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Left Foot in a Lonely Guitar

by Stephen Christenson

I dreamt I threw a red onion at Sam Henderson’s head, but the creaking bed springs next door woke me before the cops had a chance to arrive. I heard Rose giggle and Little Huey pant. I wanted to pound on the locked door between our apartments and shout, “Let the dead be dead!” But Rose moaned, “More, Huey, more,” and Monster rattled the front door with her paw. I yawned and sat up in bed. “Oh, Huey, no more . . . please, Huey,” I got out of bed and opened my door.

“In, Monster.”

“It’s a shame.”

“Good morning, Matilda.” Across the hallway ninety-two year old Matilda Knicker smoked a hand rolled cigarette. Matilda locked her screen door.

“It’s a damn shame,” she said.

“What?”

“The way you starve that cat.”

“Monster?”

Monster rubbed her ribs against my ankle and meowed like a beggar under hot sun. Matilda blew smoke in the hall and turned away. I was certain that woman hated me. She hadn’t had a man since her attempted suicide failed sixty years before.

“Shutup, Monster.” I picked the newspaper from the floor. I went to the kitchen and poured hot tap water into a cup of instant coffee. Rose sighed, “Oh, Huey, that was so nice.” I opened the paper to the Sam Henderson on Sports column. Once again, Sam said it was the year of the Detroit Tigers, and he predicted the defending champion Giants of Warren’s Ice Cream Parlor would be dethroned in the Little League baseball tournament by the upstart Lumberjacks of the Ponderosa Saw Mill.

“What about Ludwig?” Rose asked.

“Poor Sam,” Huey said.

“Did Ludwig have a lover?”

“Sad Sam.”

“Play your guitar, Huey.”

“Stupid Sam.”

~

Sam insisted I go to the pool hall for game thirty-eight in our series of fifty. I missed an easy shot and I blew a thirty-five point lead by smashing my cue stick on the pool table. The tip fell in the corner pocket, and Sam won one hundred to seventy-three. Sam jotted the score in his little green notebook. “You’re a defeatist, Slim,” Sam said. “You once had a twelve to one lead in the series. Now you trail twenty-three to fifteen.” I reminded Sam how I had already won the series to seven when he extended it to twenty-five. I was on the verge of winning the thirteenth and decisive game when Same extended the series to fifty.

“A good game must test one’s endurance,” Sam said.

“Don’t forget Lucy.” I remembered how Sam’s little girl, ten year old Lucky Lucy, still calls me Huey. I suggested papa better go home and tuck the tiny one in bed. So Sam parked his ugly green Ford Falcon behind Rose’s sexy red Plymouth Fury, and the Ford choked for gas. “I think this is good for Rose,” Sam said. I glanced to the windows of Huey’s apartment. The lights were off, the shade drawn. “Afterall, no one man can completely satisfy any one woman.”

“I understand, Sam, believe me.”

“I know you do, Slim.”

~

Three months before Sam won game forty-two of our marathon, the chairman of the Department of Philosophy rejected Huey’s thesis on Ludwig Wittgenstein. I gave Huey a shot from my bottle of Old Crow. “That ass said I’m writing mysticism,” Huey said, and I assured him I understood. Afterall, I was just completing my ninth year as an undergraduate and still had some forty credits to go. Huey moaned. “I told the chairman that in fact Wittgenstein was a mystic and he said I didn’t have enough references and I had too many pages. Get that, man, he said, too many pages.” So Wittgenstein was a little weird about silence. At least I got my G.I. checks from the Veteran’s Administration. Every month. Four years in a radar room without windows in the middle of the Pacific had to be good for something. Huey threw his thesis across the room and the pages scattered like blooming flowers. “You don’t understand, Slim, you just don’t understand.” Huey shook his head and I gave him the bottle of Old Crow. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I told him, “This will have you cawing in no time.”

~

I smelled smoke in the stairwell when I returned home from an onion and hamburger dinner at The Noose. Matilda sat in her rocker thumbing through a copy of Time magazine. She said, “The house is burning down.”

