Cold rain falls in the river, flows down to the sea, gets into the skyline, circles endlessly. Same old rain on the wind, same old pain in my soul.

Monday, May 18, 2009


The locals all knew him. It was that kind of town. Somebody farts at the VFW and they smell it at the bowling alley. If he had a history, no one knew it. And no one cared. He never held a job for very long as one hand was always holding a bottle and the smell was ever-present. He fixed lawn mowers, sometimes, but not very well and if he needed a snort and couldn’t scrape a few dollars together, he might just sell your lawnmower out from under you. You wouldn’t even know about it until fall or winter, as he’d keep telling you he was waiting on parts. He worked off and on at the granite factory making tombstones when they were desperate and also dug graves when he could be found.
His name was Charlie but everyone just called him Coots. He had a wife but she was rarely seen and rarely spoken to. A social leper by association, she went to Church and the grocery store and kept her gaze low. They had children, five boys and two girls. The boys, without exception were hellions and tough hellions at that. You simply avoided their street if you weren’t looking for trouble and always hoped they were on their street. The girls, on the other hand, were quiet and shy, even pretty in a plain sort of way. And who knows if they really were shy or simply felt the need to make themselves small and invisible.
There’s a lot of shame in being the family of the town drunk and the effects are permanent. Survival dictates policy.
There was a small theatre in town also, but for whatever reason, it was never able to fill even half the seats no matter what movie was playing. The owner, Harvey Taylor, was a nice enough guy but always seemed kind of shady and no one could figure out why he ever bought it. It just didn't make sense. There was only one small screen and it always smelled damp. You could go just five miles north and buy your ticket at the new theatre with two concession stands and four screens.
Well, one bitter cold Wednesday night in January, sure enough, very early in the morning, the theatre caught fire. Biggest blaze the town had ever seen. Every fire department within fifteen miles had been called but all they could do was save the rest of the block, more or less. Sound travels far on cold northern nights and everyone woke to the sirens. People young and old lined the icy riverbank in bathrobes and other's overcoats. The fire and gossip kept them warm as they pointed and shook their heads.
Thing is, there was an old lady who lived above the theatre, the widow Mary Wilcox, and by the time the fire was discovered her place was engulfed. It turned out she had been staying with her daughter for a few days, but at the time, no one knew, except for maybe, Harvey Taylor.
Coots didn’t know. How could he? He was always swallowed up in the bottle. But he walked. Long into the night he would stagger the dark alleys and find shelter in rear entryways and rest on ramshackle stairways. They found Coots in the morning while poking through the mess. Well, his body anyway. It was inside the theatre near the entrance to the stairs leading to Mary’s apartment.
There was a lot of speculation. Small towns breed small minds searching power through knowledge, whether real or imagined.
Harvey had a wife. Though odd, she was beautiful in a dark sort of way and you always felt she was casting spells when she looked at you. It didn't seem as though she and Harvey cared much for each other and shortly after the fire she would disappear and Harvey would be as though she never existed. If you asked him, and nobody did, he would just suck harder on the ever-present cigarette while his eyes narrowed and his smile threatened. But this is all later. In a time when Harvey found a bar stool at opening bell, crossed his legs and didn't leave until late afternoon.
A lot of figures were tossed around as to how much Harvey got from the insurance but he never said and never seemed to lack for the day's bar tab.
Harvey couldn’t have started the fire as he had an ironclad alibi and his wife backed him up. Most people thought Coots broke into the theatre to either rob it or maybe that he was paid by Harvey to set the fire. Hardly anyone ever considered that maybe he was passing by, certainly drunk, seen the yellow glow and busted in to try and save Mary.
Investigations were pretty bad back then and people enjoyed guessing more than knowing. Coot’s wife grew more reclusive. His kids disappeared from town one after the other. And another drunk came along to fill the gap of dirty gossip.
Hollywood would have it that many years later, a guy from Arizona came out of the woodwork to write a book on his platoon and the fierce fighting they went through in Europe in World War Two. Much would be said about Charlie and the good things he did. It would turn out he risked his life to save a family hiding in a basement and was shot while going back to help a wounded friend who later died anyway.
But Hollywood’s full of shit and always has been.
A would be writer with a worn out imagination would tell us of how the love of his life was ripped out of his arms in a tragic car wreck so many years ago and his heart just couldn’t bear the guilt.
Just more bullshit.
The truth is buried with Charlie’s smoked mind and scorched heart.
Every town that can support three or four churches has a Coots. If a town has a Wal-Mart super center it might have two. Any more than two and the town is a city and too large for a town drunk. It just has drunks that no one knows or cares about.
They’re here to make us feel better about ourselves.
“Well, at least I’m not Coots!”
“Amen to that, Brother!”
“See them drunks under the bridge?”
“Yes, sad.”
The fat ones make the skinny ones feel good. The average make the beautiful above average. And Coots makes the rest of us sober.
And so it goes.