I stare out the window and take a long drag. The cherry lights up and I flick it out the crack in the window. Matty is nervous about smoking weed in the car, but I’m Tallahassee trash from way back when, and getting stoned in a moving vehicle is somewhat of a rite of passage for us swamp folk.
I’m older than Matty, and white, so there are myriad chasms for us to navigate, to say the least. Also doesn’t help that I’m Gen X. The silent, sarcastic, nihilist generation. He’s a millennial. They’re not so silent, and much more passive aggressive. If you piss off a millennial you won’t know it right away. They’ll let you know, subtly, over the course of weeks, by the memes they post on social media. Then, they’ll ask why you were yelling and you’ll have to explain that what qualifies as yelling nowadays used to be called punctuation, and was actually a better mode of communicating. Then, they’ll text back – why
Adorable. Infuriating. Truly, I ask you – is there a difference?
He demurs, at first, when I offer him the joint. What am I gonna do, I think to myself, smoke this whole thing? I’m working, I remind him. He’s also a social services worker, but it’s his day off, and he’s riding along to see Patricia. It’s been more than a year since she left Penny Lane to move back in with her “father,” who, as it turns out, is a cousin or an uncle of some sort.
Earl Rose, who signs his text messages ‘Ace of Spades,’ is generally very vague about details. He’s also a piece of filth. Crack cocaine dealer, known womanizer, and don’t forget (drum-roll please) serial child abuser. The guy’s a piece of shit.
Abuse signs abound in Earl’s world… Locks on the fridge, padlocked bedroom doors, on the pantry cabinets. Roaches everywhere. A sick, slick oil coats the ancient shag carpet’s traffic patterns. Fecund, vile smells abound. They say a man’s home is his castle. If that’s the case, then the “Ace of Spades” is actually the Earl of Squalor. But, this is the sad truth – in this domain he reigns supreme. This makes me hate him. Part of me is seething every single time he’s anywhere near me or Rose.
His tenement has a fend-for-yourself mentality, even for kids younger than Patricia. She has at least 5 siblings some as young as six, living with them in a three bedroom house. She says they’re not even allowed to use the stove, because he monitors the gas meter so obsessively. The young kids wear long sleeves, even in the dog days of summer. I hate to think what bruises, scabs, scars await the eyes that peel back those shirts. Thank goodness I don’t work with younger kids, I think to myself.
Earl is an abuser, and she’s been given back to him. I argued against this, and even called for an independent investigation, but Earl is slicker than I thought, and found a way to pass whatever checklist DCFS has for the lowest threshold required in order for custody to stay intact. Did I mention he’s a piece of shit? He absolutely is, and doesn’t even try to hide it. If contempt were embodied in a man’s form, it would take the shape and attitudes of Earl Rose, the Ace of Spades. The small time drug crook. The man who lives off the government checks meant for his kids. The abuser. Patricia’s dear old dad.
Now that she’s back with him, she can barely focus well enough to graduate high school. This is not good enough for my Rose in Winter, I’d muttered to her last time we got together. No shit, she replied immediately – but you get what you get in life. Yeah, that’s true, I agreed in the moment, but internally – I vowed to make sure she got out of the shit-hole she was raised in. Just like I crawled myself out of the swamp, dusted off my shoes, and headed for the big city, I am now dead set on providing legions of opportunities for my fond Rose.
That’s life for you. One hand down and one hand up. People helped me, I think to myself, and now it’s my turn.
(Oh life. You and your brittle little games. You and your pleasantries and gentility. And you think you’re better than Earl Rose? This man, clearly an alcoholic drug addict, can raise kids. Can you? Or are you just on the sidelines, playing your little social games? Aphorism, platitude, anecdotal blanket truism, nervous laughter, sigh, long pause. This is the business of being alive. We all play games, all day long, 365 days a year, and we pretend we don’t owe a debt of gratitude to the homeless wretches we must step over, daily, just to punch a time-clock we can barely stand, ourselves.)
Wow, I think, I’m really being a dick to myself today. Even if every thought in my head is justifiable, it’s not every workday I get a ride-along from Matty boy, and this is how I squander it? By hating the entire world?
