My name's Asa. If you want to get technical it's Asa Charles Harrison IV because my dad and his dad and his dad were all Asa Charles Harrisons, too. Some more than others. My great-grandfather ran whiskey from Winnipeg down to Madison County, Kentucky with stops in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Indianapolis. They didn't have the checkpoints or border patrols like we do now back then, but to hear Grandpa Charlie tell it, Asa the First out ran some Mounties and some feds and drove through more than a few bean fields getting from point A to point B. Grandpa Charlie - Asa II - took up the family business when he turned 16. Prohibition was done and his run was just Chicago to back down here in Berea, Ky, up until he got wise and set up his still in a pole building behind the corn crib on the family place. It wasn't illegal to drink any more, but Charlie found a whole lot of backwaters to sell clear whiskey without the federal tax label to. Mostly it was shacks with a poker game, roadhouses without names, but there was the cathouses that sprung up in some big country house on a few acres and moved as soon as Sherriff Hamilton got enough complaints to move the whole operation a few farms over. It's a living.
I guess it skips a generation here and there because my dad has been investigating claims for ________ Insurance and Casualty for 34 years, now. I grew up hearing about how he didn't want to live like the rest of "them rednecks" since before I knew what them rednecks did. He grew up poor and missing his daddy and didn't want to do that to us so we moved into Richmond before my sister and I were even born. I'm back in Berea. Have been since I turned eighteen. There's one homemade still left out in the pole building, Grandpa Charlie runs it for himself and a few friends. It sits cold probably nine months a year, but I got around fourteen hundred plants out there, now, give or take. I'm a small business with no prospectus or plans for growth. I'm humble, I guess. I got two guys working for me and a quarter share partner I only wish was silent. As far as the IRS is concerned we are "Harrison's Odd Jobs" and we do home improvement and handy man work. I have a truck with a decal on the side that says so, too. I get a couple calls a week to do some tuck pointing or wainscoting, seems I'm always booked a few months out. I've built up quite a referral network, now.
But I'm successful in a way at what we actually do. I sure got enough money. I ain't rich, but I've got enough. I take pretty good care of Jeff-ro and Donnie. I have an accountant and a couple of mutual funds. I pay in what I can get away with in some investments for the boys. I pay them pretty good and they have the run of the farm and the use of the truck. They're loyal and they're family to me, now. Hell, we even have a health plan. I wish I could offer dental. The boys are either lucky or moral because I've never had to bail either one of them out, though sometimes Grandpa Charlie calls from the motor home we call a jail in Berea and needs a small loan and a ride home. It's always a drunk and occasionally a disorderly charge. He never smokes my product. He calls it a "womanly vice." It's a living.
Now, if you're looking for crime story you're gonna be blue. There's no renegade poetry in my profession. Most of my time is spent as a gardener and trying to figure out how to spend money without looking like I have any. Illegal cash is weird like that, you can get it pretty easy but getting rid of it is a bit of a problem at times. I'm pretty sure the locals know what I do and look the other way. I get a beer with Commander Hamilton here and there and we're pretty careful not to talk about it. What gets most guys in trouble is that they get greedy or ambitious and they get sloppy. I declare a safe income and forge a lot of invoices on folks I know's property. You can't spend too much or get too big. Even here most of the weed comes up from down South through Mexico. I'm not screwing with those folks, they can have the big business. I avoid cartels and I do my damdest to stay small enough to be sure I don't look like a problem. I have clients in four cities in two counties. Jeff-ro and Donnie handle them. They run wholesale to a few clients, one's a kid at the U of K and another's a dentist in Richmond. There's a psychologist or psychiatrist up that way, too, running his own prescription business. I guess there's a few others, too. I don't ask too many questions. We do fine. We steer clear of the high schools and the keep everything out of this town and away from kids. As long as no one starts crying for a "Drug-Free Community" we've got a good little thing. Our plants are for grown-ups. It's a clean buzz. It doesn't knock you catatonic in a chair. It's weed you can smoke before breakfast and have a have a good day of work. We tried to grow other shit, but demand is for this.
Like I said, Grandpa Charlie don’t smoke, but he don’t mind, neither. He gave me the seed money on this and – for the most part - we have a good deal going; I kinda gave Grandpa Charlie his retirement. I cover the taxes and utilities and he gets to pocket his Army pension. There’s no mortgage any more on the farm. From what I hear it was paid off in 1961 when Grandpa finally got the title. There was some legal trouble in the later 70s and I guess he borrowed against it but the place has been in the family for almost the full four generations. It’s a home to me, though I didn’t grow up in the old house. Charlie stays in as a quarter partner. I tried to pay him off plenty of times but he’s refusing and he won’t take a cut of profits. He says he likes the “favors”, which most of the times involves me picking him up from the bar or the Police station. It's no real trouble for me. I've been living under his roof for years and he'd do it for me.
