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Greg Bottoms

A Stupid Story

Kids lined up along the sidewalks. Shuffling in the cold. Under these factories. Smells like raw sewage. God, itís like theyíre knee-deep in their own crap. Smell that? No place to hang out, you ask me. But what the hell do I know, right, old guy like me?

Want one? Donít smoke? Fine. Suit yourself.

My boy Jimbo used to hang out here. His name was Jim, actually James, but I called Jimbo since he was young. Used to be one of them, standing right down there all the time.

No, just a little further up.

One time I picked up a kid right here. Right about here. I merged over toward the kids, cutting across the left lane, to pull up along the curb like a regular, like someone out for a blow. Some bitch honked at me and shot the finger. If I was someone else, or maybe if itíd just been a few months earlier, I donít know, I might have blown her away. Seriously, I might have shot her. Bitch, know what I mean? Sure you do. You donít just go beeping and shooting the bird at people. What world do you live in, lady? People get shot. You wouldnít do that. Right. Itís stupid. Exactly. Crazy. Down here, too. Yeah. (Laughter.) Dead in the sewage. (Laughter.) Dumb bitch.

Anyway, traffic was real bad that evening. Taillights here to there. Could smell gas in the car with you. Even though it was winter, window rolled up, heat on. True story: Kid in my neighborhood goes to the hospital after falling asleep with a gas-soaked rag over his face trying to get high. Same kid is now almost thirty, walks around town with a Walkman on, smiling. Walks like twenty miles a day. Still lives at home, in a room above the garage. Never had a job. True story. Swear to God. You ought to write that down.

That day I pulled up to the curb, and I caught a wheel on the sidewalk and then dropped off, making all the kids look. Some laughed. I felt a little stupid. I was kinda nervous. Iíll give you that.

I rolled down my window.

Yeah, said a kid with those weird dreadlocks. Right, like that, like, I donít know, cigars or something. Bout yea-long.

Anyway, Hi, I said. I pointed to the kid Iíd seen before, a few days earlier. He was sitting against the fence, looking sort of lost, like Jimbo. He seemed perfect, like a stunt double, swear to God. He looked like someone whoíd hang himself in a second. I said to the kid in my window, Him. I pointed. Over there, I said. Could you get him for me?

Kid turned and yelled, Beano! This guy wants you.

He said "wants" like I was the worldís biggest perv, spanking it in my car already.

Beano looked around, hesitated a sec, then stood up and walked over to my window. His breath was like exhaust hissing out of his nose it was so cold. He had on a hooded sweatshirt and a hat on backwards, Padres, or maybe Orioles. Black. I couldnít believe the resemblance. I couldnít believe it.

He goes, What?

I smiled. I couldnít believe it. I know, I said that. But I couldnít believe it. Just like Jimbo, my boy, with all this attitude.

I was wondering if you wanted to make a few bucks, I said.

Nah, man, I ainít like that, he said. Those kids are down thereóhe pointed behind meóon the next corner.

Itíll take about an hour. Iíll give you fifty bucks. I showed him a crisp fifty, like this. Nothing sexual, I said. That ainítí me. And it ainít, right.

What then? he goes.

Get in and weíll talk. You wonít have to do anything.

Right, man. Youíll try to eat my eyeballs or something, Mr. Dahmer. Thatís what he called me, Mr. Dahmer.

Fifty bucks. And I ainít going to touch you. I was real stern, real serious about that. I ainít a perv. You know that. You can see that. Iím fifty. I gotta good job. I gotta wife. I pay taxes, a registered Republican. I donít go for boys. You write that down, you put that in there.

I donít know, he goes. He looked around.

Fifty. I held up the bill again, like this.

You touch me, you make a move, and youíll be sorry. My dadís a cop.

I go, Hey, I wonít lay a hand on you.

Seriously, he goes, pointing at me, getting in. If I say the word, you let me out.

We drove to St. Anneís. I was thinking about Jimbo. I was sweating a little under my arms. Just a little bit, even though it was cold. He kinda gave me the creeps. Sitting there. Iím not going to lie. I was thinking about my boy, my son, and getting pretty sad but I didnít want this new kid, Beano, to know I was sad so I put it on the radio station Jimbo used to like, I mean back when he would talk to me, and pushed in the lighter here and lit a smoke and offered Beano one, too. Want one? No still, huh? Suit yourself. You like that station? I like country. Old stuff. This? I donít know what the hell this is. But, hey, you like it, Iíll keep it on.

Anyway, Beano took the smoke and asked me what I wanted from him.

I want you to be my son, I said, and later, you know, when I started really thinking about all this, when I started thinking that maybe itíd be nice to talk to someone about this, I kept going back to the way I said that. I mean, Iím not trying to get all psychoanalytical or anything but thatís just a weird way to put it, you know. Iím like the next guy. I ainít immune to stuff. I feel things.

What? Beano goes.

Act like my son, I go.

You mean pretend to be your son? Beano goes.

Yeah. Is it that complicated? Fifty bucks. Half hour. No big deal.

For what?

What?

What do you want me to pretend Iím your son for?

His grandma. My wifeís mother. She loved my son Jimbo. She always asks about him. My wife already told her, but sheís, you know, out of it. Sheís old and half-crazy. She wonít remember. She canít remember one minute to the next.

