People said old Phineas had it coming what with a son at home and his wife sick like that, and later the way it went down with that other kid he should have just let win and chalked up to time passing. What else people said, it being Texas, was God is watching.
I wasn’t watching; I was three. Phin’s story is town lore. The old-timers put the beginning at grandpa Phin’s second wife Maddie’s sarcoidosis.
Sarcoidosis is a systemic disease that can affect any organ. Common symptoms
are vague, such as fatigue unchanged by sleep, lack of energy, weight loss,
aches and pains, arthritis, dry eyes, swelling of the knees, blurry vision,
shortness of breath, a dry hacking cough or skin lesions. The cutaneous
symptoms range from rashes and nodules to erythema nodosum or lupus pernio.
From a medical textbook I keep in the garage just in case. More than sarcoid, Maddie had migraines too, and high blood pressure, and chronically sore feet. My own ailments are not as renowned but just as baffling: for starters, three years with a stiff neck I can’t turn more than a quarter to the left and ibuprofen, which helps about as much as leeches would, is the only fix I can get general agreement on. Turns highway merges into a monster truck rally and the painkiller kills the liver too, something I don’t exactly require assistance with.
In Maddie’s case it took the doctors all of two years to diagnose the thing and by then they calculated she had only one left to live. That might have been a nice piece of information in the beginning, in my opinion; it might have given her a head start on that bucket list. To her credit she did dive in headfirst once the diagnosis was arrived at, even if that bucket turned out to be filled almost exclusively with dance cards of every sun-soaked wannabe cowboy oilman from Mineola to Joaquin. Phin’s infidelity beat her by a few weeks but was not the reason she lit out like a Spindletop gusher; the sickness had Maddie ready to erupt one way or the other. In the end she showed all of them—lived another forty years and made two more husbands, one of them a podiatrist, no less (although no one was exactly sure his license was legit and he wasn’t just some fetishist willing to lie outright), just as miserable as Phin.
What saved Phin from careening off track completely was near the end of Maddie’s roller coaster sick time he stumbled by dumb chance upon a girlfriend who just happened to be twenty years his junior, name of Galaxy. She taught art at his younger son’s high school, that son being my uncle Austin, now dead. In six months Maddie was gone and he’d moved in with the girl, and together they might have quit this whole dusty scene except it turns out there’s a force to it not all that different from gravity. It couldn’t help that Galaxy was no Carmelite nun. This was the Age of Aquarius remember, so forgive and forget. Still, she ran the gamut. Traveling salesmen. Retired bankers. Carnies. One black guy traveling through town from Grambling they say gave her a dose. A man can claim indifference to that sort of thing but the shit adds up. He gets to thinking. Hippy was the popular term at that time, but the older ones had no patience for fads. They called her slut. Or worse, it being Texas. Those that could did her anyway, them being men. Grandpa knew all about it, he just claimed not to care.
“She’s a free spirit, goddammit!” his defense to anyone who would listen. “Sock it to ‘em,” he might add uncertainly, trying to adopt her lingo. “Of course now that’s all done.”
Of course it was not. And no one did listen. Even so, after they met they say his anger, once as permanent a part of him as his polyps, was regularly suppressed into a restrained bow of his head and a forgiving smile. They put one word on it—love—as if that explained anything.
What was Galaxy doing there in the first place? people asked out loud. One fat guy on the street yelled it in her face. It meant no more to her than it did to grandpa. Her students loved her. At first she was fresh relief for Phin from his long days as a driller with a team of unlucky wildcatters. Unlucky is kind. Crusaders, they called themselves, which made the most sense. Energy was their holy grail. How they met was one Friday night Phineas, too weary from work to even wash his hands, defeated again in his life’s toil, his restless wife at home with aches or lesions or maybe erythema nodosum or lupus pernio, whatever the hell that is, goes to the concession stand at uncle Austin’s football game, daydreaming perhaps of derricks or with ineffectual horse heads bobbing in his brain, and gets in line one behind Galaxy, who’s all dolled up in a floral dress with a red ribbon in her hair. Somebody write a song! I’ve seen pictures and she had a way. In no time he’d packed up all he could into an oversize duffel bag and a couple old suitcases, not forgetting the leather satchel and pool cue his father left him when he died and nothing else, and moved into the house Galaxy was renting. A month later he and the team strike oil. Suddenly it’s annus mirabilis. For six months he’s settled down on a regular rig praising God for his good fortune. It’s only when he starts to feel real happy that the shit hits the fan.
