Continued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 9 — Guidance
Mitch, leaning against the building and taking a long drag from a cigarette, peeled flecks of dried paint from his fingers. Two new tenants were moving in that weekend, and it was his job to lay a fresh coat of paint in their apartments. It was a job he’d have delegated to Scott under normal circumstances, but in light of Scott’s recent desire for oversized women’s undergarments, Mitch was stuck with the grunt work. One down and one to go.
The descending sun was pulling long shadows across the parking lot and he looked up the access road at a cluster of school kids. He wondered why they were getting home so late. Detention, sports practice, extra help. Or maybe they were just wandering around the island like he did at that age. It’d be nice to have the life of a school kid, he thought as he watched them pass. Get home whenever and have dinner cooked and ready. Take some time to figure out math problems, write a few paragraphs, flirt on the telephone. The fleeting fantasy briefly overran his current problems—the short-handed maintenance unit, a sick dog, and a growing gambling debt.
He flicked away the spent cigarette and made a mental note to get his picks in for that Sunday’s NFL games. He was due for a lucky week.
As Mitch passed one of the apartments, he heard distorted arguing voices—the turned-up-too-loud trailer-trash on a television engaged in heated battle. As the tension climbed, their voices pitched in anger and the words became indistinguishable, but that seemed par for the show as the nearly-identical plot unraveled each afternoon. Misfits of America united onstage to banter back and forth over an issue for which it was obvious from the get-go that there was no resolution. This day’s episode profiled teenage girls with newly grown boobs spilling out of their tanktops. Occasionally a girl rose from her seat on the stage and pranced in front of her obese, tattooed mother. “I make more money in a half hour on my back than you make in a month,” the girl-of-the-moment taunted. She bent toward her shaking mother, the bottoms of her ass cheeks forced beneath the cuffs of her tight shorts for living room America to evaluate.
“But what will you do when you can’t do this any more?” The host of the show looked puzzled. He feigned concern, but it was apparent to even those with little intelligence (the majority of the viewing audience) that he was probably more worried about where he would vacation that winter than with the welfare of this young tramp.
“I have enough . . . .”
Ellen muted the television, cutting off the discourse between the overpaid-host and his under-dressed guest. She turned her attention to the new issue of TV guide that she pulled from the mail box just after lunch. Boredom had set in, as it usually did in the hours between the soaps and the night-time dramas. She rarely had the ambition to read a book and the prospect of searching for a new job seemed to have abandoned her long ago. As long as the government kept helping out, she really saw no incentive to even think about it. Why would anyone want to scrub motel toilets or run a supermarket check out, when an equal-sized check showed up every Wednesday afternoon?
A newly crowned star graced the cover of the squat magazine and she puzzled herself in an attempt to place him. She knew she’d seen him before but couldn’t decide whether his fame derived from sitcoms or dramas. In all probability, she figured, he was a sitcom star. She didn’t watch those types of shows. Instead, she paid attention to the real life “probable” story lines. Her favorites were the hospital dramas that depicted those cute young doctors who needed to balance the conflicts of their personal lives with those that sprung up in the emergency room. The consistent struggle to lead a normal life while coping with external pressure held great appeal for her. But she also enjoyed the glossy shows like Beverly Hills 90210 which explored the petty lives of all of the beautiful people whose dilemmas evolved while they crashed their sports cars, fashioned love triangles with one another, and coped with pending adulthood.
As she explored the television listings for the evening, Ellen heard a key rattle in the door. She shut the magazine, wedged it between the cushions on the couch and waited for Cooper.
He let the door fall shut behind him with caution, hoping that his mother was asleep on the couch. Waking her always proved disappointing, forcing him to stand before her, as if on trial, and field questions ranging from his day at school to his activities following the dismissal bell. This aspect of their relationship had cultivated Cooper’s ability to lie as he usually needed to sculpt an alternate version of the truth in order to satisfy her. As he climbed through adolescence, he found it more difficult to appease his mother. She expected only good things from him and needed to know that he was hanging with the right crowd. It was no matter that she spent afternoons lazing on the couch with a cigarette stuffed between her lips. He was to do something productive with his time.
“Where ya been?” she called toward the closing door.
He didn’t detect anger in her voice, but remained wary just the same. In the past she amazed him by speaking in soft toned questions that proved to be thinly disguised accusations. In short, a “where ya been” from his mother just may be a “you are late and I’m pissed”, or a “have you gotten in any trouble”, or a “why weren’t you here? I needed you to run to the store for me.” But, then again, it could’ve just been a face value “where ya been?”
Cooper walked home from school again that day. The bulge of noise from the overcrowded bus was unappealing in the first place, but he decided to see if there might be an empty seat near the front. On such a hot afternoon, band geeks and blubber-necked girls seemed better than the hooting jocks in the back. He stood at the top of the short stairwell, waiting for the line to crush its way down the thin aisle toward the rear of the bus. The fetid air seemed to grab hold of his windpipe and he imagined it as a glimpse of what it’d be like to ride in the trunk of a car. “Grab a seat,” the driver barked at nobody in particular, pus dribbling from a purple cyst above her lip, and sweat stains the size of dinner plates circling out from her armpits. Cooper then retraced his steps to the sidewalk.
He spent the afternoon wandering through the woods behind The Villas. The platform up in the tree was coming along nicely. Better than expected, in fact. But he was worried about the possibility of falling from up there, tumbling to the ground and then lying in a broken heap with nobody around to hear his cries for help. He once read about a hiker who’d taken a fall from a cliff face and broken both of his legs. The guy had to sit in a dark ravine for over a week before anyone found him, and although he lived, Cooper wanted to avoid competing with his story.
He thought about the misfortunate hiker while he searched for fallen branches that might serve as safety railings. It would be easy to take a saw out there and retrieve some of the lower branches from a few of the oak and pine trees that tangled their way through that part of the woods. But, he didn’t have a saw, and he figured that if the roles were reversed, he wouldn’t want a tree cutting one of his limbs off just to serve its safety needs. His grandpa once told him, Respect for nature is one value that people seem to have forgotten. And it was while he was thinking about the old man, who’d been the only “father” he ever knew, that he came upon the downed beech tree. It lay among a thicket of pricker bushes, its crown disheveled and lifelessly dry. The branches he needed to nail up in his platform snapped away with two or three pulls and he dragged them up into his tree to leave until the weekend when he could fix them in place.
“Just over to Bobby’s for a little basketball,” he told his mother. “He stumped me three games in a row. But that’s okay. I got him pretty good the last time.” He blushed with the embellishment of the lie and now stood before her at the couch. She looked up at him sleepily and he felt like he was now in the clear. There was no friend named Bobby, but how would she know that? She rarely left the couch and when she did, it certainly wasn’t to track him all over town to find out who his friends really were. And for that, he was grateful.
“Well, if you’ve been playing basketball, why don’t you go on and take a shower. I don’t want any Billy goats at the dinner table.”
Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 11— The Wolf Den