skateboards, brushing his sleeve as they zipped by so close on the pathways that connected the enormous buildings that all seemed to be filled with mostly stairs. Margaret was talking a million miles an hour as she spouted off on how everything worked. She didn’t stay still long enough for him to get a look at her face and figure on whether this frenzy was bonified or manufactured. He felt some of it was perhaps an embarrassment of some sort that he was causing her, as he struggled to keep up. When the truck was unloaded and it was finally time to say goodbye, he was too exhausted and too befuddled to blubber. The last thing on his mind, as he drove away to live alone for the first time in his life, was to consider SMU as a religious school, or think anything more than education would come of it. He had rooted for the Mustangs in bowl games over the years, but that was all he knew. He regarded the school like any other large institution - mysterious and money grubbing.
* * * * *
He watched the pitiful folk line up to board the bus for Albuquerque. Which one’s of them, he wondered, would eventually line up for heaven and which one’s would be lining up for hell? They all looked like they belonged to the same deity - one who was cruel and depraved, or maybe just negligent. He had been staring at the arm of the oaf that had sat next to him. It was covered in little scabs, some fresh, but mostly dead and dying, as if he had just arrived at the Dallas bus station by crossing the 110-degree windswept Sahara. Large chunks of translucent skin threatened to flake off and float like the ash from a campfire. The man kept nodding. Each time he did he would lean towards Carl a bit more, his head dangling like a baby’s, the scabby arm nearly falling into Carl’s lap. Carl tried to push back, only to feel his elbow disappearing into the mass like into a thick molasses, while the rest of the man’s body remained unmoved. Every few minutes the boor would awaken himself with the beginning of a snore and straighten in his chair, just to start all over. Never once did he look Carl’s way or excuse himself. Finally, with the exodus to Albuquerque, a few seats had freed up and Carl moved away.
For a while there, the bottom had fallen out of Carl’s life. Though he had largely been on his own for Margaret’s high school years, it had never felt that way. His purpose had always been clear, and it seemed that there was little time to spare in each day. There was always something to fix on the old truck or the older house. Both seemed to forever be on the brink and demanding the world of him. Hell, for so long it had seemed that a few hours in front of the television before bed, or a beer on the back porch after mowing the lawn, were luxy moments to be prized. But his purpose had gone to Dallas, and it seemed that the days and weeks had expanded disproportionately. Now the truck sat mostly idle. With no one to wear it down, the old thing might last longer than he would. He no longer noticed anything to do around the house. He was sure there must be plenty, but it was as though he had stopped seeing. He hadn’t realized how the very notion of raising Margaret, even for all those years that she had pretty much been raising herself, had compressed those minutes by virtue of their meaning. Now, his child had run off with his meaning and there were days when he pined for her terribly. He questioned his value to the world. It was a lonesome life and a pointless life. He swore that he almost missed May’s mother and sisters who had checked on him for the first month that Margaret was gone, and then had faded away as he always hoped and expected they would. The bicycle shop had been losing business for a spell. He was barely turning enough customers to keep the rent up and the lights on and had been living largely on his retirement. Though he still kept his 10 to 5 business hours, he mostly just sat on a milk crate outside the front door, reading the newspaper or old issues of Popular Mechanics, nodding to the neighborhood as they passed by with strollers of children, or dogs on leashes, coming and going, nodding to Carl each way, whispering to each other once they had passed. He could guess on what they were saying. He could guess that they were feeling bad for him that he didn’t have much in the way of business. Sometimes he felt spurned, as if he were making them uncomfortable, like a man with a cardboard sign, begging at the freeway entrance as you waited for the light to change. Well, he would be damned if he would just sit all day in the dark little shop, smelling grease and ball bearings, when there wasn’t anything to work on. When he got home, he would sit some more in the little house and stare at the television until the sun went down and the house was completely dark. He knew there must be something he could be and should be doing and would glance every so often around the living room, as if he might remember or be moved to action. You can’t see a rotting soffit from here, he would think to himself, nor a tub that needs caulking, nor a walk that needs weeding, but still, he would sit and wait for a call. Once the phone finally did ring, he would have it sitting on the arm of the couch next to him, though he always waited until the second or even the third ring, for fear she would know somehow, that he had been sitting in the dark waiting. She only ever had a few minutes to talk and some nights she didn’t call at all. He tried not to take it badly, but there was just so many hours for him to wonder about her gratitude and their bond.
In the end, it was the food problem that caused Carl to venture out into the world and the accidental way in which he started his new life. Unable to stomach even one more television dinner, disgusted by the permanent shape his ass had creased into the sofa, and ever more dissatisfied at the conversation, or lack of, that came from that single phone call - he began to take his evening meal at Chaucer’s, the little bar and grill down the street. At first it felt divisive, like a vague and self-indulgent rebellion; against Margaret and her call that came less and less, against the rotting soffit, another idiot commercial, the setting sun, or maybe just against old age and his very own existence. It was enveloping, the comfort that a beer with a bowl of chili and a thick burger on the way, could provide. The Rangers were on the television, for better or for worse, and no different than they would have been at home, but there was a collective groan when they struck out and a smattering of cheers when they scored. It was nice to see the familiar faces of the waitress and the bartender each day and soon they were greeting him by name - warmly, sincerely, like they had known him for a decade. After a few weeks, he started to linger - one more beer after his dinner was done, maybe stay just to catch the end of a good game, maybe just until the shadows had finished creeping across his living room floor. The conversations, the jukebox, the cracking of the cue ball breaking 9, even the smashing of empty bottles in a can - it was all so comforting compared to the dark and quiet house. There was no reason to hurry home. Margaret had started saving her calls for the weekend. She claimed that it was better, that there was more to talk about that way. He had to admit, there was more purpose to each call and less obligation, but he couldn’t deny the sour feeling that it had left him with either.
