I Always Mean Well, a story by Don Fredd .
Nelson, when he wants to put people in their place, stares six inches above their heads as he delivers his snide comments. "Cary Grant was chased by a crop dusting plane in North by Northwest, not To Catch a Thief! I don't know how anyone could fuck that up. Grace Kelly is nice to look at and so is Bob Burks' award-winning photography but, come on, any retard could see that Eva Marie Saint can fucking act, man. There's no comparison."
Beth Phelps is the recipient of this put-down. She is my girlfriend of two years. We are at Nelson's for a cinema get-together which he throws every other month. We were the only ones who showed up last time and expect, given the hour, that we will be the only ones to suffer Nelson's abrasive comments this evening as well. To say that he is a film buff would be an understatement. He knocked out a spare bedroom wall transforming the living room into a home theater layout. A huge screen, speakers galore with wires, amps, tuners, etc. run jungle-like throughout the space. When Nelson shows a film he doesn't expect anyone to enjoy the process; it's his opportunity to pontificate.
I take Nelson's caustic, anti-social behavior in stride as I'm used to it, but I can see Beth is hurt. She is silent for a moment, puts her head down, takes a deep breath, then mumbles an "excuse me" before heading for the bathroom. As she leaves the room, Nelson stares a laser beam through her back.
"Who hasn't seen North by Northwest fifty times? Maybe she thinks Thief is a chick flick with all those cocktail dresses? Why did you even bring her?"
"She really tries, Nelson. She crammed a lot of Hitchcock into the last few days and evidently got some wires crossed. I think she's bugged because you decided not to show Hitchcock tonight."
"Hey, this is my place, beer and junk food. I wanted to do something more modern, that's all. If you don't like it, fucking leave for all I care."
Nelson is a paraplegic. I met him in college. We were in the NROTC program and had a few other classes together. During our student years his idea of a great movie was The Terminator as he was a big Arnold Schwarzenegger devotee. After we graduated we were posted to the Gulf to save Kuwait from Saddam. I was a meteorologist stationed out of harm's way in Riyadh. Nelson was a communications officer billeted for destroyer duty. In January of 1991 during heavy Gulf of Aden seas he was knocked overboard, saved only by a lifeline. He dangled for half an hour before they got to him and by that time he had been bashed against the steel side enough to break nearly every bone he possessed. They put him back together Lincoln log style as best they could, but he was paralyzed from the chest down and can barely bend his arms. When my tour of duty was up, I visited him a few times in a Chicago VA hospital, but then lost touch until four years ago when he called to say he was now living in Boston, had heard through the grapevine that I was also and wanted to get together. I got other Gulf vets from the area together, and we were regular visitors at chez Nelson and put up with his nonsense and abuse because we felt guilty that we had some semblance of an independent life and he didn't. Now it has boiled down to Beth and me as his connection to the real world. He has home care nurses who change every month, evidently pulling up stakes for less abrasive pastures.
"How long does it take her to piss? I want to get started before I'm too hammered to think straight."
Nelson is on his third beer which he unabashedly tops off with bargain brand vodka or gin. I get up from the uncomfortable couch. "I'll go check on her."
I exit the living room and head down the long hallway to the oversized, handicapped bathroom Nelson had specially built. Even before I get there I can hear her crying through the door.
I knock softly. "Beth, are you okay?"
"What do you think?"
"Can I come in?" Before she can answer I turn the handle and enter. She is on the high rise toilet, toes not touching the floor, pantyhose around her ankles. She modestly adjusts her skirt to receive male visitors and uses a hand towel to mop up some of the tear damage done to her makeup.
"I want to go home."
Beth, that's just Nelson's way. He insults everyone. It's harmless, really."
"Not to me it's not. If he only knew how much time I spent watching those stupid Hitchcock movies. Who the hell cares anyway?"
I squat down in front of her putting my hands on her knees. "He has no life, Beth. This is all he's got, movies. Four years ago there were more than a dozen of us. Now it's down to you and me. In three hours he'll be shit-faced and we'll wheel him into the bedroom. Tomorrow he'll wake up alone with a hangover, but I'll have sensual access to your luscious body, then we'll take a nice long jog around the reservoir."
"Yeah, this is how I like to spend my Friday nights after a hard week's work—hefting his alcoholic ass into bed, emptying the piss bag and attaching another so he can fill it back up in an hour. No, I want to go home. You may think it's your patriotic, male bonding duty to take his crap, but I don't have to. Whatever happened to the Filipino woman he had last time?"
"She was a home care nurse, but I guess she got tired of him as well."
"See, not even paid, trained people will tolerate him. You can stay the night with him by yourself then. You can have your little beer party, talk about the old days of conquering an army that wore plastic shower sandals. Maybe watch porn on that big screen of his, but I still have some dignity left."
Whether she was aware of the irony created by her "dignified" sitting position and the gentle hiss of her peeing was a topic I decided not to point out. I got up, politely turned my back while she wiped and flushed. She took one look at her face in the mirror and waved her hand in a gesture of defeat.
"Screw it, there's nobody out there I want to impress."
She opened the door and I trailed her out into the hall.
"Look Beth, why not tell Nelson you have a headache?"
She spun around. "Isn't that what they do in all the movies? Your beloved Grace Kelly suddenly develops a migraine. No, you go in and tell him he's an asshole and, cripple or not, it doesn't give him the right to put people down. I'd love to see him come to my workplace and feel like a jerk when I snow him with art history details."
"Just stay for a few hours and I promise you'll never have to come again."
"So you're just going to forget about how he's treated me since the minute we got here. I bet deep down I embarrass you because I don't know much about movies, sports, literature or a thousand and one other things. I never want to see him again."
"I'll tell him you're sick and that I have to take you home; how's that for a compromise?"
Her faced hardened and the inverted "Y" patterned vein on her forehead rose to the surface. "That would be a lie! If you say that I'll never speak to you again. Someone needs to stand up to that bully. He needs therapy big time. If you won't leave with me, I'll get a cab or take the 'T'."
She put a jacket on, grabbed her bag and brought out a cell phone. I followed her out the front door, stood on the chilly, dimly lit porch while she walked towards the curb and my car before stopping. Evidently she had gotten the number she wanted and was talking to someone. If only she would look back I would go to her.
From inside I hear Nelson rattling a bag of chips like I was a pet it was time to feed, "Hey, lieutenant, I'm starting The Razor's Edge. I've got two almost identical scenes cued up, one's the 1946 version with Tyrone Power and the other is Bill Murray's from 1984. Guess who's going to get his modern acting ass kicked?" Beth snapped her cell phone shut and began walking down towards Beacon Street "T" stop. Unlike Lot's wife, she never looked back.
I turned to go inside and saw that the left porch light had burned out, easy enough to fix. "I'm coming," I yelled, wondering all the while what ever possessed Bill Murray to re-make such a dated Maugham novel in the first place.
Don Fredd has been published in several journals and reviews. He received the Theodore Hoepfner Award given by the Southern Humanities Review for the best short fiction of 2005, and he was a 2006 Ontario Award finalist. He won the 2006 Black River Chapbook Competition and received a 2007 Pushcart Special Mention award. His novel, Exiled to Moab, published by Six Gallery Press, will appear early 2008.
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