Nowhere Is Always Somewhere
  Six Stories by Robert Earle
  1  Under the Bridge
2  The Mustard Pot
3  Nowhere is Always Somewhere
4  Monsters, Monsters Everywhere
5  What Maggie Knew
6  The Last Summer
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  September 2017 Fiction Issue
 
 

The Mustard Pot

The farther Ben drove into the country, the more dismal things became: abandoned gas stations, cinderblock grocery stores with their neon Lotto signs, vine-strangled hamlets of humble fieldstone houses followed by weedy pastures with sagging fences and then a faded plywood sign for Ascot Trace, a gated community that never had been built. He passed a Christmas tree nursery, crossed an old bridge and climbed a hill to Montrose Manor.

Originally Montrose Manor was a summer retreat for a family from the Main Line. It still had an empty swimming pool, two tennis courts with no nets, and stables that had been converted into a wing for the severely brain-damaged. The main house was wrapped by a deep porch and had become an administrative and dining facility. Behind it there was a structure in which the 150 residents lived.

He saw Vic in a rusting lawn chair on the front porch. He was smoking, of course, putting a cigarette in his mouth with two hands, the left hand steadying the right one by the wrist. Looked lonely and beaten. Had lost weight. His thin gray hair was weedy, bristling in all directions.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey, yourself. I’ve been waiting all day. What’s the hold up?”

“Long way across the Atlantic, then the drive from Philly.”

“I’m not going over there unless there’s another big war.”

As Ben kissed Vic on the top of his head, Vic gripped him by the shoulder and pushed his face into Ben’s chest. His glasses went awry. Ben adjusted them for him, then pulled up another lawn chair.

“When are you leaving?” Vic asked.

“Why do you always ask that as soon as I arrive?”

“Just want to know.” Vic squeezed Ben’s thigh. “Still have the strength in my hands. Feel it? Christ, those crates were heavy.”

“Sure, I feel it.”

When Vic was a boy, he had developed strong hands delivering milk from a horse-drawn wagon, his own father using the reins to direct Charley and Elmore up and down the hills of Raponikon. After that misery, he decided he’d do whatever it took to become rich, then came WWII, then he was semi-rich, then broke, semi-rich again, broke again, and ended up here.

He kept his hand on Ben’s thigh, the cigarette burning toward his fingers. Ben plucked it away and ground it out on the porch floor with his shoe. Vic said his shoes were beautiful. How much? Ben understated the cost by half.

“Light me another one,” Vic said.

Ben fished the cigarettes out of Vic’s cardigan pocket, put one between his lips, and lit it for him. The oddness of the moment was the complete collapse of time. Ben knew Vic wasn’t going to ask why he was back in the States or how his wife and kids were doing. All that mattered was sitting there with the long-ago boy who shared his taste for Silver Queen corn and disdaining the Phillies.

Vic blew smoke out of his nose. “How about something to eat at the Mustard Pot?”

“Sure,” Ben said. “Or we could go for drive. See what we find.”

“No, The Mustard Pot’s good. I want to take Dave with us.”

“Who’s Dave?”

“He’s my buddy out here. Naval aviator.”

“I was looking forward to spending time with you.”

“He needs a boost now and then. I owe him.”

“Okay, where is he?”

“Inside. Thinks we’re going to get shelled out here on the porch.”

“Who’s going to shell him? Deer hunters?”

“I’ve seen ‘em out there.” Vic pointed across the mangy lawn to the kudzu-strangled trees at the foot of the hill.

“Dad, I don’t think anyone’s going shoot at this building, deer in the woods or not.”

“Neither do I, but I’ve got both my legs. Dave lost his in Vietnam, or Korea, I forget which. Now his wife’s got him under lock and key here while she lives in a mansion in St. David’s.” Vic took another drag on his cigarette. “I want to talk to you about something.”

“What is it?”

Vic turned his head so they were facing one another. “This is important. I want your honest opinion.”

“Absolutely.”

“What do you think of me?”

“What do I think of you? What kind of question is that?”

“I want to know how you see me.”

“The first thing I think is I love you.”

Vic pressed his lips together, his drawn face grave and serious. “Dave says you couldn’t love me if you’ve got me warehoused here.”

 “What bullshit!”

“He says I helped liberate Paris and now who’s living there? You, not me.”

