"For the last three years he had a job," Barb said.
I looked at her. "Doing what? What could he possibly do?"
"Night clerk at the hotel. He did some cleaning, made rounds. I'd guess he got in twenty hours a week. The rest of the time, he hung out at one coffee shop or another. This one, at first. Then he switched to Martin's, around the corner."
I looked around. It was a nice little shop, with light wood floors and a pressed-tin ceiling. There was a bench along one wall with a long table in front of it, magazines, and a case full of pastries. They called it "Vinnie's" although the name on the sign was "Alberto." I didn't ask about the name change.
"Why did he switch to Martin's?" I asked. Her cell phone sounded the first few bars of Chopin's "Polonaise in A minor." She answered it.
"This is Barb.
--because Cecelia doesn't know what she's talking about, is why. My God, don't you realize how crazy you sound? I mean it. You go on raving about her Cancer Center and the pineapple-guava treatment as if it was some kind of miracle, and the raccoon that's possessed by the--
-- No, you owe him four hundred dollars. I saw the check you gave him. It was for forty, so that makes four hundred you still owe.
--You get your plump white ass down here right now and bring a check. For four hundred. I know damn well you have it.
--don't give me that, Paulette. It's bullshit and you know it. If you want to call me a bitch you go right ahead. I know he's sorry it happened. That's why he won't spackle over the bullet holes.
-- To remind himself.
--You know perfectly well what I'm talking about. You weren't that high. Are you high right now?
--I am not making wild accusations. You think the idea you might be high is wild? Give me a break. Jack Daniels and dex. Your brains are fried. Your brains are extra crispy. I'm telling you, get down here."
Barb shut her phone and dropped it into her purse. I sat, open-mouthed. "Um. I'm sorry. What..."
"That was Paulette McGowan. Girlfriend of Tommy's. Here he was, laid up with cancer, couldn't get out of bed. So she shows up, and asks him for twenty, like usual. She stopped by twice a week to ask for a twenty. The poor guy, he couldn't even get out of bed, so he said, 'Money's in the drawer'. And doesn't the little bitch take four hundred dollars and waltz out with it. I'm telling you."
"Uh huh. How did he meet this Paulette?"
"Tommy was—well, you know him. Always looking for a woman. Paulette's from the next town south. Perryville. That's a worse dump than Gardenville, even. Tommy wrote to her in prison. So when she got out, she came up here to see Tommy, and they got involved, I guess. I mean I don't know, but—
Listen, I have to go. We'll have dinner tonight. He has quite a life. Had quite a life."
Barb got up from the table abruptly and stepped quickly out of the coffee shop, as if to avoid further questions. I had a few, but they would have to wait until dinnertime.
Tommy had moved to Gardenville to be with our sister, who cared for him after his stroke. She had found him an apartment, negotiated the welfare bureaucracy, and seen that he got health care. When she moved to New York, Tommy had refused to go with her. I had no idea why; he really couldn't take care of himself.
I sat in the coffee shop, ordered another espresso, and read a magazine. There was no sense going to the hospital until evening, because Tommy was having tests all day. I think they were trying to see if a colostomy was a good idea. The cancer had started in his lungs, but it had spread to his liver and bowels.
When I left the shop, I walked past Tommy's place. No one had to tell me what it looked like. I'd seen places where Tommy lived before. I looked into the lobby of the hotel where he worked, a room with a couple of sofas and a registration desk. It needed some renovation and better lights.
I showed up at the Outback at six, as I'd promised Barb, and she was waiting at a table with a glass of red wine. Before I could start a conversation, the Polonaise rang out. She answered with a little shake of her head, which I took as a signal she was sorry for the interruption.
"This is Barb—
--Hi Lillian, How you doin'?
--yes, it was embarrassing. What do you think? The State Police, marching right into my office, asking me questions? I'm telling you, she's pulled some crap in her lifetime, but this one—
--Oh, it was Paulette, all right. Danny Myers was there, and he —
--yes, Danny's a Statie now. He told me it was Paulette.
--oh, who was I, how did I get power of attorney, what was wrong with him—I'll tell you, Lillian, I'm just trying to help, and the apartment is going to be--
--Cleaning it out. The man has like, ninety empty peanut butter jars, a bag of cigarette filters—
--no, a whole grocery bag. Full. No wonder he has cancer. I'm telling you, cat piss, dirty clothes, dishes in the sink—I don't think he ever changed his sheets—
--you did? That was the last time, then. And the letter from Paulette, when she was in prison. "You sound like such a good man. Such a kind, decent man. I can't wait to get out of here and be with you forever. The age difference doesn't bother me, big fella. It's only twenty years. It's not like you're ninety. And even if you were, I'd love you anyway." Did you ever hear such bullshit?
--yes I read them. What difference does that make? It's for his own protection. I wouldn't do it otherwise. I don't pry into people's lives. I didn't read the whole thing. Just the first page. She spread it so thick I couldn't stand any more. Plus she's the kind of person, if she owes you a hundred, she gives you twenty, and figures hey, she made an effort. You want the whole hundred? What a tight-ass. You know?
--Yes. I'm at dinner with his brother. We're going up to visit him after we eat. I'll see you tomorrow."
Barb shut her phone and turned to me. "Can you believe that? Did you hear that conversation?"
