Thursday, November 26, 2020

Resolution

 Here's the story I wrote for NYC Midnight back in 2017 that was published last year in the anthology On Loss.




Resolution


I dropped my equipment in the back and slammed the van’s door, staring at the faded sign: S. Mackle and D. Gerson Exterminating.  Then, underneath, in smaller letters: If It Scurries – Never Worry!  I hated that rhyme, but Dave had insisted on it. 


I put my hand on his name for a second and choked something down.  


I got into the front seat of the van and turned the key.  It chugged, it protested, but it started.  I’d begun to get worried about the old girl lately – she had nigh on 150,000 miles – but she was nearly as reliable as the day Dave and I had bought her.  Just a little cranky.  


Today’s wet sky gave up its light without fanfare, flint to graphite to charcoal.  Typical Portland January.  I’d just killed a nest of rats -  mom, dad, and baby - at a bungalow in Montavilla, one of the far flung city neighborhoods that used to be affordable.


This year I’m going to…  


I’d been trying to think of a good resolution for weeks.  I was never good at them, but I always tried.  Last year it was the typical stuff: lose weight, save money, drink less.  I’d done well on the first two, but then...


But then October 21st.  


I pulled the flask out of my jacket and took a swig.  Just a small one.  I put it away and popped an Altoid.


The van’s engine chugged, and I checked my phone for the address of the next job.  It was far away in St. Johns.  I wasn’t looking forward to the rush hour traffic, and I was going to be late.  I called the client’s number.  


“Hey, yes, this is Steve Mackle.  Yes, the exterminator.  Sorry to do this to you but I’m going to be about twenty minutes late depending on traffic. My last job took longer than I thought it would.  Ok.  Thanks for your understanding.  Bye.”  


I set up my navigation and hit the gas pedal.  


This year I’m going to... 


Maybe I’d do one of those “live life to the fullest” things.  But it wasn’t like I could just sell the van and the business and jet off to Tahiti.  I mean, I could, but what would happen when the money ran out?  


I wasn’t the kind for impulsive decisions anyway.  Dave always knew that.  For me, everything had to have a plan. 


It would be disrespectful to Dave if I did anything too out of character right now.


This year I’m going to...


I’d had my mourning. 


I had to find the colors again myself. 


Up the winding road that skirted Mount Tabor, that volcano covered in pine and cedar, down Burnside past the mansions, right turn on Cesar Chavez, the street named after the farmer labor leader who could never afford to live in this city now.  Up the city’s spine to its northernmost edge.  St. Johns, the city’s fifth quadrant, the small town within the big city. 


This year I’m going to...


Should I take up a new hobby?  Sewing always interested me, but the startup costs intimidated me. I’d actually shopped around for a machine, but the good ones cost hundreds of dollars.  Then there was fabric, supplies, and I didn’t have the foggiest clue where to even begin with any of it.  


I could brew beer.  Everyone in this city did that.  But again, the startup costs.  And the complication.  And the fact that I might make poison instead of beer.  And I didn’t really have space for a brewing setup in our...my small garden duplex. 


Although these days it seemed so much bigger. 

  

I turned left where Siri told me to and looked for the house.  The neighborhood was all early 1900s craftsman bungalows oozing expensive charm.  Small neat lawns straddled buckled sidewalks towered over by skeletons of trees and flanked by rose bushes.  My customer lived in...that one.  I pulled over and stopped the van, got out, slid open the side door and grabbed my equipment.  


The house was typical for the neighborhood, wood stairs leading to a big covered porch framed by wrought iron columns, friendly dormers and a low pitched roof.  I knocked on the door.


This year I’m going to...


What would Dave’s resolution have been?  Some wild scheme to write the great American novel or open a gourmet catering business or who the hell knew. Every year Dave dreamed big, and every year nothing came of it.  


