Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz >

The Men in My Life

 

I am yanked from sleep and lie in that alert paralysis and fearful anticipation which follows sudden awakening.

The forecast, on the last television news broadcast, called for clear skies so I know it's not an unruly storm rocking my old trailer on its foundation. The pounding at the door echoes my heart thumping against my chest, and I reach over to the nightstand and ease open the top drawer, take out my ex-husband's pistol. I glance at the digital clock before I slip out of bed, creep up the hall to the living room and peek out the curtain. There is someone on the deck outside, but I can't see who it is.

The pounding continues.

I cock the gun, press myself against the door and in a harsh tone, ask, "Who's out there?" There's silence—the pounding ending as quickly as it began—and then a voice comes from the other side. "It's just me, Mom. It's Justin."

I relax, although I'm wondering what's he's doing here in the middle of the night. I open the door and my nineteen-year old son stands there, grinning at me.

"It's late," I tell him.

"I just wanted to talk," he says. "Bond a little with my mom." He looks dejected. "Can't I come in?"

I open the screen and glance about the yard. There's no vehicle except my truck. "You walk?"

"Some friends dropped me off," he responds, stepping in and flopping on the couch.

I glance up the road leading to my house and see no taillights. He's been out there awhile, I realize, and that bothers me. I close the door and lock it.

"Please, do," Justin tells me, pointing toward the gun in my hand. "Put me out of my misery."

I can tell he's high on something, besides being drunk. Again, I mention the hour.

He pouts. "Don't you even want to talk to your own son?"

At eleven-thirty at night when I'm trying to sleep, no, I don't, but I don't tell him this. I sigh. "Justin, why don't you come over in the daytime?"

"Is it my fault," he asks, "that Christina chooses to be such a bitch at this hour?"

I sigh again. I haven't the patience to hear him bemoan that on-again, off-again obsession he calls a relationship. Like my daddy would say, "Try'n fix it, but if it's broke most of the time, you might as well throw the damn thing away." I've told him as much, but he hasn't heeded my advice.

I take the gun back to my bedroom and then return to the living room where I sit in the chair across from him. "So what are we going to talk about?"

He shrugs. He continues to grin. He is, I note, a handsome boy, and I realize that he is not a drunk like his father: angry and destructive. Not like my father: moody, self-depreciating. He is charming, animated and talkative. He may be splitting inside, but he always tries to appear happy.

"I gotta pee," he says suddenly.

"You know where the bathroom is," I say.

He rises and makes his way down the hall, like a ball in an arcade game, bounding off one wall and then the other.

I take the opportunity to go to the kitchen, to my purse sitting on the table. I find my wallet and remove all but three dollars. Folding the rest of the bills in half, I quickly survey the many possibilities before I open a cabinet and slip my money into a box of stuffing bought last Thanksgiving but never used. I put the box back on the shelf, behind some other boxes, and press the door closed before returning to my seat, where my son finds me when he returns. Like I know he will, my son runs through a number of topics before he gets to what he really wants.

"Do you have about ten bucks I can borrow?"

"I'm broke. Just enough to get me a pack of cigarettes, tomorrow," I say.

I go to my purse and hold my near empty wallet out for his inspection. "This is all I've got," I tell him.

A previous "visit" from Justin once cost me $200 in an unauthorized ATM withdrawal. Pressing charges against my son would have saved my checking account, but would have jeopardized his parole. I opted to close the account and lose check writing privileges until I pay off the checks that bounced and all the associated fees.

When I was married, his father, Wayne Roy, had no qualms about picking up my paycheck without permission, forging my signature and drinking away the last two weeks of my working life before the bills were paid and the children fed.

I know I will never see the $313 given to me by relatives over the years as Christmas and birthday presents that my father borrowed with the promise to "pay his angel back, with interest."

I've learned to lie with no suspect and no remorse from the men in my life.

"I just need ten bucks," he whines. "I'll pay you back when I get paid next week."

His parole officer called me last week, looking for Justin because he'd cancelled an appointment and never rescheduled another. When I suggest the PO call Dave's Burgers, he told me he had.

