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The International Writers Magazine
Hard Life

George Sparling

The next day made a grand jump cut for Ralph and Kathy. We usually swallowed our medications at night, and then the sleep of the dead. The following day either faded in or made a transition to the next. But we never knew for certain. That was the tao of handis, a portmanteau word for craziness.

Cat shit became Ralph's and Kathy's perfume, perhaps letting them rise above their under-the-under class status. I smelled it every time I visited, which was a lot.

Forty or so cardboard boxes, filled with stuff neither Kathy nor Ralph knew or had forgotten, were piled on chairs, sofa, tables and rug. Without order, the cat had no place to shit The cat-with-no-name hadn't anywhere to hang out and roam, its presence seen only at mealtime. Its solitary trace, a psychotic stench, had an inseen but real world of its own. Much like Plato's patterns on a cave's wall, the essence behind all things, the aroma had a permanent existence.

Ralph placed the cat's expensive ( they bought used socks ), canned food twice daily on the dirtiest kitchen floor I ever saw, including mine. I once sub-let an apartment for a summer. When then guy returned, he saw the unmopped kitchen floor. Disgusted with me, I packed and walked the Lower East Side streets, disgraced for five minutes. The only time anyone saw the cat was feeding time and then, back it ran, address unknown.
On the outskirts of a wealthy town, the bus took us downtown. We traipsed through a boutiquey shopping mall walking to the niche where raggedies ate free food and signed for government programs. Occasionally Ralph bought Kathy perhaps a brooch, the cheapest item in the store. A clerk one time tapped on a glass counter, alerting employees that Coxey's Army or the IWW had arrived. Once I walked through Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue, hearing the same alert system. I imagined Tiffany's security of post- 9/11 proportions. Ralph got angry, fuming under his breath, having his egalitarian, midwest value undermined. An expert at burying trivial and enormous traumas, he remained silent.
Afterward, we ate apple pie ala modes.
"Nowadays people don't eat rich desserts," I said.
"Carbohydrates fill us up, though," Kathy said.
"We don't eat smanchy-fancy," Ralph said. "Who can afford organic food anyway."
"About 95% of this town can," I said. "Seen how many Mecedes are parked in the mall lot?"

We spent ordinary days, sitting on the bed or floor, watching TV. Kathy liked old movies, Joan Crawford one of her favorites. Ralph watched CMT and MTV, "for the music," he said. But it offered him cheating time, a sneaky chance to view glamous female singers.

The era of Kitty Wells had vanished, CMT giving way to image, its seductive glare behind their ever-present closed bedroom curtains. "You're as beautiful as Joan Crawford," he said, as a glittery blonde sang another song about small towns disappearing.

I liked old '30's movies, the rawness of Little Caesar and I Was a Fugitive on a Chain but they seldom got airtime. And Sling Blade, how the line between mental-hospital crazy and normal dissolved. And maybe its retribution and justice-seeking we intuited. When the news came on, I said "Tomorrow."
"It's either public relations or entertainment, I know," Ralph said. "We watch anyway."

I walked to their place, drinking the usual Earl Gray tea. This gained poise rather than shock for a new day. A Lexus was parked in front of their first-floor apartment. Pickups and Fords, but never a Lexus. What if the landlord saw a de Kooning rather than a mess?
"How can you live like this?" he asked. "It comes naturally. Why not?" Kathy said.
"We're in the bedroom mostly except when we eat," Ralph said. "This violates the health code. It's a fire hazard, too" he said.
"We'll clean it," Kathy said. Goya's war mutilations in mine: evicted for excessive morbidity. "You'll have to move," he said. "Otherwise, I'll have to get an eviction notice."
"We'll move, then," Ralph said. "Evictions are bad paper." Bad paper, still valid in computer age.
I'd boiled water, then sipped tea, trying not to intervene. But I couldn't resist.
"How did you find out about this?" I asked the landlord. "The PGE man did when he cleaned the heater." "Oh." What could I do about anything? I ate entropy for dinner every night.
"A week should be long enough for moving. Goodbye," the landlord said.
I barely heard the engine as he drove away, unlike pickup engines. It sounded like smooth vanilla ice cream passing quietly down my esophagus.We sat at the kitchen table, eating more oatmeal and toast than usual. Kathy even made scrambled eggs, which they seldom eat. News of a hurricaine, flood and wars we heard on the radio, our fates's background noise.
"More disasters," Ralph said. 'The sky hides the night behind it' wrote Paul Bowles. "I'll rent a U-haul and we'll pack everything," I said.
"We don't have a place to go, " Kathy said.
"I forgot the problem," I said. The riddle of the sphinx, humanity, us, was our problem. Ralphphoned a social worker. He shared the same building as Ralph's psychiatrist.

