Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Winnebago Song 

 

 

It’s two a.m. and I’m alone in my ripped-up kitchen. I got up for my nagging bladder’s sake. Vicky’s burrowed underneath the blankets. I stand in front of the refrigerator staring at its offerings – tuna fish, low-fat milk. I feel like I woke the cheese up, like it’s rubbing its eyes and saying, “What’s happening, man?”

The kitchen’s ripped up because Mark, my son, is dead. With his big, rough hands, last summer, he helped me pull my old cupboards down. The new cupboards are still in cartons in the garage. Cans of Campbell soup, Triscuit crackers, a box of Domino brown sugar – everything you keep in cupboards sits in boxes elsewhere in the house.

Vicky and I live like refugees. There’s just an outline on the kitchen walls, a sketch that shows where the new cupboards ought to be. Behind the sketch the plaster’s scabby.

I keep telling Vicky I’ll soon go to work. The cabinets for the dinner plates will have doors of leaded glass. For the rest, natural hardwood. Helping me was going to be rehab for poor Mark. When I told Vicky I’d replace the cabinets she said, “Great.” When I told her Mark would help her response was, “Oh shit. Your son. He always smells like mushroom soup.” She also said he slept too much and then ticked off the recent jobs he’d lost; his roofing job in 2003 and his bartender job later that same year. In 2004 he was a diner cook until he quit.

The refrigerator’s strawberries have soft spots. The tuna is crusted over.

Nothing’s perfect. Nothing’s ever perfect in this world. I jab my finger in the tuna. It’s okay underneath. I scoop and lick. Delicious.

Mark’s plunge was like the fall of Icarus. It entertained five watchers. I know this from the accident report. A retired man named Allen Rank who’d taught chemistry for 40 years at Belmont High; a post office worker, Todd Stapleton, shifting his weighty bag on his sore shoulder; a nine-year-old named Stewart and his friend Vince, also nine, gawking from their stopped bicycles; and a woman named Miranda Welch, about 45 or 50, who was canvassing the neighborhood, clipboard in hand, collecting signatures on a petition for speed-limit enforcement on our section of the Parkway.

Down from the oak came my blond Mark, his tee-shirt from a concert tour by AC- DC rippling up to his linebacker shoulders. No time to gasp. No time to scream. The whisper from the parting of the leaves, and then the splat his body made. Popped the buttons on his cut-off jeans—the indignity of exposure added to the tragedy of death.

Nine-year-old Stewart remarked on that to a TV reporter. Vince, his friend, was dumbstruck by the glory of being on the news.

All of which I’ve told to Mark when his baffling visits occur. He rode with me Saturday to the hazardous-waste collection site. I was driving there with turpentine. I saw him last Thursday walking past our hedge, eyes fixed like he was in a rush to reach some goal I couldn’t see. On the sixth day after he had died, on a Monday in July, the oddest sighting of all, I saw him entering a men’s room at the terminal in Omaha. I’d flown west because my mother couldn’t turn her weeping spigots off. She’d known the Mark a grandparent would love, the all-boy, squeaky, blond and blue-eyed tyke. She never saw his eyes so glazed they looked like jellied canapés.

Closing the refrigerator door I turn and there’s Mark. He’s wearing the same clothes he died in, the cut-offs, the T-shirt. He’s hunkered down to take a gander at the work we meant to do, appraising it with his mouth pursed, like someone giving thought to where we should begin. He’s balanced on the front part of his feet, the toes creased on his yellow boots. He’s letting his right hand rest on his mastodon knee. In this light he looks more bald than he actually was. I’m sure if he knew I was staring he’d sweep his hand across his head, embarrassed. He was very sensitive about the thinning of his hair.

His funeral cost fifty-two hundred. None of his low-life friends came. Thank God for that. Graham came, his foreman on the crew of tree-trimmers, the guy who gave him his last job. Besides Graham a slight Hispanic guy came, part of the tree of death team.

