25 April 2009

Being Realistic

I hadn't expected to see the old man for at least a couple of hours; he was always late though I knew he'd come equipped with excellent excuses and perhaps even gifts, so I'd saved The Sun Also Rises from English Honors to start (and, conceivably, finish) while I waited for him to show up at the bus station. I'd read a couple of magazines on the way from Albuquerque instead and mostly watched things out the window, watched the landscape shift into Texas.

So. I was pretty surprised to see him when I got off the bus in Amarillo. I had really wanted to at least start the Hemingway and wondered if I'd get the chance to read it in time for school. I knew I could start reading on the trip back but it was a pretty thick book.

He was sitting near the ticket counter, bent over with his elbows on his knees and a Chesterfield deep in the knuckles of his right hand, and he wasn't watching so I got up right in front of him. I had my The Sun Also Rises in one hand and my weekender in the other.

"Hey," I said and his head snapped up and, for a second, I don't think he knew who I was. The he grinned and stood up.

"Well, goddamn," he said. "Looks like you've growed some." He stuck his cigarette in his mouth and held out his hand. I dropped my bag and shifted the book to my left hand and we shook, three times, firm and short like I knew he'd do it. He glanced at the book, still grinning, and reached down for the bag.

"Let's get the hell outta here," the old man said. "I been here all goddamn morning. Couldn't remember which bus you was coming on so I been here for every damn one. Eastbound and west."

That was it, I thought. If he'd remembered which bus I was on, he'd have been late. As it stood, there were people all over town wondering why he hadn't shown up to see them, why he was late, and where the hell he was anyway.

"I got the Chrysler over there." The old man pointed with his chin and I had to double-step to keep up with him. He was wearing green work clothes and there was a lingering odor of crude oil but I couldn't tell if it was him or just Amarillo in general.

We got to the Chrysler and the old man put my bag in the back seat. I remembered the car but not the way I was seeing it. It looked badly used, dirty and dented, like it was the kind of car that left blue smoke hanging in the air behind it. It didn't look like I remembered it looking.

The old man grabbed a jacket off the passenger side floor. It was green like his clothes and I could see the places where company insignia had been removed. He held it and looked at it like he had never seen a jacket before, like he was puzzling out the whole business of sleeves and arms and zippers. He saw me looking and grinned.

"Come on, sport," he said. "Let's get going."


He drove, of course, all around town. He pointed at this and that building and told me the history as he knew it of each. This aunt or that old buddy or some second cousin or another little gal he used to run with had lived there, died there, done something funny or stupid there, and I wasn't much listening to what he was saying. I fingered the cheap paperback I held between my knees and struggled with the urge to just go ahead and light up even though I'd never smoked in front of him. Or any adult, for that matter. I had a practically full pack of Winstons in my pocket and hadn't had a smoke since Santa Rosa.

When the old man started talking about the leases he had or would have or was about to probably have if the deal went through though it was a sure thing whether or not some son-of-a-bitch at Phil-Tex knew his ass from a hole in the ground. I wasn't listening again, so I told him I was thirsty. That, me telling him I was thirsty, meant we were going to 16th Avenue. The old man lit a Chesterfield one-handed, left-handed, with a book of matches and turned a squealing left in front of and across two lanes of oncoming traffic. It turned out he was thirsty, too.


I remember we went to several bars there on 16th and I don't remember in which one I lost my school book. A do remember a roughneck taking it from me and swearing that he had known Hemingway, he even referred to him as "Papa," but I think he eventually gave it back. I think that particular guy was only making a joke about the uselessness of book-learning, but there were always so many guys like that in those bars. I think the old man might have been in on that jokes, but there were always so many jokes along 16th Avenue that I can't remember which ones the old man was in on, out of, or the butt of. I think.


I do remember the old man reaching over to a woman. She had the thin, burnt-looking hair that the old man really seemed to go for. He just leaned over and tried to give her a kiss and I'm pretty sure his mouth was open and I'm not so sure hers wasn't. And a bunch of guys who wore the same kind of green work clothes the old man was wearing, though theirs still had the company patches, seemed to think that wasn't such a good idea. The old man went down under the quick burst of blows from fists and boots, many of them steel-toed, and I knew that was a terrible idea. It seemed like somebody should step in to even things up a little bit and, surprisingly, I didn't do too badly.


I have played hockey on the frozen ponds of fancypants Eastern prep schools and, when allowed, things like rugby and lacrosse. I know how to hurt people without seeming to do it on purpose, trained early in the quick and dirty. The old man was down with orange lipstick and a greasy fist working on his mouth and some major dental bills in his future. I reached down for his collar and, on the way, I'm pretty sure I broke the ankle of the guy who had hit him first. Somebody turned around and I was suddenly in my own world of lumps. I glimpsed an adam's apple and rapped it short and hard with my left. Simultaneously, I heard something pop near my ribs. I got my knee between a pair of legs, worked it, and heard a grunt and then a thin whine. I reached again for the old man and pulled a piece of his arm until his face was near mine. He grinned, spit blood and porcelain, and shot his right past my shoulder to smack some guy in the face. It was right between the eyes on the bridge of the nose and that guy fell perfectly backward like a bowling pin, bounced right back up, and chopped across the neckline of my collegiate crewcut.

"Sorry, son," the old man said and hit the guy again over the same shoulder in the exact same spot between the guy's eyes and that time the guy went down and didn't get up.

"Time to go," I said, squinting through a bloody eye I don't remember getting. "I've got your jacket."

"Well," said the old man, but for some reason he had another beer in his hand and, I'm pretty sure, his other hand on that same woman's thigh, high up near crotch. "At least somebody do."

1 comment:

  1. I've been grading papers.

    Had to come to your blog, to read some good writing.

    I am not disappointed.