Spring Street, by Harvey Sutlive.
Flying is such a hassle now. Buddy and Mom decided to drive to New York.
Anyway Buddy is afraid to fly with a bag of pot in his luggage. He's a high school teacher and they would fire him if he got caught. He's been Teacher of the Year three times at our high school. He got me through math in middle school and in high school. I would have flunked without him. He and Mom found each other when I was eleven.
Buddy is one of these older people who still get stoned. He's almost fifty. He thinks the whole world will collapse if he gets busted.
Marais, our town, is in the foothills of the mountains. We have a small river. We have a small college, and we have the county courthouse. Lynah County is basically a rural county. Marais is not a very distinguished town.
Spring Street in Marais starts in a warehouse parking lot a block below the college campus. It's a short steep street through a neighborhood of old trees and small houses. It ends on the river at an abandoned factory building. The curbstones on Spring Street are granite. The pavement is cracked and crumbly. The houses on Spring Street are old factory worker houses.
It's called Spring Street because an actual spring exists at the top of the street. The town of Marais was founded around that spring. Indians lived there originally but the first settlers killed them, in a battle.
A paper company warehouse occupies the spring location now. It's a pretty good-sized old brick building. The spring is underneath the upper or town side. It's damp there and very grassy. Old railroad tracks lie submerged in the grass. Tremendous amounts of crickets live in the grass, and they scrape and weep every evening in the summertime in these great solid waves; on quiet nights the waves bounce off the warehouse brickwork, and you hear crickets downtown and over the middle of the college campus.
Mom owns a couple of houses on Spring Street. She rents them to college students. She's gradually buying up the whole street that's her plan.
An old man used to live in the last house going downhill on Spring Street, on the left, before the river. There's a creek behind all the houses on that side. That creek is fed by the spring under the paper warehouse at the top of the street. So the old man died about a year ago, and Mom decided to buy his house. It took her months to get his relatives to sign the right paperwork. Now she wants to fix that house up like the other two she already has.
The old man was a big gardener. His whole back yard was garden space. It jumped up in grass and weeds like crazy after he died. One of my jobs involves lawn maintenance on Mom's property, so when Mom snagged that house it got added to my list.
My girlfriend June and I dug up the ground by the creek in the old man's back yard. Then we left a narrow overgrown section, for disguise purposes, then we cut the rest of the grass closer to the house.
We used the yard by the creek to plant pot. For safety, June and I never use the word pot when we discuss this we always say LPs. If somebody hears us, they assume we're talking about old records.
We grew almost a pound of LPs. We dried and cleaned the plants in the attic of the old man's house. We stored the actual saleable LP material in a potato chip can June bought at a thrift store it just barely fit inside a plastic sheetrock mud bucket. We hid the mud bucket in the crawl space beneath the old man's house.
If you want to grow something, there's no substitute for crumbly rich deep fertile soil. That old man was a real gardener. We were shocked towards the end of the summer at how tall the LP plants got. We had to bend them down and tie them to lawn furniture we found in a shed in the old man's back yard. The taller they got, the scarier it was.
Mom and Buddy left for New York on a Saturday morning in the beginning of February. We were coming off a few days of clear cold weather that blew down on us from Canada. When we get that kind of weather everybody around here always says: "At least this'll kill the bugs next summer." It never does though.
June and I woke up early and rode our bikes down to Spring Street. We were picking up a small bag of LPs, fifty dollars worth, for Buddy for the New York trip.
We thought we'd grab the LPs and go eat breakfast downtown at a bagel place we like. Then we could bike over the river, to Mom and Buddy's house, and say good by and make the delivery. After that we would take Buddy's money to the bank and make a deposit.
We hit Spring Street at ten o'clock. We coasted downhill fast and turned up the driveway of the old man's house and jumped off our bikes. There was a long junky old car parked halfway up the old man's driveway. There was a junky utility trailer attached to the car. We heard music inside the house. There was movement in a window people were inside.
