The man behind the counter is talking about his girlfriend.
“She got depression, you know,” he’s saying, and I’m patting my pockets for a pen, my chest, my thighs, my ass, certain that he won’t notice if I take a few notes.
“Guys like you and me,” he says, “it’s hard for us to understand. She say she don’t want to get out of bed and go to work and I say goddamit neither do I.”
“But it’s not the same for her,” he says. “She got the depression.”
“It’s not the same,” I confirmed. “It’s a medical condition.”
I almost never don’t carry a pen. I blame it on my having snuck out of the office at lunch to get this taken care of. They watch our lunches like a hawk, but I don’t think anyone saw me leave. Ordinarily I would check my pockets for a pen before I left. I can see the undercarriage of my truck through the etched glass separating the office from the garage. I don’t know what they’re looking at under there. It’s just an inspection.
“My last girlfriend had depression, too. We didn’t know it but I can see it now. She had all kinds of problems. It was the same thing. If she didn’t eat right, get up at the same time every day, get a little exercise, eat the same things, go to bed, everything mapped out, she was just a mess. Always crying. Throwing things. You know how it is.”
I have no idea how it was, but I checked myself in the mirror behind the counter and knew that I looked good, in my best dark gray suit, almost gray-flecked black, with a purple shirt that screamed authority and bold vision and the red “Singin’ In the Rain” tie that was a gift from my secretary upon her retirement some years back. I hadn’t gotten her a thing and was so embarrassed by her generosity that I wear the tie now at every opportunity, even though she is dead. The red and the purple and the black and the gray. I don’t think I can wear the tie any more though. The cheap material has been malformed by overuse and I can no longer risk it.
“We applied for disability for her up in Vermont. Wasn’t much other choice. Of course they denied her the first time. They deny everyone that first time. This is our third time now. That’s when you get it, they say.”
“Third time’s the charm.”
“That’s right. You get it.”
He rapped knuckles stained a faded sub-dermal black against the counter. He had told me that the name stitched into his uniform is not his.
“That’s exactly right,” he continued. “Third time’s the charm, as they say. So we’re kind of counting on that. When that comes through we should be able to get a new place. I can’t rent because of my record and she can’t because she got no income. We’ve been stuck in this crappy motel for months and I am ready to get out.”
“Record?” I said, craning to see what they were doing to my truck. He waved a hand in front of his face.
“It was nothing. It was 1982. I was seventeen. Did four years in Angola. That’s in Louisiana. It was no picnic I’ll tell you.”
“I don’t imagine.”
“And you know something, since I got out I’ve done nothing but work hard, pay my bills, and raise my daughter, but I still can’t rent a place on my own. Doesn’t sit too well with me. Makes me want to do something, go postal, something. But of course you can’t do that.”
“Of course not.”
The truck is a cinch to pass inspection, even with Houston’s strict emission standards. It’s not even three years old, and it’s not what you’d call a work truck. More of a showpiece. They didn’t used to make trucks like that, but that’s how you show off down here in Texas. It’s not like I have kindling to haul, brush to clear. Two men in jumpsuits argue beneath it, pointing up in turn, which makes me nervous.
“No. We moved down here from Vermont when the crisis hit. Everything dried up up there, and I knew I could find work. There’s no place to work like Texas. I’m making almost a thousand a week now. It’s more than enough, because she can’t work at all. Funny thing is that her depression didn’t get bad, real bad, until her son died. Car crash.”
“Not funny, but funny. You know. He was the same age as my daughter. They were in the same class at school and she cried up and down about it. My daughter, I mean. I remember reading it in the papers. Didn’t meet her until years later though. But I remembered, once she told me about it. Asked my daughter. The names were the same. She burst into tears again. I hate that.”
“I hear you. Seeing a woman cry. Just the worst.”
“The. Worst. You get me. My daughter’s almost grown now. I’m proud of her. She’s back in Vermont. Just got engaged. Got a good job at the warehouse, taking orders. We’ll go back for the wedding come hell or high water. I don’t care what it costs. I’ll drive all night if I have to and drag my girlfriend no matter what. She deserves to have us there.”
“Might be two nights, even,” I said.
“If I have to. There are pills. Whatever it takes.”
“You have any idea how much longer they’re going to be with my truck?”