Grandpa Charlie never calls me himself, it’s either Diane or Sherm from the Dew Drop Inn or it’s the Commander. Diane is the bartender at the Inn, she’ll call and tell me “Charlie’s in his cups and if he climbs in his truck it’s on your head, Asa” and I head down there to look like it was my idea. I run in and flirt with Diane, who is past 60, but looks 40 and dresses 20. I’ll clap Grandpa on the back and tell him I stopped down for a beer and then he’ll make a show of buying me some of that snake piss the old guys call beer. I choke it down and tell him I’m heading home. Charlie’s a good drunk, mostly, and he knows a good chance to save face. He never says thanks and I don’t want him to. The guy has his pride. A quarter partner don’t have to thank no one.
One last thing, I might be writing it down like that, but no one calls him “Grandpa Charlie” to his face. He’s Charlie. I remember trying to call him Grandpa Charlie when I was little and he called me “Grandson Asa” for a week. He’s right. It sounds silly. Nevertheless, everyone in town calls him Grandpa Charlie when he’s not there.
Now, I don’t get out much, but a year or so back Donnie got me to go see his band at Pincher’s. Donnie plays drums with what I believe to be the worst heavy metal band any one has ever seen, and that’s saying something. Most metal bands suck in a particular way, they’re sloppy, too loud, they look like they work at the Costco while they “sing” about decapitation, any number of reasons, really. Donnie’s band sucks in an entirely unique way: They’re timid. The singer is a really nice guy in his late thirties, coaches the tee ball team for the Ice Cream shop his family owns. He shows up and wears polo shirts and kinda screams the best he can – and in a pretty tuneful way, he has a nice voice – but the sum total is that of your dad doing Sabbath tunes on the Lawrence Welk Show. Donnie’s a solid drummer, but I think he’d be more at home in an easy listening band. The thing is, there’s only one band in town that's old enough to even play a bar and that’s “Rebel Noyzz”. Either way, it’s a pretty strange thing. Still, the band buys pizza some nights with their paycheck and they have a helluva following for a little town. So I went.
Pincher’s is an arm pit. The best whiskey they have is Beam. I like Beam, but it’s not exactly a night out for me. I met Jeff-ro out there, Jeff-ro brought Lisa and Lisa brought Emma Potts. From that night and the first time I set eyes on her, Emma Potts became my favorite thing to look at. Ever. Let’s get this straight: I know what a girls’ supposed to look like – and I like that, too – but Emma is the best thing ever made.
She looks all wrong in the right way. She’s way too skinny. If her nose wasn’t on her particular face it would be merely bent. Her mouth on any other girl would be crooked and too thin. Her eyes are amazing. They’re both too big and one might sit higher than the other, but they are perfect pools of bottomless brown and the whites are the whitest white anywhere. Her hair is some indeterminate color that runs the full range of dark blondes and light, mousy brown. She’s built like a fence post with hips and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I hope this doesn't sound past-tense. She's not gone. It's not that story, either. at least I hope not. I never know what the story is with Emma, but she's not gone. She's most likely in the basement canning beans or pears in mason jars I'll never know if she bought or found. Probably botulism, too. For all I know she's cultivating botulism as the primary objective. I'm going to be avoiding anything out of season come winter.
Still I remember being struck by her looks and that she didn't look anything like any of Lisa's regular friends who all wore so much make up that it was a crap shoot if you'd wake up with a beauty or a beast in the morning. Not that I'd never gambled, but it's not really my regular thing. Most of Lisa's friends had either eating disorders, terrible mid-Kentucky bolt-ons or both. They looked like little girls playing dress up and stuffing musk-melons in their sister's bra. It's not much of a turn on. Emma was under done on the makeup front, skinny and flat and she wore it proudly. Man, she wore it well.
I grabbed Lisa the first chance I got, "Who the hell is that?"
"Emma? She's alright. She was friends with my roommate at Richmond and she comes down a few times a year. Why? You like?"
"Yeah, she's a peach. You got any more like her?"
Lisa laughed and looked around for Jeff-ro. "Nope. Just Em. There's only one." She laughed a little more than I'd have liked and headed off to rendezvous with Jeff-ro at the bar. I was standing by myself a lot too close to the speaker and looking around for Emma. Jeff-ro and Lisa made it back first, but they brought tall glasses with umbrellas and a pair of Beam on the rocks. Emma showed up a few minutes later. She'd been distracted by a new friendship by the dart board with Eddie Finn when he'd bought her a Dewer's and water in an effort to lubricate all of her "yes" muscles. Apparently Eddie went for the close too soon and the prodigal Emma came back to us with those ridiculous brown eyes and took the other Beam.
She made a helluva show of ignoring me until her drink ran dry then she squared off with me and told me, "Y'know, the sun is gonna burn out in the next five billion years."
