A river ran alongside the property at one end but it wasn’t any help to the place. In a way, that river made it even more tragic, the river and the dirty, starving kids spaced along it in small clusters, trying to come up with some way to amuse them that didn’t involve acts that would earn them a swift, sure beating….”
by laine perry
I will tell you one thing. People are built to lie. Even those who pretend to follow a paradigm of moral goodness often lack a real compass. Take my plumber-failed cowboy ex boyfriend. At 45 years old he looks 65. He is rarely amusing. Once in awhile he throws out a passable one liner. He drinks bad beer to excess almost nightly. Everyone in this town, most of whom he has worked for, believes he is a man of integrity. He is after all, a man who doesn’t mind wading through your shit to unplug your fouled life. A man like that who can smile at you and shake your hand with your neighbor’s shit on his pants- why wouldn’t you believe him a good man? He is better than you. You wouldn’t be caught dead doing what he does. You have never even considered it. But Ken is more judgmental than a cluster of junior high girls, and constantly warning me of associating too closely with people who are friends of ours; friends who eat at our place a few times a month.
Ken lived in a trailer park when we met. I was making a movie about my saddle maker friend in the cowboy town where Ken sat drinking whiskey in the back of Red’s store. Red is not Red, but Ike. Red was Ike’s grandfather. It’s a sort of lonely-hearts club there in the back of that western wear shop where all of the broken men in town commiserate over bad liquor until the truth appears handier.
He was slight of stature, stooped over his plastic tumbler of Rye wearing dirty work clothes and a ball cap when he shifted his beady eyes to me. He mumbled something. It wasn’t important. It was small talk. I told him about the movie project next door and then he invited me to go to the Rodeo with him, and his family. The next day I waited for him. He stood me up. When I finally got a hold of him he said I should, “Come on down.” I told him he would need to pick me up as planned and he refused. A few days later, frustrated by an undisciplined movie crew and my real lack of command I called him up. He invited me to dinner. Two bites into the meal and I wished I had gotten drunk before dining. The food was terrible and I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make it palatable.
Three days later Ken was bringing me flowers and going to barbeques without me but a day later he was telling me he loved me. He had a good cowboy hat I already coveted, and a good butt. He looked like a weasel in starched jeans. He was bald but for a tuft of hair up front that he just wasn’t ready to part with. It reminded me of a baby tumbleweed on a lonely stretch of road. Something about him made me think of bad breath- the kind that comes from not eating right. His breath was fresh though, even though he chewed tobacco. It was only a feeling I had.
He worked a lot and liked it that way. He was as proud of that as he was proud of the trailer he had custom outfitted in the style of a plumber-failed cowboy complete with the accoutrements one would imagine; horns on the wall with a half remembered story to start conversation, a 4 piece brown furniture set that wanted nothing more than to be genuine leather, and some cowboy coffee table books that hadn’t been leafed through in years. It was a den for seduction. Night one he regaled me with a story about how he had kicked out his last live in girlfriend by setting her shoes outside the front door. He seemed proud of this. That evening we ate some venison fingers with freezer burn that wouldn’t fool a toddler, and danced to whatever the western station was offering. He was a great dancer. I have to give that to him. After two bottles of wine we went into his bedroom and he fucked me where he had probably fucked dozens of sad women before me. He felt good to me. He had a tiny penis until it was inside where it became completely sure of itself and determined to have a good time. I had not had much sex until I was in my mid thirties and ten years later this sex made me feel like I was finally getting the point of it. I sort of fell in love with Ken, or Ken’s penis, but certainly not with the trailer, which, if you never looked out a window wasn’t really that god awful, but in all-seriousness, and anyway- definitely had to go.
When it’s that way there isn’t anything to do but say so. I told him I would not be living my life in a trailer. He bought a house a couple of weeks later. I was shopping at a thrift store for curtains to spruce up that same trailer when Ken called to tell me his happy news. “We bought a house,” he said. He had mentioned the possibility of buying his former boss’ place up on the hill and had taken me up to the place to see how it hit me. I loved the view. I had encouraged him. I called Mother to tell her my good news. She thinks I’m a con-artist, which, coming from an expert, is either an insult or a serious compliment, I couldn’t decide which. She told me I should, “knock it off,” and hung up.
The movie had been a fiasco that left me without a friend in town to celebrate with so I bought a bottle of wine and drank it waiting for Ken to make it home from work. That was not the best plan. Drinking made things better and worse at once. I liked the view up there at the house and since I was a little dangerous when left to my own devices I thought that view might keep my soul calm while I finished a screenplay I was keyed up about. Moving up there meant I would have to curtail my escapades with the young stud I had recently been spending a lot of my nights with. Happy and sad I began packing.
