I was lying on the couch watching Wheel of Fortune, and my wife was sitting in the blue chair beside the fireplace eating peanut butter cups and smoking cigatettes.
Some young kid in a Hawaiian shirt was jumping up and down between Pat and Vanna because he had just won twenty-five grand for solving the jackpot puzzle.
TEA POT. Imagine that. Twenty-five grand for figuring out the word TEA POT. My daughter walked into the room and looked at the kid on the television. "God, he's cute."
"That's how it goes," I said. "Your mother and I struggle all year to save two thousand bucks, and some cute punk says tea pot, and walks off a stage in Hollywood with twenty-five grand. Free and clear, free and fucking clear. That's life, that's how it goes."
Then the telephone rang. My wife unwrapped another peanut butter cup and smoothed the wrinkles on her sweatshirt.
"I'll bet that's Bob," she said, "I forgot to tell you he called twice this afternoon while you were at the bar."
My daughter picked up the phone and shouted from the kitchen, "Daddy, Bob's on the phone from Las Vegas. I'm going upstairs to call Dave. God that guy was so cute."
I walked to the kitchen and lit a cigarette. Then I opened a beer. When Bob calls, he talks for hours. He called one night and talked through five innings of a Mets-Phillies game. When Bob calls, the main idea is to be prepared. Before I sat down, I grabbed three beers out of the fridge, then I picked up the phone.
"Frank, Bob here. How's everything in New York? How's your arm, is it healing ok?" Bob's voice was distant and flat, like the sound of a skipping stone that sinks before it skips.
"Yeah Bob, everything's fine. Lauren and Beth are good, and I can't even tell that I broke my arm last month. Everyday's a carnival of fucking, food, Wheel of Fortune, beer, and peanut butter cups."
"I wish I could say things were that good out here," Bob said, coughing into the earpiece.
"What's wrong? Is Lucy's social worker friend still bugging her to dump you?"
"No, Sally and her husband are out of our lives. But now, Joyce, the woman who talked us into leaving San Antonio is telling Lucy to leave me. She told Lucy at lunch yesterday that I'm a freeloader and a leech."
When Bob And Lucy visited us at Christmas, they told us about the social worker and her rich Mexican husband.
Bob and Lucy were out renting a television, and the social worker and her old man were in line renting domestic help. They started talking and one thing led to another. Eventually the social worker found them a bungalow to rent, and before you know it, her and her old man are showing Bob and Lucy all the sights in Vegas.
A month later, they took Bob and Lucy out on the town. Dinner, drinks, a floor show, some gambling, the works. All in the Mexican's gold Eldorado.
Then, over a late night breakfast, the Mexican told Bob he was a "Fucking puta," because he didn't have a job. The social worker was baiting Lucy, telling her, "Leave him, he's a bum. Why should you work sixty hours a week to support him? He's abusing you. We want you to meet Santo's brother."
I opened another beer, and Bob started up again. "Look Frank, it's like this. Joyce set me up with a paralegal job for a porn lawyer downtown. Ten bucks an hour. The guy was going to pay me under the table so I could collect unemployment.
I thought about the job, but I turned it down. You know Frank, I figured why risk getting caught? Things are so bad now, the last thing we need is the state of Nevada filing a fraud rap.
Everybody told me I wouldn't get caught. Who's going to tell? But I'm not taking any chances. You know me Frank, I'm an honest guy.
Then, the fucking state turns down the unemployment claim because I haven't been looking for work. Well, Joyce got upset and told Lucy that she should find a man who'll support her. Then Joyce says, ' I know a real nice looking guy named Jimmy who's got a job and sleeps alone.' Can you fucking believe that? And I'm sitting right there."
I took a long slug of beer and blew a smoke ring at the cat who was licking an egg foo young carton that was left out from dinner.
"Bob, what does Joyce do that makes her so goddamned special?"
"She owns a new age bookstore. Sells good luck charms, crystals and dream books to tourists and small time gamblers. She does palm readings and astrology charts. She specializes in positive affirmations. She read Lucy's palm and told her that I would eventually cut her throat."