"I certainly did. This Paulette, she called the police—"
"On me. Like I was the one that was—I can't believe it. Anyway, they didn't arrest me. The investigation continues. What crap. It'll probably be on TV."
Barb finished her wine. We ordered. She advised the Drover's Platter for me, which was a rack of ribs and a barbequed chicken breast. Barb had a steak and another glass of wine.
"Uh. Barb. I had some questions about that conversation this afternoon?"
"Our conversation? At the coffee shop?"
"No, no. The one you had on the phone. With Paulette. I was just wondering, about the bullet holes? SWAT team?"
"You have to understand. Paulette is a drama queen. Actually the professional diagnosis is Histrionic Personality Disorder. But that's neither here nor there. She was at Tommy's one night, high on something, per usual, and they had some kind of fight. Anyway, she went down the stairs, whether she fell or was pushed—"
I made a sound of dismay. Barb put her hand on my arm, "No harm done. Couple of bruises. But when she called 911, she made it sound like—I don't know. The police were there, the Staties, and the SWAT team. She probably called the sheriff and the Marine Corps, too."
"And shots were fired?"
"Yes. And Tommy wouldn't let his landlord spackle over the bullet holes, because he blamed Paulette for the whole thing. They can both point fingers pretty good."
"But they're still friends."
"Yeah. I don't quite know what she does for him—"
"Besides draw gunfire?"
"Uh. Well. I mean, I suspect hank-panky of some kind."
"She sounds like a piece of work. And the prison thing? Why did she have to go to prison? "
"That was meth. Possession and manufacture."
Our salads arrived, followed closely by the dinners. There was also a fried whole onion, "compliments of the manager" which Barb accepted graciously. "Tell him thanks a lot," she said. "And give him this message: Margaret's going to be fine. OK?"
The waiter nodded and disappeared. "I was in a position to do his daughter a favor, couple of months ago, and he's been nice to me ever since."
I contemplated Barb. She had short blonde hair, tiny-lensed glasses, and wore jeans. A t-shirt from her agency, Carlon County Social Services, was the same dark red as her lipstick. I imagined her with countless friends throughout the area, one of those warm-hearted women that take in strays of all kinds. Her job as a social worker wasn't the half of it.
"What was Tommy like before he had his stroke?" she said.
"I don't know how to explain it, exactly. How he was is exactly how he is now, but everything's exaggerated. He always had some kind of deal, going, a get-rich quick scheme of some kind. Once he wanted to buy a race horse. Going to make a fortune at the track."
"He still does that."
"Apparently he still gets into trouble, too. I don't know how many times I had to bail him out of jail. He always had a girlfriend, but now he gets a lower class of girl. Like this Paulette. I hate to tell you, but she's just his type. He was abusive--"
"Abusive? To who?"
"Not to me. To both of his wives. And once to our mother."
I didn't want to describe the abuse, and Barb didn't press me. The truth is, it frequently had to do with throwing someone down a set of stairs. We finished dinner and drove in separate cars to the hospital. It was a half-mile from the restaurant. I parked, didn't see Barb, and went up to my brother's room.
She was there already, sitting next to his bed. He didn't look that sick, really. I'd heard the diagnosis—lung cancer metastasized. Liver completely encased in tumor. Other tumors in intestinal cavity and cranium. He certainly had enough tubing filled with various fluids to qualify as serious.
But his voice was strong, and he was aware of his surroundings. I got the feeling that he saw my presence as a bad sign. They wouldn't have called me unless he was really sick. Barb got another phone call from Paulette.
"--he is lying here in the hospital with about forty tubes in him, and little bags hanging up all around the bed, and you—
--how should I know? I'm not a nurse. I can't even pronounce the stuff. Dextrose five percent. Is that medicine?
--Oh, from the time you were an aide in the nursing home? What was that, two months? So now you have a medical degree. God, you are priceless.
--the raccoon is just upset. There is a big difference between angry and possessed by the devil. I'm hanging up now. And you be there tomorrow. You can help clean up his apartment. Bring that check, too, Missy."
Barb shut her phone. "You know, I feel like her mother sometimes. Funny thing is, she has a mother, what do they call her—Jojo or something, she's a beautiful person, taught school down there for years. She can't do anything with her either. Not one thing."
Tommy reacted to this conversation by grinning sheepishly, as he had been doing since he was a little kid. It could mean any number of things. He was embarrassed, he was pleased with himself, he loved being the center of attention. There was a whole science to Tommy's grins.
"Hey, Tommy," I said, "what's the story with the Skippy peanut butter jars? I understand there were, uh, quite a few of them. Did you have some kind of plan, or what?"
Tommy gave me a despairing look, which then turned to anger. "There was no plan, OK? They were just—it was just easier to keep them than it was to throw them out. Jesus." He turned away.
"OK, Tommy. I just wondered. You know."
"I can't piss."
"You have a catheter, Bro. It's a tube up your..."
"I know what it is. It isn't working."
"Let me check a second, OK?"
I got up and lifted the sheet, looked at the urine bag, and told him, "It's working fine."
"Goddamn it, it is not working. I know when something's working."
"I'll tell the nurse. You realize the next step is a diaper?"
That shut him up. "Don't say anything," he said to the wall.
Barb said, "Tommy, they don't think they're going to do a colostomy. You don't need one at this point. We're trying to get you into a nursing home."
Tommy said, "Why can't I stay right here? This is a good hospital. I want to stay here."