That weekend Ken and a buddy of his planned to go hunting and invited me along. I don’t know what it was that kept gnawing at me but it wouldn’t let go. Riding in the backseat in this guy’s pick up, I had a rotten feeling. It might have been the guy’s girlfriend, who was supposed to be along, had stayed home. Suddenly, I knew I wanted out of the truck. They seemed fine with it and when Ken, and his buddy dropped me at the trailer I told them I’d amuse myself by hitting up the Christmas Bazaar. Ken grinned as he handed me $300 cash. One thing about this frugal man is that he is as tight as hell with the purse strings. I must have stared at him for a couple of minutes before saying, “Three hundred bucks for a Christmas Bazaar? But, that’s ridiculous…we just bought a house.” I handed him two hundred. Ken took off without saying much. I liked this new, sensible version of myself. I was going to be a good partner to Ken. I wanted that. The rotten feeling stepped off.
At the Christmas Bazaar I tasted pickled everything, and wanted things that had SOLD stickers on them. I shopped for my new niece with abandon. Treasures could be had for a few bucks. I should have felt happy. I love the holidays and the idea that we would be in our new home soon was fun to think about. Still…what I felt wasn’t joy, it was trepidation. I headed home stopping by the discount bread store, where Ken suggested I shop. Heading home I realized I was more excited about the sourdough loaf in my possession than the changes coming.
Except for a vivid and majestic gold tree that stepped up to greet me on the third turn, there was not much that gave me comfort in that trailer court. A river ran alongside the property at one end but it wasn’t any help to the place. In a way, that river made it even more tragic, the river and the dirty, starving kids spaced along it in small clusters, trying to come up with some way to amuse them that didn’t involve acts that would earn them a swift, sure beating. Ken had told me about the neighbor two doors down who was always being beaten. That might have stuck in me better than it did- the way Ken had made himself comfortable with that little girl’s abuse, the way he had lived with it all right, for over ten years.
I had given up drinking when I moved in with Ken, and given up, “giving up drinking,” three times since that decision. It wasn’t so bad. I had packing to do anyway so I rounded up cardboard liquor boxes Ken had around his place and started in on the job. I don’t remember what I had started swaddling when it hit me, but I remember the way I let it hit me, knock me down flat, crush me…We hadn’t bought a house. Ken had. I was no part of the equation. I lay there in his living room, my few possessions spread out all over his floor. I lay there understanding exactly why Ken hadn’t said much when I had asked if we shouldn’t plan to have his boss, who was selling the house, over for dinner because I knew the man was as beloved by Ken as his own father, and because I figured we’d need to sign paperwork for the house he was selling us. Ken had already signed the paperwork for the house…alone. I let the tears crawl down the sides of my neck and drift onto his floor. I hadn’t felt so alone since my Uncle was murdered, the loss of him tunneling through my loosely tethered life like a tone-less echo.
I regret confronting Ken. There isn’t a reason to tackle a person once you have the truth. Knowing felt a certain way and was undeniable. I did it anyway, probably for the theatrics, but maybe more in hopes of shaming him, which was never going to happen. Ken held himself in high esteem which allowed him to excuse his behavior the way he held all others answerable; in earnest. I drug out more things to pack trying to cheer myself up, trying to stick with it. But, at a point I didn’t know whether I was packing to move to the house or to move back to California, so I just stood up, jumped in the truck and went for a drive.
I was sitting with friends, the three of us at work on an idea for a film, set in winter, wondering how quickly we could write the thing when I realized it was already six o’ clock and my phone had likely been dead an hour. I borrowed a charger and plugged in
I found missed calls and several texts from Ken. The last message told me he was calling the cops maintaining that I had stolen his truck. I didn’t understand what kind of madness had hold of him but I wasn’t in the mood to take chances. I left the truck behind a café less than a mile from his trailer and took a cab to a motel where I immediately went to sleep. In the morning I returned to the trailer to ask Ken what had gotten in to him. I found the door barred and the place impenetrable. I kept ringing the bell and finally Ken answered in his slippers and robe, a king among criminals. He moved the heavy furniture out of the entry and allowed me in.
Now sometimes one wants to ask what would make a person go back for further and certain abuse, and though it may not be the wished for answer, sometimes it’s just for the sex. Other times it’s because a person saw a thing and believed in it. In my case it was a combination deal. I had chosen a sure thing where the only unknown element was whether I would behave.
There were great feats I thought to accomplish as I squinted daylight out of my right eye and plucked a feather from the glass of water on my nightstand. There was a great, whirling injustice circling around me as I lay half in and half out of bed with one foot lightly touching down on what, just days earlier, had been safe to call solid ground.
I put a load of Ken’s Wrangler’s in the washing machine and called a cab. I didn’t have any place to go but I knew this place was already gone, having slid out from beneath my feet as I wrote this down.
(illustrations: kurt eisenlohr)
Laine Perry grew up on the road with her mom, making music and telling stories. More from Laine can be found in the Vault of Smoke.