It was the smell of bacon that finally got my ass out of bed.
Since before dawn, I’d been lying wide awake, staring up at the ceiling in my parents’ basement as the window wells slowly filled with the dull gray light off morning. A chorus of birds sang with the rise of the sun. I heard cars passing by outside on the street. The world was beginning its day, and I no longer had a place in it.
My name is Sonny Ramone. I’m 43 years old, divorced, and live in my parents’ basement. (Funny how, I still think of it as my parents’ basement, even though my father has been dead since I was thirteen.) And like so many people in this country, especially here in southeast Michigan, I am unemployed. When I first lost my job (I was laid off) I went into hyper-drive job-search mode, hitting the bricks – or in this case the internet – hard, looking for a new job. I wasn’t going to just sit idly by and let this happen to me. I was determined to find a new job before my first unemployment check came in, but I wasn’t able to do that. Still, I kept at it, waking early each morning, stretching, going for a jog, and then showering and dressing as if I had a job. I did have a job. Finding a job was my job, my full-time job. And I wanted to do it well. I was motivated, at least for the few weeks, even the first few months. Whenever I felt discouraged I just thought about my ten-year-old daughter, Melanie, and how I needed to help provide for her. But as the weeks and months passed even that wasn’t enough. I was applying to ten or more jobs a day and I wasn’t hearing anything. Not even rejections. I considered it a good sign if I got an acknowledgment that my resume was received at all. Eventually, I all but gave up. I still job-searched but I did so with little hope that anything would result from it. I began to find it harder and harder to even get out of bed, much less get on the computer and search the job sites. I started sleeping in. Some days I didn’t get out of bed until late afternoon, if at all. I watched TV and read and napped, a lot. I just didn’t feel like doing anything.
But the smell of bacon, that’s damn near impossible to ignore. Who among us can resist such succulent seduction? Not I.
I got up and dragged myself up the stairs to the kitchen to find my 80-year-old mother standing at the stove, cooking.
“Good morning, Ma,” I said.
“Good morning, Sonny,” she said brightly. “Can I make you some breakfast?”
“Sure. That’d be great, Ma.”
Fifteen minute later, there was a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of me, along with toast, a glass of orange juice, and coffee. I reflected on how nice it is to have someone make me a hot meal. That sort of things rarely happened when I was married; I did most of the cooking.
I ate heartily. Afterwards I was inclined to go right back downstairs and get right back into bed, but then my mother said, “What are your plans for today?”
“I don’t know,” I said glumly. “I hadn’t really thought about it. Why?”
“It’s a nice day out. You might consider getting out of the house.”
Of course, I knew she was right. I knew she was worried about me too. So I jumped in the shower, dressed, and went out, although I had no idea where I was going to go.
So I just drove around, which seemed kind of wasteful considering that gas was over four dollars a gallon.
I drove up Ryan Road passed my old high school, circling the parking lot. It was empty because school was out for the summer. Then I drove down the block passed the Catholic church I grew up attending. I couldn’t remember the last time that I’d been in church. After that I circled around and drove passed my old middle school and the Elias Brother’s Big Boy restaurant across the street. A little further down was the Burger King, a popular hang out after football and basketball games. There was also a McDonalds about a mile from the Burger King where we’d sometimes go too. Just passed the McDonalds was the K-Mart, and behind the K-Mart was K-Mart Hill, a popular place to park and hang out in high school, drinking and smoking and listening to music until the cops kicked us out. Why they called it K-Mart Hill I don’t know. There was no hill. There was a slight mound you had to climb to get from the parking lot to the field behind the K-Mart but I wouldn’t call it a hill, not much of one anyway. I drove passed some old make-out spots, and wondered if teenagers still used them. Finally, I just drove up and down random side streets, remembering houses of old friends and girlfriends and houses that I’d been inside for parties, but after awhile the houses and streets all started to seem the same, and I felt lost, lost in a place that was too familiar.
I needed someplace to go.