It didn’t take long until he no longer needed an excuse to hang around Chaucer’s. After supper, he would sip a few beers and stare at the television, listening to the room around him. So many different lives. There were so many jobs that people had, so many places they came from, so many relationships and hardships. For a few weeks it went that Carl could enjoy the different exchanges around him without ever once thinking or wanting to join in. Silence was such a natural state in his life - it never dawned on him that the bar banter would inevitably reach out to pull him in. It happened one night when two friends were arguing. Carl had seen them many times and had witnessed their friendly disagreements almost as often. They were boisterous, loud, and usually a bit red faced. The kind of behaviorists that might get a tut-tut even in a friendly old bar. But everyone seemed to know them well enough to chuckle along-side or graciously ignore them.
“The Astros can’t even decide to stay put in Houston let alone think to win anything. If I was you, I just assume start callin’ them the Little Orphan Astros. Even people dumb enough to live in Houston don’t bother to show that team any respect.” Carl had been secretly listening but betrayed himself when he guffawed quietly and stole a glance over his shoulder. The man noticed Carl’s amusement and pounced on the opportunity to recruit him.
“See, this fellow here knows just what I’m talking about,” the man said, and nudged his friend so that he might be learned by this stranger. The other man looked sheepishly over his shoulder, as if he had been lectured by Carl before and was readying for it. “He’s in here almost every night watching a real team. Tell him there Chief,” he said addressing Carl, “The Rangers are headed in the right direction finally. New ballpark and all.” The other man interrupted any thoughts Carl might have.
“Where do you think that dog team landed here from? Hell, they used to be called the Washington Senators. They aint Texans, they got DC blood sure enough. That’s why they’re gonna puke right on home plate once they get to the playoffs where the real action is. They’re all talk, just like the politicians they are.”
“They’re home now. You’ll see,” the first man said. Carl chuckled and tried to humbly decline his opinion, but the jovial adversaries would have none of it. Only a few minutes into the discussion that Carl was sure he had taken no sides in, he found his mouth open and words tumbling out, as if he had been contemplating them all along.
“That pitching rotation keeps me up at nights, I’ll give you that,” he agreed with the second man. It gave the man a new juice that perhaps too many drinks had been holding down till then.
“Yea, pitching . . . like the man said. You can’t hit your way to a pennant, but you wouldn’t know a thing about that now would you Applesauce?” The man who had spotted Carl smiled and conceded.
“Well, I’ll give you that friend. They sure could use some help in that regard.” He turned and yelled to the bartender, “Hey Jill, will you get my new buddy here a fresh bottle of whatever he’s drinking.”
“Another round?” Jill asked.
“Naw, I aint buying nothing for a no ‘count Astros fan. Don’t know better than that, I just assume you need to pay your own way in life. Wouldn’t want to turn into an enabler. Just one for me and my new buddy.” The man blinked slowly and refocused on Carl. “What’s your name buddy?” Carl told him. “Just me and my new buddy Carl here,” he yelled to Jill and downed the rest of his beer. “I’m Pete. Shit for brains Astro fan here is Doug, but best known as Smashful, on account he is bashful and too often smashed.” Pete was a big man, with a booming voice, unmanaged curly brown locks springing from everywhere, and features that appeared to be too small for the face that had grown around them. Doug wore the flaming red of the Irish and a reluctant look in his eye that seemed stepped all over.
“He be known as Applesauce on account of that’s his consistency, both in the way of blubber and brains,” Doug retorted, and punctuated with a proud belch. Pete glanced down at his protruding belly and smiled at his friend in a way that betrayed his fondness.
“That’s right. Awe hell,” he yelled to Jill again, “get Doug one too. It aint his fault he’s from that shit town.” He nodded to Doug and said, “We’ll call this one a sympathy beer.” Then looking back at Carl, “Smashful here is from Houston. You ever been there.”
Carl nodded and said “Eyup”
“That’s one gross fuckin city right there. Like a swamp too thick it can’t figure where land finishes and thin air begins, like it don’t even know a city was built there . . . just keeps on goin up and up into the atmosphere. Sorry, you aint from there, are you?” Carl almost spit his beer and shook his head. “Why don’t you pull up a stool over here with us. Doug and I are set about solving the world’s problems. You seem like the type of fella who might be up for the task.” Carl felt obliged at the invitation and was happy to join the two.
The evening passed in a blink and Carl couldn’t remember when he had laughed so much or so hard. He was wiping his eyes and blowing his nose and taking his turn at buying rounds. It was after midnight and the televisions had been turned down and the jukebox had been turned up, before he finally managed to excuse himself and stumble the two blocks home. Despite the fact that he had vomited on his front porch and managed only to make it to the sofa, where he slept until the first rays of the sun found him, he felt exhilarated. He wondered where along the road exactly he had forgotten what fun was. Seemed like he hadn’t even thought to miss it until it had gunned him down on his own front porch.
Carl fell in with Pete and Doug like he had been the missing sidecar. They seemingly took nothing serious and left Carl wondering why he bothered either. In no time, they had introduced him to the rest of the bar’s regulars. He was meeting people, and though he was older than most of his new friends, he was surprised by his own fluidity. He mused with himself that he had been saving his strength all these years for the rowdiness that was destined to be his last chapters. He hadn’t been as socially apt when he was in his early twenties. Hell, as he remembered it, when he had met May he had been nothing but eager to leave the bars and their hot air behind. But he wasn’t in his twenties anymore. He was 62 now and the youngsters in his new little circle were all at least 40. There were similarities to the nonsense that he had experienced when he was young, but there was an easiness that only years on the earth could create in men. His new buddies coaxed him out of his empty nest inertia and reacquainted him with the friendly acts of drinking, playing cards, and any other form of mischief that could be had with humble means. His favorite newly learned past time was betting the horses. On Saturdays there would be a gang of them that drove to the track in Fredericksburg where they would end up staying for most of the day. Carl’s old truck could only seat two grown men comfortably, so it was thus, he was never roped into driving. Besides, there seemed to be an exception made and a certain reverence for the group’s senior member - they all knew that May had passed, and Margaret had gone off to college and that he was alone in life. He was aware of an obvious fondness and a consensus among them that he was to be looked after. It took Carl more than a minute to quit the battle of prideful resistance that he be treated like the baby brother, but it had been a long road and it was a relief sweeter than expected to just be tagging along.
