The Comforts Of Home
this story first appeared on February 17, 2011 in the Issue 1 of C4, which sadly no longer exists, and later in my debut collection, ALL THE ROADS THAT LEAD FROM, published by Press 53 in 2011
In the Finger Lakes town of Dunston, New York, the spring rain had fallen for four straight days and was falling again when the old man moved in. He carried one box at a time from the trunk of his Cadillac while Beau stood across the street and watched. He wondered what it would be like having an old man in the trailer park. Everyone else was younger. Beau and his wife, Eldeen, were in their twenties. The people next to them were about the same age, with four kids who slept in bunk beds in their living room. On the other side of them was a gay guy who worked at Target, and next to him was a retired cop. No one was friendly or even nice, something Eldeen often complained about.
The old man was careful as he hauled his boxes inside. Beau had seen old men like that in Iraq, setting out their fruit in the market, their veined hands slow and sure. The younger men’s hands were fast and reached his way to greet or beg, or sometimes were hidden deep in the pockets of their Western pants, which made him go quiet and cold wondering what they’d pull out.
Beau wished he had his old slingshot. Even a small rock would make a big noise on the metal siding of the old man’s trailer. The old man might hit the deck, thinking he was being shot at. That would be something to see.
The old man hauled another box to the trailer and stumbled on the top stair. Beau laughed. He couldn’t help it. He’d always found that kind of thing funny. Once, Eldeen stumbled and he laughed for about five minutes. She didn’t talk to him then for three whole days.
The old man appeared in the doorway, stared down at his car as if he’d forgotten what he was doing, and went back inside. Beau wondered if he were loopy. His own grandfather had lost his marbles in his early seventies and imagined a whole family of people who’d never existed. Eldeen said he couldn’t have suffered from Alzheimer’s in that case, because if he did, he’d have forgotten people, not made them up. Eldeen thought she knew what she was talking about because of her leg. Suffering might give you wisdom, Beau thought, but then again, it might not.
Eldeen drove up in their pickup truck. She was a pretty woman with wavy brown hair she liked to put clips in. Today they were shaped like strawberries. She’d had to go to the grocery store, and he didn’t want to go along. Grocery shopping was the most boring thing he’d ever done. Eldeen didn’t mind it. She went up and down the aisles talking to herself, commenting on the prices of things, wondering aloud if she should make this or that for dinner. He used to tell her not to, because people looked at her.
“They look at me anyway,” she said, again because of her leg. Sometimes she used a crutch with a brace that went around her upper arm. It caused a sore just above the elbow, so she only used it when she had to.
Eldeen got out of the truck.
“Who’s that?” she asked Beau.
“Must be a new neighbor.”
Eldeen limped across the road. It was a fairly wide road, and it took her a little time. When she reached the old man’s car, he came down the stairs and shook Eldeen’s hand. Eldeen ran her fingers through her hair, something she did when she was nervous, then pointed behind her. That’s us, just across there, Beau imagined her saying. Oh, yes, it’s a nice little place here, isn’t it? Eldeen was upbeat. A little too upbeat at times. The old man lifted his arm toward his open door, and they both went inside. She didn’t come out for several minutes. Why, if this isn’t the cutest old place you have here! Folks that lived here before weren’t too neighborly. Eldeen had tried to make friends with them, too. She and the wife had had words in the end, about what Beau didn’t know. Eldeen appeared in the door of the old man’s trailer, then limped down the three concrete steps that all the trailers in the park had, across the road, and up the stairs to her own home.
Beau brought in the groceries from the truck. At the store someone else loaded them for her, and then Beau was always home to bring them inside. Beau had been discharged from the Army for over six months and still hadn’t found work. He spent a lot of time eating cereal and watching the news. Eldeen kept the books for a liquor store three days a week. They’d asked her to go full-time. She didn’t care to, but would if need be. “And you know what that means,” she said. She threatened to turn all household chores over to him. Beau hadn’t handled a broom, vacuum cleaner, or dirty dish since he returned. Before he enlisted, he helped out a lot, even though he had a full-time job then as a cashier at the drug store.
With the recession the only place hiring was the gun factory, and Beau didn’t want to think about guns. A guy he’d gotten close to in Iraq shot himself in the head one night after another guy they’d sometimes played cards with got blown up in a roadside bombing. Beau had tried to wrench the gun free from the dead guy’s hand, and couldn’t. He didn’t remember trying to remove the gun. The whole thing was a blank. Someone else had told him what he’d done. He’d tried to put it together, make sense of his action, and couldn’t.
