Thursday, July 09, 2020

Natural Causes

The Rocks, today
     She saw her nephew coming up the street towards her house. She ran inside and closed the door, thinking of what to tell him, like a preemptive strike. The only time he came by was when he needed something, usually money, and he never asked, out right, too much dignity, but by the time he left, she or her husband were out about five-bucks, sometimes ten--depending. That was a lot in 1965.
     She readied herself for his signature knock, the first five raps of the knock-knock joke, always minus the final two taps; so annoying, it made her smile. Only Freddie could pull it off.
     She opened the door. “Hello, Freddie.”
     “Hey, Tia. I was just in the neighborhood.”
     That was true. He spent day and night at the park up the street hanging out with his friends in a section they called "The Rocks" hidden in the landscaped Japanese garden. Everybody knew him.
     "Uh, Tia...."
     She wasn’t his aunt by blood but by marriage, and even there, when one tried unraveling the family history, complicated by faulty memories, exaggerations, and outright lies, there were doubts.
     “You hungry, Freddie?”
     If he ate and left, she’d be getting off cheap. Of course, she already knew the answer.
     “No, I just ate.” Freddie knew if he ate a homecooked meal, he'd have used up any leverage he had for what he really wanted.
     He was skinny as a rail and always rubbing his fingers across his face and scratching his cheeks. This time, he got right to it. “Hey, Tia, you wouldn’t have any work around for me to do, would you, cut the lawn, paint, maybe plumbing?”
     “No. Your uncle has done the chores, already.”
     No way would she trust him with a can a paint or a wrench. Except for a rake moving lazily across the grass, she’d never seen a tool in his hand, ever.
     “Oh, Ok.” He started looking around. “How about the car. It looks pretty dirty. You need it washed?”
     She looked to the driveway. He was right. The car was dirty. Her husband or son hadn’t gotten around to it. “Your uncle was supposed to do it.”
     “Maybe I can wash it for you for a couple of bucks. You know, my tio works really hard all week, and carpentry causes arthritis, so I can maybe do it and give him a little break. He deserves it, plus all the side jobs he does on weekends.”
     She was dubious. Freddie could watch his uncle spend an hour mowing the front lawn and not once get up off the porch to help. But he could tell jokes, more like stories, sprinkled with chisme, about people in town, and about family, and make his uncle laugh, even if his uncle was in a bad mood, a real “uplifter,” you could call him. In fact, he made everybody laugh, his sense of humor, insightful, like Lenny Bruce.
     “Well, Freddie, your cousin said he was going to….”
     “Oh, man, poor kid studies hard every day to keep up his grades, and isn’t he playing Little League, too, all that practice—and then his music lessons?” He let the thought sink in, adding, “just a couple of bucks.”
     A couple of bucks went a long way at the market in those days. She looked at his wrinkled khakis, stretched white t-shirt, and scuffed black French toes, but at least he was clean. She knew if she got involved with her nephew there would be a steeper price to pay than a couple of bucks. There always was, but how could he screw up a simple car wash?
     Freddie lost his mother to cancer when he was just twelve, whereupon his father, claiming he was too distraught to live, wasn't too distraught to hang out at the neighborhood bars every day, dropping off Freddie and his little sister with different relatives, saying, “I’ll be back later,” which could mean a day, a week, or a month.
     Freddie had already been in an out of juvenile hall, and now that he was 19, had done a short stint in County, and he wasn’t even sure who had his sister. He’d worn out his welcome with family, some who had tried hard to get him into school and sports. Nothing worked, too many friends in his life who were just like him. It would just be a matter of time before he was in trouble again and put away. Nobody wanted to even get close to him, too much pain and disappointment.
     “All right, Freddie. You can wash the car. The stuff is in the garage in a pail, but Freddie, you’ve got to do a good job, promise!”
     “Sure, Tia,” he answered. “You can trust me.”
     Those words made her nervous. She closed the door. Fifteen minutes, or thereabouts, there was another knock. “Yes, Freddie.”
     “Finished, Tia.”
     “See for yourself, Aunt.”
     Under it all, he was a polite, well-mannered boy, kind of like Eddie Haskell in “Leave it to Beaver” but not that obvious. Freddie was slicker.
     She looked at her car in the driveway, and sure enough. It was sparkling, even the hub caps and chrome bumper.
     “Thanks, Freddie. You work fast.”
     “A lot of practice, you know.”
     She handed him an extra dollar, and he was gone.
     Later that evening, as darkness fell, she walked out of the Safeway with bags of groceries in her shopping cart. She was tired and anxious to get home. She pushed the cart towards a car like hers, but it was filthy. Had she forgotten, again, where she parked?
     She tried the next aisle, then the next, walking up and down the lot looking for her car, angry at her failing memory, just too many things on her mind these days. Oh no! Maybe, it had been stolen.
     She started breathing faster, panicking. She’d warned her husband that ’57 Chevy Nomads were popular with the surfer kids these days. She wanted to cry, but no! Things had been worse in her life, so she breathed in deeply to calm herself, just like Jack La Lanne taught on television. In stressful times, think clearly.
     She went back to the entrance of the store and retraced her steps. Again, she spotted the dirty car. There weren’t many Nomads around town. She walked up to it, peeked through the dusty side window, and, confused, saw her son’s basketball on the back seat, the baby’s rattler on the floor, and her husband’s sunglasses on the dash. What? She walked to the back of the car, and in the dim light, noticed slight, crooked line down the middle, bumper to bumper, half the car clean, the other half dirty. It didn’t register.
     How could that be? Her mind reeled, all in a few seconds. Like an epiphany, it hit her. Freddie had washed only half of her car, the half visible from the driveway. Who does that? Who even thinks that way?
     The fury rose from her toes to the top of her head, but just as quickly, it drained away, and she started laughing, relieved her car wasn't stolen, then laughing harder, crossing her legs to keep from wetting herself. She figured she should have known better. She got what she paid for.

     A mountain of years passed, Freddie stopped by at Christmas to see her and the family. He looked good, was in a program--a Christian brotherhood, and on a good road. It wasn't long, maybe a few months, before he was back, looking for favors. No more. He got the message, quick, Nobody was about to give him anything.
     A year or so later, she read in the newspaper they found her nephew dead in an alley in Venice, right off the boardwalk, apparently from natural causes. All those years on drugs, in and out of every institution in California, famous in his world, and finally, after who knows how many years, he’d cleaned up, but his past never abandoned him.
     The family was hurt by the news but nobody wanted to claim his body, fearing it would come with too many strings attached. Her daughter, the youngest, the one with the big heart, who didn’t know him as well as the older siblings, relented, went to the police to claim her cousin's body. She took care of everything.
     It wasn’t but a couple of days later, as they reminisced about him, the mother asked the family, "Did I tell you about the time Freddie washed my car?”
     They all rolled their eyes.

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