He had been a family man so long - so long on the straight and narrow - and now he was free. Ever negligent of his age and his bank account, Carl played the game of a single man; drinking most nights, playing cards and the ponies, betting sometimes all he had; sometimes winning, sometimes losing everything. He was awake and appreciating all that had been forgotten in tragedy and servitude. Margaret would weigh on his mind heavily in those moments between coming in the door and crawling into bed, when he stumbled drunkenly through the darkness of the nearly abandoned house. He was almost convinced that she was really that busy and hoped that they would catch up when her college years were through. In the meantime, he grew to love his new life and never stopped to consider what his daughter’s thoughts about it would be.
It was just six weeks before Margaret graduated from SMU that she told her father she was moving to the east coast for graduate school and that she would be traveling in South America for the summer until then. She wouldn’t be coming home. There was the feeling that she had known for some time about her plans and had decided to keep them from him. Was she meaning to avoid his trying to see her more before she left? It was impossible to say, but the way she had mustered up a firmness and a softness altogether, let on that she had been worried about his disappointment for some time. Hell, it wasn’t much. For going on two years already, Dallas might as well have been Tibet for all he saw her. He had figured out a while back that she never intended on coming back to Tyler. Dallas, Boston, Peru, what did it matter? They would continue to be father and daughter by way of infrequent telecommunication, and that was all there was to it. In the meantime, he continued on with his new life - contemplating little and enjoying whatever he felt to, whenever. There seemed to be no reason to pause, or to change a thing, and though he noticed how the years were flying faster and faster, as if they were rolling down a hill, gaining momentum, headed for a cliff, or the ocean, or to wipe out a small village - it was headed toward the inevitable ending, and he didn’t mind. There was little invested that he should be worried for. Let other men try and hold up legacies, lineages, or even some respectable routine such as church, or memoirs. He was contented to end it as he was living it. He had tried after all Damnit! His wife had died, and his daughter had abandoned him. It was time that he moved on as well, from a life that had moved on from him.
On a July morning, the house was already hot. He had awakened, still in his clothes, lying the wrong way across the bed with a late morning sun baking him into a fierce sweat. He had overslept, and a crippling hangover left him in no mood to go to work. As he struggled to get himself cleaned, dressed, and out the door, it dawned on him - that little bicycle shop was more of just a babysitter for himself these days, and one that he didn’t need. It had been just breaking even for a long while and would become a liability in the near future. He stripped to his boxers and undershirt, pulled the curtain, arranged the fan, and went back to bed until the afternoon. When he awoke, he drank a beer on the back porch and thought it over one last time. He shielded his eyes from the sun. His back lawn was longer than it should be, he thought, and then realized - there was nothing more to ponder. He walked down to the shop and took one more look around. He stood in the cool, concrete room, breathing in the grease and glancing out the dirty windows to the neighborhood - full of so many folks that had also decided, they no longer needed him. He didn’t think he would miss it. He was 66 after all. He had every right to let it go and to feel relief about doing so. It had been two years that he had known he was even there when he was there, and years before that since he felt any pride in it. Scrawled on the back of a cardboard soda flat with a ball point pen, the sign, barely legible, read simply:
He stuck it between the bars and the window where it looked as careless as he felt about it. The next day was the final of his working life. He called his last customer to tell them their bike was ready to pick up, called the landlord, the electric, and the telephone company. Once the single bicycle had been picked up, he filled the back of the old truck with his tools, cash register, neon open sign, and everything else not nailed down, and hauled it all to the pawn shop to sell. That night, flush with a crisp roll of pawn shop bills, he bought many rounds for his friends at Chaucer’s, and his friends reciprocated, as they celebrated his retirement.
As the bus for Albuquerque farted huge clouds of black smoke and backed out of the station, he figured there would be about a 20-minute window from the time they arrived home, discovered him gone and found his note, till his own bus departed. He didn’t imagine they would ever think of looking for him here, but he nearly fell to trembling anyhow at the thought of such a scene. What would they think? He pictured Margaret collapsing into the dining room chair, the wood letting out a squeal under her well-fed behind, her eyes fixed on the words he had left her with. He imagined Glen pacing back and forth, “thinking out loud” as they called it, maybe making a few frantic calls. There was no joy for him in these images. He hated to do it. Even now, sitting in the bus station, pushed to the extent that he thought this was all necessary, he had forgiven her everything. He just couldn’t stay.
He and Margaret had had some tough battles over the years, but nothing at all that had prepared him for what he had just run from. He recalled the argument about her wanting to be a boy scout and that no amount of convincing could make her understand, that a girl scout was just about and good as the same; the hurt she felt when she could not for the life of her understand, that playing football was for men only and how when he had tried to convince her that other things were meant for girls her age, she had assumed that he was in league against her. Impossible situations - almost amusing now. In fact, they would be, if it weren’t for all that had gone wrong since . . . if it weren’t for all the memories in the world having been tainted.
Sure, there had often been one thing or the other between them, and there had been days of silence, but the fire in them both would blow away the cobwebs and they were always better for it in the end. Now he thought that the fire in him had perhaps gone out. How on earth was a man to keep it lit day after day, when all he had built was gone? He hated to admit it, but he was just too old to fight. He no longer understood where she was coming from or how to defend himself against it. Defend himself, he huffed quietly. That was the pathetic nature of it in its entirety. He no longer forwarded an opinion, he only resisted hers. Saved! That was all she talked about. Her and that fat turd she had married. Mindless zealotry was all it was. That boy had taken his outstanding and reasonable daughter and filled her up with Jesus. He could barely admit it to himself, but she had become soft and stupid. And there was no way to argue with a person when they were convinced that God was speaking through them.