“Maybe you were only trying to help him. Maybe you didn’t know he was already gone,” Eldeen said. Beau thought it was possible. His uncle, the one who lost his mind in Vietnam, sat around his parents’ basement and played Russian Roulette with his sidearm. One day the uncle was passed out drunk and Beau took the gun and threw it in the creek. He wasn’t accused of taking it because everyone knew the uncle wasn’t right in the head. It was said that he had hocked it, or locked it up some place he couldn’t remember. Eldeen kept a nine-millimeter in the drawer of her bedside table. “In case we get robbed,” she’d said. Beau thought she was nuts. For one thing, she didn’t know how to use it. For another, they didn’t have anything someone would risk getting shot at to come in and steal. He’d like to get rid of that gun, too, and knew he’d have to explain himself to Eldeen. So, the gun stayed put.
Summer came, and everyone’s windows opened. The trailers were in a tight cul-de-sac and sounds normally kept inside leaked out. From the cop’s place came classic rock. The big family had Disney tunes. The Target guy, when he was home, liked opera. Only the old man kept quiet. Beau was charged with keeping the grass cut along the common strip, and once, as he pushed his mower, he leaned in close under the old man’s kitchen window and heard a talk radio program discussing the pros and cons of uniform health coverage.
One evening Eldeen and Beau sat on their stairs and watched the twilight fall. He took her hand in his, and after a moment she took it back and ran it through her hair.
“Guess what?” she asked.
“I asked Sam if you could drive their delivery truck.” Sam was Eldeen’s boss at the liquor store.
“I don’t want to drive a truck.”
“He said he’d see what he could do.”
“I don’t need his charity.”
“It’s not charity if he’s paying you.”
Her eyes were different, he thought. They had a quiet, private look to them that wasn’t there before.
Beau kissed her neck. “You worry too much. Everything will be fine.”
The old man came walking down the road. He had on khaki pants and a pressed shirt. He saw Eldeen and Beau, and made his way over to them. Eldeen smiled. The old man held out his hand to Beau.
“Clifford Benderhoff,” he said. Beau shook his hand.
“Beau,” he said.
“Just out taking my constitutional.”
Mr. Benderhoff shifted his focus from Beau to Eldeen. “Well, good night,” he said.
“Good night,” said Eldeen.
Mr. Benderhoff went briskly across to his own trailer.
“He talks like a professor, doesn’t he?” asked Eldeen.
“If you say so.”
“He used to teach college, you know. He told me so that first day.”
Beau snorted. Someone was pulling Eldeen’s good leg. No one who used to teach college would end up living in a trailer. Beau didn’t know why the old man would say such a thing to her, and figured he might be a little loopy after all.
After that, Eldeen looked out for Mr. Benderhoff. She brought him bland casseroles and cheese bakes, stuff Beau couldn’t imagine a guy with no teeth would manage, given how hard and chewy everything Eldeen made was.
“What makes you think he has no teeth?” Eldeen asked. She was at the sink in a sleeveless top with a little lace collar that made her look cute.
“So, he’s got teeth. How come you gotta feed him all the time?”
“Hon. It was last Tuesday, Thursday, and today.”
Beau scratched his chin. He was growing a beard. Eldeen said once that she liked beards.
“Where’s his family to feed him?” he asked.
“Widower. Daughter all the way out in California.”
“He should move out there. Old people need lots of sunshine.”
“He’s not that old. Just seventy-two.”
“That’s pretty old, if you ask me.”
Her expression said she wasn’t asking him, and wouldn’t.
* * * *
The first time Eldeen visited Mr. Benderhoff, he said she should call him Cliff, short for Clifford. He invited her to sit in a chair by the living room window. Nearby two other chairs were wrapped in old blankets. Boxes were stacked against the far wall, and a robust ivy plant sat on the kitchen table and trailed down to the floor. Cliff saw where she was looking and explained that he’d had the plant for many years and had taken it with him every time he moved. She asked why he moved so often, and the slow wandering of his clear blue eyes, as if he were struggling to make sense of his new home, said he was lonely. Eldeen understood about loneliness. It had been hard having Beau overseas. He was gone a total of four years, with only one visit home in between. Then she found that in some ways she was lonelier after he returned than before. She thought it was a matter of getting used to one way of life, then having to get used to another one all over again. Cliff offered a cup of coffee which she declined. The next visit she accepted, and on the third he asked if it were too early in the day for a small whiskey. She didn’t think it was. By then Cliff had arranged his things in a very homey way. The kitchen table had red placemats. The trailing ivy now sat atop the entertainment center and reached its way towards the light from the nearest window. The two wrapped chairs were gone and replaced with a new sofa. A round coffee table stood in front covered with neatly laid out magazines whose titles Eldeen had never seen, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, and one she did know, Arizona Highways. Eldeen asked if Cliff had been to Arizona and he said, yes indeed, several times. He was looking at a little place out there where he’d go for good, as soon as some of his investments came due in the fall. Though Eldeen had only known him for a week or two, she was sad to think he’d be gone that soon.
