“So how sore is your arm?” asked Joe. Uncle Marty’s arm was broken from the fall he took the night before. The hospital nurse had wound it in a plaster cast and injected Marty with a strong dose of pain killer.
“I’ll live,” said Uncle Marty.
“Not if you keep on sucking down Iron City brew till you drop,” said Joe.
“Can’t pick no more tomatoes in this rain. It’s a damn shame, because they’ll rot.”
“Drink your coffee, Marty.”
Sunday morning, and Joe Battaglia found himself sitting on a wicker rocking chair inside Marty’s screened-in back porch, staring out across a patch of thick, green grass and on toward Marty’s vegetable garden. Two rows of sweet corn; one row each of bitter peppers; under-ripe melons; fat cucumbers; and the bug-infested, weedy remnants of a few strawberry plants.
“You smell real bad, Joe. I got a change of clothes that should fit you all right after you take a shower.”
“First I have to call Dr. Bretcher. I was supposed to be there early this morning to tidy up the mess of drop cloths I left set beside his house –“
“No doctor, rich or otherwise, might reasonably expect a house painter to show up on a rainy day, Joe. You’re not making sense.”
“Job’s a job, and a well-run business is a matter of taking on your responsibilities with serious intentions. I wouldn’t keep my customers too long if I just sat on my butt every day like you and then refused to make a telephone call when it became necessary.”
“That mean you’re about to give me some advice again?” said Marty. “I got no place I need to go, and anyways, it’s Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and both of us should be resting, maybe even praying to the Lord for some forgiveness.”
“There you go again, Marty. Rose forgave you years ago. Fact is, and you know this, or you should by now, Rose never blamed you in the first place.”
“She should have. I was drivin’ drunk, and Lissa was her child.”
“Drink your coffee, Marty, before it gets cold and I have to leave.”
Joe left Marty wiping tired tears off his cheeks and walked into the man’s living room, such as it was, not living at all, not really. Old lamps from the ’40s with fringed shades covered in dust and switched on day and night gave the place a soft glow that on a dark morning seemed to hug a man like a comfortable blanket. Yellowed newspapers strewn about the floor. Empty, brown beer bottles standing at attention on a coffee table like a platoon of dead soldiers waiting to be buried. Somewhere in the middle of the mess a black telephone, its receiver smeared with oily fingerprints, the numbers under its dial fading from overuse.
Dr. Bretcher said he understood, that he didn’t expect to see Joe when it was storming, and that the drop cloths weren’t in anybody’s way. Joe apologized again, just so he would sound a note he considered professional, and hung up the receiver.
Scattered around the room, on a mahogany end table, on top of a console television set, sitting on the middle shelf of a knick-knack cabinet that hung on the wall, were framed family photographs. One featured Joe dressed in a dark, formal suit of clothes that nowadays hung inside his closet and stayed there for lack of any further purpose. Joe moved closer to the photo and squinted at the images of himself standing behind Uncle Marty and Rose, Rose’s face covered in a lacy wedding veil, Marty’s smile radiating pride and love. Joe had been their best man at the service.
Before that he and Marty had served together in the army, stationed in Casablanca. Marty had seen action when Patton’s troops crossed the Mediterranean and crawled their way up through Sicily and then along the western coast of the Italian peninsula. Joe broke his leg in a training exercise while still in North Africa and spent several months in a makeshift hospital, groaning with pain because medicine was running short. Oftentimes, Joe considered that Marty somehow never forgave him for leaving his side.
Beside the wedding photograph was one of Rose holding baby Lissa in her arms.
“You finish making your call?” Joe jumped at the sound of Marty’s voice.
“Cheesus, Marty. Did you have to sneak up on me that way? Yeah, I made the call and everything’s all right.”
“She was pretty back then, wasn’t she?” said Marty.
“Still is,” said Joe.
“Seems like everything good comes to an end before a man feels ready. Know what I mean?” said Marty.
“Where’s the clothes you mentioned? I’m going to take the shower you suggested, and then I’m off. You need some food brought in before I leave? I’ll be passing Frank Hughe’s deli on my way back home.”
“Why don’t you sit a spell before you leave? I got plenty of food in the fridge, but I could use some company. I could pour us a cold one and slap together a couple of sandwiches.”
“Marty, one too many cold ones is what got you into trouble last night. Lay off the Iron City for a day or two. Get some sleep instead.”
“Joe, you got nerve. Like you don’t swallow your own share?”
“After I work, Marty. And then whenever I fall down, it tends to be into my bed, not into the hospital emergency room.”
“The clothes are layin’ out on top of my bed, Joe. Suit yourself. Take your shower and then go the hell home where you belong.”
“Like I said before, and like I said many times, you’re getting all angry over nothing, Marty.”
“You never been married, Joe. And you never had a baby, much less killed your very own. So I don’t think you know how it feels to lose.”
Joe turned on his heels and headed toward the back of Marty’s house. In the bedroom he found the clothes. In the bathroom he stripped off his painting uniform and stepped into the shower stall. The water spout was pitted with rust. The tile floor felt slippery with slime. Joe closed his eyes and showered quickly. Like countless times before, he thought about the fact that Marty wasn’t really anyone’s uncle. As well, he again asked himself who or what Marty was these days. Worse than the darkness and dirt inside this house, he told himself, is the sense of guilt and sorrow that lives within every corner of every room.