Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Empty

 

 

Aaron sat in the pickup, waiting for his girlfriend to come home from church so he could call her to bring a can of gas for his pickup. Mom would blow a gasket if she knew he’d stopped at the Quik Mart and talked to his natural father, something he promised he’d never do. After Mom had gotten out of rehab, she told Aaron the whole story, how he hadn’t been adopted and why when Dad had divorced her, he’d only asked for custody of Janey and Sarah. Mom was turning her life around, off the booze and back at work at the real estate agency.

An old green Miata convertible with a smoky tailpipe pulled up behind Aaron’s pickup. Most of its paint on the hood was worn away and one of its retractable headlights was up, the other down. From under his stained Stetson, the driver flicked a cigarette butt off into the street and climbed out of the car.

“Hey, kid. Run out of gas?” Virgil said. “Guess it was a bad time to get on your high horse?” Aaron turned away, back toward the windshield. “Look, why don’t I drive you back to the station, and you can buy a can of gas?”

“No thanks,” Aaron said.

“Suit yourself.” Virgil got back in the sports car and sputtered off down the road, but then a few moments later he was driving back in the opposite direction.

Aaron called his girlfriend again. No answer. God, he hoped she didn’t decide to go shopping on the way home from church. It would take her half an hour just to pick out a dozen unblemished peaches that weren’t too ripe. A couple of minutes later Aaron heard the sputtering of Virgil’s sports car behind him. Virgil pulled a gallon can out from behind his backseat. He opened the cap and poured the contents into Aaron’s pickup.

“Don’t tell people your papa never did nothing for you,” Virgil said. He screwed the fuel cap back on and left.

*  *  *

My name is Virgil, and I’m an alcoholic. It’s been a while since my last meeting, maybe four, five years. I’m only sober twenty-four hours, just enough for a desire chip. I’ve got a whole box of ’em. I know, it’s not the number of times you’ve failed, but the once you succeed.

I’m here because one of my kids, I didn’t remember the mother’s name, but the kid told me, and he looked a little like I remember her looking, though it was a long time ago and we were both pretty wasted for all the time we were together, which I guess disproves all those worried about getting pregnant under the influence, although the kid’s mom did kind of clean up her act after I dumped her and her parents sent her away to a boarding school for unwed mothers—their religion wouldn’t let her have an abortion.

So, the kid comes by the Quik Mart for gas Sunday morning. I’d been working there maybe a month after the machine shop I’d worked at for fifteen years closed. I had a helluva hangover from Saturday night at the Little Branch Bar. The kid wants to buy some gas at the self-service pumps, so he’s got to come inside to pay first. The kid comes in and drops a twenty on the counter and says, “Take fifteen bucks,” which ain’t going to even half fill the tank of the old Ford 150 he’s driving. I hand him a five, and he’s reading my name tag, “Hey, you’re Virgil Peters.”

“So?” I say.

“I think you knocked up my mother.”

“Could be,” I say.

“Mary Josephs? Fredericks was her maiden name.”

“Could be?” I’m not wanting to admit to too much; I mean, who knows what the kid is after.

“Yea,” the kid says, “she told me I was better off you didn’t stick around.”

“She’s probably right.”

“You look like shit.”

“I smell like shit too,” I say, trying to lighten the mood. He could be my kid, so maybe I should try to be nice, even though I got a helluva hangover.

“Give me my money back,” the kid says. “I’ll buy my gas somewhere else.”

I take out the twenty and throw it at him. It drops to the floor. “Keep the change.”

My son throws back the five, turns and walks away. Going through the door, he raises his arm behind his back and flips me the bird. Shit, I’m thinking, now I got to file a goddamn refund form before my shift’s over.

So here’s my kid, well, one of my kids. I mean, I didn’t know I had this kid, so how many others might there be? You guys know what I’m talking about, not knowing. And you ladies too. You’re the ones stuck with the kids that got no fathers. Well, in this case the mama knew who done her and told the kid he was better off without me as a father. Sure, she’s right. But it got me to thinking, about number eight of the twelve steps, making amends. This kid’s so mad he won’t even buy gas from me when his tank is empty. I find him on the side of the road out of fuel, but he won’t accept my help. So I helped him anyway. Didn’t ask for no thanks, didn’t get any either. It kind of hurt, but maybe I’m not ready for step eight quite yet. Like I said, I got a whole handful of twenty-four hour desire chips home in the dresser. Let’s see if I make it back here next week 

.*  *  *

“Aaron, come in here.” Aaron looked at his watch. It was only 6:10. He wasn’t really late for dinner.

