The Little Engine That Could

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Big Girl writes a not really kind of true story

He sits on the plastic chair that came with the house. Just inside the garage so the sun won’t burn his paper like skin. The glass in hand, cool, sweating. Ice clinking together as he sips slowly from the jelly jar that holds the unsweetened, fake lemonade his doctor says will help him with his daily intake of water.
‘I don’t need any water.”
“Doug, you do. You need water. Drink it however you can.”
“Ahhh, the taste is horrible. When I was a boy the water was cool refreshing. It tasted like the earth. Even when I did the scouts with my sons, it tastes fresh, like life. Now, it’s just, well, it’s just chemicals. You can’t even get good water up here, and I live on the damn river. I’m not going to drink it, it makes me feel dead.”
“Just do it. Your body needs it.”

The lady who drops off his weekly groceries dropped off a package of this chemical stuff.
“Now, it doesn’t taste that good, but, well, it takes away the mineral taste of the tap water.”
“Fine, now let’s see, I got your list, and a treat. Fresh raspberries. They had them at the roadside. I thought you’d like a fresh fruit this week.”
“What do I need that for? Canned is fine. Anyways it will just go bad.”
“Doug, try to be nice. After all it is your birthday… Do you hear from your kids?”
“Not yet.”

It had been early in the day. Early except for the time change that his kids had. He knew by seven he’d hear from them, or maybe not. He couldn’t tell. As long as they called before seven, he could have a beer or two. That’d have plenty of water in it—at least it made him pee enough. Maybe he wouldn’t hear from them. The two most useless were coming up with their assorted broods, the first time for either in quite a while. Maybe they’d wait to wish his birthday in person.

In the chair, he sipped his yellow tasting water. And waited. The memories dancing in his mind, the trips in the car, the driving lessons, the nights too blurry to remember except the next day with hurt feelings and “I’m outta here’s”. He wasn’t sure what to expect. He wanted to see his kids, his kids kids he never saw grow into adults, and then his great grandchildren. He had no idea what they looked like. Maybe a little like him, maybe not. For all he knew, his Navy man grandson could have married an Oriental girl like he had wanted to. Smooth skin, porcelain features, quiet voice, doing anything for him, making him feel like a king. Not like the first woman he married.

Waiting, his drink sweating, every movement on the quiet street perking him up, straightening his posture, only to pass by with no relatives. The man across the street came over to ask how things were; he just waited until they got there.

What had happened?

She was in her twenties, not quite beautiful, not quite handsome, but striking, and spoke her mind. She loved to laugh, she loved to drink, and with him she had a ball. Her older sister had gotten married a year before and it was his turn, her father disapproving of the Greek her sister had married, and so she picked him. A good man, a strong man. Out of the Army, back in California after the war. She had great stories of the fishery she had spent time at, dating many men, loving many men. She truly was a catch, light and free. Not as pretty as her sisters, never going to be, but sure enough of herself to want him. They met, they married, he happy and shy, and couldn’t believe her luck, she happy, satisfied and ready to start a family with this new stranger.
It came down to money. Always about money. He would get angry, and when he got angry he drank. A few beers with the guys after work, a few more at home, some for the yard work, painting the house, in the California sun, and while pregnant with her second he hit her. She didn’t know she was expecting, as she was still nursing the first. She left him to ask for her mother’s help, her mother who was sick, but not too much yet. “Louise, you have to make this work. There’s no going back. Who would take you now?” She couldn’t blame her mother, she had two boys under 10 and was done raising kids. “Just work it out. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

Things got better, the second came, sicker than the first, and then the twins. She was done, her body hurt, he was a company man, scouts on the weekends, camping on the holidays, with her family, with his friends. Lots of gatherings to go to, lots of people to be around. Life happens. The boys worked hard with their father, painting the house, causing a ruckus in the yard, on the street. The first one, the student, he was his boy. That second one was a hellion, getting into everything, taking apart their brand new phone to see how the bell worked. The twins were hers, no one else’s. Like two little shadows. Late nights spent silent on the edges of the queen mattress they shared, her worrying about money, him worrying that he couldn’t love her enough. Blacking out at night to rise the next day and drive thirty miles off to work in shirtsleeves, over plans for new airplanes, new plants, the new American life he was promised.

Where did it go?

A car passed by. This time he noticed too late. He couldn’t make out if it was tan or gray, just a flash by. No one should be driving that fast on this street. Someone could get hurt.

But that car had somewhere to go.

He was where he had to go. Right there, in his chair, the plastic sticking to the back of his white legs. How is it that he had lost so much color over the years, his legs pale and just a shadow of the power they once had? These legs, carried him through the war, through various hikes with the scouts, to work every day and home, and now, they were all but useless, two spindles that held up a shell. No longer could he walk tall and proud, no longer was he the king. His knees twice the size that they were just last year, before the fall, before the hospital.

When were they getting there?

He drank some of the water, the glass faltering in his hand, his memories coming back. He pushed them down, he wouldn’t remember, he would only live in now. Now, he was an old man, with an old house, a few pictures of the families that he never really knew, a couple of postcards from trips he once took. A chair he sat in, and the chair he hated. The old man’s chair, the one that helps you get up and down. It was a nice gesture, but completely lost on him, as he was just as capable as the next to get up and down from a chair. And too soft to boot, he didn’t need to feel comfortable, he needed to feel alive, to feel the air moving around him and he powered up the side of a hill with the boys in tow, to take the fifteen powerful strides across his office, to push the Cadillac’s accelerator through a turn, to feel something like he once felt.

Waiting, he watched the cardinal’s rebuild their summer home in the eaves of his neighbor’s house. He would have to get the ladder down again and knock it out. His neighbor, something to be looked at. In another time, she would have been a loose woman, four kids, four different fathers, barely a high school education. He thought she had had a hard life, at least that’s what she told him. She took care of him too, she picked up his mail from time to time, and she watched Jeopardy with him, telling him how smart he was. She made him feel like a man again. She did understand. She even let him eat Chinese food from Fung’s Garden, even though it shot his blood pressure up. He knew it wasn’t just the food, it was her. Tanned, blonde, strong, and she loved him. So what if she didn’t love him like that, he was old, he could do what he wanted. One night they shared a couple of glasses together, and he felt alive again. If he was younger, he would marry her and take care of her. Now all he had was to give her what she asked for in the hopes that she too would love him enough, love him long enough to have him feel alive again.

He looked for the ladder from his chair. Up in the rafters, how did it get up there? He remembers the night after he knocked down the nest in the spring, he wanted to do something nice for her, something that would have her know she needed him, too. Her cousin’s car in the driveway, and not yet three weeks out of the hospital, he dragged the ladder across the gravel and set it against the house. On the third step, he steadied himself, and brought his cane up to the nest. He heard the laughter from inside. The high pitched giggle, the mumbled voices. Through the window he could see his neighbor and her cousin, kissing. He knocked down the nest. Dragged the ladder back, and left it in the front yard. Later, she came over, she knew he knew but they didn’t talk of it. This was no cousin, but he was an old man, he would play as one. He would get sick and she would be right there for him. She helped him into bed, and kissed his forehead. That was enough for him. Nothing else mattered.

Life had passed by. Like that car with somewhere else to go, life had happened and he hadn’t even seen what color it was.