“Oh, for God’s sake. This guy never met me, and there’s no connection between what happened fifty years ago and what happens now.” Ben paused to set his anger at Dave aside and come up with a more reassuring answer. He saw Vic was in crisis. “I think despite your health, you make the best of things. You always have. I admire you for that. Come on, you know that.”

Vic said, “Okay,” not as if he accepted what he’d heard but as if he didn’t have the strength to fight it. “I wanted to know, that’s all. You’re so far away.” He tipped his head toward Montrose Manor behind him. “Every night I pray to Jesus to take me out of here. I can’t understand why He doesn’t. I miss your mother, not just you. I always thought I would go first, then you told me she was gone.”

“It wasn’t me who killed her.” Immediately Ben regretted putting it that way.

“I know.”

In fact, Vic’s needs killed her. The spills, the messes, the falls, getting him showered, getting him dressed, putting up with his television shows constantly blaring at deafening volumes. There were medical explanations for why she died, but they had nothing to do with why she died. She died to get away.

He took his father’s hand. He was a nonbeliever, but Vic was a literalist. To him every word in the Bible was true. “I can’t explain why Jesus does what He does. I thought we had you in a better place the first time, but you said it was too prissy and wanted out.”

“I hated that common room and the circle of death, everyone staring at each other.”

“I would, too.”

“And they were Nazis about smoking. Rationing me butts.”

“I agree, you should smoke what you want.”

“The help here is ten times nicer. A lot of blacks. Good people. Sometimes they’ll bake us a pie or bring in some magazines. If we could just get a car and take off once in a while, maybe we could make it work. Dave’s got a Mercedes in St. David’s and a fishing shack in Delaware. He says you can catch striped bass right off his dock and there’s asparagus that grows even though no one takes care of it. His wife has let the place rot.”

“And you two would drive there in this Mercedes?”

“That’s the idea.”

“How does Dave drive a car with no legs?”

“He can put his legs on or use hand controls. I had a used Cadillac that was set up like that in the 50s. You were a little boy.”

“The blue one?”

“That one, yes.”

“So, he has prosthetic legs?”

“No, the bitch sent him here without them. We’d have to get them first, then we’d be in the clear.”

Ben seldom smoked, but he had to do something in response to this lunacy. The taste was terrible. He dropped his hand over the arm of his chair and let the cigarette burn itself out. “Aren’t you cold out here, Dad?”

“No, I’m fine. I like this sweater you sent me.”

Vic always liked cardigans, never pullovers. Now he couldn’t raise his arms high enough to wear a pullover anyway.

“It’ll be cold tonight, though,” Ben said.

“Doesn’t matter, we’ve got heat.”

“I would hope so.”

“Half cook us sometimes they put the thermostat so high.”

“Can’t you get them to put it down?”

“Come midnight I’d rather throw off the sheets and sweat than go looking for someone to do it.”

Ben could speak about almost anything in English, French, and German. That was his role: speaking to Europeans about investment opportunities in the United States. He mastered the intricacies of whatever it was, and he explained how it would become a part of a fast-growing sector of the American economy. But now he didn’t know what to say.

At long last Vic said, “Tell the front desk to bring Dave down.”

“Shall I bring the car up on the grass to help you two get in?”

“There’s a ramp out back. We’ll get him there. I can make it to the car on my own from here.”

Ben went into the mansion, its parlor arranged somewhat like a hotel reception area. The lady on duty was a fair-skinned, fat woman with brightly dyed red hair. Pure Pennsylvania. Friendly. Direct.

“Don’t tell me. You’re Vic’s son. He’s been talking about how you were coming today.”

“I’m going to take him to The Mustard Pot, and he wants a fellow named Dave to go along.”

“The Dave with legs or the one with no legs?”

“No legs.”

Her nose twitched like a squirrel making a quick decision. “You sure you want him along?”

“No, but it’s what my father wants.”

“Okay, he’ll be out back in about ten minutes. They’ll have to diaper him first.”

