“Hold up.” Crocker handed me the Prince Albert tobacco tin, reached over to cut up his daughter’s slab of flank steak. “Just got her dinner on the table.”
“You need to eat?”
“I can wait,” Crocker said. The unasked question was did I bring beer. I set the paper bag on the table.
“Man of his word.” He picked up the bag and put it in his fridge. “I said two was fine.”
“My mother says do more for people than they ask.”
“Your dad still around?”
“Shame. I was startin’ to like Mom.”
I took in the upstairs apartment, one of 8 in a two story red brick box, in a block of red brick boxes not far from where we worked. Small. Old. Wood floors. Thirties probably, like where I used to have to collect for the paper from old people. Unlike those, that smelled like ancient carpet, dust, mold and pee, these smelled like Pine Sol and incense. I wondered if the teenage version of my dad had delivered the lumber. The chrome and Formica kitchen table was by a window, the curtain plain, off white with a wide band of lace holes across the bottom. It was clean, like the rest of the place. Couldn’t have been called a place with “a woman’s touch” but clean. A naked Barbie and some stuffed animals, coloring books, Golden Books scattered around, and a well-loved green dragon on the kitchen table next to a petite, clean little girl with messy blonde hair.
“Shell, this is Harper. We work together.”
“Hi.” Loaded mostly with disinterest and a touch of mild, corner-of-the-eye curiosity. She might as well have said, “So?”
“Shell’s six. She doesn’t talk to strangers. Idn’t that right, Shell?” He rearranged her food with a steak knife, moved the plate in front of her. “Harper’s not a stranger, okay?”
“‘Kay.” She was infinitely more interested in dinner than in me.
Crocker looked back at me, winked. “She figures that, you’ll be stuck reading books about talking racoons and listening to her go on forever.”
“Nunuh,” she said, around a mouthful of dinner.
“Shit.” Crocker put a tired pair of hands on his thighs, got up to answer the knock on the door.
I was 16. Summer job building Bureau of Indian Affairs houses, pre-fab. Aside from the drunk cowboy who drove the big forklift, the office boss and me the rest of the crew of about a dozen were Native American Nam vets from Anadarko. Living loud and large on working man’s wages and making it out of the jungle alive. They arrived in a caravan of three and four to a muscle car every morning. Even a lime green Daytona Charger with the clothesline spoiler. Crocker was from Anadarko as well, the only white eyes. They’d all served at the same time. Crocker had been a conscientious objector, but he had a wife and a baby and wasn’t interested in Canada or shooting one of his toes off so he went along. They made him a medic. Tail end of the Tet offensive, 1968. He got the call to come home late May 1969, after Hamburger Hill with no field hospital and nothing but a bag full of gauze and morphine to use up on over 400 screaming wounded in ten days.
The story I got about him coming home, all jumbled up, was Crocker’s Dad had a farm outside Anadarko. And a crush on his son’s wife. Crocker went to Viet Nam, Gramps’ itch got the better of him. Gramps made his move out in a field one day and Crocker’s wife said hell no and she was going to tell. A shotgun and a tractor got involved. She died, maybe from the shotgun or run over by the tractor, Gramps killed himself, shotgun or tractor rolling over on him, take your pick. It was a convoluted, disjointed telling after a joint at lunch, then dodging heavy machinery in a prefab wall plant while the story was told and absorbed. At 16, it was all over my head. Like Crocker being twenty something, having a kid and living in an old apartment and being cool and kind of Robert Redfordish in a country way, experienced like Hendrix, wise, with a lost, sad look in his eyes sometimes. He took the apartment not to have to commute to Anadarko every day, or drink everyday with the Kiowas, Shell being his priority.
Crocker opened the door, let his neighbor in. A guy closer to his age than mine, going bald early, horn rimmed glasses, thin. A younger, shabby version of Dennis the Menace’s father. He sits in the window chair next to Crocker, across from Shell.
I should say here that Shell was named after her mother, Michelle. She was a baby when Crocker went off to be subjected to the conscientiously objectionable. He came home to the shotgun and tractor story, his crazy mother blaming him and his dead wife for all of it, after saying she and the baby could live with her and horny Gramps, be around family while he was away. All that just before she finished a bottle of vodka and blew her brains out in her kitchen when he was walking out the door. He’d jumped at the prefab job and the opportunity to get the hell out of Anadarko. He never said, but after the shotgun and tractor and Mom story no way he could have stuck around, lived in that.
Crocker pulled a pack of ZigZag whites out of the Prince Albert can. “You bouncin’ on her belly yet?” I knew he was asking about an overbuilt blonde girl who’d picked me up from work a couple of times.
“No. Not her. Not yet.”
“Her brother knocked up a Federal Judge’s daughter. She said it wasn’t much of a party around her house, but the girl told her his dick felt like a telephone pole. First time they did it they got pregnant. So she’s cautious. But a little curious about the telephone pole.”
He stuck the joint he’d rolled one-handed in his mouth, pulled it through his lips. “Not too bright.”
“Her or her brother or the Judge’s daughter?”
