Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bitterroot: A Story Excerpt


Monday morning, Ben was up before dawn. He warmed up some of Traci’s coffee leftovers and sat out under Victor’s awning, listened to the morning wake up. The morning train lumbered by, after a fifteen minute shunt back and forth at the Basse crossing. Two buses crossed the intersection, one northbound on McCullough, the other westbound on Basse. Two or three sleepy passengers on each.

Ben took his mug of coffee and walked around the big Optimist diamond, then onto its derelict neighbor. Shaggy infield, empty advertising boards along the sagging outfield fence. Rickety bench in one dugout, none in the other. He sat down in a rusted folding chair behind home plate and looked off at the duplexes beyond center field. Blue television screen through the window of one. Next door, a woman in a nightgown walked to the curb and picked up the morning paper. Walked back and sat on the front stoop. A girl Vanessa’s age walked out on the porch, handed the woman a mug, and took the paper back inside. The woman sat on, crossed her legs, careful to the rearrange the gown over her knees. Ben was cold in his jacket, couldn’t fathom how the woman sat on in her gown.

Two doors down, a woman walked out with a child in her arms and two more spilling out into the yard. The woman was dressed in heels, a skirt, and a tailored jacket. The two older children were in play clothes, the babe in her arms still in red feet pajamas. She set the little one in the back seat and then spent a good five minutes corralling the others into the car. She had to run in her heels to nab the middle child, a rambunctious urchin intent on anything but an early morning car ride. Smacked him on his bottom, no force behind it, just one more harried mother with no time for such foolishness. The hair she’d pinned up to match her smart look had come down in wisps around her face.

An old man with a long stick came walking up the street from the east. Stout, tottering, surely out on doctor’s orders. Boozer’s red face, Ben imagined him circling the street back to a well-earned breakfast—shaking double shot jigger held over a big tumbler, shot dumped only after the jigger overflows with amber JB, splash of water, sit down to the blond fools on the morning news, interviews of suburban heroes and the latest cavity-stuffers for your Thanksgiving turkey.

Ben tossed his coffee dregs and walked the outfield fence line. Stumbled in a hole covered by tufted yellow grass, nicked his hand on the piece of fence he grabbed hold of. He looked across the fence line to the woman on her porch, but she was gone, just her mug on the top step.

From the outfield, he walked a block west to San Pedro and ordered two breakfast tacos at a twenty-four hour burger joint, wincing at the thought of Rose catching him at such pedestrian fare. No one behind the counter from last year’s six weeks at the lot, no surprise. Two chorizo and eggs, fired up with tolerable hot sauce, but what would he know?

Pink stripes in the east back at the lot, Ben walked carefully through the standing trees as if eyeing paintings in a gallery. He skipped the Scotch pines and lingered among the firs—Douglas, Fraser, and Noble—feeling the needles with both hands, stroking them like giant sprigs of rosemary. He circled the candidates three times, before coming back to a towering Noble fir; Clay had it marked for a hundred and seventy-five. Ben hefted it over to the trailer and tied a “sold” tag on it.

Mr. Hildebrand pulled up in his gray Cadillac at eight-thirty. Tall thin man, dressed like the English professor he once was—navy slacks, blue Oxford shirt, bow tie, camel hair sport coat. Snappy from a distance, but up close it’s a threadbare look. More tremor in the handshake than last year.

“How you been, Ben?” he said, in a languid Virginia accent.

“Fine, Mr. Hildebrand,” said Ben. “I’ve got your tree right here. Just picked it out this morning.”

“Good value, I hope. The goose is not quite so fat anymore, you know.”

The goose had been lean for four years now. Dan Hildebrand’s patronage of the lot ran back long before Clay took over from the bumbling Optimists. Every year, the same ritual: eight-thirty the Monday morning before Thanksgiving, biggest tree on the lot, money no object, big tips all round. Only things changed four years ago. Same time, same cheery bravado, only this time with whispers on the side. A bit of a downturn this year, Ben. Maybe something on your lower end. That first year of the downturn, his face was unshaven, eyes were bloodshot, food stain on his blue shirt. Tears in his eyes when Ben asked after Mrs. Hildebrand. Passed away in October. No, no, it’s okay—how would you know? Thus began the new tradition after Ellen Hildebrand’s death. Ben found the finest Noble fir on the lot, the choice Dan Hildebrand had always made, tied it to the roof of the Cadillac, charged him fifteen dollars for it, declined any attempts at tips, lied that no tips were accepted anymore. That thing, Dan? One of our throwaways. Great budget tree—looks like a Noble at a fraction of the price. No one else on the lot, he could say whatever he needed to. Just to keep things square with Clay, he threw in the difference from tips and his first pay.

