The last time I saw Donnie, he got drunk on Lemon Lovers and I drove him to the Emerg. A drizzly, freezing-rain kind of night, and I work graveyards hauling laundry at the old base in Cornwallis-mess-hall scrubs in two kinds of marinade, big pallets of Air Cadets’ wet-dream sheets. Still, it beats the garbage truck, which I drove for three years until Ed, the fat foreman, found the recreational skirt and blouse I kept jammed under my seat. Brenda left me once I left Sanitation; she rented herself a basement apartment in town and enrolled in Medical Office Assisting. Took the cat and all her tarty V-necks with her. She never found out about my skirt and blouse, mind, and at least the laundry gig gives me free dental. Anyway, night shifts at the base are more private.
So I’m driving putrid sacks of old jock straps and Christ knows what else from barracks to barracks in my best Frenchy’s silk, when I get my 2 A.M. business call from Donnie.
“I’m sloshed, Uncle Hock!” he warbles proudly into the receiver, like after twenty and a half years of knowing the kid I haven’t learned to tell the damn difference. It’s those Lemon Lovers again, I know it. They’re this foul, cheap drink his girl Christine made up: mouthwash, lemonade, and a jigger of lemon extract. I couldn’t even drink one; he pounds six or seven, no trouble. I think of his liver and all I can picture is floor joists once termites have gnawed clean through them.
“You don’t say,” I tell him, cutting the steering so I don’t collide with the blue ruin of the former base chapel.
“Sure am,” he says, even slower than his usual; Brenda’s kid sister, Cheryl, was heavy into Cold and Sinus, so that should give you some idea. She took a stroke last April (Brenda found her swaddled in afghans and puke) so Donnie hasn’t got much family, poor numbskull, and Brenda hasn’t called him since the gong show at Thanksgiving. I guess you could say I’m his pater familias.
“So, yeah,” he says on the phone, even slower, and round about this time I remark that Donnie’s been wheezing real heavy, letting out little whinnies of pain the way our pit bull, Tank, used to do before we shot him. I veer left toward the old range, wait him out. I’m an old hand at Donnie and his cut-rate dramatics.
“I went and got myself stuck, Hock,” he says. The kid never was one for much exposition. I figure I’ll bite. I figure I’ll regret it.
“What do you mean, ‘stuck’, now, Donnie?” I ask him. Around Digby, Donnie’s become a bit infamous for getting himself Brigadoon-blotto and spending the night in a hospital bed. Like Thanksgiving, when they had to tweeze out the turkey wishbone he’d jammed into his left hand. Or July before last, when he went streaking at Mavillete Beach and turned out to be allergic to poison ivy. Welts all up his rump like a ridge of scales. So I figure either it’s his girl, Christine, or it’s some damn doctor thing, and either way I’m not an especially interested party at the moment, as the silk and pleated chiffon is tickling my ankles in a little sneeze of wind. I always crank the van windows down on the night shift, so I can feel my skirts blow around.
There’s a wild howl on the other end like a coyote giving birth.
“It’s-all them exotic fruits I bought,” he says.
The chittering idiot. Ever since Donnie got the mechanic’s job out at Pettipas Garage, he’s been ass-deep in kumquats and gaudy, greenish- pink dragonfruit, just because he can shell out for pricey grub.
“Did you try to eat them, for a change?” I asked him. “Instead of letting them moulder and get thrown to compost?”
“It ain’t that, Uncle Hock,” Donnie groans. “I been readin’.” Something in his gravedigger’s voice makes me careful. “It was an article,”-he keeps at it-“in GQ. About fruit and veggies, the things you can do with ’em. And it’s been fuckin’ forever since Christine-she’s a woman of morals, she says, and there’s certain things she just won’t…. anyways, it says there’s ways fruit can take care of it. Hollowed out, like, or halved. So this avocado…that’s what got stuck. Will you come help get it off?”
It’s my turn to groan; I’m a stag full of buckshot. It’s been almost a week since I was gussied up this much. I’ve missed my beige bra, my K-Mart pearls.
“I’m not leaving work in medias res to come pry an avocado off your dick,” I say.
“Well, will you drive me out to Emerg at six? The thing’s burnin’.”
“What about Christine? It’s more her department.”
“Can’t call her,” he says, like I’m totally thick. “Thinks it’s cheating.”
I can’t cook up a rebuttal to that; Brenda never knew about Mary Kay or Gloria Vanderbilt, either. Of course, I also never got my peter stuck.
I get off at six and there’s still a load of starched uniforms in the rear of the van for tomorrow night, so I figure I’ll suit up before I pick up Donnie in Flat Iron. He’s had the avocado on him for hours by now, and if he’s gotten into something else calamitous he’ll call back. To undo all the hooks and buttons on my chemise might take half an hour at least, so my safest bet’s to hide what I’m wearing. Lucky I’m a veteran at that.