See, I guess I thought I was going to be a hero. I felt like I needed to do something niceófor me, for Nana, for Jimbo, even for my wife maybe. I donít know. Why am I talking about this shit? You ever feel like that, like you need to do something decent? I grew up real religious. Baptist. Donít mess with a Baptist, man. Christ. Fire and brimstone. Satan just like embedded in the particles in the air or something. You should put down that Iím religious. Because I am. I love God plenty. I ask him stuff sometimes.

Wait a minute, Beano goes. Jimboís dead?

Nah nah, I said. I paused. I got kinda, I donít know, you know, like, some kind of, I donít know. Nothing like that, I said, heís justÖunavailable.

But if your wife already told the old lady maybe it ainít such a good idea.

You want the money or no? I say.

We were almost there at that point, a few blocks from here; know where it is? Right.

Beano looked out the window. Headlights were bright in the sideview mirror, which was right below his chin from this angle. I was looking like this. He was sitting right there, where you are.

Real quiet he goes, Yeah, I want the money. Just saying.

I lit another cigarette, asked if he wanted one.

No. Donít worry. I ainít going to ask you again.

Then he goes, right out of the blue, You divorced?

None of your business, I said. Then: No I ainít divorced. I said I was married, didnít I?

All right, man. Not like I care. Just seems like youíre probably divorced. Seems like you live alone, is all.

Iím married, I said, like I told you. For now. Then I figured I didnít owe this kid an explanation. I said, Things are just a little weird. Me and my wife have a lot on our minds.

He looked over at me. Yeah. Just pay me my fifty like you promised.

St. Anneís. You can never find a parking space. I drive laps. Laps. It gives me a headache every time I come, if you want to know.

Nana, my wifeís mother, who was really like my one and only mother during the whole early part of our marriage before she had a stroke and then all the complications and then just got all old and senile and incoherent, was up on the fifth floor, in a private room that was costing my wife and I our whole retirement. When it rains it pours, know what I mean? That could be your title. When It Rains It Pours. Or: John Barclay: Everything He Touches Turns to Shit.

Me and Beano got on the elevator and went up and didnít say anything the whole way. He fidgeted just like Jimbo. I wondered if he took anything, any medications; I wondered what he thought about, if he thought, you know, bad stuff, sad stuff, whatever, I donít know. But I didnít ask because I wanted this to be as simple as possible.

Now Iím not even going to get into the stuff about Nana, tell you about the machines and her expressions and the bed pans and the sour smell of dying people, and so on. Itís depressing. Depressing. Horrible is what it is. Life. Christ. I donít know. Jesus. Push in the lighter there. Satan in air particles. What about that? (Laughs, uncomfortably.)

I canít save people from what goes on in their heads and make their lives all peachy. I mean, what am I? Iím a kidís dad and Iím supposed to be able to fix his whole life. He wouldnít even talk to me. Iím supposed to make my wife want to dance. What? What am I? What am I? Who the fuck am I? Iím this fat old guy. I got a job. I got stuff to do. I wish I could change things. Iíd fix everything, Iíd fix everybody, I swear to God, I would, Iíd do it. Iíd save my marriage, make time move backwards. If I could, Iíd erase whole years and then do it all over again, but prepared this time, tuned in to the little stuff I missed the first time. My life ainít peachy. You donít see me hanging myself in a shed. Thatís just selfish, you ask me, thatís just trying to hurt the people who love you and make them feel guilty is all.

All right. Sorry. Iím rambling. Keep that up and I might start to look really bad, huh?

So Beano sat in Nanaís room and I told Nana that Beano was my son Jimbo. Jimbo was doing really great in school. He was probably going to go to college. He was on the debate team, football, all kinds of bullshit.

I whispered to Beano to tell Nana that he loved her. Why not? Jimbo maybe would have. I doubt it. But maybe. Fifty, I whispered.

I love you, Nana, Beano said, but he was looking at me and he was turning a little pink. He didnít sound convincing.

I pointed at her and gave him a face like, Come on.

He leaned over her then, like he really meant it, and said, real sincere too, Nana, I love you. I wondered who he said that to for real. If anyone. I got that kind of mind, you know. I wonder what people are thinking, what they might say if given the opportunity. Some people say Iím philosophical.

She said, Oh I love you too, Jim. Youíre my best boy. Nana loves her Jim.

Her face is all wrinkled but God it was, well. It was something. Nearly killed me, kid. That one nearly took my head right off.

Then a few other things happenedóa nurse came in, I turned on the TV and me and Beano and Nana watched "Wheel of Fortune." One of the puzzles was COOKIES IN THE COOKIE JAR; another was GOODBYE BLUE SKY. I got both right way before the Amway rep. from Syracuse or the teacher or whatever from Phoenix or Philadephia or Fargo. Then we left. That was basically it.

So I brought Beano back down here. I gave him the fifty and he got out. We didnít say anything. A dealís a deal in my book. I promise, I deliver.

Then Beano stopped on the sidewalk and turned and looked at me like he wanted to say something.

I rolled down the window.

He looked at his shoes, scuffed something on the concrete. He was a nervous kid.

He goes, Iím sorry about your son, man.

I didnít say anything. He looked at me. I nodded. He walked off. I drove home.

I donít know. Itís a stupid story, isnít it? I donít think this means anything. But if you polish it up maybe.

This is really just something I tell people sometimes. Not like I really dwell on it. This is just a story I tell people. You know, to talk.


Greg Bottoms is the author of Angelhead a memoir. A collection of his stories, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks, will be published next fall by Context Books.

 

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