And It Was His
by Michael Onofrey
When he moved into a resale singlewide at the end of October there was a softness to the desert that he hadn’t expected. The air was fresh as opposed to baked, and when he sat on his patio at night he felt a change of season that was also unexpected. The patio was a diminutive slab of concrete with a wooden table and two wooden benches, and in its simplicity it was everything he needed or desired. There had been a canvas awning, but that had gotten shredded in a fierce wind during the previous owner’s occupancy, so he removed the shreds and disassembled the piping and was left with an unobscured view of the sky. Since the patio was up against the east side of his singlewide there was shade in the late afternoon that fell on the patio. He was often out there, looking at elongated shadows and orange sunsets and pastel dusks, and at night he looked at stars and the moon. He heard crows cawing and doves cooing during the day, and before long he discovered a roadrunner that cooed as well, but the roadrunner’s cadence was different than a dove’s. There was an owl that he sometimes heard at night, a soft sound, and there were coyotes that walked the fence line on the desert side, chain-link fence, two or three coyotes midst twilight. A mug of tea with milk and sugar stirred in, a cushion for the hard seat of the bench, a notepad, a pencil, a pair of binoculars. Inside his trailer there were Audubon field guides.
He likes to see the refrigerator empty because it makes him feel that a trip to the supermarket is justified. With his wife it hadn’t been this way. He had loved her dearly, but there had been differences, one of which was shopping, for shopping had become incessant, and of this he had resisted, particularly after it blossomed into what was supposed to be fun or enjoyable or entertaining—compulsive entertainment. But there was no stopping it, for their peer group, which seemed to include all of Southern California, was engulfed in this activity. As age set in, though, he gave up the resistance and the arguments ceased.
It wasn’t so much his wife’s death, a fast moving cancer, a five-month ordeal, that occurred just after she retired from the phone company, pension and Medicare and Social Security benefits kicking in, as it was a friend’s death that set him adrift.
He learned about his friend’s death two years after his wife’s death, and more than anything it was the manner in which he learned of his friend’s passing that took him out of circulation, for he was still working, and there were his friends that he’d see now and then, and of course there was Los Angeles with its everlasting movement. He was involved, he was part of the theatre, he was in circulation. He believed in the significance of suburbia, and he believed in its requirements.
A Christmas Eve party at a friend’s house, living room, dining room, kitchen, all with people, three generations represented, and he was talking to an old friend who mentioned that he had come across a mutual friend of theirs who had moved to Utah years and years ago, came across that friend’s name and so forth on the Internet, which was where he learned of that friend’s death, a death that had taken place three and a half years before. And so he tells this to Jim, and Jim is absorbing this as if unreality and reality were getting confused, for Jim and that Internet-dead friend had been buddies in high school and then in those crazy years after high school when everything was friendship. The friend who gave Jim this news so matter-of-factly turned to talk to someone else, which left Jim searching for anchorage. He got his jacket from a bed in a bedroom and headed for the front door. Outside there were stars in the sky, and while walking to his pickup truck he gulped cool air.
“I take care of the laundromat here,” she tells him in response to his glancing at her, for she’s clearing lint out of the lint catches one washer after the next. There are a half dozen washers and two large dryers.
He hasn’t gotten around to buying a washer or a dryer yet, and he’s not sure if he ever will. He’s been handwashing his clothes and hanging them out to dry on a length of rope that he strings between his singlewide and the chain-link fence that’s in back of his mobile home. After the laundry dries he takes it down, and he takes the rope down, a simple operation, just as washing clothes in a plastic basin that he sets on his patio table is simple. A facet next to the patio sports a short length of hose, cold-water detergent in use. There’s not much to wash—underwear, socks, and T-shirts mostly. But now that he wants to wash some sheets, he’s walked through the huge grounds of the mobile home park to get to the laundromat that’s near the community room. People with canes and walkers and mobility scooters, as well as people without those aids, gather in the community room for what might be termed social activity, which, as Jim has already discovered, amounts to gossiping and random snatches of recollections. But of the laundromat, though, this is Jim’s first visit. The woman is middle-aged, perhaps forty years old, and it’s only Jim and her that are in the laundromat.
“It’s part-time work,” she says. “I take care of the community room too, keep it neat and tidy, service the coffee urns. Faye does the coffee urns in the morning, gets them going. I come in around noon and do a refill.”
Funny how people want to explain themselves. Her hair is black and it’s cropped short, a bowl-like look. Her arms and hands are sinewy, which carries over into the build of her body. She’s slim. There’s a chipped upper tooth on the right side of her smile.
