The Great Possum

July 17, 2017

 

When Shag tapped on Wally Draigle’s trailer-house door one cold December afternoon, Wally turned off the TV and sat very still, hoping his visitor would go away.  It didn’t work.  Shag kept knocking.  Finally, Wally opened the door and even made his guest a cup of instant coffee.  The styrene “to go” cup was a hint.  A stranger to subtlety, Shag not only didn’t take the hint, he proceeded to help himself to a package of wieners, a king-size bag of Cheetos and a quart of store-brand cola.  Then he settled onto the narrow trailer-house sofa and dozed off.  Wally turned the TV back on.

 

Wally, or “Walleye,” as Shag called him, was the perfect friend in need.  Large-boned, sluggish and hunkering, he was timid and easily bullied.  He also received a small government check because of his bad eye, a circumstance Shag found as expedient as the aluminum roof over his head.  He hadn’t meant to linger in east Texas, but he was broke.  It was Walleye’s dull companionship or a bed of pine needles in the forest.

 

“I don’t have enough for rent,” Wally mumbled two weeks later, fingering a stack of much-fingered dollar bills.  It was January 6th, early evening, and 30 degrees outside.  “Don’t have half.”  

 

“You what?” Shag snapped irritably.  The dark gray days and cramped quarters had worn on him.  He’d begun to think of the trailer as his own and how much roomier it would be without Walleye.

 

“Don’t have rent money.  Rent’s a hundred and I only got twelve dollars.  Electric’s another forty.  I knew we were running that heater awful high.”  He also knew the reason he’d gone through a month’s budget in two weeks (it was sitting on the couch), but he couldn’t muster the courage to say so. 

 

“When’s it due?” 

 

“Last Wednesday.  Electricity’s later than that.” 

 

“Aw, you got plenty a time,” Shag assured him.  “They cain’t do nothin for months.”

 

“I’ve never been this late before.”

 

“Everbody’s late,” said Shag.  “It’s called credit.  Get with the program.”

 

But Wally continued to brood.  He felt he knew the landlord’s practices better than Shag did, and because one time he’d forgotten to put a stamp on his electricity bill, he knew how cold the trailer could get with no heat.  As if to dramatize the point, sleet began to tinkle against the windowpanes.

 

“You got any money?” asked Wally, his “lazy” eye fleeing beyond Shag’s reclining figure to an open cabinet door and a stalactite of dirty clothes.

 

“You think I’d be sittin in this dump if I did?” 

 

“We got to find some, somehow.”

 

“What about Uncle Tommy?” suggested Shag, referring to an elderly neighbor two units down. 

 

“He doesn’t have anything.  He’s on support, too.”

 

“You ask him?”

 

“No, and I ain’t gonna,” said Wally.

 

Shag had discovered his friend’s one defense mechanism; when threatened he became inert, like a giant possum.

“Well crap, I’ll ask him.”  Grateful for an excuse to escape, Shag got up from the narrow foam sofa, which doubled as his bunk, and slipped on an extra flannel shirt.

 

“He won’t have it,” said Wally as Shag squeezed past his huge knees.

 

“Don’t know til you try.”  He kicked open the flimsy door and stepped outside. 

 

Sleet pattered his head and stung his face as he crunched up a slushy, unpaved lane.  Old trailers and a few faded campers on spindly, extendable legs angled off in no particular pattern.  Some had been there years, others had arrived today and would be gone tomorrow.  Like chimney smoke, warm air from heater vents percolated into the flat gray sky, and dingy light shown in the windows.  Uncle Tommy’s place stood against a sagging fence and a half dozen loblolly pines, all that separated his flimsy abode from the roaring interstate.

 

“Hey, Uncle,” Shag hollered over the noise of a decelerating semi.  He gave the torn screen a rattle, setting off the dog.  Frantic toenails raced across linoleum, and he could just make out a bouncing, shrieking blur through a fogged windowpane.

“Git on in here,” Uncle Tommy shouted, swinging open the door while he held the dog at bay with a practiced leg maneuver.

Before he even crossed the threshold, heat and stench fell on him like a blanket.  The old man pulled him inside and struggled with the ill-fitting door while Shag gathered up pornographic magazines on the only chair.  At the bottom of the pile he unearthed a plate of chicken bones and below that, peanut shells.  He used a magazine to rake off a tiny, dried-up dog turd and sat down. 

