whisky pleasures the drinker
And moving does more than the same thing for me.
Willy he tells me the doers and thinkers
Say moving's the closest thing to being free.
Billy Joe Shaver
"Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me"
I bought him that rocking chair. I picked it up in a
Syracuse store that specializes in handmade Adirondack rocking chairs. There were about
five hundred more handmade just like it: ash frames, maple back slats, no stain. Refined
authenticity, or some such shit. This one had a knot in the arm that looked like a little
face. A face with a long beard like, say, a real Adirondack mountain man who makes his own
At least it fits him. I got the widest one they had.
Its the only chair Ive ever seen him sit in that he didnt make look like
kids furniture. Its not delicate, either. I made sure of that. He can club it,
kick it, criticize it for not being made well. He can do anything he wants to it, but he
wont rock in it. At least not when Im around. He sits straight up, rigid, his
cigarette the only thing moving, rolling side to side in his face and now and then
erupting in smoke.
Until he starts coughing. Then his feet come off the
deck and he sways helplessly back and forth on the rockers, hacking and spitting into his
I get a sudden urge to kick the chair out from under
him. I know better, though. He doesnt move much, but he can, and he outweighs me by
an easy hundred pounds.
"You can come on out," he says, loud enough
I can hear him through the glass door.
I slide it open and walk out on the deck. "You
don't move much, Pops," I say, blinking over the yard at the low sun and taking a
seat on the bench that runs around the deck. I make sure to sit in front of him, to his
left: hes blind in his left eye.
He hands me his glass.
I lift the bottle of anisette off his card table and
pour it half full. I brought him the bottle. Its his drink and he drinks it
straight, out of a water glass. Ive never known anyone else who drank it at all.
"What do you do for drinks when I aint here?" I ask, passing him the
"I dont feel near as much need to drink
when you aint here," he says, ashing on the deck.
I cant tell if hes really pissed off or
I take a real look at the deck for the first time. I
have to wonder how in the hell he finished it. His fingers are crooked from overwork and
his knuckles are arthritic knobs.
The house was three rooms when I was born. Ive
seen the pictures: a little lopsided shanty. Now its got studies and arches and
round windows and gables. Its got four bedrooms and two full baths. Its a
marvel and a mystery to me. I cant hammer a nail in straight.
He buttons up his flannel, one-handed.
"You cold?" I ask. The suns setting,
but it aint cold out yet.
He shrugs. "Getting ready for it."
"I forgot how chilly it gets up here," I
say. "Even in the summer."
"Feel free to leave anytime," he answers.
Theres a dead tree in his neighbors yard
thats been painted baby-blue, top to bottom. He flicks his cigarette towards the
tree, but it only makes it about a quarter of the way. Theres a whole pile of butts
hes only flicked about a quarter of the way. He fixes another cigarette in his mouth
and gropes out a match.
"Rhonda still coming around?" I ask.
"She still with Harvey?"
"Theyre still married," he says,
"and she still kicks him out every now and then to remind him of it."
I grin. "That sounds familiar."
"It should." He lights his cigarette and
half his mouth grins maliciously. "Isnt that why youre here?"
I feel my chuckle dissipate in the evening breeze. I
shake my head. Hes pissed off for real. I cant altogether blame him. I
havent been home in a long time. "Id rather not talk about it," I
"I finished the deck," he says, watching me
pour a glass of anisette for myself.
"I noticed," I say, "it looks
He takes a drink. "I was thinking about closing
it in. If youre going to be around, you could help out. Call it rent."
"Be happy to," I lie.
The sun lowers and we watch it. Its a small town
and when the sun lowers kids get called back to their houses and doors start slamming up
and down the street. Its tiring. I keep us stocked in drinks. Then the suns
gone, and its cold out. I get up and grab my gym bag out of the kitchen.
"You can use the phone if you want to give her a
call," Pops says.
I pull a sweatshirt out of the bag and slip it over my
head. "Im okay."
He nods. For a while. "You sure she didnt
kick you out?"
I sit back down and pick at a scab on my knuckle.
Punched a wall last week. Which didnt impress the holy hell out of anyone.
"You just left?" he continues.
I get a corner of the scab up. "Yep."
I shake my head. "I left her a note."
Hes just about to strike a match for another
cigarette. He stops. "You did what?"
The scab starts bleeding on the side Im picking.
I switch to the other side to see if I can come from the opposite direction. "Left
her a note."
"Thats no good," he says.
The other side starts bleeding too.
"Shouldve had it out with her, huh?"
"You sure as shit shouldnt have left her a
"Shes got lots of pictures," I say.