Regarding Faye, Faye is part of a husband-and-wife team that manage the mobile home park. Dave, Faye’s husband, is the other half of that team. They’re middle-aged, which might be viewed as a disparity of sorts because most of the residents in the mobile home park are older, as in retired. But then again, a dotty couple might be ill-equipped to run an operation like Saturday Meadows, a sprawling community of mobile homes of varying sizes. It was Faye who mentioned “mostly retired people here” when Jim showed up at the managers’ office in search of an “already spotted resale,” which meant a mobile home that had been lived in and was sitting in a rental space, hookups and so forth in place. Faye had added, “You see, we cater to senior citizens, but anyone can live here. It’s a quiet place. I think you’d like it. At the moment there are eight ‘resales’ up for sale. A local realtor, Billy Gomez, handles the sales, but I have the keys and can show them to you, if you like.”
“Can I use this washer?”
“Yes. I’ve already cleaned the lint out of that one.”
He starts loading the washer.
“You seem familiar,” she says, “but I can’t recall meeting you.”
He puts detergent in the washer.
“Are you new here?”
“Yes. Moved in about two weeks ago. I think you might have seen me at that AA meeting last week, in the basement of that church over on Boulder Highway.”
“That’s right. The open meeting. That’s where it was.”
He puts quarters in the machine.
“You probably said your name when you stood up like the new people do, and like I did, even though I’m not that new. Been to quite a few meetings, open meetings. I’m not in the program, though. Anyway, I’m Leslie. What’s your name?”
She’s standing with a hand on her hip, denim on her legs. On the floor next to her sport shoes there’s a plastic bucket with damp lint in it.
“You see, this here pays the rent for my trailer space. That leaves me with a lot of free time so I can draw and paint. There are two decorators that buy my work, but I’m trying to break into bigger things.”
“So you’re an artist.”
“That’s right,” Leslie says. “But I wasn’t always this way.”
Jim’s washer has started and he’s standing next to it. Four silver studs, lining Leslie’s one ear, are winking thanks to sunshine that’s pouring in from the windows and the open door at the front of the laundromat. It’s ten-thirty in the morning.
“I want to tell you, there’s all kinds in this community here,” Leslie relates. “One man keeps a major arsenal in his doublewide, and he tells everybody he meets about it.”
“I know. He introduced himself to me in the community room.”
“Did he try to get you to join his fucked up organization?”
The candor of this stalls Jim briefly. “Yeah, that was the gist of it.”
“By the way, where are you from, Jim?”
“That’s too bad.”
“Because I’m here, now.”
Leslie laughs, a full expression, chipped upper tooth flagrant.
“I hail from Knoxville, Knoxville Tennessee.” A maroon T-shirt covers the upper half of Leslie’s body, and there now seems to be a sense of gusto beneath that garment, shoulders slightly thrown back.
“I thought I heard something in your voice.”
“Yes, I brought a little something with me from Knoxville.”
Jim raises a hand to adjust his bifocals that have a tendency to slip on his bony nose.
“Singlewide,” Jim answers.
Leslie pauses in her demeanor, and what might pass for pensive invades her face, but only briefly.
“Not to be too forward, but . . . Does that mean you’re single, Jim?”
“Yes. Widowed actually.”
“I see. I’m kind of like that myself, but in my case it’s divorced.”
Jim kind of smiles. Things have taken on a strange tilt, for it seems that Leslie is coming on to him, which strikes Jim as incongruous. What could she possibly see in Jim? Jim’s got to be twenty-plus years her senior. But there’s no reason to fight this, unless there’s something mentally wrong with Leslie, in which case he’s got to steer clear. She’s not bad looking, but of course that doesn’t mean “young and good looking.” It means middle-aged and okay.
“I haven’t seen you around. What section of the park are you in?” Leslie asks.
“The eight-hundreds? That’s that new section, the add-on, but of course it’s not so new anymore. They wanted to expand, you know, increase tenancy, but then the economy went blah. A lot of vacancies out there, right?”
“A lot of coyotes too.”
Leslie looks at her wristwatch, and then she says, “Coffee-break time. Hey, how ‘bout if I skip on over to the community room and get us a couple of cups of coffee and bring ‘em back here, and we can talk?”
“What do you take in your coffee?”
“Milk and sugar.”
“This is just a temporary situation until I find a husband.”
Jim absorbs this like he’s absorbed so much else, a half-smile on his long face that hints at amusement or interest, or maybe indifference.
“I didn’t know you were looking for a husband.”
