The Good Life _     _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _  Mark and Rebecca Spencer

 

 

SEVEN

    

  We go a couple of tree-lined blocks and then Lon turns onto the street where he lives and pulls up to the front of his house.

     "I won't be long," he says as he's climbing out.  "I just got to drop off these eggs and the pig for Chachi."

     I nod.  I look at the small house.  Yesterday, I brought gourds and pumpkins by here for Lon and Chachi and Jake.  No one was home, and I left the gifts on the porch.  It was early afternoon, just before the cold front blew in.  The sun was out, seventy-five degrees--Indian summer.  An hour later it was forty-five, the sky gray, the wind howling.  Lord, how things can change in the blink of an eye.  

     Chachi's little boy, Jake, opens the door for Lon.  Lon musses the boy's hair playfully.  Jake grins, says something.  Lon shrugs and nods.

     I was here at their house the night Jake arrived.  He'd been living with his father.  Chachi had agreed to joint custody with her ex-husband, and then he took Jake one weekend and wouldn't bring him back.  For a couple of years the ex had been calling Chachi and telling her she owed him money for the support of Jake.  She had been trying to come up with money to take her ex to court and get full custody. 

     For whatever reasons, Chachi's ex brought Jake back one mild night last spring while Lon and I were watching a baseball game on TV.  The doors and windows were open.  The neighborhood was quiet except for the crickets, and there was the smell of fresh-cut grass wafting in through the screens.  Several times, I turned my eyes away from the baseball game and looked out the window at the lightning bugs.  I was glad Lon's window air conditioners were off.  I never liked the chug and drip of those things, except when the air was so still and heavy that breathing felt like work. 

     The Cincinnati Reds were playing the Philadelphia Phillies.  Lon was sucking down beers, and when one of the play-by-play men mentioned some record set by Pete Rose years ago, Lon got morose, as usual.  Lon thought Rose belonged in the Hall of Fame, thought it was unfair to ban him from baseball for betting on a few games.  He was quiet until the inning was over.  Then he said, "Pete got a raw deal.  Just like Shoeless Joe Jackson." 

     I looked over, saw four empty beer bottles on the end table next to Lon's elbow.  

     "Rose is the all-time hit leader, for Christ's sake," Lon went on.  "Broke a record everybody said couldn't be broken.  You know, Pete named his kid after Ty Cobb.  Hell.  And I'll tell you something else, if they would of given me a second year in the minors, I could of proved myself.  Hell, everybody has one bad year.  And I was  goin' through a lot of adjustments.  Had a wife givin' me hell--"  Then he stopped, seemed to sober up suddenly.  "Hell, Fo, I'm sorry.  You don't wanta hear it.  You should of hit me with a beer bottle."

     "It's okay.  When I was teaching, the kids used to tell me all kinds of things.  Girls would come to me crying, thinking they had a disease or something, and I had to explain things to them their mothers should have told them when they were twelve."

     "I'm not drinking any more beer," Lon said, putting down the bottle he had been holding.

     Chachi came in.  I nodded to her.  All evening she had been in the spare bedroom, which she used as a workroom, gluing and

pining together the bones of a weasel.  Her shirt was sleeveless, and her thin arms were tanned.  Pastel plastic bracelets clinked on her wrist as she picked up Lon's half-empty beer bottle and drank, leaning her head back, showing off her long smooth neck.  Lon smiled, touched her waist where her shirt rode up to expose her skin.  She set the bottle down, empty now, and leaned toward Lon, nuzzled his neck.  When she straightened up, she touched Lon's face with just the tips of her fingers, her nails short but blood red.

     She smiled and then straddled him, sat on his lap, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him full on the mouth. 

     I looked away.  My eyes moved around half the room.  Chachi had made shelves by stacking cinder blocks and boards.  One set of shelves held about a dozen and a half skeletons of squirrels, mice, cats, and rabbits.  Another set of shelves was used to display clear plastic bags that contained locks of famous people's hair. 

     "Celebrity hair," Chachi called the collection. 

     One lock of coarse gray hair supposedly came from the head of Kenny Rogers.  Another from Willie Nelson and another from one of The Rolling Stones.  The first time I came over to Lon's after she moved in with him, she explained that the hair in the Baggies used to be growing--actually growing--on the heads of Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, Richard Gere . . . .

     "What's supposed to be in that empty one?" I asked.

     "Oh," she said.  "That's not empty.  Not really.  That's Telly Savalas."

     I nodded.

     "A hair boutique in L.A. mails out a catalogue, and whenever I have money . . . . .   Well, before I started paying lawyers to get my little boy back, I'd order a celebrity's hair."  She gazed at the plastic bags.  "It's just so cool.  Hair is real intimate, I think.  And it never dies.  Did you know that?  It's love that lasts forever.  That's what the catalogue says.  I have Jake's hair and Mort's hair in bags too, and Lon's.  They're just as much celebrities to me as those famous people.  Lon's bag is right next to Richard Gere."

     After Chachi got off Lon's lap and went back to the kitchen, I said to Lon, "You missed a double play and a home run."

     A beer commercial was on now, girls in bikinis playing volleyball.  Lon grinned at the TV.  "There are some things in life more important than baseball."

