by William Michaelian

When I was a kid, my old man used every trick’n the book t’try t’get by — anything, so’s we’d have food to eat’n clothes to wear. But the first time I ever got a brand new pair’a shoes was when my mom’s mom come down from Yakima and took me and my sister to Sears. She told us we could pick out any pair we wanted — long as it was somethin’ that could take the rain’n not fall apart’n two weeks. . . . I was eleven years old then. Kate, she was nine. However long it took for the shoes to wear out, I don’t remember. But after that it was back to the charity shops. . . . Only once did we have to live in our car. That lasted ’bout a month. First night’r two, it was kind’a fun. But when my mother started askin’ people for change in the Safeway parking lot, we had second thoughts. . . . It was right before Thanksgivin’. My dad, he was out lookin’ for work. He’d rake leaves, or clean gutters, or help pick up at construction sites. Least those was the jobs Mom told us about. One time in school, some kid asked me what my dad did. I told him he was a crackerjack carpenter, and right away the son of a bitch started laughin’ his head off. I beat the holy hell out’a him. Course, there’s lots’a memories like that. . . . The old man drank some, I know that for sure. Drank, and smoked his Camels. Way it is nowadays, they always preach at you — don’t smoke, it’s bad for your health. Don’t drink. Don’t have sex, or whatever. Don’t live, in other words. But y’know what? They can all go t’hell. The year I met Carolyn, at the Merlo box factory up in Portland, I worked graveyard over there. And everybody was so full’a beer half the time we couldn’t even see straight. That was the best job I ever had. The bosses was home in bed, and the foreman we had, old Nate, was just like one more’a the boys. You could be drunk as a damn skunk — he didn’t care, long as you got your work done. That was always Nate’s philosophy. In the mornin’, though, when our shift clocked off, the day-people had a whole other game to play. They’d march in like they was in the army — scared to death they was gonna do somethin’ wrong. Made me ill, just lookin’ at ’em. Shit — no way in hell could I face what they had to face. Not sober, anyhow. Three big fat I-talian guys owned the place. Brothers. Full’a themselves, like they owned the world, breathin’ down your neck. Carolyn — she answered the phone over there — said the oldest brother thought he was a real ladies’ man. Even tried to chase her around the office a couple’a times. Well, that pissed me off t’no end. I told her, if you want, I’ll turn that greasy bastard into a soprano. The two of us’d already gone out a few times, so she knew me well enough t’know I wasn’t kiddin’. . . . Actually, wasn’t long after that we got married. Talk about a body on that woman. That wop had good taste — you can’t take that away from him. She was blonde and on the husky side, and looked so damn good in them jeans’a hers that it was all I could do to keep my hands off her. In fact, I didn’t — not for long, anyhow. Two of us’d go to the tavern, tie one on pretty good, then go up to her apartment for a romp in the hay. Sometimes, her sister Holly was in the other room. But we didn’t care. Hey, what the hell. It’s all family, right? . . . So, we got married, and pretty much kept up the same habits. Then I walked off the boxmaking job for no good reason. Which didn’t make Carolyn real happy. Early on, she had ideas of us gettin’ a house to live in, and me goin’ to one’a them colleges so I could get a better job. But like I told her, I wasn’t cut out for school in the first place, so what sense did it make for me t’go back? Made me queasy, just thinkin’ about it. Sittin’ in a room with a bunch’a smart-ass kids. I just wanted t’have fun, and live’n let live. Y’know what I mean? Give me a cold brew’n a night on the town any old day. . . . Anyhow. We argued about it. Then I latched onto a used lawn mower cheap, and started mowin’ lawns around town. But the damn thing was always breakin’ down, so it was hard t’keep yards steady. Then, Carolyn got laid off. They gave her job to one’a the wops’ kids. So she was on unemployment, and if I was makin’ fifty, sixty bucks a week, I felt lucky. Next thing we got behind in our rent, and got kicked out of the apartment we was stayin’ in. By that time Holly was livin’ with some guy, so we couldn’t move in with her. So, we packed up our junk and went down to Salem. . . . Carolyn’s mom lived down there. Worked for the State, doin’ somethin’ — typing or whatever. She was separated, so we lived with her for awhile. That woman had the biggest set of boobs I’ve ever seen, was what was funny. And she wasn’t shy about the fact, either. So, here I am, twenty-three years old, and tryin’ like the devil t’keep my eyes in my head and my hands where they belong. But then, Carolyn gets a waitress job workin’ evenings in one’a them steak houses. . . . Oh, lord. . . . When the cat’s away, the mice’ll play — and the next thing you know, I’m in the sack with her mom. Forty-nine years old. Imagine that. Seems young now. But then, then it felt like a call up to the big leagues. Pretty soon, though, the whole thing fell through — why was because her husband came back. Gary. Good ol’ Gary. So, that little adventure was over before it started. Which was just as well, ’cause it was Carolyn I was married to and not her mom. . . . First thing we did was to rent