Her eyes had rendered me in idiot and I couldn't come back with any more than "yeah?" She smiled anyway, like a sphinx, and looked me up from boot to hat. Her mouth moved and sound came out but all I could do was stare at her lips. "What? " I says. Charming as all hell. She moved in, achingly close to me. She got right up to my ear so close I could feel her hot breath and smell the whiskey on it.
"That give you enough time to work up the nerve to buy a girl a drink?"
She came home with me, but it didn't go like that. Not the next night either. She's not like that, and I couldn't bring myself to push real hard. I was pretty nervous, and I'm not a nervous guy. That first night I poured a few fingers of something decent for both of us when we got home and made some microwave popcorn. I didn't wanna talk and sound stupid, so I put on Full Metal Jacket. Somewhere around the part where they get out of boot camp and into 'Nam, I think I had screwed up the nerve to try and kiss her or say something funny, but she was out. I got her some blankets and took off her boots and laid her straight on the couch.
She was still out cold when I got up. I made coffee and then eggs. I ate the eggs and drank most of the coffee. I made eggs again and tried laying that pan on the burner a bit louder this time. Grandpa Charlie ate those eggs and then the toast then he put on Fox News. He just moved her legs off the couch and laid 'em on the floor so she was twisted like a diver, her head on the arm of the sofa, one foot flat on the floor and one leg sticking out like a cat, but she kept sleeping.
Donnie and Jeff-ro finally woke her up. Jeff-ro came to pick up four QPs to run north of Richmond. Donnie sat at the kitchen table and moved a one liter bottle of Mountain Dew around the place mat with his teeth. Seems he was a crane that morning.
You gotta know Donnie. Jeff and I don't much notice it anymore, but writing it down it asks for some explanation. Donnie is a weird fucker. I mean, he's no idiot. He a good dealer and a damn good drummer and he also restores old Dodge Chargers. This is how he thinks: He bought a '69 Charger for what we thought was way too much, but he got her running and welded the doors shut and painter her like the General Lee - y'know, from the Dukes of Hazzard - then he managed to sell her to Tom Wopat from the show. Donnie made good money. Wopat signed the hood and resold it and made even more. It was a good deal. Donnie did a bunch. Most of the '69s were gone, but he did six of them from the late '60s and early '70s and sold 'em all to Wopat. He even did a '75 AMC Matador and painted like a Hazzard County cop car. He's like a savant. But you can't really forget that he's a weird fucker.
One year he took up Tai Chi, but apparently only could do it in my living room and with AC/DC on. Another time he carried a frog he named Robert in his shirt pocket for two months. No explanation. Just a frog he talked to like a therapist and then nothing. The frog went away. I asked him about Robert, he just said "Robert had to move on." He never drinks when he's working or driving, but the rest of the time he sucks down beer like oxygen. I've never seen him act even a little buzzed. He's gentle as a bunny and spends a lot of his money on his mom. Every chance he gets, he hangs out with Tina who broke up with him eight years ago. It's a touchy subject because he's typically hanging out with Tina and whatever asshole she's climbing on that week. But don't say a bad word about her. One time Jeff-ro thought to tell him to straighten out and have some pride, and Donnie about knocked him down. He drove off, but the next morning he came back with a speech prepared and he told the both of us that Tina was off limits. We can give him shit all day, he says, but Tina was "special". That there was a lot that we don't know and how Tina left him for a good reason and that he was gonna love her until she asked him to stop and we had nothing to say about it. We took it fine and told him we had his back then we let him have off for a few days to get in some drinking.
Either way, Donnie had no issue poking Emma in the ribs and tickling her feet. Em got up mad as a snake and ready to spit. I learned the first day not to do a damn thing with her in the morning but feed her coffee until her eyebrows lifted a little and the little lines in her forehead smoothed out. I made her eggs. Hell, I made eggs for Donnie and JR, too.
I think that was a Thursday, and Emma stayed for the weekend. On Saturday night we were watching Fight Club and I said to her "Em, Y'know. The sun is only gonna keep burning about another five billion years," thinking I'm setting myself up to make a move.
She says to me - sweet as tea - "Just kiss me, Asa. Keep the lines and kiss me." And I did. She went back to wherever she was living on Monday. I never asked. Maybe that's dumb, but she didn't offer and I didn't ask. Come Wednesday she was back with a carful of her stuff and she never left again.
Here's the thing, this isn't really much of a love story, either. I guess it's a kind of one, but I'm not a kid. I've had some girls before. I lived with one of them, even. After a certain amount of time on your own, though, you get to like it. I mean, it's not exactly that you like living alone, but you like it better than changing. You get set in a way. I have my habits. The money lives in the pole building. I think I have a good system for it. I bale it in thousands and then I bag the bales and then there's these piles of steel beams and I use the bobcat and set the bags into a covey we dug in the ground, then lay pallets on top and pile the beams on top. It's better than a bank, I think. At any time I might have a few grand ready to put in the ground and one Sunday I went out to move beams. That's payday from everyone, so Donnie and Jeff-ro help out. the bag was missing. I had left it behind the generator and come Sunday it's just gone.