Who are we to sit in a judgment of a woman, predators that we are? The day the older boy from uncle’s school first knocked on Galaxy’s door Austin was there studying, believe it or not. Uncle Austin the idiot son, the oops child. But even an accidental idiot could see that riding the bench at left tackle would offer no escape from this dead-end valley town, with its grave sermons and cat calling shopkeepers, or from the fluvial terraces surrounding it and their stratified reminder to residents of the timeless futility of man. The boy, Lopez, was in Galaxy’s class, a year ahead of Austin in school. From the bed of his El Camino he pulled out a rolled up sheet of butcher paper and presented it at the door while Phineas was away at an inquiry.
“Since you weren’t too keen on posin’ I had to go by my imagination.”
The boy had talent, that’s the part that got lost in all that happened after. Even through the scrim of the screen door and half-blocked by Galaxy’s nice backside, Austin could see from the couch the quality in the reclining figure unfurled: a naked woman seated in the grass like a Manet in his father’s new girlfriend’s likeness.
Oh Carl, indeed. Austin filled in the details when it was all over. Remembering he was there, she grinned at him before stepping onto the porch with Lopez and lowering her voice. Austin could pick up only a few phrases of hers—“I don’t know,” “That wouldn’t be right, Carl,” “Of course, it’s lovely,” “No he’s not,” “Carl, I’m you’re teacher,” “Well . . . come back Wednesday then—after two”—and no more of Carl’s bass tone than a cocky progression of monosyllabic assurances.
Phineas played pool on Wednesday afternoons, his usual day off. It’s a pattern he kept up even during his suspension. The inquiry concerned an explosion at the well involving a pumping jack. A man was killed, another badly injured. The well had reached its economic limit when its production rate fails to cover operating expenses. There’s a formula for it:
ELoil = ___________WI x LOE____________
N RI [Po + (Pg x GOR/1,000)] x (1 – T)
Where ELoil is a well’s economic limit in barrels per month, Po and Pg ... Shit, I never understood the damn formula. I should understand it. I ended up stuck in the industry like everyone else of my kin, and then knocked up the woman who would become wife one and couldn’t get unstuck. What I do know is when the limit is reached the well becomes a liability and is usually abandoned, but not always. Often some oil remains and it’s tempting to postpone abandonment hoping the price will go up or some better ways of recovering it will be discovered. That’s what Phin’s crew was doing when the accident occurred. Word was he’d been drinking.
* * *
Even though he was no older then than I am now Phineas invited the nickname “old” by the shuffle in his step, the way bobbing and bent over he resembled one of his rusty derricks during his frequent coughing fits, and his leathery face from outdoor work and years of smoking creased by lines you could tow a truck with. I’m no health nut either. The sore neck I can’t shake will sometimes mushroom into explosive headaches. The first movement in the morning might reveal a stiff shoulder for no reason or an itchy red splotch on some part of my body just out of arm’s reach. Who knows if my more frequent passing of gas is related to diet or deterioration? No doctor does, that’s for sure. My second wife in half sleep will throw a pillow at me on my fifth trip to pee in the night and say, “Hiram James . . . what? Get your ass back in bed!”
One spring not long after I left college our town was overcome by a more relentless than usual creep of gray water, followed, once it had receded, by a predictable contingent of do-gooders—government bureaucrats, aid workers, men of the cloth—plus an offensive residue of thick mud. One fellow with a more direct angle called himself an energy coach and set up shop in a makeshift kiosk at the center of the reconstruction. Our town is in a flood plain. This fellow’s pitch to those who paid cash was that our physical presence in the world was no more than a concrete manifestation of our emotional infirmities. “Born perfect!” he would rhapsodize with a flourish, our bodies fall apart for being “protean vessels” conforming to the traumas we suppress and store away as we age. In the wake of the tragedy he anticipated a wide range of maladies.
And he was right. Folks came to him with inexplicable rashes, hypertension, sudden limps. He would apply his hands, place magnets on their knees, ask for focus and silence so he could adjust their energy with nothing more than his will.
“A genu-ine healer,” old Paddy still recalls at the barbershop.
The man never returned after any of the periodic floods that washed over our town in the quarter century since, taking furniture with them and household items on their retreat, not to mention the occasional animal carcass or human being, and leaving behind knickknacks and organisms in various states of disrepair as if the slate-grey waters had conscious parameters for choosing. His work is nevertheless still mentioned with reverence by many of those who lived through my generation’s big one. The story of his visit is the only one that lives on like Phin’s does in our communal memory.