“I’ll wash up real quick, Mom,” Aaron said. “I didn’t think I was late for dinner.”

“Come here, right now.”

“What? It’s only ten after six. I’m not really late.” He turned the corner into the kitchen and saw his mother sitting with a drink in her hand.

“What are you drinking?”

“Bourbon,” she said, smiling. “Now sit down.” She was scowling.

“Oh, shit, you fell off the wagon. You almost had your four month chip.”

“I didn’t fall off the wagon,” Mom said, taking a big gulp and then pointing the glass at Aaron, “you pushed me off.”

“Me? What did I do?” Aaron said, even though he knew what he’d done, he just hoped it was someone else’s fault.

“You went to see that prick that fathered you, that’s what.” Aaron tried not to react. “Don’t deny it. He came to the Sober Living Group meeting today and told everyone. The bastard didn’t even recognize me.”

“I was running out of gas. I didn’t know he’d be working at the Quik Mart. I’m sorry. I should’ve just bought the gas and left.”

“You’re telling me you couldn’t have gone another half mile to the Conoco where we always get our gas?” She lifted a bottle from under the kitchen table and poured another glass of bourbon.

“No way.” Aaron grabbed the glass and the bottle. He dumped them into the sink, rushed to the phone and hit the first speed-dial button.

“Steve, you’ve got to come over right away. She’s drunk about half a bottle of bourbon.”

Mom mumbled something incomprehensible, picked up her purse and headed for the door.

“Mom, stop. Steve is coming right over. You need to talk to him.”

“Get out of my way, you traitor, you liar, you bastard.” He reached for her arm. “Don’t you dare touch me.”

Aaron let her go. His truck was parked behind her car; she wouldn’t be able to get out of the driveway unless he moved it.

From the kitchen window Aaron saw his Mom start her car and then look in the rearview mirror. She opened the door, went to the pickup, took it out of gear, and released the parking brake. She got back in her car and eased it into the bumper of the pickup, pushing it down the driveway. The maneuver might have worked if she’d been sober, but she couldn’t keep the wheel perfectly straight. The front wheels of the pickup turned, and the rear end veered to the right, rolling into the sycamore tree near the sidewalk. The front wheels swung the cab around onto the other side of the driveway. Mom’s exit was blocked. She pounded her hands on the steering wheel and began crying. Then she took a deep breath, got out of the car and started walking. This was a good sign. It was a long way to the closest bar. There was a convenience store a couple of blocks away, but they only sold beer. Beer made Mom burp. Steve would catch her before she could walk far enough for a double bourbon on the rocks.

.*  *  *

Well, it’s been a week, and I’m still sober. Last Sunday I’m back at the Quik Mart. It’s early, maybe around seven-thirty, eight o’clock, before the church crowd comes in. I’m on the wagon five days; I’m getting edgy. There’s a whole wall of booze behind the counter I’m dying to taste. I’ve already been through a pack and a half of Marlboros.

We can’t smoke inside the Quik Mart, so I have to put out my butt every time a customer comes in the door. I got the fan going full blast. So far, no complaints, but once the church crowd shows up, I’m not going to have enough of a break to even get in a puff. Wish I had somebody who could watch the counter for a couple of minutes, I’d sneak over to Walgreens and buy some of that nicotine gum. If one of my pusher acquaintances were to come in, I could buy some kind of downer, but, face it, Sunday morning, they’re all wasted.

So in walks this heavy woman. Looks like she was fat, real fat, but’s been losing weight, so there’s some extra skin that’s not stretched back yet. She looks wasted; red, droopy eyes, haggard expression. When she comes up to the counter I can smell her breath; she hasn’t been drinking. Probably she’s into pills. Then she says, “A pint of Jack.” So I guess she is a drinker, who else would by a pint of whiskey before eight on a Sunday morning?

“Seven-ninety-nine, please,” I say. She hands me the money, and I go to put the bottle in a bag when she grabs it from me and starts working the top. “Ma’am, you can’t drink that in here.” She ignores me, goes over to the coffee pots and picks up a couple of polystyrene cups. She puts the cups on the counter and pours in some whiskey.

“Have a drink, you worthless prick,” she says. “You’re the one that got me started on this stuff.”

Okay. She’s one of the people I harmed in my past life as a drunk, but the name doesn’t come to me.

“Don’t recognize me, you miserable asshole,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I’m about twice the size I was when you turned me into your whore.”

