A journal of narrative writing.
The Mayor of Gardenville
Page 2

"Costs too much. The nursing home is about one third the price of this hospital."

"Where is it? Here in town?"

"There are two of them were dealing with right now—the one across the street, , and the other one, uh, Marlette-Johnson. They're about the same. It's which one has room for you."

Tommy didn't say anything. That was another one of his tricks. He never arranged anything for himself. He'd let someone else arrange things for him, but he wouldn't actually consent to any of it. That way, he could always back out, and claim he never agreed.

It was no use telling him that these sly manipulations wouldn't work any more. The rest of his life was going to be run with or without his consent and he wasn't going to be able to influence it by speaking up, remaining silent or anything else.

He changed the subject. "Hey, did you hear about the old guy, he's in a nursing home, and he's walking the halls with his peter hanging out of his robe. So the nurse says to him, 'Hey, what's the deal? You can't walk around exposing yourself like that.' So the guy says, 'Show some respect. My private part died yesterday. Today's the viewing'."

Barb got another call.

"Hi, Lillian--

--Because of the chip. Duane thinks the Vinnie's baristas are in cahoots with NASA and they put a chip in his coffee cup so they can—

--No, the outer space people.

-- Duane thinks they're talking through these computer chips, which are embedded somehow right into the coffee cups, and I quote, 'so they can tell me exactly what's going to happen if I don't keep my mouth shut'.

--but he works for them, the NASA people. Don't you know? From his home computer. But he blew the whistle on the Challenger disaster, and now--

--I don't know. But anyway, that's why they don't go to Vinnie's any more."

We watched TV for a while and talked about the past. It was easier for us to discuss the neighborhood we grew up in, back in the 'fifties, than it was to talk about the present. The completely encased liver. The tumors in the brain and lungs. The catheter that didn't feel like it was working.

Barb and I left at the same time. As we walked down the hallway, she asked if I would help her the next morning. "We've got to clean out his apartment. He sure isn't going back to it."

"You're positive?"

"God, yes. The doctor gives him two weeks, maybe. I'll have a crew there. I mean, you don't have to. But..."

"I'll be there. Wouldn't miss it. Who else is coming?"

"Tommy's friends. Duane, Paulette and that Lillian I was talking to earlier."

"Paulette? I can't wait to meet her. But isn't that dangerous? Isn't she light-fingered?"

"She can have anything she wants out of there. Tommy sure won't need it. It's all worthless, anyway. Save us from throwing it away."

"Fine. What time?"

"Ten or so. I'll meet you at that coffee shop. Not the one we went to this afternoon, the one around the corner. Martin's."

The next morning, I drove to downtown Gardenville, parked on a side street, and walked a block to Martin's coffee shop. It was spring, and the trees on Tommy's street were blossoming. They rained down a shower of tiny white petals with every breeze.

 I met two people at the coffee shop--Duane and Barb. No Paulette.

"So you're the older brother," Duane said. "The smart one. We heard about you a lot. My brother Bernard, the smart one."

"Smart one?" I said.

"That's what he always told us. He talked about his brothers, the rich one, the crazy one, the funny one, the big one, the swimmer. And you. The smart one."

"What did he call our sister?"

"Your sister? We know Josie. Where is she, anyway?"

"Home, in . I'm sure she'll be down here in a couple of days. She just had to clear up a few things at work."

"Man, he loved to talk about all of you. Go on for hours."

"I think he may have exaggerated. Did he tell you I was a postal worker? I'm not doing any particle physics, here."

"He told us you worked at the post office."

We all walked to the apartment, where we met the landlord and Lillian. The landlord was a thin young man who handed over the key without a word. Lillian was a tiny wrinkled Hispanic woman. She had a bean casserole in a crock-pot, which was for the "cleaning crew luncheon," as she phrased it. I took it from her before we climbed the stairs. It looked to me like she would collapse under the weight of the huge pot.

As I carried it, I spoke to Barb, right behind me on the stairs. "Mr. Abkarian isn't very talkative, is he?"