* * * *
Beau’s friend Ty lifted his beer and took a long swig. The backs of his hands were spotted with orange, red, blue, and black. His head, which was shaved, had dots of green. Beau tried to think how paint had ended up there and didn’t ask. Ty was working on another canvas, a deep swirling thing that had no beginning and no end. Beau thought it wasn’t so hard to do, throwing paint around like that.
“Old lady with the geezer again?” Ty asked.
Ty burped, leaned back on the sofa, stared at the ceiling and said, “You should give her a kid.”
Beau had had the same thought. A kid would keep Eldeen at home, where she belonged. This attachment to the old man was just her needing to take care of someone. Beau could take of himself, so he wasn’t a good substitute. Women needed to nurture and tend. If he couldn’t talk her into a kid, then he’d suggest a puppy. If she didn’t want a puppy, then she could plant a garden.
“Guy got any money?” asked Ty.
“That’s his Cadillac over there, right?”
“Looks pretty late-model to me.”
Beau finished his beer. He had an urge to throw the bottle at their old television set. “Why the interest in his assets?” he asked.
“Well, if he’s as cultured as the old lady says, maybe he’d like to buy one of my paintings.”
Having those crazy, loud swirls of color in such a small space would be a lot to take. Beau said he didn’t really think so and got them both another beer.
* * * *
Finally Beau had to tell Eldeen to stop talking so much about the old man. She was always going on about how interesting he was and how many places he’d been. Beau said if that were so, then why didn’t he take himself off for a long visit somewhere? Eldeen resented that Beau treated Cliff as if he were a nuisance when he was anything but. And it wasn’t as if she were neglecting anything there at home. Wasn’t his dinner always made and his clothes always washed? Weren’t the rugs vacuumed and the dishes always done? And wasn’t she bringing in a paycheck when he wasn’t even looking for work? It was the way she was leaning so defiantly on her crutch that made Beau see he had to do something, so he invited her to dinner at Madeleine’s.
“Oh, my god, did you get a job?” she asked. She ka-thumped her way across their tiny living room and put her arms around him in a three-way hug―her, him, the crutch, which fell to the floor. He accepted her embrace. Her face was shiny and full of light.
“No,” he said.
“Can’t I do something nice for my own wife once in a while?” He hadn’t meant to sound defensive. She picked up her crutch.
“That’s a pricey place. Are you sure it’s a good idea?” she asked.
“It’s a great idea. Now, do you want to go or not?”
“Of course I do, Pumpkin. It’ll be awesome.”
And it was, until Beau had too much to drink. He was a beer man, unused to hard liquor, and while Eldeen sipped her Bordeaux, Beau downed the whiskey sours. He got giggly, romantic, and surly, all in a row. Then he apologized at length in the truck as Eldeen piloted them through the country darkness. Part of the restaurant’s charm was that it was out of the way, in a restored farm house that had once been owned by one of county’s wealthiest families. Beau reminded her of this as they drove, then leaned against the window and fell asleep.
Back at the trailer, he snored in his seat. Eldeen couldn’t wake him. It was late, she was tired and put out by his behavior that evening, though the food had been awfully good. She’d ordered a beef dish she couldn’t pronounce and found it one of the tastiest things she’d ever eaten. She nudged Beau again with no luck. She thought of poking him hard with the rubber tip of her crutch. She didn’t want to leave him there all night in case it got chilly, which it probably wouldn’t, but still, it didn’t seem right.
The lights were on in Cliff’s trailer. Eldeen made her way over, knocked, waited, and then knocked again. Cliff came to the door and said he’d been reading on his chair and must have dropped off. She explained the problem.
“Oh, my dear, what a bother for you! Of course, I’ll be right over,” Cliff said.
He took a moment to get out of his frayed blue bathrobe and into a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. The jeans were a surprise. He looked good, she thought, strong and capable. Just the other day he’d mentioned that he still went to the gym three days a week and worked with weights. Eldeen admired him for wanting to stay in shape.