"Justin's no longer employed there," he'd said, although he didn't mention why.

I didn't know what to say in response to his PO because Justin had promised me he'd see this job through till the end of his parole.

Right now, I don't want to embarrass my son or catch him in his lie, so I just say again, "I'm broke, Justin. This is all I've got."

 

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Justin decides he doesn't want to talk. He wants to read. As he scours through the few books I own, I announce I'm going to sleep.

"Hey, can I borrow your truck? I can go get you your cigarettes."

My back is to him and I smile, delighted I can tell the truth. "Something's the matter with the alternator or the battery. It's not running right now. Pete said he'd bring his charger tomorrow."

Pete's my neighbor, five or so lots away.

"Oh," he sounds disappointed.

I reach the doorway to my bedroom. "Goodnight, Justin," I say before I crawl back into bed and into sleep.

 

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I am pulled again from sleep within the hour. Outside, my son's voice resounds across the remote desert.

The living room door is open and the porch light on. I look out and there are Justin and Pete, leaning into the truck with a flashlight. They've pushed the truck closer to the trailer, the battery charger sits on the railing of the porch deck, a thick orange extension cord running from it into the living room through the partially open screen to an outlet in the wall.

Seeing me, Justin yells, "We're working on it!"

Irritated, I walk out and join them. Catching Pete's eye, I whisper, "I'm sorry."

"I was up," Pete says, although I'm sure he's lying. "Anyway, it'll save me a trip in the morning." He smiles, like he understands whatever is going on. "We're just charging it; it won't be ready till morning."

I glare at my son.

Justin's grin wilts. "I thought you wanted the truck running."

I am about to let him have it - how many people does he plan to wake up and pull into his latest drama? - but then I calm myself. "I'm going back to bed," I say as I head back inside.

 

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I am still awake when Pete leaves and Justin comes in. I try to ignore his noise, but I will not sleep if this continues.

I must, at every opportunity, place limits on how I'm treated by others. That's the advice of my support group at Al-Anon. I don't have to yell or plead or even provide explanation. I just need to clearly state what I need and learn to accept what others can or cannot, will or will not give in response to those needs.

I take deep breaths, recall the prayer we use, ask God's assistance in my search for serenity as I get out of bed and walk up the hall.

In the meeting room, it all sounds doable, but standing before my son, I feel my resolve quiver. Still, I hear myself say, "It's time to go to bed." I just want him to sleep this off.

"I'm not sleepy," he says. Justin is sitting on the couch, flipping through a book.

"Well, I am," I force my self to say. "So either lie down on the couch and go to sleep or leave." Justin looks at me. Are his eyes glassy from drink or do they glisten with tears? I can't help but think that he might have been different had I spent his childhood raising him rather than trying to raise his father. I open my mouth, but before I say anything, my son closes the book, sets it on the coffee table, makes his decision.

 

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I have watched the digits on the clock radio change for almost an hour.

He didn't want to sleep here, I tell myself. That was his choice. He's responsible for whatever happens. That's what my Al-anon sponsor would say and I would agree. Still, that doesn't stop me from pulling myself out of bed, dressing, retrieving the gun and heading up the hall.

There are coyotes. Rattlers. Bobcats, not likely, but possible.

I turn on the outside light and check the battery charger. The LED gauge has a window with a color bar, a diagonal line separating the green from the red. The battery has been charged just above 50%. I should wait, I should, but the needle sits in the green—even if it's just an nth of the way—and I take this as a sign to go. I grab the flashlight lying by the charger and head down the steps. I prop the hood of the truck up all the way and lean into it, aim the flashlight beam at the battery, checking that drunk or sleepy eyes have placed the clamps on the correct posts.

Straightening up, I look across the vast land. He could be anywhere.

Still I get into the cab, toss the flashlight on the seat and place the gun on the dash. I put the key into the ignition, but check to make sure the light switch is pushed in, the radio turned off, before I twist it. I don't even have to utter a prayer as the alternator turns over on the first try, like it knows, somehow, that it must.