Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) Classics (2000-2011)
| HOME | FICTION | POETRY | SQUID | RANTS | archive | masthead |
Fiction #244
(published September 15, 2005)
A Man of Letters
by Karen Ackland
"Too fat and too old," was printed in pencil across the front of the business card, a white card with embossed lettering offering cleaning services. It was the kind of card you saw stapled to the bulletin board at the grocery store or dry cleaners. Clean was spelled with a K, presumably to match the woman's name, Kathy. The phone number was circled and "Don't call," written beside it.

Beverly knew her brother paid housekeepers for more than housecleaning. Apparently no one had been around in a while because Bob's trailer, an old Airstream he'd traded a car for years ago, was filthy. There was a stale old man smell, even though Bob was barely fifty, and the sweet stench of rotten fruit.

Post-it notes were Everywhere. "Crunchy," was written on the cereal box. "Good for breakfast." Some notes had been edited two and three times. A half empty bottle of red table wine had a note that read, "Drinkable." That had been scratched out and "Not anymore" was written above. The bottle remained on the kitchen counter along with a bag of groceries and a gallon of water.

Throughout the kitchen her brother had personalized packages, adding commentary and corrections. On a box of rice he'd changed the weight from 15 ounces to 13.5, adding "asshole" after the numbers. Packages with a sunburst proclaiming "New" or "Revolutionary" seemed created especially to arouse her brother's ire. Sheets of paper were wrapped around these boxes documenting the long histories of similar products or the standard chemical composition of bleach.

The notes around the trailer reflected a mind that feared losing not just memories, but finally words. She felt as if she'd walked into her brother's journal, a three-dimensional work in progress where the viewer needed to rearrange the pieces in order to clarify the meaning.

When they first arrived and looked around, her husband Henry said, "Bev, let's call someone to haul this away and go home. You did what you could. You don't need to put yourself through this."

"Just give me a couple of days," she replied. "I want to see what's here."

Cleaning was something Bev knew how to do. "Stop your bitching," her mother used to say "and vacuum." In hindsight, Bev wondered if it was vacuuming that saved her. Vacuuming coupled with a solid B+ mind that had always allowed her to do well, without excelling.

Her brother had excelled, graduating from high school with honors in mathematics and science. "You'll never have to worry about your son," people told their mother. In college his professors encouraged him to apply for fellowships, but he'd dropped out a month before graduation and disappeared. He came home a year later with hepatitis. "It's all a game," he explained when his mother questioned him about school. "I refuse to kiss their sorry asses."

He got a job selling timeshares. Their mother told her friends he was in real estate. He lived with them for awhile, and if he took his medicine he was all right. He moved into an apartment with friends, but before long he was living in his car. He always had some deal of a lifetime going. Nothing lasted long except his anger. Finally, he moved the Airstream to the outskirts of a mostly deserted town in the Mojave Desert.

When they found the card for Kathy, the cleaning lady, Henry said, "If he wasn't interested, you'd think he'd toss the card." He started pulling notes off cabinet doors and throwing them away along with half-empty boxes of food and stacks of old newspapers.

"Wait," Bev said.

"Bev, we need to keep moving if we're going to finish this weekend."

"I want the notes." Bev recognized how foolish that sounded, and she tried to focus Henry's efforts elsewhere. "Why don't you clean the bathroom? I'll finish in here."

Bev suspected that like the packaged goods in her brother's cupboards, she was guilty of simplification and over-enthusiastic rounding errors. She wanted things to work out and people to get along. She didn't see any harm in that, although her brother claimed she lacked vision. Henry thought her brother took advantage of her.

She wasn't blind. The promise her brother had shown in high school had been dulled into cycles of enthusiasm and sullen anger. She wouldn't hear from him for months and then he'd call, asking for money. She'd send a check. She called in prescriptions, located carpet fragments for the trailer, and listened while he read drafts of letters over the telephone. Multi-national corporations. Politicians. K-12 education. Nothing escaped her brother's scrutiny nor found his favor.

Last Christmas he arrived hours after he'd promised bringing a stuffed penguin with a frayed satin ribbon for the kids and a set of Watchtower pamphlets for Henry. They thanked him for his presents and then her daughter, always suspicious of injustice, asked, "What did you bring Mom?"

"I've got something special in mind for Sis," he replied. "Just need to iron out a few details."

