Growing up/ I mostly ate noodles/I fixed myself./ I don't remember anyone/ ever cooking a meal for me./ Except my favorite meal/ "bitter potatoes."/ Potatoes mixed with/ Xanax.
My tortured life is full of/ gore-filled memories./ I see eyes gouged out and replaced with needles,/ a mouth cut open/ with a pipe placed inside.
There's a concrete bench to sit on/ with three guys watching TV/ laughing./ I force another guy, a child beater/ to give me his lunches.
And then I'm out/ and for days/ when I talk to people/ I hold one wrist/ crossed over the other, as if/ the cuffs are still on.
Hal phoned Jesse-Ray, but Jesse-Ray didn’t pick up. Hal thumped on the back door, but no amount of banging seemed to rouse the teenager. Frustrated, Hal punched in the keypad code and went inside to wake Jesse-Ray. He was shocked by the state of the safe house.
“Jesse-Ray!” Hal hollered from the kitchen. “Are you awake? This place stinks!”
“What’s up?” Jesse-Ray called groggily from his bedroom. “Sorry, man. I woke up, but I fell back to sleep.”
Hal walked through the L-shaped interior that led from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom. Jesse-Ray was just getting out of bed.
“I thought we had an agreement,” Hal said, getting upset. “You were supposed to clean up every day. You obviously haven’t been doing it. This place is too far gone.”
“Oh, I meant to clean up when I got home, but at the end of the day I was tired. And then I always wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, so I’m tired in the mornings, too.”
Jesse-Ray’s excuses intensified Hal’s annoyance. “If you’re awake in the middle of the night, then that’s when you should be cleaning up!”
As Jesse-Ray pulled clothes from the mounds of piled-up jeans and shirts that were strewn around the bedroom, Hal began a closer inspection of the safe house. He had noticed that Jesse-Ray hadn’t disposed of crumbs or food packaging in the kitchen. There was a two-inch space between the floor and the bottom of the lowest kitchen shelves, and Jesse-Ray had simply kicked the dirt and crumbs and wrappers beneath the shelves. Ants marched along the kitchen counters and across the vinyl floor, where they swarmed over the computer desk. Food remnants and wrappers were in evidence there as well.
With Hal’s discovery of each new transgression, Jesse-Ray was treated to an earful.
“Look at these ants! You’ve been having your food over at the desk after I told you numerous times, ‘No eating at the computer!’”
“Hey, man, I thought I was keepin’ it clean,” Jesse-Ray protested.
“This isn’t anywhere near clean!” Hal fumed. “I can’t believe you disrespected me and my place. I told you not to leave food out. Why can’t you put it in the trash?”
Hal moved into the bathroom. It was worse.
“There’s pee all over the floor and the walls!” Hal was incredulous.
By this time, Jesse-Ray was fully dressed, though his light-brown curls were still tousled.
“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose,” he managed to reply.
“I don’t want to hear any more excuses.”
“Well, no one ever showed me how to clean.”
Hal, his anger rising, couldn’t resist sarcasm. “I suppose no one told you how to separate clean clothes from dirty clothes either?”
Jesse-Ray had an answer to everything. “We never had dressers, so our things were all over the place.”
“That explains the clothes. But everyone knows you’re supposed to piss in the toilet. Why is there pee on the floor and the walls?”
“I don’t see too well when I first get up.”
“If you can’t hit the toilet when you’re standing, sit down on the seat.”
“Are you mad at me?” Jesse-Ray asked, almost in surprise.
Hal stood still for a moment to reflect. He knew that Jesse-Ray’s father had never reasoned with him and, if Jesse-Ray’s version of his childhood was true, his father had been brutal in forcing his son to do his bidding. Hal chose his words carefully.
“I’m not angry. I’m disappointed. I treated you nicely, and this is how you paid me back. You didn’t even bother to keep my place decent.”
Jesse-Ray had no comeback because the evidence was clear. However, he did offer the feeble excuse that his grandmother’s house had been a place of squalor, and messiness was a familiar state.
Hal snorted in response. Then he made a quick decision. No longer was he going to tiptoe around Jesse-Ray’s sensitive feelings. Even though he wanted to shield Jesse-Ray from the worst of his wrath, Hal was peeved enough to stop sugar-coating reality. Because Jesse-Ray was a chain-smoker, Hal had always made sure Jesse-Ray didn’t run out of cigarettes, even if he occasionally had to front Jesse-Ray the money to buy them. Jesse-Ray was already grappling with cold-turkey sobriety, and it seemed unfair to expect him to give up smoking at the same time. Nevertheless, Hal told Jesse-Ray, “No more cigarettes until I see this place clean.”
Hal stood and surveyed the interior of the safe house from the living room. He knew a day of clean-up would be required to make the place habitable again. The sad fact was that Jesse-Ray knew no more about how to clean and put things in order than our border collie, Sadie, knew how to do advanced calculus.
“You’ve trashed this apartment,” Hal said. “You said you don’t know how to do housekeeping. If that’s true, then I’ll show you.” He knew that Jesse-Ray, big and lumbering, would likely get in the way and slow things down. But Hal resolved to summon patience and teach Jesse-Ray a few simple housekeeping techniques.
The stench was so bad that Hal wore a mask. Dirt, food, food wrappers, cigarette butts, gum, loose tobacco, and indeterminate objects littered the sticky floors. The countertops were gummed up. Foul-smelling clothes had to be fished out of the piles where they were lumped with clean ones. Hal launched into tidying-up with vigor, noticing Jesse-Ray’s clumsy efforts out of the corner of his eye every now and then.
“That’s not the way to sweep!” he exclaimed, losing his patience. “Gimme that broom!”
He set Jesse-Ray to scrubbing the bathroom walls. When he realized the teenager’s ineffectual swipes weren’t accomplishing much, Hal pushed him aside and attacked the urine-spotted walls with bleach and elbow grease.
About three hours into the cleanup, Hal spied Jesse-Ray sitting down doing nothing. Hal erupted.
“Why am I here busting my butt when I’m a sixty-five-year-old man and you’re a teenager! Get up and get moving!”
Hal told me about the mess during our phone conversation at the end of the day. He also told me about the crackdown. He portrayed himself as tough, recounting how he’d warned Jesse-Ray that he was going to get himself thrown out of the safe house if he kept this up.
But I knew Hal as a softie, and I suspected his resolve might be short-lived.