SHORT STORY

Butch
by John Fite Rebrovick

Butch Snider and I were still on the young side of thirty when we first became friends, but he was already about fifty pounds overweight and balding. We worked together, but we were about as different as two straight guys can be.

Scruffy penny loafers, stained baggy khakis, the gut hanging over his belt—that was Butch. He’d regularly pull a comb out of a back pocket and arrange lengths of his thin blonde hair over the top of his dome. In a matter of minutes the strands of hair would flop down over his ears again one by one. His mouth was always open, his lower jaw distended in a look of perpetual dumbfoundedness. I suppose that’s a word. Anyway, it fits. Even when he talked, his lips somehow never seemed to touch.

Another thing about Butch: he knew no shame.

            Not that he was a bad guy, not at all. His shamelessness had its advantages. Like, he never met a stranger and so as long as I was with him, neither did I. That was very handy when trying to strike up conversations with women at bars. But it wasn’t just the ladies. His attention could turn to anybody.

            And that was the main thing you need to know about Butch: To him, life was full of possibilities. In fact, he used to love to say that. “Robbo,” he’d say, “life is full of possibilities.”

Case in point: One weekend we’d had too much Friday night but we needed to get some work done on Saturday morning. We met at the Krystal for breakfast to clear the fog.

Since it was close to the interstate, you always got some travelers in there eating along with the locals from the projects or the old folks homes. In the parking lot, Chevy Impalas painted purple with fuzzy dice were parked next to Dodge Caravans with Canadian plates. On any given morning, it was a grab bag of whites, blacks, and otherwise. And Butch and me. I think that’s one reason we liked the place so much. It was cosmopolitan in a sort of casteless way.

Butch was slumped in one of the red formica booths, absentmindedly working his way through his second order of the country breakfast. I was just drinking coffee. This withered old man shuffled away from the cash registers and into the dining area, carefully holding high his little red tray with coffee and a biscuit, looking for a safe place to sit. Butch stared at him, mouth hanging open as usual, tracking him from the condiment island to the tables as if he had a deer in his scope.

Butch was always staring at people. He’d lock on and gape away. If you didn’t know any better, you might think he was challenging you like a smart aleck teenager.

The old man had a yellowed hearing aid protruding out of one ear and you could make out a faded tattoo of a ship’s anchor among the wrinkles of one forearm. His hands trembled balancing the tray. Butch had his feet too far out in the aisle so the old guy had to shuffle around them. Butch motioned him to sit down with us.

            “What’s your name, sailor?” Butch practically hollered at him.

“Carter,” the old man shouted back.

“Well, sit down, you old coot,” Butch growled, “You’re blocking the view.”

Carter hesitated, glancing at me, then set his tray down. Butch let him settle next to me in the booth before continuing.

“Hey, Carter, what’s the name of the first girl you ever laid?”

The place got quiet real quick.

“Delores,” Carter growled back. “What’s it to you?”

“Nuthin’,” Butch snarled. “Unless you’ll tell me about it. Make my day.”

A big black woman sat with her back to us at an adjacent table. She turned to get a better look. She was way too fat to turn her body, which was wedged into the seat pretty tight. Her head sort of swiveled around at the neck. Her eyes got big as she looked out their corners to take Butch in.

“Mind your own business, Jemima,” Butch snapped at her.

The dreadlocked men she was sitting with glared at us. I cringed, but the woman just laughed, her big bosoms shaking against the edge of the table.

“You crazy,” she said, and turned back around to her food.

“Go on, Carter,” Butch said, shrugging his shoulders. “We don’t have all day.”

The old man cleared his throat. His eyes were blue and looked much younger than the rest of him. His body was stooped even sitting.

“Shore leave. San Diego. September 1943,” Carter rasped. “Red hair and legs up to here and said she liked my uniform.”

Carter looked Butch right in the eye and ran his tongue over his thin dry lips.

“You know what they say about redheads,” he cackled.

“No, what?” Butch answered.

 I don’t remember what he said they say about redheads, but you can imagine the rest for yourself. Butch made a morning of it swapping stories with the old guy. Everybody at Krystal listened in. I don’t think a single person got up and left until Butch and Carter were finished bullshitting each other. Old seaman Carter seemed a good twenty years younger by the time he left.

That was breakfast with Butch.

We were both more or less single in those days. We spent a good many nights enjoying the waning days of the sexual revolution. I say more or less because my short first marriage was on the outs and Butch had long since got his first divorce behind him, some girl he got pregnant when he was in the Navy. I think she just married him long enough to be sure and claim a regular income from him.

