Mel Bosworth ~ Days Not His

I stood in the park­ing lot of Rudy’s Oil. I hadn’t been to Five Streams since I was a kid. The sky was thin and gray and the air smelled like ice which to me smelled like win­ter. Across the street was a rat­ty white walled con­ve­nience store called Kings. Tacked to the white wall clos­est to the sleepy four-way inter­sec­tion was a hand paint­ed sign that read “Free Coffee While You Play Lottery.”

My father was inside Rudy’s Oil, set­tling up my uncle’s bill. This was our first stop. Or may­be our sec­ond stop because we’d gone to the bank first so he could get the cash to set­tle up the bill. After this we had two more stops to go. Halfway home, may­be, at least for me. Cold wind knocked a Styrofoam cup down the street, tip­ping it end over end then drag­ging it when it didn’t want to tip any­more. The roads were bleached white from salt.

Maybe a big storm this week­end. Maybe it would slip south of us, mess around with Connecticut. Connecticut could use a kick in the balls.

I stood beside Dad’s pick-up truck, the wind rip­ping his cig­a­ret­te smoke from the fibers of my coat. I turned in slow cir­cles, imag­in­ing myself a liv­ing lens that took in the sad panora­ma of Five Streams: Sad bridge straight ahead. Sad gas sta­tion across from Rudy’s, which was sad in its own right. Sad local Post Office. Sad shit­ty pick-up dri­ving past. Fix that exhaust, dude.

Across the sad bridge was an entrance to anoth­er town which was slight­ly less sad, and per­haps even grew hap­pier the deep­er you pen­e­trat­ed. Or, if not hap­pier, it grew some­thing more at least, some­thing warmer than what it touched upon.

People came and went in good cars from the gas sta­tion and Post Office, and by good cars I mean togeth­er cars. No duct tape. No miss­ing pieces. Women in coats held their mail and looked at me, then climbed into small SUVs. They drove off some­where.

Just before the sad bridge was an old defunct fac­to­ry, and in front of the old fac­to­ry was a new fac­to­ry. Not sure what they man­u­fac­tured at the new fac­to­ry. Couldn’t real­ly tell. Some sig­nage on the buildings—something about car­pets? Five Steams, the once proud man­u­fac­tur­ing town, now home of cheap car­pets and free cof­fee while you play lot­tery.

An aunt, uncle, and cousins used to live down here some­where. Maybe around the cor­ner. I’d lat­er ask Dad, “Is this where Roy and Lori and the cousins used to live?” And Dad would nod by way of dip­ping his upper body for­ward, and say, “Yep. Right around that cor­ner, up that hill.”

I remem­bered the hill. And I remem­bered one of the Five Streams which was actu­al­ly a decent sized river. My mem­o­ry remem­bered geog­ra­phy, edges, wood. I remem­bered old exte­ri­or stair­cas­es and splin­ters. I remem­bered old mason­ry beneath the bridge, or some bridge, may­be not this par­tic­u­lar bridge I was look­ing at. There was bound to be more than one bridge in the town of Five Streams.

Or bor­ough, rather. Five Streams was a bor­ough. Part of a larg­er town, a larg­er fail­ing called Farmer, which was a fuck­ing joke: no real farms out this way. Maybe one or two, but no, this was a man­u­fac­tur­ing town. The sur­round­ing towns, yes, more farms, not so much dairy, dairy died, too, but cat­tle farms. Horse farms. Hay farms. Food farms. Now. Not then. Now, in try­ing to keep with the pro­gres­sive times of local­ly sourced veg­eta­bles and farm shares, now, now that’s what they were. People still wrestling with how to afford a farm-share. People still pinch­ing pen­nies, still try­ing to rec­on­cile the ben­e­fit of not shop­ping so much at the big shit­ty store, the biggest shit­ti­est retail­er in the world. They should re-name this town to Little Shitty and the store to Big Shitty.