Returning to the front porch, Ben found Vic gripping the railing with one hand and using the other hand to guide his piss into the flower bed. He took a long time with his final dribbles and shimmying himself back into his pants. Fortunately, no one saw this except Ben. He then held Vic’s elbow and they slowly walked to his car, the biggest Ben could rent to facilitate Vic’s entry and exit, a dramatic procedure Ben loathed. While he held the passenger door open, Vic turned his back to the car and hooked his cane on the door’s upper edge. Then Vic flexed his knees, which would lead to a backward fall unless Ben wrapped his arms around Vic’s waist to ease him down slowly. Even with Ben’s help, this took a lot out of Vic, who slumped in the front seat as if he’d been shot. With difficulty Ben pulled him upright and snapped him in. Then he handed him his cane and shut the door. Next, he drove around back where Dave sat waiting in his wheelchair. He was wearing a Navy captain’s hat, a Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt, and brown slacks that were sewn shut at the knees. No need to bother bringing along the wheelchair, he said. Just hoist him into the back seat and seatbelt him there.

“Think you can manage that?” he asked Ben, as if skeptical that Ben was up to it.

“Don’t worry. Just try to stay upright when I set you down in the back seat.”

“Not a problem. I’m good at this.” To get things going, he threw his arms around Ben’s neck and pulled himself close to Ben’s chest. “Now, lift!”

divider

The Mustard Pot was a board and batten roadside diner with a yellowish cast iron pot hanging over the front door. There were no customers and only one waitress was on duty, a sallow, emaciated young blonde in a blue polyester dress. Cracked red vinyl booths with red formica tops ran along the front windows. A red-topped counter ran between the booths and the kitchen. Ensembles of salt, pepper, catsup and, of course, mustard, were placed in every booth and in front of every third counter stool. The Mustard Pot’s special blend of mustard wasn’t for everyone. Each little pot, echoing the big pot over the front door, bore a sticker that read: Some like it hot; if you don’t, use this not.

Ben settled Vic and went out to get Dave. The best technique for securing him in the booth involved pinning him against the wall with a child’s booster seat so he could use his hands to eat with no fear of toppling over. The waitress had the booster seat ready. Then she brought glasses of water and coffee for all three of them without being told.

Vic said, “Thanks, Darlene. The regular.”

“You, Dave?” Darlene asked.

“Me, too.”

Ben asked, “What’s the regular?”

Vic said, “A Reuben with their special mustard and French fries.”

“Same for me,” Ben said. “Plus, a Diet Coke.”

“Know who invented the Reuben?” Dave asked. He was a ferret-faced man, small eyes, small nose, small mouth, small ears. He had all his silver hair buzz-cut exactly as it had been when he was a Navy aviator.

Ben suppressed the obvious answer—someone named Reuben, just as Grant was buried in Grant’s tomb—so Dave could have the pleasure of supplying it: “Arnold Reuben, proprietor of Reuben’s Deli in New York City before World War I.”

“Dave came from New York originally,” Vic said.

“If you wanted a Rachel, not a Reuben, you got pastrami instead of corned beef,” Dave said. “Rachel was his wife. And one more, the Grouper Reuben, his idea: you put a grouper in there with the sauerkraut. Filleted, of course. Basically, the whole damn fish.”

Ben glanced at Vic across the table as Dave held forth. He had pulled a Greek fisherman’s cap out of his cardigan pocket and put it on, emulating Dave in his dingy white captain’s hat, headpiece for headpiece. There was always something gratefully subordinate about Vic; he seldom had any trouble finding an obnoxious leader to follow

“And my legs?” Dave asked rhetorically to save Ben the trouble of raising the subject. “I flew in Korea. Shot down a half dozen Soviet MiG 15s before I got blown out of the sky myself. Woke up in the hospital with no legs. Forget about dancing after that. The only thing left is fucking and making money, which are a hell of a lot better than war in my book.”

“In mine, too,” Vic said.

“I didn’t fight,” Ben said.

“No, because I said if they drafted you for Vietnam, we’d all go to Canada,” Vic said.

Ben nodded. That was what Vic had said.

Dave said, “Of course we got zapped in Vietnam. Could have won but decided to lose, end of story, whereas his war, World War II,” he added, pointing at Vic, “was worth fighting to win. Not Vietnam. Vietnam was a load of shit.”

Ben leaned back so Darlene could slide three Reubens in front of them, slathered in The Mustard Pot’s dusky specialty. He noticed a kind of deference the men showed Darlene, suspending their harsh talk until she had walked away. You wouldn’t want a girl to hear such things.

 The old men watched Ben carefully for his reaction to the mustard. Heat sharp as fish hooks stabbed his sinuses, but he kept a straight face, only sipped a little Diet Coke and had a second bite.