My brother and his wife, Case and Miriam, showed up. All this was at calling hours. Michaelsen, the funeral director, had convinced us an open casket would be fine. He said he could brace Mark’s head so it didn’t look like it was coming loose. They had shaved his beard, which seemed to me odd but Michaelson explained the flesh pulls back once fluids drain so a beard jumps out and looks unnatural. Two of the waitresses from the diner where Mark cooked last winter came. I thought they’d cry but it turned out it was that Hispanic guy who cried, a slender, short man with hair in hanks, one hank overhanging his right eye. I patted his shoulder a little. Everything he said was in Spanish, so I didn’t understand. But it was nice to get this human feeling, like somebody was sorry besides me and, a little bit, Vicky. Mark wasn’t hers, so she could speak of sorrow while she looked for lint on her burgundy suit.

“How much?” Case said before he and Miriam drove back to Connecticut.

I told him the funeral cost three thousand because if I told him the truth he’d tell me I got taken. When I tell him three thousand he says, “That include the coffin?”

“The works,” I tell him.

He shoots his eyebrows up. That means he’s impressed. Then I kiss Miriam, he kisses Vicky, he and I shake hands, and as we do he says, “Tough.”

“Thanks,” I say.

That’s it. They’re off. “Where does she get her coats?” Vicky says, watching their Buick pause at the turn. Miriam’s coat was faux leopard. I’m standing outside our house and I’m crying like the Hispanic guy. Vicky doesn’t see. She watches the Buick out of sight, then she hunches up her shoulders and she’s back in the house. The wake is over.

The funeral is over. The burial is over. Everything is over and I’m thinking of the inside of the coffin. “Fifty-two hundred,” I tell my dead son, just in case he heard me lie to my brother. Quick as a flash, Mark’s passing in a car. He’s in the back. Someone’s joke has made him laugh his wild, no-holds-barred, bounce-the-belly laugh. His handsome head is tilted back so all the energy of his unhindered laugh gets added to the atmosphere in which we crawl and climb and twist and leap and saunter.

I know the mailman’s name is Stapleton, but I didn’t know where to find him until I started hanging around the killer tree. He made his rounds, of course, the same rounds as on splat day. I told him I was Mark’s father, and when he looked blank about who Mark was I nodded toward the oak. This is a neighborhood where people bring in Guatemalan landscape crews to blow away their leaves. Over their noise, Stapleton is saying the appropriate things – “Oh, jeez, I’m sorry.” etc.

I ask if he has kids himself.

He says two.

“A boy and a girl?”

“No, two girls.”

I didn’t want to tell him, “You’re lucky. Girls don’t climb trees,” but that’s what I was thinking. He might have been thinking it, too, because we spent a second or two staring at the tree with its leaves now bronzed up because this was November.

“It’s going to lose all its leaves soon,” I say.

Stapleton says, “Yup.”

“I should get a chainsaw.”

He laughs at the idea of a grieved father going after a tree, but then he thinks better of laughing and puts on his sober face. “See you,” he says, and without waiting for my response he starts away. I should have asked him how old he was. My guess is he is 36, the same age Mark would be. In some ways he reminds me of Mark. He isn’t blond and he isn’t bearded, but from the back he has the bulky kind of look Mark had, and his walk is sort of shambling, also much like Mark.

I tell Vicky I talked to the mailman and she says, “Don’t bother people.” She knows right away what mailman I meant.

“I thought you took a course in grief,” I say. We’re sitting in the kitchen having dinner. The dining room’s for special guests. Plus we buried its fancy table under kitchen stuff, so we take our meals in front of the phantom cupboards.

“It was in crisis management,” Vicky says. We got married ten years ago, after we’d met at the Cambridge Adult Education Center. She was signing up for a class I thought was grief but which she now says was crisis management. I was finishing a songwriting class. She dropped in when I was singing the only country-western song I’ve ever written: I’m Behind a Winnebago on the Highway of Life. Thank goodness she laughed. What good it did a middle-aged widower to see a fresh-looking blonde laughing at his comic song. The fresh-looking part didn’t hold up on closer inspection. I’m not trying to be cruel here. It turned out I’m Vicky’s third husband, but I think I’ll be the last. We’ve settled down to snarling at each other in a truly affectionate way. “You needed crisis management,” I say. “You’d just met me.”

She doesn’t laugh. She speaks somberly. “He never met his potential. That’s what saddens me.” This is her way of saying Mark was fried half the time.

“He could have written cowboy songs,” I say.

I drive past Mark’s diner four or five times before I work up the nerve to go in.

The diner’s on Mount Auburn Street, and it juts out from the building it’s attached to like a tumor. When I drive by the last time I’m singing my country-western song. The lyrics are about the singer’s horrible children and his harridan wife. They’re the reason he’s behind the Winnebago.