Dad came out of Rudy’s (he was in there longer than I expect­ed him to be, may­be telling them about Uncle George?) and he was car­ry­ing two five-gal­lon con­tain­ers of kerosene. I stepped over to him and took one of the con­tain­ers.

You still need to get your new heat­ing sys­tem set up in the garage?” I asked.

He said, “Yeah. Just haven’t had the time. So I’ve got to burn some kerosene.”

I hat­ed the kerosene heater. Poor ven­ti­la­tion. No ven­ti­la­tion. Dad worked in the garage a lot more now since retir­ing, and the fumes got into his pores. His eyes. His eyes were red today. Maybe not from the fumes, though. Maybe from think­ing about his old­er broth­er George, who real­ly wasn’t that much old­er. Little over a year.

Today I could tell my father was tired and didn’t feel well. I could tell by the way he car­ried him­self as if a helped along by a weak and skin­ny phan­tom. He’d had long days the­se past months. Long days not his.

My father picked his nose while dri­ving. Two hands even! Who’s dri­ving this truck? Reminded me of snap­ping out of a trance once while dri­ving. Thought I was turn­ing left to go home. Nope! Wrong town. Wrong vehi­cle. I was just head­ing back to park head­quar­ters. Needed more stain for pic­nic tables. Ned was drunk again, tend­ing flow­ers. Lovely spread, though. Lovely col­ors.

My moth­er texted that the storm was mov­ing south. Good. Fuck Connecticut for real.

From Rudy’s we drove back­roads to Uncle George’s. He wasn’t home. We knew this. (He was nev­er com­ing back home.) Dad want­ed to keep the house run­ning, though, for when his old­est broth­er came to vis­it soon. He could stay at George’s place. Just a week ago I set up the cable and inter­net and phone. George watched me from his wheel­chair, his one good hand squeez­ing a bot­tle of soda. As I moved past he held the bot­tle out to me. I took it, he squeezed the top, turned the cap.

SSSSSsssssst.

Good team­work, I said, and George drank. He called me the cable guy that day. Told me the sto­ry about how he kicked out his old cable guy way back when. Said the guy didn’t know what he was doing. “Get your shit and get the fuck out of my house,” he told that guy, and the guy left. Now I was here, doing a bet­ter job may­be. I didn’t know what I was doing, not real­ly. I could read direc­tions and sit on hold on the tele­phone, I could talk to tech­ni­cal sup­port peo­ple, I could hear them punch­ing but­tons to make life eas­ier on my end, on George’s end, so he could watch his favorite show from bed, a show about sur­viv­ing in Alaska, some wild and fun­ny fam­i­ly.

George was still fight­ing then, a week ago. Tried to take a show­er on his own. Tried to go to the bath­room on his own. Didn’t work out so well. They nev­er should’ve cut him loose from the nurs­ing home. He was insis­tent, though, and my father blind­ly opti­mistic, and the nurs­ing home need­ed beds, emp­ty beds to fill up again.

Maybe George was still fight­ing now. Hard to put myself in his shoes. Hard to imag­ine. Anyway, George was going back to a nurs­ing home, anoth­er one, had already gone, then left again, this time to the big hos­pi­tal in the big city. The shit­ty city. Another Big Shitty! And now the casi­no was mov­ing in. Oh lord. That’ll fix things for sure.

I loved the­se ruined towns. I loved this cold sad­ness. It made the music of the world feel real. Because you know, some­times just look­ing at a clock gave me anx­i­ety. And hero­in was every­where now. Heroin! What?! I imag­ined junkies like snowflakes tum­bling down the slopes toward one of the five streams where they’d hit the sur­face of the water and splay out, melt, become the water, flow south toward warmer envi­rons. Save your­selves, kids!

Every time Dad and I turned our backs the world junked itself behind us, and every­where we looked the world was a sin­gu­lar­i­ty, a won­der­ful pro­duct of infinite thread­ing and re-thread­ing. The roads were old but new, built and rebuilt, the shod­dy design depen­dent upon col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. Our bod­ies set­tled at our hips like melty can­dles. The longer we lived the hard­er we moved through the world, like lumps of lead, mus­ket balls wrapped in thin­ning skin. We felt more and want­ed less. At least I thought I did.