June was shocked. She was anxious. She was wearing one of my flannel shirts. Her hair was in a ponytail and she was staring and blinking at the old man's house.
We were selling LPs, one bag at a time, to Buddy and to his friend James Bone who's in real estate here in Marais. We were using the money to make payments on June's school loans. She owes almost two thousand dollars from not making it through college then going to massage therapy school afterwards.
We can almost pay that off if we sell most of the LPs we have in fifty dollar increments. If we don't divert too much for personal use. At the rate Buddy and James Bone are going, this should take almost one more year.
June and I had a short argument about a plan to rescue the LPs. She thought we should crawl under the house and snatch the bucket, without caring if the people inside knew it, then ride away fast on our bikes.
I wanted to worry about LPs later and act respectable and leave right away quietly. We compromised by turning around and going back up Spring Street, in the direction of the bagel place, walking our bikes, and talking everything over so we could make a good decision. We had a sobbing breathless argument the whole way uphill to the bagel place.
We ordered a large coffee and a brownie each at the bagel place. After that we were really wired. June and I have a great relationship. We examined our options. We decided to go to Mom and Buddy's and casually mention the people in the house. Mom and Buddy would react for sure. Then we would wait for an opportunity.
Mom and Buddy live across the river from downtown. Their neighborhood is basically a few dozen brick houses built in the 1920's. For some reason that area is desirable. Every time a house in that neighborhood sells, the new owners feel compelled to build an addition, or do something ambitious with the yard. It's expensive to live over there.
Mom and Buddy were ready to leave when we got to their place. They're so hopeful and excited when they take trips. And they're so pleased with the experience when they come back, and they've always taken so many pictures.
They were using Mom's car. They were on the edge of taking off. Buddy was checking me out. He had a "where's the dope" look on his face, which I pretended I didn't understand. I threw out an innocent remark to Mom about the renters in the new house on Spring Street. Mom smoothed her hair back. She didn't know what I was talking about.
"We were just riding our bikes down that way on the river," I said neutrally. "Somebody's living in the old man's house."
"What are you talking about," said Mom rapidly. "Are they friends of yours?"
"I don't know anything about it," I said. Mom looked at Buddy.
Mom grew up in Marais, then she moved to Charlotte. She and my dad were law partners in Charlotte before they split up. They worked for poor people and rundown communities and grassroots groups. Mom ran for city council in Charlotte one time and she almost won.
She still does that stuff here in Marais, but she focuses mainly on real estate and helping clients sue each other. She's a practical person. She's practical and beautiful. She has thick hair which she dyes black and very white skin and big blue eyes. She has Buddy twisted around her little finger
"Maybe they're just passing through," I said.
"God," said Buddy. He was putting suitcases in the living room by the front door. "Call the police Polly and ask them to look," he said.
"Come on Mathew we're going over right this minute," said Mom.
"No I will," said Buddy. "Finish getting ready." He couldn't just sit there while his wife basically and her kid flung themselves on something unknown.
"OK we'll go when you get back," said Mom.
Buddy and I took his car. Buddy drives a second hand Japanese SUV. "So what's this bullshit about?" he asked me.
"I have no idea," I said.
"Christ," said Buddy. He rolled his window down. It was not cold like the weather from the days before. It was shaping up to be a pretty day.
"Have you got the you-know-what?" he asked.
"We were on our way to take care of that," I told Buddy. "That's when we noticed the people in the house."
I was in middle school when I first realized that Buddy was an LP guy. Mom and I had moved back to Marais. She was having a party. I walked up on Buddy and James Bone and a couple of teachers from the high school. They were passing a joint around. They got that blank look on their faces when they saw me. Buddy was holding the joint. I just kept walking.
"Does the whole world have to know about this?" he asked me later. I said "oh no" in a friendly way. Even back then Buddy and I had a great relationship. I needed a father figure in my life.
