“Yes, that’s great news!” Neil said happily. “Glad that you’re back on the outside. I’ll see you tonight, bye.” He hung up his cell phone and strolled into the break room at his workplace. Trevor was sitting at a table reading a magazine. “Good news, Trevor!” Neil announced. “Guess who’s in town?”
“Hope it’s Barry,” Trevor answered without looking up. “Son of a bitch owes me money.”
Neil laughed dismissively. “Please. I’d never get this excited over him.”
“So who would you get excited for?”
Trevor looked up with surprise. “Serious? I thought Monte hated it up here.”
“No, he doesn’t hate it here.” Neil put his hands on his hips. “What gave you that idea?”
“Well,” Trevor began, “I seem to remember him saying that Santa Cruz was the land of ‘hippie thugs’ and ‘fascist pinkos,’ or vice versa.”
“He was kidding,” Neil laughed.
“And he also said he’d never return to Santa Cruz unless there was a riot so he could take part in the looting and pillaging.”
“I think you’re exaggerating.”
“No, I’m positive those were his exact words,” Trevor recalled. “He stenciled them onto the wall of the men’s room at Brady’s.”
“Well, he’s not exactly here by choice anyhow,” Neil admitted as he sat down at the other side of the table.
“Trying to get away from one his exes?” Trevor asked.
“No, but it’s related to that. What happened was that Monte decided to clear his name, so he went and turned himself in down in Orange County to take care of some outstanding warrants, but turns out he still had a warrant for Santa Cruz.”
“Domestic disturbance, but it’s all taken care of,” Neil reassured.
“Who knew,” Trevor mocked. “Always such a law abiding individual.”
“I thought you liked Monte.”
“You thought wrong.”
Neil was taken aback. “But he’s colorful, and interesting, and he can converse on just about any subject,” he implored. “And you guys used to hang out all the time.”
“We all did, that’s what coworkers do. Go out on Friday night, drink some beers, and complain about the boss, but Monte drank and complained more than anybody. It got on everybody’s nerves, mine included.” Trevor went back to his magazine.
“Okay, so maybe Monte rubs a few people the wrong way, but he’s on the wagon now, and this time for good. He’s really trying, and he needs a place to crash for the night before he heads home tomorrow, so how can I say no?”
“So he finally became friends with Bill W.,” Trevor mused. “About time, but you know what? I’ll bet he’s still an opinionated, arrogant prick.”
“So I take it you won’t be hanging out with us tonight?”
“I’d rather stay home and watch a game, and I hate sports.”
Neil was dismayed. “C’mon, not everybody feels that way about Monte.”
“Yes we do.”
“I’ll find some people to hang out with us.”
Sandy walked into the break room and poured herself a coffee. “Hey, Sandy,” Trevor said to her, “guess who’s in town?”
Sandy froze, her back to them.
“Yeah, we’re hanging out tonight,” Neil said. “Wanna join?”
Sandy remained still as tension built up. Anger radiated from her.
“No!!!” Sandy shouted as she slammed down her coffee cup. She then let out a torrent of profanities as she quickly fled the break room. Her cup remained on the counter in a puddle of spilled coffee.
“See?” Trevor said.
“Okay, but what they had was a love-hate thing,” Neil pointed out. “You remember what that was like, always messing and teasing with each other, but it was all harmless fun.”
“We’re lucky there wasn’t a harassment lawsuit,” Trevor reminded Neil. “This is a work place, not a meat market.”
“So maybe there was a little bit of sexual tension between them, but none of us took it serious, I don’t even think they did. And if Sandy doesn’t want to hang out, that’s fine. Monte and I are going to have a great time together!”
“Good luck with that,” Trevor said. “You know you won’t be able to handle him unless you’re drunk. That was the only way that most of us could deal with him.”
“I think you’re being way too hard on Monte,” Neil said defensively. “Deep down he’s good people. He just had a few too many hard knocks in life, that all.”
“You know what, I’ll bet you a pitcher and a game of pool that you end up hating him and kicking him out of your apartment.”
“I can’t let Monte sleep outside in the cold down by the river levee.”
“Then I’ll make the same bet that you end up being sorely disappointed.”
* * * * * * *
Neil finished straightening up his apartment then heard a knock at the front door. He answered in anticipation. He pulled the door open he saw Monte in silhouette standing against the light of a nearby lamp post. Mist from the ocean shrouded his appearance. He sported a dark overcoat over his thin and taller than average frame, his hair was short, graying, and crowned by a beret. The piercing eyes of his severe expression cut through the darkness and focused on Neil. “Monte!” Neil called out. “How you doing?”
“Waiting for you to invite me in before I catch my death.”
“Of course, where are my manners.” Neil stepped aside and gestured in Monte invitingly.