So I did what I did when I was a kid and had no place to go. I went to the mall. I figured I could kill some time walking around. I could buy a book and sit and read. And there was a bar in the mall where I could get a drink, although it probably wasn’t a good idea to start hanging out in bars in the middle of the day. That could be the beginning of the end for me.
Walking from the car to the mall, I saw a woman coming out of the mall. I didn’t think anything of it until she got closer. My eyes aren’t what they used to be. By time I got close enough to recognize her it was too late to turn around. The best I could do was hope that she wouldn’t recognize me, but no dice.
“Sonny? Sonny Ramone? Is that you?”
“Yep. It’s me. How are you doing, Debbie?”
Debbie Kanicki was a girl I’d gone to high school with. Actually, she wasn’t just any girl. She was a girl that I’d had a major crush on from the moment I first saw her, on the first day of sixth grade in middle school. I pined for her from that day all the way through high school. She knew it too. Hell, everyone knew it. But she wasn’t interested in me, not in that way. She would only be my friend, and I gobbled up every little crumb of attention that she threw at me.
Of all the people that I could have run into, why did it have to be her?
Of course, she insisted on hugging me. Back in high school I would have killed to hug Debbie but now I was hesitant to do so. But what was I going to do, run away?
It felt good to hold her, too good. She smelled the same, light and clean and slightly floral. It was nice but it made me sad too, reminding me of how long it had been since I’d been close to a woman. The last woman I’d slept with was my ex-wife and I’d been divorced for over a year, separated even longer than that. I made a point of not holding on too long to Debbie. It was she who held onto me, a moment longer than seemed appropriate it, but I wasn’t about to complain. And then when she finally broke the hug, she gave me a quick kiss on the lips that sent shock waves through my entire body.
“It is so good to see you,” she said.
“So what have you been up to?”
“Not much. The usual. You know…”
“Yeah, yeah…right.” She had a big grin on her face. “And are you living around here?”
“Yes,” I said, which wasn’t a lie but it wasn’t the whole truth either. But I wasn’t about to tell her that I was living with my parents again. How pathetic?
“Walter and I are up in Rochester now.” Walter was the guy she dated in high school our senior year and ended up marrying not long after graduation.
“Yeah. I heard that. Must be nice.”
“It is. We like it. You’ll have to come visit sometime so you can see our house.”
“Sure, sounds good,” I said, even though I had no intention of ever visiting Debbie and Walter. That would be just too weird.
“And meet our daughters.”
“That’s right. You have two girls.”
“What about you? Do you have any kids?”
“I have a ten-year-old daughter.”
“You do? How wonderful. Do you have any pictures?”
“Sure.” I reached for my wallet, pulled it out and showed her Melanie’s picture.
“Yeah. She is.”
Then Debbie said, “You know, what. We should go grab some lunch right now. Are you free?”
“Oh, do you have to get back to work?”
“No. I’m not working today,” I said. “But what about you? Don’t you have to be somewhere?”
She looked at her watch. “Actually, there is one thing that I have to take care of but it won’t take long. Let me just make a quick phone call.” She stepped away to make a call on her cell phone. Meanwhile I contemplated making a run for it. The last thing I wanted to do was eat lunch with Debbie. She finished her call and came back. “Okay. I have to make a quick run to meet a client but it won’t take long. Why don’t you come with me?”
We walked back to the parking lot and got into her car, a Jeep Grand Cherokee. It had leather seats and tinted windows and still smelled new, unlike my dingy little Honda Civic.
“So where are we going?” I asked once we were on our way.
“I need to show this house to a potential buyer.”
“You’re selling real estate?”
“Just a little on the side. Walter and I run a business.”
