I slowly turn the handle of the back door and give it a gentle push. It’s unlocked and it painfully creaks open. The dark kitchen of this bungalow is wallpapered in flowers with the counter covered in fancy beer bottles. It smells like marinara sauce and potatoes. I see the dining room table is layered with dirty laundry and the TV is on mute. There are a lot of consumer electronics. I hear the tapping of plastic. As I round the corner, there’s a large man built like a defensive end. He’s in pleated khaki pants and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. So focused on combing his short hair that he doesn’t notice me. “Hey Paul, just droppin’ off yer car.”
“Oh, hey man. Thanks!” Paul maintains eye contact with himself in the mirror. “Everythin’ go awright?”
“Thank you fer loanin’ me yer car!” I reply. He loves his car and I’m honored just to be trusted enough to drive it. “It went as well as it could of. Whatcha doin’?”
“Getting’ ready fer a date.”
“A date?!? Good thin’ I returned yer car. Anyone I know?”
“Jonathan from church.”
“Short, skinny guy with dark hair?”
“Yeah.” He elongates his reply with a sense of victorious joy.
“Yep. ‘Nd we’re goin’ ta da Riverside fer dinner.”
“Then I’ll take off since yer busy.”
“Nah, I’ve gotta coupla hours. Grab somethin’ from da fridge.” So, I get some microbrews and crash on the couch. Last night’s hockey game is replaying on the screen. I can’t even tell you how many hours I’ve filled playing video games and shooting the shit with Paul over the years. We met in high school not long after his dad died and was figuring out who he was. I was an outsider for the reason my parents couldn’t afford brand name clothes. With a little conditioning, both of us gained mean dispositions. Our mutual angst brought us together and “safety in numbers” made us inseparable. Paul fell into the recliner and asked, “Are ya happy ta be back home?”
“Well… I didn’t really plan on it. So, I really haven’t thought ‘bout it.” I said. My sole goal as a kid was to get out of this town and here I am.
“Oh, you’ll like it. So much has changed.” Paul talks about this redneck town as if it were Paris. “Lots of great new places.”
“Yeah, saw they bulldozed much of da main drag when I got inta town.”
“See! This place is completely dif’rent than it useta be. Do ya see it? Most people ‘round here don’t. Act like nothin’ changed. That it’s da same town. But, it’s not. All da old stores are in new places. ‘Nd we have coffee shops ‘stead of just old people diners. Everythin’ that was old is gone. But, people just don’t see it.”
“Maybe they just don’t see it as ‘change’ or better than before.”
“I dunno. I mean, maybe things haven’t improved fer people here. Ya go ta school ‘nd learn ta be obedient, loyal, ‘nd unquestionin.’ Ya follow da rules, do as yer told; yer suppose ta get ahead. So, ya start yer life ‘nd da ugly ol’ factory is gone. So are da good payin’ jobs yer parents ‘nd grandparents had. What’s on the ol’ factory site? Just a cell phone store ‘nd a coupla chain restaurants with less-than-minimum wage jobs and no benefits. ‘Nd who profits from that? So, ta just get a mediocre job where all ya do is push papers, ya hafta go ta college. That means student loans ‘nd who profits from that? So, ya graduate with tons of debt ‘nd are lucky if ya get a job yer overqualified fer. Most likely underpaid ‘nd work like a dog ta make ends meet. Who profits from that? Ya need ta get a home ‘cause da landlord keeps jackin’ up da rent fer a tiny rundown apartment. So, ya getta mortgage ‘nd who profits from that? So, da company ya work fer wants better highways, airports, schools, ‘nd so on. But, they don’t wanna pay fer it. In fact, they threaten ta leave if we don’t giv’em tax breaks and subsidies just ta stay. None of this is free. So, how do they pay fer it? By raisin’ taxes and fees on regular people that hafta pay from their shitty jobs. ‘Nd who profits from that? At da end of da month, ya have no money ‘nd ya hafta put groceries onna credit card payin’ 17% interest. ‘Nd who profits from that? ‘Nd that’s if it all goes well. If ya have a car accident or health issue, well yer more valuable dead than alive. ‘Nd we all know da only reason ya could be poor is yer stupid, right? ‘Nd who profits from that? In yer “golden years,” ya’d like ta retire. But, yer pension was eliminated ‘nd Social Security keeps gettin’ cut. So, just ta stay in yer home ‘nd not burden yer family, ya end up as a store greeter until yer body gives out. ‘Nd who profits from that. At least all yer hard work will better yer kids’ lives, right? Well, hold on. All them loans and credit card debts need ta be paid first. If ya end up inna nursin’ home, how much of yer nest egg will be left after paying $6,500+ a month? Certainly nothin’ fer da children ta inherit. So, I can see why people don’t understand things are gettin’ better ‘cause da question really is: better fer who?”
“Nah, that ain’t it. People just like ta complain. This place is great ‘nd they just don’t see it.” Who knows? Maybe he’s right.
“Hey Paul, I’m gonna take off since yer date’s ‘bout ta arrive. Good luck!”
“Okay man. Thanks fer comin’ over ‘nd droppin’ off da car.” I wondered down Hume Avenue heading toward the river. Just a shadow on the street with nothing to do and nowhere to go.