Promises, Promises

Not thinking about Digger was harder than usual. After I left Remo at his hotel, I walked back to the Aquarium first, to drop off the Strat there, which gave me twenty minutes to listen to Tollman’s boots click on the sidewalk and figure out how I felt about the whole thing. I made my way along North Main, past darkened shops and quiet brownstones, toward the water. There was no one else on the street, no cars, no taxis, though I saw a rat scuttle for the sewer at my approach. Even in June there was a middle of the night chill and I buttoned the bottom buttons of my jacket.

I remembered one night when I was probably eleven years old, the first year Digger started taking me with him when he would sneak out of the house at night, sitting on a barstool at Maddie’s with a glass of root beer in a real beer mug and my feet twisted in the rungs, Digger next to me ordering another Boilermaker. Sometimes when we snuck out it was to see Remo play or to meet Digger’s cronies for poker night, but sometimes we just went out and hung around Madison’s and once or twice Digger tried to teach me to shoot pool. This was one of those nights when there was no agenda, and Maddie and Digger talked about baseball and whatever else. And then at one point he leaned over to me and he said “Hey, kiddo, whatya think? Maybe you and me, should just take off and leave them womenfolk behind.”

I probably said something like sure thing.

“That’s right, I’ll take you with me. We’ll move to the city and go out every night of the week.” I can see him saying it in my mind like a movie that I can rewind and play again and again. Stupid, I thought to myself, what kind of promise is that to make to an eleven year old kid? And what kind of stupid are you to still be thinking about it? I doubt my memory of it, even. In the movie of my memory he’s still wearing a brown suit jacket and tie, the tie all loose around his neck, white dress shirt unbuttoned, the clothes he wore to work in the shoe store. But he usually took them off before we went out—he was usually out of that stuff before dinner time. I don’t know. Maybe I’m making the whole thing up, but I don’t think so.

I tried to remember if he’d ever said anything like that again, but I don’t think he did. He never talked about leaving Claire in front of me after that, though he argued with her all the time–no, not argued, they fought but it wasn’t really like an argument with some kind of point that could be won. Maybe that night they’d started fighting before dinner, and he’d tuned her out by parking himself in front of the tv set. Maybe he didn’t even eat dinner with us, just sat there like a zombie, not answering her, not acknowledging anyone, not bothering to go upstairs and change his clothes or anything, until after we were put to bed and she was asleep. That wouldn’t have been the first time, if it was. But I don’t have a clear memory of the evening’s events before that moment in the bar, the foam of the root beer tickling my nose and the smell of booze on Digger’s breath as he conspired with me.

Sad to think that was the closest we had ever been. For a couple of years the sneaking out was our secret; after Claire would mudpack her face or whatever and get in bed with earplugs on (because he snored, she said), Digger would get me out of my pj’s and into jeans and we’d walk down to the main road where Remo or some other friend would pick us up, or we could walk all the way to town center, past the shoe store, to Maddie’s. Yeah, when I was eleven, I thought my dad was the coolest. But by the time I turned fourteen or so, we stopped getting along so well.

I went around to the back of a brick building and unlocked the door to the Aquarium, punched a few numbers on the alarm pad (5-4-42, Bud, the owner’s birthday) and went in. The lights were off and the clock radio on the reception desk glowed blue: 3:05. I untied my sneakers from the handle and slid the Strat case into the hall closet. I thought about leaving Bud a note that I’d have to take a couple of weeks off, but I could just tell him tomorrow. It’s not like he had money to pay me most of the time anyway. Not that I wouldn’t have taken steady pay if it had been available, but I needed the experience.

I was tempted to phone Bart from there, to tell him about the gig and what all else. I went around to the receptionist side of the desk, which was fairly well-tiled with colored squares of paper with notes written on them. I didn’t know if they were the sticky kind or if they’d all move if I accidentally swept my arm across the desk. I sat in the chair without disturbing anything. I hadn’t talked to Bart for like two weeks, not since he’d gone to Cape Cod with his father and step-mom. I might have called if it hadn’t been quite so late and if I had been sure I remembered the number. I wanted to ask him if he’d give me a ride to the airport, too. It’d have to wait until tomorrow.

If I started home right away, I’d be there by 3:30, but somehow once I sat down behind the desk I didn’t want to get up. I changed into my sneakers and laid my head carefully on top of Candy’s many notes.