The diner’s not crowded, but I had planned it that way. I’ve come at a time between lunch and dinner. It’s 4 p.m. when I open the door and get that embrace of warmth and fragrance a good diner can supply. The smell is partly frying onions and partly Lysol, so maybe fragrance isn’t the right word. There’s a counter down one side with stationary stools, each on a pedestal of steel with a padded vinyl seat. There’s booths on the window side. There’s even a display board in back of the counter with the day’s specials. The board’s frame has the Coca-Cola logo. Inserting letters to spell out the evening offerings is one of the waitresses who came to the funeral. Not the pretty one, although that’s not to say she isn’t attractive. She’s faked up her hair with a purple dye and she’s a bit too plump for the pretty category. Plumpness becomes some people, though. Her arms are shapely, and she retains a waist. One of the body’s innocent places, that little square behind the knee, stretches when she reaches with a letter.

I don’t know her name, which I’m sorry about, but when I take a seat on a diner stool and announce, “I’m Mark’s father,” she turns rather suddenly and I read a nametag that says Justine. She must be French-Canadian. She has that pale skin, and her eyes are dark. No visible piercings, fortunately. That’s something I expect with purple hair.

She’d been standing on a kitchen riser to reach the menu board. Before she speaks she steps down. Her look of surprise has changed. By the time she’s standing across from me a conventional look of sorrow rules her face.

“We felt so bad,” she says.

“I wanted to thank you for attending the service. That’s why I dropped by.”

Justine has to study me to see if this is true. I could be giving her a line. It’s not like the service was yesterday. I guess she’s made up her mind in my favor because after a second she leans on the counter so she can pat my folded hands. “Mark was so nice,” she says. “Always joking. Everybody liked him.”

She has some sort of musky fragrance. It might be marijuana. I’m no expert. Mark would know. “That’s good to hear,” I tell her. “He didn’t have a lot of friends.”

“He did here,” she says.

Friends with weed. This is something I don’t say.

Justine shouts, “Hey, Loretta,” toward an open door that must lead to a storeroom.

Out of its dark comes the other funeral guest, whose name I have just learned. She’s carrying a can of crushed tomatoes, industrial size, and she is very much pregnant. She hadn’t looked pregnant when she came to the funeral but that was—here my mind starts racing—four months ago. And when did Mark work here? He worked here last winter. He worked into spring. He quit because a guy he knew was going to get him a job in music promotion, i.e., handing out flyers. Mark called it promotion to keep from calling it hustling. I used to pretend I didn’t know the difference. I did that for my son’s sake. I’m remembering this and trying not to be too obvious about eyeing the swelling under Loretta’s black skirt.

Loretta is the slighter of the restaurant pair. Unlike Justine, she hasn’t tarted-up her hair. Except for that, and bosom dimensions, they might be cousins. Both have those dark eyebrows you could trim with a lawn mower. Not to say that’s detrimental. Those eyebrows can be quite expressive.

I go through a more formal introduction with Loretta than I did with Justine. She shifts her super-sized can of crushed tomatoes to her hip so she can extend her right hand. “Mr. Clark,” she says. “We really miss him here.”

“Hammond,” I say. “Call me Hammond, please. I was telling Justine I just dropped by to say thanks for attending the funeral. My wife appreciated it. She’s not Mark’s mother but I guess you can imagine how she felt. I felt the same. It was like we’d lost part of ourselves, so it was good of you to come. It kind of tells us that Mark is remembered.”

“Well, he’s sure remembered here,” Justine says. She’s the snappier of the two. Is what she says a joke meant to draw attention to Loretta’s swelling belly? That’s the impression I get.

“I saw him last night,” I say to the women. I feel like I owe this to Loretta. Whose child is she carrying, anyway? Naturally, they’re shocked. I hurry to explain. “Our whole kitchen’s torn up. The cupboards. Mark was going to help.”

Justine remains drawn back. She looks flabbergasted. Loretta, calmer, will not retreat, though she’s puzzled. She shifts the can back to its original position, in front of her. She’s eyeing me closely when she says, “Did he speak?”

“No,” I say.

“Are you sure it was him?”

“I know my own son.”

“He’s dead and all that.”