“Have you called the fire department?”

“It’s too late I tell you.”

My apartment was thick with smoke, so thick I couldn’t see the walls, and Monster screeched through the door. I searched my rooms. All the burners on the gas stove were off. The rotten extension cords tacked to the walls weren’t even warm. Then I saw the smoke dribble through the keyhole of the locked door by my bed. I slammed my fist on the door. “Huey! Huey! The house is on fire!” My hand slipped around the doorknob. It wouldn’t unlock. I rammed the door with my shoulder, and the hinges tore off the frame like hot potato peelings. Huey lay with his arms stretched on the bed. His left foot was stuck in the acoustical hold of the guitar. His skin looked blue through the smoke. “Huey!” I shook him. He felt like dead weight. Suicide? My friend? Ludwig’s a bastard. I found a pot of soup burnt black under the full blast of the gas burner on the stove. I found a towel and carried the smoking pot to the balcony. I shut off the burner and opened the windows. I shook my friend again. He would not respond.

“Hi, Huey,” The voice came from somewhere in the smoke. It was Lucky Lucy.

“I’m not Huey.”

“Yes you are.”

“Huey’s in bad shape just now.” I smashed my fist on Huey’s chest. He groaned and I smelled the sweet alcohol.

“Mommy will be here in a minute,” Lucky Lucy said.

The plump woman with grease on her forehead standing in the doorway must have been Rose. I asked, “You learn anything new at the women’s free school today?”

“How to clean a carburetor,” Rose coughed.

“Mommy can fix your air conditioner,” Lucky Lucy said.

Huey moaned. Huey rolled on his side. The tangled strings on his guitar echoed in the smoke.

“He just flunked graduate school,” I said.

“I know.”

“Where’s Monster, Huey?” Lucky Lucy asked.

“I’m not Huey.”

“I think he wants to go back to Harmony, Maine,” Rose said.

“Then you revive him,” I said.

“By the way, Sam wants to shoot pool tonight.”

Ludwig is a fink. I returned to my apartment and opened my window. My mouth felt full of smoked onions. Luck Lucy was talking to Matilda in the hallway.

“Why don’t you ever comb your hair?”

“Get out of this house,” Matilda said, “It’s burning to the ground.”

“It ain’t burning down.”

“It is so.”

“It’s the air conditioner.”

“Scat. There’s a fire in this house.”

“You scat.”

“I’m too old, I tell you.”

“Where are your children? I want to play.”

“They’re all dead. Now scat.”

“Have you seen Huey’s cat?”

“That cat started this fire, so hungry I bet he chewed the wires.”

Sam came by in his sputterbug green Falcon. I wondered if Rose would fix his carburetor. We played our first game of pool and I won handily. Sam reluctantly jotted the score in his green notebook. “Let’s make it a best of seven series,” Sam suggested. When we returned to the house, it was still stuffed with the smell of smoke and I could feel the onions in my mouth again. Huey had patched his guitar with band aids and adhesive tape and thumb tacks and he played folk songs his grandfather taught him in the hills of Maine.

Rose said, “Will you take Lucy home, honey?”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

“I knew you would.”

They kissed with admirable politeness.

Lucky Lucy said, “Can I stay too?”

“Get in the car,” Sam said.

I lifted the door from the floor. I suggested Huey could move his dresser and we would lean the door in place. Rose laughed and unbuttoned the top of her blouse.

~

The dart marathon lasted till sunrise. Huey insisted I come. “Afterall, Slim, you’re my friend,” Sam set the dart board on the kitchen wall next to the refrigerator. Rose told Lucky Lucy to go to bed. Lucky Lucy whined, “I never have any fun.” Sam brought out his pen and scoring book and announced we would play cut-throat. The first loser kept score. The second loser dodged darts to get beer from the refrigerator. And the runner-up was always in the game. Whenever Sam won he kissed his wife on the forehead and said, “Your hero is swamping the pack.” Rose smiled and squeezed Huey’s hand under the table. Lucky Lucy appeared at the bathroom doorway. She waved to catch my eye. She smiled. She rubber her flat naked chest with her tiny hand. She reached into her underpants and leaned on one thigh. I looked away, yet her antics amused me.

