L.E. McCullough StoryHour – June 12, 2010

BREADWINNERS
© L.E. McCullough 1989

“Cam. Cam? Cam Whittaker, are you listening to me?”

Campbell Donovan Whittaker III slapped his fork down hard on the edge of his pie plate and glared harshly at the slender, pouting woman facing him across the table. “Stop shouting, Delois,” he hissed. “Stop the goddam shouting!”

“Please don’t swear in front of our son,” she entreated in a nasal whine, fusing her thin blonde eyebrows into a deep, furrowing frown. “He’s at a sensitive age.”

Her voice pricked at him, each word stinging like a fresh razor cut on his hot, reddening cheeks. “Delois, he’s not even in the room. He’s upstairs doing his homework, I hope, like I asked him to do five times in the last hour.”

She brought her hand to her face, covering her right eye and turning away as if she’d been struck. “I can’t take much more of this hostility, Campbell, I really can’t. I–”

“Wait a damn. . . hostility? You started the goddam yelling–”

“–can’t take it anymore, Campbell, I–”

“Chrissakes what are you talking about, Delois? Chrissakes don’t make any damn sense at all!” The knuckles of his left fist ground into his knee, while the fingers of his right hand tightened around the fork till his nails gouged his palm. Goddammit! he swore to himself as he stared at the soggy remains of his pecan pie à la mode, fearing that if he looked into her pinched, accusing face for even a second he would begin bellowing at the top of his lungs.

Emitting a low moan, she leaped from her chair and turned away from the table, whirling on her toes in a flawless jete a cote and bounding out of the room like a frightened deer fleeing an approaching yet unseen predator. Short, choked sobs punctuated the sound of her heelsteps retreating down the marble foyer to the main staircase.

Whittaker threw back his head and rubbed his two-day chin stubble, staring at the crystal chandelier glinting above him. He scratched a clump of thinning blond hair near his crown and blew out a large burst of air through his nose as he heard the door to their bedroom slam shut.

“Jesus H. Bloodsucking Christ,” he muttered. “What the hell am I gonna do?” He got up slowly and leaned unsteadily against the new mahogany imitation-Chippendale table his wife had purchased last week at an antiques auction for nine hundred some dollars. He shook his head, chewing his bottom lip while the memory of the afternoon’s argument with McCallister and Kilgore in front of the HLM investors pushed tonight’s mealtime blowup to the back of his brain. Could the hard, tightening ball of nausea welling up in his stomach be from the smell of an impending backdoor office coup? Or just the taste of sour grapes he was being force-fed by his alleged financial partners?

“I know what I’m gonna do!” he blurted, rustling in his pockets for car keys until he remembered his TransAm was still in the shop and his wife had shuttled him to and from work today in her new Peugeot wagon.

“Hellsbells, I’ll take her car I bought and paid for.” He cleared his throat and strode through the kitchen toward the new station wagon parked in the west drive outside.

“Daddy, the batteries for my Geo-Mammoth are no good.”

Whittaker’s eight-year-old son shuffled into the room holding a large green-and-black plastic toy in his hands. “Can we please get more?”

Whittaker felt his neck muscles tense. “Why aren’t you up doing your homework like I told you?” he demanded, scowling.

The boy shrank back into the dining room shadows. “I did, daddy, I did. All done.”

“Then tell your mother it’s time for you to get a bath and go to bed. Go on! Move!”

The boy scampered up the stairs. Whittaker kicked at the refrigerator and snarled a low, mumbling mantra of “goddams”, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the microwave pane. He looked away, then turned and stared back appraisingly.

Okay, Cam-boy, listen up. You got some minor, I repeat minor, adjustments to make with your life-essence, pal. . . thirty-five and still knockin’ ‘em dead. . . nice house, nice boat, nice car, nice little wife and son. . . got it all except for one small detail. . . you ain’t got fun! You got people messin’ and fussin’ and hasslin’ the livin’ christ-jesus outa you, and it’s time to stop that record cold.

He tossed the Peugeot keys in the air and caught them as they whanged on the counter. “Gonna have me some fun tonight! Yessir! Some good ol’ redneckin’, honkytonkin’ fun! Bygod, I deserve it if any man does!”

He paused to adjust the Audemars timepiece on his right wrist and, after a second’s hesitation, slipped the solid-gold wedding ring on his left hand into his right pants pocket.

“And I’m gonna get it.”

*     *     *     *

Not even the insults of the teenagers screeching by Martin Slater as they roared past him in their shiny black Porsche could diffuse the lingering warmth he felt from his daughter’s farewell goodluck kiss upon his dusty, wrinkle-etched forehead.

