You Never Know What Helps
Every morning, I look out my window and admire Earl’s $40,000 truck parked by the oak tree he climbed as a hyperactive kid. Just to help out Leon, the neighbor boy, I pay him to wash and wax it once monthly. The keys sit on my kitchen counter where Earl last left them. I don’t move them so when he comes back, he’ll see them. When cooking dinner, sometimes I set out two plates of food and I hear his deep voice saying, “Tastes good Ma,” and I can picture him taking his time eating, like usual.
Down the hallway, his high school graduation picture hangs on my wall. Somehow the lighting in the picture doesn’t show that he had a crooked nose from being broken when he got in a fight at school. For his picture, he had borrowed a powder-blue jacket. I kiss his good-looking picture and imagine him kissing me back, and smelling like after-shave cologne. I remember his baby smell. Nursing him for two years was the purest love I’ve ever known. It felt like I was holding myself, feeding myself. I did everything for him. I remember the night I laid down with his father to receive his seed. Somehow I knew I had gotten pregnant that night and it would be a boy.
Earl went through girlfriends. Edna, Joanie, Alma, Kathy—those were the ones I remember. He met them at bars. He never had more than one at a time—he was faithful, not like President Clinton or President Kennedy. Every one has their strengths. We all know that. Even if I didn’t care for his girlfriends, they meant that girls liked him. Boys never seemed to like me. To my surprise, I got married when I thought I would be passed by—too old—thirty years. When I look at family pictures, I think I look better old than young.
His whole life, Earl never moved away from home. “You don’t want to see the world?” I asked.
“What’s there to see?” He shrugged. That was another strength—his attachment to home.
He built me a good chicken coop. Took the garbage out even when it was 90 degrees outside at midnight, and he had to carry a flashlight to be sure he didn’t step on a rattlesnake. When I had a heart attack, he cooked and cleaned until I got better. He made real good venison stew. I liked him taking care of me. He looked good in plaid shirts. Blue was his favorite color. His teeth were straight. I could go on and on.
About thirty years ago, Officer Lewis brought him home after he crashed his car in a one-car accident. He ignored the empty whiskey bottle that was lying on the seat of Earl’s car. Earl’s father had been a cop too, before he fell off a building and died of a smashed head when Earl was only twelve. It was just as well. I never liked him much, but giving me Earl was worth the trouble.
It was two in the morning so few people living in Springtown would’ve been awake. I just happened to be up watching a Cary Grant movie. I forget which one. After we got Earl in bed, I offered Lewis a cup of coffee and we sat for a while talking about how pretty the Sierra Nevada foothills are in the spring, the wildflowers, the town getting bigger, some of the scandals, the latest burglary. About the time Earl was jailed and how the evidence was somehow misplaced and lost after I slipped Lewis some money. “You need it. I meant to give it to you last month when I saw you at the market. Your daughter has lots of medical bills.”
“Yeah, medical problems. Lots of them—cancer, diabetes, heart attack. She’ll appreciate it,” he said.
“Has she gotten over the bubonic plague?”
“Yeah, last week.”
“Two days ago.”
We smiled. His daughter wasn’t sick then and isn’t sick now. She’s tall, strong as an ox, redheaded, and hikes up mountains. Lewis always brought out my sense of humor. We had shared a kiss and some friendly touching. That was all we ever did, as Lewis was married.
Next morning, I said to Earl, “Damn it. You drove drunk last night and wrecked your car. Stop it before you kill yourself.”
“I wasn’t drunk and you need to stop bothering me. Nag, nag.”
I was too tired to argue for long. Plus he’s less hyper after drinking. If he were here now I’d find something to nag him about.
Earl’s hobby was deer hunting. There are two stuffed deer heads with big racks; one hung on the dining room wall, the other in the living room above the old chintz armchair. At first, I didn’t like them but they were important to Earl. These days I like them.
The deer heads were expensive so Earl had decided he wanted to learn taxidermy. It could be an extension of his hobby. He said extension like he was using a big vocabulary word. He had friends who were hunters and he thought he could do the job cheaper and make extra money on the side. We had chickens. He tried it on a hen too old for eggs. The killing, skinning, and tanning went okay. However, he had no sense of sculpture, and the mannequin he had made for mounting the skin on was too big for the skin. He had to make another, but it looked more like the torso of a two-legged cat with no tail. I laughed, and he got upset and threw it in the trash. “You need to practice. You’ll get better at it.” I apologized when I laughed again, but I couldn’t help it. Earl lost interest. It was too much frustration, too much fine finger-work. I wish I still had his two-legged cat.