Cliff wrestled Beau out of the truck, leaned him on his shoulder, and walked him to the front door.
“Oops,” Beau said. “Oopsie-doopsie.”
Cliff guided Beau down the hall to their bedroom and shoved him onto the bed. Then he lifted his legs off the floor and got him in the middle, away from the edge.
“Hey, Baby, what say you get naked, get in here, and give your old man a blowjob?” Beau mumbled.
Eldeen’s face burned. Cliff pretended he hadn’t heard a thing. Back in the living room he said, “Don’t be hard on him in the morning. He’ll feel rotten enough.” Eldeen noticed that she’d stained her dress at the restaurant. It wasn’t a new dress, but it was one of her favorites, a little yellow jersey with embroidered roses around the neck. She stepped out of her white sandals, wriggled free of her crutch and sat down. Cliff sat down, too, on the sofa opposite her. The propped up crutch fell loudly to the floor. Cliff reached for it.
“It’s okay. Just leave it there,” said Eldeen.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you―”
“Happened when I was six. Fell off a horse I had no business trying to ride. Broke the damn thing so badly, there wasn’t a thing anyone could do about it. Not out where we lived, anyway, in the boondocks.”
“Oh, I see. I’m sorry. I was going to ask how long you’ve been married.”
Eldeen smiled and put her hand on her forehead. “Oh, right. Seven years. Why?”
Cliff took a minute to answer. Beau’s snores were deep and strong. “Marriage isn’t always easy, or intended to always make us happy. It’s companionship that counts. As long as you’re good companions most of the time.”
Eldeen said nothing.
“My wife was a good companion, even when she didn’t understand me,” said Cliff.
“What didn’t she understand?”
“My wanting to feel young again, and explore the world.”
“She thought I was―avoiding reality.” The shadow of past conversations passed over his face. “So, I practiced. Reality, I mean. That’s why I told you right away that I was seventy-two. To get used to how it sounds.”
“Are you? Used to it?”
“Well, you know what they say. ‘You’re as young as you feel.’” Down the hall Beau turned in bed and mumbled something.
“Can I offer you a nightcap?” Cliff asked.
“Well―” Oh, who cares? she thought. Beau wouldn’t wake up until mid-morning, at the earliest.
“That would be lovely,” she said. They walked across the road in the silver light of the August moon, and as they climbed the stairs, he patted her shoulder.
* * * *
Ty watched the barmaid’s ass as she wove around the crowded tables. For once his hands were clean. He was in a good mood. He’d actually sold a painting, to a friend of his mother’s, which wasn’t quite as exciting as selling in a gallery to a stranger, but it was a start. Now he and Beau were celebrating. After the hangover from Madeleine’s, Beau had stopped drinking for four days. Today was Friday, and he was ready to pick up where he’d left off.
One of Beau’s neighbors, the retired cop, came in with a woman a lot younger than he was. Ty looked up.
“Hey, you know who that chick is? She’s a stripper,” said Ty.
“No fucking way.”
“Way. I saw her at Tattler’s once.”
“Since when you hang around strip clubs?”
“Always looking for inspiration, you know?”
The retired cop looked at Beau, then leaned over and whispered something in the stripper’s ear that made her giggle and bring her hand to her mouth. Maybe he’d seen him the night he came home from Madeleine’s, flopped against the old man like a sack of flour, as Eldeen put it. So what if he had? What if Beau had gotten blotto? Mr. Law and Order looked like a guy who did that a lot.
After a couple of minutes Ty asked, “Old lady with her charity again, is she?”Beau nodded. It was really getting to be too much. He’d decided that Eldeen didn’t need a kid, but to work in a nursing home so she could play checkers and listen to stupid stories about the good old days. What the hell was wrong with her, anyway?
“She’s unhappy,” he said. It had come to his mind suddenly and explained everything.
“That’s bad. Unhappy women make unhappy men.”
“Where did you get that?”
“I made it up.”
“You’re full of crap.”
“Hey, you tell me I’m wrong.”
Ty had a point. Eldeen had made him unhappy. And it was all because of Pops over there across the street. Beau would talk to him and suggest that maybe Eldeen shouldn’t visit so much, that she needed to be with people her own age. But then he’d just sound like a fool. Eldeen was going to have to come around on her own. With a little encouragement, of course.
“Give me forty bucks,” said Beau. “No, better make it fifty.”