“Wow. Cool.” I was genuinely impressed, running a business and selling houses. It seemed so important. Even when I was working I was just a schlep in an office. I had a cubicle and I wrote reports and went to meetings but it never felt all that important what I did. It was just a job. Like a lot of people I occasionally bitched about my job, but truthfully I was glad to have it, glad to have a place to go every day, a purpose, tasks to perform, goals to meet. Now that it was gone I realized just how important it was to me. I missed my job. I might not have been in love with it, but it was my job. It meant something to me, maybe nothing very profound, but something, something significant, to me anyway. “And so how is business?” I asked.
“In this economy – it’s tough, let me tell you. But we’re managing. How about you?”
“Same,” I said. “Managing, you know.”
While we were driving, Debbie lit a cigarette.
“Sometimes,” she said. “When I’m stressed. Want a hit?” She held out the cigarette for me. I thought it was a little odd that she offered me a hit off of her cigarette instead of just giving me one. I took the cigarette and dragged on it. It had been awhile since the last time I’d smoked and inhaling was a little harsh, but I liked the immediate buzz it gave me.
“So what are you stressed about?” I asked handing the cigarette back to her, wondering if I really wanted to know.
“You name it,” she said ironically.
We drove north of the mall for a few miles and then turned into a subdivision and parked on the street in front of a grey-brick house. There was a big, red Ford F150 pick-up truck parked in the driveway. It had an extended cab and a shiny silver tool box in the back. I wondered how these people could afford to drive these big vehicles, the gas I mean? What did they do for a living?
Debbie asked me to stay in the car while she dealt with this client. It wouldn’t take long, she assured me.
A guy got out of the truck. He was wearing jeans and work boots, a jean jacket over white t-shirt and a baseball cap, and aviator sunglasses. Walking up to Debbie, it looked as if he was going to hug her, but she stopped short to avoid it. They talked for a moment, standing there in the driveway. He looked over in my direction. Then they went inside.
They weren’t gone long when I got the urge to snoop around Debbie’s vehicle. I opened the glove compartment. I found that little owner’s manual that tells you how to operate the radio and use the cruise control and stuff like that, a couple of maps, and a package of travel tissues. Also, a pen and small pad of paper. I opened the arm rest between the front seats and revealed a row of CDs – Springsteen, Steve Miller, Mitch Ryder… Ah, there it was; the Doors LA Woman album. Whenever I heard a Doors song I always thought of Debbie, especially the song, “Love Her Madly.” Debbie had left the keys in the ignition so I was able to pop the disc into the CD player. I went to “Love Her Madly” and played it. From opening guitar riff, it took me back to my high school days, especially time spent with Debbie. I could picture her at 17 as if she were sitting right there next to me.
I sang along with the song and as it got to the part where it goes…
Don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door
Just like she did one thousand times before.
…the guy that Debbie went into the house with came storming out of the house, stomping down the driveway to his truck. He got in and slammed the door, started the vehicle, and pulled out of the drive and tore off, squealing his tires. Debbie had come out of the house behind him and she just stood there and watched him go.
I got out of the Jeep and went over to her. “Is everything okay?” I said.
“Yes. It’s fine,” she said, holding back tears.
“Are you sure, because –“
“I’m sure,” she snapped, cutting me off.
I didn’t respond right away. I let the moment settle. Then I said, “You know, he doesn’t really seem like an enthusiastic buyer.” It worked. Debbie laughed.
“I forgot,” she said.
“Forgot what?” I said.
“How you could always make me laugh. Thank you.”
“No sweat. Anytime.” And just like that the crush I had on her back in the day was back. Dammit!
We went inside the house and Debbie explained to me that that guy wasn’t a client. He was just a disgruntled contractor. I wasn’t sure that I believed her. I mean, who cries over a dispute with a contractor, especially Debbie. In fact, up until that moment I don’t think I’d ever seen her come even close to crying. But I didn’t dispute her explanation.
We waited for the potential buyers but when it became clear that they weren’t going to show Debbie said: “I could use a drink. How about you?”
It was early in the day still, but I figured why not.
