When He Came Home

“When he came home, that one day, he . . . he was a different man,” he says.

“What do you mean by different?” the woman asks.

“Ah, well he uh, you know,” he responds while looking at his hands. “He uh, he wasn’t the same. He needed help. He was confused. That wasn’t like him. He never needed help before, you know? He always knew what to do.”

She studies his face, interpreting his mannerisms. “I’m not sure I understand,” she lies. “Can you elaborate for me?”

“Elaborate?”

“Elaborate,” she says. “Explain, provide more details” she pauses, searching his grey eyes for understanding.

“Oh, right! Right right right right right,” he repeats until he is simply muttering rhythmically. She grinds her teeth behind her pursed lips as she waits for him to finish and collect his thoughts.

“You ah, you got a glass of water there?” he asks, pointing at a nearby glass on the table.

“I’ll get you some water when we are finished,” she responds. It’s part of the routine and she has come to expect it — she never falters in her response.

“Oh okay,” he says turning his gaze back to his hands. “Well, like I said, Clark never needed help from nobody. It was just his way, you know? He always knew how to take care of things like,” he pauses, “I’m real thirsty, could I just,”

“No,” she cuts him off short.

“You’ve heard this story before, Miss Jane. Why you wanna hear it again? Ain’t gonna change,” he says.

“When I like a song, I listen to it often,” she says.

“But I,”

“Just tell me a goddamn story!” she snaps, her black rimmed glasses slide down her shallow nose. She takes a deep breath, pushes them up again, and corrals a stray wisp of dark hair tucking it behind her ear.

“Oh! Well then,” he begins, a subtle smirk gracing his red lips. She can see it — it’s slight, but it is there. He gets some sort of pleasure out of her reactions, she knows it. The recent weeks have worn her patience paper thin and she is more inclined to indulge him.

“You know, Clark and I, we’d known each other for a long time . . . met when we were just teenagers,” he continues. “Well, he was just one of those guys that was always there, you know? He was good at everything, but not real good. Just capable. One of those, ah “Jacks”, he says.

“Jacks?” she asks.

“Yeah, like a ‘Jack of all trades, Master of none’. One of them,” he replies.

“I see,” she says, “go on.”

“Right,” he continues as he traces the table’s stainless steel edge with his finger. “Well he just never stood out much, but he never needed any help, he never needed anyone. His old man was locked up, you know, and his ma’? Well she never had an empty bed. But times were tough and that old gal did what she had to. It’s tough to pay the bills as a single mom and she weren’t a proud woman if you know what I mean.”

She nods in response.

“Well, now don’t get me wrong, Miss Jane,” he says, “she weren’t no hooker neither. She just had ah, admirers that would take care of her, you know, make sure she didn’t need anything,” he finishes by folding his hands and placing them on the table in front of him. “You got a cigarette?”

She briefly rummages through her purse to retrieve a small silver cigarette case. She hands one over and offers him a light. The water could wait, but the cigarettes were necessary.

He rotates the cigarette back and forth between his fingers, handling it like a delicate piece of art. “You know, Clark used to roll his own,” he began again, “we used to raid the ashtrays ‘round town for butts and we’d roll the unused leaves into new paper. Tasted like shit, but beggars can’t be choosers,” He smiles at the memory. “Clark never wanted to steal and he couldn’t afford his own, so that’s how he did it. Just a legit dude, you know? Always knew how to take care of things.” He takes a long and deep drag before letting out; the smoky haze levitating toward the pale florescent lights.

“Clark’s mother?” she prompts him.

“Right. Clark, he never showed it, but that shit ate him up, you know. Those other men always coming and going from his house. He never knew their names, never wanted to. He hated ’em, but he loved his ma’. He asks me one day, he says ‘Do you think you can atone for someone else’s sins?’ Well that’s a deep topic, you know?” he says, leaning back in his chair. “But that’s just how he was, always looking out for someone. Selfless. But I think that’s what drove him,” he pauses to look at the burning end of his cigarette and take another drag.