“Hey, asshole, take a bath with this,” they bleated, hurling a half-empty beer can at him as he crossed the wide boulevard heading toward the small, half-vacant shopping center that receded from the bustling intersection into the rambling grasp of an overgrown wood thicket sloping down from the gravel-spattered backside of an abandoned railfreight spurline along the river’s edge.

He heard Julianne telling him to be careful and heard himself replying with a loud chuckle to keep the eleven-year-old and her nine-year-old brother from sensing the fear that seized his throat muscles and rendered him nearly speechless at times. “I’ll bring back somethin’ good. Don’t worry, darlin’, I will.”

Slater winced at the throbbing in his withered left arm, and a sudden flash of images across his mindscape from the firefight at Quang Ngai caused him to blink and stumble slightly in the humid August twilight.

The jungle scene dissolved and melded into a dreary, dreamy collage that skirled through his skull like scenes from a movie reel scrambled and shredded by a projector gone amok, running and re-running images of countless job layoffs and firings, his wife’s alcoholism and desertion, the evictions from rat-infested transient hotels, the increasingly unmistakable signs of the malnutrition assaulting his children’s bodies before his helpless eyes.

He wiped his sweating upper lip and stood before the entrance to Honey’s Pleasure Parlor & Billiard Salon, squeezing his palm around the $35 in small bills and coins he carried wadded in a greasy red bandana jammed into the back pocket of his tattered, paint-streaked blue jeans.

“What kind of man houses his family under a bridge?” the reporter had earnestly asked of the television camera surveying the crude campsite where Slater and his children had dwelt since April. And for the thousandth time, as he watched a blond man in a light-blue blazer and white slacks climb out of a station wagon and stride jauntily toward the bar, the answer gagged in his throat, choking back a long-suppressed scream that, were it ever to escape into open air, would signal a total and unconditional surrender of his sanity and will to exist.

“Don’t worry, darlin’,” he whispered, flexing his right, cue-shooting arm. “I’ll bring back somethin’ good. Somethin’ good. This time. . .”

*     *     *     *

Campbell Whittaker drained his third Tequila Mamba Bamba, straightened up on his bar stool and squinted through the smoky roomhaze at a brown-skinned woman in an orange wig and purple g-string gyrating on the runway above him to music so loud he had to scream at the young red-haired waitress seated on his lap. “Baby, I make one-eighty-five grand a year. One hundred eighty-five grand! Work my butt to the bone for that money! Think anybody ’preciates that? No way, Jose!” He rubbed his nose against her cheek and slid his tongue behind her ear as his hands squeezed and kneaded her plump, bare thigh. “Think you could ’preciate it? Mmm-mmmm. . . think I could make you ’preciate it tonight, babe, whaddya say? I’m gonna water the dog and we can talk about what time you get off work.”

Propping the girl against the bar rail, Whittaker lurched off his stool and meandered toward the jon. In the back room a pool game was in progress with a scrawny, bearded, raggedy-dressed man skillfully running the table against a large, loud, jut-jawed drunk wearing a West Side Auto Tow uniform embellished by a large, leather-sheathed hunting knife hanging from his right hip.

Whittaker paused and watched for a minute before continuing his amble to the toilet, momentarily transfixed along with a half dozen other kibitzers by the intense demeanor of the shooter and the hiccupy fidgeting of a stocky, crewcut, pock-faced man in a blue Hank Williams Wrote My Life t-shirt standing off to the side, his pudgy, hairless forearms blotched with blurry reddish tattoos. “Think these guys were playin’ for blood or somethin’,” Whittaker confided to the men’s room door creaking admittance.

“Fuck! Three games in a fuckin’ row!” rasped the short man as Martin Slater sunk the eight ball with a crisp double-bank shot. “You just lost me two hundred bucks, shithole!” he snarled at the big man. “Play ’im again. And don’t lose this time, butthead!”

Shithole-Butthead began racking the balls, and the short man picked up a cue and poked Slater in the shoulder. “One more,” he ordered. “Double or nothin’.”

“Don’t think so,” replied Slater, swatting away the stick and moving to the far end of the table to collect his winnings.

“What?”

“Done playin’.”

“Bullshit. You got too mucha my money, scarecrow.”

“Game’s over.”

“Bullshit. You play.”

Slater silently tucked the last dollar bill into his back pocket and watched the room quickly empty of bystanders and the door to the main bar close.

“Yer fucked, dirtball,” sneered Shithole-Butthead, unsnapping his hip-sheath as Pockface advanced from the other side of the table with raised cue.