I'm freaked out. I've never had a dime go missing before. I'm looking at Jeff-ro and Donnie and they're looking at me -I mean, this is our money - and we don't know what to think. Did we get robbed? The building's locked tight, nothing's cut. Donnie has money and Jeff-ro, well, he's about always broke, but he doesn't need to take anything. He just asks and I give him more. I got enough and I know he just pisses it away on Lisa or whatever girl he's with. Whatever. There's no reason for us to rob each other. And Donnie and Jeff know I got no reason to rob them.
Jeff-ro says it first, but I suspect he's speaking for the both of them, "You think maybe Emma would have, uh, moved it or something?"
I wanna get mad. I wanna defend her, but I don't really know her. I don't know if she's got habits or debts and I'm starting to wonder myself. Still, I'm a man. You do what's expected of you and I acted mad. I took my cap off as dramatically as I could and told him, "Jeff, Emma wouldn't take the money," though I wasn't as confident as I would have liked to have been.
"I'm not saying she did or didn't, but none of us moved it and Charlie couldn't even pick it up no more..."
"Emma's not like that..."
Donnie said it for all of us: "You sure?"
I'm not. I don't know what to think. "Shut it, Donnie. You think I'd hold out on her? I'd just spot her out of mine. She don't need to take it," and I would. As far as I know she probably had a job somewhere, but she's not working now. She bakes and hangs out with me. She never asks for anything, cooks what I bring home. Drinks what I get. I know what she likes, I think I have her set up fine. But I never thought about her and money. I mean, I told her what I do straight off, but I never told her what I have or where. She never asked.
"She might have just moved it" Jeff-ro's being polite, but he's thinking something a little darker. "Or she might have just, like, grabbed it. I don't know. Not like stealing. Probably. Listen, no one's calling her anything, but that was almost four grand. It might be a lot to someone."
"Boys" I say, "let' just pay out of the stash and I'll get this figured out. It ain't one of us. This I know. Let me sort this out." We agreed, though I know they were wondering how big a fool I am. I was, too. We did it like we said and paid out of the stash. Technically, that's my share, but no one really ever thought about it like that. Either way, I went in the house and I was mad, but also kind of scared. It had just hit me what I stood to lose letting a stranger in my life. It wasn't just money. So I figure I'm not gonna come straight at her.
"Hey, Em," she's making a sandwich for her and Grandpa Charlie.
She asks me, "You want one? Charlie brought home rye bread. Do you like Rye? It's no trouble. We have pickles, too. I've been thinking about canning some. Do you mind if I plant a little? There's almost a quarter acre between here and the out building, maybe I can fence a little off and start us a garden? We have irrigation and fertilizer, right?" And she winks at me. Most of the mad is gone.
"Sure. That would be nice. Listen, were you out in the building? 'Cause there was a blue duffel bag out there and I can't seem to find it. Charlie, have you seen it?"
I'm watching her, all of a sudden really aware that this is a person I just don't know. "The money?" She asks. Absolutely no change in inflection or flash on guilt on her face.
"Yeah. You seen it?"
"Yup," and she kept on buttering rye bread.
This was frustrating. I'm not an angry guy, but my gut was in my chest and I'm feeling some calm slip away, "So...where was it?"
"Behind the generator. I moved it. I needed to give Charlie some cash and I needed some things. I used about $300, but the rest is in our closet."
"It..Em, It...doesn't work like that. That isn't my money. I mean, not all of it. You can't just do that."
"Well, was $300 dollars of it yours?"
"Yes, but that's not really the point of this. Crap."
Em went to the sink and looked out the window into the yard. "Asa, I'm not sure how you do things and if I fucked up I'm sorry. We owed Charlie some money and he wanted to go out. I bought myself some stuff and I should ask. Should I get a job? I like being here and taking care of you two, but there are things a girl needs to get."
"Em. You don't need a job. We have it, but maybe you could talk to me about things?"
"I'm not sure I like the idea of having to ask for money. I guess I'll get some applications out." And that was that. When she was done, she was done.
She never got a job, I loosened the purse strings instead. I wasn't sure I wanted her to have to go and get a job. I think a part of me was sure that if she got out of the house she'd figure out what other options are out there. I'm not so great. Still, things changed. They're gonna change no matter what, but I think there was a turning point somewhere in there, I never really had a good sense of the money after the day she put the bag in the closet. I took my pay like usual and turned it over to Emma. Suddenly the house turned into some sort of showplace and I couldn't tell you when or how. One day I'm looking around and Grandpa's old place is shining clean and has duvets, window treatments and area rugs.