“I’m not saying he isn’t. I’m just saying he really hated promising to help me with the cabinets and then not being able to do it.”

Both their eyebrows now, those Groucho-moustache eyebrows, are pulled together in deep thought. I’m studied for the space of maybe half a breath, then Loretta turns to face Justine. She says, “After my father died, for maybe a year, my mother said she kept hearing his voice.”

Justine slowly nods. “That happens,” she says.

Loretta turns a sadder face to me. “A friend of mine woke up once in the middle of the night and saw his mother at the foot of his bed. I mean, like, his mother was supposed to be a thousand miles away, in Minnesota or someplace like that. But she’s standing there and she’s telling him not to worry; she’ll be all right. He gets a call the next morning that she died in the night. But he still swears she was there and he saw her.”

Ah, Minnesota. Let us praise the Gopher State. Let us ponder the bounty of its prairies. An apparition come to comfort. That’s what’s key here. A mother worried that her son might feel guilty. He didn’t call. He didn’t write. He forgot her birthday. How all-American. “Don’t worry, son. I’ll be just fine. I bear no grudges.”

“Mark told me he’d be fine,” I say. 

“You said he didn’t talk,” Justine says.

“Not in words,” I tell her.

This introduces uncertainty. The women edge back, thinking of polite ways to break off when, fortunately for them, the door opens and a young guy rushes in. He’s rubbing his hands and saying, “It’s freezing out there.”

“Shank,” Justine says in greeting.

“You’re late,” Loretta tells him.

Shank is squirreling himself behind the counter, heading for the storeroom that must double as a coat room. He’s peeling off his jacket as he goes. He’s dark haired like the girls, and pale like they are. It makes me wonder if a family runs this place. “Florida,” he’s muttering as he goes shooting by. “Costa Rica. Mexico. Any place but here.”

Next I’m out in the gathering darkness. Goodbyes inside were hasty. I’m feeling the cold, but it’s only a nip. It isn’t the drastic cold of Shank’s imagination. The car’s two blocks off and once I reach it I’m far enough away from overhead lights to look up and see the sky. No stars. Just a bumpy blanket of clouds that covers half the continent. I don’t need stars. I feel like I have a grandson coming. I can see his shape in the clouds, a full-formed fetus shape, still coiled in the uterus but aware. Oh, so aware.

“It’s not his baby,” Vicky says when I get home.

“You don’t know what I know,” I say. We’re getting ready for bed in the upstairs of our house, away from the wreck of the kitchen. The bedroom’s at one end of the hall. The bathroom’s at the other, near the stairs. I’m back and forth to keep the conversation going because I’m doing my tooth duties and Vicky’s in the bedroom doing stretches.

“She would have said something. Did she say it was his? Did the other one say it?” Vicky’s asking.

“Why would they say it? Why wouldn’t they just assume I knew?”

“There’s ways to ask, Ham. Polite ways.”

I’ve got my toothbrush in my mouth. I take it out to answer. “Let’s look at this logically,” I say to Vicky. I stick the toothbrush back in. I know I’ll be doing this a lot. It makes for a disjointed conversation. Two teeth get scrubbed and then I say, “They don’t want me to bring this subject up first of all because it’s embarrassing and second of all because then there’s the question of child support. Silence on both sides does not mean the facts aren’t facts. The reason there’s silence is shyness. Shyness plus privacy. You don’t barge in on people’s private lives. ‘Hey!’ (Here I’m pretending I’m with Loretta and pointing at her belly) ‘Hey! Who knocked you up? My son?’”

Vicky’s on her back doing leg lifts. She’s got a strap around her instep. The lifts strengthen the biceps femoris. “What about child support?” she says.

I take out my toothbrush and say, “What do you mean ‘what about?’ What’s that supposed to mean? Are you suggesting there’s no responsibility? Would Mark say that if Mark was here?”

Vicky lowers her leg and boosts herself up on her elbows so she can lie facing me. “If she gets wind of what you’re thinking she might get ideas,” she says. “When there’s money in the mix it’s always different than before. I’m not saying what she’d do. I’m saying what she might do. That’s what you have to think about.”

I walk all the way back to the bathroom to spit before I return with my answer. “If there is responsibility here, I’m going to meet it. I’m not going to shirk it, Vicky.”

Vicky remains in her propped up position a long time, staying very still, her eyes on me. She says at last, “I’ll go ask her.”

