by Terry Tierney
I scramble to answer the pounding on my front door, surprised to have a late afternoon visitor and even more surprised to see Artie leaning on his crutch and grinning with his remaining teeth.
‘Hi there, Curt,’ he says.
I smile back, not sure what he wants. Artie always has an angle. He pushes into my apartment, and I notice he has shaved for a change. I smell the Aqua Velva.
‘What’re you doing?’ he asks, staring at the open booklet on my chair. He spies my open beer can and winks at me before helping himself to a swallow.
I shake my head, hoping he remembered to spit out his plug and brush his teeth. Artie’s a master at coaxing free beers from his friends and acquaintances at My Mother’s Place, though he’s easily offended if anyone calls him on it. He pays for a round now and then just to keep his honor.
When he leans over my notepad for a closer look, I tell him, ‘I’m studying my computer course. I got it in the mail today.’
‘I thought you were taking a course at Broome Tech.’
‘Can’t afford it.’
‘Do you have a computer?’
‘I can use one at the Binghamton library.’
Artie snorts like he doesn’t believe they have computers at the library. Unless they moved the library into the back room of Mother’s he would never know for sure. The past few days I’ve been staying away from the bar myself, hoping to dry out before trying to get my job back at the dairy.
‘You need to get out of here,’ he says with a wave of his free hand. ‘It’s not good to stay inside all the time.’
‘I told you I’m studying. I can’t study at Mother’s.’
‘I don’t mean go to Mother’s,’ he says. He looks at me seriously. ‘You need to get over Debby.’
‘I don’t care about Debby.’
‘Yeah, and I can kick a football fifty yards.’ He glances down at his right pant leg pinned up under his thigh stump the way he does when he says the beer drains into his missing leg. That’s why he’s always thirsty. ‘You got fired because of her and you ain’t been the same since she went back to her boyfriend. Now you’re sitting here drinking by yourself. You won’t go to Mother’s because she works there, and you don’t have a car to go anywhere else. It ain’t healthy drinking by yourself.’
‘I was doing just fine before you came in and told me how bad I feel.’ I force a laugh and retreat to the kitchen for a fresh can of Genesee. Maybe he’s right about Debby. In a way, she’s my missing leg. The beer drains into my memory of her, the place where she used to be.
‘You never should have sold your car,’ Artie says when I return to the living room.
‘I got fifty bucks from the wrecker. Better than paying for a new transmission.’
‘How are you going to get a job without a car?’
‘I can take a bus or a taxi.’
‘Buses don’t go everywhere, and taxis are expensive. And where’s your fifty bucks? You blew most of it in Ithaca with what’s her name.’
‘Renee. You said I should forget about Debby.’
‘Not with a wino like her. You’d been better off spending the money on me. At least I’m still here.’
As long as I have beer in the refrigerator, I’m thinking.
‘Sometimes I need a car to go places,’ he continues. ‘I might need to go up to the vet’s hospital in Oxford.’
‘Are you complaining because I sold my car and you want me to drive you some place?’ I ask with a grin.
He chugs the dregs of his beer, formerly my beer, and says, ‘No, I just think we should go out looking for a car.’
‘You crazy? I don’t have money to buy a car.’
‘Maybe I want to buy a car.’
I smile and shake my head but I refrain from stating the obvious fact that his missing right leg would make driving difficult, but that’s only part of the problem. I doubt if he has a driver’s license, and I doubt if he has the money. I know he receives disability checks, but I figure most of that money drains into his leg. As he stands up to leave and tucks his crutch under his armpit, I say, ‘I bet you’re planning to take Renee to Ithaca yourself, you old fox.’
‘Better me swilling beer with Renee than you,’ he counters.
I decide to play along. Ignoring the steady drizzle he leads me several blocks down Chenango Street to a used car dealer. He’s complaining about his thirst by the time we get there. The car lot is one I have passed by and ignored for years, so small that the dozen or so cars might have been parked by downtown shoppers or residents of the nearby brick buildings, all blackened with decades of soot. Only the tattered plastic flags strung between two telephone poles mark it as a place of business. The owner’s sign has long since fallen down, and it leans against a wall.
We approach a man sitting in a huge green Buick near the back of the yard. He shuffles a stack of paper and when he rolls down the fogged window I realize they are betting slips. He welcomes us with a big smile.
Artie already has his eyes on a car. Leaning on the Buick he points his crutch at a gray Dodge Dart. ‘Six hundred dollars,’ the salesman tells us. ‘Great car, low mileage for its age. Came up from Florida. Check out the great body.’ He holds a huge hand out the window for us to shake. ‘My name’s Fred.’
