It Sticks To You
I’ve been out of prison two weeks retracing the steps of freedom on the cold streets of Wisconsin, and the stray dogs don’t recognize me but deep down inside we have a certain bond, a pact. When passing they lift their tails as if welcoming me to sniff.
At the grocery store there’s a lady ahead of me in the checkout line. She’s from my neighborhood and has perfect blonde hair, shiny and glowing like something out of the sixties that a good housewife would wear, it goes halfway down her neck and curls up at the bottom. All she needs is a brocade dress to sweep us all back in time. I don’t remember exactly where she lives, but I do remember her walking two pampered poodles and letting them piss on my lawn. She keeps glancing at me and squinting, shaking her head like a teacher would at a bad schoolboy, fully amplifying the smoke lines of her lips by pursing them. I don’t know how to react to these looks, so I just smirk at her and start to load my groceries onto the conveyor belt. She writes a check, hands it to the cashier, and the bagboy puts the last bag in her cart. Then, in a loud, slightly quivering voice, she says, “I saw what you did to your roommate.”
I gingerly look up to see who she’s talking to, hoping that it isn't about what I think it’s about, and find her staring right at me.
“I came outside and watched when the police came,” she babbles. “That poor man on the stretcher, all bandaged and bloody. I don’t like it. I don’t like it and I think they should throw you back in jail.” She tramps off with the tires on her cart screeching.
Before she reaches the exit I yell, “It wasn’t my roommate, lady. Hey . . . lady!”
The automated door slides shut behind her.
The teenage cashier stops chewing her gum, and the people behind in line shoot their beady eyes at me. The bagboy pauses with one arm deep in a bag. I glare at all of them.
“What?” I say. “It wasn’t my roommate.”
And it wasn’t. I had come home early from work one afternoon and found this scruffy looking stranger in bed with my wife. That old whore story. I snapped, jumped on him before he could sit up, threw the cover over his head, held it down with my knees, and started pounding on him while he squirmed and gasped beneath the sheets. When he became motionless I picked the lamp up from the nightstand, raised it high as I could, and was just about to smash its base onto his head when my wife’s terrified screams brought me back to reality.
I almost got attempted murder.
He had been coming and doing my wife while I was at work, everyday that she had off. Apparently the neighbors even think he was our roommate, he was there so often.
I’m really not a violent person, and my wife knows that. She wants us to stay together, to try and work it out, and I haven’t divorced. I want to try and make it work for our son. Our son. Also, prison doesn’t leave a lot of options. You keep what you have or you’ve got nothing.
I pay with my wife’s cash and push the shopping cart out of there, without looking back.
- -- -
I come home with the groceries and find Sarah, my wife, washing dishes. She’s moving fast and scrubbing hard with a cigarette dangling from her lips, ponytail swinging with her jerky movements. I wave the smoke away. I hate the smell of it and the way it sticks to everything in our small house.
The dishes clang, sound as if they might break. I put the bags on the table and start unloading them. She turns the faucet off, scowls at me with a hand on her hip and says, “You need to get a job. I supported this family the whole time you were in there. I sent you money—kept food on your son’s plate. Now look at you. Out and nothing’s changed.” The smoke shoots from the corner of her mouth.
“You need to get a job!” she says.
The veins in her neck pop out when she’s mad and it makes me sick so I say, “It’s only been two weeks, Sarah. Give me a break here. It isn’t easy for an ex-con to find a job, you know,” and slump through the living room, into the front porch. “Besides, if you hadn’t cheated we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
I gape out the window. It’s the beginning of fall and it’s cold and gray. The blind lady’s outside again, across the street in front of her big house, waiting for her neighbor to come home and read the mail. She’s bundled up in a long brown coat that hangs around her skinny legs. Her hair is short and white and blows in the wind. She keeps her head tilted up, sunglasses to the sky, while holding the mail to her front and leaning into her cane. Everyday I see her out there, waiting, always at two-thirty in the afternoon. Her next-door neighbor pulls into his driveway, gets out, and walks over the lawn to her. She hears him and smiles. They shake hands and she gives him the mail. He reads it to her. When he’s done she nods and thanks him, then goes back inside. That’s the only time I ever see her leave the house.