“Cold cocksucker!” Uncle Tommy declared, lighting a Camel and settling into the trash on the couch.  He was a small, wiry old man with a burr haircut, and this time of day, always at least medium drunk.  Earl Campbell, a toy rat terrier, sprang up beside him and clawed his way into his lap.

 

“You ain’t lyin,” Shag agreed, though he had already broken a sweat.  He peeled off his flannel overshirt and draped it over his knee, there being nowhere clean to put it.  “What you been up to, Tommy?” 

 

“Ain’t done shit,” Tommy sniggered.  “How bout you?”

 

“Oh, little a this, little a that.”

 

“Uh huh.  Hey, you want a beer?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Gitchaself one.”

 

Leaving his shirt on the chair, Shag entered a narrow canyon between boxes and beer cases and followed it to a scum-dripping, garbage-strewn kitchenette.  He glanced up just in time to dodge a bug-encrusted fly strip and stooped into the refrigerator, holding his nose.  He separated a can from a six-pack and quickly shut the door.  Gasping for breath, he backed away, and into the fly strip.

 

“How’s ol Wally?” asked Uncle Tommy after Shag, minus a few orange hairs, had returned to his seat.  

 

Shag said Walleye was okay, he guessed, and kept the old man talking and swearing while he waited for an opportunity to bring up the subject of money.  He wasn’t at all timid about asking for a loan, asking always being preferable to being asked, only cautious.  Timing was important.  Until the moment presented itself, he made sure to laugh extra long and hard at Uncle Tommy’s every gross, obscene utterance.

 

“I ever tell you about me and Iva?” asked Tommy, a lewd twinkle in his eye.  He rubbed his bristly scalp like an old baboon.

 

“Yeah—no,” said Shag.  He settled back to listen to the familiar tale.  When the disgusting climax finally came, he whistled and slapped his knees, not only as if he hadn’t already heard it, but as if Uncle Tommy were the finest, funniest fellow he’d ever had the pleasure of knowing.  Tommy shifted his weight, spat into a coffee cup and rearranged Earl Campbell.  Shag saw his chance.

“Hey, Uncle, uh, well, me and ol Walleye are a little bit, uh, you know.  You think maybe—”  

 

“Uh huh…”  Tommy’s watery eyes blinked twice, his chin sank to his chest.  He began to snore.  The dog yawned luxuriously.

 

Even circulating as he did in a society of drunks, Shag couldn’t remember seeing one drop off so suddenly.  Should he wake him?  Wait it out?  To kill time he thumbed through some nudist magazines, but the smothering heat made him restless.  He got up to have a look around.  Snooping into some boxes piled against the wall, he discovered a hoard of ball-point pens, including one you could tip upside down to undress a girl inside.  He put that one in his pocket.  Other boxes held carburetor parts, moldy shoes, dime-store bolo ties.  On a mirrored dresser, jumbled in with personal items (rupture truss, corn pads, sticking plasters), he found an ashtray shaped like buttocks and a souvenir outhouse.  A sign on the outhouse read, We’re saving you a place in Little Rock.  Then there was a gold foil packet of Instant Pussy.  He knew what that was because he’d purchased one himself, from a men’s-room coin machine.  When you dissolved the gelatin capsule in a glass of water, a thin piece of foam in the shape of a cat floated to the top.

 

He began to feel faint in the oppressive heat and wiped his face.  His hand came away dripping wet—putting the touch on Uncle Tommy was too much like work.  He picked up his overshirt and headed for the door.

 

Whether his shirt snagged it or it just happened to choose that particular moment to fall, a box tipped as Shag squeezed past and dumped its contents onto the floor.  When he tried to step over the pile, his foot came down on something which broke with a loud snap!  Earl Campbell shrieked and Uncle Tommy’s head bobbed up.

 

“Hey, you need another beer?” 

 

“Naw,” said Shag.  “Better be gettin along.”  He furtively crammed a handful of photos back into the box.

 

“You just got here,” said Uncle Tommy.  

 

To see what had broken, Shag stirred the other stuff with his foot and uncovered a portrait of a bull-necked young man in Marine uniform—the cracked glass had split the face into equally ugly halves.  “This here box tumped over,” he confessed, squatting to pick it up.

 

“Say,” said Uncle Tommy, catching sight of the portrait, “that one’s my boy when he was a MP.  Works at the paper mill now and got four a the ugliest kids you ever seen.”

