by Nick LaRocca
Lemmy went and claimed he was half-Lenape and had the warrior spirit, so he thought if he danced, or boogied—that was his word, cause I don’t use that word—he’d fill the air out at a site with what he called “kow” for a good day’s work. I used to make fun of his “kow,” like the cow that goes moo. He’d say, “I’m’a fill the freakin’ ay-er wit’ Kow,” or something, cause he had the thickest damn Jersey accent that sometimes I needed a translator, and I’d say, “Yeah, cow manure.” Something like that. It wasn’t always the same thing. I’m just saying I joked. Then he’d make fun of my accent, call me Southern fried, and we’d go on and on.
I didn’t believe for one minute he had a drop of Lenape blood in him, mind you, with his feathered bandanas. He looked more or less Florida-Mexican to me—some kind of Latin, though not Cuban, because they’re damn near white and pale and sunburned like I get. Someone said they’re like Jew girls without the Jew. I ain’t racist or nothin’, except a little bit, if I have to admit it, against blacks and so on taking over, ‘cause it just doesn’t seem like they got the discipline, you know. Lemmy said one day, when I gave him my little theory, “Yeah, freakin’ Lebron James ain’t got no discipline. Shit, Lawrence, ya Southern-fried hick, Obama was black!”
“So are you,” I said. ‘Cause Lemmy, even though he claimed to be Irish and Lenape, was more dark like an Italian. Always got his panties in a bunch when someone thought he spoke Spanish. So who the hell knows.
Anyway, when I’d call him black Mr. Liberal over there would with the signpost digger and say, “Now don’t go dat far, now.” He had a voice like the crackle of a chainsaw if you ran it over a time or six with your pickup.
Anyway, we had us a dumb little laugh about that one.
Look, before you go thinking I’m evil, we worked mostly with black and Mexican dudes, and I got along with them just fine. And they’d have the same laugh about us white people, by the way. Listen, ain’t nobody doesn’t believe he’s better than everybody else. And ain’t nobody doesn’t believe his race is better than everybody else’s, or where he’s from, or his customs or whatever. You got to.
Trouble for Lemmy wasn’t whether he was lying about being Lenape. That was all about being unique, and that’s everybody, like I says. No, his trouble was about being whipped.
Really, the opinion originated with Big Mouchie.
Big Mouchie was Jadavias Trusaint. He’d played a mean tight end for the University of South Florida out in Tampa before he got his patella separated and his speed went to hell. Now he worked for Boca Raton Township, like the rest of us. Except he wore his dreads halfway to his ass, violating our contract, which pissed off our union rep. And on top of that, he would for the most part sit in his truck because whenever something impossible needed moving or lifting, Big Mouchie was the only one could do it. So Byron James—I called him B.J., but he knew I was making a pun, like cow for kow—but B.J., in his shirt and skinny tie with a nose as pointy as a dick tip, looking like goddamned Trump Jr., would let him get away with featherbedding all day. Anyway, Big Mouchie said to Lenny once, and he had this really low voice, like you didn’t want to approach him without you was ready to pay him a toll, “Listen, your problem is, you found a pussy that fits.” Went on to explain, “Man finds a pussy that fits his dick like a glove, he’s a slave to that pussy. Fo-evah,” he added defiantly.
I was scared of Big Mouchie, not because he was huge and black and all but because he had crazy eyes from too many concussions. I said, all girly, “You think that’s what it is, Mouch?”
“Mouchie. With a hard-E. And what I just say, White.”
That’s what he called me, cause of my skin color.
He said, “If I ain’t think that’s what it is, why would I say that’s what it is. And anyway, that damn sure is what it is. Friend.”
He liked to call us all “Friend,” so it didn’t mean nothing. Cause in the next breath he called me a washed up, old, low-I.Q., racist, country-bumpkin idiot, but he was smiling, so I smiled, not that I wasn’t offended, nor that it wasn’t true. But we all called each other names—except Big Mouchie. No one called Big Mouchie anything but Mouchie or, in the case of B.J., Mouch. B.J. was the one guy could call him Mouch, without the hard-e, and the one guy could call him Jadavias. They had them an understanding.