The baby starts to cry in the other room. I turn to Sarah. She’s still standing there with a hand on her hip, staring at me, smoking.
“You need to take care of that,” she says.
I move toward the boy’s bedroom to see what’s wrong, and as I shimmy by her she repeats, “You need to get a job.”
- -- -
I can’t find a job. I wake up, and just like that, my temples begin to pound. Sarah keeps cursing me because she doesn’t understand. I know why she’s mad though, because she can’t afford to feed the three of us much longer. It’s funny how I get out of prison and no one will hire me but I’m expected to stay righteous. Real funny. But I am trying hard to get a job. I’ve gone to every factory in the city and they all say they’ll call if something comes up. Bullshit. Nobody’s calling. The table’s covered with newspapers full of job listings that I’ve circled in black marker. Pretty soon I’ll have to apply at fast-food restaurants. The thought of feeding that grease forty hours a week to fat America almost makes me vomit my Ramen Noodles. Just three years ago I was writing a column about movies and books for a local newspaper, but those bastards won’t take me back. They’re actually afraid of me, like they’ve never reached the snapping point before.
Sarah left with our son to visit a friend for the afternoon so I sit on the porch, gaze out the window, and light a joint. Sarah’s cheap weed. A man needs a break now and then. Even through the marijuana smoke I can smell her cigarettes. It sticks to the furniture and the clothes and the insides of my nostrils.
I watch the first snow of the year through my reflection, like a ghost trapped in the window. The road starts to glaze. Cars drive by and slow down to keep from skidding. I see the blind lady standing outside her front door, across the street with a handful of mail, her cold ears blending in with the red door, the collar on her coat up around her chin. Jesus, I think, is the mail really that important? I blow smoke and look at my watch. The neighbor that reads to her is ten-minutes late. I feel bad for the old lady. She’s so skinny, barely filling her coat—she must be freezing out there. I put the joint out, run a hand through my hair, and pace while watching her. She looks like she’s peering down both sides of the street, but I know she can’t see, it has something to do with hearing. Her neighbor must’ve got held up at work. Five more minutes pass. My conscience gets to me, I can’t just let her stand out there and freeze like this, damn it, so I put on my stocking-cap and boots and tread out into the snow. It’s falling harder now, and the breeze goes right through my jacket. As I cross the street I look to see if her neighbor’s car is coming, but the road is completely void. She keeps her chin tilted up and cocks an ear at me. Gray storm clouds reflect in her sunglasses.
“Hello?” she says. “Who’s this?”
“Ma’am,” I nod at her as if she can see, foolish and high, “I live across the street and I’ve noticed you out here before, waiting, but it doesn’t seem like the man that reads your mail is coming,” I swallow, a bit nervous because she might recognize me for being the neighborhood ex-con like the woman at the grocery store had.
“Oh, yes. He’s running quite late,” she smiles and her cheeks turn into a mass of soft wrinkles.
“Well, I was wondering if maybe I could help by reading them to you,” I point at the mail, stupid.
She sighs, shuffles the mail in her hands, and finally replies, “That’d be nice. I’d like that. Thank you,” and hands me the three envelopes.
“Not a problem,” I say. “Let’s see here, one looks like an advertisement for an internet connection.”
“Junk. Toss it,” she says and taps her cane lightly on the concrete.
“The other is from the bank.”
“I’ll take that,” she swipes it from my hand, easily as if she can see.
“Yes,” I say. “And this one looks like a letter.”
“Oh? From who?”
“Says . . . a Robert Dregne.”
“That’s my son,” she claps. “That’s my son. Open it.”
I think it’s odd that a son would send a letter to his blind mother, but I open it without a word. It’s one page. I unfold it and two hundred-dollar-bills fall into my hand. I gape down at them in awe, look up at her two story house. She seems well off, especially for someone who lives alone. Much better than me and my rotting wood across the street.
My little boy is getting skinny.
“Well,” she says. “Read it.”
