Hyacinth and Crocodiles
by Michael Ryerson
“I remember,” Cardoso wrote, “that the press corps of the world, when they returned, invariably led their pieces with references to the hyacinth pads and other flotsam floating inexorably along the Zaire toward the sea … almost to a man they wrote such, neglecting to inform the reader that under each hyacinth pad a crocodile smiled.”
They used to drink pretty good, the both of them.
Of course, in those days, it was boom times and there was money. Everybody worked who wanted to work and he was up on some roof all day, laying shingles, pounding nails. He’d sunburn right through his shirt and he’d come home dehydrated as hell, and she’d have a cold beer waiting for him. Seemed a harmless thing. That first beer had a little ritual quality to it. She’d stop whatever she was doing and stand with him for a minute, usually out by the deep sink, and they’d each have their beer and take a couple of slow swallows, she’d give him a quick kiss and go back to fixing the dinner and he’d turn to washing his face and neck, hands and arms.
When the kids were still little, they’d have these barbeques and they’d both have their highballs going before anybody else and they’d keep something in the glass the whole afternoon. They were the first people I remember having mixed drinks. Sometimes one of my uncles would have a shot of whiskey, usually when they were getting noisy with their friends, and it was always just one and the fact of it was sort of a joke. Otherwise, it was always just beer. But not with them. They had a little collection of liquor bottles on a shelf above the washing machine.
They’d known each other from high school, got married right before he went into the service. I don’t think it was too unusual for him to kill a six-pack most every night. And then the hard stuff, too. So it was pretty much everyday with them.
She was a pretty little thing in those days, before the smoking and the booze and the hard times took their toll, always up and scurrying around taking care of the kids and him. She worked too, part-time, usually waitressing at the Pump Room or that restaurant up on Parthenia, I don’t remember the name of the place but they really loved her. She was a real trooper.
After a few years, I noticed he started to out-drink her in the evenings and where I’d never seen him drunk and abusive before, now it wasn’t too unusual for him to get aggressive, you know, with the cheap talk and having trouble walking and all. Anyway, he got to banging doors and breaking stuff and she got to taking the kids out of the house in the evenings, and then coming back later, after he fell asleep, to clean up.
The damage got worse and I think she was getting afraid of him. So one time, she takes a room someplace for the night, her and the kids, just to get out of the way, I think. And he wakes up and he’s in the house alone and he busts the place up big time, rips some doors off the hinges, breaks some windows and then goes through some of her stuff, tears up some clothes, breaks all her perfume bottles in the bathtub with a hammer, and finds some letters from when he was in the Navy, where she says she loves him and all and he goes wild then, scribbling all over them ‘lies!! lies!!’ And tearing them up.
Looking back, that was pretty much the end.
She moved the kids into a relative’s house then and came back to try to patch things up with him but he was inconsolable, drinking and wailing and drinking some more. It was pretty much like he was crazy by then and wild and he beat her up some but she hung in there.
Every time he’d go to sleep, she’d clean the house up. She’d sneak out at four or five in the morning to get the kids ready for school and then come back to him. This lasted for maybe a couple of months.
Right about here, she went on the wagon herself, just stopped drinking, and that made things worse. Much worse. He should have been in rehab but in those days nobody knew about rehab and you’d just guts-it-out unless they sent you to the county hospital or into the tank.
Anyway, after a while he dried out and the kids came home but after that it was different, I could see something was missing in his eyes, he was kind of used up, had kind of a vacant stare going on. Everything had changed. He went back to work and with the fucking heat on those roofs he was really suffering and eventually went back to drinking some beer in the evenings and then some beers with the guys down on the job and some in the evenings and pretty soon he was back drinking again like before.
Around this time I was gone all the time. I was running around with Roy and Alan. Wild times. Couple years short of a degree, coulda been a couple hundred years. I couldn’t tell you where my textbooks ended up. Out all night, most nights, waking up on the floor at somebody’s house or in the back of a car. Lot of cruising around looking for trouble. Mostly finding it. Seemed like Roy had a death wish. It was starting to look like jail or the county morgue or maybe the service.
Couldn’t go anywhere with Roy where he didn’t get into it with some guy. Aways with the staring and the ‘hey, what the fuck are you looking at’. He gets to shouting at some guys down on Ventura Boulevard one night and we swing into a side street to settle up. We pile out of our car, all three of us, and they pile out of their car, all five or six of them. Shit. Pretty much two to one. Typical. Nothing to do but play the aggressive card so we storm up to them and they back up…they back up! Okay it was over before it started, some more shouting, Roy points at some guy who looks like maybe he’s the leader and they get ready to throw punches and this guy is backpeddling up the street as Roy is punching him out. Shit, I tell you. We all went into the Marine Corps that June. Thought we were tough.
