Chris McCormick

LIKING AND DISLIKING FRIENDLY AND UNFRIENDLY PEOPLE

     Renwick had ordered a whole kitchen’s worth of new appliances, and the delivery guy didn’t seem thrilled.
     “Working alone, huh?” Renwick said.
     “No, I got my invisible partner here. He’s lifting all the easy shit.”
     Part of the deliveryman’s sourness probably came from the fact that he’d spent over an hour trying to find Renwick’s house. Renwick bought it in the late ‘80s, when hardly anyone lived in Palmdale, let alone in Lake Hughes, the small town in the mountains that overlooked the city. And that’s where Renwick’s house was, in Lake Hughes, with about seventy acres of land to go with it. In the twenty or so years that he’d lived there, not much had changed. A few more cars and trucks rolled by here and there. He still hadn’t used any of the land for anything but planting a few bushes and trees, and many of the roads up to the house remained makeshift paths, unpaved and poorly lit. This delivery guy wasn’t the first to complain about the place. He just happened to be the first one in a while.
     Out back, behind the house and out of the deliveryman’s sight, grazed two goats. Grazed, or stood anyway. Whatever goats did. The goats’ parents came with the land and left these two before they passed. Renwick had no idea how to take care of them and never really took an interest. Each day he fed them a product called feed, which made enough sense to him. He stacked hay in the corner of their large, fenced area. Once in a while he’d go out there and pat them on their heads and consider naming them.
     Most of the time he spent inside the house, working. He wrote for the Sports section of the LA Times. He used to cover the Dodgers and the Lakers back in the ‘80s. Now he’d been moved to hockey and soccer, two sports he had to force himself to watch. Still, with the newspaper industry shrinking, Renwick worked hard to convince his editors and readers that he was a true fan of the foreign games.
     “You need some help?” Renwick asked. The deliveryman struggled to keep the electric oven on its dolly over the splotchy pavement.
     “Can’t,” the deliveryman said. “Liability.” Then, after a few grunts of exertion, “Where was the help with the directions?”
     Renwick paused. “You know, back in the day, guys would come up here after a long search and I’d apologize and make them dinner.”
     “Yeah? What are we eating tonight?”
     “They were polite, is the point.”
     The deliveryman let the oven down at the front step and stood to stretch his back. Renwick watched him and decided he didn’t like the guy. It had been a while since he’d disliked someone so consciously. It seemed to him that people who were paid to be friendly and still couldn’t do it had no hope. He considered, despite his judgment of the guy, asking him if he wanted a glass of water or a snack. He’d baked a pie the other day, a boysenberry one, and hadn’t finished half of it yet. The deliveryman finally stopped stretching and caught Renwick looking at him.
     “You want a photo?” he asked.
     Renwick turned and entered the house.

     Another person Renwick disliked was his ex-wife, a stubborn and altogether unhappy woman who called herself Kat. Before they were divorced, they had one child, a girl Renwick wanted to name Chloe. Kat initially liked the name, but as the birth date approached, began to waver. Chloe sounded fragile or something. Finally the girl was born and Kat named her Monica, a name Renwick despised, in private, because an older namesake had been a girlfriend of his from college, a particularly mean one who forced him to quit a number of extracurriculars he had really been enjoying—writing for a comedy magazine, for instance.
     Renwick had high hopes, but Monica turned out to be a rotten girl, too, taking after her mother. She was spoiled and needy and refused to play in the dirt. She hated sports and shut the games off when Renwick tried to watch them. As an adult, she wasn’t much better. She left for college but he wouldn’t have known it. She spent every weekend back at the house, trucking her and all of her friends’ laundry for her mother to do. Whenever Kat objected, for this and other reasons, Monica stomped up the steps to her room and slammed the door, only to reemerge moments later, indignant and whiny. Getting her way was the only skill Monica displayed on a regular basis, a realization that depressed her once optimistic father. Only after the divorce and the move to Lake Hughes did Renwick let his feelings settle and realize what they meant. He didn’t like his family. It’s a tough thing to learn about yourself. Especially the kid. You’re allowed to—encouraged to—dislike your ex-wife, but your own child? It was something else entirely, and it sort of gnawed at him for a long while.           