Well, he had to confess, there was more to it than her strange devotion. She had been outraged by his lifestyle once she had paid attention long enough to recognize it. And as poorly as things had ended, it had only given her the perceived right to go on and on about it - making the case against sin and vice by pointing out where that road had led him. It was true, he should have known better than to let things get away from him like he did. He had squandered his security and put himself in harm’s way and ultimately, at her mercy. And he sure couldn’t blame Jesus for that.
After closing the bicycle shop, he had been lulled to sleep by the new ease of things. He no longer felt the obligations. Several times over the following years he had come home to a dark house that could not be lit, as the electricity had been shut off. The next day he would pay his bill and they would restore his power. The minor inconvenience was all in all, just as easy as keeping track and paying on time. It was under this premise that he stopped paying his taxes, figuring that at some point he would reckon them as he did everything else, but after a few years with no consequences, the intention to pay became infrequent and insincere. He admitted to himself that he had hoped to cheat the government boys by dying before they caught up to him. He never once thought to ask for help. If he had, he wouldn’t have needed it, he would have figured a way, but he hadn’t. “I coulda’ gone kindly into the dust . . . thank you,” he thought. But no! They caught him, sure as hell . . .
On a sweltering August afternoon, Carl was sitting on his front porch in his trousers and undershirt. He had been contemplating on heading to the bar early, just for the air conditioning, when a little man with a tweed suit and a brief case came walking up his walk.
“You Mr. Carl Stills?” Carl answered that he was, thinking only that whatever he was about to be sold, he wasn’t buying. All the characteristics Carl could see didn’t seem to sum up to a man - he was childlike in body and voice and pale as if he had been living somewhere underground. Carl thought that there was no way the man could have been surrounded by Texas for as long even as it took him to travel the length of his walk. But in only a few seconds, all niceties or amusements had been abandoned and he knew that he was in real trouble. He could scarcely believe the authority the little man projected.
“Jamis Muncy, IRS,” the man had said, flashing his credentials, “Mr. Stills, I’m afraid we have no record of you paying property taxes in nearly twelve years. Do you understand that tax evasion is a serious crime that is punishable by significant prison time?”
Carl could have fallen right off the porch. He had heard of people going to prison for tax evasion. Al Capone came to mind, but that was Al Capone, the vicious murdering gangster. Carl was just a poor old man who never hurt anyone. In all the years of putting off payment it had never once occurred to him as a possible consequence. In no time, Jamis had Carl saying, ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and running to bring him whatever he could. He had sheepishly fished out all his documents and records for him to go through; beer boxes full that Carl had kept haphazardly stacked in the attic for year after year. So much of it was still unopened mail, collected and discarded. It was embarrassing to see Jamis shoot bewildered . . . or were they disgusted glances at him, as he fished out unopened envelopes from under pizza delivery and supermarket adds. He was even more embarrassed of himself that he would bother to keep it all. Why hadn’t he just thrown it all away? One by one he had hauled the boxes down and sat in his kitchen - sweating to death and looking on while Jamis sorted, recorded, and pounded out numbers on his adding machine. The little man never even took his coat off, which somehow made Carl’s outrage all the more unbearable. For a full week, each afternoon at 2:00, Jamis would be back and the two of them would sort through the boxes until 5:00. All just to prove he weren’t entitled to his own property no more. Had he known how it was going to end he would have just told them to take the damned house and piss up a tree. He would have just walked away and saved himself the wretched hours of sitting quietly like a scolded child while some sniveling joyless bureaucrat stunk up his kitchen.
He was shocked at what everything added up to. He could see the Government’s anger in the interest and penalties they piled onto what he owed. They were obscene, vengeful amounts and there was no way to reconcile. Margaret had gone on and on about how if he had just said something, they would have had options, she could have borrowed the money, they could have sold the house, they could have hired a lawyer. Carl hadn’t thought about any of that. A full week of afternoons with Jamis and the sleepless nights that followed, had left him so broken and bewildered that he had only been thankful for it to end and not to spend his last years in prison. He hadn’t considered any sort of action at all.
The IRS had turned him out of his house. And what a house it was. The pipes were rusted, the foundation was crumbling, the eves were rotted, and the roof was sagging - probably worth more as a hole in the ground than it was still standing. It was a bitter pill to know, that to the government, with all of their red tape and heads up their asses, it was probably worth even less. To them, it represented a point to be made and whether or not it was of any value or use to them, they were making it, even if it meant turning an old man homeless. Though it was the house where he and May had made roost and where Margaret had been born and grown up, it was a shack and nothing more. He had long since felt any kindliness toward it. As Margaret had drifted further from him over the years, he had felt it less of a home and more of a shelter, and most recently, as just the box that contained so many of the memories he had grown to resent. He hadn’t put in a dime of upkeep in a decade and had only hoped that it could hold out as long as he could in life. But as he stared at it from the street - unpainted and leaning and empty, Margaret bawling next to him - he had to admit that he had fucked up good. The old shack had been his freedom and he had taken it for granted. Now he was at the mercy of the world.
Margaret had met Glen after graduate school when she spent a year out of the country doing “ministries,” as she called it. Carl had met him several times, but often felt he had about the same relationship with him that he had with the regular anchor on the 11:00 o’clock news - only less warm and less genuine. To his friends at Chaucer’s, he referred to Glen as the mother loving dough boy, which always got a good laugh, but was not so funny to Carl as he let on. He would take an extra-long slug of his beer to wash away the taste in his mouth and the lump in his throat, wishing to himself that he would just learn to keep his trap shut about it. Glen was soft and void of character, but other than random suspicions, Carl hardly knew the man, and he wondered on his ill feelings.
He had only been to their home in Dallas once when he had stayed Christmas Eve and come back Christmas day. It had been the most counterfeit and uncomfortable night of his life and he was glad to not have been invited back. He couldn’t help but remember, how growing up, Margaret had complained about the mind-numbing dinners and holidays at her Grandmother’s. If that little girl could only see herself. If it wasn’t the same at her house now, it was worse. There was a man in the home but appeared only in the physical fact. There was no beer in the fridge, no football on, and almost no joy, or anything of interest to say. After that visit, the couple found it was easier for them to just visit him in Tyler, which they did for Christmas, Father’s Day, and his birthday. Each time they would take him to the Country Buffet or the Denny’s for an early dinner, before heading promptly back to Dallas, as if it would burn down without them, or as if they would turn country if they dawdled too long in Tyler.