This morning his gun, sitting on the top shelf of the cabinet in the living room, draws me over. I take it down and point it at one of the deer. I look through the scope and aim at the heart. “Here Earl, I’m shooting a deer for you.” He smiles and I pull the trigger. It occurs to me that I should have checked if it was loaded. He yells, “You idiot. Never pull a trigger unless you want to kill something.”
“Don’t you yell at me,” and I stare right at his eyeballs.
“You do something dumb like that, you deserve it.”
“Go to hell.” I put the gun down.
“You go to hell,” he says and slams the door and leaves.
Recently when Alice came over unexpectedly and saw two plates on the kitchen table, both with my casserole of pork, sweet potatoes, celery, and apples, and two beers she asked, “Who’s coming for dinner?” When I had no answer and looked away, she guessed right, and said, “That’s fantasy. Don’t do that. You need to let Earl go. We all die one day. How about taking up a hobby so you don’t get sick?” She put her smooth hand on my wrinkled, age-spotted hand, and looked at me with her oval eyes all made up with mascara and blue eye shadow. I once told her a girl as pretty as her needs no makeup, but she still does it.
She said, “As long as you’re remembered, death hasn’t consumed you. Think of President Kennedy. If I see you watching some film about him, I can tell he inspires you even though he’s been gone for over forty years. It’s like he’s still in the White House being president. And Jackie with her whispery voice is by his side.”
Alice is sweet but she doesn’t understand. I should have died before my Earl. Knowing what she was thinking, I didn’t say that. What came out was, “It’s habit. I cooked his meals all his life.” I pointed to the plate and asked, “Are you hungry? Please eat.“
“You’re right. Habits are hard to break,” Alice said real supportive. “Look at me—I still can’t stop smoking.”
I know it’s not due to habit. It’s because I feel a split-second real joy every time I set out a plate for Earl. Sometimes, I can keep the joy for longer if I imagine his face, his smell, his beard. “Comb your hair,” I’ll say. I want to comb it for him but he won’t let me. He’ll run his hand through his hair for a finger comb. He’s got nice long fingers but dirty nails. He gets tired of me getting on his case about keeping his nails clean, except on dates when he always looks spiffy. I try not to talk in the present tense about Earl when sweet Alice visits. The chair nearest the window is his. His wool jacket sits on the back of the chair. I just got it back from the cleaners for him to wear.
On a small table in front of his picture would be a good place to put flowers and light a candle, but that would be a memorial. Memorial is a hard word. I don’t like to even think it. After I lock the front door so none of my family walks in after one knock, thinking that’s all the notice I need, I look at his picture. I let myself fall into a space, like he’s there behind the photo, listening to me and telling me in the silence what I need to hear. Soon his voice turns clear and distinct. Then we have conversations. He tells me what he wants me to cook the next day. What the weather forecast says. Or he tells me what he hated about his father. I ask what he loved about me. His answer is so sweet, I’m telling no one.
I open a beer and have one for Earl. It’s obvious Alice thinks I live in the past. Last time she was over, she said, “You have to move forward. Do it for Earl. He wouldn’t want you to mope.” Then she tried to pretend she was Earl telling me to enjoy my day. Alice doesn’t understand but she means well. She takes me out to lunch once a month.
I first met Lucy after I moved up to Springtown from Los Angeles. I was taking a walk and there she was, sitting on her front porch two houses down from mine. The house I bought was my first one. I could never afford one in Los Angeles. Her little dachshund dog, tail wagging, ran over to me. Soon Lucy and I were talking about her dog, her house, cute Springtown where she grew up. Why she moved away and why she returned. Her white hair was all fuzzy curly like she just got a permanent. There were more porch meetings with iced tea, sometimes beer, sometimes my special gourmet burritos, made with lamb. I couldn’t help but volunteer to do some shopping for her at the supermarket two towns away. Being my parents were both an only child, it was like I finally had an aunt.
I loved that she was old and progressive. She had voted for Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, McGovern, and Mondale and worked on their campaigns. Soon we were exchanging birthday presents just to show we cared for each other. I never had a neighbor like her when I lived in crowded, noisy Los Angeles.
Earl was her only son and he and his wife Thelma lived with her. He was always polite to me; Thelma was too, but I enjoyed my visits more when Lucy was home by herself. There was just something about Earl and Thelma.
I was really pleased when she invited me to her family gatherings and introduced me as her adopted niece. Earl looked bothered—probably jealous. I don’t know why. I was always polite to him. At another get-together, her brother Ralph called me the nastiest name I’ve ever been called. My face felt flushed.
“Now, Ralph behave yourself for once. Can’t you ever be nice? Jesus Christ, Jesus.” Lucy said. That sealed my love for her.
