A GOOD MAN
I'm pulling hard on the flex handle, trying to break loose a bolt on this Chevy's U‑joint when I look down and see the big white De Soto pull up the drive. The socket slips off the bolt and I bust my knuckles on the Chevy's frame. I been working under cars for thirty years and I ain't got used to it yet.
The De Soto quits with a cough that sounds like mine. They don't make De Sotos anymore and anyone who knows anything is glad of it. The big white door swings open and out steps this skinny thing, with fluffy white hair and scrawny arms. She's wearing a bright yellow dress and a white wide brimmed hat. Big dark sunglasses too.
"Where's Sam?" she says.
"He ain't here right now," I says, wiping my hands on a rag. I come out from under the Chevy. She's older than I thought, maybe seventy. I'm fifty‑two so she looks old to me. Her hair ain't white. It's kind of bluish white. And her scrawny arms are wrinkled and sagging. I light a Camel and cough for a minute.
"Sam always works on my car," she says.
"Well, he ain't here right now."
I see her eyes steady behind the dark glasses. She looks at me for a minute, but I'm damned if I can tell what she's thinking.
"He's gone to lunch," I says. Sam owns the station so he can go to lunch any time he wants to. She keeps looking at me. "Can't you check my car?" she says. "It runs rough."
I get the hood open and pop the distributor cap.
"Them points is nearly burned away," I says. New cars ain't got no points. Electronic ignition. No points to burn.
"I just had it tuned up a month ago," she says. I've only worked there couple weeks so I didn't do the job.
"Points is still burned," I says. I flick my cigarette away. She's looking at me again. "Maybe your husband left the ignition on without the engine running. That'll burn the points."
"My husband is dead."
I wipe my hands on the rag. "It'll take a while to fix. I got to finish this Chevy first."
"Sam always drives me home when he works on the car."
I tell the eighteen‑year‑old kid with the ring in his ear that I got to drive a customer home. I stop in the john and comb my hair back and take a shot from the half‑pint in my coveralls. Then I slide in behind the big white plastic wheel.
"You be careful," she says next to me. "My Hank bought this car new."
She lives about three miles from the station. It's just your average neighborhood. Lookalike tract houses with a sliver of grass between them. But hers is different. Set back from the street on maybe half an acre of fruit trees and tall grass. A big white adobe house. Curved tile roof. Little white guest house in back.
"Doesn't look right," I says as I pull into the long, shaded drive. "This old house on this big piece of land."
"My Hank bought it forty‑six years ago. It was the manor house for three hundred acres of orange groves only the orange groves were all gone. Only the house and this acre were left. Hank homesteaded it right then and there. The city wanted the land so they could widen the street. But they can't touch a homestead. My Hank was smart. He was a good man."
I shut off the De Soto and go around to her door. I take her bony hand and help her out. "I'll be getting back to the station," I says.
"Come inside. You must be thirsty. I'll get you something to drink."
I follow her up the cement steps and through the big wood door. There ain't no air conditioning but it's cool inside. Thick adobe walls. The house is a hundred years old at least. Electricity added later. Wires attached to the outside of solid walls.
"Would you like a beer?" she says from the kitchen.
"Yes ma'am," I says. Standing in the dark parlor, looking at some painting of people at the beach. She brings me a bottle and we sit down.
"My Hank was smart. He was a railroad man for thirty‑seven years. He was a good man." Her thin voice starts to wobble and creak. "He loved the railroad." She sniffles loud. "Thirty‑seven years.
"That's a long time," I says. A long time to do anything, I think but I don't say it. There's only two or three things I been doing that long and none of them ever earned me a nickel.
We sit for a minute with her sniffling and me drinking. She blows her nose into a white handkerchief.
"He was a good man," she says.
"I worked for the railroad myself."
"You were a railroad man?" she says, her voice all pinched and tight.
"I was a brakeman back in Amarillo before I came out here to L.A."
"Isn't that nice?" she says. Her voice has gone smooth now. "Would you like another beer?"
I drink three more and talk about my railroad days for nearly an hour. Sam just about bites my head off when I get back to the station, especially since I still have the Chevy to finish. My knuckles hurt from before. Maybe I would've been better off working for the railroad. Truth is, I never did. Never was in Amarillo neither. Got out of Waco when I was seventeen. Joined the Navy, saw the world, and didn't like it. Things ain't improved much since.
By the next week, I'm going over to the house every other day after work. Katherine‑‑that's the old woman's name‑‑always got beer in the ice box for me. After the second day, she don't even get up to get it for me. She just sits there in that dark living room on a stiff flowered sofa beneath the picture of people at the beach. She sniffles into her handkerchief and I got to get my beer myself.