For the first years of their marriage, Margaret and Glen had both worked corporate jobs. Insurance and securities . . . Carl understood almost nothing about what they did, despite the fact that it was all they talked about. Money: that was all he knew - like most things, it had everything to do with money. And what was it really, besides a means to stay alive? They both had an air of self-importance that left Carl wishing to vomit. Neither could stop saying how busy they were. Sometimes their conversations got so involved about work that he couldn’t follow along at all and he wondered why they had driven all that way just to talk amongst themselves. Well, he wasn’t much better, he had to admit. When they asked him how retirement was treating him, what he did with his days, or if he had any plans, he never had much to say. Pete fell off the bar stool the other night, he would think, funny as hell, the way he rolled around in his own beer for nearly a minute before Doug thought enough to help him up, or the fact that he had won two hundred and change on a longshot $5 bet in Fredericksburg, or club seat Ranger tickets in the pool at Chaucer’s, and how he had let Pete and Doug kiss up to him for a week to be his date, only to make them draw straws in the end. But no, of course not. He knew better. He had long since been downplaying his time at the bar, or horse races, or most anywhere else. He left them the impression that his lawn was what he cared for most. Every visit included a five-minute conversation about how the old truck was still plugging along - thank God for the truck - how he loved it and hoped it would last him. It always started as a good and honest chuckle amongst them and the only moment that felt genuine, but inevitably it was followed by somber concern on whether or not it was still safe, and wouldn’t he rather have a nice little used Toyota? To go where? he would ask, trying to keep the funny going. Regardless, it was decided each time, that next time they visited they would come early and look into getting something a little more reliable and safer. Last time around, Margaret had slipped in the notion that maybe his driving days were getting past him anyhow.
It was a sweet relief he felt when they dropped him off and pulled away. “Till the next time,” he would say out loud, standing on the curb and watching them till they were out of sight, then walking down the street to Chaucer’s to “drink the fake off.”.
It was a little more than a year before he was turned out of his home that the couple had bought the Christian bookstore. Carl had been stumped. He knew too well that they were devout church goers and Margaret’s critique of his lifestyle and general religious rhetoric had been ratcheting up noticeably the last few times he had seen them, but to quit good paying jobs and put all your savings into a bible store . . . well, he just didn’t know. His only reference was the bicycle shop, which had never made him rich and in fact would not have sufficed had it not been for his military pension.
In the U-Haul van, on the way to his new home in Dallas, Carl wondered if the rest of his life would be a rerun of that awful Christmas Eve. It couldn’t be. Nothing could be so awkward and ongoing. It would probably be uncomfortable for a week or two before everyone loosened up. But he had been wrong. It had been much worse than he could have imagined.
Since living in the Glen Billsburg household, he had learned how much influence this man had over his daughter, how she had given into him completely, calling him the Head of the Household and reverently turning over all decisions. There was no violence to Glen that Carl could detect, in fact he was the opposite of whatever begat violence. Carl never once even heard him curse - not Damn it or even Dang it, but he was the smuggest bastard Carl had ever known. His neatly parted hair, button up sweaters, starched collars, polished shoes, and wire framed glasses that he mashed into his fat face - even sitting there in the bus station, overcome with sorrow, guilt, and trepidation, the very thought of Glen could turn him white hot. He had been embarrassed to find himself fantasizing, convinced that even at his advanced age he could still knock half of Glens perfectly straight and white teeth right down his throat. Yet, Margaret acted like to question the man was to face severe consequences. There was nothing left of the daughter whom he had once compared to a gale force wind. Now look at her. If Glen would have told her woman shouldn’t drive, vote, or sneeze she would have believed him and stopped. There was none of the grit left in her and Carl couldn’t believe that he had missed it for so long. Maybe he just hadn’t wanted to think as much; a man can lie to himself more about his daughter and her welfare than any other lie he can tell. Well now he knew.
How could he thank them enough? They had come to his rescue and all he could do was wish they hadn’t. After all the years of neglecting their relationship, he had provided Margaret the golden opportunity to play the hero and martyr - redemption after all. He wished that he had just gone down to the local flophouse and taken his chances there. She had wept inconsolably, even as to appear unstable on her feet, as they moved his things out of the house. Glen held onto her, whispering nonsense and rubbing her back. Carl had tried to be moved, but he just couldn’t. It seemed to him that she was showing the world how she felt rather than actually feeling it. It was true that it had been the family home, and other than faded photo albums and a few boxes of memorabilia there was nothing else, but if she were so attached to it why had she been so set on getting away and staying away? Had he seen his future in the reflection of the empty house’s windows, he might have bawled right along with her, but he only saw his daughter’s vulgar melodrama and was embarrassed.
On the first morning, the knock rang out on Carl’s bedroom door as if the house were on fire. It had been some time since he had gone to bed without a little nightcap . . . or a lot of nightcap. He had not slept well in his new bed. He had lain sober and worried all night about having to learn how to act again. A voice whispered to him over and over, “you done fucked up good.” He had tried to reason with it and himself that he could learn to live differently and that there wasn’t any reason that this might not be better for him in the long run, but the more he argued the more he was scared.
It had been so long that he had been awakened on any terms other then his own. And now a man was ringing the proverbial bell, as if he were back in the service. He had practically fallen out of bed, stumbling to the door, pulling his sheets around him, and still troubled with sleep had demanded, “Who’s there?”
“Good Morning Carl! It’s a great day and another day to know your savior! Rise and shine!” Glen bellowed through the door. Carl was still looking around the sunny little bedroom, remembering the drive from Tyler, the moving . . . the weeping . . . all the sentiment flew by him and he answered,
“I’m still sleeping.”