We crossed the river and drove over to Spring Street. We pulled up the old man's driveway. Some stuff was unloaded from the trailer behind the junky old car. We walked up the front sidewalk, steps really, to the front door, and knocked.
A woman with smudgy brown eyes and a long nose opened the door. She was about thirty and a little on the heavy side. She was wearing a nice dress.
"Can I hep you?" she said. She ran the words together.
"Hi yes," said Buddy politely. He told his name and a lie, sort of, to the effect that he was a real estate manager in charge of the property. He asked the woman what she was doing there.
"My name's Fleecia," she said. She shook Buddy's hand. "My granddaddy was Marcus Bodkin Lowe maybe you knew him. He used to live here."
There was a small kid sitting in a lawn chair in the living room directly behind Fleecia. The kid was kicking his legs steadily against the framework of the lawn chair. The living room had been swept and dusted and decorated with streamers and balloons like somebody was having a party.
There were two or three pieces of lawn furniture in the room I realized this was the old stuff from the shed in the back yard. Voices of other people came from beyond the living room. A camping stove was sitting on a little table just inside the kitchen. Buddy was groping for something to say.
"Oh your grandfather hasn't lived here in a while," I told her.
"That's what I know," said Fleecia. "He passed last year. I inherited this place."
"Aha," said Buddy. "Ms. Bodkin yes this property had some few..."
"Fleecia," she said. She took a kleenex out of her pocket and blew her nose while Buddy was still talking.
"...signed the warranty deed finally," Buddy was telling her when you could hear him again. "So that would be your aunts I guess Fleecia and relatives. A legal thing. A legal document." Buddy started out sounding technical and confident but he trailed off toward the end. There was a steady clonking noise in the background from the kid kicking his lawn chair.
"I don't know that," said Fleecia. "Granddaddy always told me I was to have this place when he died."
A youngish man came out of the kitchen. An old woman was following him.
"How do you do," said the man. He was dressed in a suit and tie from probably a thrift store. The old lady was carrying flowers. She was blinking her eyes and moving with a purpose. She seemed like a good person though slumped over by sorrow somewhat from the years of her life so far.
"We got to go Fleecia," said the old lady.
"This is my fiance Michael and his mother Mrs. Couch," said Fleecia.
"Excuse me," said Mrs. Couch. She walked past us, down the front porch steps. She crossed the little front yard and climbed in the old car.
"Mike and me come up from Charlotte to get married," said Fleecia. Mike blinked like his mother and nodded at us.
He was a thin guy a little younger than Fleecia with a weather beaten face. He was holding a water bottle in one hand and a slice of bread covered with peanut butter in the other hand.
"At the courthouse," he said. "The party's right here afterward though." Cranking noises were coming from the big old car.
"They close at twelve," Fleecia said to Buddy. She grabbed Mike the bridegroom's arm and squeezed it.
"Uh-huh," said Buddy lamely. The car was still cranking in the driveway but noticeably slower.
"What's the matter Mama," bawled Mike out the window.
"I don't know," Mrs. Couch yelled back. Crank, crank, crank, went the car.
Fleecia looked at Mike. Panic flickered on her face instantly she made a decision. "We'll walk. Come on let's go," she said.
She turned around and snapped her fingers at the kid. He was about five years old. He looked like a hell raiser. He stopped kicking the legs of the lawn chair. He looked at Fleecia.
"All right baby we're going now," she said.
The kid made a face like he was wondering how he could screw things up.
"Anybody misbehaves and they die," she said flatly. He jumped up and ran over to Fleecia and held her hand.
"Shit," mumbled Buddy. He checked his watch. "Listen there's room in my car. You won't make it in time if you walk." He looked at Mike. "Go get your mother. Tell her I'll drive you."
"I'll stay here no point in me taking up space," I suggested.
"All right, all right," said Buddy. He was already on his cell phone calling Mom. He was already walking out the door.