Butch talked about his son sometimes. I think the boy was about six or seven then. He’d get all misty-eyed talking about him, real serious, like a different person. He only got to see the kid once a year. I didn’t really get it at the time. I didn’t know what it was like to have a kid then, much less to be separated from one, so I just shrugged it off as so much melodrama from Butch.

He didn’t dwell on that very often, though. He filled his empty time. Not exactly with meaningful pursuits, but pursuits nonetheless. Mostly female, mostly in bars, totally indiscriminant.

            But another thing about Butch: he had religion.

            There was one time after I’d lost track of him for a while that he got thrown out of his apartment for nonpayment of the rent. He showed up with his bags at my door. We sat up half the night drinking and talking. I haven’t laughed so hard in years. I was off work the next day, so I didn’t even pay attention to what time we finally hit the sack.

“Hey, Bozanich, you homely bastard, get up.”

            I could hear Butch feeling around for the switch on my bedside lamp. He found it and twisted it on. In my fog I managed to remember that Butch had moved in the night before.

            “What the…?”

I squinted one eye open. Butch hovered over my bed in a dingy v-neck tee shirt and boxer shorts. An unlit cigarette dangled between his lips, flipping up and down as he spoke.

“It’s 6:00. You said you’d go to mass with me.”

            “It’s Thursday, Butch!”

            “They’ve got a 7:00 daily mass over at St. Simon’s.”

            “You’re crazy,” I said, keeping my eyes closed and lying flat on my mattress. The a.c. was perfect and the coolness of the sheets felt better than a lover’s arms.

            “It’s good for the soul, Robbo. Great way to start the day. Get right with God and you can’t go wrong.”

            “Light a candle for me.”

            “I’d need a torch to do you any good. Here you are, wide awake, and nothing to stop you from going…”

            “Get the hell out of here, Butch.”

            “Suit yourself.”

            Butch turned and trudged down the hall. I lay staring at the ceiling.

            “For chrissakes,” I muttered, pulling the bedcovers aside and rotating my feet to the floor.

            We got there just before seven and rushed into the chapel that sits to the side of the main sanctuary. There were two dozen or so other worshippers scattered among the abbreviated pews —mostly senior citizens, but also some men in business suits. I had thrown on my khakis and a polo shirt. Butch was in surfer shorts, sandals, and a Hawaiian shirt.

Precisely at seven the bell tolled in the tower above us. A priest approached the altar through a door from the left carrying the chalice and other implements. He was a smallish man, stiff and formal, with close-cropped light brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses. His starched collar was slightly large for his neck, his face doe-like, his nose upturned. He slowly arranged the sacramental objects and began the introductory prayers.

When he looked up from reading, his glasses glinted against the rising sun from the side windows, giving him a vacant, Mr. Magoo sort of look. He had a high voice that occasionally cracked in his emphatic moments. Butch had positioned us directly in front of the pulpit, only two rows back. I sat half asleep through the opening prayers.

            “…today’s second reading is a letter from St. Paul to the Corinthians…” the priest was saying.

            “DEAR CORINTHIANS,” Butch intoned in his deepest, loudest voice.

            The priest stopped and looked up. An old lady gasped from behind us. Two businessmen in the row across the aisle turned their faces warily toward Butch as if they might have to subdue him. I looked down at the kneeler, raised a hand to my mouth and bit my thumbnail. Butch sat with his arms folded across his stomach, his head cocked to one side and his mouth hanging open, staring benignly at the pulpit.

The priest tentatively read the next few words and paused as if to test whether this odd person in front of him was going to interrupt with a wisecrack again. But Butch sat blandly waiting for the reading and the priest proceeded.

            Filing out after mass, Butch approached the priest. He dwarfed the little fellow in both height and girth. The priest kind of held back, but Butch reached out to shake hands and then pulled him and engulfed him in a great bear hug. From my vantage point behind Butch, the priest seemed to disappear when Butch’s bulk surrounded him. As they pulled apart, the priest’s glasses lay crooked on the bridge of his nose and his hair was mussed. He wore a dopey smile and gave a little wave to me around Butch. I took the opportunity to step in front of Butch and shake hands with the priest.

            “Don’t mind him, Father,” I said, motioning with my thumb toward Butch. “He doubled up on his meds this morning and tends to be overly affectionate.”

            The priest chuckled uncertainly. I turned, grabbed Butch, and escorted him out the door.