“You know? That’s what drove the man,” he continues. “Life ain’t easy, but it was extra tough for Clark. But he just kept his head down and worked through it all. Made it through school, got a job as a grease monkey in an auto shop, and started a life, you know? He done everything right, no matter how much easier it would have been to make bread pushin’ shit on the street — that’s where most kids from that district ended up — pushin’ shit on the streets,”

“But Clark was legit, see. His boss saw that and give him a promotion with responsibilities and such, no pay raise, just more responsibilities. He was an asshole like that, but Clark didn’t mind. He still made decent money, had a little place to stay, and kept his car running. That was enough for him, you know?” He pauses again to shift his fingers on the cigarette, pinching the between his thumb and index finger. He takes one final drag and snuffs it out on the table.

“So what happened,” she persists.

“Well Clark met this girl, some scab from downtown, but she was healing — a pretty little thing. That guy always liked those girls that needed help. She had been through rough times, so they sorta clicked, right?”

She nods her head in response.

“Well Clark loved this gal like a man should. He done everything for her. He let her move in, didn’t ask for anything from her, just let her stay at home, see, like he was trying to make up for his past, or his mother’s past or somethin.”

“Right,” she says.

“Well, the landlord finds out he’s got a new tenant and jacks the rent up on ol’ Clark, but he takes it in stride. That’s just the way he was. It made his life more difficult, but I think he liked it that way. Me on the other hand, I saw things different. I kept telling him that his boss was a prick and he should just tell his sorry landlord to go fuck himself, but he wouldn’t listen. I told him he oughta think about ditching that girl too, you know? “

“Why would you do that?” she asks. “If that was the one thing in his life that made him happy, what do you care?”

“Well, she was an extra mouth to feed and she wasn’t very good at much. She couldn’t cook worth a shit and she didn’t know how to do the laundry or clean a friggin’ house. She just seemed to be taking advantage, you know?” he replies.

“Alright,” she says, “So that was your own perspective, not his?”

“Right,” he replies. “Clark thought the world of that girl and there was nothing I could say against it. It was tough, you know. I saw him less and less, but then something happened . . .” he trails off and begins looking at his hands again.

“What was that,” she asks.

“Huh?” he says coming out of a stupor.

“What happened,” she persists.

“Oh, right. Ah, you know, I’m getting thirsty . . .” he begins.

“What happened,” she repeats in the same tone.

“Well, ah, Clark started having some troubles with his car. It was an old Chrysler New Yorker monstrosity, a beater, but built with Detroit steel. It was a goddamned tank. I told him he should just get a Chevy, but he wouldn’t listen. He was like that though, always had to do things his way. That way if he ever got into a jam, he only had himself to blame,” he pauses, “you got another cigarette?”

“No,” she says as she watches him look at the little silver case on the table.

“But,”

“Finish the story,” she snaps.

“Oh, sure, sure,” he says, as the ghost of a smile flutters across his red lips. “Well Clark pulls his car into the shop at his work one day when business was slow and starts wrenchin’ on it. Bad ignition breaker points, it was. Not a tough job, and Clark done it right easy. But his boss finds out that he used parts from the shop. Well Clark tries to explain that he could just deduct the cost from his next paycheck and shows him a receipt that he had scribbled out for it and all, but the prick wouldn’t have it. Shit canned him, he did. Clark didn’t take that too well, but he spent the next few weeks looking for work. That was his way, always trying to do the right thing.”

“And he couldn’t get another job?” she asks.

“Naw, he was black-balled. Turns out his boss, the prick, made sure every other shop in town knew his side of the story — that Clark was a Janus-faced thief,” he explains to her. “Well, the bills start piling up and his darling gal tried to find some work too, but she wasn’t good at much anything other than being pretty, so they get an eviction notice . . .” He trails off again drawing his finger on the table’s edge.

“So then what?” she says trying to meet his eyes with her own, but he keeps them focused on the table.

“Well,” he continues, “Clark starts taking on odd jobs for some quick cash. It weren’t steady work, but it paid some of the expenses, see? He was always tryin’ to make things right. And his landlord tells him one day that he is gonna extend the time he can stay — that he won’t be evicted that month. It was a blessing to him, one of those breaks in life that you could really use and Clark worked harder than ever to scrape up money and make good on the rent, right?”

