Service

by Tom Halford

ServiceMom’s in a bad state. I go see her a couple days a week. Most of the time she doesn’t know me, but she still tells me what to do. Get some exercise. Get more vegetables. Get to church. Common-sense advice that everybody knows and nobody does. I don’t mind. Whatever makes her happy. I figure she’s earned her right to yap at me. I sit and nod. Yap away, Momma. Give her a big smile. Tease her that I’ll do all three at the same time. Jog to church, sit in the front pew and crunch on a big fat carrot. She laughs and gives me a look. Then she turns away and calls me a rascal. Most of the time we stare at the TV. My sister and I got Mom a flat screen for her room. She usually leaves it on the real-estate channel with the volume up full blast. An hour of that and I’ve got to get out of there.

Whenever I leave the old folk’s home, I’ve got this weird habit. I take some leftovers or a sandwich and I set them behind the dumpster. I wrap the food in tinfoil so it stays good and fresh. Some days I leave really good stuff. Like one day I left a whole box of donuts. The dumpster’s not too far from the tree-line so I don’t know who or what eats the food, but I leave it there for Devon Reilly, AKA Fritter.

Devon liked fritters the best. I don’t know why. A fritter is like a glazed chunk of cardboard to me. Now I like a Boston Cream. You get the custard, the pastry and the chocolate all in one. It’s not even an argument as far as I’m concerned. But to each his own. Most of the guys at the plant don’t give a crap, but sometimes we have slow days and these are the kinds of arguments we get into. And anyway, somebody started calling him Fritter and it stuck. I think it might have actually been Burnett who coined that one. I’m not sure. All I know is that nobody since Fritter has made an argument for fritters. Most people got more sense. It’d be like if we were arguing about cars and somebody tried to say that a Dodge Caravan was the best kind of car. Well, then their name would be Caravan from that point on. That’s just how things go.

Fritter was the kind of guy that everybody liked except for when there was work to be done. I always felt bad for Fritter, especially after he went into hiding. But before then, too. He never really clued in to what was going on and he was always too proud to admit it. What he did was terrible, but the thing you got to remember is that he didn’t mean to do it. I got no choice but to defend him since he done it under my supervision. I felt like I owed him something. Help or a second chance or what-have-you. So when I saw him digging through the dumpster out behind the old folk’s home I had to offer him a meal. I wouldn’t be much of a human being if I didn’t.

I didn’t think of it as aiding a fugitive. I just wanted to buy Fritter a couple of hamburgers. That’s the funny thing about committing a crime though isn’t it? You don’t really think of it as wrong even when other people say that it is. That’s the whole reason you do it. If you knew it was wrong, well you just wouldn’t do it.

Fritter stunk something awful. He was filthy. We chatted in the car for a bit and I parked in the lot where the lunatic asylum used to be. I got one hamburger for myself, but Fritter was hungry so he ate that one too. After he’d eaten, I figured it was time to drive him home, but he had that look about him. Like it’d been a long haul since he’d gotten a shower or brushed his teeth. Dirt on top of grime is how he looked. His clothes were ready to grow moss. I didn’t want to but I had to offer him my couch and a blanket. He gave a half-nod when I asked. Fritter was a big talker back at the plant, but right then he wasn’t saying much at all. He wasn’t nervous or anything like that, but there was a different kind of alertness about him, like the way raccoons look when you catch them in your garbage. That’s how Fritter was. I found out later that the hamburgers were the first hot meal he’d eaten in a week.

We watched a hockey game on my TV. There were some beers in the fridge so I told him to help himself. About halfway through the second period he’d drunk all my beer. I didn’t mind. There was a whole bottle of rum under the sink. I ordered a pizza, and he ate most of that too. It made me feel good to see his appetite. That I could help. He’d been through a rough patch and he needed a bit of fun. That was all. I had to be in to work in the morning so I took it easy, but you should’ve seen Fritter! It didn’t take him long to sniff out the bottle of rum under the sink. He said his old man used to keep his liquor in exactly the same place. I just laughed and said, “Have at her.”

