September 4, 2015

FICTION BY ROBERT WEXELBLATT: "BEEN EVERYWHERE"

 Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. His most recent book is The Artist Wears Rough Clothing.  Another, Heiberg’s Twitch, is forthcoming.
 http://www.bu.edu/cgs/faculty/humanities-faculty/wexelblatt/


 


Been Everywhere

   
    With a semi-voluntary grunt, Tom Molloy let himself drop ass-first into the La-Z-Boy.  Three Christmases ago Susie and Peggy had pooled their money and had it shipped UPS.  Whenever he spoke to the girls he made sure to tell them how much he loved the chair.  “I practically live in it,” he said, which was practically true.  Even with his brace on it was pretty comfortable.  Sometimes he’d close his eyes and pretend that he was back up in his cab.
    Molloy used to be a long-haul trucker.  His all-time hands-down favorite song was Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”


Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado,
Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado,
Larimore, Atmore, Haverstraw, Chatanika,
Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika,
Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City,
Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity.


He’d never been to Eldorado, but he’d been through most of these places and it wasn’t hard to imagine what it was like in the ones he hadn’t.  When they were little he made his daughters memorize the lyrics as a geography lesson.
    So it didn’t please him when one of this two roommates, Ed Korniewicz, who didn’t have a La-Z-Boy but did have a laptop, informed him that, according to something called Wikipedia (he heard it as Wicked Pedia) the song was written by an Australian and originally all the towns were Australian ones.  The American ones were inserted later.  “By a Canadian,” said Ed mercilessly and then, to show off, added, “There’s also a New Zealand version and one for the UK, it says here.”
    “I don’t care about all that,” groused Tom.  “Cash made it his own, didn’t he.”  Then he boomed out, “If you’re going’ to Winnemucco, Mack, with me you can ride.”  He particularly liked that “Mack”.  It seemed to him to capture a time, a whole way of life, and it reminded him of his favorite truck company.  Mack Trucks—two rugged and dependable syllables.  Trucks were all the Mack people made.
    “Winnemucco could be in Australia,” Ed had said, a man who’d only been out of Kentucky once and that was to go to Tennessee.
    “But it ain’t in Australia.  It’s in Humboldt County, Nevada.  USA.  I been there.”
    “Okay, okay.”  Ed struggled to his feet, put his cranberry juice glass down on the kitchenette table, then hobbled and coughed his way to the screen door.  “Think I’ll just look in on Jake and Billy.  See ya, Tom.”


