Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Jen Michalski’s collection The Company of Strangers, published by Braddock Avenue Books. Sequoia Nagamatsu said of the book, “By turns irreverent and deeply heartbreaking, Michalski masterfully constructs a collage of sexuality, belonging, and a search for what is possible atop strip malls, parking lots, and bowling alleys.” Read on for “The Long Haul,” one of the stories contained within Michalski’s new book.
The Long Haul
(Originally published in BULL)
I’m wondering why I even bought him the slippers—extra wide, tan suede, memory foam, brand name Old Man Romeo, for the ridiculous price of $29.95 at Wal-Mart of all places. It’s never below 40 degrees in Arizona, and right now, standing on his doorstep at four in the afternoon, it’s a sauna-like 94. But it’s my Uncle Tony, and the last time I saw him, he was standing in our carport barefoot smoking a Marlboro, the lights from the police cars throbbing and shimmering in our driveway like a disco. His heels were bloody, his toenails, long and thick and some black. And I thought, even though I was only ten, that a man should take better care of his feet.
I survey the cul-de-sac of aluminum-siding double-wides as I knock. Where I stand, a silver Honda scooter rests in the driveway and an orange tomcat the size of a carry-on luggage lounges on the porch mat. Behind me, a voice booms like a PA system from a minor-league hockey game.
“Who the hell are you?”
I turn around and there he is at the end of the sidewalk by my rental car, wearing a track suit, sunglasses, and slide sandals like he’s in the witness-protection program.
“It’s me, Raymond,” I say, holding up the box as an offering but also protection. “I brought you some slippers.”
And just like that, we’re sitting on the deck behind the house drinking Michelob, Uncle Tony thundering in and out of the sliding door with offerings.
“You gotta be hungry—they don’t feed you nothing on the plane these days.” He drops a party-size bag of Lays potato chips on the weather-beaten plastic deck table. “You want a sandwich? I got salami and cheese, some mustard. How ‘bout just cheese, just like when you was little? I got one of those grills—George Foreman—I cook everything on that, my chicken, my steaks. My veggies.”
He pauses during this avalanche of words to slap me on my back. “Jesus, Ray, twenty years! You ain’t come out here to tell me your mother died, have you?”
“No.” I sip the Michelob. My therapist said I didn’t have to bring up anything if I didn’t want. But then, why else come?
“I, uh, had this work thing up in Phoenix⎯stylist conference.”
“What?” Tony raises his eyebrows. “Like hairdressers or something?”
“Exactly.” I nod. “Anyway, Aunt Debbie said you’d settled out here, so I thought I’d come see you.”
“Debbie,” Tony laughs like it’s the funniest thing that’s ever been said. “Thank God she’s a goddamn busybody, huh? Bless her heart, she’s the only one who still talks to me. I never thought you ever would.”
He stares at me, grinning. There was a time when I thought Uncle Tony was handsome, but it was a time when I didn’t know much. When I was young, he reminded me of John Travolta when he was in Grease; now, he looks and sounds more like an old Andrew Dice Clay—wide cheeks, small forehead but with a big, silvery pompadour to even out the proportions.
“Well, you look very fancy—very dapper.” Tony inhales quickly, still smiling, and I watch him take in my skin-tight button-up Oxford, slim-cut lavender shorts, and Sperry top-siders.
“It’s hot out here.” I look away, pushing up my shirt sleeves.
“You don’t like this weather?” He does a panoramic of the backyard with his hand, as if this somehow makes his point, but all I see is a bunch of double-wides bunched together, all with beaten-down lawn furniture, snaky hoses in brown grass, bug lights. “When I’m home, this is my little slice of heaven. I’m glad you caught me—I’m taking a load out to Connecticut on Thursday.”
Tony’s sister, that goddamn busybody Debbie—told me that he’s been a long-haul trucker for years; maybe that’s why it was easy for me to make this side trip. There was a good chance he wouldn’t be home, and I could feel good about trying.
“So try on your slippers.” I nudge the box, resting on the table, toward him. “I got a receipt.”
“A receipt—you don’t know how special this is to me.” He lowers himself gingerly in the plastic deck chair—more for the chair’s sake, I suspect, than his own. “I ain’t gotten a present from nobody for a long time.”
“Not even your lady friends?” I joke. I know, as soon as it comes out of my mouth, it’s the wrong thing to say, and just as quickly, I’m bent over my Michelob, peeling at the label.
We sit in silence for a moment before I hear the rustle of tissue paper. When I look up, he’s angling one of the suede slippers over a corn on his big toe.
“If they’re too small…” I start.