I take another long drag. I don’t usually show up stoned to work, but Matty took a personal day, and we have an easy excursion planned with Patricia. It’s my job, after all, to make sure she stays solvent enough to avoid homelessness. No pressure. But, today, it’s just food pantries and a free thrift store shopping spree that I’ve somehow convinced the owner will be a tax write off.
In actuality, I’m unsure if there’s a tax write-off for him, but I’m willing to write a receipt with our Foundation letterhead, so maybe the guy will get a break? Who knows what his accountant will say, I think, then remind myself that he’s not my priority, my clients are. Social services is just like the rest of life. Beg, borrow, or steal – but cover your ass. Always do that.
Matty declines the joint, pointing out that he wants to be sober for Patricia. She will absolutely not be sober, I counter, and this gets him to relax the sour mouth and grin for a moment. I remind him he’s a stoner, and that he loves weed, and that I almost never let people smoke in my car, including me, so he should live a little. He cracks the veneer for a brief moment to grin, and nod, and take the joint from me.
This is who we are. This is how we behave. And we both love it to pieces. This is our life together. Population, us.
It’s more than a year since I met Matty at Penny Lane, and to me, he’s the best guy California has available. Suddenly, I’m in love, and I never thought I’d allow myself that again. I look at my guy, gorgeous, smoking a joint I (poorly, too tightly) rolled myself, and I’m suddenly bowled over with humility. The very idea life would hand a sarcastic misanthrope like me such a loyal, sturdy, kind man? Inconceivable. And yet… here we are.
The miracle of quitting drinking, I think to myself, and I know – maybe that’s not entirely the case, but it’s true enough to be significant in my life.
Another miracle? The two of us, a 44 year old and a 30 year old, flying down the highway, off to spoil a princess society has somehow cast off. How romantic! What did we do to earn this? Even a regular boyfriend would have been enough to ask for, but this? Huge emotions? Philip Glass playing in the background? A handsome man who was born the year I lost my virginity?
And, how. Jesus, I can’t believe I even get to be part of this. Thank you, I mouth to the scenery flying by. We have to take the 710 down to Long Beach, and we have a whole hour to sober up. Still, i stub out the joint before its even halfway out. We don’t have to be wasted when we arrive, just in a lighthearted mood. It’s important we make this seem fun. The kids can smell a backhanded handout, and they’ll react accordingly if you don’t make it seem fun and cool. Matty and I discuss Patricia, and her situation. I tell him to brace himself, and he looks at me like, hey, I know.
But he doesn’t.
Nobody knows how bad things are in that house. Not even me.
Patricia is the only keeper of that secret, and even after a year of bonding with her, she’s not willing to show me herself at her most vulnerable. Smart girl. Nobody should ever see that, I think. If she never shows it, other people can never take advantage of the information. Makes sense to me.
I’m a bit of a lone wolf myself, as much as I’m an extrovert who constantly needs validation, I find ways to self-sabotage, which, if we are being logical, can only mean I want to be alone. I’m a walking catastrophic web of contradictions, and I routinely foist my unprocessed trauma upon the public.
I mean, sure, I have a shrink, but I’m not medicated. That seems far off, drastic, a last-resort even, but the net sum of that reality is, I’m making other people pay for my mental damage. That ain’t fair, according to me and my shrink.
So who cares? So what do we do about it? So who fucking knows?
We do. Me and my therapist, and sometimes my wife, and frequently my Matty boy. Oh! Don’t forget – once a month for six hours, my Rose in Summer, Patricia. My desert rose.
Matty and I rally, and put together a unified front. Fun and responsible, we agree on. He forgets, for a brief while, to sour-mouth every single idea I present. For a while, we are a team, and we truly do show up for Rose. She lights up when she sees us, especially Matty, because she hasn’t seen him in quite some time. Matty does his best to hide his disappointment when he sees the abject poverty she lives in. I look at him, concerned, apologetic. Today is his day off, and suddenly I feel as if I’ve ambushed him with a heavy sadness nobody should have to bear, but that – at least – I get a lower middle-class income out of it. What’s he doing here, I ask the mailbox? What does he get out of it?
