By Tom Molanphy
Duane cracks the top from the hairspray can with a rock in the parking lot. This is somewhat dangerous- CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE -so Morris and David sit a safe distance away. But Duane has done this many times, so all that results from his blow is a mean hiss of packed air. Duane carries the can over to Morris, who holds a plastic milk jug half-filled with water between his legs. He pours the hairspray into the jug. The brilliant green liquid spirals out of the purple can of Aquanet and glows in the weak touches of the winter sun. For $1.79, all three will get drunk.
I watch this scene in the back of the House of Charity with Harlan. He drops the hot nipple of his cigarette and grinds it underneath his black boot heel. From the inside pocket of his faded denim jacket, he pulls out a book of crisp rolling papers and peels one off. After he taps out some earthy tobacco from a worn leather pouch, he licks one side, rolls it, and lights up. He gives me a droll look. Living in the back of his truck in the House of Charity parking lot, Harlan finds little excitement in people drinking hairspray.
Harlan has kept an eye on me ever since I became assistant manager of this homeless shelter in Spokane, WA eight months ago. He’s been at the shelter since he got out of jail last year, so he knows the guys and their ways pretty well. The first day he met me, he told me to watch out for one-eyed Ray, especially when Ray began to refer to me as “his buddy.” After several months with this title, I did believe Ray was my buddy. It was Harlan who had to roll him out of the front door when Ray pulled a knife on me for not letting him drink his whiskey in the office. I took Harlan’s advice from then on.
Some seagulls circle overhead, screaming. Morris shakes the jug to mix the contents, and then passes it to David, the oldest of the three. He takes a long draw. He passes it to Morris. The two waiting for the jug sit quietly, legs outstretched and hands folded gently in their laps. No rush. Like a ritual. The seagulls scream.
Harlan takes a long drag of his cigarette, crosses his legs and props his elbows on the hood of his truck behind him. Underneath his beaten green cap, his red and white beard furrows over a smile, and his brown eyes dance with mischievous amusement. I’ve never come out and watched people drink hairspray before, but I’ve heard the stories.
“You here for the show?” he asks. “Takes Indians about an hour to get warmed up.” I don’t answer, just stare at the three men against the wall. Harlan notices I’m outside my jurisdiction. “You’re not going to try to stop them, are you?” I keep watching the men. Harlan laughs. “Well, you’re a real rascal, aren’t you? This will be a show!” He settles in against his truck.
When I was ten, I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Dallas, Texas. One day during math, Sister Angelina, the principal, strode into the classroom and asked to have a few words with our teacher, Sr. Annabelle. I remember Sr. Annabelle’s usual pleasant expression sliding off her face and crashing in my stomach. She looked very upset.
“Someone in my class made a racist comment to Sharlene Phillips in the third grade today at recess,” she announced sternly. “What I mean by racist is that someone here made her feel bad for being black. I want that person who said that something bad to come forward.”
The sisters stared at the class. A silence settled over us, freezing us together. Fear felt like ice, and if someone was to move, we might all shatter with it. But the badness was frozen somewhere in one of our tiny guts, and we had to chip away our insides to find it. Most of our class was Mexican American kids, and they looked worse than I felt. They knew they’d get it either way. Even if found innocent, once their rosary clutching grandmas heard about the incident, it’d be Hail Marys for the whole night.
Did I do this badness? I began to wonder. Maybe I said something I forgot. I remembered playing dodgeball and Sharlene was on the other team and I think I got her out and maybe I said something mean and I wasn’t sure. I was sure I wanted to turn sister’s stare off, her hot floodlight that washed underneath our fingernails and melted our frozen insides to see what inky evil might leak out. And I feared this heat was only the beginning. Soon she would thaw each individual soul, one at a time, twisting and straining it dry until everyone could witness the damp badness that lay pulsating at our shoes. I was about to confess something, anything, when Kelly Rupert stood up and walked to sister. My memory paints her as the whitest girl ever, a ghost trailing the principal out of the room. The whole class let out a held breath. Sr. Annabelle gave us her best “If you feel really bad about this now you might someday be sort of good” look – it’s a stare held over old glasses through eyes that water instead of blink. In her silent stare, we were made to understand how evil was in all of us. Hot pinchers were needed to extract evil, punishing the bad and scalding the good from further infection.
