by John Vallen
Rated: E · Short Story · Drama · #1980912
Reflecting on an almost salient memory of mine.
| Henry sat swilling his whiskey, going on about something or another in a measured, pleading voice directed at his glass. Work, his confused baby-mama vacillating between being mama and being free—overwrought mascara or wedding ring, a working life or some other pert-breasted thing—his truck being broken, and on and on. It was always hard to tell what was worse, or whether he preferred to keep them ‘in perspective’—a denouement that kept his various miseries in check, neutering the possibility of change. He liked it that way, keeping the edges blurry, and a plug wire level with an occupied crib. He liked harmony, a general respect for the equality of things. I took a swig and rolled a cigarette, appreciative of the regular timbre of his remonstrance towards life, looking up at the trees lolling about in the twilight.|
“She just ain’t makin’ up her mind, and I got ten hour shifts, six days a week. Either she or my mama’s watchin’ the baby when I work, but when I’m home, she’s gone, off to Athens or God knows where,” Henry went on and on. I felt bad for the kid, thrust into a world full of half-eaten food on the floor and caught between two towns, ten miles apart.
It’s not much, ten miles, but it has to feel like eternity; life in a car seat irregularly dotted by soggy carpets in various pseudo-daycares, strange houses, and sometimes home. I wanted to help, but I was doing all that I could, listening to him go on and on, nodding and shaking my head on the downbeats of his monologue, against the sympathetic lolling of the trees. We had some kind of common time, a special nocturne playing out every few years when I visited. I knew that, after this evening bled into night and then to morning, Henry would wake up, put on his pants and go back to work, consoled by our time, and doing nothing to redress his evenly balanced woes—he fought hard for that balance.
“But how are you doin’, brother? I ain’t seen you for a good while, and I don’t wanna sit here talkin’ about myself all night,” he changed his tone as he changed his audience, looking to me as I pulled on the cigarette, “I know you’re goin’ to Europe soon—God, what a shock!—and Lord knows when I’ll see you again. So, how’s life?”
He was right; it had been a while. My habit was to excuse myself from our discussions, to nod and shake and dance along, but sometimes he remembered that I was there. Sometimes I felt like we were screaming at each other from across a ravine, bound by a taught rope of escaping memories; taught from the tension between reticence and ambition. Mounting the rope and inching across, I said,
“Well, it’s about how you describe it. I’m getting ready to go, making the proper arrangements and so on.”
“Well that’s good, I can’t imagine what Europe’s like,” he mentioned as he took another swill, cutting his eyes to some barren, pebbly dirt by the door.
“I’ve never been, actually, but I’m excited to see it—there’s so much there that we only have an idea of, without being there, really,” I try to be lighthearted without being enthusiastic. Henry has a phobia of foreign things, and I am abashed at breaking our present symphony.
Once, after dropping out of school and getting his GED, he joined the National Guard. In training, at some fort a little further Down South, he ended up throwing a guy through the second floor window of the barracks. I never really found out why, but his psych-evaluation found him to be unfit for Service. He was discharged, came home, and took to scavenging used metal from long forgotten plots of briars.
“Have you looked at better jobs? I know the factory is steady, but weren’t you going to get certified as a mechanic?” I try to change the subject, to restore our pleasant dissonance as the trees became more still in the dying sunlight.
“Well, I’d have to go down to Knoxville to get my certification, and even then, I’d only find a job in the city—there’s too many certified mechanics ‘round here,” he took a plug out of his breast pocket and tucked it into his lip, adjusting himself in the chair and looking up at the sunset.
Henry had a phobia of the City too. Once, my father took him across state lines to help pick up some car part or another. Henry promptly had a panic attack as the sky was scraped and a mass of people glared at him from the crosswalk. Seeing as they were already outside the window, he shrank back and closed it, preserving the smell of grease and cow-pies as they passed the intersection, in the hopes of green or even yellow pastures—I don’t know if it was Autumn or Spring at the time—on the other side of the City. Since then, he eschewed the possibility of being glared at impotently while being impotent himself; he stayed home.
“But you could have a career, you could earn enough to buy some land, settle and raise your kid. I know it’d be difficult for a while, but at least you’d have options,” I repeated the same script, one I had been spoon-fed for years that I had already taken to telling Henry every time we saw each other.
“It’ll work out, somehow,” he flashed me smile, and we clinked our glasses and took in the last crimson flash of the sun.