Another tradition those first Mondays. The crew showed up at nine, just in time to take over for Ben as he climbed into the Caddy and drove the half mile to Dan’s house on Mandalay. Nice imposing two story limestone from the outside, but a shambles on the inside. Ellen, twenty years his junior, had died of cancer. After it devoured all of her health benefits, the Hildebrands had spent every cent they could get their hands on—all of Dan’s retirement money, and anything they could get for a house full of antiques and family heirlooms. Still not enough, and more wouldn’t have saved her. She died one morning sleeping in her bed on the second floor screened in porch. Mercifully at peace, said Dan. The university sent flowers and condolences, put up a plaque in the chapel, turned out at the memorial service, but maneuvered past all Dan’s requests to take up teaching again, just to try to make ends meet. Forty year history with the place, ex-chair of the department, half a dozen times honored as University Professor, but not a word in response. The English Romantic poets wanted a sexy boy from Harvard these days, not some stodgy old retiree with stains on his bib. A lamentable request best left unacknowledged—save face for the old boy. The first Christmas after Ellen’s death, a foxy forty-year-old frosted blonde in red cashmere from University Development dropped by, sat down in the remaining sticks of furniture in the living room, declined tea before it was offered, knows for a fact that as a devoted friend of the university Dan would want to make a sizeable contribution to the building drive, she would be happy to accept his check for ten thousand dollars…

The spacious living room Ben walked into that first time was cold and musty, dark from all its curtains still drawn. It looked as if Dan lived in the room—clothes and towels on a card table, unwashed dishes beside an overstuffed chair, stacks of books and magazines on the floor as well. Through the kitchen door, Ben could see piles of unwashed dishes.

He opened the curtains on the big front windows and set the tree up in front of them. Picked up the dishes on the floor near Dan’s big chair and said, “Have a seat, Dan. How about something hot to drink?” Walked into the kitchen, put some hot water on for tea. Found an old tea pot on a top shelf, took it down and washed the dust off, inside and out. Tea cups, sugar bowl, creamer, all rummaged from the shelves and washed. Set them all on a painted wooden tray from Bavaria. Dan was dozing in his chair when Ben walked back into the living room. He set the tray down on the table and turned on a small clock radio, tuning it to the classical station, thankfully no martial sturm und drang, just quiet cello adagios. He left that to fill the room and went back to the kitchen, an hour to clean it up, put everything back in its place. While Dan dozed on, he picked up the living room, did what he could to bring some order to the room. In the corner, he found three boxes full of Christmas decorations. He set those down in front of the tree, refilled the tea pot with a fresh round and sat down on the sofa with a cup. An oil portrait of a woman with auburn hair and radiant porcelain skin hung on a wall in the foyer. Her hair was up and the painting was very much in the manner of Manet—rich oil, lush texture, dark tones. The woman was in an elegant black dress worn off her shoulders. A quiet face, the painter had captured something inward about the woman’s eyes. Ben assumed without ever asking that the woman was Ellen. On a glass table beneath the painting, a white votive candle burned.

Ben sat on in the room until Dan woke shortly before noon. Demurred to the unnecessary apologies, said he was happy to sit on in the morning quiet. Asked if Dan would like him to help decorate the tree, and then spent the next hour doing so, the two of them like an old couple cooing about this and that ornament around the tree. When they were done, Dan pronounced it quite lovely, then did not take no for an answer and went into the kitchen to rustle up some lunch. Ben sat in the breakfast nook while Dan prepared grilled cheese sandwiches with sliced tomato. Added some chips to their plates and then poured two glasses of old port wine.

Ben declined the offer of a ride back to the lot, said that the walk back would do him good. Dan tried to press money on him for all his help, but Ben declined that as well. He finally accepted a bottle of the same port. Ben extended his hand at the front door, but Dan pulled him close into an embrace, held on and wept. Ben promised to check back in during the six weeks he would be in town and several times he did, but Dan never came to the door.

Thus did the ritual of the throwaway tree continue through the years, complete with the tea, cleanup, tree decorating, grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, and departing gift of port. Always the intimacy of the hug at the door, but never more, never any talk of the losses both men had borne. And despite the yearly promises to visit again, the door on Mandalay was never opened after the ritual Monday mornings.

Ben usually saved the port for Thanksgiving, a day he invariably slept in late. He’d declined the invitations of both Victor and Jacinto to their family gatherings, preferring his own lazy puttering. He woke around one in the afternoon to the hush of the neighborhood. Featherclouded sky outside his window, cold enough for a sweater, nothing more. He poured himself a mug of port and sat under the awning; left the trailer door open, listened to a tape Brooke had made him—Baez, Dylan, Van Morrison, Waterboys, Greg Brown, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Alison Krauss. What a sweetheart the little Goth was. Tears came to his eyes as Alison sang an old Dan Fogelberg tune—Stars fall every time a lover has to face the truth / And far too many stars have fell on me.

Late in the afternoon, he walked down to the corner store on San Pedro. A chill had set in, but nothing the port couldn’t handle. He bought a packaged turkey sandwich, a big bag of potato chips, and a few bars of chocolate. At the outside phone, he called Melanie’s number.