"Ray," she says one day, "I'm so glad you come visit me."
"That's all right. I'm obliged for the beer and conversation."
"Well, you keep a poor old woman company."
"Now Katherine, you ain't old." She ain't poor neither, I think, but I don't say it.
"You certainly know what to say," she smiles. I smile back and try to keep down a belch. I get up and go into kitchen for another beer. There ain't much in the ice box. Old women hardly eat at all.
"Ray," she calls from the living room. "How long have you
been living alone?"
"Oh, a long time, I suppose." I pop the cap off and take a
long pull. Her gray cat comes by, slow and sure of himself. I
toss the bottle cap and it bounces off his head. He runs out the open back door.
"Living alone is a terrible life," she says as I sit back down. The easy chair wheezes under me.
"You got your boy."
She frowns and makes her face even more like a skull than before. "He lives back East. Never comes to see me. Never even calls."
"That's too bad."
"But I have you."
"Yes, you do," I smile.
"You're a good man, Ray." She looks at me a minute. Like a week before, only now I know exactly what she's thinking. "People shouldn't live alone."
"That's so. But we all live the way we have to."
"You don't have to live alone."
"I don't have anybody. No wife or children. You know that."
"I mean you could live here."
I wait a minute. "Here?"
"In the guest house out back. I used to rent it out when my Hank was alive. I just haven't been brave enough to take in a tenant. It's so hard to trust people."
"I know what you mean."
"I wouldn't charge you much rent. And we could talk every day."
She's smiling at me with those crooked, yellow teeth. The room seems to get darker with us just sitting there till I can't even see the people at the beach.
Living in that guest house ain't so bad. She don't charge me but half of what I paid at the run‑down complex where I'd been staying. Furnished singles, all utilities paid. The little white house is small but it's got a front room, half kitchen and bath, and bedroom. The furniture is old and the sofa's got fleas but it's not too bad. The land is worth something though, even if the old furniture isn't. A full acre in the middle of all them tracts must be worth a hell of a lot of fruit trees.
Every day I come home from the station and sit on the easy chair in the big house and drink her beer while she talks about that good man of hers. I figure half of being good is being dead and old Hank's got that end covered. On Saturdays, I work in the back, watering and raking. Even though she must be rich, she ain't got no gardener. Hank must've done the yard work. She's got a whole shed full of tools. I get all the trees pruned and bushes hedged. I even buy some azaleas at the nursery like she wanted. I have a hell of a time finding the spade, though. It ain't in the shed but planted almost to the end of the blade, at the far end of the yard, in a strip of dirt along the back fence.
One night I don't come home but stop off at the corner beer bar. I play eight ball for a while with a couple of mail men, still in their sweaty blue uniforms. I meet this woman named Dolly. She's drinking beers at the bar and after a few hours she's looking pretty good to me. She must be about forty or so, tinted curly hair and weak eyes but with some chest and not too fat. I buy bottles or her and drafts for me and we close the place. I drive her home in the De Soto‑‑by now Katherine lets me take it to work nearly every day‑‑but when I pull up outside her apartment, she jumps out and runs into the building. I can't see where she went and I don't know her last name to read on the mailbox so I just drive on home.
I ain't been in bed more than fifteen minutes, lying there sweating in my shorts, when Katherine comes banging on my door.
"Where the hell've you been?" she screams. "It's damn near 3:00 a.m.!"
I try to shut the door but she holds it open with her scrawny arm.
"I know the time," I say.
"Where've you been?"
"Out. What the hell is it to you?"
"I'll tell you!" she screams and pushes on the door. She's stronger than she looks. "Out in my car! Where? With a woman?"
"Shooting pool, that's all."
"You're a damn liar! You were with a woman! You're a son of a bitch! Just like my Hank! A damn son of a bitch!"
Finally I get the door shut and after a few minutes I hear her shuffle off and go back into the house. I lie there in my shorts for a while, thinking. First I get mad. Who the hell is she to tell me what to do? But then I figure that she might not cool off. She might even throw me out. I think I better smooth her feathers so I pull on my pants and go out to the back door of the house. I'm about to knock but first I try the handle. It opens. She probably forgot to lock it because she's so mad. I step into the dark kitchen and think that maybe I should just talk to her in the morning when I hear her crying. Real faint, but it's her. I don't know the whole house so I follow the sound of her crying, down a black hall towards a half‑lit, half‑open door. I push the door open, easy. The cat comes shooting past my foot. There's a dim light by the bed. She's lying there on her side, back to me, bony shoulders shuddering with her sobs, skin creased and blotchy.
