Green Hills Literary Lantern

Charity Case

 

            She was better looking than most of the women who stumbled into the bar; slim with short hair, pretty, but clearly old enough to be my mother and missing a tooth in the very back, where you could barely see it until she tilted her head back and laughed.  She wore faded jeans, a loose-fitting sweater vest and a too-small T that revealed her belly button, and she had a reasonably nice body, but her face was gaunt.  She had two black eyes.

            Gordon knew her.  He was a regular, a Vietnam veteran about thirty years my senior.  “Hey,” he said.  “How ya’ doin’, sexy?  What the fuck happened to you?” 

            “Hi Gordon,” she said, sitting down beside me, smiling in my direction.  “You don’t know how many guys have hit on me since I got these,” she chuckled.  It was an invitation, of sorts.

            “You don’t have to worry about me,” I said.  “I’m too busy drinking to hit on you.”

            We talked a long time.  She had lost her friends and family.  Her ex-husband had taken her kids.  Her brother refused to see her.  Her best friend wouldn’t talk to her, and it was all because she was going out with this guy named Curtis, who liked to beat on her.  They had argued that night, and she had left the house.  It was her house, but she left anyway.  She was afraid of him.  Eventually, she said, she would go back.  Tell him to get out.  It was over.  She assured me of that. 

Her name was Marcy.

            When she stepped off to the lady’s room, Gordon turned to me.  “You’re messing where you shouldn’t be,” he said.  “Bad news.  Trust me.  Nothing you do is gonna help.  She’ll just bring you down.  And Curtis, well, if he finds out—”

            “What?” I demanded.

            Gordon shook his head.  “Forget it, kid.  Forget I said anything.”

            Eventually they turned the music on.  Marcy and I danced close to a slow song from an eighties high school prom.  I hadn’t been close to a woman in a long time and my dick hardened.  I tried to back away, but she pulled me closer, grinding against me, then followed me home.

            It was a long, sweaty fuck.  Boring, but gratifying.

            She didn’t do much, just moaned and moaned—squealed and sighed—and it took me a very long time to finish because I was so drunk.  When it was over she was still breathing hard, legs quivering, and I felt like a human being for the first time in several years. 

            She woke up in the middle of the night with a cramp in her leg and I massaged her calf.  It was tight and firm and I used both hands to work the tension out, rub that muscle back into the comfortable flab it had been, and she sighed again, said it felt so good.  Even called me an angel.  “Who are you?” she asked.

            She looked gentle in the moonlight coming through my curtainless windows and she smelled like beer and cigarettes and she came back every night for a week or so and fucked me and I rubbed her legs and fucked her again and she told me how they had all pushed her away.

            “Fuck them,” I would say.  “Who cares what they think?”

            She would fuck me again, tell me I was sweet.

            Then she disappeared.

            I heard from the guys at the bar that she was back with Curtis.  Gordon seemed to take particular delight in letting me know.  “That’s right, kid,” he said.  “When it comes to Marcy, there’s no competition.  The white trash woman beater wins out every time.”

* * *     

            A month later she came in with another man.  He was tall and awkward, with skinny arms and a beer gut, dressed in a flannel shirt and torn jeans.  His glasses had thick black frames and big, round lenses.  His work boots were speckled with white paint.  Everyone knew him, everyone but me.  They were big friends.  Gordon got up and went over.  When I approached the group, Gordon introduced him. 

            “This is Curtis,” he said.

            “Hey,” Curtis held out his hand.  “Good to meet you.”

            “You, too,” I said.  It was a little much for me, but he seemed harmless.  I couldn’t imagine him hitting anybody.

            Apparently he knew nothing about Marcy and me, but I slinked away to the end of the bar where Gordon and I had been sitting, anyway, anxious not to be recognized.  Before long Gordon came back over and sat down again.

            “I thought he wasn’t allowed in here anymore,” I said. 

            “Owner’s not around.  Bartender doesn’t know him.”

            “I don’t get it.  Why are they being so nice to him?”

            Just at that moment the bartender put two drinks in front of us.  “These are on Curtis,” she said.

            Gordon smiled at me.  “Maybe they’re nice to him because he’s a nice guy.  He bought you a drink and he just met you.”

            “Well, drink or no drink, he’s still a woman beater.”

            “Did it ever occur to you that maybe there’s something going on between them that you don’t get?  Maybe she likes it.  I mean, she keeps going back.”

            “That’s bullshit.”

            “You never know,” he said.  “Just look.”

            They were holding hands. 

            Gordon got up and walked over to the crowd.

* * *

            A few days later I was sitting in my apartment getting drunk by myself when the phone rang.  It was Marcy.  She was crying.  “What’s the matter?” I asked.

            “Can I come over?”

            “Of course.”

            She walked in as soon as I opened the door, started pacing around the room.  “I’m sorry,” she said, not crying anymore.  “I just didn’t know where else to go.”

            “It’s okay,” I said.  “Relax.”

            She came over to me and I put my arms around her.  She nuzzled her face in between my head and my shoulder and I could feel her tears warm against my neck.  I didn’t wear a condom and when we were done I couldn’t believe the tenderness I felt was possible.