Debbie took a bottle of champagne from the refrigerator, something she liked to keep on hand for when she sold the house, to toast the sale with the buyers. She gave the bottle to me to pop and fished a couple of champagne flutes out of the cupboard. We filled the glasses and then Debbie said: “Here’s to… what? What do we drink to?”
“Got me,” I said.
In the end we decided who needs a reason to drink. And then we ordered pizza, delivered to the house. While we were waiting Debbie asked me if I wanted the tour. I told her sure, as long as she understood that I wasn’t in the market for a house.
“Not yet you’re not,” she said with a smile.
The house wasn’t completely empty. It was sparsely furnished, as if someone had only just begun moving in, beginning with the major pieces of furniture. Debbie explained that this helped give buyers an idea of how the place could look once they’d moved in while leaving room for imagination. Otherwise it was just a bunch of connected empty spaces. Also, if the buyers liked the furniture it could help nurture the sale. And if they didn’t like the furniture, you could point out how much better the place will look once the buyer added their own special touches to the place. It was one of the tricks of the trade, she said, like baking cookies for a showing.
We ended the tour in the back yard on the concrete patio. There was a wrought iron garden table with four matching chairs around it. That’s where we sat and ate pizza and drank champagne and talked.
I was worried that Debbie was going to ask about my job and my family, because those seemed to be the two things that everyone asked about. I didn’t want to have to tell her that I was unemployed and divorced and living in my parents’ basement. It was too embarrassing. But for some reason I didn’t want to lie to her either. As it turned out she didn’t ask about my job or my family. All she seemed to want to talk about was the “good ol’ days” when we were in high school. She said remember this and remember that… And, remember that time I… and remember that time you … and remember that time we… And, remember when so and so and so and so did this and that…
It actually kind of bugged me and when there was a lull in the conversation I said, “So… how’s Wally,” knowing full well that she didn’t like it when you called Walter Wally.
“Walter’s just fine,” she said a little haughtily. She tried to give me a hard, disapproving look but couldn’t help smiling a little.
I was surprised by how much a smile from her still meant to me.
Back in high school a smile from Debbie meant everything to me and even the slightest hint of disapproval or rejection was devastating, which is probably why things happened the way they did.
It was our senior year and I’d given Debbie a ring for her birthday, just a small token of my affection and friendship; I knew that she was dating Walter at the time. It was silver with two pearls and a diamond. She accepted it at first but then later gave it back to me, telling me that she couldn’t take it.
Of course, I wanted to know why not.
She said that she just couldn’t. It was a beautiful ring and she appreciated it very much but it just wasn’t right. She was sorry.
We were driving in her car, just the two of us. She’d come around to my house to pick me up, to go driving around, or so I thought. She tried to hand me the ring in its velvety box but I would not take it from her. So she set it on my leg. Still I would not touch it. I let it sit there on my thigh. She tried to be nice, tried to say all the right things in all the right ways, but to me everything she said was wrong. Finally, I picked up the ring box, clutched it in my hand. I was looking out the passenger side window, trying to hold back tears. We were driving passed Shaw Park. The park was dark and empty. When Debbie stopped at a stop sign, I jumped out of the car and ran, disappearing into the darkness and trees.
I ran through the back of the park to the trails behind it, trails that I used to ride my BMX bike on when I was younger. I made my way through dirt trails to the field between the park and my old elementary school. I crossed the field to the red-brick school building. Behind the school I sat on a swing, holding the ring box. I wanted to throw it away, chuck it as hard and far as I could but for some reason I couldn’t let go of it.
I don’t know how long I sat there. Maybe for an hour, maybe longer. Maybe not that long. It felt like a long time. Finally, I got up and trudged home.
It didn’t occur to me to stay hidden while I made my way home, that I should travel under the cover of darkness through the back of the park again. Instead, I walked out in the open on the sidewalk out in front of the park, in the light of the streetlamps, my head hanging, feeling sorry for myself. So I didn’t notice Walter pull up in his car.
“Hey, Sonny,” he called, getting out of his car. “Wait up. I want to talk to you.”
