When I was a good deal younger, curiosity was benign. I know about curiosity killing the cat, but the cat had nine lives. For a while, the while I’m remembering, it consisted of getting people to tell me their stories – sometimes for free if they were lonely enough, sometimes for a drink or two when they were reticent.
A good deal younger – I did not know a person could see things he would not be able to unsee, hear things he would not be able to unhear. Not forget -- that’s easy for short periods of time – no, “unhear” the thing he’d really like to be able to do.
I remember I was in Pittsburgh, trying to be a writer in many ways – few of which involved writing – certainly drinking was one. It was around the time that Frankie Gustine’s sports bar in Oakland remodeled itself into Hemingway’s – snottier crowd. Hemingway might have stopped for a drink in Frankie Gustine’s, but never in “Hemingway’s.”
I’d had sort of a painless life, but fancied myself one who could experience and write, or at least “hear” life and write – pre-internet, pre-cellphones, pre-Wikipedia, pre-documentaries sniffing out the odd, dark corners of existence. I fancied myself the last curious person, and what, but a writer, could I be? It has taken me 40 years.
I’ll call him Jim.
“Whiskey’s great. Love whiskey. Thanks.”
“This must be your favorite bar. I see you here a lot.”
“Must be your favorite too. You’re here enough, but not as much as I am. You want to spring for another. No ice this time.”
“Sure. Do you drink a lot?”
“As much as I can. As much as I can pay for.”
“You want something to eat?”
“Nah, eating’s overrated. I’ll have another drink though.”
“You know, truth be told, the only reason I drink is I don’t have the balls to off myself. I like the taste, always have, and I’m not picky about what I drink, but killing myself would be easier and cheaper. I’ve tried, believe me, but just can’t do it. No balls.”
We were in Gustine’s. At two in the afternoon, we were pretty much the only ones there. The bartender stayed to the other end of the bar – polishing classes and chopping garnish: lemons to wedge, limes to slice, mint to muddle, and orange peels to twist.
Either Jim had only one set of clothes or multiple sets of the same clothes – baggy khakis, golf shirt, and a cardigan on a pair of loafers. Maybe 70-years-old. I had the feeling that if I asked him for his age, he’d think I was coming on to him.
I’d just finished my afternoon Faulkner class. Warm conference room, the head of the English department just droned on and on. Not Faulkner’s fault. Interesting reading, but for the lecture I had to stand in the back after half an hour. Not a good idea to nod off in Dr, Halsey’s class.
I normally came in for a beer and normally Jim was already there. As a grad student, I was broke, but the old guy was broker, and he kept me from drinking alone.
Summer days in grad school kind of ran together. Jim could drink, and sometimes he’d even buy me one, but I was a lightweight compared to him. He didn’t need much prodding to talk, and the more he drank, the more he talked.
“Yeah, this is how the social goes. I get a small pension too. I worked all my life. I got a place, and I’ll have a bottle there usually, take the edge off if I wake up at night say, but I like this bar; I like the company, and Sid over there mostly doesn’t bother me. Some places don’t want people like me; they think we’re trouble. My money’s as good as anyone’s, but they want you to drink and be nice. Another?
“Hell, if I killed myself, I wouldn’t get the social security or the pension, wouldn’t they like that. Guess I wouldn’t need it.”
Rain. Warm enough, but I told myself I’d duck into Gustine’s for cover, dry off. Jim would be there; I could afford a beer or two.
“You know, I may not look like much now, but I worked all my life, and I had a family.”
“What did you do Jim?”
“Right out of the army, I got into insurance, any kind of insurance. I sold a lot of insurance. I’m really a people person and I believed in insurance. I really believed in it. I had a lot of friends, a lot of guys I knew, and I could sell. I did some of my work in bars like this – different town, different state even – over drinks. Places most wives didn’t frequent, you catch my meaning. One rule – never pitch the bitch. You had to talk to the man of the house to get a decision, even if the old lady held the purse strings. I could close pretty much anywhere, though. My clients always got a good deal; they were happy to get the protection I could get them. Anything can happen. Shit happens all the time. You never know. Accidents happen. People aren’t always careful, you know. You can do a couple more, right?”
“What about your family?”
“That’s another story for another time.”
They run together. I don’t really remember exactly when I heard what I heard. It was kind of up to how much I’d had and when I showed up. When I arrived, Jim would start talking, but I had the feeling he held a continuous monologue with himself regardless. Whenever he tried to talk to Sid, the afternoon bartender, Sid would shut him down with a monosyllable: “Yeah.” “Sure.” “So?” I didn’t have to really say anything – just be there.