Except the exterminator business.  That had been his idea.  His way for the two of us to quit the desk job grind and do something more interesting. Together.  He’d talked me into it despite my arachnophobia, insisting that we’d focus more on rats and vermin than on bugs and skittering things.  But the bug jobs had come, and he and I had had our fair share of arguments about whether to accept the job with the nest of black widows under the porch.  We always did, of course, and I gritted my teeth and did my best.


The woman who answered the door stared at me with brown eyes behind thick glasses, gray hair tight back in a bun.  She wore an argyle sweater and Mom jeans, fuzzy slippers on her feet.  


“Hi, I’m Steve Mackle, the exterminator,” I said.


“The rats are in the garage. Here’s the key,” she said, handing me a small brass key.  “Knock again when you’re done.”


She closed the door in my face.  


I walked around to the detached garage at the side of the house. I strapped on my headlamp and turned it on, adjusting it to show the path in front of me. 


The garage door slid open manually, with a keyhole in the center handle.  I put the key in and unlocked it, then hoisted the door upwards.  


I fumbled and found a light switch, flicked it upward.  A bare bulb in the center flickered on.  


The garage had clearly never had a car parked in it.  Tools and supplies rested in clearly labeled white drawers against the back wall.  A lawnmower, some assorted shovels, spades, and other yard equipment shared space in one corner.  A box labeled “Christmas Decorations” sat next to another one labeled “Halloween Decorations” on a high shelf. It was a practical garage for a practical family.  A neat slice of a tidy life.  A family that had figured out all the big questions long ago, and now only needed to know where the hammer was.  


I’d thought once that Dave and I would get there someday.  I could see him now, coming out to this garage to get the lawnmower.  Fighting to mow the thicket of grass that had accumulated in the three weeks of near daily rainfall since the last dry day when he’d been able to mow.  Coming in for a glass of lemonade, smelling of grass and sweat and gasoline from filling the mower. Staying for a kiss.  


Memories of things that could never happen didn’t care if they were clich├ęs.


I took the flask out and looked at it, thought about another sip.  Just a little one.


A scurrying brought me back, coming from the corner near the lawn equipment.  I put the flask away and adjusted my headlamp as I crouched down, looking for the telltale signs.  


There.  I found the hole.  The baseboard had rotted away some, likely due to rain intrusion, allowing the rats to get in from outside. 


First order of business was to plug the hole, so I did that, sealing it so the rats couldn’t just chew it open again.  I’d have to tell the homeowner to get these baseboards repaired and get someone out here to talk to her about water intrusion.  


I looked carefully for any other holes, but that seemed to be the only one.  I put out the glue traps.  


And that was that.  I turned off the light and closed the garage door, locking it behind me.  I walked up front and knocked on the door.  The woman with the gray bun opened it and looked at me through her glasses.


I handed her the key back.  “I plugged the rat hole and put out some traps.  I’ll come back on Friday and check on them, ok?  Be careful walking around out there not to step on the traps.”


“Thanks,” she said, and handed me a check.


“Make sure you get your baseboards fixed and have someone come out here and check the garage for water intrusion.  Rats like to get in through weak spots, and water likes to make that easier for them.”  


“Ok,” she said.  “Thanks.”  She closed the door.  


I sat in the van for a few minutes with my eyes closed and the engine running, glad that I had no more customers today. I needed a drink, and a shower, and another drink.  


This year I’m going to...  


What kind of resolution did I need, anyway?  A big, meaty project that would distract me and get me out of my own head?  Or maybe just a few small, simple things that might give me some small satisfaction.


My phone rang.  It was AJ, a longtime friend who was always good for a warm night at a bar.  Exactly the kind of night I needed right now.    


“Hey AJ, what’s up?”


“Haven’t heard from you in a few weeks.”  


AJ’s voice was cultivated androgyny. They’d come out as agender while we were in college together, and I’d spent the next few years helping them figure out what that meant. A decade later, we were still close.  


And since October 21st they’d been the hand hoisting me slowly upwards out of hell.    


“Mick’s?  Like in an hour and a half? I have to get home and shower.”