And we were eating better. Steak a few nights a week, even Grandpa Charlie took to staying home. Em kept good beer in the crisper drawer of the fridge for me and some of the snake-piss Grandpa likes right up front so he wouldn't have to dig. It was a slow thing that crept up. I don't think Grandpa made the decision to stay home, he just did. And we started to have music around the house. Mostly Grandpa had always kept the news on as noise. I never really noticed it. One afternoon I came home and Grandpa was doing a crossword at the table, chatting away with Emma and - sure enough - there was Elton John playing from speakers I couldn't find. I didn't think I had speakers.
A few times a month Emma would go out with Lisa and they might get lunch or have a couple glasses of wine or something. Chick stuff. she always came home with something special for dinner and a few bags from shopping. I never looked in them or checked receipts or nothing like that. She always put cash in my wallet, never asked me what I was doing with it. She'd say "Go buy the guys a drink. It's been a long week" and it hadn't been much of any kind of week, but, it turns out, I liked going out more, too. Em and I would go see a movie some Saturdays.
I'll be honest. I didn't know what to do with all of this. And if sometimes the money was moved around, well, there was never any real harm in it.
I did freak out a little bit one time when I came back from the post office and she was gone. We'd been together about two months at that point, and I had been getting pretty used to coming home to her, which wasn't a thing I thought I was gonna do. I like girls and all that, but most of the time it's just as easy not to have one. I think I was surprised to find out that the house was too quiet in a bad way. The thing is I didn't even notice it right away. I came in and dropped the mail on the table and went out to the big shed. I'd been having some irrigation issues for a week or so and I near lost a couple hundred plants. The boys have all of the real wet work, if you know what I mean, but I got the green thumb. It's always been pretty easy for me, I can spot a male plant pretty early and I'm just generally into botany, so a few hours a week pinching or trimming is relaxing for me. The ventilation and the light has been worked out for years, but water is a problem for me. I'm no plumber and I'm not really gonna give one a call, so my irrigation has always been a work in process. A week back I noticed I was drowning some of the crop on the South side of the building and to the North things were going brown, so I had to figure out what was wrong. I musta spend a couple of hours trying to chase down a leak or some where I was losing pressure. I never did find anything and I went in the house later pretty frustrated.
I came in the breezeway by the laundry room and found Grandpa Charlie at the kitchen table with a Pabst and the TV on loud. I went back to change into something clean and Em wasn't there. Or in the basement. Or anywhere. I came back through the kitchen and asked Grandpa "Have you seen Em?"
He pulled on his beer and said "Nope. She was gone when I got here." Then he scratched his chest for what seemed like a long time.
"Was there a note?" I asked.
"Not that I saw." And that was sorta strange. I figured she could be out with Lisa or shopping or something, but she was typically one to leave a note. Still I didn't really worry until morning and waking up alone.
When you're girl's gone you don't think like you do the rest of the time. I don't think I'm an insecure man or a jealous man, but reason takes a vacation when someone walks on you. I can recall thinking that she found someone else. Or she grabbed some money and left. Or she was gonna go see Commander Hamilton and things were gonna get ugly. I thought a lot of things that day. And, yeah, she was gone all day.
I tried her phone at regular intervals. At first they were spaced about three minutes apart, but as I lost hope they got further apart. I think I might have cried at some point in there, thought I couldn't tell you if it was from being depressed, pissed off, or hungry. I killed three plants topping them. When you top, the idea is to do just that, take off the top. I did, but I was so damn distracted I started in the middle on a few. I couldn't eat and I was starting to get concerned that I really finally lost it. I was running through the full emotional seasons inside, starting with biblically proportioned lament then on to desperation to some really heavy self pity and finally white hot rage: at her for being gone and at my own damn self for letting some skinny, little girl do this to me.
At 8:30 that night she called. She was sorry. I was trying not to let the whole day worth of feelings out all at once. I asked her "are you okay? That's all I wanna know right now."
"I'm okay," she said, almost in a whisper.
"What the hell, Em?" That came out harsher than I meant. I tried to soften it, "You had me worried as hell. Where you been?"
"Sorry. Sorry, sorry. The phone's been dead. I'm out in Northfield, by Louisville. I had a family problem come up and I can't talk about it, now. But I'm gon' be here through morning. I promise I'll be back by noon." She sounded sorry, too. And tired.
"Shit, Em. You just scared the shit out of me. You need money?" It was nice to be back in the loop, and it was nice to be able to help.
"Nope. I'm good. It's not jail or nothing. Look, I gotta go. Everything is fine. I have some money," her voice dropped even lower, "and I don't want any more on me." Her voice raised to almost a normal level, "I love you and I'll see you before noon, K?"
"I love you, too."