“Timmy, you know, my grandson, Timmy. He was a pistol. I ever tell you about him? My daughter’s boy. Our only kid was Mara. She married Joe, and they had Timmy. What a good little kid he was. Three-years-old and he never complained, always pretty much did what he was told, but the questions – he had a question for everything: ‘Grandpa, why does the wind blow?’ ‘Grandpa, why do you have so much hair on your arms?’ ‘Grandpa, when can I drink beer?’ and he was only three and a little.
“You know, I used to live with them after Dottie died. Dottie, my wife, you know. Cancer. That was tough. They don’t want to know anything about me now. No sir, not after that thing.”
Well, I for one could understand when Jim closed down. It seemed like he’d start out with good memories, then run out of them. As he did, he’d start to drink faster and just shut down, although I got the impression that the conversation would just internalize – him and his demons.
I got it. There’s stuff about my life, my childhood, I’d just soon forget – funny how the beverage designed to help you forget could manage to bring all of that shit flooding back.
“Mara was always a good kid, loved her mother a lot. Dottie and her were always tight, right up to the end. I’m pretty sure she took me in on account of Dottie. Mara and me got along alright, but you got to figure that I was away working for a lot of her childhood. Dottie and Mara were not big fans of me drinking as much as I did, do. I wasn’t a bad drunk, just mostly went to sleep. No one to tell me not to, now though, right? Can’t kill myself, so I just drink. Sort of works some though.
“I think about Dottie and Mara and Timmy all the time, even dreaming. It’s only when I can get pretty loaded, I forget. Dottie and Timmy have passed and Mara – she won’t have anything to do with me. I don’t think she even knows where I am. I don’t think she cares much. She shouldn’t after all that.”
He had me going; he had me wondering what “all that” could be. Lots of reasons a daughter might throw her father out, literature was full of examples: grief, anger, frustration, helplessness. I figured that eventually he’d tell me. He wouldn’t be able to help himself because I figured he really wanted to tell someone, or he’d get loaded enough and wouldn’t be able to stop. He was an ancient mariner – fucked and fucked – a real graybeard loon. He made me think that I hadn’t spoken to my old man in a year, not since grad school. He hadn’t been real supportive of my writing career – didn’t count as real work for him.
“Mara, she was absolutely right though. I’d have thrown me out. What else could she do? I should have told her. I should have owned up to it. I’ll never be able to forget. Not enough money or booze to get me there – to forgetting, to erasing, to digging it out of my memory. I’ll remember that sound. I just hope I won’t remember it when I’m dead.”
I’d gotten to coming into Gustine’s even on days I didn’t have an early afternoon class. Jim would repeat himself a lot, so shit started to get clearer. Every day it seemed I’d get another piece: his courtship with Dottie, Mara’s childhood, Mara and Timmy, but he’d always talk around the thing, the event, the memorable shitshow that he didn’t want to remember, that got him kicked out of paradise, the bosom of his family.
I didn’t think I’d be able to ask him outright. He’d shutdown, just like I would. Adult children have it rougher than people think. I found out that Jim’s parents had died a number of years before – first his mother, then his father. I knew that Dottie’s relatively early death had thrown him, even though they had both been retired at the time. Dottie had been an elementary school teacher – 3rd grade.
“There are three types of person when it comes to making a mistake like that. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It was a mistake, just a mistake. I never planned it. Who would plan a thing like that? Three responses to an error in judgement where alcohol is involved. Back then, I pretty much only drank beer – not much of the hard stuff – but really, three types of guys: the guy who never drinks again, who gets scared sober, the guy who just goes out and eats the barrel of a gun, steps in front of a truck or train, opens a vein in a nice warm bath. Hanging always seemed a little iffy to me. What happens if it don’t take? Brain damage and years of vegetation. You’re like a lima bean or a radish or something. Then there’s the third guy – me, too much of a coward to kill myself – this guy keeps right on drinking, even more if possible, and tries to live with it, tries to forget it, or at least not think about it, not fucking dream about it. Ah, shit.”
I have the omniscience the past gives. It’s not as if I mean to titillate in relating this, but I suppose I want to relay the impact it had on me. I suppose it’s the reason I haven’t had a drink in 40 years.