“No you won’t,” I tell her.

She says she will, and she rolls on her side to get up. After that, she won’t talk more, although I am still at her about responsibility. I am at her about discretion. I am bringing up all the common sense things which anybody would bring up in this type of a discussion, but Vicky stays clammed up. She only speaks when we’re in bed and she’s turned out her little goose-neck reading lamp. “You can’t bring him back, Hammond.”

In the night, I get up. I find my guitar. It’s down in the mess in the basement.

Then I’m in the living room, with the Campbell soup and the Domino brown sugar, not playing my guitar. Playing it would bother Vicky. She doesn’t like to have a husband who goes on and on about his dead son. Proportion in all things. That’s what we look for. Even in our grief. Though I once knew a widow wild with despair. Her hair electric. Her clothes awry. On her face a look of so much anguish people had to turn away. She was asking things of them they couldn’t give. I air-play my guitar for her. I play I’m Behind a Winnebago on the Highway of Life, a special tune just for the lamentation widow, still buttonholing strangers to say how bad it hurts.

Next afternoon the phone rings. It’s Vicky. I hear unfamiliar noises and I say, “Vick, you’re not at work?”

“There’s someone here who wants to talk to you,” she says.

Some murmured background talk, and then this sweet, piping voice comes on the line. “Mr. Clark?” I know who it is but she tells me anyway. “This is Loretta. This baby isn’t Mark’s. I’m sorry if there was some confusion. Mark was a nice guy but we were just barely friends. I’ve got another boyfriend. Gavin. We’re getting married.”

Vicky takes the phone again. Two words. “Case closed.”

I retired two years ago when Raytheon offered buyouts. The package they offered wasn’t everything I wanted and I dickered till I almost lost it, but I made it just under the wire. I still consult, although my edge in that is getting dull. Not that I’m worried. We planned for all this. What I wanted was a chance to ski some more. Maybe get out on the water. Buy a second-hand boat. Those are things I’d still like to do. When I consult at the office I tell the other guys about retirement. I say how great it is. I recognize, when I’m with them, I can’t blubber about Mark. It embarrasses people. With the guys I talk the Red Sox. I talk the Celtics. One guy, Eddie Lomax, actually knows of a little cabin cruiser I might be interested in. His brother-in-law is getting rid of it. Eddie wants me to go look and of course I say I will.

I mention this to show my life is normal. I’m not someone who imploded because his son dropped from a tree. I go look up Miranda, the lady with the clipboard, the self-appointed traffic warden. Miranda is another witness to the fall. I tell her she shouldn’t pay so much attention to the Parkway’s speed. She should pay attention to trees. People fall out of trees. It happens all the time. “It might be happening right now,” I say, and I point to bare trees on her street. “That’s one to watch. That one, too,” I say. I don’t leave Amanda’s stoop until the cops come. When I’d asked her if she heard my son go splat she’d gone inside. “Come on, buddy,” the cops say. They walk me to my car.

I tell Vicky and she says she’s going to leave. A week goes by before I fold. Repentance kicks in. I agree to see a therapist. I drive to Harvard Square, where I struggle to find parking. In a warm office above a children’s book store, a woman plies me with the jargon of her trade. I nod. “Yup… Yup.”

We get, on March 16th, our last good snow. This is a day when I should see my therapist. I call her and say, “It’s snowing too hard. I can’t come.” I could go if I wanted, but I have other things to do. I bring my old guitar up from the basement. Vicky is napping. In the dining room, I sit and play the Winnebago song.

“I’m behind a Winnebago on the highway…”

I remember all the words. I feel proud. I’m swinging into the second chorus when Mark steps out of the kitchen in a blaze of light. My son in his concert tee-shirt and his fall-out-of-a-tree short pants. He’s grinning like he’s high, but he isn’t high. I’m sure of that. “Come,” he says. He beckons me into the light. His grin becomes more gentle. Again, he tells me, “Come.”

 

 

Robert Kinerk grew up on an island in Alaska, subsequently lived on an island in Maine, and has made his home for the last nineteen years in Cambridge, MA. He has drawn on each community for fictional materials. ‘The Winnebago Song’ draws on his experience in Cambridge. He is the father of a writer, the brother of a writer, and he hopes his granddaughter will grow up to paint beautiful, magnificent pictures.