As soon as they loaded up and drove away I crawled under the house and dragged out the sheet rock mud bucket. It smelled like strong bug spray under the house. The knees of my pants and the elbows of my shirt were reddish from the powdery red dirt in the crawl space. My pants smelled like bug spray. I walked uphill toward town with the bucket dangling in my hand. I tried to act casual about it. I went to the bagel shop and called Mom's house from the pay phone June answered.
"Polly's gone to the courthouse to be with Buddy," she said.
"I'm at Extraordinary Bagel with the LP's," I said.
"Yay Mathew!" said June. "Meet at my house. I'll leave right now." I felt great.
June's place is a block over from the far side of campus. It's an old house cut up into apartments. She lives upstairs. It's not very far from the bagel place. She got there with her bike right after I arrived on foot with the bucket.
"Should we roll one?" said June after we were upstairs. She was prying open the mud bucket.
I sat down at June's kitchen table. Her neighborhood is the former nice section of town. Her apartment has beat up good-looking old floors and high plaster walls. June broke a pretty decent little piece of LP bud off and held it up.
"Not me," I said. I was still buzzing from fear and coffee and the brownie earlier. I don't smoke that much anyway because it's too exhausting for me.
June stuffed part of the bud in a little pipe she keeps in her silverware drawer and lit it and took a couple of hits. The burning LP smell was pretty great.
"OK just one hit," I said. She handed me the pipe. I took one deep drag and one smaller drag and handed it back right away. I got sandwich bags from June's kitchen cabinet and set up Buddy's LP delivery. We don't go by weight. We just stuff a good amount in a sandwich bag and sell it for fifty dollars.
The phone rang. I picked it up and said hello.
"Mathew I'm at the courthouse with these people," said Mom. "They're having the ceremony. I want you to meet us on Spring Street in twenty minutes."
"Where's Buddy?" I said. The inside of my head was popping open like an umbrella from the pot.
"Buddy is participating in the ceremony. He can't come to the phone. They asked him to be best man," said Mom. "You be there in twenty minutes."
"OK Mom," I said. She hung up.
June finished off the pipe. She got a glass out of her cupboard and filled it with water. She gave it to me and I took a big sip.
Her kitchen is a corner room with two tall windows. The branches of a big old tree outside break up the light that streams in. The light hit the glass of water and flashed around inside it.
"That was Mom," I said. "She wants me to be on Spring Street in twenty minutes."
June grinned at me. Her teeth are all over the place. After we pay off her school loan she wants to get braces.
"I'll go with you," she said.
"Great," I said.
I drank some more water and gave the glass back to June. There's a porch on the front of her house downstairs. I grabbed Buddy's LP bag and stuck it in my shirt and we drifted downstairs. We sat on the porch and drank water and spaced out.
It was definitely a pretty day. There were no leaves on any trees. It really was warming up. There was a little humidity in the air. It was relaxing on the porch.
I started thinking it would be nice to blow off Spring Street... and just take the consequences... I was going to suggest that, but June was already grabbing her bike and adjusting it and wheeling it off the porch saying "Come on".... she was bumping the bike across the sidewalk... so I hitched a ride on back, on her luggage rack, and we took off.
I was staring at the back of my flannel shirt that June was wearing and focusing while we rode and holding the luggage rack and trying not to fall off, especially on bumps, but peripherally it was great we cruised across campus and downtown, we coasted past the old paper supply place we shot fast downhill to the old man's house.
We rolled June's bike up the driveway to the back yard. Nobody was there yet. The old man's back yard looked terrific. I did an especially good job back there of lawn maintenance after we harvested the LP's. We sat on the steps in back and spaced out.
Soon unfortunately we heard car doors slamming. Mom and the kid and the old lady were climbing out of her car. Mom's back seat was full of travel stuff. Fleecia and Mike the bridegroom were riding with Buddy. Everybody looked happy except possibly Mom.