            Dressed and on her way out the door the next morning, she kissed me again.

            “You know you can stay here, if you need to,” I said.  “I want you to stay.  I don’t want you going back there.”

            "I don’t want to go back.  I’m just confused.  I don’t know what to do.  I can’t just leave him.  He’s not a bad person.  He’s just so sad inside.  Sometimes he lashes out."

            She looked like she was going to cry again, so I kissed her.  "Call me tonight," I said.  “After work.”

            She nodded, hugged me tightly and told me again how sweet I was.

            I was tired of being sweet.

* * *

            She never called, and it was a long time before I saw her again. 

She came into the bar one afternoon, drunk as hell and sweating.  I looked for bruises, but there were none, and I was surprised and ashamed by my disappointment.  Nothing to save her from.  I should have been relieved.  Instead, I wanted to leave.  Sitting at the bar with a few of the regulars, I tried to relax, finish my drink. 

            When Marcy ordered a beer, the construction workers started in.  “How’s Curtis treating you?” and so on.  He had been a construction worker at one time, too.  They all knew him.  Regardless of how they treated him to his face everyone thought he was a loser, and they ragged Marcy for being with him.

            “He’s good,” she said defensively.

            Then she went to a table a good ways off from the bar.  She sat by herself and drank.

            I felt something.  Compassion?  Maybe I was just horny.  I went to her table.  “Can I sit down?”

            “Sure,” she snapped.  “Go ahead.  Tear into me.  You want to give me shit about Curtis, too?”

            “I don’t want to give you shit about anything,” I said.  “I just want to sit next to you.  Is that okay?  I was wondering what happened to you.”

            “I’m sorry,” she said.   “I owe you an explanation.  It’s just that—”  

            I cut her off, placing my hand on hers.  “You don’t owe me.  I just wanted to see you.”

            She smiled then.  It was a pretty sight.  “You’re always so sweet to me.”

            “What can I say?” I shrugged.  “I’m an angel, right?”

            It was a load of shit, though. 

            “I’m sorry I snapped at you.  It’s just that all those construction guys were giving me shit.  They’ve decided that I’m a lush.”

            “They’re losers,” I said.  “We’re all drunks.  Otherwise we wouldn’t be in here every day.”

            That’s when she broke down.  Didn’t cry.  Just stared at the table and said it.  “He left me at The Watering Hole.”  The Watering Hole was a bar a few miles up the road.  “He just left me there.”  Her voice was suddenly flippant, unconcerned, like she was ready to laugh it all off.  “He got pissed and took my car.  I walked here.”

            “In that heat?” 

            “Wanna give me some shit, now, kid?” she asked dryly.

            “No,” I said.  I sat there for another few minutes, didn’t say anything, then—when it was clear the conversation was over—stood up to go.  I paid my tab and hers before I left, walked across the parking lot to the grocery store and bought a six-pack to take home with me.  When I walked out and headed back to my car I saw Marcy leaving the bar.  She saw me, too. 

            I waved.

            “Hey,” she called out, heading in my direction.  “Can you give me a ride home?”

            “Back out to the country?”

            She nodded.

            I shifted on my feet, uncertain of my qualifications.  My apartment was only a couple of blocks away.  Her place was out in the country.  I didn’t think I would be able to get her home safe and get myself back again.

            “I stink like bourbon,” I said.  “I’d be more than happy to give you money for cab fair, but if I get pulled over—”

            “I’m not a charity case,” she said, already walking away. 

            I watched her go without a thought of fucking her and I felt guilty and miserable so I got in my car and followed her across the street and over to the next lot.  I rolled down the window.  “Marcy,” I said.  “Please.  Let me give you a ride.”

            “I don’t need your help.”

            I was driving at a walking speed next to her through the parking lot of a strip mall.  I was fucked up, struggling to keep the wheel steady.

            “You don’t understand,” I said.  “I’m drunk.”

            “Leave me alone.”

            “Please,” I said.  “Just get in the car.”

            She stopped walking and looked at me.  I stopped driving and looked at her.  She took her sunglasses off.  I did the same.  Her expression was firm, unrelenting.  My feelings shocked me; I actually wanted to help.

            Then she was in the car.

            We didn’t talk.  I kept the radio on, asked her what station she wanted to listen to.  She said the music was fine, and I kept my eyes on the road.  The last thing I needed was a D.U.I. on a license that had already been suspended for the same.

            I tried to make light conversation as the little businesses subsided behind us and we went out into the flat land.  The sun was going down over the marsh.  “Sure is pretty out here,” I said.

            She started crying.

            “Don’t cry,” I said.  “It’ll work itself out.”

            But I couldn’t stop her.

            “I just don’t know what to do,” she said.

            “Ditch him,” I said.  “Stay with me.”

            “How can you say that to me?  Every time I drop by the bar you’re there, sitting on the same Goddamn stool.  I can’t rely on you.  My kids can’t rely on you.  I’m forty-six years old.  You’re not even thirty, for God’s sake.”

            “At least I’m not going to hit you.”