"Katherine?" I says quietly.
Her shoulders steady but she doesn't turn. "Come in," she whispers, hoarse.
"I didn't mean to‑‑"
I stand there for a minute thinking. Just like every time I've had to do something I didn't want to but knew would be the
best thing, I close my eyes, clamp my jaw shut, and breathe. I move closer to the bed. My stomach twists when I see how marked her gray skin is.
"Put out the light," she says, still not turning.
I grit my teeth hard and flip the switch. In the blackness, I hear my stomach churn. She sighs deep, a choked wheeze. I sit on the edge of the bed. It's soft, completely worn out. I touch her shoulder. She sighs again.
"You're a good man," she says.
For the next few weeks things at work get bad. Sam jumps on my back for every little damn thing. One time I forget to replace a drain plug doing an oil change. Five quarts of 10‑30 all over the ground. Twice I even let customers drive off without paying for gas. And I bust my knuckles almost every day.
"What the hell's the matter with you?" Sam says one afternoon while I'm sucking on my bleeding hand. I'm standing over an old Dodge Dart with a shot water pump. "You can't seem to do anything right lately."
"Just lay off."
"You been drinking? I won't tolerate no drinking."
"I ain't been drinking." At least not during the day. Truth is, I been coming in hungover most every morning. I lean over the Dart's fender again.
"You still living at the Porter place?" Sam says behind me. "What of it?"
"Nothing. Just wondering about Mrs. Porter."
"She's still alive. It's old Hank that's dead."
"He is? How'd you find out?"
I stand up. Sam's face is all screwed up like a English bull dog. "What're you talking about? Old Hank died years ago. She's been living alone since then."
"Not because he died."
"What do you mean?"
"Hank run off with a woman. About five years back. Mrs. Porter's son told me before he moved back East."
"Then why'd she say he was dead?" I says to myself, but Sam hears me.
"Maybe she wishes he were dead," he says. "Can't blame her, can you? He sure treated her bad. You don't treat her bad, do you?"
"I don't treat her any way. I'm just her tenant."
"Sure, Ray, sure you are. But why does she rent to you? She doesn't need the money."
"Maybe she just wants a man around the place."
"Maybe so," he says, smiling, and walks away.
I spend more evenings drinking beer and listening to her sobbing stories about Hank the railroad man. I can't figure why she don't admit the truth but I guess that's too hard for some people. I admitted the truth about me a long time ago. It ain't very pretty but there's no point in living like it is.
One day I come home from work early cause I just can't take Sam's mouth no more. He's riding me about making mistakes and being too slow so I quit on him. I walk all the way because she didn't let me take the De Soto that morning. It's about noon when I come up the long drive. The De Soto's gone so I figure she's out shopping. I don't have a key to the house. I only go in the back way at night when she decides to leave the kitchen door open. I walk around the back and see that the door's open now, ajar a couple inches. She probably forgot to lock it. I step inside just as the cat shoots past me. I give him a quick kick, barely catching him on the backside. I find a beer in the ice box and go into the dark living room. Like always, the curtains are drawn and the lights are out. I go down the hall to her room. It's dark too. I take a long pull on the beer and sit on the soft bed. There's no pictures of Hank or her son anywhere, not over the dresser or on the night stand. I check the drawers. Just the usual things in the night stand. Tissues. Aspirins. An old Bible. But under that I find a revolver, an old Colt tucked into the corner of the drawer. Probably belonged to Hank, I figure. I close the drawer without touching it.
There's only women's underwear in the dresser. One closet's full of her clothes. But the other closet's stuffed with a man's clothes. Overalls. Trousers. Shirts. A couple of suits. The floor of the closet is clogged with men's shoes, brown, black, work boots, slippers.
Just then I hear the De Soto pull up outside. I yank the closet door shut and start out down the hall. I'm halfway to the kitchen when I remember my beer bottle, sitting on the dresser. Katherine's key is in the lock and I rush back to the bedroom. She's wheezing and grumbling as she comes down the hall towards me. I stand behind the door, flattened up against the cool wall. I hold my breath. She comes in, muttering something, and puts her purse on the bed. She don't see me behind her and she goes out.
I hear the bathroom door close and I slip out the room, down the hallway, and out through the kitchen. The cat is sitting on
the step, glaring at me.
I stay at the bar till closing, drinking beers with them mailmen. The drunker I get the more I wonder about it. I can't figure why old Hank would take off and leave all his clothes and even his shoes behind. Unless he didn't know he was going anywhere.
