It was just what he did, night after night, sitting in the faded metal lawn chair next to his father on a sloping timber porch lining Main Street, Amos. His father sighed deeply into the late summer dusk and reached once again into a bag of orange circus peanuts, laughing as the vinyl leather of his wheelchair protested flatulently against his bulk. Dean Steiner was 300 pounds of almost perfectly spherical gut balanced between two below-knee amputations.
Main Street was, as was the case for most Saturday nights, crawling with teenagers in slow moving cars, their progress along the dusty cobbles hindered only by a 30 mile an hour speed limit and the presence of a blue cruiser parked up alongside the grain elevator.
“Waste of time, Virge,” he said, popping a fluffy orange peanut between his sparsely-toothed gums and sucking noisily.
Virgil sighed. At 47, he had long abandoned any prospect of Saturday night socialisation, a scene that had eluded him as surely at 15 as it did today. The oversized, pimply kid with dual hearing aids and strap-on transistor had morphed into a six-and-a-half foot giant. It mattered little that he had outgrown his acne or that his hearing aids were now discreetly hidden in his ear canals. Virgil, the man with thick lips, a hearing deficit and a home life centered entirely on facilitating the ease of his father’s life, had been born to a life of isolation.
He nodded and pretended not to notice the laughter spilling from the yellow Camaro passing on Main. The girl behind the wheel bore an uncanny resemblence to every other teenaged girl in Amos, in part because she was related to most of them, but also because so little had changed in the thirty-odd years since he had left school. Laughter was generally a commodity owned by others. And throughout his life it had been, as often as not, directed at him.
Nevertheless, his D-average Special Ed diploma was framed and held pride of place on the brown panelled wall of the living room, right below the treasured photo of his long-dead mother.
“Sure is, Pops,” he agreed in a voice that bore the deep, tuneless marks of an instrument rarely used. Still, he could scarcely conceal his irritation at seeing the near empty bag of circus peanuts at his father’s side. “C’mon, let’s go in and get some real food.”
Dean snorted. “I ain’t hungry.”
Virgil glared at the bag and rose to his feet. “No, Pops,” he said, “I don’t guess you are. But the doctor said.”
“I know what the danged doctor said!”
“Your sugar is sky high.”
His father crumpled the bag of candy and stuffed it unceremoniously into the side pocket of his wheelchair for safekeeping. “It is what it is, son. Get off my back, will you?” With that, he reached for the toggle on his electric chair and made a surprisingly tidy about face and headed for the screen door.
Dean looked up at his son and smiled wearily. “Look at me,” he said. “I’m half a man, Virge. Can’t drink, can’t smoke – what else I got to live for, huh?”
He could hardly argue with Pops’ logic. Still, Virgil eyed the grayish stumps of his father’s remaining fingers and wondered when the next one would be sacrificed to disease, counting himself blessed for each day he himself had managed to dodge the diabetic bullet.
But then, Virgil had never really taken after his father in much of anything, being as slow as Dean was quick, and tall to the same degree his father was short. Pops always said he took after his momma, but how was Virgil to know? She had died in childbirth, and their two bedroom house bore not a single mark of feminine presence. There were no doilies or frilly curtains, no photo albums or vases or womanly things of any kind. They had no “best” china or pretty glasses, and not so much as a thread of women’s clothing hung from any rail in the house.
“Aw, heck, Virge,” Pops had said, waving his hand dismissively, “we eloped, see? There weren’t no pictures of anything that day. We was outrunning her daddy’s shotgun!”
Virgil thought about this for a long moment, trying to envision the scene. Try as he might, he could not picture his squat, plain father jumping the fence with a woman in tow. And his mother, if her picture was to be believed, was a beauty by any measure with her long limbs and smiling, pale eyes. “But …what was she like?”
Pops fixed his gaze on the black and white photo and shrugged. “She was pretty,” he said, “and tall. Just like you. So hush now, hear? You know I don’t like talking about your momma…”
And so Virgil had accepted the mystery of Dorothy Steiner’s existence and nonexistence as he had accepted most of what life flung his way. His father had raised him from infancy, playing both mother and father to him. Throughout Virgil’s adulthood, his father was more brother than parent. And now, in his disabled state, Pops was playing the child. From Virgil’s standpoint, he had his whole family wrapped up in one person. What was the point of wanting more?
Indeed, the prospect of wanting more of anything had never occurred to Virgil in his life. He was a simple man with uncomplicated expectations, an outlook which had resulted in a satisfying – if adventureless – life.
Until the day a long-limbed lady named Eleanor Watson took the Amos exit off I-70 and stopped by WalMart for a bottle of water… and a bag of circus peanuts.
feature photo: HouseofHawthornes.com
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