Sunday, January 21, 2007
DIARY OF A RAG AND BONE MAN
by Jack Rafter
Home For The Holidays
About a year after I lost my job, Lena, my wife, and I split the sheets. We had already begun to go sour on each other, especially once she turned Republican. She and her mother, Mary-Louise, actually worked in Tom Delay's campaign for awhile. Even after he got indicted, they were still working for him. I asked her if she didn't think working for a criminal asshole might be setting a bad example for our daughters, Winnie and Ophelia, aged eight and nine years. She insisted he was not a criminal. “He's a great American,” she said, “who's just being targeted by liberals.”
Now, I see by the papers that he's going around preaching sermons to audiences of Christian fundamentalists, about the last group left in America, I suppose—or in the world, for that matter—that still supports Bush; people who it seems base all their decisions and their lives almost exclusively on delusions.
After the divorce, Lena took our daughters and moved in with her mother. We had an arrangement whereby I could see the girls every other weekend, and it worked out pretty good. Mary Louise never cared for me much. She's Presbyterian. She has her own accounting firm, with three other accountants working for her. She's rather large in the girth, about an ax-handle wide, near as I can estimate, though it's not all fat. She and Lena work out every other day at the Ladies Only Health Spa. Lena's nice and trim, as a result, while Mary Louise just seems to get more and more stout. She dyes her hair a whitish blond and combs it back from her face. She looks like a Swedish weight-lifter.
Mary Louise likes to challenge men to arm-wrestling matches. She's won quite a few bets that way, apparently. She asks me to arm-wrestle every time I go over there, but I always refuse. I imagine she could take me easily. I'm certain she would like nothing better than to break my arm, if only I would give her half a chance. “C'mon, Jack, what are you afraid of?” she says. I always smile and say, “No, thanks, Mary Louise. I don't want to embarrass you.”
* * *
After losing my job, I went off my rocker for awhile. I guess you call it depression. After that, I lost my house. That seemed to bring about a change in Lena. Almost like she was looking at me through a different lens. Repulsion—I think that's what it's called. After that, she started making little threatening remarks. “I don't know if I want my children to see you since you're crazy,” she'd say. Or “I'm thinking about getting an injunction against you.” Things like that.
So far, it's been mostly words. I try not to pay too much attention to her. And I just keep on coming over to the house to see my little girls whenever I can, even though there are times when I can't seem to distinguish reality from the real thing, if you know what I mean; sometimes I'm not sure whether I'm walking or riding horseback.
As for the girls, they hit it off with Vincent right away. Which really irked Lena. She thinks Vincent's nothing but a flea-bit mongrel. I'm pretty sure she looks at me that way, too. But I think I do a pretty fair job keeping the bugs off of us. Maintaining a certain level of hygiene isn't so easy to achieve living out by the train yards, but you do what you can. I don't have much money, so about all the girls and I can do is go for little walks here and there, maybe to a movie, if they pay for it—and they usually can--or to the zoo with the Mexicans on the freebie day. Now and then on warm days, we set out for the duck pond with a loaf of Sunbeam and feed the ducks. (Have to tie Vincent to a tree when we do that, otherwise, he wants to chase the birds back in the water.)
Lena told me not to show up on Christmas Day this year. She said they were having guests over that day—some rich clients of Mary Louise—and she didn't want them to see me. She said they would treat me to lunch and assured me there would be plenty of leftover turkey and other good things if I didn't mind waiting a few days. I said, “Sure, what the hell.” I thought about showing up unannounced on Christmas day, but decided against it, thinking about that injunction Lena might try to serve me with.
* * *
Well, Christmas Day was so infernal cold, there were only a couple of us in the hobo camp. The rest had gone to the shelters. Vincent and I hoofed it over to Johnny Blair's Bizzy Bee Cafe. He was opened for breakfast, but planned on closing the rest of the day. He fed me breakfast and gave me a little work washing dishes and helping him clean up the place for the holidays. He also gave me a nice Christmas gift—all wrapped and everything. It was a book of poetry—Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor—you know, the guy that does the radio show. I couldn't believe it. My eyes just about misted over. Well, that's Johnny Blair for you. Real prince of a gentleman. He said I could come home and have turkey with him and his wife, if I wanted to, but I declined. I figured he should be alone with his sweetheart for Christmas.
That night, the temperature dropped below thirty. The shelter was full up, so I went down to the emergency room of the hospital and blended in with all the sick people, while Vincent hid out in the parking garage. I stayed in there all night. Didn't sleep a wink, but at least I kept warm. The walls were lined with miserable wretches all spewing and fizzling like leaky faucets. But luckily, I didn't catch anything from them.