     The deliveryman shouted something from the kitchen after some time. He was done, he said, but the appliances sat bunched up in the middle of the kitchen. The old ones were still in their same spots.
     “You mean you’re done moving them inside,” Renwick said. “Still got to hook ‘em up, though.”
     “Nope. Not me. I’m just the drop-off guy. You’re going to call and get someone from the store who can fit these up right.” He presented a clipboard and a pen. “Sign this here just saying I dropped them off all right.”
     “This is ridiculous,” Renwick said. “You don’t even pick up the old stuff? You’ve got a truck up here already—”
     “Not me. Just sign.”
     Renwick grabbed the pen. As he scribbled, he said, “What’s your name? I’m going to make a call about you.”
     “Williamson. Van Williamson.” The deliveryman proceeded to spell it out.

     As the day began to settle, and as the street lights of the city below him started glaring, Renwick dug into his pie. He sat on the new dishwasher and put his feet up on the new stove. The boysenberries in the pie were still good, four days after he picked them. He ate the pie and considered his old appliances. They worked fine enough, and he could probably donate them to some charity.
     The doorbell rang. It took a moment for Renwick to recognize it. He only heard it once a year or so, and never after dark. Another ring and Renwick got up to get it. He half-expected his daughter to be standing there, thirty-something and asking for money. One time she came over to explain that, with the help of her therapist, she’d “forgiven” him. Imagine that.
     This time it wasn’t Monica at the door. It was the deliveryman, five hours since he’d last seen him, with a certain look on his face that seemed different from before.
     “Yes?” Renwick said. He looked beyond the man and noticed a small car parked out on the road. The deliveryman was off duty.
     “Hi, yes. Hi. I delivered your appliances today. Van Williamson.”
     “Yes, yes I remember.”
     “The two men nodded for a short while.
     “You forget something?” Renwick said.
     “No, no sir,” Williamson said. “I just wanted to, to come back and apologize. For how I acted during the drop-off.”
     Two moths chased each other in the light between the men. Renwick ducked to avoid them.
     “It’s just that, I thought about it on the way back,” Williamson said. “I should have picked up your old appliances. I had a rough day before coming up here is all, and, well, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
     “Look,” Renwick said, “I appreciate it. But I wasn’t really going to make a call about you.”
     “No, that’s not it. I don’t care about the job. I just thought I’d come up here and say sorry. As a person, not a delivery guy.”
     “Well,” Renwick said. He put his hand out for a shake. “I appreciate it.”
     Williamson pumped the old man’s hand and headed back out to his car. When he got there, he called out to Renwick, “I’ll come back around tomorrow. With the truck.”
     Renwick waved and closed the door. A moth got in. Renwick tugged the hair from the back of his head at the bad luck. Still, he couldn’t help but feel a strange happiness at the deliveryman’s apology. Pride, almost, of being a member of the same species as a decent person, and most definitely hope.