“They’re perfect.” He’s standing up, admiring them as I press the cold bottle to my face. “I’ve never had a more perfect present.”
When I was ten, when Tony was in-between jobs, he babysat me and my nine-year-old sister, Joelle, on the nights our mom worked at the Sky-High Cocktail Bar. Two or three evenings a week, Tony would arrive at 6:00 and, if my mother hadn’t placated us with bowls of cereal or leftover pizza, Tony would pull out the frying pan and whip up scrambled eggs or grilled cheese sandwiches.
“Did you do your homework?” He cooked with a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a can of Coors in his left hand and whisper-sang Van Halen songs with sexual innuendos that completely eclipsed mine and Joelle’s comprehension. Then we’d pile onto the couch and watch Melrose Place, Tony’s favorite show.
“That Kimberley, she’s one calculating bitch.” Tony shook his head as she plotted Michael’s death with the flighty and impulsive Sydney. “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed, though.”
“I kicked Raymond out of bed once.” Joelle nodded sympathetically. “But that’s because he farts a lot.”
“Shut up, you lying bitch.” I grabbed a handful of Joelle’s hair, the color of a penny, and pulled.
“Hey.” Tony reached around Joelle, who was nestled in his armpit, to whack me on the side of the head. “Language. Jesus, where do you learn that shit? School?”
Tony was a punctual and adequate minder, a perfect complement to our lower middle-class childhood of copious television, lack of vegetables, and secondhand cigarette smoke. I couldn’t imagine evenings without his volcanic perspiration, Drakkar Noir cologne, his encyclopedic knowledge about grades of gold jewelry, and his interest in ensembles of young, single people on network television. And, like most young, self-absorbed children, I imagined we were Tony’s world.
“Sorry I’m late.” Tony stepped into the doorway one afternoon, I, still holding the phone trying to reach my mom at work to tell her Tony had gone missing. Behind him, like a magic trick, stood a woman. “I had to pick Veronica up at work.”
“Hi.” She wore a fringed jean jacket and white boots, her hair so traumatized by styling the ends split like tulips. She looked at us from the porch the way my mom did the women with religious pamphlets who often showed up Saturday mornings on our doorstep. “I’m Tony’s friend.”
“These are the kids.” Tony rubbed my head like a dog. “Well, Darlene’s kids. But we’re like a family, right?”
“Uncle Tony, I’m starving.” Joelle picked her nose in an attempt to distract, I guessed, from her hunger.
“You said you were going to take me to Secrets.” Veronica frowned at Tony.
“You gotta work tonight.” Tony unhooked Joelle’s little coat with the unicorn on the back off its hanger near the door. “Ray, put your boots on. We’re going out to eat.”
Twenty minutes later, Joelle and I sat across from Tony and Veronica at Denny’s, studying laminated menus as Veronica dug out her beaded cigarette holder.
“Why didn’t we go to a place that served drinks at least?” Veronica had not stopped frowning since we piled into Tony’s Trans Am and fish-tailed across the icy February streets here.
“Veronica is my girlfriend.” Tony draped his arm over her shoulder. Her eyes wandered toward the ceiling. “One day, you two are going to have some cousins to play with.”
“Won’t we be too old then?” I questioned. Even then, I was a stickler for critical thinking.
“I want the spaghetti and meatballs.” Veronica pushed her menu to the edge of the table and scooted out of the booth. “And a ginger ale. I’m gonna go smoke.”
“We’ve been going together for a month or so.” Tony rubbed a patch of stubble on his chin after she’d left. “I think she’s the one.”
“The one what?” Joelle worked furiously on the paper placemat with a green crayon. “And where do you go?”
“He loves her, stupid.” I picked up my own crayon, blue, and drew a box, reinforcing the sides, making them thicker and thicker until just a blue box remained.
“Give me back my scarf.” Joelle tugged at the purple chiffon scarf around my neck.
“Why are you wearing a scarf, anyway, sport?” Tony sipped at his water. I glanced outside the restaurant, where Veronica leaned on the hood of a car that wasn’t Tony’s, talking to a guy in a leather jacket.
“The guys in RATT wear scarves,” I say after a beat. MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball was something that Joelle and I watched on the weekends, mostly because our other babysitter, Aunt Debbie, fell asleep on the couch with it on. We weren’t fans of the music, but the amalgamation of leather and spandex and chiffon into a single outfit opened doors in my mind that I didn’t know existed.
“On their heads, maybe.” Tony scrunched his eyebrows, glancing out the window. His face set like cement. “Who the hell is that guy with Veronica?”