"I'm glad we have company for our party," Fleecia said. "We just got to town and we don't have many friends yet."
"Oh I'm glad too," said Buddy graciously. You could see he enjoyed being best man.
I introduced June to Mike and Fleecia and the old lady and the kid.
"Is this your girlfriend?" Fleecia asked me. She had a big smile on her face.
"Uh-huh," I said.
"That's nice," said Fleecia. "People should be together. Before Mike and me met, my life was like Hansel and Gretel. Except I was only Gretel."
"Let's call a mechanic and see about their car," Mom said to Buddy right away. There was something in her voice only I heard it probably. When my dad left, when I was a kid, that was a huge event for Mom and me. She glanced over her shoulder and saw I was watching her. She looked away.
Fleecia was working her way up the front walk. Mom followed her. Everybody else was following Mom.
"We'll take care of the car repair as a wedding present for you guys OK?" said Mom. Fleecia made it into the living room and sat down in a lawn chair. "Is there somewhere we can drop you off now?" said Mom.
"This is my home," said Fleecia.
"No I own this place," said Mom. They stared at each other.
"This... is my home," said Fleecia.
June was walking aimlessly around the living room. She sat in a lawn chair. The kid walked over to June and stuck out his index finger. He poked June experimentally on her arm.
Buddy stared across the room at me. He threw two fingers up to his mouth in a v shape and made a hopeful smoking motion. I patted my shirt and gave him a thumbs up sign.
"All right I'll tell you I'll call the sheriff's office," said Mom. She got out her cell phone.
"What would you think," said Mike the bridegroom, "if we live here and trade rent for work on the house? I can do plumbing and roofing and rough carpentry."
"I don't want to make things more complicated than they already are," said Mom.
"This is my HOME," said Fleecia. Mom punched zero on her cell phone.
"Put me through to the sheriff's office," she said.
"OHHHH," said Fleecia.
Mom started explaining the situation to somebody at the sheriff's office.
"Can't you go back where you lived before?" said Buddy to Fleecia.
"They was living with me," said Mrs. Couch sturdily.
"She's... moving.... to Florida," sobbed Fleecia.
"That's right," said Mrs. Couch. "Mostly the stuff on the trailer belongs to me."
"Mm," said Buddy. He looked around the living room.
"All right all right good," said Mom. She got off the phone. "OK listen," she said. "They're sending a sheriff's deputy. It's a woman I've worked with before and she'll help you into temporary housing. Her name's Marie and she's really nice. Mike, the county has a jobs database. I'm sure you can find work here. They're building houses out by the interstate. I'm sure you guys will be fine."
"We're going to be... Hansel and Gretel again," sobbed Fleecia. Mike squatted by her lawn chair. She put her head on his shoulder.
June and the kid were making faces at each other and poking each other on the arm. The old lady dragged a lawn chair beside June and sat down heavily.
"It's gonna be all right," said Mike to Fleecia. He patted her from his squatting position by her lawn chair.
"Marie's going to work with you," said Mom. "I'll be away a few days, but when I get back I'll work with you too."
Mom can still be a pretty formidable do-gooder when she feels like it. She took out a piece of paper and wrote something down. "Here's my cell phone number. You call me if you have any serious problems. How much cash do you guys have?"
"We're fine," said Mike.
"They don't have nuthin," said Mrs. Couch. "They're livin on me." Mom wrote a check and gave it to Mrs. Couch. "Here's a hundred dollars. There's an excellent shelter over in Midden County Marie will help with that."
"We've been to that shelter before," wept Fleecia.
"I was thinking," said June from her lawn chair. "You guys can stay with me for a few days. You can sleep on the floor. They're looking for a dishwasher at the Fast Bar Mike you can apply for that." June is a massage therapist, but she waitresses sometimes at the Fast Bar downtown to supplement her income.
"I'm a GOOD dishwasher," said Fleecia.
