Old Kemple, we worked together at the refinery. He knows about my boy, the problems, and he’s the only one who will look me in the eye when Joe-Lee’s name comes up.
“Hard weather for an old man,” he says.
It’s 8:30 in the morning, a chill in the air that belongs only to September, and I’m on the stoop with my coffee, watching the day wipe the sleep out of its eyes. The boy hasn’t come around with my newspaper yet, so I’m breathing in the last sniff of summer, warming my bones before they start to ache.
Kemple, he’s wearing the same shorts-and-sandals combo that he’s worn all summer. His hairy knees looking like furry pine knots. He favors Hawaiian shirts and Ray-Bans, and he looks like the world’s oldest pimp. Some would call him dogged, and some delusional, but that’s just Kemple, not giving a damn what anyone thinks. Me, I’m already wearing a sweater and warming my palms with the coffee cup.
“Well if it ain’t Magnum P.I.,” I tell him. “Life ain’t been too kind to you, I see.”
He hunkers down and sits beside me on my stoop. He’s one of the few I allow to do so.
“That ain’t what the ladies tell me. They tell me, Mr. Kemple, you’re the splitting image of my sexy fantasies.”
“Fifty years ago. And if they was born blind.”
He elbows me, same as he always does, and the joshing is done. “How’s your boy, Scratch?”
I think about it some, like there’s something to think about, and shrug. “Same as yesterday. Probably same as tomorrow.”
“That’s a bitch. He’s a good kid.”
We sit there awhile, waiting for the paperboy, or a distraction from somewhere else. Kemple always asks about the boy, and I don’t think it’s politeness. He really wants to know, and I always tell him the same thing. Same as yesterday, probably the same as tomorrow.
“Pretty day,” he says.
“Should be,” I say back.
“Do you ever miss working, Scratch?” he says out of nowhere.
“Like I miss being constipated.”
“No, seriously. I mean… something to do, some place to get away when you’re bored.”
“Are you bored, Kemple?”
“Me? Nah. My schedule’s booked from here till I’m dead. But, you know, the old friends, the kidding around.”
“The fifty-hour work weeks. No sir, I don’t miss it. That would present a whole other set of problems if I was still working.”
He nods, thoughtfully. “I guess so. Joe-Lee, he’s what?”
“Thirty-two last spring. I still have to clean him and dress him and feed him. But we have what you’d call a routine. I don’t guess that paperboy’s gonna show up anytime soon, so I should get on inside.”
“Yeah, sure. Maybe I’ll stop by later, bring you some scratch tickets and a Dr. Pepper for Joe-Lee.”
“We’re all right. Stop if you want, but you don’t need to bring anything. Fresh deck of cards, maybe. We can play some gin rummy if he’s having a good day.”
I stand up, and feel the ache in my knees and hips from sitting there longer than usual.
He gets up, and he makes it look effortless. “If I can’t make it, you’ll know I’m busy with some pretty ladies.”
“And they’re probably trying to figure out how to unfasten the diaper pin,” I say. We both laugh, but it’s an aching sort of laugh, the laughter of being old and worn out.
“Say hello to Joe-Lee for me,” he says, and toddles down the street, not looking back, because that’s the way we do things.
“I will,” I say back. “I always do.”