“Look, lady, I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, a lot of ‘em under the influence of this stuff.” I held up the cup. “But I’m trying to put this behind me. Once I get my act together, I’ll try to remember what I did to you and make amends.” She swallowed the bourbon from her cup in one gulp and gave me one of those shit-eating smiles, like you’d expect a mountain lion to do just before it bites your head off. “Look, I’m off in fifty-five minutes,” I say. “There an AA meeting at noon at the Salvation Army on Main and First. I’ll take you there. We’ll work this out.”

“I’ve already gone to an AA meeting with you.” Another cup emptied. She saw I was surprised; I couldn’t remember her. “I sat in the back, on the left hand side. You talked about my son.” She swallowed again. “Our son.”

“Oh, shit. The kid who ran out of gas. Look, he caught me by surprise. I didn’t mean to mess anything up…”

“You didn’t mean! When did you ever mean anything?” Her hand was shaking too hard to pour more bourbon in the cup. She slammed the bottle down; bourbon shot out of the neck all over the counter.

“Take it easy,” I say, grabbing a paper towel. “Who’s your sponsor? You’re Mary, right?” I’m feeling really ragged now. I can smell the Jack Daniels all over the counter, and I really need a drink.

“None of your fucking business,” Mary says.

“Okay, I’m calling my sponsor. He can talk to you.” As soon as I’m off the phone, on cue, three cars drive into the parking lot. Church is out. A father and two kids come in. Then an elderly couple, followed by a mother and three kids. The place is a madhouse. “Look, can you just wait a couple of minutes until my sponsor shows up. There’s a bench right outside the door.” Mary gives me a disgusted look. “Please, I’ll be off in less than an hour.” She drops the empty Jack Daniels pint into the waste bin and walks out. Fifteen minutes later, my sponsor shows up, but he says there’s nobody sitting on the bench.

.*  *  *

“Mr. Lattimer, this is Aaron Fredericks. I just wanted to let you know my mother has some kind of stomach flu and can’t come to work today. I think she got it from me. I was sick on Saturday, but I’m okay now. Hopefully, she’ll be back tomorrow or Wednesday.”

Aaron went back to the bedrooms; the smell of vomit permeated the whole upstairs. Mom had already gone back to bed. He shouted as loudly as he could.

“I think Mr. Lattimer bought the flu story, but he’s not an idiot—if you’re not back in the office tomorrow he’ll know you’re off the wagon again. He’ll fire you this time.” Mom covered her head with her pillow. Aaron slammed the bedroom door as hard as he could; he heard a groan from the other side. The phone rang; it was Mom’s sponsor.

“Hi, Steve.”

“How’s it going?”

“She’s pretty hung over, spent most of the morning with her head in the toilet.”

“I mean, how’s it going with you? I know what your mother’s going through. I’ve been there plenty of times myself.”

“I’m so pissed I just want to scream, or break something, or kick somebody.”

“There’s an Alateen meeting at St. Ambrose at noon. It’s about dealing with slips. Do you need a ride?”

“No, I’m okay. I’ll be all right.”

“Nobody’s okay around a lapsed alcoholic.”

“I got to work this afternoon. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow if I’m still uptight.”

“Call me if you have any more trouble. I’ll stop over before dinner tonight to check on your mother.”

Aaron hung up the phone and picked up his truck keys from the sideboard. A couple of minutes later he was parked in front of the Quik Mart. An older woman stood behind the counter.

“I thought Virgil was working today. I need to give him something,” Aaron said.

“He called in this morning, said he was sick.” Aaron could tell from her expression that the woman wasn’t convinced.

“Do you run this place?” Aaron said.

“Me and my husband,” she said. “Why? You looking for a job? We might have an opening on the early shift. You twenty-one? You have to be twenty-one to sell cigarettes and booze.”

“Nineteen and a half, I’m afraid. You wouldn’t know where Virgil lives would you? I didn’t find his name in the phone book.”

“You look twenty-one. If you happened to get one of those fake IDs the kids are always using here to try to get us to sell them booze, we could probably work it out for you.”

“Well, thanks, but I’m planning to start classes at the community college, aviation maintenance technology. All the classes are early, out by the airport,” Aaron said. “About Virgil, do you have an address?”

“Too bad. Well, good luck with the schooling.” She shoved some kind of form back under the counter. “Virgil, he lives in that trailer park off of Sutter, just north of Williams. Don’t have a number, but there’s a bunch of mailboxes by the entrance; his name’s on one of them. I don’t know as I’d visit him after he was recovering from his illness.”