 

“That right?” said Shag.  He feared and hated any kind of cop, even an ex-Marine cop, and this one looked mean as hell.  Just handling the picture was unpleasant.  “Well, guess I’ll be moseying along,” he said, dropping it into the box.

“Hey, fore you run off…”

 

But Shag pretended not to hear.  He’d make Walleye hit up the old man.  The grime and stench and heat were too much, even for Shag.  He began twisting and turning aluminum knobs, depressing latches, trying without success to get the door to open.

“Could you do me just one little bitty favor,” said Uncle Tommy in a wheedling, elderly voice.

 

Shag recalled the truss, the sticking plasters, the corn pads.  He felt nauseous and wondered if it might be carbon monoxide poisoning.

 

“I need you to do somethin fer me,” Uncle Tommy went on, “somethin I cain’t do for muh self.”  Shag imagined the unimaginable, things to do with personal hygiene or some disgusting old-man appliance Uncle Tommy needed assistance with.

“Gotta go, gotta go,” he cried, frantically.  “Walleye can stop by if you—”

 

“I need me a ride,” said Uncle Tommy, “over to the check store to cash my Social Security.  I’m too drunk to drive.”

Shag let go of the doorknob.

 

“Keys is in the car.  If you can just help me off a this goddamn couch,” he said, grunting and straining.  “Get out the way, Earl,” he said, swatting at the dog.

 

As if struck by a bolt, Shag’s expression transformed from loathing to one of golden beneficence.  Warmth and human tenderness flowed from every pore.  He hastened to Uncle Tommy’s side and gently levered him off the sofa.  He found the old fellow’s coat and helped get his arms into the sleeves. 

 

Wally was watching cartoons on TV when he heard Tommy’s Camaro start up.  The horn sounded as it rattled past, and he looked out in time to see Shag grinning behind the wheel.  He sighed, relieved that, temporarily at least, he was rid of him.  He couldn’t think with someone pestering him all the time, and he had to think hard because he knew the landlord would come calling any day now.

 

Damp from sweating in Uncle Tommy’s overheated trailer, Shag was suddenly very cold. “How you get the heater on?” he asked, elbowing the dog off the seat.  Earl Campbell was accustomed to riding draped across the driver’s shoulders and kept trying to claw his way onto Shag’s.  Having already dozed off again, Uncle Tommy didn’t answer.  The next time he felt the sharp little toenails in his neck Shag rolled down the window and threw the dog out of the car.  

 

Awakened by the blast of air, Uncle Tommy’s head bobbed up before Shag could crank up the window. “Where we goin?”

 

“Check store.”

 

It was no accident that both a bar and a liquor store operated within staggering distance of the check-cashing service.  Along with a pawn shop and a triple-x video arcade, they formed a self-sustaining economy on the seedy end of town near the interstate.  Shag parked and went around to help the old man out of the car.  

 

“Where we at?”

 

“Check store.  Got your check?  We’re here.”

 

A half dozen vagrants hung like flies near the bright, money-colored entrance.  One of them, a little man in a flashy thrift-shop suit, pushed off the wall and drifted toward them.  

 

“Hey, Piss Ant!” hollered Uncle Tommy affectionately.  He waved and the man quickened his step.

 

“Friend of yours?” Shag said, sneering.  He hustled his charge into the check store before the friend could catch up.  The little man halted outside the door.

 

Amazingly, Uncle Tommy was able to produce both his driver’s license and his social security check and could even sign his name.  Shag hovered close by as the clerk counted out the bills and pushed them through a hole in his bullet-proof cage.  Minus the check store’s commission, it came to four hundred eighty-six dollars and ninety-one cents. 

“Let’s get us a drink,” Tommy enthused when they were outside.

 

Shag shook his head.  Now that the treasure was within his grasp, he had no intention of losing it in a bar.  He gave the old man’s elbow a squeeze.  “How bout we get a bottle and take it home, instead?  What you feel like?  Whiskey?  Gin?”  

 

“Naw, I wanna drink now.”

 

“Well sure, but like I was sayin—”

 

“Here we go!”  Like an old horse smelling the stables, Tommy broke free and loped into the Rumpus Room.  Shag swore and followed him inside.

 

 He had never visited this particular establishment but he might as well have, he’d seen a hundred others exactly like it.  The walls were the customary nicotine brown, and the customary pine-scented disinfectant wafted up from the grimy floor.  It was a serious

 

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