Barb laughed. "He got a look at the apartment yesterday. First time in a year. He's still in shock."

When we walked in, I understood what was wrong with the landlord. There were dirty clothes everywhere, dishes in the sink, overflowing ash trays. The cupboards and closets were crammed with broken appliances, toasters, microwaves, blenders. There were at least a dozen hot plates. In the spaces between ashtrays there were documents of various kinds, medical records, papers from the welfare office and handwritten notes to two different female inmates at the local federal prison. The peanut butter jars, all washed out, were in six paper grocery bags.

"He had some kind of plan for these," I said. "He wouldn't have kept them like this if he hadn't. He just didn't want anybody else to know what it was."

Barb had a roll of heavy-duty trash bags, so we started to pick up clothes. She sent Duane to get boxes from the grocery, four blocks away on .

"We'll need boxes," she said. "These blenders will rip through a bag. Where did he get all that junk?"

Duane looked embarrassed. "I brought him to the flea market. He was going to fix them up and sell them at a different flea market. The one in Perryville. Make his fortune in reconditioned appliances."

We packed trash into boxes and bags for an hour and a half, and then Lillian produced a stack of paper plates and some plastic forks. That was a good thing. Tommy's silverware was bent and crusted.

After we ate, we went back to work, returning every now and then to the crock pot that sat on the kitchen table. The four of us cleared out quite a bit of the mess. It was around three when we called it quits, but there was still scrubbing to do. We'd have to come back the next day.

* * *

There wasn't a next day for Tommy. He died at that night, of a heart attack. No one was looking for that, but there it was. The nurse called me at the motel at , and I walked to the hospital through the parking lot. By the time I got there, they had removed all of the tubes and laid him out neatly. I sat with him a little while, and then called Barb's cell number. I thought she might want to come over to the hospital, but she didn't. She said she'd meet me for breakfast at the motel and we'd discuss our options.

The next morning we met in the lobby. We had just picked up our bagels and coffee when Barb got a call.

"Hello Lillian. You heard about Tommy?

--Last night. Actually it was a heart attack. Probably better this way, you know? He'd have suffered otherwise.

—Oh, I found out why Paulette wasn't there yesterday.  She and that other fool—what's his name?

--, yeah, they downloaded some kind of exorcism from the internet, and started in with all kinds of candles and holy water—

--From a church. You can always get holy water. Anyway, they sprinkled away, and the raccoon bit her. So, this clubbed the raccoon and put him in a canvas tote bag and threw it into the trunk. They pulled up to the emergency room, Paulette scared to death—

--No, it wasn't rabies. The poor animal, they cut its head off and tested it, and there was no rabies. So maybe she'll shut up about it now.

-- I'm sitting with his brother.

--Yes, yes. Of course I will."

Barb shut her phone. "Lillian had already heard. She says to tell you he was a fine man, and she's sorry he died. Listen, there's only one funeral home in town. They'll handle everything. Do you want him buried here?"

I said, "No, we have a plot at home. It might be best to have him cremated here and bury the ashes in that plot."

"Well," Barb said. "that's good. But we should have some kind of service here. Tommy had a lot of friends."

"I see that. Maybe we could have a viewing, a service, then have him cremated. I'll take the ashes home myself."

The funeral home did a good job with Tommy. It turns out the undertaker knew him from the coffee shop. I showed up early and stood by the door, shaking hands with the entire staff of Tommy's hotel, the coffee shop baristas, two professors from the local college and a woman who identified herself as the meter maid. Several other members of the local police department were there too. Half an hour into it, Barb showed up with Duane. Barb said, "Come with me for a minute. Duane, stand here and greet people as they come in." She took my arm and led me into a lobby, where there was a sofa against the back wall.

"Paulette is going to mess this up, too. I can't believe it. She drags Duane down to a pool hall in Perryville, and it's some kind of biker hangout. So they go in there, Duane scared to death, and sitting in the back of the room is this three hundred pound man, tattoos up and down his arms, wearing a hell-fire and brimstone t-shirt. It's got St. Michael the on a Harley, driving the devil down to Hell with a flaming sword."