“Just fuckin’ with ya, Neil,” Monte said, “good to see you.” He entered the apartment and looked around. “Nice place. I can still smell the Formula 409. You cleaned this place up just for me. Thanks.”
“See you haven’t changed a bit,” Neil kidded as he closed and locked the door.
“What are you talking about? I’m six months sober.”
“I just meant your funny way of greeting people.”
“Yes, my reputation precedes me. But I’ve turned over a new leaf, left my worse habits behind, and now I’m trying to improve myself.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“So are you going to show me around this dump or what?”
“Well, here’s the kitchen as you can see,” Neil said as he pointed to his modest kitchen with its sink, refrigerator, small gas range with kettle and cast iron skillet, plain white cupboards, Formica counter with various small appliances, card table in the corner with some bills and newspapers, and vinyl floor with a rug in the middle. “Not much, but you know how rents are up here.”
Monte looked over the kitchen. “The Ritz Carlton compared to where I was just at.”
“Well let me show the rest of my place,” Neil said as walked through the open doorway into the living room area and Monte followed. A recliner and a couch were set around a coffee table in the middle, a television was in one corner with a stereo next to it and then a lamp, a bookcase was up against one wall and various pictures and posters were on the other walls. “This is where I hang out, read, watch TV, listen to music.” Neil entered a short hallway. “And down this way is my bedroom, bathroom is over here.” Neil heard the sound of someone sitting in his recliner. He turned around and saw Monte relaxing in his chair. His overcoat was off and draped over the back. “So, yeah, make yourself at home.”
“Way ahead of you, buddy.” Monte pulled the handle on the recliner and the footrest popped up. He leaned back and put his boots up on the footrest.
“So are you hungry? Something to drink?”
“You got any ginger ale?”
“I think I have a lemon lime soda.”
Neil went into the kitchen. “I have noticed one change about you,” he said as opened the refrigerator, “that brewery smell no longer accompanies you.” He looked around, and found the lemon lime soda next to half a six-pack of Heineken. He wanted a beer, but then thought he shouldn’t drink in front of Monte. He grabbed another soda for himself.
“I was smelling more like a distillery before I finally bottomed out,” Monte said from the living room.
“You want a glass?”
“I ain’t fancy.”
“What was I thinking.” Neil returned to the living room and handed a cold can to Monte. He nodded in thanks as he settled in and opened it. Neil sat on the couch and opened his own can of soda. “So quitting the alcohol, that must have been hectic.”
“Remember the scene in The Lost Weekend when Ray Milland hallucinates a bat crawling out from his wall?”
“Child’s play,” Monte said and took a drink of his soda. “Now I wake up in the morning without that terrible buzz in my head. Like an old friend has left me,” he added wistfully.
“But a change for the better, right?”
“The real change is that it’s no longer possible for me to escape the daily horrors of life. O whatever shall I do!” Monte said theatrically.
Neil laughed at the elaborate gesture and felt happy to be sharing his place. “What you need is a hobby,” Neil suggested, “something to kill the time.”
Monte pulled a cigarette pack out of his front pocket. “What the hell am I going to do, join a sewing circle?”
“Why not? That’s where the women are.”
“Hanging around a bunch of chattering broads?” Monte pondered as he slid out a cigarette and put the pack back into his pocket. “That’ll drive me to drink again for sure.”
“What gives? You used to jump at those opportunities.”
Monte pulled out a Bic lighter from another pocket and lit his cigarette. “I got back together with Brenda.”
“You did? Way to go.” Neil watched the curling smoke from the tip of the cigarette. “Say, I was wondering if…”
“Of course, how rude of me.” Monte held the pack toward Neil. “Care for a Camel unfiltered?”
“No, I don’t smoke. I was just wondering if you’d open the window.”
“Really? I seem to remember seeing you smoking.” Monte opened the window next to his chair and held the cigarette by the screen.
“I just smoked every now and then.” Neil looked around, found an ashtray under the coffee table, and handed it to Monte. “Once I had a few drinks in me I’d start bumming cigarettes, I think all the smoke around me triggered a nicotine craving in me.”
“You bummed a few from me I remember.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Neil joked. “So I guess you haven’t quit everything.”
Monte looked over at Neil gravely and held up his cigarette. “You can have my rich tobacco goodness when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”
“Hey, I’m not trying to get you to quit. If it makes you happy that’s all that matters.”
“It is one of the few joys in my life.”
“No big deal as far as I’m concerned.” Neil leaned back and relaxed on his couch. “You’re aces with me, Monte.”
“Much appreciated, Neil. And of all the people I’ve cursed, you’re not one of them.”
Neil felt satisfied with their friendly exchange and was happy in Monte’s company, then he noticed the harsh smell of his burning cigarette.
“The way I look at it, I’ll have plenty of time to be a nonsmoker when I’m dead.” Monte took another drag and exhaled out the window, but a wisp smoke curled back into the room.