“Roses. I’m getting Eldeen a dozen red roses.”
“Buy them yourself.”
“Jesus. I treated you to rounds all afternoon, now you want more from me?”
“It’s a loan, that’s all.”
Ty stared into his beer. Then he reached for his wallet, removed two twenties and a ten.
“Come with me. Help me figure out what to write on the card,” said Beau.
“How about, with love, from your deadbeat hubby.”
“Fuck off, will you?”
But Ty went along, steered Beau towards pink roses when the red weren’t available, saying that yellow or white weren’t romantic enough, and told Beau to write To the love of my life, lovely as these are, your beauty far outweighs. Beau thought it sounded stupid, but he wrote it anyway, word for word.
* * * *
Eldeen blushed when she saw the flowers, and her eyes went big and bright, like a kid’s. She read the card. Her mouth turned down. She patted Beau’s arm, then limped into the bedroom. He heard her crying. He had no idea what to do. How could he comfort her because she was embarrassed at his gift? Where was his You’re so good to me, I never should have neglected you, and I promise to do right by you from now on?
For a few days, Eldeen didn’t visit the old man. Then she mentioned that he’d gone out of town.
“Elks convention?” Beau asked.
“He has a friend in Pittsburgh.”
“Bet they’re painting the town red. Closing the bars. Hitting all the hot spots.”
Eldeen’s mouth pulled into a narrow line. She sat down, picked up one of his socks that needed mending from a wicker basket she kept by the couch, looked at it, and threw it to the floor.
“What’s your problem?” Beau asked. He didn’t think it was her period. That had been the week before. Maybe she was coming down with something. Whatever it was, he hoped it wasn’t catching.
She closed her eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry. Look, I’ve been thinking. If you can’t find a job, why not take a class at the community college? The recession won’t last forever, and in the meantime you can learn something new,” she said.
“I don’t know. Computers. Cliff says―”
“I don’t give a shit what Cliff says.”
Beau went outside to mow the lawn. He’d mowed it only two days ago, but he needed something to do, and it was too early for a beer. He thought about visiting Ty in the garage he used as a studio, but Ty was pretty weird when he was working, so he kept pushing the mower back and forth.
* * * *
The kids that belonged to the family in the trailer park were running around, playing tag. When they saw Beau sitting on his stairs, they stopped. Their four heads came together in a huddle, then they exploded with laughter and ran away.
Assholes, Beau thought. He was in a lousy mood. Eldeen was out again, he didn’t know where. The truck was gone. She hadn’t left a note. She used to, all the time, but now she came and went without a word. Beau had no idea what he’d done to make her this way.
A few days later, Eldeen came in from outside, stood in the kitchen, and said she was leaving. She was going to Arizona with Cliff. She and Cliff were in love. She knew Beau thought she was crazy, she knew he didn’t understand, that all he saw when he looked at Cliff was an old man. His body might be old, but his spirit was young, and his soul timeless. Those were her exact words. Cliff made her feel what she’d never felt before, that she mattered, that she could belong to someone without feeling owned and all used up. Beau sat on the couch in silence while she went on and on in a calm, even voice, waiting for her to say it was a joke, that she was getting him back for something and wanted to teach him a lesson.
She stopped talking for a minute, maybe to give him a chance to speak. He realized then that she’d been standing the whole time, leaning so hard on her crutch that her knuckles were white.
“You feeding him Viagra or something? I didn’t think guys that age could still get it up,” said Beau.
Eldeen said that Cliff was better in bed than Beau was. He’d had lots more practice, knew what women needed. Beau’s head was in his hands by then. She had another confession to make. She’d been at Cliff’s house one afternoon when Beau was out and the neighbor kids must have heard them in the bedroom, because all of a sudden, there they were, with one heaved up on the shoulder of another, giggling and laughing. She realized then that she couldn’t go on, sneaking around, that she had to come clean.
“Clean isn’t the word I’d use,” said Beau. It was dreamlike now. None of this was really happening. She asked him to try to understand, to see that they’d been over since he’d come back from Iraq, that in time he’d be happier without her.
And then she was gone. Her ka-thump ka-thump went down the stairs, across the street, followed by the slam of car doors, and the slow acceleration of a very big, very strong motor.
He said her name. He said it again, and remembered the gun. He went to look. She’d left it right there, in the bedside table. He picked it up. There was still time. They had quite a while before they hit the interstate. He moved the gun from one hand to the other and knew it would be easy and right, that he would do it in a second without thinking twice, if only he could figure what to do after that.