The worker placed him on a long hold, waiting. Finally he gave Ralph an address of a rooming house in the next town, a few miles away. Ralph called and the owner said she had a room. The social worker phoned ahead, making sure the owner held the room for them.

I rented a U-Haul. By sunset we'd loaded most of their belongings. Drained, overloaded with adrenalin, we sat sweating and wrecked before we left. "What about the cat?" Ralph asked.
"If we can find it, we''ll take him with us," I said. We searched and had to give up.

We drove to the rooming house. The truck remained mostly unpacked in front of the two-story house. We took only what they required for the night.
"It's like living in our bedroom. We can do it," Ralph said.
"I'll come back early tomorrow. We'll unpack the rest," I said. Tenants stowed whatever couldn't fit in their rooms in the owner's basement and garage.

I popped an extra sleeper that night. The drastic shift, how abnormal normal actually was, bore down hard reality. I woke before dawn, drinking more caffeine that usual. I parked behind an ambulance, then went to their room.
"Where's Ralph?" I asked.
"He forgot his meds. He's going to the hospital," Kathy said.

I unpacked, allowing her to absorb his abscence. Exposed wires dangled from a wall.
A yellow sign read: DANGER. The owner had put that up herself, I assumed. The apartment they'd lived in for eleven years hadn't electrical problems. Electroshock wasn't so bad, no?
"Want to come and see about Ralph?" I asked.
"OK." I phoned the hospital. Ralph had been medicated and was sleeping, counting Rottweillers.

We drove away, Ralph-less. Kathy and I stopped at a grocery store and bought food. We put it in the commnuity kitchen's cabinet. We listened to music on the transistor radio, the only valuable thing I found. Kathy liked the adult contemporary station, Celine Dion soothed her as well as myself.
"I have to eat," I said. "Ralph will be back soon." Kathy listened to a Sinatra song, but we hadn't any idea who covered it, as I left.
When her check came, she paid rent, but hadn't enough to make it through the month.
"What now?" I'd never seen as much anxiety cross her face before. The strength of Crawford's Mildred Pierce had been what I'd seen before.
"You have a sister, don't you?" I thought Ralph mentioned her, but I might've forgotton.
"Carol lives in Nebraska. We don't talk," she said. "What's her last name? Is she married?" She couldn't remember, but told me the town.
"I try and find out," I said, and drove to the public library. I'd taken a few computer classes, and knew how to read online news. The librarian helped me run a search, which took an hour but I never found her address. I called the rooming house, and spoke with Kathy.
"Was she married when you last talked?" I asked.
"If she's not now, divorced maybe, it'll be easy." The town funded free computers. I searched again, coming up with Carol's address and phone number. I called her from my phone. The house, with two children and Kathy's uncle, still had room.
"She'll have to sleep on the couch."
"What about airfare?" I dreaded that question.
"I'll deposit the exact fare to her bank."
"You can meet her at the airport, I guess."
"I'll drive to Omaha. It's about seventy-five miles away."

In two days I booked a flight to Omaha, letting Carol know the airline's flight number.
I drove Kathy to the airport. Living in the Seattle area, scheduling wasn't dificult to make. I never made connections like this, their inevitable disasters making that undoable.

After a week, I upped my dose of meds a little. Without Ralph and Kathy, I'd no place to go, except write letters to persons faraway. I watched TV shows that I'd scorned but now looked pretty good. After popping the meds, I dozed off in a lounge chair watching the Tonight Show. TV news woke me the next morning. At ten o'clock Ralph phoned. They wouldn't release him unless he had a residrence. I told him he could live with me.
"Good, Martin. I'll take the bus." He hadn't changed much, but not as thin as the prequel, before cat shit smacked the fan.
He put on a few pounds eating hospital meals rather than TV dinners.
" 'But lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust corrupt', " he said, quoting the King James Bible.
"You could move to Nebraska, re-apply for disability."
"Maybe some day. I could e-mail her."
"It's easy. We'll go to the library tomorrow."

We decided life wasn't a gritty Dorthea Lange Great Depression photograph. But it wasn't Ansel Adams either. More like a Utrillo painting, wavering only slightly, but its clarity unmistakable, not entirely as lost as we'd imagined.

© George Sparling May 2007

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