"Who was he?"

"The minister. Reverend Bill. So he's coming tonight, going to say a few words."

"What denomination is he with? The Church of Apocalypse Later this Week? Lord. It'll be a circus. And will I finally meet Paulette?"

"Oh, definitely. She'll be with the bikers."

I looked at Barb. "Tommy knew some of them. He got around. I'm just telling you, so you'll be ready."

I didn't have long to wait. I heard the Harleys out in the parking lot, and the four of them walked in a minute later. A chubby young woman with a pretty face, a couple of guys in leather vests, and the giant bearded fellow who had to be Reverend Bill. He was wearing a black suit and tie, which strangled his thick neck, but he wasn't wearing gang colors. His hair was in a pony tail and his full beard had a few gray flecks.

He and Paulette shook my hand, and then the reverend asked few questions about what kind of service I'd like. The four of them sat in the front row of chairs, up near Tommy's casket.

The meter maid was just telling me how Tommy used to warn people when she was due to walk up ticketing cars. He also told everyone when her days off were, so they knew they didn't have to pay at all. Apparently she considered this endearing and funny.

Reverend Bill stood up at a podium, and in a deep voice, led us in singing "Amazing Grace." He then said the Our Father, in the Protestant style with debts instead of trespasses. I figured Tommy was in no position to be choosy.

He asked me to speak a few words next, so I made a little speech about what a contradiction Tommy's life had been, how he combined hard work and irresponsibility, generosity and meanness. Then the reverend began.

"Friends, we're here to remember Tommy Farrell, just as we saw him, for the years we knew him. Now his brother has said he was a contradiction, and maybe he was. I guess we all are. But that first night he walked into the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, he was like a voice of God to me. He spoke about his struggle, about getting thirsty, about slipping. He spoke about regrets, about his temper, about hurting the ones he loved. And it went to my soul, this testimony of Tommy Farrell's, because it was my own story too.

 "It wasn't because Tommy was real eloquent, or had a great speaking voice or anything like that. He was no preacher. He was a plain man, a poor man. His life was a mess, and he knew it as well as anyone else. But he also knew who his higher power was, and who he could call on to give him strength.  And what I want to say more than anything, is he shared that strength with me. When I got thirsty, I talked to Tommy and didn't take that drink. When I got mad at someone, or wanted to ride my bike into a wall and stop the pain forever, I called Tommy and didn't do it. Now, these fellows with me can say the same thing, and so can Sister Paulette. Would you like to speak?"

Paulette got up, a thick bandage on her thumb, and spoke tearfully about how much she loved Tommy, and how nice he always was. Barb, sitting next to me, looked ready to gag. But Paulette seemed sincere, at least for the moment.

Duane spoke about Tommy's loyalty, Lillian about the good times she had with him over a bowl of menudo. The hotel owner praised Tommy's work ethic. The policemen, the baristas and the hotel staff did not get up and speak, but listened respectfully.

As we left, two women I'd hadn't noticed came up to me. "We're from the First Bank of Gardenville," one of them said. "Tommy was such a nice man. We always saw him when he went to his safety deposit box. Very courteous."

"Safety deposit?" I said. "First I've heard of it."

"He didn't say anything? Well he had these silver bars, you know, the one-ounce bars people buy. He always put them in a safety deposit."

"How many?"

"I would guess he bought one or two every time he went to the flea market. They were probably worth seven dollars apiece. There are 120 of them in all. He signed them over to you."

I did a quick calculation. "That's around eight hundred dollars, then. Well, it'll go towards his funeral."

"Oh, no," said the woman. "That was a year ago. Now silver has doubled in value. You've got sixteen hundred dollars, just about. Tommy wanted you to have it."

"Well, thank you. But how did you know..."

"Paulette told us. We came up to his room in the hospital, the day he died, and he signed them over to you. You can just pick them up."

I drove home later that day, the silver bars hidden in the trunk, and Tommy's ashes in a polished wooden box on the seat beside me. I also had the answers to all of my questions.