“Oh, we’re old friends. It’ll be okay.” Aaron handed the woman twenty dollars. “I need some gas, pump number three.”

Fifteen minutes later Aaron pulled into the Hidden Meadows Mobile Home Haven. On the right side of the entrance was a row of two dozen mailboxes, in various colors and stages of deterioration. Some were rusted, some had broken doors or missing flags, several were leaning over. In the middle was a rusted silver mailbox with a bullet hole in the door marked “V.P. #17.”

Aaron took the circular dirt driveway around to unit #17. A vintage Zimmer mobile home sat on blocks, surrounded by tools and paint cans. The rear was rusted, and one window was covered with plastic secured by duct tape. The front had been scoured clean down to the metal. The windows on the front and the entrance door appeared to be new, and a newly painted wooden step had been placed in front of the entrance.

Beside the trailer was a gravel parking area, with an oil stain in the center. The green Miata was missing, but there was an old Indian Chief motorcycle with a missing front wheel. The front fender was dented and rusted, but the rear fender and real wheel had been restored. The seat of the motorcycle had been detached.

Aaron knocked on the trailer door. No answer. He picked up the motorcycle seat and placed it under the rear wheel of his pickup. He noticed a curtain move in the neighboring trailer. He got back in the pickup, revved the engine, and sped away from Virgil’s trailer, sending gravel and the motorcycle seat sailing through the air.

.*  *  *

I couldn’t go back to work at the Quik Mart, not after what happened with Mary. I couldn’t get the smell of Jack out of my nose. So Monday morning I called in sick around 5 am. There was a meeting at the Salvation Army at 8 am. When I got back, Mrs. Jaramillo, who’s usually the one who reports me to the police if I smoke a little pot in the evening in the yard or play my music too loud, tells me some fellow showed up looking for me, probably a repo man she says, smirking at me, and when I wasn’t at home, the fellow took and ruined the seat on the Indian Chief motorcycle I’m restoring. That pissed me off, because the seats for the ’34 Chief are really hard to find; they didn’t make so many because of the Depression. So I ask her about the fellow and what he was driving. She didn’t get a license plate, but how she described the fellow and his pickup truck I know it’s my kid. Some fallout from the disturbance his mother made in the Quik Mart, I’m guessing.

So I’m steamed about losing the seat for the Chief, but I know being a drunk is like dropping a rock in the pond, the ripples end up on a lot of different shores. Maybe this is just one of those ripples bouncing off a rock and coming back at me. Still, I don’t want the kid showing up at my place while I’m gone, wrecking my stuff every time his mother falls off the wagon.

So I look up Mary Fredericks in the phone book. I pick up the squashed seat and go over to their place. When I get there, the kid’s pickup’s in the driveway in front of a sedan, and there’s another car parked in front. I get out the Miata, and I hear shouting. Mary’s nearly sliding down the side steps near the sedan. She’s got a drink in her hand. Aaron’s following her, shouting. Behind him is another guy, he looks familiar. The anger is infectious, so I go down the driveway, motorcycle seat in hand.

“You,” Mary yells at me. “This is all your fault.”

“And this is all your fault,” I say, holding the squashed motorcycle seat out in front of me.

“What are you doing here?” Aaron says to me.

The other guy comes toward me, holding out his hand. “I’m Steve, Mary’s sponsor. I’ve seen you at the Salvation Army AA meetings.”

You all know Steve, he’s the guy over on the left there. Him being here, I guess’ll keep me honest tonight.

So Steve says, “We’re having a meltdown. I don’t know if this’s a good time to talk to them. What’s with the bicycle seat?”

“This is the seat of a vintage 1934 Indian Chief, very hard to find. The kid came out to my house and ran over it with his pickup.”

“Why’d he do that?”

“Because I got his mama drunk and knocked her up twenty years ago, resulting in him. Now they both seem to be blaming me for all of their mistakes.”

“Can I have the seat for a second?” I give the seat to Steve, who takes it over to my kid and his mother. They start out murmuring, but the volume keeps going up. Then Mary takes a big gulp from her glass, grabs the seat from Steve, and marches my way.

“He should have taken this seat and shoved it up your ass. Get off of my property.” Then she walks over to the Miata and throws the seat into the windshield, cracking it.