“Did you ever think about how ironic it was to be working at a vitamin company while living a less than healthy lifestyle?” Neil wondered.
“That’s why they kept us back in the warehouse, away from everybody.”
“I’m not in the warehouse anymore,” Neil said, “I made into the office.”
Monte got more settled in the recliner. “I’d say I’m happy for you except that they fired me and I’m still pissed at them.”
“I thought you were laid off.”
“Either way they didn’t want me, so the whole pill factory can take a hike, present company excluded,” Monte said as raised his soda can to Neil. “So did those cheap bastards dole out a raise for you at least?”
“Not as much as I’d like, but enough to keep me from looking for a new job.”
“That’s how they get ya,” Monte said knowingly. “And how’s the rest of the jolly crew?”
“The ones still with the company are doing okay.”
“I see they’re all beating a path to see me. Touching.”
“Ah, you know, everybody is busy, but they all miss you,” Neil reassured.
“Even the love of my life?”
“Sandy sends her best.”
“Bullshit, but thanks for trying to spare my feelings.” Monte appeared proudly angry to Neil. “I felt more wanted at the county lockup, and they let me go early.”
Their attention went to the television as they relaxed into the night. Neil wondered to himself why he was the only one from work who wanted to see Monte. And he then began to wonder about his workplace and how it changed over the years into a less fun and more sober place than it used to be. On the television was The Tonight Show.
“I miss Johnny Carson,” Monte said poignantly, “another great smoker.”
“Didn’t he die of emphysema?”
“Too many ex wives, all that alimony killed him. It just isn’t the same with Leno, he was a lot funnier back when he was just a guest host.” ¹
“Didn’t you hear?” Neil said. “Leno is leaving the helm. He’s retiring next year.”
“Who’s replacing him?” Monte asked.
Monte took another drag off his cigarette. “Never heard of him.”
Neil laughed, even though he couldn’t tell if Monte was serious or joking. “Too bad Arsenio isn’t on any more,” he added.
“That is too bad,” Monte agreed. “I like the sketch he did about the blind black man who ends being in charge of the Klan. Funny stuff.”
“Oh, you’re thinking of Dave Chappelle. That dude is hilarious.”
Monte looked over at Neil with a narrowed expression. “Neil, they all look alike to me.”
* * * * * * *
They watched more of The Tonight Show, then Neil picked up the remote control during a commercial and ran through the channels. “Stop me if you see anything you like.”
“Got any porn channels?”
“That’s what the Internet is for.”
“My step Dad used to get all the porn channels,” Monte said. “A good man he was,” Monte continued. “Put up with my battle-ax mother and her unruly brood. The only person I miss.”
Neil eventually settled on Comedy Central which was airing a Jackass movie and set down the remote control. He looked over at Monte and thought he looked genuinely reminiscent. “How about some good old fashioned physical comedy?”
“Of course, you can’t go wrong with that.” Monte pulled off his boots and put his feet back on the footrest. “You got a blanket?”
“Yeah, I think I have one somewhere.” Neil got up and went to his hall closet. He rooted around a pile of towels and sheets and found a blanket. He returned to the living room and handed it to Monte.
“Thanks.” Monte unfolded it and spread it over himself. Neil detected a new odor, noticed that Monte had taken off his boots, then wished that he would light up another cigarette. Neil laid back on the couch and tried to scoot farther away from Monte.
“So, those were some days, eh?” Neil said.
One of the Jackasses burst into a bathroom and started beating a large middle aged man who was sitting on the toilet with a newspaper. Monte laughed out loud. “Ha! TV needs more of that degenerate behavior! Were you saying something?”
“Oh, nothing,” Neil said. “Just remembering the old days.”
“About what, the pill factory?”
“Yeah, don’t you ever miss it?”
“What’s there to miss?”
“I know it wasn’t all laughs, but we had some good times. Isn’t it good to have fun memories of the past that you can look back on?”
“Why get bogged down in syrupy sentiment?” Monte said. “Leave the past in the past.”
“But I miss those days,” Neil admitted. “Most everyone is else is married with kids, not too many of us single guys left.”
“So find some broad and get married. You’re not a bad looking guy, Neil. You’d make a great catch, not that I’m trying to come onto you,” Monte reassured.
“Not so easy anymore to meet anyone. My social circle has shrank and my wingmen are disappearing.”
“You worry too much. Besides, you have me.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow morning.”
“We have tonight.”
“So you wanna hit Lloyd’s Tavern right now?” Neil suggested. “They have O’Douls on tap.”
“No way, I’m all settled in,” Monte said as he relaxed further into the recliner. “Better to avoid the temptation anyhow. And look at the hour, it’s past midnight.”
They watched some more of the Jackass movie. After a while Neil began to feel sleepy. He got up. “Think I’ll go to bed now.”
