A Gotten Goat
Rudy's a small, square Irishman with a kindly, handsome face; an elfin version of Ernest Hemingway who pads around in moccasins and is never seen without his straw cap. At least once a night he comes into the store to bum a smoke and charm the customers with tales of stickball in Cicero, the bar he owned in Berwyn, the woman he loved who was killed in a plane crash, his wife who's dead now, how he knows Joe Montagna, the actor, knew him before he ever set foot on a stage or gave acting a passing thought.
Rudy's drunk as always, but he is never without his manners or his deadpan homilies: Take care of the man above you. Don't bring the street into the home of your mother and sister. You can't sober up anybody by yelling at em. He's impossible not to like, at least to some extent that varies from person to person. Lately Rudy's drinking has been worse and he's been talking about it in the small hours between 1 and 3.
"Can't sleep. Damn foot. So swollen up can barely get on my moccasins." It's true. His moccasins are like pancakes, one-sixth on, five-sixths off. Over the last week his feet have gradually doubled in size. He lifts his pant leg, his shins are like thighs. "It's goat. I'm too old for gout."
It's hard to laugh the fortieth time you've heard it, but you do anyway, because it saves time. He'll eventually deliver his cleanup line, but it never quite works; either it's too late or it's just plain unintelligible, but it goes something like: "Za trouble w'all you people no sense of humor!" Finally, if you still don't laugh, he laughs, which cues you he's kidding, and then you really do laugh. So the effect is the same as if he were funny.
Rudy made the decision to go to the VA Hospital to get checked out. A friend said he'd drive him up this morning. Last time he went into the VA he didn't come out for nine months. He's nervous, doesn't want to go, he's figuring a way out of it, but what? He's stuck. He won't sit down, not that there's anywhere to sit anyway, and he won't sleep because he can't -- the apnea. But the longer he stays awake, the more purple he gets and the less sense he makes.
Rudy goes home three times and comes back three times. He's troubled, but more sharply focused. He's had a nip. He has a fin. He intends to buy a sandwich of the chef's choice. He can't finish it. He stands outside in the cold sipping coffee. It's 40 degrees in northern Illinois on a mid-August black dawn, when it dawns on a deli clerk he's been locked out of the public housing high-rise for seniors just across the street. Rudy had been warned. There's no drinking at Silver Acres. He's got no place to go until his ride comes at 9:30. If there even is a ride.
On Rudy's third return the store's in full swing morning rush: coffee, donuts, cigarettes, newspapers fly past the counter as fast as change can be made. He takes his place at the front, a little off to the side, leans on the counter and smiles with the satisfaction of a man who's finally found what he's been looking for.
An audience. He's tossing out one-liners that are more like suggestions of syllables, to people who are going to work, the same people who come at the same time every day, in a hurry but reasonably on schedule, landscapers and laborers, limo drivers, union guys and fly-by-nights, the firemen and the chief, all the factory workers and all the bigwigs, the forklift demons, all the good smelling pretty ladies, every last one of these people has a kind word and a smile for him. When he says, "Za trouble! Nosense," they know exactly what he's talking about. It's uncanny.
Equally weird is the fact that this bloating man could yet still stand on two stubs filled up like bladders full of uric acid, and thinking back, his hands had thickened and his cheekbones too, but back to the stubs -- he stood on them all night! Refused to sit. I'm fine he kept saying. I'm fine.
I'm fine, it's just I can't bend my knees anymore to sit, and I'm frankly a little freaked out about it since I'm also locked out of my building, and I'm too proud to admit any of it: will you save me?
Eventually Rudy disappears into the pink. Doris the muffin maker wants to know who that old man was that was hanging around. She gets the only known answer. Guy in trouble.