“Cured the wife’s shakes and never laid a hand on her,” says Gervil, also at the barbershop.
All too late for Phin, a victim of the really big one. After the accident on the rig he developed afflictions of his own, beginning with the intestines. He couldn’t shoot pool for more than fifteen minutes without a trip to the toilet, a source of amusement to the regulars at Ben’s. “I hope I didn’t hear what I just heard,” he would growl when he caught a trail of laughter on his return or the tail end of some unflattering exchange. More than one fight ensued.
The last physical symptom of his decline coincided with his son Austin’s announcement that Galaxy and Lopez had been grinding away every Wednesday afternoon in Phin’s absence.
“I seen them through the window, pa. With nothing on but what nature saw fit to give them.”
Phin sat as motionless listening to his son as he did when he watched an opponent run a table at eight ball. Then suddenly, as if he’d been poked in the gut with the slide of his opponent’s backstroke, his body accordioned in on itself and his left eye began to twitch. “You go home now and stay there,” he said once he’d straightened out. “You done good.” Some variation of that twitch and contortion recurred every few hours up to the following Wednesday, when from a tree, and with the aid of binoculars, he took advantage of sloppily closed drapes to confirm the betrayal first hand.
* * *
Initial indications of a looming crime of passion, perhaps a justified double homicide, were overcome soon by his feelings for Galaxy and the realization that he was unfit and middle-aged and the boy Lopez was a dangerous young stallion. Hints to his son of a complicated plan for bodily injury to both, then one, then the other were replaced by bouts of drinking, an afternoon of private fist-pounding, and a waterslide of self-pity that ended in a pool of resignation, settling finally on a pathetic plan for insufficient restitution: property damage of the most meager kind. As if to make up for the shabbiness of his idea—to smash up the kid’s new car—he threw himself into the details. He’d do it with his son’s old baseball bat, that part was simple. Where would Lopez’s parents be? At work, he learned, after asking around. What about Lopez? At school, of course, if he did it on a weekday. Then why would his car be at home and not with him at school? Because Phin would punch a hole in the tire with an awl the night before while everyone else was asleep. Wouldn’t the neighbors see him bashing up the car? Not if he wore a mask.
Galaxy would be left unharmed despite his son’s urging. “Pa, if you seen him stickin’ it to her doggy style on that old leather chair, you’d be singing a different tune.”
“I seen it!” he cried, slamming the nearest barstool. “Damn it, Austin. You can’t go blaming a freedom-loving woman for behaving like a man.” Say what you want, in many ways Phin was ahead of his time.
Of course his grace did not extend to Lopez. In his mind, as he confessed to Austin, he imagined the boy much older, in his eighties or nineties, arthritic, unable to form full sentences, hobbled and using a cane. Phin had placed him in that position in his thoughts with a form of magic that he conceived of as vaguely Oriental. Awaiting his shot at Ben’s the night after cracking up the boy’s car, his mind likely rested not on the pool game but on this latest conceit, on how the aging process in that boy might be accelerated or mirrored, or if that wasn’t possible just how to outlive him—which, as it turned out, he did, barely.
“You gonna shoot or stare at your balls all night?”
His opponent, whom Phin did not know, was a large gruff man who might have been helpful in a fight. Phin learned otherwise when the man backed into the bar after seeing the way Lopez came in, collar upturned, casing the room, accompanied by three leather-jacketed and buzz-cut allies—friends of Lopez, it was later revealed, each a year or two older than him, who fanned out around the pool tables in front and back of where Phin was seated to prevent his escape, like warriors staking out positions in the siege of a Medieval castle. Phin’s chair was tall, boxy, wooden, the kind made especially for poolrooms, with cues splayed out in a quiver-like pouch attached to the seat pad. He held onto his own cue and considered his options. Lopez’s face as he stepped around the table opposite Phin was screened by the long low-hanging fixture above the table until he bent forward into the light and put his palms on the green baize, grinning.
“You the guy banged up my El Camino?” he not so much asked. Phin didn’t answer straight off. He turned his head slowly to the left and just as slowly to the right, and then carefully rotated his trunk to plot the third boy’s position behind him.
Turning back finally, he said, “If you’re the kid banging my woman, then I’m the one who banged up your car.”