“Hi, Huey,” she said.

Huey looked around for Lucky Lucy. “Oh, hi.”

“I don’t mean you.”

“Go to bed, Lucy,” Rose said.

“Don’t want’a.”

Sam stomped his foot on the floor. “Go to bed.”

Lucy rubbed her eyes. “Why is it big people have all the fun?”

The marathon continued. Each game Rose took a cigarette from Huey’s pack of Winstons. Whenever Sam went to the bathroom, Rose and Huey embraced and kissed. Rose said, “Hope you don’t mind, Slim.”

“Oh, not at all.”

Once Sam returned from the bathroom and Rose fell off her chair and Huey fell on top of her. They kissed under the table. Sam opened the refrigerator and said, “We’re low on beer, gang. The crowds are leaving the grandstands.”

But the marathon played on and Rose was the first casualty, catching a dart in the rump when she went to the breadbox for pretzels. Huey said, “Oops.”

Sam said, “The umpire’s going to call the game because of darkness.”

Still the marathon endured till Huey became the second casualty after elimination from game forty-seven. The sky through the window was turning a sickly blue, reminding me of Huey’s face the day Matilda insisted the house was burning down. Huey fell to the floor and did not move. Rose bent over to fan his face. “Poor Huey,” she said. It was such a marvelous re-run I expected the cork in the dartboard to start smoking.

“The umpire declares a technical knockout,” Sam said. He compiled statistic in his green notebook. I watched a spider crawl to the edge of the bread board on the counter. He spun a web that hoisted him to the floor like a window washer alongside a skyscraper. I tapped my foot on the linoleum and the spider froze and Sam announced the totals. “I’ve won the series gang.” Rose laid a pillow under Huey’s head and scratched her butt, and I wondered why Sam didn’t take the shotgun and blow them both to pieces. “I won eighteen and Huey won seventeen,” Sam said. “Then North Dakota Slim won eight and Rose won five. But most startling of all is that Slim leads in bull’s-eyes with thirty-four compared with Huey’s twenty-one. Slim also placed second in thirty-three of the forty-seven games, and twenty-three of those came in succession. The umpire can’t believe his eyes.” The spider must have died. Rose lay her head on Huey’s chest and closed her eyes. I tapped the floor again and the spider disappeared under the refrigerator. Sam slapped my back. “You’re a defeatist, Slim.”

“Of course, Sam, of course.”

~

My craving for onions was like pyromania. Old fat cook Bacon at the Noose Bar and Café knew better than anyone how to slice that onion Navy style and lay half an inch of raw on a rare hamburger and set it before you and spit tobacco juice on the floor and stutter the price like he was waking from a bad dream. My mouth felt like old times on the high seas when I came home and heard Huey singing “Freight Train” and trying to make that guitar sound like a musical instrument again. I waved to Rose and her eyes wobbled like gelatin. I hurried upstairs and Matilda was waiting. Monster rolled on the floor. Matilda locked her screen door.

“There’s a thief on the loose,” she said.

“Really?”

“And I think I know who he is.”

“What happened?”

“You know what happened, you.”

“Matilda!”

The old woman blew cigarette smoke in the hallway. “And I’m just an old woman. Getting ready to die I’m so old.”

“You’ll never die.”

“Smart-ass.”

I reached in my pocket for the key only to notice my door open an inch. The onion tasted sour. Already I felt certain Matilda probably robbed me. I stepped in and found Lucky Lucy sitting on my floor thumbing through a Lucky Lager box full of old love letters.

“Hi, Huey.” Lipstick traced her mouth.

“I’m not Huey.”

She held tight some paper. “Who’s Caroline?”

“Goddammit.”

“Caroline says, ‘Remember the night your dad let us use the car?’ ”

“You little . . . .”

