Climbing out of a night of disaster to reach new heights
by William luvaas
Carey heard a car door slam outside. “A neighbor,” I assured her, coming in late from a bar. She shook her head no. “They’d be
working in the morning.”
“Unlike some of us.” I walked into the kitchen. We were drinking Fundador brandy; I brought the bottle. Carey covered her glass with a hand.
“That’s not what I’m saying, Bobby. You’ve tried.”
“No, ma’am, I plain stopped trying. Seems like high-tech is brought low tech down with it.” I worked maintenance mostly — steady when I could get it. I was recently unemployed. The fabric, here lately, stretched thin between us: Carey the bread winner, steady work at the college, me about to exhaust my unemployment insurance claim.
“That isn’t what I am saying, Bobby. I’m saying — “ She broke off, listening hard. “I can turn on the front spot if it would ease your mind.”
“You hear it?” she asked.
I nodded. “Kids. Parked in the turn-out.”
“It’s two in the morning, Bobby.”
“Right. You work tomorrow, young lady.”
Her mouth worked as if to speak; instead, she dug hard into brandy. Her lips glistened wet, and for no reason I wanted to kiss them.
She covered them quickly with a hand.
“I’ll go out. A man ought to earn his keep.”
“You don’t know what’s out there, Bobby.”
“The boogey man. Hey…kids! Teenage kids is all.”
“I’ll call 911.”
“You don’t want to involve the police.”
“Could be anybody. Prowlers.” She shivered. “-Terrorists. There’s just loads of creeps out and about nowadays.” “Oh, crissakes, Carey.” I laughed.
“Take the rifle, Bobby-.”
“Not a good idea,” I said, winking and stepping outside into the dark.
Earlier that evening we argued again. Same argument over and over recently, like we couldn’t get a handle on it. Carey assured me there was a job waiting out there with my name on it. But I was sick of constipated employment personnel frowning down their noses at me, while their fingertips hop scotch-ed over gaps in my employment history on the desk before them. “I’ve about given it up is what I’m saying. You know me, Carey. I don’t mind working. It’s landing a job I can’t stomach. I believe I would rather live out of a refrigerator box.” Carey frowning, turned away from me, walked across the room only to flop down in a dark corner and remain there-. “You don’t know what you’re saying at all. You don’t.”
“What don’t I know?”
“All you have to be grateful for — “
“Oh, for crissake.”
“You can’t give up, Bobby. Never,” she snapped. “No one can. You can’t ever lose control.”
“Control?” I asked. “Who’s discussing control here?”
She threw a hand at me. “Of your life…your situation. Never. That’s not a thing you have any choice about.”
But I had lost it. That’s the thing. I’d displaced it at the least.
As I stepped off the porch, the spotlight threw my shadow across a bottle-brush tree and a whit-ish car parked beside it on the county road along my side yard. Behind me, the door clicked lock-ed. Who-ever it was, Carey didn’t want them coming inside. Control. I clung to shadows thinking, I should turn off the light. Why hadn’t I tripped the motion detector? Maybe I could edge up and surprise them in the car. I’d done that once and ended up shining a flash-light on a stringy blond hair girl with exposed breasts and her surfer boyfriend’s cheekbones.
But this was a girl — standing by the driver’s side. I couldn’t see much of her: stocky, round face out-lined in dark hair. I thought of a Japanese play I saw once on TV where death was a white-faced woman with coal black hair. Except this one was plump. She turned and reached for the door handle when I stepped from the shadows onto the road. My foot-steps crunched on the gravel as I drew up to the rear bumper.
“Something I can do for you tonight, Miss?”
“No…see…we were, you know…just park-ed.”
“I see you’re parked. On my property.”
She laughed, nervous. But sensing I wouldn’t touch her, released the handle and motioned towards the house. “Anyways, they-‘re coming back.”
Two dark figures approached under the pecan trees, leaves shuffling under their feet. Seeing them in my yard, like they were viewing real estate caused the bile to rise and it hit me all at once. I went forward to meet them, wanting to get solid footing on my property where they were trespassing. I expected men.
“You get the hell off of here,” I snapped.
The short one, with blond hair straight down over ears like a ski cap — walked right up in my face. I stepped back, startled by her boldness, realizing they weren’t men at all.
“I raised my kids in that house,” she snapped. “My husband, he built that tree house. You got no right to throw nobody out.” She swivelled to face the other: taller, slimmer, prettier girl. “This man telling me to get out. Ain’t that some crap?” “Lady, it’s two A.M. here.”