Briefly, in the time it takes for billiard balls to spread apart after being struck on the break, Lopez’s ignorance that the man across from him was anything more than a vandal and a drunk—that he was, in fact, the old guy he had heard Galaxy was shacking up with—was betrayed by an involuntary slump in the boy’s shoulders and a noticeable sag in his outer lips. As he straightened up to gather himself his head disappeared behind the clunky lamp hanging by two chains above the table, leaving in Phin’s sightline only a muscular and headless young torso. Phin seized that moment to strike. Lunging, he shoved the fixture hard in the direction of Lopez’s concealed face. The move was well-timed except he underestimated the speed of a teenager’s reflexes. Lopez was able to turn and duck. The light struck him only at a glance and he recovered instantly after stumbling to the floor. On his command his accomplices counter-attacked.
Ben and some others were eventually able to stop the pounding but by that time they didn’t have to, those boys had done all they came to do, they had no mind for killing. A bloodied lip, a sore side was all, and a smeared red splotch on the green felt next to Phin, curled up fetal-like with his right ear positioned over the side pocket. He could’ve taken a minute or two more of it easy, and the irony is if he’d been forced to he might not have had the leftover to do what he did that followed. During the scrum to pull the boys back, he rolled onto the floor where his daddy’s pool cue had fallen. He still had it in him to kneel, he pressed to his feet, and in one motion he gripped the old stick and swung it hard. The bartender clutching Lopez’s shirt ducked. This time Lopez was too slow, he got clipped in the side of the head. The cue snapped, by God’s will severed an artery in the boy’s neck, and then everywhere was blood. A paramedic pronounced him dead on arrival.
* * *
What happened next depends upon whom you ask. Phin got out of there, the only question is how. It might be the boy’s companions were too concerned with Lopez’s condition to take notice of Phin stealing away. Others insist an all-out brawl took shape and created a distraction. The police came, that much is certain. Arrests were made, a full night of questions endured, a poignant phone call made by the sheriff to Lopez’s inconsolable mother. Phin missed it all. He turned rabbit quick. For two weeks the police investigated, they set up stakeouts and phone taps. Conventional wisdom said you’d never see old Phineas again.
About that time the flood waters came, the biggest of all time. There was warning enough for a week of sandbagging and the town got busy. Speculation about Phin was put on hold. The bags did no good in the end, most folks got washed out. When the river finally went back to bed, the townspeople and police had putting things back in order on their minds, not finding Phin, who many folks figured for being in the right anyway so were not too keen on expending much needed public treasure chasing after. That Mexican nailed Phin’s girl, the chorus went, he deserved what he got. So, between the mud and the morals the missing man was forgotten, which is why it came as such a surprise when he was the only one in town who turned up dead—surrounded by weeds in a gulley with rigor mortis set in. An arbitrary cluster of items found beside him in the muck, most likely washed in from the nearby junkyard, seem to have served as his only pallbearers: a seed spreader, a Batman costume, an old cast iron tub. A soaked love letter was found in his shirt pocket rimmed with hearts. The ink was too runny to reveal his last words except one: Galaxy.
We are all going to die. Maybe not that messily but close enough to it. Say it one hundred times and it starts to sink in. Die! Die! Die! Forty-three hundred inhabitants survive a five-hundred year flood and the only one who drowns is the one they all calculated was long gone. Figure it all out and tell me when you do. It’s a roulette wheel. To me every one of them underestimated what Galaxy made Phineas remember, that life is not all digging and decay. Why else would a grown man near fifty be sleeping under a bridge when all the world can see he’s got but two choices: get the hell out of town or turn yourself in and roll the dice on God, law and Texas? Well, God and Texas were never on his side, but the law is fickle—he had the unwritten code in his corner, not to mention self-defense. The whole thing, when you think about it, reeks of self-defense. The drilling, the drinking, the swinging lamp, the teenage lover, the tales about a visiting shaman—hell, even the foot doctor. And Phin’s love for Galaxy (a better word might be yearning). The sandbags too; and the way everyone in town hangs on to Phin’s story like it’s a cliff or a ledge and they’re the hero, for having survived, at the end of some third-rate action adventure. Just give us our goddamn youth back! Even the headaches and the incontinence must be some kind of self-defense. You name it. It all is.
About Author Corey Mertes: Previous stories of mine have appeared or are forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Hawaii Review, Scissors and Spackle, Write This, and elsewhere.