When I got up that morning he was snoring like a hog. The rum was gone. The pizza was gone. There were even a few empties of my ex’s coolers that he’d drunk. Must’ve been desperate. As far as I was concerned he could have all that and more. I’d pick up extra liquor on the ride home after work. Even left him a note on the fridge: “Take what you need.”

The cops showed up at work pretty regular at that point in time. They’d ask me and everybody on the crew if we had any information on Devon Reilly. I kept quiet. I didn’t know anybody named Devon Reilly. I only knew Fritter. That’s how I tricked myself into being a convincing liar. “Homicide is serious business,” said one of the cops. “Who’s to say he won’t do it again?”

The guys all nodded. But nobody said much. Some of them hate the cops. Call them pigs and all that kind of stuff. I don’t see any point in it. Cops are just doing their jobs like anybody else. You got to think about people in terms of what they know. All the cops knew was that Fritter killed somebody. They didn’t know Fritter as a person, and they didn’t know that it was a total accident, right. They weren’t being dickheads. They just had a job to do, and that’s the end of it.

I realize I’m spending a lot of time defending Fritter here. Now I’m not saying I don’t feel bad for Burnett and all of his family. The strange thing is that Fritter and Burnett were the closest guys on the crew. They were just horsing around and neither of them could have predicted how the whole thing would play out. It was a complete fluke is what it was. The fact of the matter is though that Fritter shouldn’t have had the shovel in his hands. Just like in wrestling, when two guys get into a fight, there should be no foreign objects whatsoever. That is rule number one. There’s no need for garbage cans and barbed wire. All you need is your fists as far as I’m concerned. The thing was that Fritter’s a lot smaller than Burnett, and he had no idea that the edge of the shovel had been snapped off. You couldn’t have gotten a better blade on that thing if you took sand paper to her. Hand to God.

I find I look at pointy things differently now. Like, Mom and I were watching figure skating and I was looking more at their skates than anything else. I kept thinking about one of them doing a triple-spin and how they finish it off with something that looks like a roundhouse kick. What if another skater was standing right behind her with his throat open and the blade slid right across, and out squirted the blood like a packet of ketchup under somebody’s fist. What a horror-show that would be.

I think that happened to a guy in the NHL come to think of it. What was his name?

I feel like my mind’s gone sick, and in a weird way, Mom makes me feel closer to sanity. One of the times I went to visit her she kept repeating, “Get to church. Get to church. Get to church.”

It was like sitting in the same room as a crazy woman. She must’ve noticed how I wasn’t really paying much attention to her because she sat up in her bed and stared at me like I was a spoiled child. She paused to take me all in, like she knew everything there was to know about me, and then she shouted till her face got veiny and stretched out: “Get to church! Get to church! Get to church!”

We were never raised to be religious. I’m pretty sure that Mom was a non-believer, and I don’t think Dad cared one way or the other. I can remember going to church a few times for Christmas and Easter, but I had no idea what religion I was supposed to be. I told one of the guys at work that story about Mom shouting at me and he asked, “You don’t know what religion you are?”

“Nope,” I said.

“Then you must be Protestant. Otherwise you’d know.”

He meant it as a joke, but that was good enough for me. I can remember one of my uncles saying that he went to the United Church and the reason he went was that, “We’re all united in heaven.” So I went to a United Church, which is also Protestant. If I was going to go to church, then I wanted to go to one that people could crack a few jokes about. No fire and brimstone for me, thank you very much. I wasn’t sure about God, but I definitely didn’t believe in the devil.

I phoned up my sister and my brother-in-law to see if one of them would go with me. But my brother-in-law—he grew up Catholic over in Cape Breton, and I don’t know if you heard much about what happened over there, but it wasn’t good. He couldn’t forgive the Catholic Church for keeping those perverts in robes. That was all the proof he needed to know that there was nothing like a God. He said that God was just an idea that people thought up to get control over the weak and the poor. I don’t know what to think about any of it. I know I don’t believe in the Catholic Church, but I don’t know if bad people and bad institutions have anything to do with God. I didn’t say any of this to my brother-in-law, but I thought about it while he was talking at me. He’s too angry for a conversation. He even told me to, “Have fun pretending there’s a bearded man in the sky who knows everything but can do nothing.”

