Love in Three Rooms
She was a big, burly, brutal-looking woman, with stringy hair and a face that was pasty where it wasn't sunburned. Her clothes were designed to celebrate carelessness: a squarish white blouse, stained and faded, that couldn't quite contain her flesh, and ragged shorts that a dumpster might reject. She had long ago given up making any effort to be presentable, and was living up to other folks' presumptions about her.
Her husband was the perfect match: big-bellied, broad-shouldered, and brutal-looking himself despite being in his fifties. An untidy moustache drooped over his thin lips, and he constantly pushed his stringy hair back from his bald spot. He wore a stained t-shirt and faded cargo shorts. There was a difference of opinion between him and his wife regarding footwear: he sported battered old running shoes, which he left untied; she wore flipflop sandals.
They had created a child together in their three-room flat, a doughy boy with thick glasses who was now studying at a university two states over, staying for free at an uncle's house whose address he used to avoid paying the out-of-state tuition. It was the same school I went to, though I was without a handy family pied-a-terre. My family was somewhat better off than his, but I still couldn't have afforded to come home for spring break if I hadn't had a part-time job in the research library, pushing little carts of books around. Jim, who worked there too, had become more a comrade than a friend, and had asked me to bring a paper bag of gifts to his parents. Of course I'd said I would, and had found my way to the old brick apartment building, a trip that required three buses from my neighborhood to his. He had assured me mom and dad would be in if I went on a Sunday. Their phone was out of service at the moment.
The building was neater than I had expected, given the neighborhood, which was a place where yards grew broken toys and battered chairs instead of flowers and grass, and you could sometimes see ivy growing into people's windows. The bus stop was on a faded main street where yellowing papers swirled in the breeze of passing trucks, and the walk to the address was an antidote to youthful hopes. Jim had said nothing about his parents' circumstances except that they lived in a "old neighborhood," which I now realized was code for "poor." He seemed not to have any feeling about it at all. At school, he lived in a world of equations and theorems, quite the opposite of my immersion in history. I'm not even sure why we bothered.
The hallway was clean but tired-looking, the white paint yellowing on the walls. It smelled lightly of fried food and cigarettes, but there was no trash. Jim's folks lived on the third floor. The elevator sported a fading "Out of Order" sign, so I went up the stairs. I didn't meet anyone, but could hear a radio or television playing here and there. I discerned a sports broadcast of some sort going on behind the door of 303. I knocked, the door opened, and Jim's progenitors loomed in the opening. They looked at me with flat blue eyes.
"Hi," I said. "Sorry to barge in like this, but I'm a friend of Jim's from school, and he asked me to bring you some stuff…."
The pair smiled thinly and opened the door wider. The mother bustled to the forefront. "Well, come on in," she brayed. "I'm glad to see that Jimmy's makin' friends. He's such a quiet type, you know. I worry about how he gets along with them college folk."
"He's in math. They're all like that. So he doesn't stand out, being so quiet."
"Well, it's good to fit in," she said. Her husband grunted in agreement, then went to the TV and turned the sound off. The game kept playing.
He spoke up. "Jimmy let us know you was comin'. Glad to meet you." He put out a beefy hand, which I shook. He didn't have the crushing grip I'd expected. "Well, what you brung us?"
"Bill," his wife brayed. "At least wait till I've gotten him some coffee!"
"Or some beer," he huffed. "What's your poison?"
"Coffee all around," his wife said sternly. She shot him a glance.
"She don't like me to drink in the daytime. But hell, it's Sunday, right?"
I shrugged. "Women," I said. Though I hadn't the faintest idea at that time.
"Me," he said, "all I ever done is drive a forklift. Can't hardly read. I'm proud of that boy. So's Emma." Emma came in carrying a blue plastic tray with coffee mugs, a cream jar, and packets of sugar on it.
She smiled, then frowned. "Think he'll get a good job with that math stuff?," she said.
I nodded. "Maybe at a university, or government work. He'll do all right."
"Yeah!," Bill said. "My old man screwed me up good. Took me out of school in the ninth grade to work in his brickyard. And my school wasn't none too good anyhow."
"We didn't want that for Jim," Emma said. "I walked him to the library every day after school and had a smoke or two in the park while he studied. Still go to that damn park, I got so used to it."
The coffee was thin and acrid, but hot. The sugar helped. Bill said, "Now can we look in the damn bag?"
Emma nodded and grinned. Bill opened the paper bag I'd carried on buses and trains across three states.
He pulled out a heavy glass beer stein and a gold-plated cigarette lighter. Both sported the university shield.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said. He winked at his wife. "We raised him right after all, I guess!"
"I'll get you that beer," she smiled. "You have some too," she told me, and lumbered off to the kitchen.
Richard Risemberg was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, editing online 'zines, sneaking around with a camera trying to steal people's souls, and making a general nuisance of himself, which is his forte. He's survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. It hasn't been easy for any of us.