Artie shifts his crutch to his left hand as he leans down to return the greeting. ‘Freddy,’ he smiles. ‘I didn’t know you sold cars. We see you every Wednesday night at Mother’s during football season.’
‘Yup, that’s me.’ He looks different in daylight, much heavier, with deep lines in his sagging face. He grunts as he pulls himself out of the Buick, leaving the betting slips on top of the cracked dashboard.
He follows us over to the Dodge, and I take a quick walk around the car. I can’t find any deep rust or body putty but most of the paint has peeled off the hood and roof. Even the primer is missing in spots. ‘Must be over thirty years old,’ I say.
Freddy waves his hand back and forth like he’s declining a beer. ‘Nah, it’s a ’75. They made solid cars back then. More steel.’
Artie stands aside and watches me take another lap around the car. ‘Look underneath it,’ he says. ‘Check for oil and check the tires.’
Now I understand why Artie brought me along, so I can crawl under the car. I can’t see any oil on the pan or the gravel underneath. ‘The tires should make it through the winter,’ I grin, ‘if you don’t take too many trips to Ithaca.’
‘Let’s go for a spin,’ Artie says, looking at Freddy, who glances down at his rolled up pant leg. Artie nods toward me and I pull out my driver’s license.
The Dart starts well enough and we wheeze out of the lot, rocking on the sprung suspension and riding low as a tank. I can feel the uneven surface of the street through the floorboard. I avoid taking the car on the freeway but it runs well enough.
When we get back to the dealer, Artie tells Freddy that the car is junk, hardly worth three hundred, and I enumerate its dents and stains. Finally, Freddy says, ‘Five hundred and I’ll throw in the tax and registration.’ He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a cigar. He places the tip between his lips and rolls it back and forth with his tongue.
Artie eyes him for a second and glances back at the car. I smile, still wondering if he’s serious, but Artie leans against the door frame and pulls a roll of bills out of his back pocket. He peels off five one-hundred dollar bills and snaps the blue rubber band around his remaining money. He shoves the roll back into his jeans where it raises a shiny bulge I hadn’t noticed before. Artie catches me watching and I look away.
Freddy waves us back to the Buick where we crawl inside and Artie signs the paperwork, which consists of Freddy’s loopy hand filling in the blanks on a Xerox copy about as faded as the paint on the car.
‘Home, James,’ Artie croons when the business is finished. He slides into the passenger seat of the Dodge and nods his head with satisfaction, glancing over at me as I drive the few blocks to his apartment. When I turn down State Street, I smile and say to him, ‘Now what are you going to do with this car? Maybe you should move out of your apartment and sleep in it.’
‘Why do you say that?’ he asks, suddenly offended. ‘I ain’t no street person.’
‘Sorry, I was kidding.’ He often looks like he slept on the street but after seeing his roll of bills I wonder how much of it is an act, like the way he shows off his stump for free beers at Mother’s.
‘Why are you stopping here?’ he asks when I pull up in front of his apartment.
‘I thought you wanted to go home. Would you rather go for a ride in your new car? Or show it off at Mother’s?’
‘I don’t want to go for a ride. Not today,’ he replies. ‘Let’s just take it back to your place.’
When we arrive at my building, I pull into my parking space and offer to pop him a beer, which he gladly accepts. I figure that’s why he wanted to come back to my place. He flashes a wide smile with his bent and missing teeth, reminding me of a Jack o’lantern, the way he looks when Debby agrees to dance with him or when someone springs for a pitcher of beer.
After I lock the car, I hand him the keys, but he pushes them back at me.
‘You can keep the keys,’ he says. ‘I figure it’s okay to leave it in your parking space since you don’t have a car. Good to keep it off the street.’
‘Sure, it’s okay,’ I reply, wondering if he is trying to con me somehow. Artie always has an angle.
‘Just remember it’s my car,’ he says with a wink, and I realize what he’s getting at.
‘You mean I can use it?’ I ask, betraying my surprise.
‘If you’re careful with it.’
He gives me that wide grin again. I wonder if I should decline his offer, not wanting to owe him, but he’s right about my needing a car. I can drive to job interviews or even a computer class. Finally I reach out to shake his hand and thank him for the favor, but he cuts me off.
‘Shut up,’ he says.
With that we head upstairs to finish my six-pack of Genny.
Terry’s fiction has appeared in Longshot Island, Literally Stories and Big Bridge and he has stories coming in Jersey Devil Press and Spank the Carp. He has poems coming in Third Wednesday, Cold Creek Review, and Rat’s Ass Review, and his poems have appeared in Kalliope, Kansas Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Puerto del Sol, California Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Cottonwood Review, Lullwater Review and other publications. He’s currently writing stories and poems while rewriting a sixties novel. You can see more about his work at www.terrytierney.com.