Lester lived by himself, and it wasn’t so bad until the virus came. He quite his cashier job, and wore a mask, and followed the reports of a vaccine being developed. He was in his 70’s. His wife was hit by a bus three years ago during a heavy rainstorm. He moved to the cramped apartment above the hardware store that felt like a closet and was embarrassed to invite guests. He made time with Mildred at the market, and probably could have had some action if they had someplace to go. He thought about a hotel room but was afraid of insulting her with the suggestion. She started getting friendly with Sal in produce.
He went to the library and looked at books. He found a biography of Bob Cousy, the basketball player. He’d played the sport fifty years ago at a small school, and there was a chance he would be awarded a scholarship to a state school until his grades dropped. He played on and off for several years – pick-up games in parks and gyms until married life consumed him. He never forgot his coach saying,
“You let your schoolwork sabotage your ability on the court.”
That echoed in his psyche through the years.
He met Lillian at a church supper, and they had dinner at the diner and went to the movies on Friday nights, and sometimes he’d go to her house Saturday afternoons and help her in the garden and mow the lawn for her father. Lillian’s father, Buck, liked Lester because he was a ballplayer. In the movies, Lester tried feeling Lillian’s breast, and she screamed. He was thankful the lights were off because he was as red as Santa’s pants. He made overtures when they were in Lillian’s basement, and she was still skittish. When it finally did happen, it was all at once, unplanned, and clumsy. Lillian was hysterical when she found out she was pregnant.
Lester tripped over fatherhood. Buck got him a job at Walter’s Liquor Mart. Walter was a poker playing buddy of Buck’s. Lillian delivered a son who they named Kevin. Lillian and Lester sat at the kitchen table with only the stove light on, and Kevin sleeping in the small bedroom nearby. Lester in a whispering tone told Lillian of his plan to start a landscaping business. They would have to save up some money so he could buy a truck and some rakes and shovels to start with at least. Lillian wasn’t sure about that on the store clerk’s salary and told her husband their son’s needs came first. Lester told her “Of course”.
But for the time being, Lester went six days a week to the liquor store, and stocked shelves, and unloaded trucks, and rang the cash register. He worked long hours and made enough money to get by. Kevin developed an infection and spent two nights in the hospital, and they got a bill, they didn’t plan on. To his wife, he showed concern, but at work, complained about getting screwed by the doctors. He knew enough to know his plans wouldn’t happen without constant work. So he worked, and worked, and worked. He made a habit which grew to a routine which matured into a rut. He knew all the customers – what they bought – their dumb jokes. Several men came in several times a day to buy nips to keep their buzz going. Walter paid attention to the obituaries in the paper, and would say,
“Old man Foster died. I can cut back on the Seagram’s Seven.”
As Kevin grew, his needs grew too, which was more money. Kevin’s emerging personality was quiet. He stared at you expressionless. Lillian tried to play with her son, and he looked at her like he didn’t understand what she wanted. That bothered Lillian. Lester was depressed; feeling his life had no depth or latitude. He was a prisoner of circumstance. He started playing the Lottery. It started out harmless and grew venomous, and the more pernicious it got, the more despondent Lester became. One day, Walter said,
“Why don’t you go see Father Carl?”
Lester took it as an insult he needed help, and complained to Joey, another employee.
“I like you Lester, but you’re fucking yourself over for some reason, and it’s got to suck living that way. Besides which, what do you have to lose?”
The truth of what Joey said hit him in the solar plexus. He tried and tried to talk himself out of it. One afternoon, he told Walter he wanted to go see Father Carl after lunch. Walter nodded. Lester walked to Our Virgin Mary Church on Spruce Avenue. Lester had to wait twenty minutes or so before Father Carl was available. He came out of his office, a thin man with red cheeks, and a glint in his eyes like some kind of energy, and a smile. His white shirt had stains on it, and his khaki pants wrinkled with torn tennis shoes. He invited Lester into his office before asking what he wanted. Lester sat in a chair in front of the wooden desk, and Father Carl was silent. Lester glanced around the office and noticed a basketball in a corner. It took a few minutes for Lester to figure out Father Carl was waiting on him to speak. Lester started talking and talked for twenty minutes or so. Father Carl smiled and nodded.
“You won’t feel better without effort,” was Father Carl’s first speech.
Lester shifted his weight in the chair.
“People get themselves in situations seemingly effortlessly, and it takes work to get out of them. It feels unfair, it’s so easy to create, yet so strenuous to escape.”
“Boy, I would go along with that,” he said.
“It’s going to take time and effort.”
Lester didn’t like the sounds of that.
“We have a Men’s Group that meets here on Tuesday nights at seven for advice and support. You can learn by hearing others tell their stories. I’ve seen it work time and time again.”
“I guess I could come some of the time. Some Tuesdays I work late at the store.”
Father Carl smiled.
“Why don’t you give it a try and see how you like it? There are other men who are in similar situations. They serve as a real example of how to change your life.”
“You play basketball?” asked Lester.
Father Carl went from a put-on smile to a real grin.
Lester studied his face.
“You play college basketball?”
“Carl Benson from Wilmot State! A prospect for the pros until you twisted your ankle!”
“See? You’re already beginning to understand.”
Lester wanted to get to know Carl Benson better. Neither man went as far as he could with the talent he had, and Lester didn’t feel alone anymore. His attitude got better. He went to the Men’s Group, and for the first time in quite a while, enjoyed himself. Father Carl was right. Listening to the other men helped Lester be not mindful of his situation. A man named Rocky told a funny story about having to climb out a bedroom window when the husband came home off schedule. The story was funny, but the lesson was serious. Another man told of being awoke by the police on a park bench in his underwear, again the delivery was humorous, but the moral sober. Lester saw that the men had levity about their weaknesses, but paid attention to the consequences of the negativity. Father Carl instructed Lester,
“Don’t be fooled by the humor with which the members tell their stories but listen to the wisdom they learned through their foibles. What the stories reveal is how we hurt ourselves.”
“And the people who love us…” interjected the park-bench man.
Several of the men invited him out for coffee afterwards. During the free-flowing conversation, one of the men with a serious look talked about how he saw Father Carl’s car in the parking lot of The Three Coachmen Motor Lodge out on Route 9. There was silence as the men pondered this unexpected information.
“He was probably counseling a parishioner. We don’t all live in houses after all.”
The men were satisfied with the explanation and went on to something else. Lester knew The Three Coachmen from the poker games the men from the liquor store played in the casino, and couldn’t believe his eyes, when one night after a game, and he was driving out of the parking lot, he saw Father Carl come out of a room with a teenaged girl.