    Long-haul trucking wasn’t an easy way to make a living but paid well.  Molloy knew he didn’t see enough of Marsha and the girls but they had plenty to eat, a three-bedroom house, an above-ground pool, two air-conditioners, a Chevy, new bikes and clothes when they needed them, and tuition for both girls to go to Indiana State. Their lives would have proceeded along the same lines whether he was there or not; he found this thought a comfort.  It made up, somehow, for the guilt over how much he loved climbing back up into his rig after a week off.
    Molloy’s career ended one February on an exit from Route 94 outside Racine, Wisconsin.  Maybe if he’d downshifted a second or two sooner, or let the clutch out more slowly.  Anyway, his speed (known), the coefficient of friction on the ramp (unknown), plus the instability of a semi loaded up with casings for copying machines (semi-known) resulted in a slow/fast flipping of the trailer, the twist and twirl of the cab, spewing of proto-copiers, shutting down of the exit ramp, and a bunch of broken bones in the body of Tom Molloy who was blamed for the whole thing.  His boss Sid Loomis phoned Molloy in the hospital. “Ah Tom, it’s too bad, just too bad.  But hell, you’re nearly sixty anyway.”
    When they shipped him home, in a back brace, neck collar, with a wheelchair, the girls were long gone; they weren’t even in the Midwest.  After college, Susan moved to Los Angeles, and, a few years later, Margaret chose New York.  Two biggest cities in the country. Each had endured a few years of struggle, found work, needed a bit of subsidizing, made friends.  Both came to visit after the accident, Susie for the first week, Peggy the next.  They were sad and helpful and tried touchingly to hide their eagerness to get back to their lives.  The girls had changed suddenly in their mid-twenties.  It was as though staring up at thirty stimulated a need to put down roots, or maybe they just got scared and tired of living college lives without college. It wasn’t something Molloy could talk over with them.  Anyway, they yearned for twelve-gauge adulthood. They both came home to get married at St. Jude’s, modest affairs that ended up costing a lot more than expected.  On both occasions Marsha was in heaven and Molloy was stiff.  After that he hardly saw them at all; relations turned decisively telephonic and he was mostly on the road.  He understood.  When they came for their back-to-back visits after the accident he wondered if their urge to move as far east and west as they could had been a legacy from him and if the restlessness he saw in their eyes by each Thursday was what they had seen in his.
    Peggy, the younger, was the first to give birth, just seven months after the wedding, in fact.  “Well,” said Marsha, “Mother used to say the first one’s always premature.”  Molloy was surprised by this joke and wondered whether his wife would have been so forgiving if Peggy hadn’t been half a continent away from the neighbors.
    Molloy spent six months in a wheelchair before he could manage the walker, intermittently incontinent and constantly miserable.  About him, his wife was less easy-going—less and less, in fact.  He hated his physical therapy and the therapist, and Marsha had a terrible time weaning him off the painkillers.  Her schedule of canasta, shopping, and lunches with her pals was blown up by his needs.  What wore the marriage down wasn’t a series of big scenes or damaging, irrevocable declarations.  It was the relentless abrasion of little protuberances, irritants small enough to be ignored when he was gone most of the time but no longer.  The disability benefits were okay, but there was less money, and this was Marsha’s excuse for taking a part-time job selling cosmetics at Stotter’s.  She wanted to get out of the house and away from Molloy whom she began to refer to as “the Grouch,” as if it were a pet name.  He became an expert on the daytime TV schedule until Susie gave him a subscription to Netflix for Father’s Day.  He watched all of Clint Eastwood.
    Marsha loved her job and excelled at it.  When Stotter’s offered her a promotion to department manager, full-time, she stood before her husband and said, “I want it, Tom. Really want it, and not just for the money either.”
    Mrs. Marshmallow, which is what Tom called the strong but brainless woman Marsha hired to come in during the day, treated him like a deaf six-year-old.  He complained pretty much non-stop; he couldn’t help himself. His suicidal thoughts did picked up in both frequency and allure.  Marsha’s exasperation rose by a kind of capillary action right to the surface.  “God, Tom.”
    Then one afternoon Marsha rushed in from work with a magazine.  “Look at this, Tom.”
    Molloy was watching The Searchers and didn’t want to look at a leftover Sunday supplement but she insisted.
    The article was about a town in the middle of the Appalachian coal-and-poverty belt, in Kentucky.  About a decade before, a foundation, funded by fines imposed on the more egregiously careless coal companies, had bought the whole place and turned it into a sort of concentration camp/retirement utopia/assisted-living facility.  Originally it was just for miners with black lung, stove-in skulls, hopeless back trouble.  Entirely voluntary, of course. On the one hand, it meant moving away from your family but, on the other, well, same thing.  Every citizen of the town was on disability benefits, approved at the prescribed legal intervals by the same doctor, who held the national record.  The trash collectors, chefs de cuisine, orderlies, and medical staff commuted in.  Initially, according to the article, which featured two suspiciously appealing photographs, not a lot of ex-miners in tribal Appalachia flocked to the place; but gradually the numbers rose above sustainable levels.  The miners’ emotional well-being, testified a sociologist from the University of Louisville, showed improvement as they became a community.  “Where debility is universal, it’s also normal,” she pompously declared.
    Molloy looked at his wife’s beaming, expectant face.  “And it’s open now, Tom.”
    This was true.  The previous year the place was privatized, dormitory housing erected, and other fucked-up, formerly productive members of the working class—not just miners, a dying breed after all—were invited to move themselves and their benefits to New Battenboro.
    “It sounds wonderful,” Marsha crowed.  “I looked it up on the Internet at work, Tom.  It’s just lovely,” she enthused.  “You’re so obviously miserable here,” she argued.  “Why not give it a shot?” she pleaded.  “I can’t go on like this,” she threatened.
    The guy they’d hired to drive him down in an ambulance was talkative.  As they passed a sign on Route 162, he said, “Bretzville.  You ever been to Bretzville?”
    Molloy took a deep breath before, with some satisfaction, he replied, “I’ve been everywhere, man.”

~Robert Wexelblatt

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