one of them by-the-week motel rooms. Talk about a mistake. All night long, you could hear people argue and fight, and break stuff in their rooms. One time, somebody tossed an old one-speed bike right off the balcony. Landed smack-dab on the sidewalk. Next morning, one’a the motel people picked it up and leaned it in the ivy by the street, just t’get it out’a the way. But whoever threw it must’a left, or got their ass kicked out, ’cause that’s where it stayed. Til I got it, that is. . . . It was easy t’fix. So, then I start ridin’ this damn bike around, while Carolyn uses the truck. Every job I had back then, whether it’s pumpin’ gas, or workin’ in the onion plant, I drove to on that bike. Rain’r shine, there I was, king’a the road. It was one’a them good old-fashioned rigs, so it had a strong frame on it. Days off, ’stead of takin’ the truck somewhere and wastin’ gas, I’d hike Carolyn down by the river and we’d pass the time. Or, we’d ride up to the State Capitol and sit’n the park. We looked like idiots, ridin’ everywhere. And I always had to pump bowlegged, so Carolyn would have room to sit in front of me. Shoot. Soon as we got to a hill, we’d both hop off’n walk up it so’s not t’give me a heart attack. Prob’ly, that’s why I’m alive t’day — if you call this livin’, that is. . . . But I been in sorrier shape — a lot sorrier shape. . . . Ridin’ that bike around — them was good days. Carolyn’s hair, blowin’ in my face. Man, it smelled so good. . . . We was free, then. Only thing missin’ was kids. But we managed t’take care’a that in short order. Had three, one right after the other. All girls. Sue, after my mother. . . . Kate, after my sister. And Marlene, after Carolyn’s mom. . . . Money was so damn tight all the time. That’ what I remember. We scraped, boy. Tooth’n nail. When the girls was little, it wasn’t too bad. But when they got older, there was no way in hell I could get my hands on enough money. I begged money off all’a my friends — five bucks here, ten bucks there — anything to keep us from starvin’. That’s when I knew how it must’a been for my old man and my mom. Pickin’ up cans. . . . you know, or pickin’ up pennies in the gutter. It was real bad. Same time, I knew Carolyn’d gave it up about us ever havin’ our own real house, or even a regular apartment. Didn’t matter what job I had. I always was gettin’ the ax. Either it was seasonal, or the owner decided he had to take a crap, or some damn thing. Hell. You know how it is when you’re low man on the totem pole. They don’t need a real reason. You show up to work, they hand you a check, and say see y’later. . . . But, I dug my own hole, so to speak. For myself, I didn’t mind. But it was real bad for Carolyn and the girls. Always old clothes to wear. Old everything. . . . Tell you the truth, more’n once I thought about runnin’ off, n’just leavin’ it all behind. What’s a man supposed t’do in that situation? Go to church? Sing songs on the street corner? . . . But, we got through it. Somehow. The girls, they all grew up. And pretty soon they had their own jobs. McDonald’s, or moppin’ floors, or baggin’ groceries. Then Carolyn — she was always the smart one — Carolyn decides enough is enough, and she goes out n’learns t’be a nurse’s aide. Got a job right off in one’a them rest homes, and did that for the next fifteen years. Kept us in beans, is what she did. And I wised up and got a truck driver’s license. I’d been movin’ furniture for one’a the big stores in town, takin’ stuff from the warehouse to the showroom, and I just got the idea that maybe drivin’ truck was somethin’ I could do. At least for a little while. I got hired by a produce outfit up in Portland, and started out by drivin’ one’a their small rigs up and down I-5 every day. Restaurants. Grocery stores. I wasn’t makin’ big money, but I was gettin’ a steady check. Between the two of us, it was enough t’get out’a the rat-hole apartment we was in and move up t’somethin’ a little more human. Bought a brand new bed, and a brand new kitchen table. Then, bang. Out’a the blue, we find out Carolyn’s got cancer. . . . She’d been coughin’ for a long time. Not feelin’ as good as she was supposed to. . . . Neither one of us ever took care of ourselves worth a damn. Hell. Couldn’t afford no doctors. N’both of us’d smoked since we was kids. . . . One’a the nurses she knew made her go to the doctor to get herself checked out. A year later, she was gone. . . . Sue, she was married by then, and her first baby was on the way. . . . Carolyn never did get to see her. Beautiful little girl. Light-blue eyes. Prettiest thing I ever seen. . . . Well, there was nothin’ I could do but cry. So, that’s what I did. I cried. Right there, in our brand new bed. . . . Couldn’t eat. Lost almost forty pounds. The girls, they kept bring’n food over. But it’d just set in the icebox. Later on, they’d have to take it out’n throw it away. Papa, they said, you got to eat. Come on, now. But I told ’em — I can’t eat. I just can’t. . . . Papa, your starvin’ to death’s not gonna bring Mama back. Now, you eat somethin’, or else. . . . Oh, how I love them girls. They’re the ones’t saved me. Sayin’ Papa all the time. . . . Sayin’ it the way only girls can do. . . . In them pretty, sweet voices’a theirs. . . . Shoot. . . . They kept me out’a the nut house, for sure. Sue, and Kate, and Marlene.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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