I heard she finally left him, took the kids and didn’t tell him where they all were. He took to living in the camper on the back of his pick-up. Wouldn’t even go in the house to use the toilet or shower, just used a little portable toilet he had in the truck.
The two older boys went over and tried to get him out of the truck, wanted to take him up to the VA, see if they could detox him. They cleaned up the camper with him sitting in the back yard smoking and shivering and they cleaned up the house. I heard about it through the grapevine.
Anyway, it took a couple of tries but they finally got him up to the VA and they took him in. Put him in a locked ward and the boys tried to help out with the younger kids and go to school at the same time. And, of course, the younger kids went wrong. Started running around with some worthless fuckers and sleeping around. The drugs started in about this time, some grass, lotta pills, Ludes, uppers, downers, acid, the whole fucking scene.
She was working two jobs by this time, the two older boys kept visiting their father in the hospital and he started getting a little better but the doctors said they couldn’t find any liver function, at least not enough to measure. He was still alive but no liver they could find.
I guess the divorce came through while I was overseas. She got the house and he started seeing some social worker at the VA who apparently had a high threshold of pain.
The youngest boy needed a hip replacement. A fucking hip replacement. He was eleven.
She started dating some older guy she met at the Pump Room named Earl and he moved into the house and brought his son along, a pasty faced kid with greasy hair who seemed to keep a lot of ziploc bags in his room and, oh yeah, he needed his own phone line. Anyway, Earl is on some kind of disability and he kicks in his monthly check and the older boys are working and going to school and the two girls are now dating a couple of guys in their thirties. I think the younger one is like fifteen.
And he gets out of the VA and moves in with the social worker and parks his truck and camper in her driveway.
Well, she’s still on the wagon, hasn’t had a drink in like five years but Earl can really knock ‘em back. Beer, Southern Comfort, boiler-makers, serious drinker. And she keeps working two jobs.
The two older boys move out and get a little house up by school and the oldest boy graduates and goes to work for some big aerospace company.
And I come home on leave and meet Earl. He’s one of these real friendly drunks, you know, he’s everybody’s friend, real soft spoken, everything reasonable, very articulate, big vocabulary but has to speak very slowly and carefully because he’s sauced and he thinks if he speaks slowly and carefully enough, no one will notice. Uses my name a couple of times while we’re talking, very offhand, you know, like he read ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People,’ kind of like an insurance salesman, except that his shirt is full of burn holes from his cigarettes and he crosses his legs like a woman. Mostly just sits in this one chair and nurses a drink. Didn’t move a fucking inch in the hour I was there. I start wondering if he just relieves himself right there in the chair. I just saw them the one time before I had to go back.
Later, I hear Earl dies of a cirrhotic liver, his kid is arrested with a couple of pounds of Quaaludes and a .38, and the oldest daughter marries some guy six months out of Vacaville. She’s a year short of graduating high school.
The youngest boy is off his crutches but one leg is a couple of inches shorter than the other and it ain’t ever gonna catch up.
She takes up with the bar manager from the Lamplighter.
And he is back on the sauce. The social worker has had her fill and he’s back in the camper parked on a side street over in North Hollywood. The two older boys are begging the VA to let him back in and trying to get the truck towed over to their place.
I’m making a quick turn at Delta Med by this time and that was the last letter I got. The doctors decide my leg will hold up and I go back to my unit. Then we get September, Con Thien, Tet, then The World, Pendleton and out.
I hear she marries some older guy who owns his own business and I think maybe she’s going to find a little happiness.
I come back with stomach trouble and a limp.
I go through a long tunnel. I don’t see much of the old crowd. In fact, I don’t see much of anything. A couple of years go by, I wake up in north San Diego County. I flirt with school again, I look for work. I play seduction and surrender with a series of pliant women, mostly one at a time. I have the uneasy feeling the years are getting away from me.
I run into the oldest boy, now a young engineer. He seems prosperous and happy in a cautious way. He tells me his mother is well, still waiting tables and still married to the businessman, now in the hospital with liver problems. Lot of that going around, I think. The two girls have turned some sort of a corner, mostly sober, dating older guys, upstanding citizens, mostly. The youngest boy has learned how to walk with just a slight limp and is now looking into LSD as a possible career path.
He says his dad is in an assisted living facility but is always ‘breaking out’ looking for a liquor store. He thinks the VA is going to take him back, because the non-existent liver is finally starting to shut down.
