Volume 25, Number 1

A Holiday Bow

Mike Bates

I throw the transmission into neutral, and when I rev the engine to keep it from stalling, a cloud of exhaust belches, dark and foul, into the drizzle of the new year.

The light changes, and I release the clutch—too fast, I’ll confess. My pickup lurches into motion as I turn it, left, onto Main Street. The shepherd’s pie on the seat next to me, the one I’d prepared for Rosemary’s family this morning, slides across the vinyl upholstery towards the passenger door.

The radio breaks into a song from Montgomery Gentry, one of them feel-good country songs with a different twist on the same ol’ theme, “might be things I wish I had, but when I look at where I’m at, I ain’t got it all that bad.

I allowed myself to get caught up in the spirit of the season, I guess.

The drifts of fresh snow had turned the barren landscape into a scene from one of them Currier and Ives cards. Garlands, colored lights and trim concealed the cracks in the harmony of our little rambler. The smells and sounds of the holidays, of mulling spice on the stove and carols on the tongue, softened the reality of yet another year of dashed expectations under the tree.

Just another memory, it is now, and a bad one at that. The snow that fell before the holidays, it’s already melting along the road, and I’m reminded of why it is I hate this time of year when I see the patches covering the ground, gray and crusted over like the outbreak of psoriasis.

And this business with Rosemary.

I got the call last night. It’s one thing to be confronted with that kinda news over the telephone, where it’s still possible to put a wall up between you and the caller’s pain, and another thing altogether when the caller is your best friend.

Last time I saw her was before the holidays. We’d met at Matt’s Saloon, Rosemary and me, with the husbands. The beer had been cheap. The band had been lively. The men had cleaned up nice, for once. There were none of that manly swagger that usually goes with too many pitchers of Bud Light, and very few of those raunchy leers at the pretty barmaid with no visible means of support.

Bless her little heart.

The husband had even consented to dance. He’d taken Rosemary for a go, and I’d took a turn or two with Wayne, Rosemary’s husband. Wayne had seemed so confident through the side-step-side, so healthy as he led me through the twists of that two-step.

That was two weeks or so ago, before the thaw.

I turn on the wipers, but the reservoir’s empty, and the blades can’t keep up with the sand and road salt that keeps splashing up onto my windshield from the oncoming traffic.

The trailer park, there, on the south side of the road catches my eye. “Shady Acres,” the sign says, for that canopy of elm and cottonwood that manages to make the rows of singlewides look almost inviting in the summer months. Usually I get a kick out of it—the use of a name suggesting seediness to imply comfort, in connection with a trailer park, of all things.

The very image of seedy, it is.

Right now, them elm and cottonwood reach skyward, forlorn and desperate, and they’re making Montgomery Gentry feel almost psychic. Free love, drugs and alcohol, that’s what they’re singing about, complete with a fall and a brush with death before a repeat of the chorus, “me, I got lucky, found a landing pad; hey, I ain’t got it all that bad.

Them lyrics, they’re hitting just a bit too close to home.

It’s a capital offense in these parts, but I listen to Diane Rehm once in a while—when the husband isn’t with me, that is. Jesus couldn’t get elected dog catcher in this county if he were a Democrat, and Diane Rehm is just another one of those elitist liberal media types, a rung or two above Jane Fonda, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi, or any other woman for that matter who dares to buck the men in what they regard as their fiefdom.

At least she’s current, Diane Rehm, a far cry from Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, or the husband’s favorite, Alex Jones, over on the AM dial. You’re not bombarded with partisan talking points delivered in that condescending voice of reason or, worse yet, the impassioned voice of hate.

Today, she’s covering the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the latest in a string of disasters that has turned bible thumpers in our little community all apocalyptic. There are no sides to this story, just tragedies, hundreds of thousands of ’em, and Diane manages to report it all in that cool voice of compassion that makes pity your only choice unless you’re completely hardened to human suffering.

We’d watched the coverage this morning on Fox and Friends, the husband and me. We should do something, I’d said, as much to myself as to him, while I was whipping the ground beef with tomato sauce before layering the green beans and potato buds in over the top.

He’s not a bad man, the husband, just angry—and probably a little scared, truth be told. It ain’t unusual when you live on this side of town, to be scared.