“You’re going to miss Rip Taylor’s cameo.”
“That’s all right, I’m starting to doze off. Here’s the remote.”
“Suit yourself. See you in the morning.”
Neil went to his bedroom, closed the door, and still heard the television and Monte’s occasional laughing outbursts. He went to bed and had trouble sleeping until Monte finally turned off the television.
* * * * * * *
The next morning Neil got up, got dressed, opened his door and noticed the acrid aroma of cigarette smoke. Monte was already up and sitting at the kitchen table. He was smoking and drinking a cup of coffee. “Helped myself,” Monte said. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Uh, it’s fine.”
“I opened the back door so the smoke wouldn’t build up.”
How considerate, Neil thought to himself facetiously. “So I guess you’ll be heading back home today?”
“That’s right, and with a clean slate, hallelujah. Oh, one more thing, I need to buy a Greyhound ticket and I’m a little short of funds, so I was wondering…”
“Sixty ought to do it.” Monte put the cigarette out in the ashtray.
“There’s an ATM on the way to the bus depot.” Neil worried about his bank balance.
“Great, let’s go.”
They left Neil’s apartment and walked toward downtown. The morning was sunny and cloudless, but a chilling breeze came off the ocean. “Nice day today,” Neil said against the silence.
“Can’t wait to get back home,” Monte said emphatically. “Santa Cruz isn’t the way I remember it. Most of my old friends have moved away, and a whole new mob of vagrants have invaded.”
Neil tried to think of something positive to say with no success. He wondered where his life had come to. Just a lonely guy starving for company, he thought to himself, do I have that desperate look about me? He tried to think of past mistakes that put him on his current path and worried about his future. They came to his bank and he went to the ATM, withdrew sixty dollars, and gave the three twenty dollar bills to Monte.
“Thanks,” Monte said as he took the bills and put them in his pocket. “Soon as I get a job and pay off my debts I’ll get you back.” Neil nodded acceptingly but wasn’t sure he could believe him. They walked up the street until they arrived at the main bus station, two side streets that made a Y shape around a concrete island with a small taco stand and a coffee kiosk. A ticket office with an indoor waiting area was at the corner. Monte bought his bus ticket and then a coffee.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” Neil said.
Monte’s expression became serious. “Neil,” he began. He seemed hesitant, then his eyes became thoughtful, sincere. “I just want to say thanks for everything,” he said as his voice cracked a little. “You’ve helped me through this difficult situation, you were always there for me, and I just want to say I’m really grateful.” He held out his hand.
Neil was stunned. “Gee, thanks, Monte.” He shook Monte’s hand. “Glad to help.” He saw genuine kindness in Monte’s expression and felt the gratification for which he had been waiting without realizing it.
“I know I can be…difficult, and not exactly a pillar of polite society. But what can I say, life forced me to march to my own demented drummer.”
“It’s what makes you you.”
Monte teared up slightly as he smiled. “You always were so understanding.” Neil looked away bashfully. “I mean it. It’s been a tough few months trying to get my life back in order,” Monte said humbly. “And I really appreciate your support.”
Neil basked in Monte’s charming gratitude. “Of course, what are friends for.” They smiled to each other familiarly, an acknowledgement of shared history and understanding. “And with Brenda back in your life, there isn’t anything you can’t do.” Neil finally let go of Monte’s hand.
“She is my better half all right.”
“You’re lucky to have her.”
“Yes, I am blessed.” Monte looked upward. He beamed sentimentally, a faraway look into the clear blue sky.
“Well if you’re ever up here again you give me a holler,” Neil offered, “it’s been too long.”
“I just might do that.” Monte then appeared contemplative. “It’s going to a rough road ahead trying to get my life back on course, but the support and generosity of Brenda and all my close friends inspires me to do better.” He seemed to fight back tears.
“Monte, I know you can do it, I have faith in you, and don’t forget, we’re all behind you, brother.” The Greyhound bus pulled up and its door opened.
“My chariot awaits!”
“At least you don’t have to make that long drive,” Neil said humorously as the heavy emotionalism of the moment subsided.
“I’ll get you that sixty back as soon as I’m on my feet.”
“Well, I’ll be off,” Monte said with a casual salute and entered the bus.
“Take care, Monte,” Neil said. As more passengers boarded Neil left the bus station. His mood was jaunty as he moved with a light pace. He’s got heart, Neil thought to himself, I almost forgot that. He pulled out his cell phone and made a call. “Hey Trev, you owe that pitcher!”
“Serious?” Trevor answered.
“And that game of pool, now rack ’em up.”
“Did Monte drug you?”
“I’m serious!” Neil insisted.
There was a pause over the phone. “I don’t get it.”
¹ (I first wrote this story in 2013, before the recent change in hosting duties at The Tonight Show.)
©2013-2015 Robert Kirkendall