I want to tell you a story. It’s a little story about friends, hard work, bad love, and murder. I’m a physical guy. I’m no writer. So getting this story on paper won’t be the easiest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m thinking, how hard can it be? What if I just rock back and fire, like you and me were sitting at my kitchen table having a cup of coffee, shooting the breeze? I don’t see why that wouldn’t get the job done.
Here’s me: Terry Saltz. Six-five. Twenty-six. Smart-ass. Long hair tied back with a piece of leather shoelace. Black mustache that tends to turn down at the ends. Plaid flannel shirts, and the elbows on most of them are threadbare or blown out altogether. Old faded jeans, and I didn’t buy ‘em that way. Work boots.
I’m a carpenter. I build stuff. I like the smell of sawdust. Put me up in the air walking a beam with a hammer in my hand and my tool belt riding low, thumpin’ and bumpin’, and I’m a happy man. Yeah.
My story started like this: Back in the early nineties I hit a rough patch. I guess I let some things pile up on me and I guess I wasn’t handling the stress or whatever. I got stoned and drunk in a bar one night, trashed the place, hit some guys, got arrested, pleaded guilty, and went to jail.
Besides the jail time, I got a big old fine, about a bajillion hours of community service, and a shitload of probation. While I was in jail I lost my job, my wife, my truck, and my mobile home. Losing that truck was the part that hurt the most. It was the first vehicle I ever bought new. I loved that truck.
I thought it was pretty much the end of the line for me. I was a busted, divorced, unemployed loser. Sitting in jail. The future looked like a big ugly brick wall.
Danny Gillespie was about the only one of my friends who stuck by me. Old Danny, he visited me in jail, kept a straight face while he listened to all my bitching and moaning, and eventually asked me what I was gonna do when I got out. Which I said I had no idea. He said I could move in with him. I said that was really decent of him and I’d think it over.
I’d lived with my wife, Marylou, the party of the first part, hereinafter referred to as the Bitch, in the southernmost tip of Grand County, which is in northeastern Ohio. But the courthouse, and therefore my probation officer, were in Spencer, in the northern part of the county. And Danny lived in Spencer. And I didn’t have my truck anymore. So I thought about it and decided moving in with Danny was a good idea because at least I’d be in walking distance of my PO.
Another plus for moving in with Danny was that I’d be at the other end of the county from the Bitch. So I called him and said if his offer was still good, I’d take him up on it. He said great.
On the day I got released, Danny took off from work and drove all the way down to what was now the Bitch’s trailer to get my hand tools and my clothes, which she’d left in a heap in the carport. Then he picked me up at the jail and we cruised up to Spencer.
Danny lived in the attic apartment of an unrestored century home on Oak Street, two blocks down the hill from Spencer’s town square. His place was old, tiny, and grim compared to my ex-trailer, but at that point I was just happy to be with a friend and have a roof over my head.
Once we got my stuff carried up to his apartment and stashed in his spare bedroom, Danny opened his refrigerator door, pulled out a six-pack, and brought it into his living room. He flopped his lanky frame down onto the worst-looking piece-of-shit sofa I ever saw – which I couldn’t even tell what color it was supposed to be – pulled a can loose, popped the top, and made to hand the other five cans to me.
I shook my head. “Nope. I’m done with that shit for a while.”
He looked at me funny. Then he pulled his bowl out of his pocket and started packing it. He looked up at me with his shaggy golden eyebrows raised.
I wanted to help him burn it. I wanted that beer, too. It was a hot day for early June, and his attic apartment was stifling, and I was having the first day of the rest of my life. But I shook my head.
“Done with that, too,” I said.
I went into the bathroom, which I couldn’t even stand up straight in it, since it was crammed against the sloping attic roof, and splashed cold water on my face. Then, carefully ducking my head to get through the low doorframe, I went into what was now my bedroom and looked at my boxes and bags of hand tools and clothes lined up along one wall.
I’d been hanging around for twenty-six years, and that was all I had to show for it. Nice.
Since there was no bed, I stretched out on the ratty old extra blanket Danny had left in there and took a nap. His floor was only a little harder than the bunk I’d been sleeping on in jail.