So the first time I seen Lemmy’s problem up close, the first time I seen his wife Lori, who cause Lemmy said he was Lenape we gave the nickname “Lori-Pussy-That-Fits,” was when she came out to the site one day to bring Lemmy his lunch. Sometimes you just kinda look at a couple and go, “Oh no, she’s way outta his league.” Around Boca, it’s usually money, which, you know, puts him back in her league. But Lemmy ain’t have no money. He was as broke as the rest of us. More so, being only twenty-seven and useless. So Lori-Pussy-That-Fits was a moon shot for him. This one was thirty years old with four kids from her ex, and she was a psyche nurse who worked full time at the VA in Deerfield, so she had a brain, too. Yet she looked sixteen. It was her skin and face. She had flawless skin, like a fat person has, with a sheen to it. And she had a perfectly symmetrical face, two mirror images of each other, like a Mayan sculpture or Mexican doll. It was like how you’re struck by a movie star or model when you see ‘em in person in Miami, which I’ve recently gotten into.
Anyway, she came out to us with a greasy brown bag. She climbed out of her truck—she was a Mexican girl, so she drove a pickup, except with a “Stronger Together” sticker on it—and came calling, “Lemmy, baby, you forgot your lunch today!” I swear her clear, intelligent voice was as sweet as a bird in song.
Lemmy was over by this palm tree that had fallen earlier that morning. We had been sent out to dispose of it. Big Mouchie had given a shot dragging the whole tree to his truck. He had his own truck, see, while I was paired with Lemmy. He dragged the tree about halfway before he said, “Don’t matter. We cain’t get it in.”
He wasn’t even huffing none.
“If it’s all of us lifting we might,” I argued, enthusiastically, cause like I said, Mouchie scared me, and I was always trying to make him feel he was right about something. I’d been following beside him, too, like some kind of secret service agent, protecting him while did his feat of strength.
But he said, “Cain’t do it, White.”
“Do a tree lifting dance!” I called to Lemmy.
Over by the hole where the tree had been, Lemmy leaned on his shovel and kind of bitterly boogied a shimmy, but it ain’t change the fact that that palm tree weighed a ton and wasn’t getting lifted without three Big Mouchies. So since it was getting toward the holidays and we was trying to featherbed a little bit, Lemmy and I threw Rocks, Paper, Scissors for a while to see who would chainsaw the palm. We wanted to chainsaw it, so it was between us for the win. I mean, to me, the chainsaw was fun, even though it sounded like Lemmy’s voice, and when I’d start it, I’d wince, and one day I got the idea that’s probably what Lemmy sounded like when he finished up in bed with Lori-Pussy-That-Fits, which has kinda messed up my fantasizing about her.
For a second, I thought Big Mouchie wanted to chainsaw, too, but it was just that he had seen us playing Rocks, Paper, Scissors and got irritated. He got down from his truck, came over, threw against me and won, threw again and won, called Lemmy to the mat, threw against him and won, beat him again, and said, “Ya’ll two is child’s play.” He started back to his truck.
“You won! Don’t you wanna cut it?” I asked.
“Naw. I don’t harm no nature. Will move it, but won’t alter it.” He pushed in his earbuds.
“Dude’s Lazy,” Lemmy said. “I don’t freakin’ care how big he is.”
“What you listening to?” I called.
But Big Mouchie didn’t answer. He didn’t even move in the cab of the truck, just stared straight ahead out the windshield with his elbow hooked out the window. “Fucking gangsta shit,” I said to Lemmy.
“I like rap,” Lemmy protested.
That was around 7:30 in the morning. By 8:00, Lori got there, and we had just finished cutting the tree. By 9:00, we had our nickname for her.
So later that day, I’m sitting and eating, and Lemmy is gone to Marshalls to buy Lori-Pussy-That-Fits something nice, and of all things, Big Mouchie comes over to me.
I was under a tree in Banyan Park, right on the Intracoastal. Found me a nice little coated metal picnic table like they have now, which is hard but comfortable, like a bar stool can be, and I was eating my McRib ‘cause this one McDonalds in Boca where all the rich go is always doing special offers that other McDonalds don’t, and they had the McRib—anyway, I had just taken my first bite of a tangy, luscious, delicious McRib when a shadow appeared over me and I looked up to see Big Mouchie standing there with a plastic shopping bag in his hand, wearing a big ol’ grin with a bunch of gold teeth.