“Caroline goes on, ‘I always will.’ ” Lucky Lucy giggled.

I tore the letter from her hand. I remember how my breath was the main topic of conversation during those last traumatic weeks of our teenage romance. Caroline had said, Miss Onions has got to go. I said she was blaming my onion for a defect in her own character. As it turned out, Miss Onions got rid of Caroline just in time.

“You want to go to Harmony with us?” Lucy asked. “We’re leaving next week.”

“You brat. Wait till you’re sixteen.”

“I’m old enough already.” Lucy rubbed her thigh.

I went to the window that opened over the balcony where Huey played his guitar. Rose lay on her back staring dreamily into the blue sky. “I hear you’re all going to Harmony.”

Huey laid his guitar on Rose’s belly, and she laughed like maybe the strings were tickling her. “You should hear Matilda talk about how you broke into her apartment when she was napping and stole sixty-five cents from her coin purse,” Huey said.

Lucky Lucy giggled behind me.

I turned.

Lucky Lucy said, “I’m shocked, Huey. Caroline says, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I like the way you . . . .’ ”

I wanted to fill that little bitch’s mouth full of rotten onion juice. I took the letter and the whole box and set it on top the greasy cabinet above the stove. Lucy winked. It was so fortunate that Caroline left for Anchorage the week after I left for the Navy. I heard she found herself an AWOL Air Force mechanic up there, some fellow who gave her three monstrous sons, even though this guy spent the better part of their early marriage in the stockade. I told that Lucky Lucy bitch to play catch with Matilda.

“Huey, don’t be mad at me.”

“Pick your nose, kid.”

“You don’t love me anymore.”

I smiled. At least Caroline was fun. I would never have won my bout with sea sickness had it not been for her sweet memory. I might never have survived Lucky Lucy save for my secret conviction that Rose would one day return from Harmony without Huey and looking for someone else to take pity on. That should give me time to feign up some new misfortune. Lucky Lucy pouted and pounded her fists so hard on the floor that Matilda came to the hallway and slammed shut her door.

~

My check from the Veteran’s Administration came in time for game forty-six of our marathon, and Sam Henderson won. Sam said, “The crowds are flocking from the stands. They’re ripping the pockets out of the tables, the girls are screaming and tearing off their clothes and reaching for the champion.”

“We should have elected a queen,” I said.

Sam jotted down the final score in his notebook. “You were pulling a spirited comeback, Slim, but a bit too late. I won the series twenty-five to twenty-one.”

“A fitting end,” I said, too cowardly to say, Sam, you’re stupid, I was too dreamy, wanting to win Sam’s approval when the day came I needed it.

The day my check from the Veteran’s Administration arrived was also the day Rose packed her suitcase and put it in the backseat of that flashy red Plymouth Fury with Lucky Lucy. I shook Huey’s hand and we gave each other a Russian bear hug. The closer the parting moments came the more I thought of Rose and what she must smell like when she’s in a pant. “I’m going to miss your guitar, Huey,” I said.

“I’ll miss Monster, Matilda, and all the booze we drank together,” Huey said.

“Good luck in Harmony.”

“Maybe we’ll settle down in Discord, Connecticut.”

“You’re settling down?”

“Please come, Huey,” Lucky Lucy begged rubbing her hands on the window.

“I’m coming,” Huey said.

“I don’t mean you.”

I was reading the total on my V.A. check when Huey handed me his thesis on Ludwig von Wittgenstein. It demanded that the bearer receive one hundred and eight-two dollars and seventy cents. And all I ever did was look at little dots in a radar screen and dream of Caroline who I was so glad to get away from. Beer money is beer money. I’d bet I have more Incompletes than anyone else enrolled at the university. Huey’s manuscript looked like parchments dug out of a cave, and I could tell by the sad expression on Huey’s face that the thoughts therein must have been profound. Huey said, “If you’re my friend, you’ll destroy it this very evening.”