I got to meet more of her family when her niece Noreen and Jake (Noreen’s husband) were having a barbecue. Halfway through the barbecue, Lucy didn’t feel well so Earl took her home. I said how nice Lucy was and I hoped it was nothing serious. Feeling I should say something about Earl, I said he certainly has two impressive stuffed deer heads on the wall.
“I was surprised Lucy let him hang them up in her house, but then she was full of contradictions when it came to Earl,” Noreen said. “She always took Earl’s side when he got in trouble at school as a kid or when he broke the law. But if he did some little thing she didn’t like, like didn’t pick up her meds from the pharmacy as he promised, or broke something of hers, then she got all over him like he had committed murder.”
There was more Lucy gossip, and I felt I had to defend her so I said, “She was always real nice to me.”
Noreen looked at me and said, “Be careful. She’s mean. She’ll stab you in the back.”
I didn’t know what to say, especially since I was the only one sticking up for her. I didn’t stay around much longer to get the details of any other things she was accused of doing. I dismissed the comments as someone else’s point of view. Surely Lucy could tell her side of the story and it would be equally valid. I never asked her to tell me her side, because I knew she’d be a little bit at fault, but everyone is. Plus, I rarely heard her gossip about anyone.
Several months after the barbecue, Earl was killed after he staggered drunk out in the street and was hit by a logging truck. Lucy died of grief several months later. She was found with a picture of Earl lying by her side, on her bed. Hearing that made me cry. Three days after her funeral, I returned to Noreen, a baking dish that Lucy had loaned me. “I’ll miss her,” I said.
“She was a character. You know sometimes she and Earl had shared a bed at night.”
I cocked my head and squinted at the preposterous comment.
“You didn’t know?” Noreen looked surprised. “Yes, sometimes when he had an argument with Thelma. You know Earl was Thelma’s fourth husband don’t you? If they had a real bad argument—like a lot—he took refuge with Lucy in her bed. He could have slept on the sofa in the living room or in her third bedroom.”
“How do you know? Did Lucy tell you?” I asked.
“Janice, who cleaned her house every week and did her laundry, found the two of them sound asleep in bed. And two other times. She promised she wouldn’t tell anyone. She just thought her family should know. Then Thelma told me it happened.” Noreen pretended like the whole thing was making her gag.
Trying hard to counter my dismay, I said, “How do you know it was true? People make up things.”
“No. Janice really liked Lucy. She wouldn’t make up a rumor like that. Not Janice.”
“But Janice wouldn’t. Not in her lifetime.” Noreen spoke like it was fact.
I thought of Earl’s picture lying next to Lucy on her deathbed, and I knew Noreen was right. It was a double disappointment—first her death, then this. Earl was nice to me, but I knew for a long time that he wasn’t put together very well, not that I ever mentioned it to Lucy. Plus she did get wacko after his death.
It was an awful image—spry eighty-four year old Lucy in bed with fifty-two year old Earl. How could she do that while there was another bedroom he could’ve used? She had to be giving a message to Thelma—he loves me more. The jealousy. The familial intrigue. The tension must’ve been palpable and capable of damage.
It wasn’t that Noreen implied that Lucy and Earl had any dirty nights. But it was still, entangled. One good thing was Thelma moved out of Springtown. Few liked her.
Back home, questions emerged. Was Lucy always wacko? Have I little insight into others? Had I been given clues?
I tried to make sense of it. Like maybe Earl needed a mother’s close comfort when he couldn’t deal with Thelma. You never know what helps people, what keeps them going. Did they sleep far apart or close to each other? What did they talk about? Bad Thelma or plans for the next day? Maybe they didn’t talk, but just plopped down on the bed and fell asleep. Did their legs touch when they were sleeping? Did anything touch? Did they kiss each other good night? Maybe there was something awful about the third bedroom that no one else knew about. Did they ever talk about what they were doing? And why? If I was lost in the woods with my father and it was freezing, I’d huddle next to him. But I’d have to talk about it first and say why we had to huddle. A century ago, if you were traveling and needed a place to stay, you rented a room in an inn that you had to share with a stranger. According to history, President Lincoln did that when he was young.
I wished no one told me. It knocked her off the pedestal. Awake, in the middle of the night, I realized I could put her back up there. Next day, I made two gourmet burritos, and set two plates on the table. One for her, and one for me.
G. M. Monks’ work has appeared in: Vine Leaves Literary Journal, The RavensPerch, Embodied Effigies, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, GFT Press, Kansas City Voices, Picayune, Alehouse, and elsewhere. One of her poems is forthcoming in AROHO's Waves anthology. She was the runner-up (with publication) in the Big Wonderful Press Funny Poem contest and received an honorable mention in the 2016 New Millennium Writings Award competition. Bedazzled Ink has accepted her debut novel for publication. If you want to read more about her, please visit gmmonks.blog