He says, “That McRib looks damn good. You went to the one on Powerline, yo’?”
“Yes,” I replied, my head down.
I’m fifty-three years old, and I wasn’t much younger when this took place, you know, but I was afraid he was going to punch me and take my lunch. I have to admit, I was damn trembling. I mean my knees were shaking. And all manner of thoughts ran through my mind, like what would I do if he hit me, cause there was nothing I could do, really, and how long had it been since I’d been hit—maybe twenty-five years?—and how little did I want to ever be hit again. And I thought about how wild I was when I was Big Mouchie’s age and how I got into fights and didn’t mind too much. And then I thought about how I didn’t think of Big Mouchie as twenty-five like he was, more like thirty-five, like he was born into middle age.
So I actually said, “You want it?”
“It’s your lunch,” he said, confused.
“No, ‘cause, if you want it….”
“Man, I don’t want yo’ half-eaten McRib. I’m sayin’, this is a nice spot. I just wanna sit.”
“I can get up.”
“White, please sit still. I’m just gone sit here. Right on the other side. Ain’t got no gun. Ain’t gonna attack you. Ain’t causing no tirade nor hullabaloo. Just wanna sit here. The truck gets lonesome.” Not lonely. Lonesome.
It wasn’t a big table, and it was a circle, but he was right. There was another side.
So he sits down and takes from his bag the same lunch he always ate: a tuna salad sandwich from Race Trac gas station and a quart of whole milk.
“Is Race Trac on your way in?”
“From where I stay, yeah. But there’s other places, I guess,” he said, kind of shy in a way that was friendly and sweet and made me feel weird. “I just like all the mayo they use. Their tuna is low quality, so they use much mayo, and I appreciate that effort.”
He grinned at me personably. And I gotta admit, I didn’t think he could grin like that. To me, it was what Lemmy said, that he didn’t have the normal range of emotions. I actually believed that.
He kind of very particularly unpacked his lunch, too. That was another thing that surprised me. He opened the sandwich container, placed one half of the sandwich on the open side and placed the pickle beside it but made sure they weren’t touching. And he didn’t touch that half of the sandwich nor that pickle until he was done with the first half. And he opened the quart of milk and shimmied from the mouth the little red plastic seal that broke off the cap and stuffed this into his pocket. “Birds eat them and their digestive systems get ruined.”
That’s what he said.
And what do you say to that? We just kinda sat there for a while, eating in silence. It was very racially awkward. That’s how I felt, at least. Like I’d never been more aware that Big Mouchie was black and I was white than while I ate my McRib—even when he called me White, I didn’t feel as awkward. And we were just eating. We wasn’t doing nothing else.
I faded into my own little world. I was still kind of scared of him, not that he would take my lunch anymore but that he thought low of me. I started getting that feeling about halfway through the McRib. And the McRib was, to me, a problem because he would have thought it inferior barbeque, being black and all. So my shoulders started shrugging up, and I was getting all tight, and I had a headache coming on.
Then Big Mouchie spoke, and it had been so damn quiet and I was screwed down so tight I startled like a snake had hissed at me.
That’s all he said. I figured, based on music videos and other such television, that he wanted me to say what I said. “Great tits.”
Right off, it felt weird, like I was saying that to Martin Luther King or something. He looked at me in total confusion. The look was one you would give if you bought four items at the grocery store and the register said you owed six thousand dollars, like I was the most impossible thing in the world. He’d given that same look when he’d stood over the palm tree before he started dragging it off.
He said, “Nah, I’m sayin’, like, the whole situation, yo.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Now it felt like a Mexican standoff. I was looking at him across the table with my tongue playing in my mouth, trying to understand his exact question, and he was looking at me like the thing he was asking was obvious.
“Like, their relationship. What do you think about it?”
I shrugged, but I couldn’t help looking at him like maybe there was something I didn’t understand and he did, so there was a feeling of admiration in me, and it was probably coming through my eyes.
So he went—and I remembered after this that he had three years of college—“What do you imagine it to be, of itself?” Then he went, I shit you not, “Marcus Aurelius, yo. What is its nature, fundamentally? Dat’s what I’m tryin’ to figure out.”