“Well, I’m not. At least not exactly. I just kind of said that to bring things into perspective.”
“I see. Well, ah, what kind of perspective is that? I mean, we’ve gone over a number of perspectives, haven’t we?”
Leslie giggles, and this is one of the surprising things Jim has discovered about her. In spite of her age, she can still giggle. Jim has lost that, and he misses it. He’d like to resurrect it, but it’s gone. He’s tried giggling, but he can’t do it.
“Temporary, transit, for the-time-being,” Leslie says. “That sort of perspective.”
They’re sitting at the breakfast nook in Jim’s singlewide, four in the afternoon, craggy hills to the east beginning to color, a pastel orange. The breakfast-nook window allows for this view. In foreground there is a chain-link fence, and beyond the fence there’s a creosote-punctuated desert and then the hills. They sip their coffees. A modest wind is making a soft howling sound as it threads the chain-link fence.
“Does that mean you’re going to leave me and break my heart?” Jim asks.
Leslie has stopped giggling, and she’s sipped her coffee and she’s swallowed.
“Don’t be glib.”
Leslie’s on one side of the breakfast-nook table and Jim’s on the other. They are naked. Not uncommon. And to think that this started at the laundromat. Leslie wanted to try a “portrait,” “a drawing,” “a sketch,” if Jim wouldn’t mind. She’d be off work after she finished with the community room, about one-thirty. “My trailer’s a mess,” she had said. “How about if we do it in yours?” “Okay.” “I got to stop by my place and get my materials. So let’s say around two o’clock at your place.”
Furniture in Jim’s trailer was sparse then, on the laundromat day, and it still is. But there was a couch and a floor lamp and an armchair in the living room, all of which faced a heater with a thick-glass window that displayed a cozy row of blue flames when the heater was in operation. There were also two folding chairs, one at a desk, the other leaning against a wall. On that late October afternoon the heater wasn’t on because gorgeous weather prevailed, windows open, mini-blinds bunched up at the top, dry air languid. Leslie’s first remark was: “No TV?” Then came Leslie’s second remark: “You hardly have neighbors here.” “Yes, and that’s why I chose this one. There were eight up for sale. Also, there’s the desert right in back that caught my eye. It was an instant sale.” “I bet Faye liked that.” “Yeah, and so did the realtor, Billy Gomez, and so did the guy’s daughter who inherited the trailer, you know, in the wake of her father’s death, Linda Franks. She wanted to be rid of it. Monthly rent for the space and all.” “Of course.” “It was cheap.”
In addition to two coffee mugs a package of Lorna Doone cookies is on the breakfast-nook table. November has deepened, and the heater in the living room is on, and this serves to heat the kitchen/breakfast-nook area as well. An iPad, part of Leslie’s materials and devices, is on the table, too. The iPad is a recent purchase. Before the iPad there was a smartphone, but of course the smartphone is still around. Actually, it’s always around. A selfie stick showed up fairly early. That’s still around as well. The iPad exhibits photos so vividly and colorfully that they seem to jump out of its flat surface, lifelike. Leslie claims to use these photographs for the purposes of drawing and watercolors that she works up in her “studio,” a converted bedroom in her singlewide, a trailer that seems to be similar to Jim’s, bedroom at either end of the trailer. Jim’s seen some of the drawings because Leslie’s done some in his presence, the first of which was a “portrait.” The “portrait” was also termed a “sketch.”
“I can’t get over the iPad’s clarity,” Leslie says. They’ve been looking at pictures, and indeed clarity is prominent. “Maybe it’s because of the size of the screen,” Leslie reasons.
The portrait-slash-sketch on that late October afternoon became more than just facial when Leslie said, “You know, it’s difficult to find male models. The kind of guy who wants to take off his clothes to model is the kind of guy who drinks and/or uses drugs. You see what I mean?”
“I don’t want to get involved with that.”
“Yes, I see what you mean there.”
“Well, would you mind taking off your clothes, so I could do a nude of you? You know, do a sketch the same as this portrait.”
