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.
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.