This was also the day Matilda wished Huey a happy journey to the land of the sunrise. “I wish I could go with you,” she said.

“Why don’t you?” I said. “Lucy would gladly stay with me.”

“Oh, Huey!” Lucy exclaimed.

“You give me my sixty-five cents, you scoundrel,” Matilda said.

“I didn’t . . . .”

“You perfect liar.”

“Look Matilda.”

“I know what I know.”

Huey revved the Fury engine, and while the roar sounded frightening enough for any race track, billows of gray smoke shot skyward from the rusty pipe beneath the charred bumper. When Matilda coughed and covered her nose and mouth with her handkerchief, I had the impending sense of doom, that all dream end in dreary hallways, and I smiled catching Rose’s eye, convinced her wink suggested, wait till I come back. Huey bumped the red front fender into the maple tree on the boulevard during those last, most anxious moments. The metal had bent like foil and the pain scraped off like autumn leaves. Rose blushed and leaned her head on Huey’s shoulder. Lucky Lucy pouted and folded her arms. Huey said, “Oops, I thought I was in reverse.”

“Sam’ll have it fixed someday,” Rose said.

“Huey, please come, please,” Lucy whined.

“Poor Sam.”

When Sam was euphoric about his final victory in the pool marathon, Sam reminded me that the Giants of Warren’s Ice Cream Parlor retained their title with a whomping twenty-three to two victory over the Ponderosa Saw Mill. The Tigers were shut out eight to nothing. Winning the marathon reminded Sam of the Golden Age of Greece, and he started babbling a lot of nonsense about how good Huey was for Rose and how the journey to the east coast would be a once in a life time education for Lucy.

It was the quietest night in years. All I could hear was the faint wheezing from Matilda’s apartment. I thumbed through Huey’s thesis on Wittgenstein, catching lost of phrases about tautology and silence. The manuscript was typed single spaced and was thirty-nine pages long and was smeared with Huey’s blue correction and the professor’s red comments, one reading, “No, absolutely not, this is impossible, if I see this once more I’ll shoot you.” In the blank space on the last page was a crude pencil drawing of a guitar with a face surrounding the acoustical hole. The caption said, “Sad Sam.” The scholarship was so inspiring, I vowed to return to classes and earn those D’s and F’s and wait till Rose returned to pity me with her lovely plump body.

~

For months I waited, and there grew in me the conviction that I had been hired out as a baby-sitter without pay throughout the ordeal. For certain, Sam would have done what he should have done, that is, shoot the villain who stole off with his wife if it wasn’t for me not only to shoot pool with, but also to win over. Part of my job was to lose. I was to prevent murder. Bloody murder. The way it was supposed to be. I was part of the whole ludicrous plot and no one even thanked me for it. Yes, I was convinced of this during all those dull hours when Sam never came over to see me, not even Matilda would speak. Monster got on my nerves and got a larger share of my V. A. checks for food and got fatter by the hour and slept more and longer. No one moved into Huey’s apartment, and the sense of silence grew more and more profound than Huey’s thesis ever was. I felt like a disposable paper plate the day Sam finally did come by and say, “How ‘bout an evening at The Stadium for the New Athletic Competition?”

“Sure, why not?”

Sam said not another word. The Stadium happened to be the city’s only strip-tease joint, a place always taking the blame in the newspaper for the frightfully decreasing morality, which gets raided at least once a month, but somehow manages to stay open and the New Athletic Competition lives on. The hall was more like an auditorium than a stadium, so full of people sitting on chairs, steps, bottles, that I doubted the strength of the wooden floor stained with hundreds of cigarette burns. The crowd cheered louder than Sam’s reverie the night he won the marathon when Beverly Seven Shooter bowed from the stand in her green baseball uniform. The band missed so many notes that even Sam took notice, but Sam kept his eyes on the floor, even when Beverly Seven Shooter threw off her jersey and we could feel the screams shake the floor.

“Hey, Sam, Take a peek.”

“Don’t want’a,” Sam said.