I stopped for a second, until I realized who it was. Then I kept walking. Walter was the last person I wanted to talk to, but that didn’t matter. He wanted to talk to me. He caught up to me and got in front of me, cutting off my path. I tried to walk around him but he was having none of it.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he said, giving me a shove backward. Despite his goofy name, Walter had a reputation for a being a tough guy, a fighter, a hard ass. And I was scared of him. “Debbie’s really upset right now,” he said.
I didn’t say anything. I just stood there.
“She just wants to be your friend. Why can’t you accept that?”
Still, I refused to talk. I refused to even look at him. Walter didn’t like that. He gave me a little slap across the face and said, “Look at me.” I did. “Stop giving her a hard time, you got it.” When I didn’t respond, he got right up in my face and repeated, “Got it!”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice trembling. “I got it.”
“Good,” he said. “Now, let me give you a ride home.”
“No,” I said, and started walking. This time Walter let me go. When his car passed by and was well out of sight, I told him to fuck off.
At home, I downed a bottle of prescriptions pain pills with a glass of orange juice only to throw them up in a bright yellow projectile stream the next morning. I ended up in the hospital with a tube that went up my nose and down into my stomach, pumping toxic bile out of me.
All I wanted was to be left alone, but of course I couldn’t have that. It was some kind of policy that a suicide attempt was not to be left alone. So there was always someone there with me. I hated it. And then the nurse came in to tell me that there was someone here to see me. Of course, I thought, Its Debbie. She’s come to me finally.
But it wasn’t her. It was the priest from our church. My mother had called him to come and talk to me. And since I was basically trapped in my bed I had to sit there and pretend like I gave a shit what he had to say, when all I really wanted was to see Debbie.
“Are you happy?” Debbie said to me.
“What do you mean?” I said, wondering just how much she knew about my situation. I’d made it a point to not to talk to people about getting divorced and losing my job but these things seemed to have a way of getting around anyway. For example, I’d heard rumors that Debbie and Walter weren’t doing so well, that their marriage was on the rocks. But they might have been just that – rumors.
“I mean are you happy with the way your life’s turned out?”
Obviously the answer was no, but I didn’t want to confess that to Debbie. “I don’t know. I guess it depends.”
“On what you mean by happy.”
“Come on. You know what I mean.”
“If you were happy you’d know it,” she said.
“What about you?” I said. “Are you happy?”
“That’s a good question.”
“It’s your question.”
“Yeah, it is,” she said but didn’t answer.
As high noon drifted into late afternoon and then evening, we found other things to talk about, like movies and TV and music, politics and current events, although mostly we talked about other people, gossip. It seemed as if we were talking around something and we both knew it.
And then for what seemed like a long time we just sat there in silence, staring off into the back yard. I wanted more than anything to get up and go, but I couldn’t. After all Debbie had driven us here. Finally, she said, “Well, I’m too drunk to drive. I need to clear my head first.” And then she got up and went back inside the house. She returned shortly with a small duffle in hand that she must have gotten from her Jeep and told me that she was going to jump into the shower. After a time, I heard the water running upstairs.
My mind began to wander. I imagined getting up and going back into the house and taking the stairs up to the second floor and going to the master bedroom where Debbie was in the bathroom taking a shower. The door would be slightly ajar, a subtle signal for me to enter. In the bathroom I could just make out Debbie naked form behind the cloudy shower curtain. “You came,” she’d say, pulling the curtain aside, and the look on her face would tell me everything I needed to know. I’d strip naked and climb into the shower with her. We’d start making love in the shower and finish in the bed and thus we would begin our new life together.
Of course, none of that happened. In the midst of my fantasy the water stopped running and I was returned to reality, in which I was going to wait for Debbie to come back downstairs. When, after a time, she didn’t, I went upstairs and found her wrapped in a towel, lying on the bed. For a moment, I just stood there staring in disbelief. She lay on her side with her back to me. Thinking that she didn’t know I was there, I started to leave. That’s when she raised her hand in the air, reaching toward me, and said, “Sonny. Would you lie down with me?”