When I come walking up the drive, she's waiting for me in
the dark, standing in front of the white guest house.
"Where've you been?" she says.
"Out." I try to push past her but she won't move.
"You've been with a woman!"
"Get out of my way."
"You've been with a woman! I know your kind. I telephoned the station today. Sam says you quit. You're no damn good! Just like Hank! You're no damn good!"
"Get out of my way!" I say and push her aside. She stumbles back against the wall and I open the door. She comes in behind, screaming.
"You son of a bitch! You'd be better off dead!"
"Like Hank?" I say.
"Yes! Dead! Like Hank!"
"Well, I know he ain't dead."
"He is dead! Dead and buried!"
"I hear he run off with another woman."
She stops for a minute, her face gray and sagging, her eyes wide. "That's a lie!" she hisses. "A damned lie! He's dead and buried!" She stares out the window. I look too. She's just looking at the yard toward the back fence. She turns and goes out.
I stand there for a minute, trying to think. I'm still a little drunk, but not too drunk to know there's something wrong with a woman who says her husband's dead and buried‑‑better off dead and buried when he's supposed to have run off with another woman. I think about that old Colt in her dresser drawer and all them men's clothes still hanging in her closet and the shoes on the floor and then I know. I run out the door and go to the shed. I find the spade and stumble in the dark to the back fence. There's a street lamp past the house behind the fence and between it and the moon I find the strip of dirt along the fence. I sink the spade in. The dirt's soft. I dig hard, afraid of what I'll find but knowing I'll find it all the same. Just then I hear her voice.
"What are you doing?" she says, standing in the dim light.
"I'm digging a hole."
"To see if you been telling me the truth." I keep digging. "The truth."
I don't look up. "About old Hank. Not that I doubt you. I believe he is really dead and buried. Right about here."
"You stop that," she says, quiet and steady.
"Why? You want me to believe you, don't you?"
"Stop right now."
I look up and see her still standing there only now she's stretching one bony hand out, shoulder high. She's holding the Colt, dull in the dim light, pointed right at my head. I know she's going to kill me like she did old Hank. The spade is still in my hands and before she can fire, I swing it up and around as hard as I can. I'm closer than I figure and instead of hitting the pistol, the spade smashes against her head with a thud and she silently folds up on the ground. I don't wait to see if she's breathing. I run off and into the house. I stand in the kitchen for a minute, trying to catch my breath. I'm sweating bad, too, from digging and running. I grab a beer from the ice box and pull most of it down at once. Then I call the police.
"I can't afford no lawyer," I tell the detective.
"We'll get you a lawyer," he says.
"I don't need one anyway."
"You're waiving your right to counsel before questioning?"
"I got nothing to hide. It was self‑defense."
He looks at me for a minute. He's young, about thirty-five. I'm feeling pretty old right now. "You killed an old woman with a shovel and you call it self‑defense?"
"She was holding a gun on me. She was going to shoot me like she did her old man. She was crazy. Thought I was her boyfriend."
"You crazy too? I'm just her tenant."
Another detective comes in through the kitchen. "Coroner's taking the body now. You want to come outside, Phil?"
"What do you got?" the first detective asks.
"Found a weapon."
"I told you," I says. "She was going to shoot me."
"Not with that antique," the second detective says. "It's an old Colt revolver. Unloaded. But it wouldn't have mattered either way. Looks like the cylinder's rusted tight."
I feel sick. "How was I supposed to know that? It looked okay to me when I saw it in her night stand."
"In her night stand?" Phil says. "I thought you were just a tenant."
My stomach twists and bubbles. We all go out back where the spade is still lying on the ground. She's gone. I point to the hole I started. "That's where she buried him."
"Who?" Phil asks.
"Her husband. Old Hank. Of course I thought she was going to kill me. Just like him. Dig him up. You'll see."
Phil tells a couple uniforms to dig. After a few minutes they find a steel box but nothing else.
"Open it," Phil says. By now the sun's up and I can see what they pull out of the box. There's a packet of black‑andwhite photographs, all of the same, sour‑faced man. He's wearing different clothes in different pictures. Sometimes overalls. Sometimes suits. Phil fingers a few papers.
"Marriage license," he says. "Railway worker's union card. Hey, look at this." He holds up a pocket watch, shining gold in the light. He reads off the back. "To Hank Porter for thirty‑seven years of service. A good man."
My stomach moves inside me and I'm sick right there in front of all of them.
David A. Lipton