“Carl, the Lord cannot wait, there are things to do. Rise and shine.” Carl had thought it was a stupid joke, an idiotic sense of humor, and just another side of Glen he hadn’t seen before. Without another word, he went back to bed.
It was that night at dinner that Carl was informed that it was not a joke at all. That was where things had turned bad for good. He had slept the morning through and was refreshed and feeling better. All afternoon Margaret had been working in the kitchen, mentioning over and over again about, “Dad’s special dinner.” His mouth watered as he thought of a home cooked meal, such a rare treat, and he chided himself that things weren’t going to be so bad after all. But it wasn’t three minutes, once they all had sat down at the table, that Margaret had burst into tears again, blubbering all over her food and telling him in no uncertain terms that the Lord had put him into their arms for the reason of being Saved. Glen had quietly looked on with a face so severe that only a complete Jackass could have owned it. Dad’s special dinner my foot, he thought. He’d barely been able to chew a few bites before all of Margaret’s crying. And still that weren’t enough. They had to hear something from him . . . they had to know he was hearing them.
Well naturally, being a guest in their home, Carl had tried to be gentle in his way. He assured them that he respected their way of believing wholly but said that he would be damned about all of that.
“I’ve been on this earth now 77 years, and while I don’t presume to know what is and what isn’t, I reckon I feel comfortable with who I am, and I got no reason at my age to be joining a church and what all.”
“Dad you just don’t know what you are saying. You can’t be redeemed into Heaven if you don’t become reborn in the eyes of the Lord. Jesus is ready for you to come to Him and you mustn’t keep him waiting. This is the time of life you need to get right with Him. Heaven knows you haven’t taken care of yourself like you should have and while we aim to help you change all that, you are vulnerable in life and even more vulnerable in spirit.” Carl couldn’t help but wince at the picture of himself in his dying minutes trying to fool God. Once he had been good and startled, Glen piped in.
“That’s right Carl; you’ve got to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. It is time for you to turn from what you have been doing that is not pleasing to Him and follow Him as He reveals His will to you in His words.” Carl turned to Glen, feeling all the betrayal of his daughter’s lost ways in this man across the table.
“And what in the Hell kinds of things are you sayin’ I been doing that is gettin’ Jesus so upset?” Carl knew he was innocent, but he felt defensive anyway.
“Drinking Daddy,” Margaret said. Her tears were suddenly gone, and her eyes were dark and cunning like she was ten years old again. She was gearin’ up to get it all off her chest. “Drinking at that dirty old bar with all those rascals . . . all those heathens . . . gambling on horses for Heaven’s sake! Do you think those are Christian sorts of activities Dad? Do you think those are Christian ways to be living?” He was stunned by the hateful, shameful way she said it. So, was that all? He took a breath and looked into his lap.
“I guess I figured Jesus had a lot more to be bent on then how a lonesome ol’ man chose to go about his last days.” He glanced at Glen. “I aint hurt no one and I got no reason to be worried or fretful.”
“It hurts me Dad,” Margaret said in a lowered tone, “It hurts me that you haven’t found your salvation. It hurts me that you don’t even know that those things against Jesus do hurt people, whether you think so or not. What about the family home Dad? You see what happens when people go off by themselves away from God?” Carl just stared at her, dumbfounded. “What about Mom? What do you think she would say about losing the house, the drinking and carousing and gambling? Hmm Dad, what do you think Mom would say about all that?” He couldn’t believe the words he had just heard and with no mind for Glen, he proceeded in the first reprimand of his daughter in more years than he could remember.
“You listen hear girl; you were all of three years old when your Mamma passed. For you to sit here and talk to me like you know something I need reminded of about her is revolting. I betcha’ she’d say that for starters. And as for the drinking and all the other, she’d have known that I would have never let those things come between me and her, nor you and I, or my family responsibilities.” The room was silent as Carl dug out the last of his words. “If you want to know the truth, I think your Mamma would have nothing to say to me but thank you . . . thank you for raising our daughter best I could. Now, you want to carry on to me about being saved and Jesus and all, we can have that argument, but you best keep your thoughts about May to yourself from now on. That’s it. I’m done talking. Nice family meal we had here tonight.” He threw his napkin onto his uneaten dinner and ran off to his room like a hot-headed teenager - a room which would become his prison.
Since that conversation, his world had become a briar patch and he was hopelessly stuck. It was spooky to Carl - Margaret’s devotion to her faith reminded him so much of his mother’s and grandmother’s fanatical patriotism - like maybe it ran in his bloodline. It scared him. He realized that such radical devotions had always scared him. It made him feel small and helpless and like so much of a child again. Margaret had assumed her entire soul and the truth of it to Jesus, but worse - it was to Jesus through Glen. Carl’s feeble advances and pleas for logic were answered with tears and begging for him to give his soul over, to listen to Glen. Apparently, Glen and Jesus were tight, tight enough that it was best to go through him rather than directly to the source. Every morning Glen stood at Carl’s door and asked him if today was the day that he would accept his savior.
“Repeat after me Carl,” he would shout through the door. “Lord Jesus, I want You to come in and take over my life right now. I am a sinner. I have been trusting in myself and my own good works. But now I place my trust in You. I accept You as my own personal Savior. I believe you died for me. I receive You as Lord and Master of my life. Help me to turn from my sins and to follow You. I accept the free gift of eternal life. I am not worthy of it, but I thank You for it. Amen."
To which each morning, Carl would reply through the door. “Go fuck yourself Glen, what have you done with my daughter?”
“She is with God Carl . . . don’t you see?”
“No, I don’t see. Why don’t you just go on to work and leave me be?” Glen would leave, but there was no peace. Soon after Carl heard Glen’s car pull out of the driveway and the garage door close, Margaret would be at his door, sometimes whispering, almost cooing, sometimes screaming, but always crying and always pleading the same case; that Jesus loved him, and that Glen was only trying to show him. Carl could not believe that he was losing out to this man that he saw as so much nonsense. His ineffectuality crushed his spirit and each day he had less to say about it. His reason could not fight against whatever mystical forces moved her. He asked himself time and again, was it his fault. And he could only imagine that somehow it was. His own daughter no longer saw him as a man, or as a father, but as a heathen, and someone to be saved.