“I’m with you,” she replies.

“You don’t suppose I could have a glass of water do you?”

She leans forward, looks him in the eyes and speaks unreasonably slow, exaggerating the spaces between each word and sounding out each syllable. “Fin-ish . . . the . . . fuck-ing . . . sto-ry.”

“You’re the boss,” he responds as the corners of his mouth curl ever so slightly. She lets out an audible sigh.

“So Clark, he came home early one day. He had a nice wad of cash in his pocket from a recent job and the guy had hired him on for his own business ’cause he liked Clark’s work. Even gave him and advancement on his pay to help out with the back bills. Well when he came home, his excitement left. He was a different man, confused. For once, he didn’t know what to do, he needed help.”

“What happened?” she prods.

“Well, ah . . .” he begins again, “turns out, that little break on the eviction was orchestrated by his darling gal. She felt guilty that maybe she had caused his undue hardship and when she couldn’t find any work to help out, she thought she might get the landlord to reason with her and work out a deal.”

“So she slept with him for rent,” she interrupts.

A dark storm glints across his gray eyes, but passes like an ethereal cloud. She had seen that flash before, it was the single driving force behind her persistence over the weeks. She lived to see it.

“Yeah, that gal was a pretty thing and she knew how to get her way. Clark came home and found her paying the rent; the landlord making grunting noises like a pig and pumping it out of her while she lay on the bed like a ragdoll.”

“And he didn’t take it too well?” she asks.

“No, that hit a little too close to home with Clark. All that ‘atonement for sins’ shit seemed to go out the window. I could see it. He loved his mother, but he let her down.”

“So, he felt remorse for allowing that to happen all over again?” she says trying to interpret his cryptic language.

“Well, yeah. I suppose you could say that,” he replies.

“So what happened?” she persists.

“Well, he had never really failed before. He didn’t know how to handle it. Couldn’t even bring himself to bust that landlord’s beak. He left her inside, sitting on the bed, just in tears — like none I’ve ever seen,” he says shaking his head. “She loved him. She loved him just as much as he loved her, but she was a brick. She was dragging him down. I could see it, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t. When he came home, he was a different man. She cut him deep, but I knew he loved her and wouldn’t do what was right. He was confused, so I stepped in.”

“Why?” she asks. It was a simple question, but she knew where it would take him.

“Because he never needed help before,” he replies. “In all the time that I knew him, he never asked anything from anyone — and he wouldn’t. It was my chance to actually help the guy, to be there for him for once. No one had ever done that for him.”

“She did,” she responds. “You think that’s what she wanted for herself? She did it for him.”

“No she didn’t,” he says. “She never did anything for him. She was a brick, a scab. He needed my help. I left him sitting on the front lawn and I got into that Chrysler and revved it up. Clark had done a good job; that car purred like a champ. I backed it out of the driveway, drove around the block once and straight into that bedroom wall. It was quick and better than she deserved.”

“And what about Clark?” she asks.

“He had gone back in to make amends,” he sighs, shaking his head. “He was like that, you know. Always trying to do the right thing. I miss him, I really do,” he pauses, “how ‘bout that water? I’m real thirsty.”

“GODDAMMIT!” she explodes jumping to her feet. “YOU, You, you . . .” she stutters trying to find the way to express her true exasperation and emotion with the man, but stops short realizing the breach in professional etiquette. She collects herself, sits back down, and leans forward.

“Now listen here you little freak,” she says, “the prosecutor has hired me to evaluate you. You can’t keep this charade up forever — you don’t fool me. You and I both know that you are perfectly sane. It’s only a matter of time before I find a crack in your story.”

“Water?” he asks.

She grabs the glass from the table and hurls the contents in his face before gathering her notepad and walking toward the door. A broad grin spreads across his wet lips as he calls out, “So I’ll see you again next week?”

“Fuck you, Clark,” is all she can respond as she passes the hospital orderlies making their way to restrain the patient and escort him to his room.