Bob screamed into the phone, "Man Frank, can you fucking believe that?" He took a deep breath and threw something against the wall. I could hear glass shattering from three thousand miles away. Then he said, "Lucy adores her. I'm afraid she's going to believe her."
Lauren motioned for me to bring her a coke. I told Bob to hang on.
"What's new with Bob and Lucy?"
"Bad news from Vegas. I think Bob is cracking up. I'll tell you about it when he hangs up." Lauren rolled her eyes.
I tapped beer # 3 and hopped back on the line. "Sorry about that Bob. Why don't you ask madame magic to perform a miracle for you?"
"Frank, she read my palm the other night. She told Lucy that I would wind up killing her. Fuck Joyce. I called about last night. Last night almost sent me over the edge." The doorbell rang. I cut Bob off again, and got the door.
Our next door neighbor Penny and her boyfriend Mike walked in. Penny handed me a five pound box of delmonico steaks and headed for the living room. Mike was carrying a box from the Bradford Exchange.
Penny and Mike are unemployed too. But they get by. Mike works a mail fraud scam. He has ten aliases, from Fred Appling to walter Krantz. None of us know if Mike Samuels is his real name.
He orders collector plates, books, and CD's through the mail and he doesn't pay a dime for them. Then he sells the stuff. He keeps Penny in diamond earrings and crocodile cowboy boots. They bring us boxes of hijacked food, and they watch the house for us when we're gone. They do all right. They're good neighbors.
I poured shots of whiskey all around. Mike caddied them to the living room.
"Sorry Bob. The neighbors came in. What happened last night?"
"Lucy worked a double on the cancer ward last night. The mail came late, and guess what? We get a notice from the Wells Fargo Bank. They say the car is about to be repoed. So I called my brother in San Diego for a thousand dollar loan, and I find out I don't have a brother in San Diego anymore. When Lucy got off work, the car was gone."
I could hear Penny ranting in the living room about her kid's shop lifting rap. "Can you believe all this shit over a lousy pair of leather pants?"
Mike was showing off his new shipment of plates. I heard him say to Lauren, "Here, you can eat breakfast with Jesus every morning." I refocused on Bob.
"What did your brother say?"
"The son of a bitch said, 'You haven't talked to me in five years.' Then he said, 'You should have had a job in Vegas before you moved. I'm not sending you any money. Be a fucking man.' Then he hung up on me."
"That's too bad Bob. I'm sorry to hear that. What a fucked up thing to say to your brother."
"No Frank, that's bullshit. I call my brother once a year. Every time I call he's changing diapers, going to a ball game, entertaining clients. He's always got an excuse. The thing that kills me is my brother John is rich. He owns a import export business. Who knows what they've got packed in those crates. You know what I mean Frank? A thousand dollars is pocket change to my brother."
Bob sobbed into the phone, "The motherfucker said, 'Be a fucking man.' Jesus Christ, that hurt me so bad. Now we lost the car."
Bob's voice was so loud, Lauren gave me the high sign to hang up. But I couldn't do that to him.
Sometimes I think I'm the only person who listens to Bob. Why else would the guy spend all that money on phone calls from Las Vegas?
He started rambling, "Dinner downtown, black coffee, four in the morning, greasy whores, Lucy was pissed, diner hash, thinks I need a shrink, her and Joyce can fuck each other, for all I care suicide...
I put the phone on the table, and took fresh drinks to the living room. When I got back, Bob was still talking.
"The car's gone man. I'm a broken man Frank. Broken."
I listened for a few more minutes, then I said, "If I had a grand to give, I'd give it. But things are tight since I broke my arm."
"It's too late anyway Frank."
I told him I'd call him back in the morning to save him a few bucks. Then I hung up.
I thought about honest Bob, broke and broken in a town that stunk of money.
I thought about honest Bob, driving down the freeway in a repo man's dream.
I thought about honest Bob, balanced on the frayed edge of a thin wire, three thousand miles away, in a living room I'd never sit in, on a street I'd never walk down, in a town I swear I'll never live in.
Then I checked out Mike's Jesus swag, and said a prayer.