"I gotta go. Kiss." And the phone silence got a little quieter. I was fine for a good ten minutes until my head started to play with me. I started to think about how easy it is to lie. I hate to think very much, and I'm not really much of a drinker, but smoke didn't really clear my head. It might have made it noisier, to be honest. I poured a pretty big glass of Maker's Mark. Half way through the second one I fell asleep.
Donnie woke me up. My head hurt like hell and the sun was way too bright. Donnie looked me over and said "Oh shit. Where's Emma? Shit. I'm getting you some water." and he's standing over the sink and he asks me "What did you do?"
"What did I do?"
"Yeah. Did she walk on you?" He looked worried about it.
"Hell, I dunno."
And I told him about the whole day yesterday and the call and the Maker's and he seemed to calm down. While I talked he started some eggs and made me a glass of tomato juice with Tobasco and something brown. He said "Drink this. No, don't sniff it, it smells like ass but it'll fix you up." It didn't, really, but it did make me want to throw up and made me cough so hard it give me a headache. I thanked him, anyway.
He sat with me until Emma came home around 11, making me watch soccer. At one point I asked him what the hell the point of the game was and he said he was damned if he knew, but he liked it. "You can't use your hands," he said. When I tried to bring up Emma he just told me "I'm sure she had a good reason, Asa." When Emma walked in Donnie made like he was just leaving and snuck out the breezeway.
"You look like hell, Asa."
"I feel like hell, Em. What happened?" I finally stood up and went into the kitchen, put my plate in the sink and gave her the best hug I could manage. It hurt.
"My mom called and she was drinking and talking stupid so I took Lisa's car up there and kept her on the phone so she wouldn't hurt herself or nothing. I admitted her to the hospital last night and spent the night with her." I expected her to look pretty torn up about it, but she was just washing my plate like any other day.She looked serious and tired, but not really upset.
"Jesus, Em. You okay?"
"This kind of thing happens. Dear, we can talk more later, but I slept on a recliner for about two hours, can we do this later? I love you. I'm not going anywhere. You look like you worried all day and I'm real sorry. I'm crazy 'bout you. I gotta sleep."
That was that. She said some more, but more sketch than color and I never really got the full story. Her mom drank and sometimes when she did she got lonesome and tried to hurt herself. Seemed like a story that had repeated itself a few times. It broke my heart in a place that was so far down I didn't know how to ask the right questions. In a few days everything was back to how it had been. The place got bright again and I sort of forgot about things. I'm not so proud of that, now.
She took to answering the phone for me. At first I was sort of touchy about it and I had to explain about how that stuff worked. I said "Em, we refer that work out. I'm, on paper, a contractor. I have a list in my head of who does what job and who knows us and we're always booked out until..." but she cut me off.
"The list is in the drawer, Asa. I put together a list and I'm keeping track of who gets what referral. I'm also taking the numbers of the folks who call and following up to be sure that our referrals are taking care of them. Do you know we've been getting more phone calls than Jake MacIntosh over at M&M siding? He sent us those flowers on by the window as a thank you for what we're sending him."
"Em, some of those are calls for legitimate deliveries..."
"Yeah, I asked Donnie about those. He let me in on that. I figured out a way to just transfer those calls to Donnie or Jeff-ro. They've call a call schedule worked out. It's in the drawer by the referral list." And I'm not a guy with a temper, but I'd built this business. I'd always done fine without her and I didn't much care for her getting in between my employees and me - and I said so.
"Emma Marie Potts..."
"Now, Asa, don't you middle name me, I'm not your kid. I'm trying to help..."
"...Emma Marie Potts, this is a thing you have no business helping in. You could just let a man be a man and handle his business. And why are you talking to Donnie? I've done this for 12 years...
"Fourteen, actually," she corrected
"Fine, fourteen - and don't you correct me - fourteen years and I never needed you one time. I had a whole life before you came in here and I was fine. I got by. Do you like this life? I built it." And right then I looked at her and one big tear started up in her left eye and I stopped short like a dog on a chain. "Em, you alright?"
"Yes. I'm fine. I was just trying to make things go smoother. I was thinking we could collect a sort of referral fee and that maybe we could...never mind. I can stay out of this. I wasn't meaning to make you feel less a man." And she pulled that tear back up, and turned her back on me and started down the hall toward the bedroom.
"Emma. Please. You're doing good things. It's just always been mine." I was proud of what I'd done. No one wants to hear that someone can do it better, even if they can. "I guess you could help out. It sounds like you have some damn good ideas, and you're really just doing the things I don't much like to do."
"I was thinking that way." She faced me again, every bit of angst washed out by that half of a tear and short walk, "The way I imagine things is with you being able to focus on just growing and I'll be kind of the office girl. Keep things running." Or she'll just move in on my business, I thought.