Thank you, I mouth silently to a piebald stretch of dirt in Earl Rose’s yard. Somehow, even in this patch of disgusting abuse, I can find something to be grateful for, if nothing else than just the fact the three of us are witnessing one another today.
This moment, is, of course, cut short by the king of the castle. Earl Rose, himself, is out in the yard negotiating with the heroin addict’s wife, who pays him a pittance to rent the backyard for their mobile home. The whole place is a shanty. Rusted tricycles abound. It looks like Fred Sanford lives here, I think, suddenly thinking of my grandpa, and how he loved Redd Foxx. That’s a nice memory.
As quickly as possible, we whisk Patricia away. Not that Earl pays us any mind. I think he knows I was the one that reported him, again, to DCFS, and he’s decided to stay out of my way. If that’s the case, the feeling is entirely mutual. I only need him for ten seconds a month, to sign one piece of paper saying I was here. That I showed up. That someone, for once, showed up for Patricia.
I seethe as he signs the paperwork, and then we are off to the food pantry, where people line up with bags and bags of food. Patricia’s eyes widen and I notice how skinny she’s gotten since the state gave custody back to Earl.
Later, after getting her a stunning prom dress and an entire fall wardrobe, we take Patricia for an ice cream outside the college library. I’m trying to get her to consider trade school instead of community college. Rose is one of the sharpest people I know, but an academic she is not. She’s dead set on community college, though, and that’s why we’re here. Matty, on the other hand, takes the low road.
“Patricia,” he says, coyly narrowing his eyes at her.
“Uh, yes Mathew??” She’s all dolled up in some other thrift finery, and we’re being very precious with our afternoon.
“Would you say you’ve been making good choices?”
“Why of course I have! That’s why I have mister PIEFOLK! He’s my very own Gatsby!”
I interject here, something about how I’m not a millionaire, and, in fact, I’m likely to make less money over the course of my life than anyone else at the table. They look at me like I’m insane. Decent looking forty-something honky cracker, crying poor? Likely story. But, it’s actually true. I’m an artist by vocation and I almost never have more income to show than my friends. Artists are, by virtue of art, broke bitches. I shrug off this self-criticism.
If it was good enough for that freeloader Michaelangelo – it’s good enough for me, I used to tell my improv and musical theater students.
Meanwhile Matty continues to press Rose. He knows I’m worried about her chances, after she emancipates from Earl at 18. He knows that, statistically, if she chooses community college she will stop going before earning a degree. He knows that her reading and writing skills are behind and that she’d be a fine hairdresser. He presses.
“Are you going to graduate high school?”
“Yes! But, I hate this principal! She’s got it in for me, and she won’t even let me graduate on time.”
At this point I run interference for Rose, and downplay how much of an absolute menace she is to her high school community. It’s not Rose’s fault. She’s as wild as an Irish briar patch, and I suspect her disposition isn’t the only rosy crucifixion she’s accustomed to observing. They both look at me quizzically when I say this, and I remind myself, yes, I am stoned at work today.
“I think we should talk about trade school again,” I interject, “Cosmetology, or what about real estate?”
Matty gives me a withering sour mouth, as if to say, Mr. PIEFOLK, who’s buying a house from an 18 year old, much less this particular 18 year old? I glare back at him. We’ve had this conversation. Plenty of real estate offices need an underpaid entry level administrative assistant. She could learn the business from the inside out, and develop her client roster while she learned how to be a broker. He disagrees, and doubts her ability to do things like show up on time, be persistent. He’s much more of a realist than I am, but I know Patricia better. I know she’s got it in her to succeed, and that, when that opportunity comes knocking, whether she creates the doorway herself, or not, she will answer that door, and never look back.
This I know. This I know of my Rose in Summer.
“Gatsby,” she murmurs to me. She has this translucent way of reading my mind, sometimes. We are both water signs, she says that’s why she can pick out my thoughts, but it’s more than that. I’m about as subtle with my emotions as a sledge hammer, is a good chunk of it, but pretending she’s psychic is a fun way to pass the time. Whatever the rationale, we’ve become conspiratorial, thick as thieves, so to speak. She twists me around her fingers as easily as I can twist mine. For lack of a better word, yes. I’m Gatsby. Low rent, budget Gatsby. Maybe not the guy everyone dreamed of, but definitely the guy who showed up.