            “That was one incident,” she raised her voice.  “One incident.  And you know what?  I hit him first.  How do you like that?  You think you’ve got it all figured out, don’t you?  But you don’t know shit.”

            I didn’t say anything for a minute.  I felt like I should have said something, but I couldn’t imagine what.  Finally she sighed, took my hand.  “Look, kid.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to snap at you like that.  You’ve always been really sweet to me, and I appreciate it.  Really.  But you can’t just step in and rearrange my life.  You can’t just fix everything for me.  You can barely take care of yourself, for Christ’s sake.”

            When we got to her house the car was in the driveway.

            “Shit,” she said.  “He’s home.”

            “Do you want me to take you somewhere else?” I asked.

            “No,” she said.  “This is home.”

            I wanted to hug her, to hold her closely and say good-bye, but I could see him watching from the window, so I did nothing.

            “Good-bye,” she said.

            “Take care.”

* * *

            I tried to stop drinking, after that, couldn’t.

            A week later I was back in the bar.  Gordon was there as usual, and that was all right by me.  I wouldn’t say he was a friend of mine, but he was a drinking partner and that was enough.  We looked at the T.V.  “Any word on Curtis and Marcy?” I asked.

            He shook his head like he knew something but didn’t want to talk about it.  “They got into some kind of fight and . . .”  He shrugged, non-committal, not bothering to finish the sentence.

            “Is she okay?”

            “That all depends on what you mean by okay.”

            “Quit fucking with me.”

            “I’ve known that girl for damn near thirty years.” 

            “Girl?” I asked. 

            “I’m calling her a girl,” he said.  “I know she’s grown, but we used to go out in high school, before I went to ‘Nam.  Thirty years later and it’s still awkward.  I wanted to marry her, but I went away, and she went off with some fucking hippie.  Any hippie, as a matter of fact.  She’s got a history of making bad decisions.”

            He finished his beer and ordered another.  I ordered bourbon, a double this time.     “Curtis overheard some gossip that she’d been messing around,” Gordon said.  “I mean, she likes a good fuck but, believe me, I’ve known her a long time and she’s not the cheating kind.  She sent me a letter in ‘Nam, to break it off, before she started screwing every hippie in town.  But Curtis is paranoid, you know?  So he bought the whole story and left her up at the Watering Hole—you know, the bar up the road.  She managed to find a ride home with somebody, apparently some other dude, and when he saw her pull in the driveway with another man he went ballistic.  As soon as she walked in the door he beat the living shit out of her.”  He took a hit off his drink.  “I shouldn’t even be telling you this shit.  It’s none of your Goddamn business, anyway.”

            “Please,” I said.  “Go on.”

            “Well,” he said.  “It gets crazy.  Marcy was in here the other day, telling me the story.  Curtis was about to shoot himself.  After he beat her up he sat down on the kitchen floor and put a gun to his head, said he was sorry, she was too good for him, he never should have been born.  He was going to make it right, blah-blah-blah.  She managed to talk him out of it, so he drove her to the emergency room, ready to take responsibility for the whole thing.  I mean, he wanted to go to jail.  She wouldn’t have it.  She told them some nigger on the road beat the shit out of her and stole her wallet when she was walking home.  She told them that Curtis saved her from being raped.”

            “And they believed that?”

            “It doesn’t matter.  No one saw it, and the people who work in E.R. see enough fucked up shit every day.  I doubt they give a shit how it happened.  But here’s the funny part; as soon as she got out of the hospital, Curtis got down on one knee and proposed.  They’re getting married.  She even moved into his houseboat on the lake.  It’s not a bad place.  You can see it from the road, if you want to check it out sometime.”

            “After all that shit she’s going to marry him?”

            He started humming drunkenly to the tune of  “Here Comes The Bride.”  “Dum-dum-dee-dum—” he took a break to belch.  “Dum-dum-dee-dum.”     

            I slammed the rest of my drink, left enough money to cover my tab on the bar.  I could still hear him laughing and humming on my way out the door.  I stumbled to my car and drove straight to the lake.  It was at the bottom of a hill and I could see the houseboat and the dock perfectly through the trees where I had pulled up alongside the road.  Curtis was sitting in a deck chair on the dock, but I didn’t see Marcy anywhere until she came out of the houseboat with a couple bottles of beer.

            He stuck his foot out, tripped her, and she fell.  When she got back to her feet he stood up and they pushed each other back and forth a couple times.  It looked as though they were shouting.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying.  He wrestled her onto her back for a second, but she was able to roll over, push herself up on her hands and knees and slip out from beneath him.  She was backing away, towards the edge of the dock, and he was coming at her.  His chest out and his shoulders squared, he made a menacing picture.  She slapped him hard across the face and he shoved her into the water.  After a second he jumped in, too, and swam over to her.  I could see their heads, bobbing just above the surface.  They were laughing.  They put their arms around each other and engaged in a long kiss. 

            I drove away.    

 

Sam Ruddick’s work has appeared in over a dozen literary publications, most recently Gulf Stream, The Santa Clara Review, The Red Rock Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly.  He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.