"I could use the help. Hell, half the time Jeff-ro adds it all up for me at the end of the week. I'm not really a numbers guy." I'm not. Sounds like she does numbers pretty well, which would help me as long as she's straight about it.
"Well, you know what we could use? A computer. We could have spreadsheets and I could keep track of orders and referrals and who's moving more product and when. Donnie was saying we should consider a price increase. There's a drought through the whole state and we could be cleaning up on that. I'm not talking about drowning anyone, but maybe a bump of $15 to $20 on a quarter pound. I know your customers raised their prices - they wouldn't even notice a bump..."
"Slow down. We can look at that." And we did. And she was right as morning, and an extra twenty bucks on a QP brought us in an extra $350 or so every other week. I gave the boys a little pay bump and, on Em's suggestion, I started paying her a small salary. She was right on that, too. The guys said they thought she earned it and from our point of view it just came back to the house. We also got a nice little Hewlett Packard computer and set up a kind of mini-office in the laundry room.
Then, one day, I walked in on her and Jeff-ro. Jeff-ro has always had a penis problem, but he'd never been one to hunt his own yard. I didn't know what to say when I come in from the barn to find them coming out of the bedroom with red faces and Emma pulling at her collar to fan herself. I guess my thoughts were all over my face because they both started talking at me at the same time with Emma scolding me with "Asa, you know me better than that" even thought I don't believe I did, and JR saying "Knock that off, I ain't up for none of that on your time, uh-huh".
I just went into the kitchen and got a beer. Jeff-ro came in first, "Asa, I known you over twenty years and I'm not sure what to think of you thinking that way."
I said, "Jeff, I know you, but I don't know her."
Jeff-ro has his moments. He sat down across the table from me and says, "You think that's all it takes? That's Emma's so damn pretty I can't resist? If you don't know that girl yet, you oughta. She's pretty much all about you. That girl is gone. You're dumb. I mean, I love you and all, but you're a dumb man. Everyone loves that girl - and I think you do, too, in your own dumb ass way, but you're a lucky guy with a better woman than you deserve and all you can manage to do is worry about her. And that's dumb." He got up and left. Over his shoulder, though, he said "And if you need know facts go on in there and talk to Donnie. He was the head of the whole thing."
I was set to go figure it out but Emma busted in. Mad. "Don't you go accusing me.."
"It's cool, Em. I'm straight. I was gonna go talk to Donnie. I guess I didn't really think you two were doing anything. I guess...I'm just not so sure I know much about you. Where are you from? What did you used to do for a living? I don't know your family or even if you got any. I don't know the first or last thing about who you dated or who your friends are or anything."
And Em got pretty sad right then. "There isn't a lot to tell. I don't really talk to my people and I'm not sure I want you to know them. They don't think much of me. You never asked, but I was a CNA in Richmond, I was married once and never really thought about doing it again. never had money. I dunno. Not much to tell." She didn't look sad, though. she looked tough. She looked fierce. I wanted to ask about the married part but thought better. She went on, "If there's things you want to know you ask. I guess I like that you never bugged me about my history because there isn't a lot there I'm wanting to share, if you know what I mean. But I'm not trying to hide it. I haven't seen my dad since I was 17 and I don't know where he is. My mom is at the bottom of a bottle somewhere. I could find her, but I suspect I've done that too many times. I have a sister in Atlanta and a brother in Athens. We talk a few times a year. I think I'd like you to meet Clark. Maybe one day. He'd like you. Now come see Donnie. It's his surprise"
Now I was sad. I knew she was trying to save the day, but my heart was septic. I followed her into the bedroom, but there was no Donnie. Emma tells me to look in the closet and some of the joy is kinda sneaking back in. It wasn't no big thing, but Donnie had brought over one of those stairways you can fold down and they had hung it so I could get into the attic. Donnie was up in the attic with his shirt off. Said it was like a sauna and he was doing some sort of Indian ritual in the heat. He was supposed to hallucinate. He brought over plywood a few days later to lay down across the beams up there and we had some actual storage in the place. I hadn't ever noticed my own complaining about how much stuff she had. They got together and made some room for me.
I was grateful and humbled, too. I said we could put a whole house fan up there, that we knew some folks who would do us some favors and hang it. I said it and Emma finally looked sad as hell. She said, "it's not really our house..." I guessed I missed that one, too. I should have oticed a lot of things about Em, but I got to talking to Donnie and he was telling me about how he and Emma had been talking about things while they were putting the steps in and how maybe seeing Tina so much was a bad idea for the both of them.
After that, Emma and I went round and round on the house thing. She wanted a er own place. She said her parents had been renters and that they had been from Van Nuys, CA to Flower Mound, Texas to Rolla, Missouri and Alton, Illinois. They'd been all over the bottom part of the country and she wanted "roots." I said "Em, There's plants all over that don't own a thing but themselves and they're no less planted." That was unconvincing.
