Short Story / Writing

The Proposal by Richard Hartwell

There were three of them sitting at the green-flecked Formica table when I walked into the room. One I knew. I knew her two and sometimes three times a day. I knew her in the biblical sense as often as I could. She was a newly minted seventeen and I thought I was stamped pretty old and wise at eighteen, going on nineteen. We’d known each other for about a month and a half.

The other two at the table were really old, perhaps in their forties. The lines of their faces, drawn deeper by the smoke in the kitchen air, and the pistol stuffed in the belt-holster on the left hip of the one nearest the door, all created an ancient surreality. It was like a scene from a cheap western and like a cheap western hero, I swaggered into the kitchen portion of the one-room apartment leaving the hall door open to the other closed doors on the floor. Through the open window behind them, I could see the front door of the hotel cathouse across the side street from the liquor store. The door stood closed. It was still early evening.

I drew myself up and demanded, “Who the hell are you?”

The one I knew started to stand and began to speak, “Honey, these . . .” before she was cut off with a restraining hand on her thin arm from the one without the gun. She slid back down onto the cushion of the cheap aluminum chair. It gave out a swoosh as the air escaped.

“Sit down boy. We need to talk.” This was from the one with the gun and said to the wall across the table from him. He didn’t turn to face me. The other one, the one who hadn’t spoken yet, got up and left his chair scooted out from the table. He settled himself on the foot of the bed next to the table, denting the brown throw cover and exposing the yellow pillowcase at the other end.

“I asked, ‘Who are you?’” I repeated, addressing both, but staring only at her. I added quickly, just to sort of ease into character, “Don’t call me boy!”

“I told you to sit down. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” This time he turned and looked at me. It would be a great image to portray him with a pencil thin mustache, with a scar over his left eye, with deep creases on the browned face of a maverick cowpoke. It would be a great but false image. The mustache was there, but it was scraggly. If there were any scars, they were probably caused by razor burn. His face was putty-white; that of an office worker. It hadn’t registered yet, but it was the other one I should have been focused on.

“These are my uncles, Clarence and Dave, David,” came from a much lighter voice; her offering of oil on troubled waters.

I was still floating on top of these words and trying to reconcile the image of the office worker with the gun when a third voice spoke up, “Sit down, son. Shut up and listen to her,” said very clearly and carefully.

Whether it was the roughened voice or being addressed as ‘son’ or the ebbing of the original rush of adrenaline, whatever the excuse, I sat. I had seen something in his weathered face, that of an outdoor worker, that made me accept his suggestions as directions and his directions as orders. He sounded as if he was used to bossing a roughneck crew.

For two hours I sat. For two hours I smoked their cigarettes and they drank my beer. For two hours I listened to her and to them. I listened to her tell her uncles how much we were in love and how she wasn’t going back to her parents’ house and how I had this really great job working on a hog ranch for a guy named Roy something and how we were going to live there, above the liquor store, until we saved up enough money to . . . to . . . and then she would occasionally falter and the one with the gun, Clarence, would take over.

When it was his turn, he told her, and me too I suppose, how we were too young and how her mother had cried and called them, the uncles, and how much it cost to live together and how she, their niece, would never finish high school and how he had made a dumb mistake like this too. I learned he was a cop, not there but in Los Gatos, and I learned that he had a lot of cop friends here who could make it hard for me and who could take care of me if he called them. He also told us, me mostly, about what would happen if she got knocked up?

At this point the non-talker, Dave, rose uncomfortably off the bed. “Whadda ya gonna do about it? That’s all I wanna know.” It wasn’t really the beers that caused the slurring, I would learn this much later, it was the fact he was topped-off with conversation, fed up, and he was just trying to cut through the crap. That’s what made his syllables trip over themselves.

I’d been pulled in a few times in Gilroy and I thought I knew a good-cop-bad-cop routine when it was being run on me. They had had their two hours and I thought it was time I took a couple of minutes for myself. I started to protest that I’d done nothing wrong, that their niece had followed after me and that I hadn’t lured her away from her parents. It was quickly apparent that they didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of that.

Dave asked again, “What are you going to do?” this time enunciating each syllable distinctly. When it was obvious that I wouldn’t or couldn’t answer, he told me what I was going to do. “You’re gonna get out a here, out a this town, and out a her life, or I’m gonna beat the shit outta ya!” He was back to slurring and that provided a certain conviction that emphasized his look.

Being young and full of what my grandmother called piss and vinegar, I stood up and declared that I wasn’t afraid of them. I didn’t figure I was the kind to give in, cut and run. “You can’t run me out of town. We’re getting married!” Now if I thought this was going to catch them at a disadvantage, I was sorely mistaken. The love-light in her eyes when I said this was wonderful. The gleam of success in theirs, particularly Dave’s, was downright scary.

“All right, boy. When?” This was from Clarence; I could tell because we were back to ‘boy.’

From Dave, we were back to ‘son.’ “Tell ya whatcher gonna do, son. Yer both gonna go back and get her parents to agree to her gettin married. Then we’re gonna pack ya off on a bus to Vegas an ya ain’t comin back til yer legal. That’s whatcher gonna do!” It was probably the longest speech of his life and he seemed out of breath afterwards. As if to emphasize the finality of all this, Dave stood up. Clarence wasn’t far behind, but she beat him anyway. The kitchen-bedroom was getting smaller and smaller.

I heard myself saying, “That’s what I was gonna suggest.” Pretty weak face-saving, I know, but I had to say something.

On their way out the door, Clarence took my hand and shook it. “Congratulations,” and then he gave his niece a hug and, bending down, a quick kiss on the forehead.

Dave didn’t bother with the bullshit of shaking hands. He just held his niece’s face for a moment, one of his massive and calloused hands cupped on each of her cheeks, and said to us both while looking at her, “We’ll see ya in bout ten minutes. Right?” He knew he didn’t need an answer.

I could drag the rest out, but it gets darker and dumber with each retelling. Her father got a notarized letter saying she had his permission to marry me. Dave and Clarence sprung for a bus ticket to Boise; seems Idaho was the nearest state where I didn’t also need permission and there was no waiting period. They were both damned and determined the marriage was going to be perfectly legal. There was to be no lying and no coercion. It was a twenty-four hour bus trip, one way, and we got married in a hospital chapel the same day we arrived and turned around and started back on the bus by early the same evening. I guess you could call it a whirlwind courtship and a tornado wedding.

I shoveled pig shit for Roy something for a few more weeks, driving back and forth each day in the ‘52 Studebaker Dave had given us when we got back from Boise. I worked for Roy until I got something better in San Jose. The marriage lasted ten years. By that time Clarence had been kicked out of his house, but not off the force, for beating his wife. Dave had long since taken off back to Georgia to some waitress he’d met on a turnaround.

The last time I drove through Morgan Hill I noticed that the liquor store was still there and, presumably, so were the apartments upstairs. Maybe it wasn’t the same name. I couldn’t recall. I wished luck to anyone in those. I don’t know if the whorehouse is still across the side street. I didn’t stop.


 

Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school (remember the hormonally-challenged?) English teacher living in Southern California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather still be tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon. He can be reached at rdhartwell@gmail.com

 

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