I want to see what the letter is about first before I consider stealing from a blind woman, to make sure she doesn’t have some hospital bill that needs to be paid or something important like that, so I start to read but as I do I read ahead to myself, looking for the part about the money.
It starts off, “Dear Mother. I thought I’d write and surprise you. My words probably sound more solid coming from Marty’s mouth; he has such strong character. How are things in Wisconsin? Is it getting cold yet? San Fran has been very rainy. The kids miss you,” and so on and so until my eyes catch the part about the money. I stop reading to her and read along in my head. Turns out the money is a belated birthday gift. She is to tell this man named Marty to go and buy what she wants with it.
“And?” she asks, a bit impatient.
“Oh,” I cough, “I’ve got something in my throat. It ends—Hope you had a happy birthday and we’ll see you soon. Love, Robby.”
I fold the money and reach down to put it in my back pocket, when the neighbor pulls up in a black Cadillac. The headlights shine on me momentarily and the front window rolls down.
“Hey!” the man in the car yells. “What the hell you think you’re doing?” he jumps out.
“Marty?” The blind woman turns an ear.
He’s tall and broad shouldered, seems to be in his forties, wearing a tucked in white collar shirt under a leather coat, and a black fedora that quickly gathers the snow in its brim. He lumbers over, bowlegged and puffing, with breath that stinks of beer nuts.
“What the hell are you thinking?” He rips the mail and the money out of my hands.
I’m speechless. He gives me this look like I’m a mangy dog that’s been caught eating off the table, except I know I’ve done worse. The shame starts to sink in. If I had a tail it’d be between my legs. I look down at his big shiny shoes.
“Uh,” I say, “I was just reading her the mail . . .”
The blind lady frowns and turns her freezing red ears back and forth between the two of us.
“Yea you were,” the man, Marty, says, “and you were going to pocket that money!”
“No . . .”
“What?” the blind lady says. “What money? He never said anything about money . . .”
Marty kneads her shoulder.
“I know, sweetheart,” he says. “This man was going to steal from you. He’s a criminal. He’s out of jail and they obviously didn’t reform him,” he grimaces at me and takes in a deep breath. “He was going to steal from a nice little blind lady.”
I’m lost for words, feeling low with no defense, so I briskly walk away.
“Wait,” the blind lady says, raps her cane down on the cold concrete, spreading bits of frost like sparks. “You come here this minute, young man.”
I stop, then idle over to her even though I feel like running away, conformity I learned while living under the order of prison guards.
“Closer,” she demands.
I step forward. She rests her cane against her waist, reaches out, grabs my face with both hands and starts to feel all over my cheeks and head and eyes. Her hands feel like ice. I shiver. A string of saliva hangs between her teeth.
“Now get,” she yells, lifts her cane and hits me on the shin. “Gone with you. You bad apple!”
Marty looks me up and down and whispers, “Pathetic.”
The screen door of his house opens. His wife sticks her head out. It’s the blonde lady from the grocery store that had hassled me. Her eyes narrow and she shakes her perfect head of hair at me as if she knows what’s going on without really knowing.
I turn, cross the street, almost get run over by a truck and stumble inside the house. Then I peek out the window, watch them talk about me. Their heated breath drifts through the cold air. I lie down in the bedroom, pull the covers up to my chin, and feel just as bad as when I was locked up. The cigarette smell slaps me like a smoke hand, puts a stale taste in my mouth.
Three hours pass. Still awake, I hear the front door, then keys flung onto the table. Sarah walks into the room. It’s night and the red embers of her cigarette glow in the dark.
“Your son is sleeping over at a friend’s,” she rasps. “Maybe he’ll get a decent meal that way.” She sits down in bed next to me.
“I wish you’d stop smoking those in here,” I say.
“Why?” she asks with an exhale.
“Because it sticks to you.” I rub my eyes. “It sticks to you like . . .”
I don’t finish the sentence because I already know she doesn’t understand. I turn over on my side, away from her.
“Sticks to you like what?” she asks.
I squeeze the covers tight.
“Never mind,” I say, to the lilies of the yellowing wallpaper.
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