Everyone on my uncle’s street knew he was in trou­ble. I’d only spo­ken to one or two of them. Two. Well, my dad talked to an old­er man and then the next week I talked to a younger man who drove a big black pick-up. He’d asked where my uncle was. I said he was com­ing home, which was true. And then he did come home. And then he left again.

Dad checked the oil lev­el in the fur­nace. Good for a while, he said. The refrig­er­a­tor door was propped open with an emp­ty bot­tle of soda. All the food was gone. Mom took it. No sense in let­ting every­thing go to waste. The guts of the house would be next, after the car.

I popped apart a reclin­ing chair, sep­a­rat­ing the back and base for eas­ier trans­port. When togeth­er the chair reclined and pushed for­ward, too, and by that I mean it helped the sit­ter stand up by ris­ing and push­ing for­ward. It was motor­ized. You had to plug it in. Uncle George tried it once last week and tipped out of it, spent some time of the floor until some­one could help him get back up.

So, he wasn’t a fan of the chair. Dad’s friend Lou need­ed it now any­way, for his part­ner Dotty. Dotty was get­ting a knee replace­ment. Thought the chair might help her out a lit­tle. Couldn’t hurt. The chair was com­fort­able, even if you didn’t want to use it for what it was sup­posed to be used for. Matter of fact, it was just a chair.

We took the chair out, Dad and I, and put the top piece in the back of his pick-up and the base in his tow-behind trail­er. We didn’t both­er to strap the base down. It was heavy enough. We didn’t cov­er it either. The roads were dry and white. The air would do things good any­how. Goddamn cig­a­ret­te smoke all over every­thing. I could taste it in my throat like sludge.

And that was it. We left Uncle George’s place and dropped the chair off at Lou’s. Dotty would be home from the hos­pi­tal on Friday, two days from now. Dad still had one more trip to make—make that two more trips to make. But not me. No, sir. Not today. Not that day. After Mom and Dad left to go sign off on some paper­work at the nurs­ing home, I filled the wood rack, talked to the old cat, gave him some good pet­ting, then I went upstairs and pulled out a plas­tic bin full of my old let­ters. I’d kept a healthy cor­re­spon­dence for sev­er­al years, sev­er­al years ago. The inter­net was killing every­thing now, or dig­i­tiz­ing things, rather. I missed hard copies. I liked paper let­ters.

I pulled out a stack of let­ters from a fold­er and began fin­ger­ing through them. I was look­ing for let­ters from one man in par­tic­u­lar, my old friend Luss who was gone now. Died two years ago, around this time. I re-read a few let­ters. Hadn’t read them since the first time I’d read them. He was liv­ing on the west coast then. He wrote how he was strug­gling to be a good man. He want­ed to be a good man, an amaz­ing man, he wrote. He was amaz­ing then, he was before, he was now, even though he was gone. I car­ried that man around in my heart. A lot of us did.

I put the let­ters back in the bin and shoved the bin to the back of the clos­et. I said good­bye to the cat, locked the door, made my way back to my oth­er home, my home with my part­ner Jane. I asked how her day was and she told me. I kept qui­et. She asked how my day was and I told her.

~

Mel Bosworth is the author of the nov­el Freight and the poet­ry chap­book Every Laundromat in the World. His work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Tin House, Per Contra, New World Writing, Santa Monica Review, Melville House, American Book Review, and else­where. A for­mer series edi­tor for the Wigleaf Top 50 (2015), he is the cre­ator & cura­tor of the Small Press Book Review. Camouflage Country, co-writ­ten with Ryan Ridge with illus­tra­tions by Jacob Heustis, is avail­able now from Queen’s Ferry Press. Mel lives in Western Massachusetts.