Fritter overheard me on the phone and when I hung up, he said, “You got to be kidding me. Church? Now that’s a racket if I ever heard one.”

“You just mind your own business, Fritter. My mother asked me to go to church, and that’s what I’m doing.”

He scoffed. “Your mommy? What does your mommy know?”

I let that one pass. He didn’t know Mom was in a bad state.

“I’ll tell you what I think of church,” he went on. “If I was back when Jesus went up on the cross, I’d nail him to it.” He paused to see if I was shocked. I wasn’t, so he kept digging. “I would! I’d make sure he was good and snug to that cross, and then I’d watch him bake in that hot desert sun. He knew what was going to happen to him, and he was dumb enough to go ahead and let himself be killed. It wouldn’t have been my fault. No sir! The whole thing was decided before it happened. So, this is the thing. The guy basically killed himself. And that’s what you’re going to pray at? You got to be kidding me.”

“Never thought of it that way.”

“You know what? Scratch that. I would’ve given the guy a hand in offing himself. I would’ve pulled out a magnum and blasted his head off right in front of everybody. Would’ve been the only humane one in the whole show.”

I wasn’t going to let him bait me into an argument of any kind, but he was a persistent little shit. That Sunday I still went to church. Before I left, he taunted me: “You may as well get on your knees and pray to Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.”

I told him that I was his Santa Claus and slammed the door behind me before he could say anything back. Let him stew over that one for a while.

I could tell from where I was sitting that the minister was a nice lady. She gave me a big smile whenever she looked my way. If I’m any other place besides church I feel like I got to justify my reason for being there. Even when I get to the old folk’s home I got to tell the nurses just whose son I am. I go to the stores, and I got to buy something. At the paper plant I got to work, or I feel guilty over my pay-cheque. But I just sat in the church and I didn’t even bother paying attention half the time. I can’t even remember what I thought about. It wasn’t very long that I stayed. The minister is one of these ladies who wants youngsters, and she spent about twenty minutes bringing little kids up to the front and talking to them about the Bible. I couldn’t take too much of that. Her back was turned to everybody so she could brainwash a pack of five-year-olds. What a crock. No thank you. I got up and strolled out of there.

Every church is about getting something good and avoiding something bad. Doesn’t seem right to me. If someone’s got to try to convince you that there’ll be an eternity of punishment if you don’t believe what they say is true, well the old bullshit alarm better start clanging. That’s all I’ll say. But you got to be realistic about these things, too. When Dad died we all went around talking about how he was in Heaven. Even my brother-in-law who thinks priests are scum—he was talking about how we’d all see Dad again the next life. We felt better. We were vulnerable and our bullshit alarms had been disarmed, but I guess it was a good thing at the time. It’s better to be humble than to be wrong.

When I got home from church I saw that Fritter had ripped the seat off the toilet and hurled it out the bathroom window. When I asked him about it, he said, “Yes, I did that.”

I asked him why.

He glared at me: “Why do you do things, Santa Claus?”

I shrugged my shoulders and went back outside to get the toilet seat. Had to use a load of duct-tape to get it to stay. I was pretty close to kicking him out after that altercation. Still felt bad for him though. You get used to people, is the other thing, whether they’re good or bad. You get comfortable with having them around, and when they’re gone, you notice it.

The only time I ever actually told Fritter to hit-the-bricks was after my ex showed up in the middle of the night. Fritter was out cold and didn’t even hear her knock. I went to the door and let her in. Took her straight to my room, because I didn’t want her to see him. She thought I was trying to sex her up and didn’t seem to mind. She acted like I was out of control. Actually, I think that her exact line was, “Barry! You’re out of control!”

But I was just thinking, Get real. A person shows up at another person’s door in the middle of the night for a limited set of reasons and getting sexed up is at the top of the list. So we did the deed, and it was good and all that. I honestly could have seen us getting back together, but she went out to get a glass of juice or something. And when she went out Fritter was sprawled on the couch fiddling with his junk. He said something real crass to her that I can’t repeat, but needless to say it was enough to get her to call me an asshole and storm out the door. I don’t know why I was the asshole. I didn’t say squat!