“Okay,” I said. Kicking off my shoes, I climbed into bed next to her. She took hold of my hand and pulled my arm over her. “Mmmm,” she said, pressing her backside against my hard-on.
I wondered if I should try to make a move. Did she want me to? Would she let me? I was scared. It was just like that time in high school at the Galaxy Drive-In when I found myself in the back seat of a car with Debbie. It was a Saturday night and of course we’d both been drinking. We started making out. I tried to go up her shirt. She didn’t try to stop me. I stopped myself. It was as if I didn’t want to. But I did, badly. But I didn’t want it to be like that, squalid and public. I remember the following Monday in school Debbie acted as if I’d done something wrong. Now, I just lay there, holding her.
Finally, she turned to look at me and said, “You’re so sweet, you know that.”
The way she was looking at me, I’m sure that we would have kissed had Walter not showed up at that precise moment.
At first we didn’t realize it was Walter. All we knew was that someone had come into the house. It could have been the potential buyers, showing up late, but then he called out for Debbie. “Hey, honey! Where are you?”
“Oh, shit!” Debbie said. “You need to hide.” She directed me into the next bedroom and had me lock the door from the inside and wait there until she let me know it was okay to come out.
I pressed my ear against the door, listening to Walter come up the stairs, wondering where I might retreat to if he were to come into the room. There was the closet or under the bed but going to either of those places would only prolong my inevitable discovery. There were windows in the room but it was two stories down. All I could do was hope that he would stay away.
Through the door I could hear Debbie and Walter talking but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I waited for the explosion of shouting and yelling, the inevitable rendering of the fabric of their relationship that would drive Debbie into my arms, into my life, into my heart where, after all these years, I still believed she truly belonged.
But that didn’t happen. There was only the low amicable back and forth of conversation. And then that stopped, replaced by other noises. It took me a moment to get the picture – they were fucking.
After my separation and then my divorce, after being forced out of my home and estranged from my daughter, and then finally losing my job, I didn’t think I could feel any more sad and lonely and pathetic, but apparently I was wrong.
I had to wait for what seemed like a long time. After I heard Walter leave, go down the stairs and out the front door, get into his car and drive away, I didn’t wait for Debbie to come and get me. I got up from where I was sitting on the floor with my back against the door and went back down the hall to the master bedroom. The door was slightly ajar. I knew Debbie was still in there. I could hear her. It sounded like she was making the bed. I knew I shouldn’t look, that I should just go downstairs and wait for Debbie there, but for some reason I couldn’t help myself.
I pushed the door open. Debbie was still wrapped in a towel. Her damp hair was a tangled mess. I was right, she was making the bed. She didn’t look at me, just said in an infuriatingly neutral voice, as if nothing strange had just happened, “I’ll be down in a just minute, okay.”
“Okay,” I said, and turned and went down the stairs.
When Debbie came downstairs, dressed not in her work clothes but in a pair of shorts and blouse that she must have had in her bag, she told me that she couldn’t drive me back to my car. She gave me fifty bucks and asked if I wouldn’t mind calling a cab. I said I didn’t mind but that fifty was too much money, I certainly didn’t need that much, but she insisted that I take it. So I did.
I did not call a cab. I waited until Debbie left and then I started walking back to my car.
By time I got back to my car it was just starting to get dark. I was hot and tired. I got in my car and drove home. I could smell dinner as I walked up the driveway to the house. Inside, my mother had already finished eating. For some reason, I found myself thinking that if my father wasn’t dead he’d be in the living, sitting in the easy chair, watching TV, while Mom cleaned up in the kitchen.
“I kept a plate warm for you,” she said.
“No thanks, Ma. I’m not hungry,” I said.
I went downstairs where it was cool and damp and dark. I didn’t turn on the lights. I kicked off my shoes, crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head, hiding until all the light had drained away.