Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Burden

Thomas Anthony Longo


It’s a beautiful Thursday morning, Praise the Lord, and now it’s time for the CBN morning news. An earthquake in Guatemala hit 6.4 on the Richter scale . . .

“Christ!” Jerry Thomas sat up in bed, shaking his head and trying to rub the sleep from his eyes. When they finally focused, he was staring at the large water stain on the wall across from his and Gloria’s bed. “Gloria,” he yelled, “Do you have to turn this crap up like this?”

The radio blathered on.

Gloria came walking in from the kitchen. “It’s time to get up,” she said. “Past! Kelly and Donna are having breakfast and you’re gonna be late if you don’t move your heinie.”

“Yeah,” Jerry said, “but can’t you at least put a normal news channel on?”

“What do you care? It woke you up.”

“Yeah.”

Showering and shaving was the usual chore, and it was too late for breakfast. He had to dig through three pairs of socks before he found a pair without holes that were too large. By the time he was dressed, there wasn’t time to do anything but grab his brown bag lunch and leave for work.

“What’s in here?” Jerry asked with one hand on the doorknob.

“Peanut butter.”

“Shit! Again?”

“Do you have to use that kind of language in front of the children?” Kelly and Donna were slurping Alphabits and milk.

“I’m just sick of the damn peanut butter. I’m going to turn into an elephant, only fat.”

Gloria walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. “God only gives us the burdens we’re capable of bearing.”

“Yeah, I forgot,” Jerry mumbled, then walked out the door.

Then the Pinto wouldn’t start. Jerry came back into the house saying, “Pinto’s dead. I’ll have to take the Toyota today.”

“Oh, Jerry. How will I do the shopping?”

“It’s not my fault. You know I hate driving that beater. What about Marlie? Maybe she can give you a ride.”

“You know I hate to ask. She’s been so good.”

“Well,” Jerry turned away. “We have to do what we have to do.” He didn’t kiss either of the girls when he left the first time, or the second. There wasn’t time.

The first install of the day was high speed cable for a fellow who was still running Windows NT. That was a break, because the company didn’t support NT anymore, and all Jerry had to do was drop the disk and leave. Number two was the back half of one of those brick duplexes on Cabin Hill Road; easy enough and no hard questions. Usually, the customers had to know something before they asked difficult questions. He drove around all morning resenting Gloria’s red crystal rosary which hung from the rearview mirror of the Toyota.

“Could have made the Pinto start,” Jerry advised the crucified Jesus hanging under the Our Father bead.

There was one more morning run before Jerry could stop and eat his peanut butter sandwich. It was crunchy. Jerry preferred creamy. Halfway through the sandwich, Jerry felt a sickening crunch in his mouth that was more than part of a peanut. He spat the brown, spit-covered mess out into his hand.

“Shit! A filling!” he said aloud.

The tooth, a right upper molar, was already starting to ache. It was only after he spent two dollars on a bottle of Tylenol that Jerry realized that he was low on gas and was forced to borrow ten dollars from Burdock. Jerry didn’t like Burdock, but was forced to eat his dislike and take the man’s money. It was paying him back that was the problem.

When Jerry pulled up in front of the Fredricks’ home, his last scheduled install of the day, all he could do was stare at the immaculately manicured lawn and bright red brick of the immense three-story home. When he shut off the ignition on the Toyota, it continued to cough and sputter for almost a full minute.

Jerry had been a computer tech for twelve years, working with the machines since before the time they’d had hard drives. His personal machine was three years old, and computers were four times faster than they’d been when he’d built his. He’d been installing high speed internet for three years, but still had a dial-up connection. The molar without a filling ached, but all he could do was stare in open-mouthed horror at the mansion he had to enter.

After a moment, Jerry banged his head against the steering wheel as the engine idled to a palsied halt. His eyes were closed. When he opened them, the shiny crucifix glinted at him in the sunlight, mocking him. “Gloria,” he said to the crucifix, “You’re so stupid.”