A picture’s worth a thousand words, they say, and a trip down Main Street is full of ‘em—pictures that is. That diner there, Zeke’s, the one that used to serve the good biscuits ‘n gravy, out of business. Same with the auto repair over there, Hometown Radiator. And the car dealership, City Motors. Not to mention the barber shop, the market, the local bank and a handful of other businesses farther on down the road, all boarded up and vacant.

Honestly, if it weren’t for the Walmart that went in a couple of years back, we’d be in a world of hurt right now, what with nowhere to do our shopping.

Anyways, we don’t talk much most mornings, the husband and me. Something’s always coming between us, and by something, I usually mean money.

This morning wasn’t any different. Except this morning, it was that woman, the one on the television from Thailand standing in front of the rubble of what used to be her business.

“Who is going to help us?” I hear her ask, right after I suggested we might do something, and all the husband could do is glare at me like I’d it planned all along.

He’s right, the husband. We can’t hardly take care of ourselves, though I’d never give him the satisfaction.

I ain’t no Clara Barton or nothing, I said to him. But what if? What if there’s more to this life than just taking care of your own? What if using what little you got left, even if it’s a pittance, to help one person in this world you ain’t obligated to help is the best damn thing you can do with this life?

That was the end of it, as far as he was concerned, or so I gathered from his tone of voice.

I signal to make the turn, left again, onto Rosemary’s street, when I’m caught unawares by an ambulance racing through the intersection from my right. I forget to depress the accelerator when I engage the clutch, and the engine sputters to a stop, leaving me stuck right in front of the new hospital.

The story of my life, it is. Slow down, push the clutch, hit the accelerator, shift the gears, and hold onto the wheel, all the while looking out for the other guy as they used to say on the television. Or, to put it into terms the husband can understand, service the mortgage, cancel the insurance and hold off the utility companies all while struggling to keep food on the table.

Pay your bills, we’re told. Pay to play. Pay as you go. Pay it down. Pay it forward. Rob Peter to pay Paul. It’s all the same.

Pay the piper’s more like it. It’s gotten so you can’t buy groceries and pay the electric bill in the same week, not without canceling that trip to the doctor for that lump that’s got you all worried.

I look up at that hospital in annoyance as I attempt to restart the engine.

“Another step on the road to progress,” that’s what them bigwigs down at City Hall told us when the thing went up. Whose progress, I have to wonder. Them red brick walls, they lord over this town like a fortress, all embattlements and buttresses and turrets or something. Intended to keep the rabble out, that’s what they are, not invite us in.

I never could figure who it was the hospital was going to help, since “the best medical system in the world,” or so I’ve heard it called, is beyond the reach of most of us. The sign outside the emergency room entrance might as well read, “don’t bother unless you got insurance”—or unless you’re on your deathbed, thanks to good ol’ Ronnie Reagan.

Just ask Rosemary—Rosemary and Wayne.

He suffered the heart attack days after his employer shut down the factory out of the blue, not a day or two into the new year.

Outsourcing, the newspaper had called it. Jobs, payroll, and most important for Rosemary and Wayne, medical insurance, that’s what I call it. All lost with a decision of management to give the job to a stranger living somewhere in a strange land willing to do the same work for next to nothing.

The same people on the television this morning asking for our help, if I’m not mistaken.

I have to wonder sometimes. Who’s really to blame, them managers waving the American flag over the altar of capitalism, as if it’s some kind of state religion, or them foreigners.

You people, I hear them sayin’, them managers out there proclaiming the virtues of free enterprise. You people working to hold onto shitty jobs paying shittier wages. Other countries take care of their workers. Not this one. No way. You’re Americans. You should consider yourself lucky to live in this here land of the free and home of the brave. Who else can claim the honor of being fodder for the single best machine for making money known to man?

Other people’s money, of course, not ours.

I get the engine going again with a cough and another plume of black smoke, and merge back into the traffic to the blare of horns.

Rosemary’s street used to represent everything I’d ever wanted in my life, the rows of tract housing with well-kept lawns, with precious little yard ornaments like flamingos, gnomes and those cute little black men wearing jockey uniforms visible behind picket fences.

We didn’t dream very big growing up. Find a man, get married, and everything will be fine. That’s what we were told. What more could a girl ask for, right? A husband, a home and a lifetime dusting bureaus and polishing silver as you wait, baby on your hips, for the man of the house to return from work and sweep you off your feet with a warm embrace and a passionate kiss?