- - - - - -

     The next day Renwick woke up early. He ate breakfast and let the TV catch him up on the Lakers game he had to skip the night before. They won in a nail-biter: two overtimes and a buzzer-beating jumper from Fisher. Another game he should have seen live. Instead he had the Kings game on, and they won in a snore, a 5-0 blowout. Even with the disappointment, Renwick was excited for the day. He spent a lot of time that morning organizing the new appliances to make a clear route for Williamson. He put his back against the new refrigerator and squatted down as low as his old knees would let him. He pushed off of the ground and surprised himself at how strong he still was, considering. A few more moves like that and the kitchen, though double-stocked, looked pretty good. He even tried unhooking the old appliances so the move would be even easier for Williamson. But after fiddling with the oven and hearing what he thought to be leaking gas, he decided it best to leave that part for the professional. After all of the hard work, Renwick wanted to take a nap, and did.
     When he woke up the second time that day, it was three o’clock. He stumbled into the kitchen and applauded himself again for his earlier work. Williamson would be grateful for the help. Renwick walked over to the new refrigerator and compared it to the old one, which stood just next to it. The old one, yellow and short, was outclassed. The new one had a freezer just as large as the cooler side, and made ice in the front. It even had a digital temperature gauge whose reading was, when plugged in, accompanied by a little revolving picture of a snowflake. It had been time to get a new set of appliances, and Renwick was glad he’d done it. Soon enough he’d forget how he ever survived without that little revolving snowflake.
     At five o’clock Renwick checked the road. Nothing out there but a breeze.
     That night, as he was brushing his teeth, the moth reappeared. Renwick saw it on the bathroom wall, just off from the light bulb there. It was the size of a chicken egg, cocooned in its own wings, asleep, Renwick figured, or else resting. An urge to slap a book against it or a shoe came upon Renwick, and he fetched a newspaper from beside the toilet. One swat brought the thing down into the sink. He pinched its wings, dropped it into the toilet, and flushed.
     The next morning, Renwick expected Williamson to show up. He explained to himself that he had been asleep for three hours the day before, and that Williamson must have shown up during his nap. Another apology was in order, this time from Renwick to Williamson.
     When no one rang his doorbell by the end of the day, Renwick resigned himself to making a phone call the next morning, which he did. He asked the manager of the store Williamson worked for whether or not Van from delivery was available. The manager mistook him for asking about a delivery van, and it took a few moments for the confusion to clear. After a short conversation, Renwick hung up the phone. Williamson had been let go, he learned, and no other information was to be given out.
     There was a time when Renwick would have laughed at an old man feeling sorry for himself about a delivery guy that fell through on a promise. That was when Renwick laughed at pretty much everything. He’d spent a lot of time in his youth churning sarcasm like it was a source of nutrition. Now he saw it as a sign of weakness and lame wit. There was nothing wrong with feeling a genuine emotion, he decided, and he shut the irony of his younger critic out. Then he let himself get teary-eyed.

- - - - - -

     A week passed and Renwick arranged for a charity to come for his old appliances. He was feeding the goats when the pickup’s horn went off out front. He decided to ignore it for just a little longer and continue with the goats, who seemed to be missing him and excited for his attention.
     The car horn blared once more, and Renwick stood fast. He scratched the underside of a chin. A quiet moment passed, where the rustling of the goats’ feet against the hay sounded more powerful than usual, like the sound of the ocean, or the sound of a high wind through young, thick hair.
     The car horn. Irritated, Renwick gave a final pat on the head to each of his goats and made his way toward the road out front. A group of four young people, in their early twenties or so, gathered around the charity truck. They all wore blue polo shirts and khaki shorts. On the side of the truck was a decal of a cross and the words “The Appliance Alliance” above and below it. Renwick had chosen the charity at random in the yellow pages. He just picked the first one that hauled away kitchen appliances and set them up in homes of those who needed them. Now it bothered him that it was a religious group, a fact that would have driven him in the direction of a different organization had he known it sooner. He was a deeply secular man and distrusted friendly religious people. They weren’t really kind; they were auditioning for heaven.
     As soon as the group started migrating over to the gate where Renwick stood, he hollered at them.
     “Get out of here or I’ll phone the police!”
     The group tried to explain themselves, that they’d been ordered by the resident at this address.
     “No one here called you,” Renwick shouted. “Now get off of my property!”
     The group made some final attempts to convince the old man that they were there legitimately. One of them—a young girl, who, with her brown hair cut the way it was and from this distance, didn’t look unlike his daughter—called out, “But it took us an hour to find the place!”
     “Get out!” Renwick screamed again, and the group rode off, slowly at first, then faster past the hill and out of view.