"She can burn those." Theres a blood rim around the scab and its not
coming loose. I leave off picking itits bad symbology
anywayand rock back in my chair. Theres a shitload of
stars. Even as overcast as it is I can see a hell of a lot more stars than I could in
Syracuse. I take a drink and shiver again, but this time from the anisette.
"You wanna hear some music?" I ask.
"Sure," he answers, "get the
I get up and almost fall down. "Wheres it
"Next to the bed."
I shuffle my way over his hardwood floor and up the
stairs to his bedroom. I locate the radio under a pile of his dirty clothes. Its an
old gray work radio, spackled and paint-swiped. I grab it and head back for the deck.
Then, just inside the sliding door, I stop and damn
near drop it.
"Im Grace," I hear her say.
I swing back away from the door and up against the
wall. My stomach punches right up into my throat. I cant breathe.
"I thought you might be," he says.
I arch my neck so I can see her through the door.
Shes standing on the first step of the deck, wearing a long earth-tone dress and
looking red in the face. I grit my teeth.
"Sit down," he offers.
She nods, clumsily. "Thank you," she says to
him, and sits down on the bench, right in front of him.
"Like a drink?"
She nods again. "Sure."
He rolls his head around and says to me, "bring
I pull a glass out of the dish rack and step out on
the deck, taking in a deep breath. "Hello," I say, without exhaling.
"Hello," she answers. Her eyes are swollen
and watery. Shes a mess.
He holds out his glass. I set the radio down behind
him. I fill his glass, her glass, my glass. "You going to sit down?" he asks.
I sit down about three feet from her. I can smell her
"And set up that radio," he continues.
"I want to hear some music."
I plug the radio in and power it up. Waylon Jennings
comes out, singing "Drinking and Dreaming," sounding very rough and very sad.
She looks up at me. Her eyes are red. "I wanted
to make sure you had somewhere to go," she says. "I couldnt think of
anywhere else youd be."
"And youre welcome to be here any
time," Pops says to her.
"Thank you," she says, smiling a little at
"Think nothing of it," he says, nodding
resolutely. He takes a drink.
I take a drink, too. A big one. And no one says
anything for a couple minutes.
Grace breaks the silence. "May I use your rest
room?" she asks Pops.
"Help yourself," he says. "Its
step inside on your left."
When she closes the door behind her, he looks at me
fully. "Youre an idiot."
I shake my head and drink. We dont talk. That
doesnt bother him.
When she returns, Pops asks her, like he just thought
of it, "hows come I never met you?"
Her smiles not so little this time. Shes
only had a couple sips of the anisette, but it doesnt take much with her. She looks
at me. "Ask him."
They both look at me. I shrug and stare at the ground.
"Hes embarrassed by family," Pops
says. "Always has been."
She throws one of her legs over the other and eases
back, her elbow cocked and her drink dangling from her wrist. "By all kinds of
family," she says, her eyes glowing lightly in her head. When shes drinking she
likes innuendo. And her eyes glow every time she says something that pleases herself.
I should write her a letter of all the things that
please her with herself. I should send it to her with a letter bomb. I take one of
Pops cigarettes off the card table and light it, grinning.
She stamps her heel down on the deck. "This is a
beautiful deck," she says to Pops.
"Thank you," he says, "I just finished
"Did you do the paneling inside, also?"
"Its beautiful," she says, nodding.
"Cherry," he says, "I dug the planks
out of a house I was renovating."
"I didnt think it was a stain," she
He snorts. "No," he says.
Shes watching me out of the corner of her eye
while talking with Pops. "Did he tell you about the cabin?" she asks him.
He shakes his head.
"My grandfather left me three acres up by
Cranberry Lake," she says, bringing her foot up onto the bench, smoothing her dress
down so it hides her blue panties. Her modesty can be endearing. "We were going to
take a summer and build a cabin."
"Why didnt you?" he asks.
She rests her chin on her knee and looks at me.
"We were going to start this summer."
Pops flips his cigarette at the blue tree. It lands in
the pile. "He always would find any way he could to get out of work."
She giggles girlishly. That one stopped being
endearing a long time ago.
Somebody walks up and stops in the yard, standing just
off the deck in the shadows. A woman somebody, I think. She blows a stream of smoke.
"That better not be Steven up there," she says.
Its Rhonda. She wobbles a little, smoking a
long-filtered cigarette. "Whats the matter," she says to me, "you
dont remember me? You speechless?" She takes the step up onto the deck: big
gold earrings, deep wrinkles puttied over with foundation, an unwholesomely red smile at
seeing me. I meet her and give her a big hug.
