This story is Part II of a series I’m writing called “Joe’s Tales.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part I, “Salad Days” here.
Joe Battaglia arrived home from work that Saturday evening just as the summer sun looked like it was about to drop out of the sky and dip below the marshland cattails that grew way down at the end of Thompson Avenue. On certain days Joe enjoyed walking a sandy path that wound a long curved line through those cattail reeds. When he had the time to spare, that is. Right then, just as he drove his 1960 Chevy Impala up along the curb in front of his house and parked her, he knew that he didn’t have time for walking anywhere else except up the short cement path that led to his front door.
When Joe got out of his car, he stretched his arms wide, so as to release some of the tension in his upper back and neck. He’d been painting Dr. Bretcher’s mansion all day long, so his muscles felt sore. But then as a working man he was used to feeling that kind of ache.
Joe noticed that his next door neighbor, the small-time numbers runner Paul Cincerella, was standing in his own driveway, right beside his shiny new panel truck. Joe looked at Paul and Paul grinned, so Joe turned his eyes away. Because whenever Joe looked too long at his neighbor’s panel truck he began to feel jealous. And Joe understood that it wasn’t good for him to concentrate on jealousy. Life was too short to waste it on feeling bad things, he told himself.
He locked the Impala’s doors, then opened the trunk and checked to make sure that there were enough cans of fresh, buttery oil paint — and that his brushes were soaking soft and supple in turpentine — so that when he prepared for work the next day at sunrise he wouldn’t have to think about the supplies and such he needed to continue the job on Dr. Bretcher’s mansion, which was about ten miles away from Joe’s house, near the beach. While standing on the second-story porch of Dr. Bretcher’s mansion that very afternoon, Joe had watched the Atlantic Ocean’s waves crest and roll and foam and crash into the jetties. God, it must be good to watch the ocean every day, Joe said to himself while he was standing there.
Joe worked most summer Sundays, because he needed the money, and because rich people like Dr. Bretcher wanted their vacation homes painted fast. Joe liked working for rich people. It was true enough that the rich people Joe worked for just about recognized him and talked to him as if he were a little man, but Joe felt okay with being humble, and he wasn’t about to give in to jealousy.
When he reached his porch, Joe followed the fault-line crack that ran through the green-dyed concrete and led from the top step to his front door. Joe opened the door and walked inside. The air felt stuffy and close. So he opened a couple of windows to let in the evening breeze, walked into the kitchen and pulled out a brown quart bottle of Iron City Beer, poured himself a glass and sat down at the Formica-topped table to draw in a few long sips and just relax.
And that’s when it all began. Joe started to feel lonely. So he got up, took off his work boots, emptied his socks of dry paint chips, shook himself out of his paint-splattered overalls, pulled his sweaty undershirt over his head and sat down again, wearing just his boxer shorts. He left his clothes lying on the linoleum floor tiles. Then he poured himself more beer and gulped it all down, until he didn’t feel so lonely anymore.
Maybe I’ll just close my eyes, lean back a bit and go to sleep right here, Joe told himself. The air blowing through the open windows is making my skin feel cool, and the tension inside my muscles is curling out of me, and I’m not thirsty anymore.
But that’s when it all began a second time, because the telephone that hung on the kitchen wall across the way rang and rang and rang. Until Joe realized that he wasn’t about to fall asleep and the telephone wasn’t about to stop ringing.
So he answered the phone by saying who’s this. And the voice said, Hi, this is Rose and I think I have sad news, although I’m not sure.
“Hi, Rose. This is Joe,” Joe said. “What’s your news?”
“Uncle Marty fell down while he was picking tomatoes in his garden.”
“Yeah, Uncle Marty grows really good tomatoes,” said Joe. “He just gave me some a few days ago, and they tasted so delicious with just a little bit of salt on them and nothing else.”
“But he fell down today, Joe,” said Rose. “And I’m worried about him.”
“Wait a minute, Rose,” said Joe. “Were you there when Uncle Marty toppled over? Was it serious? Because you know this isn’t the first time he fell down. Uncle Marty drinks too damned much beer. We both know that.”
“Well, I wasn’t there, but it was someone at the hospital who called me and said that my name was on a slip of paper tucked inside Uncle Marty’s wallet, and then they said he fell down in his garden and did I want to come over there right now.”
“So did you go there, Rose? How was he?”
“No, I called you first, because I’m scared this time, and I thought maybe you could help me and Uncle Marty, and –“
“Wait a minute, Rose. Why does it always have to be me? I mean, right now I’m not even wearing my clothes, and I’m sitting here trying to sleep and relax and not feel lonely or jealous or under any kind of pressure. And it seems to me that whenever I’m trying just to take care of myself, that’s when you or someone else in the family calls me and expects that I’m just going to drop everything and tend to someone else. I’m tired of it.”
“Joe, have you been drinking too much of that Iron City Beer again? I mean, you don’t sound like yourself, and I need help here, just a little help from you.”
“What do you mean by asking me that, Rose? It’s none of your business, and none of Uncle Marty’s business either what I drink. I work hard for a living, and you should know that already.”
And that’s when things started again, because Rose started to cry right through the telephone line, and Joe started to shout at her until he couldn’t even hear the words he was shouting and Rose’s words started to sound like just plain blubbering.
“All right,” said Joe. “Just give me enough time to get dressed. I’ll go see what’s up with Uncle Marty. Is he still at the hospital? Do you at least know that much? Help me out here, Rose.”
“Jesus, Joe, thanks,” said Rose. “I knew you’d be there for me. Yeah, I think Uncle Marty’s still at the hospital. Will you let me know, just as soon as you find out, if he’s okay this time?”
“Sure,” said Joe. And then he hung up the phone.
“No use taking time for a shower, not till I get back anyway,” Joe said to himself. And then he picked up his work clothes from the linoleum tile floor, put everything back on again and walked out of his house.
As Joe opened the Impala’s door, he realized that he felt just a bit lonely again.
“Must be because it’s dark outside this time of night. I almost always feel my worst when it’s dark,” he told himself. “Not to worry. Life’s too short to waste it on worrying. Tomorrow, I’ll take a break and look at the Atlantic Ocean.”