“You’re gonna wanna go before they finish, aren’t ya?” Harlan asks. The three certainly drink heartily. David is already belligerent, waving around a bowie knife that the others know he won’t use. I scrape the asphalt with my foot, like I can uncover the answer there. Harlan chuckles.
I was taught in high school by Cistercian monks who had escaped Hungary when the Soviet Union invaded in 1961. One day in class, Fr. Leo Keretzky confronted Steve Phillips about the dark spots under his desk. The rest of the class knew the dark spots were from the chewing tobacco that Steve juiced onto the carpet every third period or so, much to our enjoyment. Fr. Leo was half-blind, half-deaf, and half in Hungary, 1953. He wasn’t familiar with chewing tobacco stains.
Steve wasn’t talking, and Fr. Leo’s bald head was just percolating to a nice reddish finish. As the rest of us settled back to enjoy this encounter between our ace baseball reliever and a 64-year old who wrote his dissertation in four languages, Donald Huffman calmly announced, “Father, the stain on the carpet is from chewing tobacco. Steve uses it in the class regularly.”
I think we would have been less shocked if Fr. Leo had pulled his habit over his head to reveal a Metallica tattoo on his ass. Huffman had broken the code of “us vs. them” without even flinching. Fr. Leo clasped him heartily on the shoulder, welcoming him to the dark side. Even after school, after Steve suspended Donald by his underwear on the hook to his locker door, Donald was not contrite. “I did the right thing,” Donald said through sobs. We saw a do-gooder, and he was a pimply-faced boy swinging from his tightie-whities who preferred Hungarians with shafts of hair exploding from their ears to his own kind.
“Harlan, gimme a smoke.” Rusty Redbear, hand outstretched, is suddenly next to Harlan and me. Harlan eyes him calmly. Rusty doesn’t inspire calm, though; spittle comes from his mouth easier than words and his movements aren’t motion as much as controlled attacks. Although he has the better half of a cigarette hanging from his mouth, Harlan had rolled an extra one. Rusty looks hopefully at the new cigarette in Harlan’s hands.
“Are you the same Rusty Redbear that owes me five dollars from last month?” Harlan asks quietly. Rusty’s dark face goes pale. He looks away from the cigarette up at Harlan, and then his face returns to a fiercer dark. His outstretched hand collapses into a fist. He swears and spits some curse and stomps off. Harlan chuckles. He puts the extra cigarette behind his ear. He looks at me with that twinkle in his eye. “What now, sport?” he asks, smiling, motioning to the three against the wall. Maybe it’s a dare, I don’t know.
I remember my first months at the shelter. Every person was dirty, smelly and drunk. I was the baby-skinned college boy who didn’t know nothing about nothing. The men cursed me and threatened me. The Native Americans scared me the most. They were rude when they were drunk, but when the alcohol drained from them, they were filled with something worse, a spiteful vileness that danced the good from their bodies. My insides grew calluses and I pledged to make it through the year safely.