            “Jeez, Butch. I think you excited the little fellow. You should show more respect to the clergy.”

            “Hey, Robbo. As long as they remain celibate, that’s ok with me. And regardless, they can all use a hug. Hell, who knows, he might not have gotten a good squeezing since he was an altar boy.”

            “You’re sick, Butch.”

            “Next thing we need to do is find out when he’s taking confession. I’ll give him some good shit to think about in there.”

I guess another guy would have run out of patience with Butch, but frankly, I was glad for his company. Bachelorhood wasn’t always all it was cracked up to be. It was great when you were twenty-five, free as a bird, and youth seemed to stretch out into eternity. But with a mortgage, a car note, support payments, and a quota to meet every month, you can’t just follow the scent on your nose like a dog out in the woods. Anyway, having Butch around at least cured the empty feeling of coming home to an empty house. But he didn’t work where I did any more, and in fact wasn’t working at all. I suspected that having him around was fixing to get expensive.

So I lined him up in a job with our buddy Jerry Peterson selling knick-knacks to retail stores, something that should have been right up Butch’s alley. A few weeks later Peterson invited me to meet him with Butch for breakfast. From listening to Butch tell about all his big sales, I figured it was a thankyou gesture.

            “Listen, Rob. If Butch doesn’t write some orders this week, I’ve got to let him go. I like him too, but I can’t carry him forever.”

            I stared blankly toward the breakfast buffet. Shoney’s, I thought in a reflexive bout of escapism, had really worked hard to get their act together. The food was pretty good. I reached over and picked up the plastic coffee urn to top off my cup.

            “Aw, Jerry,” I ventured, recovering, “Butch just needs some time to get the territory down.”

            “Down is right. Way down. Jackowitz wrote a grand on his worst days. Butch hasn’t sold that much in the entire first month.”

            From the corner of my eye, I spotted Butch coming back from the bathroom. Thank God. But Butch veered off to the buffet.

            “He’s just a slow closer, Jeff,” I said as I turned back to Peterson. “Over time he’ll outsell anybody.”

            Peterson didn’t react.

            “You know my favorite all-time story on Butch?” I started hopefully.

            Peterson still didn’t react. I forged on.

“It was back when we were working together at Measure Motion. My cousin George had a customer from Sweden down at a trade show in Atlanta, and we all took him out to dinner at a Japanese steakhouse. You know, the kind of place that makes you take your shoes off and gives you those little wood-heeled slippers to wear.”

            The image of Butch putting on the little slippers—the idea of just the look on Butch’s face when he looked down at the slippers—had to be amusing to Peterson.

            Even Peterson. I had known Peterson since high school. He was a snob and a tight-ass then, and he still was. Many times I had wondered why I bothered with him, but he was at least somebody to go to lunch with now and then, even if I did always have to pick up the tab, and being around him always made me feel a bit better about my own life. He was already on his third wife.

I noted that his eyebrows relaxed. Maybe I could avert disaster here.

            “Well, you can imagine. Butch pulled his fat feet out of his penny loafers. He was wearing shiny Gold Toe socks with holes almost worn through. He stuffed them into those dainty little slippers. Then he shuffled along behind the Geisha girl hostess—click, click…click, click…click, click—across the wooden floor in the hallway. He squeezed into that little low table with a grunt. His shirt was soaked with sweat just from getting there.”

            Peterson chuckled.

            “Well, about halfway through the meal—you know, it takes a long time, all the different courses and the cook’s showmanship and all—Butch lets out a moan. ‘Oh, man, I got cramps,’ he says, and beads of sweat were just popping out all over his forehead.”

            Peterson laughed out loud.

            “So, he’s all doubled over there on the floor. Well, he was already pretty tightly squeezed in under that little table, you know, but now he’s clutching his sides and rolling his eyes like he’s going to explode. We’re all looking at him, including the Swede, afraid he’s going to have a stroke or crap in his pants or something, and finally I jump up on one side of him and George on the other and Butch puts up his arms and we lift him up. His shins hit the edge of the table, and he yells ‘Ouch! Goddamn!’

“The cook was flipping shrimp at the time. When he heard Butch, the shrimp flew into some lady’s face. She shrieked and the cook commenced bowing and scraping and yelling to the back for a wet towel.”

            Peterson fell over to the side of his booth, wiping his eyes.

            “But Butch didn’t hear any of it. He lit out for the bathroom, those little slippers going click-click-click-click down the hall like a stick in the spokes of a bicycle wheel.”