Danny’s a big guy, just a little shorter than me. He’s got freckles and he smiles a lot. Most days he wears his reddish gold hair in a ponytail like me. He’s a roofer, same age as me, and has a girl here and there he can call when he feels like it. He’s pretty happy with himself, and by the time I moved in with him, he was pretty set in his ways. He liked to start off every working morning with a shower and then breakfast at Brewsters’.
Danny likes Brewsters’. It’s a hometown restaurant, bacon-smelling, holes-in-the-burgundy-vinyl kind of place. It sits at one end of a long strip mall, looking out across a big parking lot at another strip mall. Most of the waitresses know most of the regulars by name, and the menu never changes.
It’s a big, wide-open room with windows all across the front, so the retired and unemployed who like to sit in there all day, drinking coffee and trading conspiracy theories, can monitor the comings and goings in the parking lot, which also serves the Thriftway, the hardware store, the hair salon, the bank, the drugstore, and a bunch of other little shops and businesses.
There’s a line of booths down each wall, a double row of booths down the middle, a lunch counter in back, and tables down each side of the center booths. Back in the early nineties you could smoke in there, and talk loud, and hit on the waitresses, and nobody cared.
That first morning I got up and threw on a pair of jeans while Danny took his shower. While he was still in the bathroom, he yelled for me to come on to Brewsters’ with him and get some breakfast. What else did I have to do?
So I pulled on a T-shirt and a flannel shirt hanging open over that, dragged a comb through my hair and tied it back, and tagged along. I hated that he had to pay for my number four, but he said bullshit, I would have done the same for him, and that was true. I would have.
That’s how the first week or so went. Every morning we went to Brewsters’ and got breakfast. Then Danny went off to his roofing job and I walked back to the house on Oak Street and spent the day reading the help wanted ads or staring at his crappy little TV, cursing myself for being such a loser asshole that I had lost everything I had, including my employability. Or so I thought.
The walk home from Brewsters’ took me past Carlo’s, a busy little pizza place down in the opposite corner of the same strip mall as Brewsters’. Every day I looked at all the little green Carlo’s Hyundai delivery cars sitting in their back parking lot, and, when Tuesday rolled around, I noticed a big sign somebody had stuck in the window that said Help Wanted Drivers Waitresses.
Of course, at eight in the morning, Carlo’s isn’t open yet. I walked on by and continued up to the courthouse for my scheduled heart-to-heart with my probation officer, which she was out sick and they said I should come back the following Tuesday at ten a.m.
I couldn’t stand the thought of going back to the house, so I kept on walking. Spencer is kind of a busy little town. Pretty, too. Lots of big old century homes with interesting architecture hunker along the wide tree-lined streets that run in all directions down the hill from the town square.
That day I walked up and down some of those streets, studying the houses. At one point I made use of an old stone water fountain on the town square and then sat at a picnic table for a long time, watching the traffic crawl around the perimeter of the square, and watching the happy lawyers and the miserable defendants going in and out of the county courthouse.
After a while I got another drink from that fountain and went roaming again. In the middle of the afternoon I found myself back down in the parking lot between the two strip malls. I walked to the end where Carlo’s is and more or less wandered inside without giving much thought to what I was doing.
The woman at the front counter was about my age, maybe a few years older. She was attractive, slender, and had short brown hair and smart green eyes. She was busy telling a guy to run up to the Thriftway for a bag of onions. Then a phone rang and she took an order for two large pizzas.
I stood there long enough to see that she was large and in charge, so I might as well tell her my worst news right up front, because she’d do what she was gonna do, no matter what kind of bullshit I tried to lay on her. You know? I mean, some women you can bullshit. Others, not so much.
When she looked at me and smiled, signaling me to state my business, I said, “I’d like to apply for a job as a driver, but I just got out of jail.”
She blinked and looked me over for a minute, a smirk beginning to show at one corner of her mouth. The kind of smirk a woman has when she’s maybe known another man or two who just got out of jail. Then she said, “How’s your driving record?”
“Perfect,” I said, and I remember being surprised to realize that in all the garbage heap of my life I did have one perfect thing. My driving record. I stood a little straighter. No I didn’t. Come on.
She said, “Do you have a car?”
“No. I’d have to drive one of those little Korean pieces of shit you have parked in the back.” Then I smiled at her and said, “Heh.”
She nodded and thought about me for a bit. Then she said, “How do you take your coffee?”