"You bitch," I say, and slap her across the  face. Steve is trying to hold onto Aaron, but he gets away and charges me. He knocks me on the ground and starts punching me. He’s pretty strong, but I can tell he’s not much of a fighter. He’s just wasting his energy. I wait for him to get tired and then clock him in the nose. Blood gushes all over his shirt. Mary rushes over to him, screaming. Steve is off in the driveway, talking on his cell phone. Some of neighbors have come out of their houses to take a look at us.

Steve comes over to the three of us. “Hear that,” he yells. We listen. Sirens. “I called the police.” I get up and move toward my car. “You’d better stay, Virgil. Otherwise the police will just come looking for you.” He hands me his cell phone. “Call your sponsor and have him meet us at the station.” I call and wait. The police come, take pictures, talk to the neighbors, and then take the bunch of us down to the station. I waive my right to an attorney, give my statement, and then me and my sponsor go off to a meeting at the Methodist Church on Barksdale Drive.

Mary gets arrested for disorderly conduct. Me and the kid are charged with assault.  Mary wants to charge me with trespassing, but Steve won’t back her up. My kid doesn’t either. Mary agrees to drop the assault charge against me if I drop the assault charge against the kid. Mary wants me charged with trespassing, but Steve won’t back her up. The kid won’t either. We’re all released, and Mary ends up back in rehab.

.*  *  *

“When the cops dropped the assault charges, you agreed to attend at least three Alateen meetings,” Steve said. Aaron sat in the car seat like a corpse in rigor mortis. “If you get in trouble again with Virgil and they find out you welshed on you promise, it’ll mean jail time for sure.”

“If I talk about it, I’ll explode.” Aaron’s jaws are clenched so tightly, the words come out like a hiss.

“Better here than…, well, let’s just say, you won’t be the first, and nobody’s going to be too surprised.” Steve patted Aaron on the shoulder. As though pricked by a pin, Aaron began to deflate. Before he could start crying, Steve got out and opened the car door. “Come on, I’ll walk you in.”

.*  *  *

I got my one-month red sobriety chip today. Once, five or six years ago, I even got a three-month green chip. I’m thinking about going for a bronze this time.

Last week I’m up on the roof of the trailer I bought after I lost my south-side apartment. I’ve been fixing it up, and I was putting on a new coat of silver metallic paint when my kid shows up. I tell him I can’t come down, because I have to do the whole roof down to the drip line all at once. I wonder if he thinks I’m afraid to come down in case he wants to beat me up; maybe he’s been practicing karate for the last month. But then he asks if he can help, applying this kind of paint on metal might be something useful for him to learn, since he’s studying airplane maintenance. I say sure, and he does a good job helping me.

After we finish, I ask him if he’d like something to drink. He looks at me real funny, then I tell him I have lemonade. We talk for a while. He says he’s worried about his mom, who’s still in rehab. Her doctors found scarring on her liver, but there’s still enough good tissue left to keep her going, if she stops drinking. I tell him to keep his chin up, even though I don’t think Mary has hit bottom yet, but I keep that to myself.

Before he leaves, he pulls a paper bag off the front seat of the pickup and hands it to me, saying he’s trying to make amends. It’s the seat to a 1939 Indian Chief, practically mint condition. It must’ve cost him. I don’t want to tell him it won’t fit my ’34, but I had a pretty good idea where I could trade it for something else I need. I thank him, and we shake goodbye.

My son drives away having made amends to me, but I can’t fix what I’ve broken in his life. A pint of Jack could really ease my hurt, but I know I deserve to suffer.

 

 

 

Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine.

Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published seventy works of fiction in the Sandscript, OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), The Legendary, Widespread Fear of Monkeys, Hobo Pancakes, Twisted Dreams, Long Story Short, The Lorelei Signal, Silver Blade, Thick Jam, Copperfield Review, Fabula Argentea, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Defenestration, Mobius, Grim Corps, Coming Around Again Anthology, Former People, Thrice, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Black Market Lit, Paragraph Line, Subtopian Magazine, Pine+Basil, Festival Writer: Unpublishable, Fiction on the Web, Children, Churches and Daddies, Midnight Circus, Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Spank the Carp, Beechwood Review, Pear Drop, Marathon Review, Cyclamens and Swords, Short Break Fiction, Flash: International Short-Short Story Magazine, Slippery Elm Online, Story of the Month Club, Birds Piled Loosely, Zero Flash, Canyon Voices, Alebrijes, Rose Red Review, Yellow Chair Review, Serving House Journal, Funny in Five Hundred, Penny Shorts, The Thoughtful Dog, Front Porch Review and Minetta Review.