Digger could be kind of hostile to anyone who crossed him–Claire, his cronies, gas station attendants–depending on his mood. Sometimes he was hostile when he was drunk, sometimes only until he got drunk. Sitting there, I started to feel angry again.

The day I’d left home had been one of those television-in-a-tie kind of days, when something Claire had said when he got home, or maybe even something grandad had said at the store, had set him off. He was drinking in the house, which was rare, sitting on the couch with a bottle of Scotch on the coffee table and a juice tumbler, leaning forward every now and then to pour a measure of Scotch into the glass in this very deliberate way. Then he’d sit back and sip and watch, his eyes never leaving the tv screen like the thing he was watching was so important to him that he couldn’t bear to look away from it. I don’t think he even changed the channel: commercials, news, sitcoms, he sat through it all. Claire had long ago given up trying to penetrate his resolve once he got like that. She was in the kitchen cooking something I wanted no part of eating. If I remember it all correctly, my goal was to start walking to the bus station before Janine came home from her job. My other older sister, Lilibeth, was already at college. I don’t know where Courtney was. Maybe Claire had signed her up for some class or something. I don’t know. I put my stuff together, the Strat in its case, clothes and some of the stuff I wanted to keep crammed into a duffel bag, and piled them by the front door.

Digger never looked up once. I stood by the couch, waiting for him to look up. I pretended to be watching the show with him for a few minutes. When a commercial came on, I turned to say something, but he was staring with a clenched-jaw intensity that made me not. I went to the kitchen.

I said to Claire, “I’m going.”

“What do you mean, you’re going? We don’t eat for another half an hour.” She was stirring something like it was difficult to hold onto the wooden spoon without messing up her nail job. I had never seen her without “done” nails, that I could remember.

“Mom, I told you, I’m going on a bus at 6:15.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t leave without sitting down to a meal with the family.” Claire had this way of ignoring reality she didn’t like, like the fact that none of my sisters were home, or there was no way Digger was sitting down to eat with any of us that night, or the fact that I was not going to, at the last second, turn into a dutiful son that she could love instead of treating like a tenant. (Did I mention she’d tried to charge me rent that summer?) “What will people say.”

“They won’t say a damn thing if you don’t tell them.” This was as close to a conversation as she and I had come in months. “Really, Mom, it’s time for me to go. So you can quit worrying about what the neighbors think of me.”

“Well, thank goodness for that,” she said, her face pinched. “Maybe with only one of you around here there’ll finally be some peace.”

I sagged. There was something unfair about the fact that just when I’d stopped getting along with Digger, Claire had decided that I was “turning out just like him” and had considered us partners in crime from then on. “Whatever you say, Ma. So glad I could do you a favor.”

She muttered something I couldn’t hear and couldn’t guess and turned her back to me, ostensibly to check something else on the stove.

I went back to Digger. The muttering was contagious, I guess, because he had started muttering at the television. The news was on, which meant I really had to get moving to catch that bus. He was watching one of the local cable stations, channel 68 or something, local news. I recognized a shot of my high school. “Hey man, I’m outta here,” I ventured.

A TV news announcer was describing something about funding cuts in the local school systems, as they showed footage of two school teams I didn’t recognize playing soccer. “Aw shit,” Digger said to himself, or to the television, “stupid fucking faggots can you believe that.”

“I gotta go.”

“What are you, stupid? You can’t cut sports programs, end up with a bunch of nervous nellies.”

This was a pretty weird thing to hear Digger, whose only sport was poker, say. “Dad,” I finally said, “I gotta say goodbye.”

He usually yelled at me for calling him Dad. This time he didn’t even look up. The next news story was about a local fire fighter who was forced to resign when they learned he was gay. I did not stay around to hear what Digger had to say about that. I picked up my bags and I was gone.

And I guess eventually he had done the same, if what Remo said was true. I sat up because I was starting to laugh and I was afraid to mess up Candy’s papers. At that moment it struck me funny that I might, really and truly, never hear from him again. I was pissed at him but laughing at the same time. Maybe he had finally pulled off a con that was big, maybe he’d finally cleaned up in poker, maybe he’d finally had enough and took off without a penny. I didn’t care, and it felt good not to care. I moved from the desk chair to the couch and sat there staring at the dark ceiling instead of going home to sleep. In two weeks I’d be on a plane to Los Angeles. And we’ll move to the city and go out every night of the week…. It sounded like a line from a song.


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