Jun 9 2009 8:12 am
We always started at seven but on the first day Chris told me to show up at eight. I knocked on the door for several minutes before it opened. He swayed and stumbled shirtless holding up loose, unbuttoned faded blue jeans while his giant, round, ruined glasses threatened to drop from his bulbous, swollen red nose.
He was leaning back and slightly to the side where his right hand was held upon a goose neck of an arm, single finger extended lazily, others drooping loosely, his eyes traveled in two long, torturous circles, passing over my face slowly without seeing, ultimately settling on my left shoe. His body was contorted in such a way as to appear almost comical had it not been so apparent that he was in pain. He spattered something incomprehensible while wagging his finger vaguely behind the house then disappeared into a haze of cigarette smoke and children’s voices.
I closed the door and walked around the house where I saw a young man on his hands and knees getting fucked by an older Mexican guy who everyone called Conejo. No. That’s not true. His name was Nazario. Still kidding. The young man was actually alone amongst rows of yews and aspens pretending to weed while smoking a cigarette. He was Kyle and this was the second to last time I would ever see him.
Mike secured this summer employment for me at Kalgan’s Gardening in West Chester. Mike had worked for Chris Kalgan on and off for many years so I had some idea what to expect. Chris was an alcoholic. But he somehow managed to run a very successful landscaping company, caring for many historic homes in Chester County, stone and plaster homes with walls twenty inches thick, built in the 1720s, commanding thirty acre lawns dotted with old-growth white oak and beech trees, perched above mill races and vast arrays of outbuildings.
I liked landscaping. The smell of fresh cut grass and two cycle exhaust is a potent aphrodisiac to the would-be philosopher. My individual physical agency was apparent at every turn as I reduced the height of the same grass quite tangibly every week. I pulled weeds from the ground and smoothed over the mulch leaving a once stubbly and ragged landscape now smooth and ordered. I excavated large holes in the ground and put plants in them. I drove a big truck places. I spoke Spanish in the shade at lunch. I enjoyed my sun darkened complexion and hard calloused hands, particularly because I knew I would quit in August.
Kyle and I pretended to weed the nursery and smoked cigarettes.
Around noon we heard Chris yell hoarsely from the house, “Yoooooooo! We’re goin’ on a road trip! Get up here! You’re drivin’!” And so it begins, I thought to myself. Mike had recounted many stories of his time at Kalgan’s that simply involved driving Chris around for hours, taking him to the Alley Bar in the morning and job sites during the day. Chris had earned many DUIs and lost his license to operate a motor vehicle some time ago.
“Where’re we goin’ Chris?”
“Don’t woooorry about it. You got a full tank? We’re gonna need a full tank.”
“Um, no, I don’t have a full tank. We’re taking my car? We should take one of the trucks I think.”
Tilted always to the right, he was yelling quite loudly, spitting with each hard consonant, holding each long vowel for several seconds in a low groan of unhinged timbres , “I wanna take your car duuuude…I’ll buy fuckin’ gas so shut up and let’s goooooo!”
Chris sat up front with his ubiquitous, tall, milky white plastic cup half full of a red liquid I later learned was usually cheap vodka and a splash of fruit punch. He was wearing his jeans, a dark blue, wrinkled, short sleeve collared shirt barely fastened by two buttons, dirty, untied white sneakers and a faded green ball cap with an absurdly long bill, his round, photo-chromatic glasses were beginning to darken in the sunlight.
He told me to pull into Wawa. He leaned back hard in his seat trying to straighten out his legs so he could gain access to the pockets of his jeans. He finally managed to retrieve a significant roll of cash spilling cylindrical twenties and hundreds on the floor and into the cup holders. He had several thousand dollars. He peeled off a twenty and I filled the tank.
“Get on 202 south. We’re goin’ to Delaware.”
We got on 202 and before Painter’s Crossing Chris was crying. Like trying to catch his breath with a series of short, deep, staccato inhalations that ended with three or four out gassings through loosely closed lips that caused them to flap and make soft, wet smacking sounds. I had been pressing him for the details of our so-called road trip since we left Wawa and he was not terribly forthcoming. He was falling in and out of consciousness and becoming less and less coherent.
“Jus’ keeeeeep driiiiving! Aaaaaaaahm gonna fuck ‘em up! Fuck ‘em uuuuuup!” He was screaming hoarsely through a mouthful of drunken slime working it into a hot mess of froth that broke with each exhalation and splattered on my dash board. When I tried yelling at him he began crying in earnest.