     The peacefulness of the evening was broken by a loud vehicle coming down the street.  I cocked my head.

     "Sounds like a tank," Lon said.

     "I'd guess early to mid-sixties Ford half ton pickup.  Needs new rings and a valve job.  New wheel bearings."  It was stopping in front of the house.  "New brake shoes, too."

     We both got off the sofa and went to the screen door.  I was right about the age and make of the truck.  Smoke swirled in the red taillights.  I couldn't see who was in the dark cab.  The passenger door screeched open.  The cab light didn't come on.  As the driver gunned the struggling engine to keep it from dying, a kid got out and shoved the door shut, but the latch didn't catch.  The kid slammed it again.  A man said, "Shit, boy!  Slam it hard."  The kid slammed it three more times before it caught.  Then gears ground.  The truck started ahead, hesitated, backfired, jerked forward. 

     Chachi came running into the living room, her hands working in front of her face as if she were clearing the air of smoke.

     The kid turned to watch the truck fade away down the street.  After it was out of sight, the kid looked up at the sky as if listening until the sound of it was gone, too.

     "What the hell?" Lon said.

     Chachi said, "Oh, my God."

     She shoved past me and Lon and pushed open the screen door.  "My God.  My God."  She stood for a moment with one hand on her hip and the other straight out and holding the door open.  "My God."  The quiet had returned--just the crickets, the dull roar of the TV behind us, and Chachi's hard breathing.

     The kid stood out at the end of the sidewalk, still looking down the street in the direction the truck had gone.  I cocked my head and listened.  That truck was long gone.

     Chachi said softly, "Jake?"  I could tell by her voice she was crying. 

     She ran to the boy, the screen door slamming in my and Lon's faces, and she picked him up and carried him inside.  He was limp as a rag doll.  She put him down in the middle of the living room.  He swayed, then caught his balance.  "Did Big Jake hurt you?" she said.  She walked around him, inspecting him the way I remember my daddy inspected a horse or a cow he was thinking about buying.  "You're so dirty.  Are you okay?  Honey?"

     Jake's hair was long and wild, and he was filthy from head to toe in a big tee shirt that looked like a dress on him and that said on the front "The Roundup. Cheap Beer. BUCK NAKED COWGIRLS."

     Lon was just standing with his mouth hanging open.  He had never seen Chachi's younger boy.  "There anything I can do?" he asked.  

     Chachi turned to him and started to say something, but she stopped and turned to me--I don't know why.  "Fo, this is my son.  Mort's little brother."  Then she looked at Lon again.  "This is Jake."  Tears were in her eyes. 

     "Hi," Lon said.

     The boy just stood.  First he had stared at his mother, then at me, then at Lon, then at the bags of celebrity hair.  Now he was staring at the painted animal skeletons.

     Chachi said, "Let's give him a bath."

     I stepped toward the boy.  "How old are you?"

     He just kept staring at the animal skeletons.

     "He's seven," Chachi said.  "Honey, you wanta take a bath?"

     Jake shook his head.

     "Well, I think maybe you better take one anyway.  You probably haven't had one in a year." 

     All three of us helped give Jake a bath.

     "We're going to get you cleaned up," Chachi said as she scrubbed him.  She worked on the back of him while Lon worked on the front.

     With the grime washed away, Jake looked pretty much like a normal kid, just a lot more quiet and somewhat thin.  On his chest were thin green lines slanted every which way.

     Stooped over the tub, the wash cloth in his hand, Lon asked, "What's those squiggles on your chest?"

     Jake shrugged, looking down at the dirty water.

     "They don't wash off?" I asked.

     "I tried.  I guess they're scars of some kind.  Chachi, what you think your ex did to him?"

     Chachi looked.  "Those aren't scars.  He's always had them."

     "Since he was born?"

     "No.  Since he was three."

     I said, "They just appeared?"

     "No.  It's a tattoo."

     "A tattoo?" Lon said.  "When he was three?  What?  He wanted to feel more like a man?"

     Chachi giggled.  "It was in Mexico , silly."  Like that explained everything.

     " Mexico ?"

     "Yeah.  We were down there with this guy I knew named Leo.  He was a tuba player in a rock band--"

     "Tuba player?"

     "It was kind of an alternative rock band."

     She stopped talking, and Lon didn't say anymore, was just staring at her blurred reflection in the steamed-up mirror above the sink.

     I said, "So this Leo fellow had your son tattooed?" 

     "No.  I did it.  I had it done, I mean.  I was feeling--well, I don't know.  It was kind of a maternal thing.  It's a female thing.  Hard for guys to understand."

     "A maternal . . . ?"

     "That and a lot of tequila."  She giggled.  But she quickly put on a pouty face.  "I thought it was cool.  I didn't think about it getting all messed up when he grew more."

     Lon looked away from the steamed-up mirror and at Jake sitting in the tub, then at Chachi.  "What is it supposed to be?"

     "Well, see, I guess he grew and it got all stretched out and messed up and everything.  But it said ‘Mama.’"  She laughed.  Then she frowned.  I didn't want to ruin his life or anything.  I guess I was kind of immature back then."

     Lon said, "Did you tattoo your other boy, Mort, too?  When he was a baby?"

     Chachi shook her head, frowned.  "No, but that doesn't mean I loved him less."

 

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