"So wheren the hell have you been,
honey?" she asks me. "We were worried sick about you."
"Ive been around," I say, handing her
a glass of anisette.
She slaps me on the knee. "Around where, you
"Around Syracuse," Grace interrupts,
"but not around any more."
"And whos that?" Rhonda asks,
squinting near-sightedly at Grace. "Is that the wife?"
"Good question," Grace says. "Id
like to know the answer."
"Ex," I say. "Common law."
"Already?" Rhonda says.
I smile. Grace doesnt. Rhonda smokes for a
second, glancing first at Pops, who is looking very satisfied, then at Grace. "Are
you from around here, honey?" Rhonda asks her.
"Im from Chicago," Grace answers.
"But my grandfather used to live up by Cranberry Lake. When I was a girl I spent
summers with him."
"Chicago," Rhonda repeats. "Syracuse
must seem pretty small to you then."
"Its small," Grace says. "but
nice. Nice and laid-back."
Rhonda tosses her cigarette limply over the deck.
"Never seemed laid-back to me."
"When you get used to Chicago," Grace says,
"most things seem laid-back."
Rhonda picks at her sweater. "What do you do in
"Im a technical writer. For a medical
supply packaging company," Grace answers. "And Im a poet," she adds.
Id been wondering which one shed put
first. Usually its the poet. She sips her drink and looks far away poetically, then
returns with a weighty poetic glance at me. "Anything can be well written, and
anything well written can be beautiful," she says.
If it was snowing Id write my name in piss.
Maybe rub her nose in it.
"How about you?" Rhonda asks me. "What
are you doing?"
"He doesnt do things," Pops says,
ashing. "Doing things is beneath him." Grace pretends to hide a malevolent
"Did I ask you, you old shit?" Rhonda snaps
at Pops. She fiddles with one of her earrings for a minute, and then chuckles to herself,
flicking her bloodshot eyes at the old man. "Did I tell you what he did?" she
I shake my head.
She toys with her left earring, smoking her cigarette
and looking at Pops like shes waiting for something from him. He just shakes his
head and clenches his jaw. "I came over here last weekend to cook him lunch,"
Pops shifts uncomfortably. "Rhonda, shut the hell
"I was cooking," she continues with a fierce
look at him, "and he called me out on the deck, saying he wanted to tell me
something." She pauses and takes a long drag of her cigarette. "And you know
what he did?"
"Shut up," Pops says again.
"He took out a twenty dollar bill," she
says, "and told me hed give it to me if I showed him my titties."
I look at her, twice. "He what?"
She makes a motion like shes lifting up her
shirt. "Twenty bucks," she says, "and all I had to do was show them."
I hold back a grin. "Did you tell Harvey?"
"Hell no," Rhonda says, "Harveyd
have done something stupid."
Pops stares off the deck grimly. "I doubt
"No you dont," Rhonda says sharply.
Pops keeps staring. He can look pretty scary when he
wants to. Right now hes putting everything into it. His jaw muscles are rolling
around. And theyre the only thing on him thats moving.
Rhonda pokes him in the side. "You aint
talking now?" She lights a cigarette. "Aint no fun is it?" she asks
"What the hell are you talking about?" he
"You know exactly what Im talking
about." She looks at him for a minute. "I got a question for you, you old
He clears his throat. "What?"
I wait. Grace waits. Rhonda winks at me and smiles.
"What," she asks, "would you have given me to touch them?"
I laugh out loud.
He shakes his head slowly. "Ill give you a
kick in the ass."
Rhonda lashes her foot out and gets him lightly in the
knee. "And theres one for you," she says.
Grace props her elbow on her thigh and rests her face
in her palm, watching them. Shes getting drunk. When she gets drunk her eyes get big
and close together.
Pops finishes another cigarette and flicks it at the
"What do you have against that tree, Pops?"
"Its blue," he says.
"Hell piss on it before the nights
over," Rhonda says. "Cant barely walk, but hell make sure he walks
over and pisses on that tree."
"Its Mexicans in that house," he says.
"They aint Mexicans," Rhonda says,
"Theyre Indians. You aint never seen a Mexican."
"Theyre the same color as Mexicans,"
"Jesus Christ," Rhonda says,
"Youll say any damn thing that comes into your head, wont you? They
aint Mexicans, and youre an old bigot."
"I aint a bigot," he returns, "I
got nothing against them but that their trees blue."
I finish my glass and try to get together the heart to
stand up. "Im gonna hit the bathroom," I say, and make it through the
sliding door without incident, only stumbling a little.