The next day, two more guys showed up at the hobo camp. The sun came out, but it was still bitter cold. We built up the fire, pooled our money, and sent a couple of fellas off to buy a chicken. They came back with a bird, some canned blackeyed peas and a bottle of wine. Napa Valley, no less. We threw the bird on the fire and made busy with the wine. Charlie Apthekir, had gone off on a foray in a swank neighborhood and came trudging back into camp with a tow-sack full of stuff he'd rummaged from the mountains of boxes and glitz and shiny trash thrown out on the curbs.
Among all his boodle, were a pair of pingpong paddles and a tube full of white plastic balls. Brand new, they were. Charlie says the gifting in some of those houses is so extravagant that quite often brand new stuff gets thrown out with the trash. Especially toys. “Those rich kids can't keep track of all their swag,” Charlie said with a gap-toothed grin, “so they don't even notice when they've thrown something out.”
His plunder included a few items that hadn't even been opened. And others where the wrappings had been removed, but the items were still in the box. We ended up with three men's ties, four pair of socks, a sweater, a bag of t-shirts, another bag of underdrawers, a shoe-box containing one woman's black high-heel shoe (the other one missing), some nice lingerie, six packages of pantyhose, three bottles of men's cologne, by Brut, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume, a jar of orange marmalade, a big bag of walnuts, and a Black and Decker drill with a complete set of drill bits. There was a thing that looked like a fancy sling shot that had us all stumped for awhile, till someone guessed it was a woman's thong. We had a lot of fun thinking about that.
We divided up the booty among those present. We all agreed Charlie should keep the drill since he did all the work. The next day he went straight to the nearest pawnshop. He asked me if I thought my girls might like to play ping-pong. I said I didn't know, I'd give it a try. So he gave me the paddles and the balls.
Three days after Christmas, I showed up at Mary Louise's house. Lena looked me over real close before letting me in, just to make sure I was presentable. I was way ahead of her. That morning, I'd taken Vincent and gone to the Y for a shower. I slipped the dog in through a basement window and gave him a good scrubbing, as well. I also had on a nice clean pair of Dickies work pants and a flannel shirt, purchased for five dollars at the Goodwill Store. My hair was slicked down and my beard trimmed. I wore my old tweed coat—purchased twenty years ago for a slap hundred dollars. Now, it's threadbare and drafty, but I had hung it in the wind all night to get the campfire smell out, so I made a fair appearance.
Mary Louise's house was all festooned with Martha Stewart cut-outs and decorations. She had an eight-foot tall tree and a nice fire in the fireplace. We made a meal of the leftovers, just as promised, and the conversation was civil enough, I guess. Afterwards, the girls and I took to the street for a little ping-pong. We didn't have a net, but we had a helluva party for awhile. Yes, I played, too—found a piece of board in Mary Louise's garage and used it for a paddle, and man, we bat those balls all over the place. The girls were giggling like hyenas, diving under cars and into trash piles to retrieve the balls, and so on. At one point, I noticed Lena and Mary Louise peering at us from the livingroom window. They didn't look too happy. I knew the two of them were finding it somewhat trying to see their squeaky clean little girls reduced to playing ping-pong with discarded paddles out in the street with their bum father. But to Lena's credit, they left us alone.
Some of the other brats on the street stood around watching us with pinched faces as if we were out of our minds. I guess they thought it wasn't ping-pong if you don't have a nice table and a net. Fortunately, Winnie and Ophelia don't have too high expectations of me. They just seem to take everything in stride and have a jolly old time no matter what we do. I don't understand it, but somehow they didn't get spoiled. They just get a kick out of life. I hope they continue to feel that way awhile longer, but I suspect these times of innocence will pass into memory one of these days.
* * *
We played as long as we could, but at last Lena called the girls in, and I realized it was time to leave. I was surprised when she told me it was almost seven o'clock. I wanted badly to stay, to sit by Mary Louise's big fireplace and read a story to my children. I started to ask Lena if I could, but she had that clipped tone in her voice, and I figured it was a no sale. The girls came for goodbyes. I got down and hugged them both. Damn near misted up again. Then, I looked at Lena, and we just nodded at each other. Half an hour later, I was on the bus riding across town with Vincent.
We both crawled in the tent that night there in the woods, by the freight yard. In a little while, it started to snow. I turned the flashlight on and found my gift from Johnny Blair, the book of poems, in my tweed coat pocket. I'd been carrying it all day. I opened it and read aloud the first poem my eyes landed on, a poem called “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon.
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the crickets take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go back inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.