            Peterson and I both looked over toward the buffet to avoid catching each other’s eyes and laughing harder. There, wearing a look of intense concentration, his mouth hanging open and his brow furrowed, Butch daintily held his plate aloft in one hand while leaning under the protective glass to sniff the eggs. Simultaneously, we turned away from the buffet and tried looking out the window at the parking lot for distraction instead.

            “Then,” I continued when I could get my breath again, “a few minutes later we hear Butch coming back down the hall toward our dining room. Click… click… click… click. Slow like an old mare going down a country lane. All urgency gone.”

            The waitress glided by to check on us. Breathless, all I could do was wave her off. Then Butch appeared at the table, his plate piled high with eggs, bacon, sausage, gravy biscuits, grits, and somehow pancakes smothered in syrup stuffed in among it all. Peterson dabbed at his eyes with his napkin. I was still giggling beyond control, hardly able to look up at Butch.

            “What?” Butch said, his lower lip distended. “What’s so funny? How about one of you bastards scooting over so’s I can sit down, for chrissake.”

When we were finished, I picked up the tab. And the tip. Peterson didn’t say anything else about letting Butch go, so I figured we were okay for now.

Butch and I had ridden to Shoney’s together in his Cherokee. After I paid, I walked on out to the parking lot. Butch and Peterson walked out slowly behind me, talking. They stood there by the front door for several minutes.

“What were you talking about?” I asked Butch when he finally got in with me.

“Nothin’ much. I told him I’d drop his stuff off later.”

“What stuff?”

“The sales books and samples. I appreciate you settin’ me up with him and all, but that job sucks. Don’t worry, Robbo. I made sure I didn’t hurt his feelings. I told him I’d gotten another gig for more money.”

Well, that was typical Butch of course, and those were the last words I ever had with him. When I got home from work that day I found a note in my kitchen thanking me for my hospitality and wishing me God’s blessings. And he just disappeared. I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I figured he just went off to try his luck somewhere else with some other friend.

At times over the years, I thought about Butch for one reason or another. Eventually I tried to find out what became of him. Peterson said Butch had dropped his sales stuff off as promised that last day, but that his W-2 had come back undeliverable the next year. Every now and then I’d do a Google search on Butch’s name and never came up with anything that was him. He’d said he was from Cincinnati, so one time I even tried calling every single Snider in the directory, but no one knew him, or at least admitted to it. It puzzled me. I wondered if he had lost his way in life altogether. I wondered if he had committed suicide. I doubted that. He was too good a Catholic, and though he had no shame, he certainly had a conscience.

But here’s the funny thing. About a week ago, this kid showed up at my office. Not a real kid, but you know, a twenty-something, somebody who by age and size is all grown up, but whose face and attitude are just too fresh, too unspoiled by the hard knocks that being an adult for a number of years do to a person. He said he was fresh out of the Navy and needed a job and that he remembered my name because his dad had always talked about me and the funny name had stuck in his mind. He said he’d found me in a Google search.

“Who’s your father?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t know?”

“Yeah. I was only with him a few times. He took me to a baseball game when I was about ten. That was the last time. That’s my best recollection of him. We went out to see the Padres play. I remember he was a big guy and sweated a lot and drank a lot of beer, and everybody sitting around us seemed to know who he was and laughed at his jokes. We yelled at the players together and ate everything they sold at the concession. It was the most fun day of my life. We walked around for a while after the game and then we got in a cab and he took me back to my mother and he gave me a big smothering hug before I got out.

“I can still smell him. It wasn’t a bad smell at all. It was like the ballpark, sweaty and sweet and I know now, like beer and cigarettes. And as I walked away from the cab, I looked back to wave at him. He had the window down and was staring at me and there were tears on his face. He looked away real fast and turned away from the window and the cab drove off.

“He was just Dad to me. The only person I ever called Dad. I have my mom’s name. Mom never told me his name, and when I got old enough to want to know, she wouldn’t tell me. She had some problems and went missing when I was in high school. Dad always told me to go to church, and I did. Luckily one of the deacons at church took me in so I could finish school. Then I joined the navy. Now I’m here. Figured I ought to look you up. You’re the only link I have to my father. Maybe you could give me a lead on a job.”

He was fit and trim, blond haired, blue eyed. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world. He looked me straight on, his mouth slightly open.

I smiled. I could hear Butch as clear as if he was sitting in the room with us:

“Robbo, life is full of possibilities.”

END

Books by John Fite Rebrovick...

    

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