“Alright, Mama,” the other said quietly, eyes fixed on me.
“It’s two in the morning,” I repeated.
“He telling me get the hell off my own life and history. Hah! That’s funny.” Blondie continued moving in as I backed away. Was she drunk?
“We better split, Nina,” the plump girl called from the road.
“Yeah, that’s a real good idea.” It was strange having an argument with someone I couldn’t see, who didn’t give a damn that she had trespassed on my property in the middle of the night. Something must be off with a person like that.
Blondie’s spittle blistered my forehead. “Ain’t his pro-perty. It don’ belong to him. He just renting. Why don’ he admit? This property belong to Ron and Thelma Dore. THEY KNOW ME,” she bellowed. “Go and ask them. NINA ROMER-EZ. N-I-N-A R-O-M-E-R-E-Z.” She spelled it out at a hundred decibels, like I was deaf or she wanted neighborhood dogs to bear wit-ness. They howled and trumpeted on all sides. “You go inside and call them, mister sir.”
“Could we calm down here a minute?”
“What do he know? I raised three kids in that house which he claim to own but don’t. LIAR! Y’r a liar,” she shouted. “I know…I know…I used to live here.” She finger-pecked my chest.
“Lady, there’s people trying to sleep.”
“You have children? Huh?” she demanded. “I bet he don’t.”
“Now, listen, I’ve had about enough.”
“What do he know about raising kids? Don’ mean noth-ing to him…memories.”
She’d gone from flat zero to hysteria in seconds. Her eyes glistened–I hadn’t realized there was a moon out until I saw it swim across them. Was she a druggy? A lunat-ic? The sort of person you crossed the street to avoid? Some spook I’d conjured up? The thought made acid freeze in my gut.
“Could we be reasonable?” I plead-ed with the younger one.
Blon-die shouted her name, and she soaked up my anger and threw it back at me like I had no claim to it. She was older than I
thought, her face an aerial map of some dry country, features eroded away to nothing. Even in the dark, I saw the grief in it. Some-thing fiercer than drink or drugs or any kind of worry I knew about.
“I jus’ wanna see the house where I raised my family. You gotta call the police, OK, go ahead and call them.”
“You couldn’t come during the day, lady? I wouldn’t mind if you looked around-.”
“It don’ be yours to say. You claim to own something don’ belong to you.”
“Let’s say I am renting, what business is it of yours? “
She seemed to be considering something, looking off away from me as if I’d disappeared. “Andy called the cops. Remember? Y’r brother called the pigs over every little thing. I say clean his room and he call the police, he accuse me, he say I am molesting him. I never laid a hand on him. Not never once!” She leapt forward at me. I stepped away, crying out in surprise.
“Let’s go,” the tall girl’s eyes walled white in moonlight.
“Tell him I didn’, honey. You know I didn’.”
“I know, Mama,” the girl said. “C’mon, let’s split. Okay!”
“I don’ care what this man think. You not even human, you run people off property don’ belong to you. Don’ matter none they live and raise their children and done the best they know how.”
I was caught in the middle of bad family history where I didn’t belong. Then I remembered Carey in-side and anger kicked in. Across the road, Manny Suarez’s Alsatian strained and choked at his chain, voice ratchety. On the road, the plump girl paced beside the car, her words drifting indistinctly down to us. It was a moment before I realized Blondie had my sleeve, the back of her hand feverish against my wrist. When I tried to shake loose, she twisted my shirt fabric around her fingers. “You better get a hold of yourself,” I warned, but my voice came out shaky.
She squealed hysterically. “Hear! You hear! Now he saying I’m crazy.” She —clutched my hand to her chest like something she’d claimed. When I resisted, she pulled me for-ward with the strength of raw fury, I lost balance and stumbled against her. The plump girl shrieked from the road and ran down the bank for me.
“DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH HER, ASSHOLE.”
“Wait a minute here.” I struggled to break free, but the lunatic clung, while the plump girl crouched like a football tackler, swaying side to side on the balls of her feet, looking to make her move. Eyes fixed on my hand which clutched her mother-‘s chest. Blond-ie whispered close in my face, “Oh yeah, I know what you wan’. Y’r mind is a septic tank sewer. I know what you wan’, but you not gonna get
“Okay…Nina — “
“Listen here, lady — “
“Y’r brain stinks. You got no milk of human kindness in it at all.”