The jon door banged open and Whittaker stumbled out, hands tugging at his recalcitrant fly zipper. “What the–?” he mumbled as he looked up and saw the bearded man backing slowly against the wall, like a terrified cat cornered by a pack of drooling dogs.

Pockface whirled and faced him. “Stay outa this!”

Whittaker burped loudly and stared blankly at Pockface and his large companion. A kaleidoscopic whoosh of flashing color washed across Whittaker’s vision as their faces morphed into the grinning masks of his business partners, McAllister and Kilgore… goddam hyenas think they can screw me sonsabitches don’t know who they’re messing with…

“You got it,” Whittaker shrugged, half-turning toward the jon as Pockface and companion stepped toward Slater. In the next second Whittaker grabbed a cue off the table and sprang forward to drive the thick end of the stick into the back of Shithole-Butthead’s neck.

The big man screamed and went down, dropping his knife and smacking his head hard against a metal chair. Slater pounced barehanded on Pockface and wrestled him to the floor. By the time Whittaker came around the table, Slater had pounded his foe unconscious.

“Whoa!” puffed Whittaker, palms outstretched as Slater jumped up and squared off in a crouch. “On your side, pal.”

Slater fell back against the wall, mouth twitching, eyes blinking wildly. “Tried to cheat me,” he gasped.

“Sokay, sallright,” Whittaker soothed. “Nobody bother you now.”

Slater stumbled past Whittaker toward the rear exit. “Hey,” Whittaker called. “Yallright, mister? Hey, where you goin’?”

Slater tried to force open the locked door, beating his fists against the unyielding steel. “Why don’t you and me get some eats,” said Whittaker gently.

Slater’s hands dropped to his sides, and his wiry frame shuddered, head propped against the door. “C’mon, soldier, we’re on a mission:  eats first, pussy later,” Whittaker commanded.

Slater stared at the blond man’s flushed, plump cheeks and at the blazer collar bearing a bright red streak of Pockface blood. . . “Cadre in the ville corporal ammo up watch the tree line walk it in walk it in corporal dinky dao number 10 number 10 menoVC menoVC khoungbiet khoungbiet!”

Whittaker took Slater’s arm and led him forward. “Good wrassle always makes a man hungry, whaddya say?”

He tugged Slater through the crowded front room out to the parking lot, winking at the redhead dancing onstage and sticking a $20 bill in her shoe. “See you at closin’ time,” he mouthed.

At the Waffle House down the street Whittaker bought Slater two deluxe combination steak-and-egger platters along with $23.70 worth of hamburgers, french fries and soda pop to take back to his kids. They poked at the crumbs on their plates for an hour or more, discussing the unseasonably humid weather, the preferred weight of pool cue, the ungodly price of a domestic sixpack, their experiences in Nam (Slater’s in-country infantry duty, Whittaker’s posting as an assistant G-12 inventory supervisor to the paymaster at division HQ) and, before draining their fourth and final pot of coffee, the increasingly absurd notion that either one had ever seriously considered himself capable of raising children.

“Tell you what,” said Whittaker as he guided the station wagon onto the gravel turnout by the ravine where Slater motioned to be let off. “I was talking to Delbert today, fella that does the grounds around the office. Basic maintenance, checking thermostats, y’know. Says he just lost one of his boys to the national guard callup and can use a steady hand right now. Pays eighteen-fifty an hour.”

Slater closed the door and stood for a moment, clutching the food sacks and Whittaker’s business card. He lowered his head into the window. His eyes were in shadow but Whittaker saw the thin lips relax into a half-smile. “Thanks.”

“Later, amigo.” Whittaker watched him vanish down a weed-choked dirt path and pulled the car away, glancing twice in the rear view mirror, though he knew he’d see nothing but dark. He headed west and crossed back into the city, slowly retracing his route to the bar.

Two blocks and five minutes from his appointed rendezvous with the redhead, he veered north, speeding away from the boulevard’s nervous, neon-tainted clutch and into the misted, enfolding silence of neighborhoods hours deep in candid slumber and punctual, unbaffled dreams. A mile or so from home, he pulled into an all-nite Village Pantry and picked up a bagful of batteries for an ailing Geo-Mammoth.

He turned to the empty passenger seat and chuckled. “Not much for a man to show from a night’s labor, eh, amigo?”

But for the first time in longer than he could remember, Campbell Donovan Whittaker III suspected what he’d be bringing home this night would have some genuine worth in a currency whose value of exchange he was only beginning to understand.

* THE END *

From:
Three Sides to a Square & Other Studies in Circumstantial Fatherhood
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –
http://www.lemccullough.com/LEMcCullough/Stories.html

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