I cut my hair. It takes a long time. I don’t really think I can get a job with it so long, so I stand in front of the mirror and cut it. I push my fingers in real tight against my scalp, hold my fingers together and cut everything that sticks up between them. All over. Front, back, sides. In an hour and a half my arms and shoulders are aching and I’m not sure about the back, I can’t really see it in the mirror but it feels kind of even. I can’t bring myself to shave my beard. It makes me sick to think about it. Every time I lather it up, I end up just rinsing it out. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about being forced to shave it. Finally, I trim it kind of close. Surely, some guys with beards can find jobs and a place to live.
So I go to this interview and the guy I know is telling me about the job, about being the boss over like twelve or fifteen other guys and cleaning this big building complex every night, Systems Development Corporation, over in Santa Monica. And he says it’s in the bag, that it’s his decision and I’ve got it, besides my being a vet is a good thing and, even if I’ve never done any custodial work, I know how to supervise people and some of these other guys are vets too and there’s really only the formality of me meeting his boss for a few minutes and somewhere deep in the pit of my stomach I know I’m not getting this job.
So I’m there wearing my best shirt and some corduroy trousers, sporting my new haircut and all these guys are running around in suits but I’m just there to talk about a custodian’s job. Somehow I know what’s about to happen. This older guy comes in and we get introduced, and he slumps down in a chair and we make small talk for a few minutes. He wants to know where I’ve been, you know, just making conversation, he wants to know if I’ve ever supervised anybody and I tell him about the Marine Corps and he asks about Vietnam and I say, yeah, I was there but I don’t really go into it too much and he doesn’t ask. But my friend pipes up, ‘Two tours,’ he says, like it’s some big fucking deal and this guy just smiles, a little pissant smile. So we talk for about five minutes and he gets up to leave and he turns back like he forgot to ask me something and he motions to his chin and says what about this? Meaning my beard. And I hear my voice asking, ‘What about this?’ And I make the same motion on my chin and I know it’s a vaguely mocking gesture but I can’t help it. And he smiles that totally vacant fucking smile which guys in suits save for when they’ve got all the juice and he says, ‘Well, that’ll be okay,’ and he leaves and my friend who says it’s in the bag, can’t look at me when we say good bye, and I know it’s over.
And of course I didn’t get the job. Didn’t get a fucking job pushing a fucking broom because some asshole didn’t like my beard and thought it would stop me from doing a good job pushing a broom in the middle of the fucking night in a big, empty building complex. But that isn’t really what he thought, no, he knew that my beard wouldn’t stop me from doing the job but he wanted something from me in exchange for the job, he wanted a little tribute and the tribute came down to my beard. He gave me the chance to shave for him and I didn’t, so I didn’t get the job. Bob Merton, I won’t forget the name, maybe I get the chance to return the favor someday.
So how was I going to get around this? I didn’t see a way around it. Was it always going to be this way?
I saw Carl that night. He had some Southern Comfort and the last of the Jack Daniels. The kid who was renting his garage came in with some grass but we were way out in front of him by that time. I woke up Easter morning. The Sunday paper is piled up on the table.
I see where Escher died a couple of days ago. Rick’s got a couple of those Escher posters, you know like the hands drawing themselves or the staircase that seems to go nowhere. Rick really likes that shit. I wonder if he knows Escher died.
And I see where the North Vietnamese are in Quang Tri City again and this time they have tanks. She should have run but I know she didn’t.
By this time, I’m sleeping in my truck most nights.
Got a place to park my truck up in the canyon and then this guy comes around and says he’s got a house for rent and it’s cheap and I take him up on it. And it’s a Quonset hut, used to belong to the fire service, kind of an outpost to park their heavy equipment and maybe have a couple of rangers sleep over, so it’s not exactly charming, and this guy is having a little trouble finding normal family-type renters so he offers it to me dirt cheap and I take him up on it. But it turns out this guy decides he can just pop open the front door whenever the mood strikes him and he walks in, bold as brass, one morning and starts pounding some nails into the front door jamb, and I call him on it and he says he’s got the right since he’s the landlord and besides he’s got repair work to do. So I buy a big fucking padlock and take to locking the door from the inside but I know that isn’t going to last too long with some asshole who thinks he can open the door whenever he feels like it and sure enough he sees the lock and says he should be able to get in whenever he ‘needs’ to and I’m already looking for another place. That’s how it works, you know, I was pretty happy just sleeping in my truck but now that I’ve had this house for a month, I think I need to find another house.