“At least the brother. Girls get heated up they aren’t thinking. Bagging the swimmers is our job.” He smiled, small, soft, almost chuckled, tapped my leg. “Rubbers are always a good idea, believe me.” He nodded toward his daughter, “Right, Shell.”
“Nnhhh.” I was starting to worry the kid was nonverbal, but she was doing some damage to her dinner, a heaping plate of mashed potatoes, green beans, beets and the kid-sized flank steak.
“You got a somebody else or three, to relieve the pressure?”
“Figured you to be that way. Best to let a first timer pick her moment. She gets it when she really wants it she’ll die with your name on her lips.”
I’m not sure I believed that, but Crocker lit the joint, proceeded to tell me the story of how his ’68 Camaro came to be purple sparkle with the wide racing stripes in silver sparkle. He and some guys were drinking, he was fresh back from the war, being wild.
“Don’t you ever swap out with your copilot?” I must have looked lost. “We were cresting this hill, about 70, gave the wheel to my man, I laid the seat back, threw my legs up, plan is my buddy slides over. We swap out. I’m in the back seat, he’s driving. You never done that?”
“Don’t. It’s fuckin’ stupid.” He let a contained laugh out through a smoky exhale. “We’re halfway through the swap, come flyin’ up over the top like fuckin’ Steve McQueen, and there’s a goddam Fritos truck pokin’ along about halfway down the hill. Flat spotted the tires, my buddy an me both standin’ on the brakes. Didn’t help much. Still don’t know if it was him or the wreck broke my foot.” He took the joint back from his bogarting neighbor, handed it to me. “When they’re done puttin’ my car back together they say it can be whatever color I want. Shell and I were into singin’ that nursery rhyme, about the purple cow? Rather see than be –”
“FUCK!” Neighbor screamed, one hand clasped inside the other. Across from him Shell had a severely pissed-off Shirley Temple face, fork in her fist. Crocker turned to check them out.
“Goddamit! She stabbed me! With her fuckin’ fork!”
Crocker gives Shell a dad question mark look. Shell keeps her glare, doesn’t back down.
“Motherfucker stole my steak.”
Crocker, back to neighbor. “That right?”
“Well, yeah. A piece. I started for another, and…” Neighbor opens his hand. The one inside is a little swollen and bleeding from what looks like a four toothed snake bite. “You got any bandaids?”
Something happened in Crocker. The Hamburger Hill medic, the blood, the shotgun and the tractor, I didn’t know, but he went cold as ice and thousand-yard stare. He took the neighbor’s hand, twisted it to look. “You’re not hurt for shit, and I’m not dealin’ with it. You need to go on to the house, fix yourself up.” He dropped neighbor’s hand. “Fix yourself some dinner while you’re at it.”
Neighbor looked longingly at Shell’s steak and the dead joint between my thumb and finger, but he didn’t say anything. Shamed by Shell’s unrelenting glare and the icicles he got up, made his exit.
Crocker came back from the stare, checked me to see if I had made any judgements. I hadn’t. I was a little shocked, but the whole scene, like I said, was beyond anything I could understand at the time. I said nothing, offered him the joint. He took it, relaxed back into the chrome and red vinyl kitchen chair, looked at his daughter. He took the fork she’d stabbed the neighbor with, tossed it in the sink behind him, got a fresh one from a drawer. He leaned in toward his daughter, eye to eye, handed her the fresh fork.
“Good girl, Shell. I don’t give a fuck who he is, don’t ever give any man a chance to start any kinda shit with you. Always stand up for yourself.” There was a telepathic aspect to their communication. She knew exactly what he was saying, knew exactly what had happened to her mom. Six years old.
“Okay.” She stabbed a small square of steak. “He’s an asshole.”
“Yes, he is.”
“Will he come back?”
“No. Harper probably will, if that’s okay.”
“He don’t talk much. But I guess it’s okay.”
Crocker let a flash of amusement cross his face. “I didn’t roll this to smoke it by myself.” He re-lit the joint, handed it to me. “Was that beer cold when you bought it?”
It would be nice to live in a Norman Rockwell sit com/rom com world where the problems are small and stupid, and the solutions come in under half an hour. Where nine-year-olds don’t shoot each other over dope turf, twelve-year-old prostitutes are an urban legend and pregnant eleven-year-olds are the figment of some pervert’s imagination. Where thirteen-year-old girls don’t get killed in a weed stash-house rip-off. Where middle school girls don’t shout “Bitch! Seriously?” and throw a hospitalization required beat down on their vice principal. Where small town high school football players don’t take steroids and acid and rape and kill a couple of cheerleaders, cut up and burn their bodies. Where the chasm between street people and the yard of the week people wasn’t wide and unfathomable.
But we don’t. So I populate my fiction with those from the perimeter that I have known, broken bread with, overheard, observed. I find them far more interesting to listen to as they develop than finding dialog for stereotypes. To me a black dude who is street wise and on a photography scholarship/intern program from the Smithsonian and his neighbor, the potty mouth “Fuck that” daughter of a hard working single mom, a daughter who gives the dopers in the parking lot behind her apartment crazy nicknames, are all as real as the crabgrass in not the yard of the week.