So, I had to wrap my head for a second around the question, because I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I had no idea who Marcus Aurelius was—I still don’t, really. I looked him up online and all, but I don’t know what it means. And I was also trying to figure out what Big Mouchie meant by “nature, fundamentally.” Now, if it had been Lemmy—well, first of all, if it had been Lemmy, I’d’a laughed and told him to stop putting on airs and that he didn’t know nothing about no Marcus Aurelius. But Lemmy would’a never said something like that, anyway, ‘cause we were, it turned out, just a couple dumb white guys. But it didn’t matter, because the thing was, I understood right off that even though I didn’t get it, he got it. He knew what he was asking. He understood what he meant.
When I was younger, in high school, before I made certain decisions, I was given the opportunity to be smart. I like to think I turned that opportunity down, though maybe it’s like dunking a basketball: you can give a guy like me the ball and show me a hoop, but I’ll never dunk, and I’ll injure myself in the process. I mean, school was painful for me. I remember awful headaches, and my father being real pissed off that I was gonna be like him, just a workingman and whatnot, and my mother cutting in and defending me. It makes me sad to think about it all now. I remember one time my father said, “Jeanie (that’s my mother), when you gonna get him off your tit?”
I was like fourteen. I hated him. But come to find out he was right and wrong. Right to be sad, wrong to be disappointed or angry. But that’s me in my fifties understanding that—he was like thirty-five or -six when he said it. When my nephews and nieces are around now, ‘cause I ain’t got no kids of my own, which is another problem, I try to just play with them. My sisters are always talkin’ about school and all that. They’re younger than me by a lot, so the kids are ten, seven, four, and three. But I just play with them. Kids should have fun, I think.
But I remember being given a book by an English teacher when I was a sophomore and being told to read it, that it would matter, because I wasn’t a kid anymore, not really. It was a book by a writer whose last name, I remember, was Ford, and the teacher told me the book was full of fugitives and wrongdoers, but for real, and to read the book and tell him what I thought. Well, I ain’t read it. The first story was all tender and weepy, and I liked television about tough guys and private eyes and talking cars and all. So I lied and said I did, but the teacher knew I didn’t.
That isn’t my point, though. My point is, I didn’t like it, but I somehow knew it was good. I knew it was better than what I liked. Like how you can listen to opera, maybe, and you don’t like it, but when Pavarotti is singing on your You Tube or something, you know it’s better than the shit you usually listen to. You don’t know a damn thing about opera, you don’t listen to opera, but you still know how good it is.
And worse, not liking the book meant something about me.
Recently, I was down in Miami. I star-watch now; it’s my hobby, and I heard Madonna was at the Versace Mansion. I didn’t catch her, but over in the Arts District, where I like to go sometimes to feel hip and all when some A-list start rejects me by not showing up, someone had painted a poem by Emily Dickinson on a wall. I ain’t really familiar with her, even though I just I sounded like I was, using her name all easy. I did look her up online, though not because I understood the poem—I had to look up what it meant, and I still couldn’t see what she was saying about light, as I stood in front of this stucco wall downtown, reading the poem where it had been stenciled in green paint. But I looked her up on the internet just to know who she was, because she seemed to be saying something, even though I had no idea what.
And that’s what happened with Big Mouchie. I went, “Man, I don’t know. She’s really beautiful, right? What’s she doing with him?”
But he said, “I think the feminine pregnancy-need has gone perverted in her.”
So now I had to put down my McRib, cause this shit was heavy.
He said, and his voice sounded different, not so hard edged, still all low, but ancient, like an old man on a porch swing is how I still imagine it, “Woman is a mother first. Motherhood replaces all of her other needs—or diminishes them. The complexity for her should be how to succeed at the essential needs she has while remaining the best possible mother she can be.”
I was just trying to keep up, cause I was like, who is this. This ain’t Big Mouchie, featherbedding in the truck, not saying two words, and when he does finally talk, sounding to my mind like some low-grade ghetto negro. But even though I didn’t really understand him, I could tell he knew what he was talking about.
Still I couldn’t accept it. To me, that’s much of the story right there. I’m sitting with this man, listening to him be smarter than I am, but I couldn’t accept it. And it was ‘cause he was black. That was the only reason.