Like that ever happens.

Life was so simple. Give it your best. Don’t ask for no favors. Believe in the power of Providence. That’s all that was required to make it in this world. It might have worked for the parents, but the rules changed. Discipline, thrift and faith, they don’t cut it no more, and I'll be damned if I can’t tell you why.

How much like Christmas it must’ve seemed, all wrapped up and topped off with a great big bow, and it still does if I’m being honest with myself. Those dreams, the buildup waiting for your life to start and the disappointment when it sneaks up and passes you by. It has to be one of the dirty little secrets of our world. What’s under the gift-wrapping never comes close to making up for all the fuss.

That’s all I got to say about that.

These homes, they’re a blessing and a curse, a break against the storm and the dungeon in which we live out our miserable little lives, and the insulated walls ain’t nearly thick enough to contain the bitterness.

Rosemary’s house looks just like all the other houses on this humble little street. Four walls and a collection of rooms laid out in the common pattern, a den with a big picture window in the front, a kitchen to the back, one bathroom down the hall and a couple of bedrooms at the end of the hall, one for the adults in the back and the other for the children in the front. The only thing that sets it apart is the color, hot pink—Rosemary’s favorite color—and the willow growing in the front yard.

I park the pickup and kill the engine, not even thinking about whether it’ll start again.

Rosemary startles me when she opens her door. She’s shrunken, small and vulnerable, not at all the gal I’ve leaned upon for support for the better part of my life. Her mask is off, the one she wears for a world that would just as soon trade her soul for a dollar. The air of skepticism, the confidence and the nerve she puts on as the cost of getting by in this world, they’re all gone, and in their place I see the little girl, at the mercy of forces none of us understand or can protect ourselves against.

We hug. We cry. We share the burden of her grief.

That’s when she shows me the first of the bills, an invoice for the helicopter that took Wayne to the hospital. She laughs, one of those cruel sorts of snorts, as she describes the expense as an obligation they won’t—“never in a hundred years” she says—be able to repay.

“We’re ruined,” she starts in.

“It’s all Wayne’s fault.”

“I told him when he lost his job.”

“That employer of his.”

“The government.”

“Them Democrats.”

“How could something like this happen?”

“To us?”

“We’re God fearin’.”

“We work hard.”

“We don’t ask for handouts, not like a lotta other folks.”

She wears herself out cursing a hundred different culprits, then confides in me that Wayne just tells her she doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she gets like this.

“Well, tell me, then, I ask him.”

“What am I missing?”

“You’re just a woman, he says.”

“You’re just like a man, I shoot back.”

“Doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and cain’t tell me what he does know.”

I can’t help thinking it sounds just like my conversation with the husband this morning.

“We don’t have a pot to piss in,” she says finally.

“What are we going to do?”

“Who is going to help us?”

We cry, and we hug, and it all starts over.

There’s something I remember reading somewhere, maybe one of them lady’s journals, the ones at the salon with all of the pretty recipes and the little quizzes that tell you whether the husband is cheating.

Or maybe it was the checkout stand at the Walmart, in one of them tabloids with Oprah and that guy—what’s his name, Stedman?—on the cover.

Charitable thoughts and gratitude, that was it. They’re supposed to make you feel better about your miserable life, as I recall, or at least make it a little easier to bear.

By the time I have to leave, I am feeling a little bit better, what with the opportunity to comfort Rosemary and all. I kiss her on her forehead. I tell her I’ll be back. I let myself out. I pull the collar of my coat up around my ears, and scurry through the drizzle to my pickup. I hop in and insert the key, never once thinking about my problems.

The motor heaves, one, two, three times.

I let ’er rest for a second before trying again.

The motor heaves a fourth time, and then it freezes up with a screech.

I sit there for I don’t know how long, all my bad humor boiling back up, dark and foul. The weather, the husband, the sorry state of our lives, this town, Rosemary and now this pickup, they’re all in there swirling around with that tumult of emotions.

“Who can I call to help me?”

I hear the words, except it’s my voice speaking, not that woman’s on the television or Rosemary’s.

I look up, and that’s when I see Rosemary standing in her front window, a cup of coffee in each hand, one raised in an invitation to me.

And she manages the flicker of a smile.