The Toyota expelled its final tubercular cough from the exhaust and stilled. Jerry opened his eyes and stared at the Fredricks’ house again. This was a ritzy neighborhood, but even so, the house stood out; the marble birdbath and circular driveway were lined with painstakingly clipped box hedges. The driveway continued around to the back of the house, no doubt to a large multi-car garage. Even the grass on the lawn was more lush and green than any blade that had spawned on the Thomas’ tiny plot. Red tile covered the immense roof; if it melted in the July sun, it would drip coins and dollar bills into the shiny stainless gutters.

Jerry glared at the figure on the crucifix. “Not a break, huh?” he asked. “Not even one?”

He was still for a long moment, then reached out and violently jerked the crystal rosary from the mirror; red beads flew in all directions. The centerpiece, the crucifix, and some beads felt cold in his warm palm. Jerry threw them over his shoulder into the back seat, spitting as he cursed, “Screw you and your grace!”

Finally, he willed his legs to move and carried his kit up the perfect walkway to the front door. Beveled crystal distorted the interior, but it looked cool. Sweat pooled around his collar and one finger stabbed the lighted doorbell button.

Mrs. Fredricks wore a long flowing white house gown, which emphasized her every movement like mouse trails on a computer cursor. She was blond and tall, with perfect breasts and a surgically enhanced smoothness to her brow. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, “Kimberly has been so excited.”

Jerry felt surly. “If you could show me to the computer,” he grimaced. “I’d like to get started.”

“Certainly,” she smiled, “It’s upstairs.”

“Of course,” Jerry hissed under his breath.

“I’m sorry?”

“Bedrooms,” Jerry covered for his slip, “Bedrooms are always upstairs.”

“Oh. Right. It’s this way.” She turned and led the way up the stairs.

The interior of the house was worse than the exterior; the daughter’s bedroom was larger than Jerry’s living room, den, and bathroom put together. There were video games, a flat screen plasma television, an intercom station, and even some electronic components Jerry couldn’t identify. He swallowed and got down on his knees to begin installing the modem. Naturally, the install was a pain in the ass. Everything that could go wrong did, and it was over an hour before Jerry got the modem to connect to the local node. Then he called Mrs. Fredricks in for the obligatory demonstration. It wasn’t time on the clock, as Jerry was paid by the install. He would be late getting home.

“Wait,” she said, “Let me get Kimberly.”

When the little girl entered the bedroom, Jerry felt his legs go wobbly beneath him. She was completely bald.

“It’s the chemo,” Mrs. Fredricks whispered so only he could hear.

Jerry couldn’t stop himself from staring. Kimberly was a beautiful little girl. If she’d had any hair, he imagined it would be as blond and silky as Kelly’s. Innocent blue eyes peered out of the pale, effervescent face. “Is it working?” she asked.

“Y-yeah,” Jerry stammered. “Here, let me show you how.”

He could barely speak.

When he finally finished the demo and Mrs. Fredricks closed the door behind him, Jerry walked down the manicured driveway, then halfway down he began to run. He got into the Toyota and gunned the engine, driving only eight blocks to the parking lot of the local Safeway before killing the motor and getting on his hands and knees in the back seat to search for the scattered crystal beads of the rosary. He found the crucifix under the passenger seat and kissed the aluminum figure.

“I’m so sorry,” he told the metal Christ. “People are foolish and short sighted, but I guess you know that.” It took Jerry an hour with his mini-pliers to reassemble the rosary and replace it on the rearview mirror. Only then did he continue home to Gloria, Kelly, and Donna. When he came into the house, Jerry kissed his wife and daughters, holding them as if they might run away.

“I talked to Carl at the auto mart,” Gloria told him. Her eyes were scared. “It looks like the repair on the Pinto won’t be cheap.”

Jerry kissed her again. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s nothing we can’t handle. We’ll do what we need to do.”

“You’re feeling better?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Jerry said, smiling.

***

Thomas Anthony Longo has been the main contributor and editor of a monthly newsletter titled "Music City Computer News." He has a professional writing credit with his sale of "Anonymous Hours" to Hardboiled, a Gryphon-Books publication. He lives in Nashville
with his wife and two daughters.

© Thomas Anthony Longo

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012