“It was your idea to come out here. Dig those tits, Sam.”

Beverly Seven Shooter twirled her pink bikini tops over her head while her breasts rolled like the tides. They were just like I imagined Rose’s tits to be, heavy and bright as the moon. Too bad Sam never found himself a wife to steal. I felt like I was babysitting again. Maybe Sam felt like suicide. The thought spiced the evening so that Brenda Seven Shooter looked enchanting as she slipped out of those loose baseball pants, and she smiled like a virgin who had never had so much fun in her life.

“Sam, dig that ass, Sam, she’s taking her panties off.”

“Slim, these girls make me feel guilty.”

“Sam!”

“I’m haunted by guilt, Slim.”

“Look, Sam, she’s bare naked.”

“Where’s Rose, I want Rose back.”

“Look at her smile, Sam, she likes it, wow.”

“Rose hates me, Slim.”

“Sam?”

“They’ve been gone a month now, my wife, my kid, I haven’t heard a word, maybe they’ve been kidnapped, even murdered. Slim, I’m in agony.”

When Brenda Seven Shooter left the stage it seemed impossible that Sam could ever have broken through the silence of the evening. No wonder Huey flunked out of graduate school if all he could say about Wittgenstein was “Sad Sam.” No fun for the wicked. I agreed with Sam that he was in agony. We would have left sooner except there were too many people sprawled about the isle.

~

I knew it would be an eventful day when I bent down to shake the cat’s head off the newspaper and Matilda was watching me from her door. Monster was so fat she couldn’t move, nearly dead, heavy as a rock on top that newspaper. I greeted Matilda with the customary, and for the first time in two months she spoke to me. “When am I going to die?” she asked.

“Tomorrow, in the afternoon.”

“You think you’re so smart.”

But it was a tremendous victory, after all this time, not one single word spoken, knowing that old woman who had outlived even her children still accused me of breaking in her apartment and stealing sixty-five cents from her social security pension. Her defiant muteness could speak of nothing else. I knew the day was only beginning. I read Sam Henderson’s column in the newspaper. Sam predicted the Detroit Lions would be pulling down the goal posts at the Super Bowl. I drank cup after cup of instant coffee and waited. It must have been telepathy. I knew it when the knuckles were rapping at the door. “Come in.” Come in, come in, please do, oh please.

“I can’t.”

I couldn’t have been more right. It was Rose, none other than Rose. “The door’s unlocked,” I said.

“There’s a bird on the doorknob.”

“A what?”

“A dead bird.”

I opened the door afterall. Rose’s face was flushed. “You look like you got a lot of sun on your travels.”

“A bit.”

“When did you get back?”

“Yesterday. In the afternoon.” Rose pointed to the floor. Monster was smelling the dead sparrow that still had fresh blood on its neck. Matilda came to her screen door and latched the lock. “You keep that cat inside.”

Rose walked through the door and sat on the sofa. After all those day dreams while she was away, I knew someone would probably soon move into Huey’s apartment. I could feel my blood pressure tighten my skin. I was petrified. I wished she hadn’t come, I wished she stayed with Huey; this time there would be no one to babysit Sam. It must have been the dead bird on the doorknob. I could think of one thousand different ways to start a love affair.

“How’s Huey?” I asked.

“Huey’s left for Germany. Let’s not talk about Huey.”

“How’s Lucy?”

“Lucy’s playing miniature golf with Sam. Let’s not talk about Lucy.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Nothing.”

“Marvelous.”

Rose smiled. I wished I could play the guitar. I wished I could do something. Anything. I wished Sam would come in the door and shoot me.

“How’s Monster?” she asked.

“Almost dead, she’s so well fed.”

“How ‘bout dinner?”

“Well . . . .”

“I’ll pay the bill.”

Already I could taste the onion, and when I saw Rose smile, I knew she would mind.

 

Stephen Christenson, currently one of the editors of CutBank, graduated from the University of Montana Fiction Workshop and has published stories in the Montana Gothic and CutBank. (Spring 1975)


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