Uncle Marty’s Porch

Uncle Marty’s Garden

This story is Part III of a series I’m writing called “Joe’s Tales.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part II, “Uncle Marty Falls Down” here. Find Part I, “Salad Days” here.

“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.

Uncle Marty Falls Down

Home After A Hard Day’s Work

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.”