So Jim took his clothes off and sat back down on the couch, just as he had sat on the couch for the facial portrait. Fresh cups of coffee were in order, though, so that came first, then Jim’s disrobing, an unspectacular activity, seeing that it was for art’s sake, or so proclaimed. Leslie, as with the portrait, was perched on a folding chair, new sheet of paper in her sketchbook, graphite pencil poised. It was quiet. Jim could hear the point of the pencil on the paper when the sketching began. Leslie had an eye. Jim could tell. For it was different than being looked at by women when he was young, and different from the way his wife had looked at his nudity. Scientific was what Leslie’s hazel eyes connoted as they went back and forth between Jim’s body and the sketchpad. But then, after Jim sipped his coffee, Leslie stood up and came over with her sketchpad in hand, coffee cup left on the floor next to her chair, to arrange Jim’s forearm on the arm of the couch because she wanted it back the way it was before. “I should have brought masking tape to mark positioning,” she said. All so scientific, and yet, as she bent forward there was this closeness, part of which was the scent of Lifebuoy clinging to her vicinity, and of course there were her fingers on Jim’s forearm, raised veins along that appendage that her fingers seemed to dawdle on, and this was what she left Jim with as she returned to her chair to resume drawing.
“Some things can’t be so easily controlled, can they?” Leslie remarked, for Jim had gotten aroused. He kind of smiled, and he was kind of surprised, and what surprised him most was how he sat there with Leslie’s eyes going back and forth and with his erection not diminishing. And yet there was no passion, no drive, no urgency, and this carried over into what came next. “Do you have any condoms?” Leslie asked nonchalantly. “No, I don’t.” “Well maybe we should go to the sundries shop in the hotel/casino over on the highway.” “Okay.” “We’ll go in your pickup truck, but I won’t go in with you. I’ll sit in the cab and wait. You see, I used to work in the coffee shop there and I don’t want them to see me.” So Jim got dressed and they drove over to the hotel/casino, where Jim went into the sundries shop real casual-like to purchase a box of condoms, and then they drove back, and after that they started all over again—fresh coffee, Jim disrobing, Leslie sketching, economy-size box of condoms on the end table next to couch. But nothing happened aside from Leslie’s sketching and Jim’s modeling. So then Leslie, evidently having finished with sketching, said, “Watch this.” She stood up and took off her clothes slowly. The snapshots with the smartphone started soon after that. A selfie stick showed up three days later. Under Leslie’s tutelage they struck poses that in effect had them modeling and performing for technology. As an addendum, this served not only to extend the breadth of their activities, but to prolong those activities as well.
“Is this all in the interest of drawing and painting?”
“I think there might be other things involved.”
“I think you’re right.”
It was always Leslie visiting Jim, way out in the eight-hundreds, vacant trailer spaces on either side of Jim’s singlewide, nearest neighbor four spaces over. Jim never visited Leslie, never went to her trailer. It was always Leslie at Jim’s.
“We have this urge to confess, or explain, and I think this is an attempt to give meaning to our lives.”
Jim had thought he’d be the one to say something like this, but it was Leslie.
And then came another gem: “I learned the craft of quitting early on.”
“You know, I think I did too,” Jim said.
“I left Knoxville on the back of a Harley. The man I was sitting behind on that machine became my husband. Methamphetamine—my hubby and his buddies called it ‘crank.’ We settled in Mesquite, a couple of hours from Vegas here. I had actually gone to college, two years’ worth in Tennessee. Imagine, climbing onto that Harley and heading out of town, and all because of boredom.”
Leslie possessed far more insight than Jim had figured.
And then she said, “It was the monotony of suburbia that produced the boredom.”
There was Christmas and then there was New Years, and then she stopped coming over.
Jim looked for her in the laundromat and in the community room. He then searched the grounds of the mobile home park. Finally, he asked Faye.
“Leslie? She left.”
“Left? Where’d she go?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes people leave a forwarding, and sometimes they don’t.”
“Well . . . what about her mobile home?”
“Hers was a rental. So now it’s a rental again. Actually, a person can rent it or buy it, either/or. That kind of deal.”
Stolen memories is what Jim thinks, memories he stole from Leslie and memories she stole from him. But maybe “stolen” isn’t correct. Maybe “created” is correct.
Perhaps those memories have made their way onto the Internet. Perhaps not. He’s not inclined to check, and even if he were, what would he put in the search engine?
Of course there are memories that were never photographed. And there are memories from before, for Jim’s past registers as memories—a Christmas Eve party, a marriage, a friend.
He investigates an indifferent world, whose mystery never leaves him alone.
It is March and winter is abating, daytime temperatures pleasant. He has sold his pickup truck, and is now living without a motor vehicle. When he goes to the supermarket he trails a red wagon. It’s one of those wagons that children put to use as a toy. Jim, though, uses it to cart food. The bus system is adequate, and so provides him with transport to and from a medical center. In addition to bird watching, Jim has taken up drawing and watercolors.
He has also rescued a cat that was very much a kitten when he found it floundering on pebbled ground near his singlewide at the end of January. Wind blowing, temperature in the thirties, he picked it up and it was his.