His only freedom in a day was the three hours that Glen and Margaret’s shifts overlapped at the Good News Garden Bible Store. Glen went off every morning to open it and Margaret went off every afternoon to close it. Their shifts crossed from 3 to 6. During those hours, Carl investigated the house. He pondered their possessions - things he would have never thought to be accustomed to. The carpet was plush, puddle deep and warm around his toes, multiple sets of china and porcelain bric-a-brac filled the glass cabinets and cluttered shelves, and there was a new television in every room. He huffed as he examined a glass angel figurine, turning it over in his hands, just one of many delicacies that quietly stole all the space and used up all the fresh air. “A nice house with a lot of nice stuff. You ought to know that you can’t take it with you.” They wore cardigans around the house and ran the air conditioning non-stop against the Texas heat, never opening a window. They each drove a new car and doted on them compulsively in a way that reminded Carl of his military boots, keeping them cleaned and waxed as if there were some kind of surprise inspection upcoming. He deliberated that things must be very good in the Jesus business. For being smack in the Bible Belt, there sure were a lot of people in need of Bibles. The cupboards were full, as if a commune lived there; flats of sodas, bags of chips, shelves stacked to the rear with canned and boxed goods. Each day he fixed himself a large lunch and ate while sitting on the patio, overlooking the pool and enjoying the heat of the real world. Before Glen arrived home, he made extra sandwiches and stole bananas, candy bars, and other snacks to take back to his room where he would stay until Margaret left the next day.
Glen was strangely quiet in those evening hours before Margaret came home. During the first days, Carl had figured that they would have a standoff, one on one, but it never came. In-fact, Glen never tried to make contact with Carl unless Margaret was home. It was all a big show to him. Even when Carl had bumped into him in the hall on the way to the bathroom, Glen had politely nodded and said, “afternoon Carl,” as if they were passing on a street corner. He listened at his bedroom door and often thought to go see what it was Glen was up to so quietly that it was as if he might not have been there at all. But there was just the small hum of the television in the den, and he wondered if there wasn’t a desperate loneliness greater than his own on the other side of the door. It was sad to him that this Jesus business was more important than a husband and wife having suppers together. What exactly was the strategy in life? He couldn’t figure.
Glen never ceased from getting up under Carl’s last nerve, but it was Margaret that had finally driven him away. He could see the fear in her eyes, counting everyday that he had passed on this earth and contemplating every day he had left. All those thoughts of damnation and hellfire up in her head - her time was running out to save him. The tragedy of it lived in every breath of every moment between them.
He would have given in for cryin’ out loud. He would have gone along with the whole queer idea and quietly pooh poohed it to himself, but he saw quickly that it was not enough to say that you believed and go on about your day. It was not enough if every moment didn’t drip with insincerity and exaggeration. It was not enough if you talked of Jesus only and nothing else. It was still not enough to give up all things that were in the slightest way interesting or moving. It was never enough. He was an old man - too old to pretend and pretend and pretend. He could feel it, that his days were down to a few years, maybe less, maybe months. He couldn’t bear to live the last of his breaths placating and hating himself for what he had let happen. He admitted to himself that Jesus had done kicked his ass . . . and he just couldn’t stay.
He had tried to run a few days earlier. A flat-out bit of foolishness on his part. But it had in the end, led him here to the bus station. It was Sunday afternoon and Margaret had talked him into going with her to the mall, supposedly for his exercise and amusement. She had bought him two new suits, one of which he wore as he waited for the Greyhound. No doubt they had been meant as a bribe to get him to the church and not for running away in. The trying on, the deciding, the measuring, and the purchasing of them, had been grueling. As if at his age any of it mattered. His mood had turned dark about the time the tailor’s head was hovering inches from his pecker, as he held the measure tape to the inside of Carl’s thigh. Honest to God, he had thought, I could have easily gone forward into the next world without all that. He had been ready to call it a day, but it was only the beginning of the trip. For two more hours, he had followed Margaret from store to store and waited outside like an old horse tied to a post, chewing on a 25-cent bag of popcorn from a machine, and watching while she collected bags and bags of more stuff to take up whatever space and fresh air might be left in the house.
He had surprised himself as much as anyone. It wasn’t like he was so eager to be back, locked in his room and watching television. And Margaret was so occupied with her shopping that it was almost as if he were out on his own. It just wasn’t anyplace he cared to be. And the people weren’t any people that he cared to see. He watched them gather bags like so many squirrels with nuts, all slurping brightly colored fountain drinks, or balancing waffle shaped ice cream cones. He tried to discern which of them had been “Saved,” but they all looked the same; stupid and vapid and plastic. All at once he had had enough. He got to his feet and started walking. He wandered the maze, wishing he had left a trail of breadcrumbs. When he finally found an exit and went out into the world, it was only minutes before his nerves gave out and his temper tantrum sputtered. He had thought to just find a cool bar and have a few drinks, but he couldn’t discern across the six lanes of traffic what was what. Everything was big and new and overdone, and nothing looked like a destination worth crossing for. He hated to admit that the city terrified him. He had never seen such commotion, but from the safety of Margaret’s airconditioned Buick. Discouraged and exhausted, he sat down at a bus stop in the shade and waited for them to find him. It took more than an hour and he hadn’t been prepared that it would be a police officer that would do the finding. People stopped to watch as the officer pulled on to the sidewalk next to him and asked, as if he didn’t know, “Afternoon sir, might you be Carl Stills?”
Carl hummed to himself before answering, “yup.” The officer radioed to another that Carl had been found and appeared to be fine. A few minutes later Margaret pulled up, screaming for him to get in the car, asking if he was o.k., and thanking the officer through grandiose tears. She appeared to be going to pieces and Carl could see the officer’s embarrassment.
