Oilcloth



We were sitting around the kitchen table playing a card game called “screw your buddy” when Uncle Billy said to no one in particular that the same guy walked in front of the house again.  “Twice today,” he said.  Uncle Billy’s been out of work for over a year and has time to keep up on that sort of thing.  Alice and I think that he’s making too much of that guy.  We’ve been hearing about him for three days now.
Alice is my sister and we live with Uncle Billy and Aunt Sally.  Mom died and Dad dropped us there one afternoon and took off to look for the end of the rainbow.  Mom was Aunt Sally’s sister and before she died they both worked at the Great American Truck Stop Diner, smiling and slinging hash as they used to joke.  They were only a year apart and looked a lot alike – both had straight brown hair, brown eyes, wide-mouthed smiles with bright red lipstick that you could see from across the room, and a tee-hee kind of laugh.  They were skinny no matter how much they ate, and they ate plenty.  Dad and Uncle Billy joked that they were the stick-figure sisters.  That was their only joke because Dad and Uncle Billy didn’t like each other much.
Uncle Billy worked in the same factory for over twenty years and came straight home after work.  He kept to himself, never socialized outside the family get-togethers, and had a strong work ethic.  Dad had been a salesman and liked to stop off before coming home and “hoist a few with the boys.”  He could walk into a room full of strangers and walk out with a room full of friends he liked to say.  Dad also said that a good salesman could sell anything and he was always proving it.  Right before he left he was selling freezer plans and before that it was fake brick face for houses, and before that it was burglar alarms and…. None of the jobs lasted for more than six months and they were always door to door.  Mom said that Dad had the gift.  She said he could charm the web away from a spider.  Uncle Billy said that Dad was just a bullshitter who was too lazy to get a real job.  Dad said that only losers work in factories.
On what turned out to be Uncle Billy’s last day of work, he was carried out all tied up to a waiting ambulance.  He had been screaming about bugs everywhere while slapping his body and stomping the ground.  Uncle Billy was short and chubby but it took five or six men to hold him down until the ambulance arrived and even then he still got a few good licks in at the men.  He was locked away in a hospital for a few months and when he got out and came home he just hung around.
His job in the factory had been to spend the first half hour of the day cutting whatever sized rubber tubing was called for on that day’s list and dropping the pieces into a vat of chemicals right behind him.  The second half of the day was spent taking the now swollen pieces of rubber tubing out of the vats and putting them into containers that would then fit on to a skid which someone from upstairs would come by and get every hour and do something with.  As it turned out the chemicals he’d been breathing finally took their toll on him and he saw the bugs.
Alice was a year younger than me and looked like our Mom in miniature.  We sat next to each other while playing “screw your buddy” and we both picked at edges of the oilcloth table cloth that Aunt Sally put on the Formica table after the meal.  She would remove the red dinner oilcloth, fold it neatly and put it in a drawer.  She also had special company oilcloths and holiday ones too.  This was her after dinner, sit around the table one.  It was thick and white with a pattern of black horses and black stars and we picked at the bottom.  The white part and design came off and only black sticky stuff showed.  It was a habit, like biting your nails or picking your nose and we both had the habit.  We never did it to any of the other oilcloths – just this one.  After every time there was a little pile of horse and star pieces on the floor.  Aunt Sally would sweep them up at night after putting away the oilcloth and never said a word to us.  One night I got up from the table to get a drink of water and watched her picking absentmindedly at the oilcloth.  I watched as bits of horses and stars fell to the floor next to her chair.
Uncle Billy was really fidgety tonight and the game dragged on because he kept hopping from the table to peek out the closed living room Venetian blinds.  I watched him kneel on the sofa and slowly separate two slats and peek out the window.  I noticed his bald spot, the hole in his Hush Puppy shoes, and his wedgie.  Finally he got up and came back to the game and I saw that the marks his fingers left were the only clean spots on the blinds.
Five minutes later he was back in his old position and suddenly he yelled in a stage whisper, “There he is.  Come see the bastard.  He’s doing it again!  Come see!”
We all ran over and took up our stations kneeling on the couch and peering through the slats and sure enough there was someone walking on the sidewalk in front of the house.  We had to take Uncle Billy’s word that this was the “him” we’d been hearing about.  He was a man of average height and weight, walking slouched over with his collar up and hands jammed into his pockets against the wind.  He only looked in one direction and that was down.  He was minding his own business and never once even glanced over at the house.
“See what I been telling you?” my Uncle asked, sounding vindicated.
 No one said anything and Uncle Billy said, “See him?  Do you see him?  Do you see what I’ve been putting up with?”
“What’s he doing Uncle Billy?” I asked.
“What did you say?” he demanded as he hopped off the couch and glared at me.
“What’s he doing to bother you?” I asked again.  “He looks like he’s just walking to the bus stop.”
Uncle Billy yelled, “Traitor!” and lunged at me, knocking me off the couch.  “You ungrateful little bastard – I should have known you’d be in cahoots with him!”
He clenched his fist and began to swing his arm in wide arcs – all the time staring at me and I decided to leave before I was roundhoused or upper-cutted.  I ran out of the house and down the same path as “the man.”  I got to the bus stop just as the bus was pulling away.  I saw the man on the bus, sitting hunched over and blowing into his cupped hands to warm them.  He kept his eyes down and didn’t notice me watching him.
I hustled back to tell my family what I saw and that they shouldn’t worry because “the man” really was only going back and forth to the bus stop.  As I approached the house I was out of breath and stopped running.  I looked over at the living room window and saw three sets of eyes peeking out through the separated flats in the Venetian blinds.



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