“You listen! I don’t…I just come out here…”
All three crowded me. Blondie a snappy whip-pet — bulging, moon-glazed eyes, small ears perked up either side of her head. The tall girl was pleading to leave. Plump girl’s head stretch-ed forward from stocky shoulders as she crouched. For the life of me, I couldn’t extract my hand. I tugged, Blondie tugged back.
“Let go,” the plump girl commanded.
“Tell her to let go of me.”
“Dorea,” said the tall, quiet one, motioning her head at the car.
“Let go or I spray.”
I saw it then: the white glint of a mace canister held at arm’s length before her. I couldn’t understand what was happening, how something could go wrong so fast. I had come out to check on trespassers and it had got twisted around,. What was it Carey said? You can’t ever lose control. Now it seemed like a bad joke.
“Would you hold on, for crissake,” I pleaded.
“Ten seconds,” the plump girl said.
“I can’t. You have it wrong.” It occurred to me to use the small woman as a shield. I re-coiled at the idea.
“He calls the police and isn’t his to call — “ Hard sobs boiling like tar from Blondie’s bell-y.
“Police is your idea. I never said a word about police.”
“Two seconds — “
“Hear?” Blondie shrieked. “He saying I put Andy up to it…my own boy! Call and accuse his parents they was moles-ting him.
Hahahhh.” Her cry half laugh, half scream.
The plump girl pushed the mace within inches of my eyes. “Let go of my mother, asshole.”
“Molest,” I repeated softly, “Mo-lest….”
“Is something wrong, Bob?” Carey’s voice inquired behind us, softly disarming, and freezing the action. I stared at the plump girl’s closed eyes beyond the mace canister, face round as her mother’s, only wider. Blondie released my sleeve and we swung around in tandem.
“I heard shouting,” Carey said, looking from one of us to the next.
The small woman advanced on her. “Y’r husband, he’s a real sonuvabitch.”
“They have mace, Carey,” I warned. “Get back inside.”
The small woman moved into a wedge of porch -light, revealing a nearly noseless face, and a forehead criss-crossed with lines like the crackled surface of a dry lake bed. As she advanced, Carey made a gurgling sound from the back of her throat. The tall daughter caught the back of Blondie’s jacket. “Enough…Nina!” It wasn’t any use.
“I come back to a place that’s sacred to my life and y’r husband telling me get out. He tell me go to hell. Nobody is said that since my husband…since —.”
“Nina!” both girls cried at once.
“Who are these people?” Carey asked.
“He may lie and pretend he own what he don’, but I not gonna deny God’s truth. He don’ own nothing. He don’ got a pot to pee in.
You see that tree house?” The woman point-ed towards the side yard.
“C’mon, Mama, let’s just go,” the tall girl said. “Please.”
“My son,” the woman whispered, “Y’r brother, Andy — “
“What do they want, Bob? Are they on drugs?”
We stepped away, my arm around Carey’s shoulders. Blondie tried to advance on us, restrained now by both girls. “Maybe you live there in y’r body, but is my spirit live in that house. Always will. My boy Andy’s spirit.”
“Hush. Okay, Mama, just shuddup.”
“You go on to the car, Nina,” the plump girl ordered.
Carey was backing up the steps. “I’ll call 911.”
The blond woman’s face hardened. “You go right ahead. Won’ bring nobody back.”
“She’s on drugs,” Carey’s eyes bulged in the spotlight.
“Drugs — “ Blondie folded at the waist, laughter bellowing from her in harsh squawks. “Druuuugs.” Breaking free of her daughters, she followed Carey up the porch steps, pursuing her towards the house. Carey threw up her hands, mouth rubbery with fear–. I thought — in the instant before I moved — so this is how it happens, what you see on the news- and wonder how people let things spin so far out of control.
I heard the woman whisper: “My son, he hung himself from that tree.” She seized Carey’-s hands just as I caught her from behind and swung her off my porch. Not realizing until that instant how small she was — ninety pounds tops. Inside me, a voice warned: a man does not touch a strange woman under any circumstances. At first, I thought Carey had kicked her. Blondie folded, bent double like a suitcase in my arms.
Then I realized it was mace — meant for me–which caught her full in the face as I swung her away from my doorstep. Over
Blondie’s head, I saw the start-led look in the plump -girl’s eyes — before enough spray hit me to start the burning, tearing, and gasping. I let go of- Blondie and crouched on the porch step clutching my face.