“He knows how to eat hot,” Vic explained to Dave. “Mustard, horseradish, peppers, I taught him myself.”

Dave said to Ben, “I have no kids myself, just a ton of money and a wife in cahoots with a lawyer I have no doubt she’s fucking. So, what am I left with? My car? I can’t get to it. My fishing shack? Can’t get to it. What do I have? I have your father, this great man here, and what’s he given me: Jesus. I never knew Jesus until your father showed me the way. You realize that?”

No, Ben didn’t realize that. He had been bracing for a plea to drive them to St. David’s and abscond with the Mercedes, not a declaration of their religious interdependence.

“You’ll come over and read us the Bible sometime, won’t you, Darlene?” Dave called to the waitress.

Darlene looked up from the counter. She might serve The Mustard Pot’s food but clearly didn’t eat it. Was she anorexic? She looked that tissuey, that vulnerable. “Sure, I will, Dave. Just say when.”

“You’re in the City of Light,” Dave said to Ben. “That’s Paris’s nickname. Good for you. Jesus means nothing in a place like that. But here He’s all we’ve got.”

Ben’s resentment toward Dave had been building from the moment he saw him in his wheelchair outside Montrose Manor’s kitchen door. This reference to their respective positions in life unleashed it. “Dave, what’s this you’ve been telling my father about me?”

“Like what?”

“That I’ve warehoused him and don’t love him.” Immediately Dave’s eyes lost air pressure and his lips grew slack. He clearly hadn’t expected his backstabbing campaign to be exposed like this. But just as immediately Ben asked himself what he was doing, lashing into a deluded cripple. Gently he explained, “I had him in a nicer place, but he didn’t like it, so that’s where Montrose Manor came in. He isn’t warehoused, and I love him. Between us we do the best we can.”

Vic, alarmed for Dave, hastened to reassure him, “It’s true, Dave. Ben and I went over it. You just had it wrong. Happens.”

Dave nodded. He did some chewing and swallowing, gathering himself, and some of his cocky command presence returned. Maybe he really had been a captain, Ben thought. Maybe he now saw himself as an admiral on the seas of life.

“Well, good, good. I’m glad to hear it. You go to church in Paris, Ben?” he asked solemnly.

“No, I don’t.”

Vic said, “He went to a private school where they had them in chapel six days a week for five years. That’s more than I’ve ever been to church in my life.”

Dave took a sip of water and carefully placed the glass down as if sealing off the contentiousness of the last few moments. “Care to go to church now?”

Ben definitely did not want to transport these characters to a church. “Is there one nearby?”

Dave had anticipated this question and slid smoothly past it because now his trap was set. “Not if you mean a building, but what if the church came to you?”

Vic said, “‘Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.’ Jesus said that.”

“I know, Dad.” Ben looked out the window and found neither relief nor escape in the two-lane road beyond the empty parking lot.

“Darlene, care to join us as we pray?” Dave called over to the waitress.

“Sure, Captain Riggers, I would like that.”

As Darlene approached, an expression of miserable need darkened Vic’s face. “We hold hands?” he asked Dave.

With his ceremonial hat and fierce visage, Dave could have been a medieval bishop carved into the stonework of a cathedral. “Yes, I think it’s called for.”

Darlene slid into the booth beside Vic. Her sickliness notwithstanding, she appeared completely at ease with this intimate moment as she helped Vic get his hands up on the table, and Dave extended his own small, wrinkled hands without assistance. Had they ever held the joystick of a jet fighter? Who knew? Who knew if Jesus had ever said what he was alleged to have said? A sense of personal irrelevance overwhelmed Ben. The irritation, frustration and sorrow this visit caused him drifted away. They took one another’s hands as Dave spoke.

“Lord, You who have blessed us with the torments that led us to Your bosom, we beseech You to receive our beloved Ben. Let him always know that as he walks through time, You hold his hand as we do now and he is saved.”

They all said, “Amen,” even Ben. Darlene began to clear away the plates. Ben guided Vic to the car and settled him there. Then he walked back into The Mustard Pot, pulled the legless captain out of the booth, lifted him up, and stood there a moment to make sure they were gripping one another good and tight before carrying him away.

     
  © Robert Earle, 2017

   

NEXT  >> 

Back to top