Then I discovered Freddie Oldhorn could beat me in checkers even when he couldn’t stand. Bob had a briefcase full of hospital bills that he could never pay but collected. Rusty Redbear’s wife, a surprisingly attractive woman, arrived and escorted him out of the shelter one day, holding him in her arms as he cried. Charlie sang Willie Nelson in the shower. George went to the same high school as my father. One-eyed Ray met my mother and called her a beautiful woman. William spoke fluent Spanish. Larry coughed when he told stories. Larry would give me TB. Larry told good stories. Dewey called me ‘hippie’ and tried to drink his whiskey inside. Phyllis and Jack decided to jump a train to Wenatchee but Jack was too drunk and lost his leg. Bob never likes his bags to be touched. Carl hates milk in his coffee. Johnny Six-Gun thinks you’re a woman if you sleep indoors during the winter. Loretta thinks Johnny Six-Gun can’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. Loretta would die of hepatitis during the winter. Everybody beats up Sam when I’m not looking because they say he molests school children. I unwittingly served fifty people half-cooked beans that crunched like peanuts and every one of them said, “Thank-you.” Duane slept with a night-lite. Phil would curse me to hell in front of his friends and then cry on my shoulder alone. Karl’s laundry always stank. Billy was a pyro. Moose was a klepto. Harlan was a good cook. Half of the guys were vets. An anonymous client left me a thank-you card and five dollars for lunch.
Walking over to the three against the wall, I dig my hands into my pockets. My stare eats up the cold asphalt of the alley. I have no idea what I’m going to say or do. Maybe if I just talk, I can get them to talk. We can talk. And then, maybe we’ll talk about other things to do, or they’ll think of other things to do. They’ll forget about what they’re doing, and they’ll do something else. Seems reasonable.
I see their feet just a few yards ahead and look up. The jug is down, and all three, sitting with backs against the wall, stare at me. Morris pushes his glasses up from the tip of his nose. David’s body shivers in the sun. Duane smiles politely.
“Do..ah..do you guys want something to eat? We got a donation of cookies today.” It’s the first thing that comes to my mind. Morris, his frail body crumpled as if he’s been beaten against the wall, looks at me though his over-sized shades that cover half his face in darkness. I can see one of his eyes is cringed closed, the other opened just a bit, and he moves his head forward like he’s looking hard at something he doesn’t recognize. David’s already drunk, and when he’s drunk, he always yells at me in some Indian tongue. I don’t think he’s asking for cookies.
“Yeah, that’d be great.” Duane seems to respond because no one else does, but it’s enough for me. I rush inside the shelter, unlock the kitchen door, and grab Granny’s chocolate chip cookies out of the fridge like they cure cancer. I fill my pockets with them. I clutch as many as I can with each hand.
When I was in college, I traveled with a group of volunteers to Buras, Louisiana, to help on relief work from hurricane Hugo. We walked from trailer home to trailer home through dirt roads turned to swamp to shovel out a thick, black sludge laying sometimes three feet deep in kitchens and bedrooms. Most of the families watched us from the bay, swaying in the refuge of their great iron shrimp boats. After work, the families boiled up crawfish and corn and red potatoes for our dinner and played zydeco music for our entertainment. One burned my mouth, the other my ears. They taught us how to Cajun dance, and as the moon went up and the Abita beer went down, we heard stories of Huey Long and the three previous hurricanes. I heard about great pain without having to live through it. Felt like a lucky thief and wanted to feel that way again.
They each take one cookie and leave me with my pockets full. The plastic wrappers crinkle noisily as I nervously sway from one foot to the other. I sound like I wear diapers. They stop drinking when I come back. The jug sits in front of Duane, three feet before me. I could easily kick it over, but that would be somehow disrespectful. Respect is a twisted thing.
I talk about the weather.
“Thanks for the cookies,” Morris says quickly. They want me to leave, so they can resume drinking.
“I’ve got more, you know,” I offer, spilling some of my magic cookies on the ground.
“We know,” he says quietly, as if talking to a child. Morris, although not the oldest, is the leader and the smartest of the three. When he’s not drunk, he tells me great stories, like the time Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda helicoptered in supplies when he and some friends were holed up in South Dakota against the feds. He has an incredible patience with me as I stand crinkling, like his senses are all accustomed to something like me. He’s heard me before, smelled me before, seen me before. His complete familiarity with me makes it seem very unnecessary for me to be there. I leave feeling something might have passed between us if we knew how to get out of its way.
I return to Harlan. He looks at me and chuckles. I chuckle back.
“I don’t know, Harlan.”
“I know,” he answers, smiling.
Copyright Molanphy 2012