He shrugged again.
“I don’t work in the shop no more. Can’t have no complaints though. My girlfriend, she cooks for me, she cleans, and she’s good-looking as shit. I love her. I’m a lucky man.”
I nod, unsure whether to smile, which I finally do, halfway. I had gone for a run that morning, my first in the months since the divorce. I hadn’t been feeling so hot. The problem of shaving had been holding me back. At Christmas my wife had given me a fancy electric razor, even though she had to know she was leaving me, and it would never work on a sweaty face. But this morning I figured I could shave before I went on my run. I’ve been congratulating myself all day, but as a result of the run now I’m tired, nearly dizzy, disoriented. Still almost five hours before I can go home.
Lately I’ve been overwhelmed at work. I had roast chicken leftovers and sunflower seeds for lunch. I am trying to stick to a high-protein diet. This is harder than you’d think. You can’t just eat a Big Mac.
This weekend I will meet up with old friends in Bryan, friends I haven’t seen since my wedding eighteen months ago. It will be like a reunion. I’ve promised to bring some cocaine, but it was an empty boast and I have no idea how I might get some. I consider asking the man behind the counter, who is several years older than me, but I don’t want to get him in trouble. I don’t want to send him back to jail.
“Prison,” he’s saying, “is different from jail. Jail is county; prison is state. Prison is worse.”
I shrug, unsure, and let the matter drop. My truck’s back down on all four tires, and the men in the jumpsuits stand side-by-side at a monitor, pressing keys. It must be some kind of signal to my new friend, a guy like me, because he stops talking to concentrate on the monitor. He presses a key and strokes his chin. The monitor, I’ve noticed, is cracked ancient plastic, and displays everything in blinking green text, which is sad but can’t be a surprise.
I wonder if I’ll be able to continue running. I certainly plan to, but that’s not always enough. My ex-wife would agree that I need to, but fuck her. Still, I’ll do it for myself. It just might give me the boost I need to unbury myself from the mountain of work on my desk, which is in a state of clutter so extreme that even I am embarrassed. My old friends in Bryan swear that they’ve stopped doing coke, but I know better.
I would have thought that a pending disability application has to be transferred down to Texas but my man swears that would only delay things. I bow to his superior expertise. I’ve never filed for disability, and don’t know anyone who has. I wonder just how pretty his girlfriend is, whether she’s maybe prettier than my ex-wife, which I have to doubt. My wife sure as hell never suffered from any low self-esteem. No depression. Now one of the men from the garage is sliding my keys across the frictionless counter. They might go on forever, but I catch them falling off the edge, neatly.
“You’re all set,” my friend says, sliding me a receipt to sign. I wonder if he drinks. I sure could use a drink myself. I think about asking him. I doubt I’ll go back to the office.
I give a little salute and make for the door. He wishes me luck, but although I’m grateful it seems like the situation ought to be reversed. And yet it isn’t. In my luxury truck I run my knuckles across the newly appliqued sticker, smooth. The air conditioner runs so strong that it almost erases the Houston summer. It almost seems like it could do this. I’ve sweat through this tie before, which doubtless hastened its demise. I’ll miss it. Kicking the automatic transmission into reverse--forgoing the standard is one of my few regrets--I turn around to face the traffic but Airport Drive is surprisingly empty. Maybe I’ll get Cuban food for dinner from that new place off 59 and cull the leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. I think plantains are OK on this new diet. The fiber. I’m shivering in the air conditioning, a cold sweat like an illness. It’s a good feeling. Having had lunch I don’t have anywhere in particular to go but I merge onto the 10 and begin eating up exits in the left lane. It is not yet rush hour. The feelings fade and morph into something else. I hope that my new friend gets her disability. Something good to happen to someone. I hope they find a nice place to live and to rent and that she finds some relief from working in their garden, fixing him his dinner, sweating in the sun. I could roll down the window. At this speed--approaching 90 now--I could roll down the window and undo my tie and make it my flag to fly in the wind. But no. That would only muss my hair, and I’m better than that. The 10 goes on for a good long while. There’s plenty of time to go home.
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Enjoy, and Viva La Toucan
Laura, Toucan Editrice
Enjoy, and Viva La Toucan
Laura, Toucan Editrice