In 1982, leaving a kid in a hot car was tragic, a tragic mistake, right up there with crib death which didn’t have an acronym yet – no SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) – just a damn shame. It happened in the U.S. about 30 times a year give or take – summer months mostly – but inched its way up to about 50 deaths later. There was no internet, no cell phones, no easy way to know this shit without looking it up, and even that would be arduous.
It wasn’t like Jim’s confession took me by surprise about three weeks after I met him. I guess we’d drunk enough together to be friends. I’d pieced together some of it. I knew it was about Timmy and booze. Something had happened.
It didn’t, until way later.
Like I said, it’d been about three weeks. I was coming in every day now, sometimes early, but Jim would always be there.
So, I sit down. Jim, Jimmy, Jimbo is way ahead of me. Hard to tell, but he was a little glassy-eyed, just a little off:
“I gotta tell you about Timmy.” he said.
“Hey, Jim, you told me, your grandson, three-year-old, right?”
“No, I gotta tell you about him, like what happened to him. Maybe then he’ll leave me alone.
“I was like babysitting, you see? For Mara – she had appointments sometimes and couldn’t get a sitter, so she’d ask me sometimes. Like I told you, Jimmy was fine to watch – good little kid. And everything was fine. We were fine until Slim Bostler called me up on Mara’s house phone. We called Slim because he could never put on any weight. I knew him from the Legion, the good Legion, the VFW. He called me from the bar. I hadn’t seen him in a while.
“He wanted to know if I had time for a beer. It was only going to be one – he was headed out of town. One beer, just one. I told him I was babysitting my grandson, but I could maybe get away. I thought, ‘One beer, probably Timmy could stay in his car seat a few minutes.’ You know, something I thought was reasonable. Timmy could play with his elephant – he had this stuffed elephant, Mr. Pachy, for pachyderm. He got a kick out of pachyderm; I told him that. He could play with any of his toys; I had a bunch of his stuff in my car. Mara had left me the car seat just in case, you know, anything can happen where you have to take the kid somewhere.
“Well, I got Timmy ready. He was all questions. I told him we were going for a little ride. By the time we drove the mile or so to the Legion, he was down for the count. Kids always sleep in cars – it’s the motor, the movement, puts them right to sleep.
“I figured, ‘Okay, five minutes, have a beer, see Slim, and I’m back.’ Timmy was out – his naptime anyway. You know. It was summer, but a nice day – stuffy in the car, but a nice breeze – not that hot. I cracked the window for him, locked the doors. He would have been fine – five or ten minutes.
“Problem was, Slim was there, but so were four, five other guys we knew. They’d already had a few. They were doing shots and beer. It was great. We were catching up. Slim was buying the good bourbon. I swear it was so smooth, so easy going down, it felt like five, ten minutes, but before you know it, I’m in there for a little over an hour, and I’ve had about five drinks – you know, shots and beers – just to be social.
“Finally, I ask the bartender for the time. I can’t believe it. Shit, Mara would be home already. You know they don’t put clocks in bars; they don’t want you knowing how long they been drinking. So, I head right out, say goodbye to the guys, unlock the car, and jump in. I didn’t like jump, but I was okay to drive.
“When I get in, the driver’s seat is hot, car stuffier than hell. Damn steering wheel is too hot to touch for long. I remember thinking, ‘That’s a nice long nap for Timmy.’ I look in the rearview and see Timmy’s all red and his heads slumped over like he’s still sleeping and he’s not talking. Well, I get right home to Mara’s. I get us home really quick. Later they said Timmy died from heatstroke, hyper-something, hyperthermia – a three-year-old. I don’t know how that can be. How can being a little hot kill you? I wasn’t in the bar that long. Longer than I thought, but not that long. They said he probably died in the first 15 minutes. It was fine day, maybe 70 degrees, but a nice breeze. I cracked the damn window!”
Vehicular heatstroke. They didn’t start calling it that until 1998. In 1982, Pittsburgh – and I guess everywhere else in the country – they called it a tragedy. It wasn’t until 1998 that anyone started recording these things. No one really knew numbers, frequency, before that, before the internet and widespread statistics to shake our heads over.
Thinking about Jim off and on all these years, I realized his was the first story of that type I’d ever heard. Around 2016, after I retired from a lack-luster career in teaching at a community college, I got a job as a museum guard. One of the things we did in the summer was to check the parking lot two or three times a day – for kids and dogs left in cars.
Another day – evening.