Sounds of howling grew from within me. Pain, shout–s, panicky movement. Someone, maybe Carey, placed a wet cloth over my eyes. When I tried opening them to relieve the stinging, I couldn’t. The chemicals bit and tingled-. Beside me, a steady moan rose, like a wound-ed animal. Figures flurried and whispered in tense, frightened voices.
Some time later there were sire-ns, sober common-sense voices, firm fingers at my pulse, and a swabbing relief in my eyes. The world returned, pink and watery as I opened one eye, then the other and watched paramedics roll a gurney into the ambulance. Blondie’s face was wrapped in gauze bandages, her hair woven about her head like a straw cap. The plump girl at-tempted to climb in beside her, face red and swollen, but a cop led her away to his car. Near-by, Carey talked to a lanky, no-nonsense woman officer whose chest tag read “Haley.” She sized me up as they spoke.
“What just happened here?” I asked.
“She has a long history of drugs and mental institutions,” Haley said.
“You know her?”
“My dad cut her boy down from that tree maybe ten years back.” She pointed at the tree house. “Hung himself by a bicycle cable. They say he was molested.”
“Who says?” asked a quiet voice.
I didn’t realize the tall, pretty daughter was sitting beside me until that moment. She huddled in her Bermuda shorts and tank top, hugging her bare knees-. Her square face didn’t seem related at all to her mother-‘s and sister’s roundness. She shivered and stared across the road. I wondered, had she been molested, too. Look-ing at her bony knees, I felt something I’d never felt — almost paternal. It caught me by surprise.
Why hadn’t Carey and I had children,? Maybe it was a mistake. It will be easier getting past the hard times having someone besides yourself to care about. When I offered the girl my shirt, she shrugged it off. “You ought to take it,” I coaxed. So she did, draping it over her shoulders. I had a momentary fantasy she might remain there with us . She could occupy the spare bedroom, come and go as she pleased. Turn her life around. Have the fighting chance her brother never had.
“How’s your eyes?” Carey asked.
“How do things happen?” I replied. “I just walked outside to see who it was. Maybe I come on too strong.”
Officer Haley shook her head. “Wouldn’t worry none about it. We see it every night of the week.”
I looked at her. I wanted to ask how common it was to see people lose control –Did she see any way of helping it? -But I didn’t ask.
My cheeks felt blistered to the touch.
When the ambulance pulled away, the pretty girl stood and said ”I’ll follow it to the hospital. Unless you plan to arrest me.”
“Not this time.” Haley eye-balled her, gesturing after the red and blue pulses washing over houses as the ambulance moved away.
“You want to live your life like that?”
“My life is my business.” The girl knelt on one knee regarding me, not with malice but detached. She seemed like a good kid but her loyal-ties were strained. “You know what a hard life she’s had?” she ask-ed. “Now she will probably go blind.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Really very sorry. I didn’t ever intend…I’d like to — “
The cop towered over us. “You don’t move your rear end, young lady, I may change my mind.” Thank God it wasn’t her prowling my lawn in the middle of the night.
The girl turned and walked straight to the car, deliberately disobeying the cop. “Runs in the family,” the cop muttered not even making an effort to stop her. Carey looked at the pecan tree in the side yard, clutching her elbows. “I hope they don’t come back.”
“I’m going to tear that down,” I promised.
The pretty daughter started her car. But instead of swinging around to follow the ambulance, like I expected she would, she sped straight ahead down the county road in the opposite direction, pipes rattling. She’d taken my shirt with her. A souvenir of the evening. I smiled, something in me taking flight with her.
“There you go.” Officer Haley sneered.
“No ma’am,” I said. “I believe you have that wrong. Won’t be easy, but with a little luck she might just break the family pat-tern.” Because it’s true, as Carey says, you can’t relinquish control of your life, neither to family nor circumstance nor despair.
In the squad car, her partner blinked his lights, signaling he was ready to go. Haley flapped her notebook shut. “You be careful.” I was thinking that I felt stone sober. My eyes had stopped burning. What pain remained sunk deep into my cheeks. Already darkness had started to thin at the ridge of the horizon like a line of tender blue blood vessels beneath the transparent skin of a newborn baby. Maybe I wouldn’t bother going to bed at all. I would shower, make coffee and head out first thing to find myself a job.