     The Kings lost again that night, and the Galaxy failed to sell two thirds of their tickets for the umpteenth time in a row. Renwick tossed these stories together and sent them off to his editor.
     He expected a phone call the next morning, so he went to bed as soon as he was done with his articles. His daughter was to call him regarding her birthday, which occurred a month before. He hadn’t forgotten about it; her phone was out of service for one reason or another, and she had just received his message. She said all of this on the home answering machine while Renwick was out feeding the goats. She’d call tomorrow morning and try him then. For a change, he went to bed sort of looking forward to it.
     Of course, she never called the next morning, and when, at four o’clock in the afternoon, Renwick decided to call her and see if she’d just forgotten, her phone was out of service again.
     For a while that night, for a good, long while, maybe two hours or three, Renwick drove through Lake Hughes. He rarely drove anywhere but to the grocery store in town, and to the pump there on Lake Elizabeth Road every once in a while to fill up his small truck. He drove up to the Rock Inn, the local bar, and kept going. He went on through toward the golf course, which was beautiful, he thought, but for one or two telephone poles sticking out of the first fairway. From the road though, all he could see were fragments of the land, irregularly lit up by various lampposts and, less often at this time of night, lighted windows. He didn’t know why he was driving through the town and had no idea where he’d stop, whether or not he’d leave Lake Hughes altogether. Still, he refused to feel silly about it, and decided that if he’d chosen to drive it was because he was supposed to have chosen it. That thought, that night, was the closest to religious he’d ever get, and he embraced it.

     Monica called again. This time, Renwick was in the living room. He let the machine get it anyway. His daughter spoke quickly and sounded tired: “Better luck next year, I guess.”
     Renwick decided that luck had nothing to do with it. He went out to his land and greeted his animals. He carried over an old bucket he used to hold feed. After he’d emptied it all into the goats’ pen, he kept the bucket and walked over to the boysenberry bush near the fence line. Then he picked as many berries as he could find.
     Back inside, he brought the bucket of berries into the kitchen and prepared to make another pie. When he’d set the dough over the berries in the crust, he realized he hadn’t preheated the oven, a step that would now cost him an extra fifteen minutes. What were fifteen minutes to a man who baked himself pies and spoke to goats?
     As he adjusted the knobs, he decided he wanted to use the new oven for this new pie. He got down on the kitchen floor and reached behind the old oven to unhook it. He tussled with the pipes back there for some time. Again he heard the hiss of gas, but this time, he ignored it. Sooner than he thought, the oven was detached from the wall, and Renwick pulled himself up from the floor. He dusted himself off and pulled away at the oven to make room for the new one. Things existed under the oven. An old milk cap, a web of lost hair and dust. Renwick did a quick sweeping of the area and proceeded to push in the new oven.
     Soon the pie was done and cooling on the counter near the window. Renwick saw the old oven taking up a large portion of the crowded kitchen. He began to move it, to where, he didn’t know. He just started dragging it, marking up some of the tiles on the floor. He found himself pulling it all the way outside, in the back. Suddenly he realized he could put all of the old appliances out there. In an effort to not overdo it, Renwick decided to move one appliance per day, until the whole kitchen was perfect again. But, after waiting thirty minutes for the pie to cool down, he thought one more appliance today wouldn’t kill him.
     It didn’t kill him, but it hurt. He threw out his back tugging at the refrigerator, an excuse the paramedics couldn’t believe. He’d thrown it so bad it took him an hour to get to the phone to dial the ambulance. When they finally arrived, forty minutes later, they apologized for the wait. “Not an easy place to find,” one of them said in an effort to lighten the mood.
     Monica drove the hour from Los Angeles to meet her father at the hospital. She came to take him home, and Renwick thanked her. She suggested that it might be about time to sell the house and live in a community of peers. Her words.
     “For Christ’s sake, I’m sixty years old. I pulled a muscle—I didn’t shit myself.”
     “Consider.”
     “I just bought a brand new kitchen!”
     When she dropped him off, Monica helped her father inside. She placed her palm on the lower part of his back and inched between the walls of the hallway until they arrived at the bedroom. She elbowed the light switch. Then she laid her father out and covered him with a sheet or two. Before leaving, she said, “I can’t believe I’m helping you.”
     “Is that how I taught you to treat people?” Renwick asked. “Is it? You don’t act nice and then make people feel like they owe you something. You don’t act nice at all. You are nice. You should be nice.”
     But by this time, his daughter had already driven away, hours ago, maybe days.

 

 

 

- - - - - -

Chris McCormick is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. He received a merit scholarship to the New York State Writers' Institute at Skidmore College, where his work was nominated for the anthology, Best New American Voices. He is working on a collection of stories set in the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles.

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