Brooke answered: “Hey, Dad.”

“How’d you know it was me?”

“Hey, Rip—wake up to the technology. Caller ID. Who else is gonna call from Texas?”

“The tape is great. Thanks.”

“You get all misty on that Fogelberg?”

He misted up again. Took a moment to reply.

“Sorry,” she said. “I knew you would. You’re such a sap.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“Touché. You wanna talk to the little man?”

“Please.” The phone shuffled on the other end.

“Hey, Daddy. You eat your turkey sandwich?”

“Got it right here.”

“Barney’s a vegetarian.”

“I doubt that. I think he eats all the kids when they get too old for the show.”

“Dad! That’s disgusting.”

“The truth hurts, little man.”

“Not yours, Dad. Your truth is just goofy. You wanna talk to Mom?”

“No, that’s—”

Melanie came on. “Hello.” Death grip in the voice.

“Hello, Mel. Kids giving you a break?”

“Hardly. Van’s out of his mind—daddy this and daddy that—and Brooke’s her usual pain in the ass. And Nessa’s over at LaMotte’s.”

“You’d think she’d want a break from all that mess for the holidays.”

“That what you tell yourself, Ben? Your annual bail out—”

“Melanie, —”

“Here, talk to Brooke—”

“Sorry, Dad.”

Fuck telling him you’re sorry, in the background. A door slammed.

“Forget it. I’m sorry to stir it all up.”

“It’s okay. She was actually pretty good until you called. We did Picadilly’s for lunch, Van was on his best behavior. We got home and decorated the house in preparation for the tree tomorrow. We were playing crazy eights when you called—Mom was laughing at all of Van’s crazy rules.”

Not crazy!, from the background.

“It’s a bad time to call.”

“Nonsense. You’re as entitled to call as Mom is to her moods. Don’t play your little guilty trump card. I love you.”

“I love you, too, B. And thanks again for the tape.”

“Just what exactly is this annual holiday exile all about anyway?”

Brooke was fourteen. He’d actually been expecting this question since she was eleven. He knew she’d been giving him three years worth of slack.

Too many beats before he tried to answer. She bailed him out again, as was her wont.

“Oops. Too much trytophan. Bad time for self-reflection. Don’t get all weepy on me, old man.”

“Too late,” he said, gulping and trying to laugh through it.

“Dad, I love you. Enjoy the tape. And call anytime. Hurricane Melanie’s nothing we can’t handle. Here’s baby.”

“Dad, who’s your favorite Sesame Street? Mine’s Super Grover.”

“Cookie Monster. He’s a true gourmet.”

“He is not. He’s a pig. Just like you, Dad.”

“That I am, Mr. Baby. That I am.”

“I love you, Dad. Bye.”

Off before the pig could say the same in return.

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8 Comments:

Blogger anno said...

Wow, paschal, this one is a beauty, a real love story that somehow perfectly balances desolation and loss with tenderness, generosity, and honor. Hope you don't mind if I just sit here for awhile and enjoy the mood.

7:33 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

anno: By all means.

10:34 PM  
Blogger present said...

Paschal,
I really enjoyed this. There is so much here! I'm touched by your descriptions of the simple and ordinary as well as the extraordinary details of Ben and his life.

12:13 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Thank you, present. This one came pouring through a few years ago, inspired by my early morning bus trips to work. Christmastime that year was dark dark - cold dark. My route went right past the site of the lot, which also happened to be the neighborhood I spent my early years in. It was an odd sort of time traveling, in the cocoon of a half-lit bus.

8:44 AM  
Blogger alister said...

That is really, really, really good. I enjoyed it so much. I was in the Bitterroot world super-deep the whole yellow way. I like when you write that way, like Galilee. That way affects me like a Chimayo cocktail and I hear my body saying, “You’re not going anywhere.” But life goes on, tears me away, and I wake up somewhere else. And that always saddens me.

11:38 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Duchess: I like when I write this way, too. It's nearing time to go spelunking for more of these stories and characters. It may be part of next summer's project. I've been reading lots of stories from the archives: found an "untitled" one, the file was named "Angry Man," with (uncharacteristically) notes for future development. TomWaitsian, Bukowskian territory: the notes were bizarre, even for me: seems I was wanting to work Charles Fourier and Thomas Jefferson's dark side into a contemporary Tres Leches setting. Of course, it's gonna take some feminine influence to turn them towards Galilee, from the looks of the opening salvos.

Glad you enjoyed the read, my sister.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Maria said...

i´m visiting your blog and, after realizing i know absolutely nothing about jazz, found this story.
it's moving, and the details are so finely sketched: the loneliness of suburbia, and amidst it all, the nobleness of humans, the generosity, as someone else posted. beautil story, it reminds me of ethan frome.

4:53 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Maria: Thank you very much for spending time in the "Bitterroots." It was a good group of people to spend some imaginative days with.

6:07 PM  

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