"That just isn't the point and you know it," she tells me. "I've never had any one thing that's just mine and now there's two of us and I got a chance to have something, to have a home. Our home. I like Charlie well enough and we get on just fine, but this ain't ours."
"Honey," I says, "I've been here over 15 years and you're with me and you have as much a right to call this home as anyone. It's mine and now-"
"Asa, it may well be yours, but it isn't mine." Her eyes had deepened in the way they do and I knew there was either gonna be tears or warfare soon enough. "I want a place I belong- we belong - and not the second floor with a shared kitchen. We have the money..."
"Now, Em, you know that's a big part of the fix. It's not real money. Not the kind you can spend. Not really. "
"You have piles of it."
"I do. In piles. And we can't spread it out like that. It don't behave that way. Em, you want a TV I can get you a great big one. You want fur -"
"-I don't believe in fur-"
"-But if you did you could have it. We just can't go buying anything we gotta tell the state about. A house is a problem."
"A house is a home. What kind of life is it where we can have anything we want but not the stuff we want the most?" And just then water started to pool on the inside corners of her eyes in a great globe until that globe busted and ran a trail down first her left cheek then her right. I was done. I couldn't say it yet, but those tears were my Little Bighorn, my Waterloo. I didn't have the ghost of chance, anymore. I had seen Emma cry exactly two times before and each time I knew in that moment what being crazy felt like because I would have done anything just to end that for her. In every argument before she had lost her house by getting angry at me, but those tears, that was really it for me, even if I couldn't lay down just yet and tell her.
"Em…honey, this is how folks lose. They get too greedy or too comfortable. We've talked about it before. We can't spend that money like that. A little at a time. You want maybe to go drive out to Bowling Green next week I bet Donnie and Jeff-ro wouldn't mind too much..."
She ignored me, she didn't want to go to Bowling Green. She didn't want to go anywhere. I knew it. She wanted to finally sit still and make a place. "Maybe I'll take a job at the rehab place for a while. Maybe if we just put some of it down I can get a loan...Like folks. It doesn't have to be a big place. Just a nice place, simple. Quiet. Ours..." And a week later I had called Eddie Finn from high school and we were following him around in his great big, stupid Lincoln with the Century 21 magnets on the sides.
And I guess that's about that. I put almost twenty four thousand dollars down and eight months later there was an audit and then an investigation and then fines I couldn't pay without getting in even more trouble. We worked out a payment plan and after a long time in court I got 2 years for tax fraud. I’ll serve 6 months, probably. Two more months and I get back to 1604 Springhill Rd. We kept the place. Why wouldn’t we? I’m paying for it in here.
I gotta hand it to Donnie and Jeff-ro, they’re making the transition better than I thought they would. It took a year of court before I got down to time and in that year we transitioned Harrison’s Odd Jobs into the legit world. Over that year we – mostly Emma – started answering the phone calls to patch drywall and re-hang gutters. Emma and I let all the plants in the barn dry out then we buried them with the bobcat under what became the cement pad for the little shed at 1604. Well, Donnie told me later he “liberated about a hundred and fifty of the crop and re-planted it in ditches along 595 and highway 25 in the dead of night. Good for him.
Turns out Donnie’s old man was a carpenter. I guess he did a lot of jobs with him growing up, but Donnie’s dad was the type of guy who drank more than he worked and who started a lot of jobs and finished one or two. It helps, though, that Donnie knew where to start. Jeff-ro and me were clueless. The way we’d work it out was we might get a call on a Tuesday to install an outdoor spigot. We’d thank them and schedule the job for Friday. Then we’d go out in the garage and jump on the internet and watch youtube videos until we were comfortable going shopping for supplies. On Wednesday we would install a new outdoor spigot on 1604, leaving a full couple of days to screw it up and call friends for advice. By Friday we had it down. We’ve kinda started up a reputation for doing good work. Plus, 1604 has an outdoor spigot.
1604 also has new covers on the gutters, that shed I was talking about before (leveling concrete took a whole morning to get the swing of), fresh blacktop on the driveway, an outdoor speaker system that sounds great on the porch with a relay and pre-amp to boost it for the garage, new wood paneling down to the semi-finished basement (we have two rooms done and drywalled and the rough in for a shower and toilet), a new front porch swing on the brick porch. Hardwood floors in the kitchen and dining room and chair rails all the way around almost the whole first floor (not in the kitchen, of course). It’s a nice house.
Last Saturday Em came up with paper and stamps and cookies and we had something almost like a picnic in the big common room. She says the phone is really ringing and that Donnie finished the plumbing for the downstairs bathroom and that she decided to take an ad out on a couple of bus benches up in Richmond. I guess it worked, she says Donnie and Jeff-ro are barely keeping up. It's a living, I guess.