"Thats my boy," I hear Pops say behind
I head to the upstairs bathroom. I need some space
between me and them. I lift the lid and piss unsteadily. My urines that bright
orange that means I havent been drinking near enough water.
Checking out the color of my urine, I end up pissing
up the side of the sink. Its the motor mechanics, I think, noting how clearly
I hear the door slide open and slide closed and I can
hear them talking. Theyve moved inside. I put my ear against the door, but
cant make out anything but a drone. So I take Pops water glass off the sink
and put the rim against the door and my ear against the bottom.
I scan the bathroom. How the hell can I get out of
The window. I open it and crawl out on the roof.
Im on the flat plane over the front porch. One of the windows from my room faces out
on this same roof; when I was a kid I used to sit out here and think.
Im getting to feeling kind of melancholy, just
like a kid. Feeling like I got a bone out of place, or an extra muscle pulling against me.
Like if I take a step without paying attention, my anklesll give and my feetll
turn on their sides.
Im getting to feeling kind of poetic.
I wonder what Moms doing? Last I heard from her
she was on a whale-watching cruise; shes done a lot of that sort of thing since
leaving Pops. I got a postcard, I think. I picture her with an iceberg in the background,
wearing an undyed wool sweater, a light smile on her face, her gray hair wet with ocean
air. Then I realize Ive got no idea what color undyed wool is.
I stand and look down. Im about thirty feet off
the ground. Theres gutters all around the edge: I couldnt hang and drop if I
Theres a tree in the yard, about six feet from
the roof. Its trunk is a brown silhouette backlit by a streetlight.
If I can make the jump, I can slide down, skinny
around the house, push my car out of hearing range and get the hell out of here.
I step back to the bathroom window and count out four
long steps to the edge. I swing my arms around behind me and stretch. No more than five
feet to the tree. Probably more like four. Even if I hit it at an angle its probably
only a couple more feet down to the next branch; I can just wrap my arms around the trunk
and slide down. I count off the steps again. Then I jump.
Theres a branch. A short, snapped-off branch
right where I hit the trunk. It catches me in the chest and knocks the breath out of me.
Then breaks off and falls away.
Somehow I get myself wrapped around the tree trunk and
slide. Until I hit a much larger branch. Then I come to a real hard stop.
It takes a couple minutes to get my breath. Then
another couple to not puke. I touch my shirt and its wet, so I touch under it.
Im bleeding in a dull, thumping trickle out of a puckered little hole in the hollow
of my chest.
Theres nothing below me. One branch about seven
feet down just far enough that if I dangled above it I
couldnt reach it with my tiptoes. I look up. Nothing within ten feet. I make the
mistake of trying to shift my weight. My chest explodes in pain.
"Steven?" Grace calls softly from below me.
I have to remind myself not to answer. Then I see her
in the yard, backlit by the house lights, her brown dress wandering around her body in the
cool breeze. She looks beautiful. And perfectly capable of finding a ladder.
"Steve," she calls, her voice just above a
whisper, "are you in that tree?"
I hold my breath.
"What are you doing up there?" she asks.
"Just thinking," I answer, careful to keep
my voice normal.
She sits down cross-legged on the lawn.
"Ive been doing a lot of that." She pulls a blade of grass and strips it
down the middle. "Can we talk?"
I dont answer.
"I could come up there," she says. "Or
you could come down."
"I cant come down," I say.
She stands slowly, dropping the torn blade of grass.
"Then Ill come up." She circles the tree and makes a couple of valiant
hops. The lowest limb is well out of her reach. "How did you get up there?"
"You really have to jump," I say.
She hops after another limb and misses it. Its a
good two feet over her head. "I dont think I can make it," she says.
"Get Pops ladder out of the garage," I
"A ladder?" She looks at me.
"We need to talk," I say quickly.
"Okay," she says, taking a step towards the
Then she stops.
She looks up and down the tree. She looks at the porch
roof. She looks right at the open bathroom window.
She slaps grass off her hands, her forehead puckered
in indecision. I hold my breath, trying to will her to just get the fucking ladder.
She turns and walks to the house.
I hear the sliding door open and close.
Her car starts up. The engine revs, hums, pulls away.
I keep waiting, wishing I could turn my head without
feeling like Ive been kicked in the chest. Wishing I could move my cramping legs.
She had to have told them where I am.
The neighbors dogs start barking, howling. They
know Im up here. I reach in my jeans pocket for something to throw at them. If I can
get them really going, maybe somebodyll come out to check on them.
I pull out a bottle cap. But the movement gets me
wobbling dangerously on my perch, and I almost lose my hold. I drop the bottle cap and
grab onto the tree.
Thats when I understand that Im not going