"It doesn't matter," Bev said. "It's Christmas. I'm glad we're all together." She handed Bob the box she'd wrapped earlier that contained a down vest and flannel shirt. In the shirt pocket she'd tucked a laminated plastic card with her name and phone number. He was her big brother; she could give him a warm shirt once a year.

Henry never complained about the checks or the gifts, but Bev knew he resented the time she spent listening to her brother's schemes, many of which included detailed instructions for her. Christmas afternoon Henry and the kids had gone for a bike ride while she stayed behind with Bob. Henry had once described her brother as a con-man who couldn't hold a job. It was an accurate portrayal, as far as it went.

But it missed the brother who came home from college to take her out to dinner on her sixteenth birthday, reserving a table with a view of the city. Henry never knew the brother who told bad puns, making her giggle at the dinner table until her mother told her to excuse herself if she couldn't act like a lady. He didn't acknowledge that some of Bob's schemes worked.

The laminated card was in Bob's back pocket when they found him. Bev had expected the call for years, but it was still a surprise when she answered the phone. Henry asked his mother to stay with the kids for the weekend and the next day they drove to Ridgecrest, stopping first at the morgue and then driving on to Bob's trailer.

"How about a break?" Henry suggested after they'd been working for several hours. "I'm starving."

"I'm almost done in the kitchen. I don't want to stop now." Bev was past hungry and wanted to finish what she'd started.

"I'm going to drive back to town. Do you want me to bring you something?"

"If you find a deli, get me a turkey sandwich on sour dough, no mayonnaise, and an iced tea. Why don't you pick up a frozen pizza at the market. We can heat it for dinner."

She saw Henry hesitate, but he only said, "I'll be back in an hour or so. Will you be OK?"

"Of course."

Bev watched the car drive away. Although she appreciated Henry's help, she welcomed the chance to be alone. She put down her sponge and spray bottle of disinfectant and concentrated on the notes, reading her way through the trailer, searching for a transitional phrase.

While the kitchen illustrated her brother's disappointment with the world of commerce, the bathroom contained hope. Carefully she read prescription bottles, many of which she had sent to her brother, following his irregular visits to town. She saw that the instructions had been highlighted, which she thought was a positive sign, although several had expired with the medicine still in the bottle. From top to bottom the shelves were labeled head, heart, cock. Based on the space allotted, her brother's hopes seemed focused on sexual performance.

In the nightstand by the bed she found an address book. Randy, a friend of her brother's from high school, was listed. Her brother hadn't mentioned Randy—now a plastic surgeon living in Las Vegas—in years and she was pleased to think they remained in contact. "See, he has friends," she imagined explaining to Henry.

Most of the entries in the book were women and beside each name her brother had written a two word description—bottle blond, bad teeth, small boobs. Apparently those characteristics were more agreeable than fat and old. Next to her own name was written simply, "sister."

The top of the dresser was cluttered with books, magazines, an open tool box, and a gritty bottle of massage oil. She almost didn't see the note pinned to the wall beside the mirror. From the number of pin holes she could tell it had been moved and attached multiple times—perhaps taken down and edited as ideas occurred to him. "Beverly" it read on the outside printed in all capital letters, "in case of emergency." She took the note and went to sit at the kitchen table.

"Sis," the note read, "You're going to have to do a couple of more things for me. The DVD's new, a real quality box. You should be able to get top dollar for the trailer. Don't settle. Put it aside for the kids' education."

That was it. No love or I'll miss you. No explanation of why he walked into the desert without a water bottle.

She looked around the kitchen, saw the counter she had cleared, the cupboards emptied. It would take days to put the trailer in order and even then there wouldn't be anything of value. If the post-its told a story, it wasn't one she wanted to read.

She found a red pen in a cup in the kitchen and wrote on the bottom of the note, matching her letters to the block style printing her brother preferred. "Unacceptable. No deal."

She pinned the note back up on the bedroom wall and walked outside to wait for Henry.

Share on Facebook
Tweet about this Piece

see other pieces by this author

Poor Mojo's Tip Jar:

The Next Fiction piece (from Issue #245):

A Brief Courtship of Tamatra, the Vagina-Free Woman
by Andy Henion

The Last few Fiction pieces (from Issues #243 thru #239):

Hoo Doo
by Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

Stuck Like Glue
by Errid Farland

Driving Self Destruction
by Mike Pilola

Modus Vivendi
by Tim Lantz

Crossed Wires (part 2 of 2)
by Terence S. Hawkins

Fiction Archives

Contact Us

Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson

More Copyright Info