At the Frenchy’s stores in Saulnierville and Meteghan (cluttered, fluorescent hodgepodges of used-rag bins and real French Acadians) I always go for earth tones and taupe. You pick the least conspicuous clothes so they charge you for garb from Men’s X-Large. All the better if you luck out with tops that stink of mothballs; it’s more believable that you picked them by mistake. I never liked shiny fabric much, anyway, and it used to drive me nuts when Brenda went shopping and carted home a car full of rhinestones and lace. Next, I go to the Men’s Coats rack and find something down-filled with really deep pockets, expensive enough to make up for the dress or whatever it is I’m about to pilfer. I bundle up the women’s stuff so small it could fit inside a purse if I wore one, and I cram it in the pocket of the coat I’ll buy. It helps that the fabric’s thin as tissue paper and feels like I’ll break it in my beefy hands.
I’m a do-gooder-I am, just look at Donnie-and it kills me that I have to steal every time. I’ve worked out a system to make amends- the coat has to cost twice as much as the dress, and then I donate it to a group home for the challenged. I’ve glimpsed the beneficiaries of my charity work around town: guys with Down’s Syndrome sporting too-long trenchcoats, or else unlikely hunters in their camouflage and feeding tubes. I like to think my moral compass still points Due North. I like to think that maybe it matters.
So I know what I’m doing when I hide a blouse. My plan is to find a chambray work shirt like the ones the cleaning staff (South Milford Scrubbers) wears, since it’s the only thing both broad enough to cover my shoulders and thick enough to hide the ruffles on my blouse. Luckily, I find one, and a pair of standard-issue navy-blue cadet slacks, a foot too short and looking more like capris with my hefty brown work boots beneath them. I tuck the frills of my skirt up inside an olive drab jacket, which I wrap deftly around my waist like a kimono sash. It’s almost enough to pass for usual.
When I pull up to Donnie’s trailer out in Flat Iron at six forty, he’s already crouched on the front stoop waiting. He has himself nestled in beside a rusty old Frigidaire to hide the offending appendage. Good job he never trucks anything to the dump.
“Thank Christ,” says Donnie when he sees my van. “It’s turned purple. How the shit are we gonna get me into the clinic? I can’t wear pants, Hock. I can’t hardly stand.”
I look down at my Air Cadet short pants, my South Milford Scrubbers blue button-up.
“I’ve got this, kid,” I say to Donnie, and I goose him on the shoulder the way dads do in Canadian Tire adverts. The front yard at Donnie’s place is a weedy mess, all wood chips and old bed frames and half-empty paint cans. I practically have to hoist him through it to get over to the van, where we unearth a Navy Blue Dress Jacket, large, to hold against his compromised crotch.
“Look at me!” Donnie giggles, still drunk. “I’m an Admiral!”
“You’re an ‘admirable’, all right, Donnie,” I tell him.
The drive to the outpatients in Digby is uneventful, unless you count Donnie yowling for mercy each time we hit a rut in the road. The Digby County Emergency Wellness Clinic is actually housed in an old Presbyterian manse, with extra wards built on as addendums when need or municipal make-work dictates. As is, it looks like a shabby Victorian with growths coming out in little rows. Even the hospital seems to have cancer.
Donnie and I manage to sidle up to it together, me bracing Donnie’s legs for support and propping him up so he doesn’t keel over. As we topple through the plate-glass front door I have the distinct impression we’ve swaggered into a saloon, abetted by Donnie’s alcohol breath. Saloons, however (I’ve watched my John Wayne) don’t come with hand sanitizer and Hep B pamphlets. They also don’t come with receptionists.
She’s lost a little weight since either of us have seen her last. Which is somewhat tragic, as there wasn’t much to lose and the effect is of a frightened sparrow atop a teetering birch. She can’t wear her tarty rhinestone V-necks or hoop earrings at a place of work (she must have graduated from Medical Office Assisting, by now) but she’s got this glittery, bug-eyed frog brooch on her mint-green hospital scrubs. The bitch.
“Good Mornin’, Aunt Brenda,” Donnie chirps, like he’s come to take her out for a donut at Tim’s.
“Name, Health card, and reason of visit,” she tells him, real businesslike, not meeting either of our eyes. He forks it over and tells her the information she already knows-his name-which she punches into a computer with glowing white words on a black background, like stars.
“Reason of visit,” Brenda repeats, unsmiling.
Donnie’s eyes tango all around the room-the TV blaring Tonka adverts, the patent-leather chairs, the Public Health posters. Suddenly his face clears, regal and rational, and for a second I almost believe he is an Admiral.
“I’m here for one of them PAP smears, Aunt Brenda,” says Donnie gravely, his head held high.
So if you see him around, will you tell him to call me? I have a down payment on a lean-to by the lake, and I think I’ll adopt a pit bull again. But I still work the graveyards-the restless graveyards- every night until six.