Between sobs, “I’ll fuckeeeen kiiill hiiiim…I’ll fuckeeeen kill that soooon of a bitch…I have a gun and I’ll fuckeeeen uuuse it!” He was rocking back and forth with his knees gathered up awkwardly in his arms sobbing quietly, glycerin drool escaping his lips, drizzling over my parking brake handle like so much Karo syrup.
I yelled at him: “Do you have a fucking gun Chris? Chris? Do. You have. A fucking. Gun?” But it was all to no avail. He was completely gone now, motionless except for the glycerin spittle. I looked back at Kyle.
“He doesn’t have a gun dude. Don’t worry about it.”
I wasn’t as confident as Kyle but I figured I’d persevere until I could extricate myself in a more graceful manner than by kicking Chris out of the moving car on the highway, though the thought did cross my mind. He was in and out of consciousness. Sometimes his large, yellow, rubberized Motorola cell phone would startle him awake but he could never figure out how to answer it. He became frustrated and threw the phone at the dashboard and it bounced into the lower right corner of the windshield causing several cracks to spider web out into the glass at all angles. I yelled at him some more and he continued to sob. I told him he was paying for that and we’d never take my car on a road trip again.
He somehow managed to get us where he apparently wanted to go. It was a large subdivision south of Newark with hundreds of two story, two bath, two car garage, cookie cutter houses stacked up next to each other on an endless arc of lane and cul-de-sac. They were made out of ticky-tacky and they all looked the same. About in the middle of this suburban American normalcy Chris demanded that I pull over. He opened his door and fell half way out of the car onto a nicely manicured lawn, resting on his face and shoulder, right arm pinned between his body and the car seat, feet and knees propped still in the car. His shirt had come open and was tangled around his body exposing a large swath of lily white flank steak bespeckled with small brown freckles and shiny, metallic, purple stretch marks.
He lay there. Motionless. In a stranger’s quiet quarter acre yard. In the middle of Monday. In the middle of May.
Kyle and I yelled at him some more, but ultimately had to scoop him up ourselves and place him back in the car. He managed to tell us that this is where we were meeting “him” and that we had to stay in this neighborhood. “Who are we meeting Chris? Do you have a gun?” I should have left him then and there, but for some reason I didn’t. We drove to the entrance by the neighborhood marquee where he fell out of the car again, laying spread eagle on his back on the bare gray asphalt in the sun. Lily white flank steak blinding the passing traffic.
Only a few minutes had gone by when a green Dodge Ram 1500 rolled slowly into the neighborhood, past our disturbing little showcase and turned around in the first driveway. The truck parked behind my car and a heavily bearded Ernest Hemingway type in dark aviator sunglasses got out. He walked over to Chris and tried to pick him up. My heart was racing. I didn’t say a thing. Hemingway said: “We’ve got to get him up. They’ll call the fuckin’ cops. Chris, you’re a fuckin’ mess dude. What the fuck! You can’t lay in the road like this in the middle of the goddamn day in the middle of this goddamn neighborhood!” He hoisted Chris into the truck cab and drove away without another word.
“Shit Kyle. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
So we left. Driving north on 95 through Wilmington I was relieved but still unnerved. I called Mike and told him the story. He laughed. “Chris doesn’t have a gun man. He hates guns. You can’t leave him down there like that. You should go back and get him.”
“But where the fuck is he? And who the fuck is Hemingway?”
Just then Chris’ rubber phone rang from under the seat. It was Chris himself sounding slightly more coherent. “Wheeeere the fuuuuuck are you! Come pick me uuuuup!”
So we turned around. And went back to the neighborhood. And there was the green truck. And there was Chris. He walked under his own power more or less in a straight line to my car clutching an open, dewy can of Busch in one hand and two more dangling from the six pack rings in the other. He opened the back door and got in. He yelled at us a bit. He was remarkably coherent now and seemingly at ease. He was constantly fishing tiny white bits of pills from a plastic sandwich bag in his pocket, working them quickly with nimble fingers between his narrow, purple lips, swallowing them with Busch.
Chris told me to show up the next day at seven; I was going out with the crew to cut grass. I arrived early on Tuesday and Chris was in the driveway talking to Nazario in his distinctly pained and grumbly, though now slightly less unhinged, timbre. He was completely sober and wearing a plastic yellow hospital bracelet. He had overdosed on oxycontin the night before and had his stomach pumped in the emergency room. Sobered him right up.
Then he died in the autumn time.