"Fleecia," said Buddy. "If I were you, I'd try and apply for a loan and get in school. Do you have a GED?"
"Yes I do," said Fleecia.
Buddy is a teacher and he always thinks people should get in school. He looked at Mom. "She could apply here at the college couldn't she Polly," he said.
"For Christ's sake," said Mom.
"Do you know the multiplication tables?" Buddy asked Fleecia.
"Yes I do," she said.
"What's 7 times 8?" he asked her.
"56," she said right away.
"See?" Buddy told Mom. He turned back to Fleecia. "If you can do multiplication tables, you can do college," he assured her.
"Get your stuff," said June. "We can walk to my place."
"I'll help you," I said. Mom shot me a look.
"They can't pack into June's apartment with that child," said Buddy. He grabbed Mom's hand. "They could stay with us Polly. We've got plenty of room."
"We. Are on our way. Out of town," said Mom to Buddy.
"June and I can housesit while you're gone," I said. "We'll take care of them."
"Why not?" said Buddy. "For Christ's sake why not Polly?"
Mom looked at Buddy then me then Fleecia. She looked at her cell phone. She burst into tears.
"Fuck it we'll put off New York," said Buddy. He threw his arm around Mom's shoulder and squeezed her. "We'll get this straightened out."
Marie the sheriff's deputy pulled up outside. Mom yanked away from Buddy and popped out of the house tears streaming down her face and hustled down the front porch steps.
"Come on Mathew," Buddy said to me. He had a serious concerned look on his face. "Let's go outside and make sure your mother's OK."
"I got to be thinking about getting on the road," warned Mrs. Couch.
"Hang on we'll be right back," said Buddy.
We went outside. "Got the stuff?" said Buddy as soon as we were out the front door. We were standing on the front porch. Marie the deputy noticed us and waved. She's short and muscular and wears glasses. We waved back, then she went on talking to Mom.
I slipped the bag of LP's out of my shirt and handed it over to Buddy. He turned away from Marie the deputy's car and slipped the bag in his pants pocket. Marie the deputy was getting out of her car.
She and Mom were walking up the steps. Mom's eyes were bleary from crying.
"OK," said Mom to Buddy. "Let them stay til we come back from New York. Marie says she'll make sure they don't burn the place down."
"June and I can help Marie," I said. "You guys get on the road. Enjoy yourselves. Call us tonight."
Buddy kissed Mom on the cheek. "You're a sweet sweet girl," he told her. She started crying all over again.
We have a picture from that morning. Mom's face looks swollen because she's been crying. In a way it's almost flattering. Buddy took his camera out of Mom's car and set it in the yard for a group picture. He's got the little lever on the camera that you twist then you run around fast and get in the picture.
"Let's go let's go," said Buddy to Mom after he took the picture.
They left straight from Spring Street. It worked out well. While there was still light they got over the mountains and most of the way up the Shenandoah Valley. After that it was just Maryland, and Pennsylvania, then into New York. Into Manhattan. They had a great time on that trip.
"Have you got your driver's license?" Buddy asked me before they left. He yanked his thumb towards his Japanese SUV.
"Not really," I said.
"Well... run the car home for me anyway OK?" he said. "Be careful. Don't lose the keys."
"OK," I said. "Have fun."
Buddy and I shook hands. Mom was looking at us. I kissed her and gave her a hug. She started crying again. Then they left.
Everybody is smiling in the picture Buddy took. He made several copies. We sent one to Mrs. Couch in Florida. The light hits the porch of the house on Spring Street in a certain way that makes us all look happy according to the expressions on our faces, everything will work out OK, eventually. Anyway that's the impression you get from the images of our faces. It's the kind of picture that people smile over and study closely. Everyone that's seen it so far has said hey that's a great picture.
Harvey Sutlive's stories have appeared in Offcourse in Issue #18, Issue #17 and Issue #16. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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