“Yeah no problem,” said AJ.  


I drove home on surface streets, trying to take shortcuts to avoid traffic.  Our apartment...my apartment...was in far Southeast Portland.  It was a cheaper part of town, relatively speaking, although like everyone, I worried daily about my rent being raised.  Two duplexes framed a central courtyard, four apartments in total, on a street of small bungalows that had quadrupled in value over the last decade.  


I unlocked my door and stepped inside, the air still wrong, the silence still empty.  I shook it off.  


I showered, lingering, breathing in the steam. I dressed in simple clothes, warm, comfortable, and slipped on my old sneakers.  I looked at myself in the mirror.  The dark circles were starting to fade from under my eyes, but...was that gray in my beard?  I plucked a few of them out, making my eyes water.  Then I gave up.  


I locked up the apartment again and drove the van to Mick’s.  It was only a few minutes away, a neighborhood dive bar that hadn’t yet been gentrified into anything artisanal.  It served strong cocktails and good beer, the best onion rings I’d ever had, and almost never had blaring sports on the TV.  


Most importantly, it wasn’t anywhere Dave and I had gone together. So there were no memories to get stuck in.  


AJ was sitting at a booth with a martini in front of them.  They’d cut their black hair short, and were dressed, as always, as their own modern interpretation of Annie Hall, complete with man’s dress shirt and skinny tie.  We hugged in greeting. 


I sat opposite them in the booth.


“So?  Nu?”  AJ asked, using their favorite Yiddish expression. 


“The usual.” 


The waitress came over.  


“Double Jack, neat,” I said.  “And some onion rings.”


The waitress nodded and left.  


“Still?” asked AJ.  


“What still?  It’s my drink.”


AJ took a deep breath and leaned back in the booth.  “Alright.  It’s time.”


“What?”  I asked.


AJ gave me a look.  I knew what it meant.  I wasn’t ready


But something had already begun to shift in my mind. For the first time since I lost him, I wanted to be ready.


This year I’m going to…


I’d been looking for a better resolution.  Something to put my life into sharper focus.  Something to help me see the colors again.  


“I...don’t know, AJ.  OK?  I just...”  I couldn’t put any more of it into words yet.    


AJ nodded.  “We’ve had this conversation.  A lot.”


“I know.”


“And how does it always go?” 


“You tell me, ‘You two were together for a long time.  It’s going to be really hard.’”


AJ nodded.  “And then you say…”


“I’m not ready.”  


“And then I nod and decide to give you some more time to grieve.”


“And I appreciate it.  I...need more time.”  I did.  Although...


“Ok, so here’s the next part of the conversation,” AJ said. “The part I’ve been waiting to have with you.”


“What?”


AJ paused, and then launched into it.  “You’re drinking too much. Way too much.  And you’re falling into the pain instead of climbing out of it.  It’s time to start...” 


AJ’s voice faded as my drink arrived.  I looked at it, thought about how it lit the dark places with warm amber.  How it softened the sharp edges that had only just started to dull.  How it kept me company in ways I thought I needed, but probably not as much anymore.  


I looked at AJ, their kind eyes staring me down, boring a hole in the barriers I’d put up.  


“Steve…”


Dave sat on the other side of the booth, a reflection lit by amber.  I remembered him, all of him.  His blond hair, before he lost it to the chemo.  The warmth of his cheeks, before they went sallow.  His sky blue eyes, before the light went out of them.


I saw him smiling at me, felt him holding my hand, felt the warmth of it.  


“Let go,” he said.  


I fought, sank deeper into the amber.  


“Let go,” he said again.  


“No,” I whispered. “I can’t.” I trembled the glass to my lips and dove into it.  The heat hit me as hard as the words this ghost of a memory was saying to me.  


“Let.  Go.”


Something broke, shattered the amber. I saw the colors again, just a glimpse, blurry and far away.   


I blinked and looked up at AJ.  I pushed the glass away from me.


This year I’m going to…


Let go.



  

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