So I actually said, “I ain’t see her doin’ nothing like what you say.”
But he said, “She was throwing eyes at me, Lawrence.” That’s my name. Not, you know, White. I think it was the first time he used my name. “It was when she got back in the truck.” He spoke without one ounce of joy, and what was crazier, he seemed to have contempt for her in a moral way, like she’d let him down more than most. “She was behind the windshield of the truck, before she turned it on, as she was firing it up, and she looked at me with bedroom eyes. I know those eyes. White girls in the stands.” He made a sound like he was telling it all to go to hell, but in a blasé way. Then he said, “There are so many southern women wanna fuck a black dude—and she’s a southern woman. Mexican or not, Daddy wears a cowboy hat. They think it’s racially equitable. And they ain’t got no self-esteem and think we’re all whores anyway, ‘cause they don’t know nothing. But I personally remember those eyes, and I see much pain in Lemmy’s future. Of itself, to me, that relationship is basically that she doesn’t want to be alone, and it’ll be time soon, nurse as she is, that she meets some rich doctor and runs off with him.”
“What’s that got to do with her pregnancy need and all, Mouchie—or whatever you were talking about?”
I felt stupid and self-conscious. I made this gesture. It was supposed to be just a reasonable normal gesture, but my hand was fluttering beside my temple like I was shooing away gnats.
“Because the kids will have been bonded to Lemmy by then as a stepdad. And you don’t fuck your kids up for your own selfish reasons. But she ain’t never have kids in the first place for anything but to prove she was Ms. Fertile and she mattered. I know the type.” He lowered his eyes, and across his face there came a look of solemn indignation, of something unholy passing through his mind. “Lowest form of creature there is, the mother who doesn’t bond with her children to the extent that she will choose her own suffering over theirs. I saw it in her eyes. Narcissism. She’ll do what she wants. Everyone around her will do the suffering. And she’ll brush it off as her joie de vivre.”
I swear to God my heart was pounding. It’s not really worth it to say what happened the rest of that afternoon. I mean, it doesn’t do Big Mouchie justice. But it is worth saying that I went home that evening and before I even hopped in the shower, covered with a film of sweat and dirt that made my skin two shades darker, I found a highlight tape of Big Mouchie from his sophomore year in college, when they were talking about him being a mid-round prospect with upside galore. I watched him leap with his six-six frame to make a catch or turn upfield and steamroll some poor, overmatched free safety, and I got to thinking about what was going through his head when he broke for daylight, which was probably basic, versus what went through his head in the downtime of a game or before a game, which was probably more philosophical than I can imagine, and that he was both of those people, half one and half the other, because he had to be—and still was just a goddamned city worker, after all.
I got to thinking, sitting in my filth in my computer chair, about how much beauty and talent there is in the world that here the announcers were talking about him boxing out a defender like a basketball player, using his frame to get open, all that stuff you have to do in the N.F.L., and yet the thing that sparkled most was what was going through his concussed mind. I got very sad for those concussions, thinking about what he’d said to me at the picnic table, because what a loss if he ends up a blubbering mess. What a price to pay just to end up a city worker in Boca Raton.
Well, after that day, I was never the same. Big Mouchie became like a god to me. I wouldn’t say anything to Lemmy when Mouchie would go sit in his truck, and Lemmy got the hint and stopped saying anything about it, either. One day, I got the guts to ask Mouchie what it was he was listening to—this after some comments I’d dropped here and there to Lemmy about a mysterious conversation I’d had with Big Mouchie while Lemmy was one day at Marshalls buying the love of his life a useless gift.
He said, “Dostoyevsky.”
“What show is Dos—whatever you said?”
So it came to pass within a year that Lori-Pussy-That-Fits became Lori-Who-Broke-Lemmy’s-Heart. She run off with a cardio-thoracic surgeon, another thing I had to look up. When he was at his most cynical, because even Big Mouchie can be embarrassed by his empathy, he would say, “Capitalism, yo. It’s biblical, Lemmy. Pussy for money. Don’t fret it.” He started dropping a massive hand on Lemmy’s shoulder times out at a site, and grinning at him sweetly. Once he even took the posthole digger from him and said, “Go sit in my truck. The a.c.’s nice and cool.” And Lemmy went and sat and cried his heart out.