I hadn’t been into Gustine’s for a couple of days, maybe a week, and when I did go back, it was evening. It might have been cruel. I told myself it wasn’t because of Jim’s story. I told myself I’d been busy with the writing that I had been avoiding. I told myself a lot of bullshit, but I just didn’t know how to respond to him. It seemed like a bad break, a stupid mistake, but hey, shit happens to all of us that we regret.
It didn’t take much to connect the dots. I didn’t need Jim to tell me that his daughter had stopped speaking to him, probably barred him from her home, the funeral, etc. Sure, made sense that she’d be pissed. I wondered if he wasn’t harder on himself than she had been, but it didn’t make any sense to ask. Jim was apparently hearing Timmy in his dreams and rare moments of sobriety.
So, this day, I didn’t show up until maybe 7:00 pm, but Jim was still there – Jim, Jimmy, Jimbo. He was at one of the rickety wooden tables away from the windows. When he saw me, he pushed a chair out with his foot and beckoned. I told Sid’s evening replacement, whose name I never did get, to bring me a beer and a shot, and went to sit down across from Jim.
“Hey, how’re you doing? You must be busy with the grad school thing, right? When I was young, I was always busy, chasing a buck, you know?” He stopped and took a long swallow, finishing off the whiskey he had in front of him, signaling for another.
“Hey, I don’t want you getting the wrong impression. That story I told you yesterday – maybe not yesterday, but before – that’s not why I’m here. That’s not why I drink. I drink because I’m a damn coward who doesn’t have the balls to kill himself. Guess I’ve always been a coward, just didn’t know it. I should ever have gone to the Legion. I should never have left Timmy in the car. I should never have stayed in there drinking that long. I swear it didn’t feel like I’d been there that long. No clocks on the wall. They should have had clocks. It’s because I’m a coward. I can’t stand myself, get to thinking of the worst thing I ever did. You know, it wasn’t leaving Timmy in the car that heated up. I’ll tell you if you want to know.”
I wasn’t sure at that point that I wanted to know, but I’d invited Jim’s confidence. We must have been friends at that point, but I sort of dreaded what he’d say next – that thing that could be worse than letting your grandson die in a hot car – but I couldn’t stop him, couldn’t get up and leave, couldn’t make myself do that. I could, and did, signal the bartender for another round.
“Shit. Oh God, I knew there was something wrong when I got into the hot car. Timmy wasn’t responding, wasn’t talking, wasn’t moving. I was afraid if I checked, he wouldn’t be breathing. I should’ve gone right back to the bar and called 911, an ambulance, the police, anyone – but I didn’t. I drove back to the house, Timmy’s home, like nothing, like I didn’t know he was dead, like I didn’t know I’d fucked up big time. I pulled the car into the driveway. I got out and stumbled to the house. Mara asked me for Timmy, and God help me, I waved her off and told her he was still in the car. I went and laid down on the couch. I let her find her dead son, let her try to get him out of that car seat, skin sliding off his little arms, little legs stuck to that plastic seat. I’m a coward, and I was afraid, so I played stupid like I didn’t know, like I didn’t know. I swear I think of him, of her, all the time.”
I got drunk that night – a quiet, sad drunk -- one of those drunks you really don’t understand. I don’t remember how I got to my apartment. I woke up the next morning with a two-day headache.
I never saw Jim again. I looked for him after a while, a week really, stuck my head into Gustine’s, but he wasn’t there. Sid said he hadn’t seen him, at least not when he’d been on duty.
I stuck to beer pretty much for the rest of that summer, and a few months later I lost my taste for that. Now I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner when I’m in company, but I’m seldom in company.
I’m a lot less curious. I guess I just assume everyone has something they ought not to reveal. I do. I believe in the possibility of forgetting, but I don’t know how you “unhear” something you’re told. Maybe it’s possible for some.
I’ve wondered about Jim from time to time – hoping against hope that he found enough courage to off himself or at least gotten drunk enough to step in front of a truck or go to sleep on the tracks or fall into just one of the three rivers: Ohio, Alleghany, or Monongahela – the hardest one to pronounce. I hoped for Jim a little peace and was sure that was the only way he’d get it.
Originally from Vermont, Douglas K Currier now lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania with his wife. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh MFA program and has published poetry and fiction in Spanish and English in North and South America. His fiction has appeared recently in Main Street Rag, Trajectory, Bandit Fiction, and Otherwise Engaged.