In all honesty, it was better to get her gone and keep her gone in the long run. Didn’t change the fact that I was pissed at Fritter. Told him to get the hell out right then and there. He didn’t budge though. He just sat there. Buck naked and laughing. Threw his head back and everything.

Fritter was nuts. I had a good couple of months to prove that fact beyond the shadow of a doubt. But I still didn’t want to leave him to his own devices. He needed someone to keep him out of trouble. Out of sight from the cops. I guess I still felt responsible for him. Even though I knew he was crazy, I still thought it was an accident what happened to Burnett. They’d been out drinking a few nights before and Fritter had found some way to put all the cost of the beer onto Burnett’s credit card. Burnett found out, and he started tearing a strip off of Fritter at roll call. My policy is just to let the guys have it out. Otherwise they get petty and things never get settled. Well, Burnett started hollering at Fritter and he looked like a grizzly bear next to him. As usual, Fritter was too stupid to back down and admit he was wrong so the situation only got worse. Burnett threw Fritter into a rack of shovels and I’m certain I heard metal snap. Fritter grabbed the first shovel he could reach and swung it at Burnett. Blood started shooting out of Burnett’s neck like a geyser. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was dead in seconds. Before any of us knew what was going on, Fritter had already went AWOL. I should’ve stopped them from fighting and I know that now, but I had no idea that what happened was going to happen. I would’ve stopped it before it even started if that was going to be the case. I would’ve went and paid Burnett’s bar bill myself for Christ’s sake. Didn’t think I’d see Fritter again either after he peeled off in his truck. I figured that was that until he was out behind the dumpster looking like the sorriest bastard who ever walked the earth.

I keep going back to church. I don’t know why. Part of me thinks of it as an excuse to get out of the house and part of me thinks that it’s to please my mother. Another part of me just thinks that I like it and that I need to go. Sometimes I sit there looking up at the lady preaching and I wonder why I’m not at the old folk’s home or visiting with my sister. Anyway, the point is that I still go even though I feel like a retard the whole time I’m there.

The day Fritter left, I’m still not really sure what set him off. He was stretched out on the couch and I hovered around for a few seconds to show him that I wanted to sit down. But he didn’t move at all. Classic Fritter. So I sat on the armrest, and we watched some football. He said, “So, are you making something for lunch?”

“Make your own lunch,” I shot back.

“Don’t get your panties in a knot.”

“You’re just a visitor here.”

Fritter stood and grabbed his jacket. He already had his boots on. “I just wanted some fucking lunch,” he said, “you goddamn lonely bastard.”

And I haven’t seen him since. That lonely bastard line stung. I won’t lie. But we had said worse things to each other. I doubt I’ll ever see Fritter’s face again unless it’s in a newscast. I think he may have went and jumped off the bridge. I’m not sure. I keep waiting to hear something of him or about him, but nobody knows one way or the other. He could just be hiding out at somebody else’s place.

After church I usually pop into the old folk’s home and sit with Mom for an hour. We watch TV and she tells me to, “Get to church. Get to church. Get to church.”

Now I have the perfect ammunition: “Just went to church. Just went to church. Just went to church.”

Might be the real reason I go.

When I leave the old folk’s home I take the leftovers that I brought from the apartment, and I walk them out to the dumpster. I think I had a ham sandwich wrapped up in tinfoil the last time I went. Took a few steps back towards the car after I set it down and I saw something moving out from the tree-line. For a half-second I thought that maybe it was Fritter’s foot or his hand. But it was just a baby skunk. Cute, little thing. Pulled the sandwich away with its teeth. Maybe there were other skunks, too.

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About Tom Halford

Most of Tom Halford’s writing is set in Saint John, New Brunswick. He lives elsewhere, but he likes to go back to the port city in his head. In February of 2013, he became a proud new papa. Now he writes between diaper changes and of games of peek-a-boo. His last publication was with The Broken Social Scene Story Project: Short Works Inspired by You Forgot It In People by Anansi Press. He publishes videos under the online persona of Cyril Trout.

Tom Halford

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