I saw him from where I was with Big Mouchie, who dug patiently, tearing half the earth out of the ground with each thrust. Lemmy hit play on the radio in there, but he tapped it off after staring at it for about twelve seconds, trying to make it out. You could hear it on the wind for those twelve seconds, because the wind was coming in our direction, and Big Mouchie said, “That’s Dostoyevsky talking about being a man instead of a piano key. It’s good for Lemmy.”
But then Lemmy cut it off.
I go down to Miami one weekend a month or so, and if there’s no one to watch for—because sometimes you get word online that some star is going to be at some club or center or theater or field, but often you don’t—there’s this tour you can take, takes you around Billionaire Island. Most of the homes are whatever, owned by hedge fund guys—Trump’s cabinet, you know. But sprinkled here and there are the homes of movie stars and singers and directors and even famous authors, though I don’t think Dickinson or Dostoyevsky would want to live in one. Too sunny. But J.K. Rowling has a house down there. So does Tom Clancy and James Patterson and some harlequin romance writer named Sarah Gray who writes a series called A Wife’s Lust. I tried reading one of them, after I saw her twelve-million dollar home, which looked like every other house, trying to be antiqued though it was built in 2009. The book started something like, “Jeannie was upset Kip couldn’t make it for coffee at the Four Seasons.”
I thought, Who gives a fuck?
I went I picked up that book by Mr. Ford. I went to the library to get it. I even called in and had them find it for me, and the librarian was all breathless on the phone. “Yes. Ford. A novelist, as well!” And I thought, That’s good. I guess that’s a big deal. That’s even better than being expert on the chainsaw and post hole digger.
At least I knew that, by then.
But at the site the other day, I’m off by myself for lunch to read, and Big Mouchie, being all respectful of me and chummy with Lemmy now anyway, took Lemmy to another table. We was at a surfer’s place called The Caught Inside, and I had a turkey hero. Had a twenty-ounce Mountain Dew. It had been a while since I’d had something so saccharine, and it was damn good, but also disappointing—like the initial flavor was good, but it had no lasting flavor under it. And I don’t know what it was, but I started reading that same story as when I was fourteen, forty years ago—forty years! And I just got into it. Read the whole thing at lunch. And then I went to the bathroom and wept like a baby. The mother—she goes off. Leaves. Like Lori. And the son and father are left behind.
While I was reading it, it was like when one time I spotted Ben Affleck, who’s even more handsome in person, I’ll tell you that, outside this club in Miami called Mansion. Limo pulled up. Four men the size of Big Mouchie got out and stood all solemn. Mr. Affleck got out with a lady, and they held hands hurrying in while he waved to the cheering crowd. I got a picture of him. His head is turned, and his eyes are all screwed up, and it’s hard to see what he’s even thinking. Which disappoints me. I’d like to know what he was thinking, as he made his way inside.
Maybe he was thinking about how silly people like me are, that he just goes to the bathroom in the hot stink and puts on his pants one leg at a time. Or maybe he was thinking about how lucky and loved he is. Or maybe he was just thinking something simple because he wouldn’t have time for deep thoughts—something about getting inside real quick.
But I stood there a while after the crowd dispersed. They didn’t wait. He went in, and everyone just walked off, talking about it. But I stood there. I was looking at the limo before it pulled away. It was a rental, and that somehow felt better, like at least he doesn’t have a fleet of owned limos everywhere in the world, which then I thought was a really dumb point to make to myself.
But I stayed there after the limo pulled away, too. After the bodyguards went in. Stayed there and let the normal flow of foot traffic break around me like water. Something about just standing there even though it made no sense anymore—or made no sense in light of my original purpose—felt good. And something about that story had felt right, too.
At the very height with Lori, I wonder what comfort Lemmy must have taken, like when she came out to the site with that greasy paper bag. It didn’t matter the obvious truth, that she was putting on a show for the boys. It only mattered how he felt, then.
I came out of the bathroom with dry eyes. But the one who knew was Big Mouchie. He smiled at me knowingly. “How you doin’, Lawrence?” he asked.
“How you doin’, Mouch?” I said, and smiled.
And we all got together and got back to work.
[Check out Nick’s back porch wisdom]