“Let’s get real,” she says, seizing the moment in her very special, very Patricia way. Matty and I stop our silent argument and circle up. She’s totally stoned, herself – she was finishing a blunt when we arrived, but when she decides to command a room, there’s no choice but to yield the floor. Matty and I wait, rapt and hushed.
“I’m not the college type. I’m not the real estate type. I’m not going to have a roster of clients that want hair extensions and weaves, nor am I going to wear a construction mask and file rich lady’s nails all day long. None of that shit is me. I’m going to apply for a job at Taco Bell, graduate – late – and that’s that.”
Matty wakes from his reverie before I do. He narrows in on her. “What do you plan on doing? Working at Taco Bell forever??”
“Um, actually Matt, maybe I will. I might work for Taco Bell and become the regional manager, did you ever think of that?” With this, she shoots me a smirk, and my ears prick up a bit. I’m back in the fight.
“Yeah, Matty boy – don’t you think your gal Patricia has it in her to manage an entire region of fast food restaurants?”
This has tickled Rose’s fancy, and she’s cackling along with me now, she gives me a knowing glance. “That’s right, Matthew, don’t you believe in me like Mr. Gatsby, I mean, Mr. PIEFOLK?”
“Yeah, Matty,” I say, temporarily checkmating him. “Don’t you believe in our sweet Patricia Rose?”
He purses his lips, as if he’s just tasted something pithy, and finally compromises. “No, no, of course I believe in you Rose, I just want to make sure you’re making good decisions.
“Well, we all want that,” I concede, happy there wasn’t some sort of power struggle on my fantasy ride-along day.
Soon enough, it’s time for us to leave. I hate this part. It’s almost always nightfall when I drop Patricia off at Earl Rose’s pitiful excuse for a homestead. I almost always curse under my breath as I’m leaving. I make vows to Patricia I can’t even repeat to myself, later, much less iterate to her. In my own small way, I sometimes whisper to myself, I could be her Gatsby, if I got rich, if I was better known as a writer, if I could win the lottery, if, if if….
She deserves more than ifs. But that’s not what life has for her.
Still, we are jovial and kind when we drop her off. She’s beaming. If she can’t graduate on time, at least she can, and will – look stunning at prom. Moreover, she has clothing for another season, and food for another (what?) week… few days at least? I stifle the side of me that feels responsible for this, and activate the cover-your-ass mode that all social service workers have. I get my signature, I log my hours. Later I will make notes that make the afternoon seem less triumphant, and more troublesome. It will make my boss happy. I check the right boxes. We say goodbye. We are only a block away when Matty and I start decompressing.
“What town is this?”
“It’s industrial as fuck.”
“Yeah, Rose has it pretty bleak.”
“Hey, come on, don’t do that. We brightened up her day and gave her good tools/advice. Don’t make it about her bleak life, when she’s having a pretty bright day.”
“That’s really good advice, Matty. See, I knew you were the right person to bring for the ride-along.”
“Well, we owe Rose a great debt, do we not?”
“It’s true. If she wasn’t so charming the night I met her, we might not have struck up a friendship, then a subsequent relationship. In a way, she’s to credit for us, entirely.”
“So, it was a good day.”
“So it was a good day.”
“I love you, Matty boy.”
“I love you too, Mikey boy.”
“Knock that off right now. It’s Michael, or sir.”
Suddenly we are on the freeway. America. The open road. The sunset is resplendent, all Halloween orange, crimson brick hues, dramatic flashes of marigold as we race north, desperate to preserve these moments, desperate to preserve the life we have, the safety we have built in a sea of uncaring human suffering. It really does feel like gratitude, here, in this moment.
Low rent Gatsby or not, I think to myself, we are the fucking lucky ones. Matty grabs my hand, and I turn up Knee 5 by Philip Glass. I shut off the air conditioning and crack the window as Long Beach fades away in the rear view mirror. I can still see Patricia, padlocked in her room, clutching her prom dress close to her body. I can still smell her perfume. The wind comes in, thin, the last of Long Beach kissing my hair.
I can still taste the salt in the air.