He had gone back without a word, staring out the window and wondering what had gotten into him. Figuring that something had snapped inside, he tried to shrug it off as a long time coming. But the sinking feeling was undeniable, and he knew that he had just made things notably worse. At the supper table that night, Margaret talked as if he weren’t sitting right there across the table from her. She told Glen the whole story, how Dad had just disappeared, and speculated that perhaps Dad no longer had his full cognition. He tried to tell them that he was fine but refused to explain why he had wandered off. Glen looked austere as he chewed his food silently and listened. Twice he threw Carl a glance that suggested that perhaps he had either underestimated the old man’s moxie or overestimated his faculties. Either way, Carl knew that preventative measures would soon be taken. His getaway, which had already taken rough form in his head, could be much harder if he waited.
Well, he had learned his lesson, and this time he had worked it out. He spent Monday on the phone researching the bus schedules and figuring out his expenses. He had timed it so that once Margaret left for the bible store on Tuesday, a cab would pick him up and deposit him at the bus station with plenty of time before Glen would get home and find him gone. He had picked the departure time and destination that would leave him the most room for something to go wrong. He couldn’t see why his plan wouldn’t go smoothly, but what he didn’t know about getting around a city so big was plenty, and it might be much harder than he was giving credit for. He wore the grey suit Margaret had bought him and packed his cardboard suitcase with the other, as well as t-shirts, socks, and underwear for a few days. He needn’t the variety or the weight.
He had the cab driver stop at a liquor store where he bought a pint of Jameson whiskey. It was something that Margaret had forbid and months since he had had even a taste. Once his ticket was purchased and he knew that all that was left was the waiting, he sat in the stall of the bus station bathroom and took a few swigs. He just wanted to calm his nerves, but it seemed like more fun than he should be having. He had counted on the anxieties, he had counted on the heavy feelings, but he hadn’t counted on the exhilaration. His long life was in ruins, sprawling like a wrecked freight train for miles behind him, but it mattered not. Whatever came to him from here out was the life he would live . . . for however long it lasted.
As he moved to stand in line, his eyes sparkled with almost tears, and he realized that he didn’t miss much. He thought about his buddies at Chaucer’s again. He had never told anybody what had happened to him. He had just been too damned embarrassed. He wondered now if they all thought he was dead. He handed a uniformed man his suitcase, showed the driver his ticket, and climbed aboard. The line moved slowly as each body in front of him found their seat and moved out of the isle, like a nearly dry river running into tributaries. It was reassuring to see that little had changed in the 40 years since he had last taken a bus cross country. Even as he sat down in the dingy vinyl seat and eyed the man through the window, sleeping on the sidewalk, vomit covering one of his legs, Carl thought that he’d just as well be right where he was as anywhere. He didn’t miss the decrepit house they had taken from him. He had watched his wife die there; he had watched his daughter grow up there and then go away forever and become someone he no longer knew; a death in itself. The same went for that little Texas town - he wouldn’t miss it. It was May’s birthplace and because of that it had been his home, but it was only a stage of sorts, and a stage needed actors. He would miss his buddies at the bar, they had made him feel wanted all these years, so that he never remembered to be lonely, or how lonely life could be. But he knew that most of them were all worn out. A couple of them had recently disappeared, presumably dead, or put away by their families into a smelly home to watch the squirrels for the rest of their days. The few that were young enough to have been much help to him were encumbered with their own families and frequented the bar to escape their responsibilities and boredom. The last thing Carl wanted was for the final phase of his life to be spent as a nuisance. These past few months, sober and removed, had made him admit to himself that it had been an illusory world that probably wouldn’t have held out much longer anyway. It was a hard life of leisure. There were plenty of good times, but there was nothing for the long-term good. It had just been a stratagem for spending the abundant hours. Besides, he knew that Margaret and Glen would never leave him in peace if they knew he was right back there in Tyler. Chaucer’s would be the first place they looked for him.
He didn’t miss anything except May, and even then, she had been gone so long now she seemed more like a legend in his own mind than any sort of life that had actually been lived - like Huck Fin and Jim. He wondered gloomily what she would have thought of all this and felt himself wince. He knew that she might have well been convinced of Glen and Margaret’s agenda and submitted completely. The more he thought of it, the more he was sure. He could just barely admit to himself that perhaps it would have been for the best. Maybe Jesus would have been the one thing to have lifted May’s shoulders. The picture formed so clearly in his head; May, an old lady now, standing in church in her Sunday best, devoted and entranced, tears in her eyes as she hung on the preacher’s every word and stared into the face of Jesus. He could see Margaret and Glen on the one side of her and himself on the other. In his mind, his face was solemn and supportive, with maybe only a hint of embarrassment, as he waited patiently for service to end so he could get home to the football game. There would be Sunday brunches and Holidays and regular family life. For May, he could have pretended.
His bus ticket said Muncie, Indiana, but it was only a starting place. Muncie was where there were still a few cousins whom he had written to over the years. They had invited him to visit once, after Margaret had left for college and he had complained of not knowing what to do with himself, but that was many years past. They didn’t even know he was alive still, let alone coming. He didn’t want any burden to precede him. If they received him, they received him. If not, he would move on. And then again, if it suited him better, he might move on anyway. The idea that he might just end his life going from one place to another seemed as good a way as any. Hell, he might die right here on this bus, and it wouldn’t matter. Either way he wasn’t meant much longer for this life, but to stay where he was would have meant he was already deader than dead.
The big engine turned over and Carl could feel its vibrations mixing with the butterflies in his stomach. He had left Margaret and Glen a note; printed carefully and laid on the dining room table, atop of it was the cross on a chain that they had insisted he take and wear. The note read:
I can’t help that you’ll worry about me, in this life or after. But I just can’t bear to watch it or be a part of it. God has always been a nice feeling to me and nothing more. I have had my checks forwarded to my destination. I will write if I feel I found a place in myself to do so. In the meantime, you can put in a good word to Jesus for me. Tell him I said goodbye and that perhaps I’ll see him soon.
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