CRENSHAW WAS DOING ALL right with his life until something happened when he was working at
Foley Industries over in Memphis. Foley did a lot with defense
contracts, and Larry had to have a security clearance—no problem since
he’d gotten out of the army with a good record. But then something
happened involving the Memphis Police Department, and Larry lost his
security clearance, and his job, too, of course. He never told even his
parents all the particulars. It was nobody’s business but his own.
He moved back in with his
parents in the white clapboard house he was born in, on Sardis Road just
south of Little Rock, where he spent a solid year looking for a decent
job. But a man who’s lost his security clearance can’t be trusted with
any more than flipping burgers—that’s what Larry himself said. He’d say
it defiantly with his head up and chest out, looking you right in the
eye. But it was a hard posture to maintain. In a moment he’d sag, his
back warping around that hump that became more pronounced over the
years, like a man who knew his life was over. That was in 1980, and
Larry was twenty-four.
So you could divide Larry’s life almost
perfectly around the incident in Memphis. The first half you’d think
the more important, certainly the richer of the two, with its childhood
joys and sorrows, adolescent crushes, JV baseball, his first car, then
the army signal corps and some good times in Panama and West Germany.
But Larry didn’t see it that way. He had a hard time remembering that
early stuff; it seemed to belong to a different life, a different
person. The only thing important to Larry was Memphis, then afterward
on Sardis Road. Of that, he kept a strict accounting.
“I keep track of everything,” he said
to his father once. This was in reference to flashlight batteries, two
of which Larry “borrowed” from the pack of six Duracells above the old
“Keep it up here, huh?” his father
said, tapping his head with a forefinger.
Larry just smiled as if there was much
he could say, if he only would.
They didn’t find out what “keeping
track” meant until years later when his father bought a little mobile
home—one of those old-timey silver jobs that look like an upside down
bathtub—and parked it behind the house. It was for Larry. As far as
his parents were concerned, Larry could stay as long as he wanted right
there in the bedroom that had been his since he was out of the crib.
But they worried that a grown man in his thirties would feel bad about
still living his parents’ house. His pride was so easily wounded.
That same fierce and tender pride might
cause him to reject the gift of the mobile home, though. At least
that’s what his mother thought. But Larry came home that evening from
the Chelsea Apartments where he was doing some part-time maintenance
work, took one look at the mobile home, and before he’d even seen the
inside said, “This is for me? Hot dog! How much did it set you back,
When Larry returned home from the
debacle in Memphis, his father had insisted Larry call him by his first
name from then on. He wanted Larry to think of himself as an equal, not
some man-child leaching off his daddy.
“Don’t worry about it, Larry,” Ray
“I ain’t worried about a thing,” Larry
said. “I just want to know how much it cost.”
“Aw, it was just a little over four
thousand, a real steal. Has some rust spots and needs a little work,
but we’ll have it in shape in no time.”
Larry nodded: “Sounds like a good
deal. Four-thousand and what, exactly?”
Ray found the bill of sale on the
telephone stand where the junk mail piled up.
“Four thousand, two hundred and fifty
“Four two five oh. Gotcha.”
Larry disappeared into his bedroom. On
a whim—his parents usually treated his bedroom as forbidden
territory—his mother followed him in. He fished a royal blue spiral
notebook out of his chest-of-drawers, flipped it open, and began to
write. Then he closed the notebook with a definitive pop.
“What’s that?” his mother said.
Startled, Larry whirled. “What’s
Nodding at the notebook: “That.”
“This? My accounts, of course.”
“What do you mean, Larry—your
Larry looked at his mother with a
puzzled frown. “You mean—?” he started to say, then abruptly turned,
knelt, and reached under his bed. His father came into the room. Then
Larry stood up, a stack of spiral notebooks clutched to his chest. He
held them out, first to his father, then mother.
“You really think I’ve been living here
all these years without keeping track? I keep track of everything.”
His mother took the top notebook off
the stack. On the yellow cover, written with a Sharpie, was a year:
1990. Inside was a column of dates beginning with Jan. 1, followed by
notations—always “breakfast,” “lunch,” and “supper” but sometimes
additional entries such as “razors” and “underwear.” Beside each entry
was a figure in dollars and cents. A few pages into the notebook was a
summary for January with other notations, all in caps for RENT,
UTILITIES, COOKING, CAR RENTAL, and so on, followed by a GRAND TOTAL
DEBIT and a GRAND TOTAL CREDIT. She flipped to the last page of the
notebook where she found the final entry:
TOTAL OWED PARENTS FOR 1990
Larry was explaining how it all worked,
debits on the front and credits on the back of each page, what the total
debit was for the going on twelve years he’d lived at home, how long he
figured it’d take him to pay it all off once he found a decent job,
etc. But before he could finish, his mother pushed the notebook at him,
put her hand over her eyes, and stumbled from the room. Ray followed
Larry considered the move to the “tin
can,” as he called the mobile home with equal parts derision and
affection, the biggest event of his life post-Memphis—not because it
signaled greater independence or some new relationship with his parents
but because it was the largest figure in his account books. In one bat
of an eye his ever-mounting debt had leaped an addition forty-two-fifty,
more than he’d ever managed in credits for a whole year. And earning
hard cash through part-time jobs—mowing the yard, running errands, doing
odd-jobs around the house—was becoming more and more difficult as the
gaps in his employment record became wider and more frequent. Not that
he ever volunteered such information in job interviews, but it often
happened that some banty-rooster of a manager would give him the third
degree over a chicken-shit, minimum-wage job, and Larry wasn’t going to
lie about it. Now, with the mobile home added to his debts, for the
first time Larry began to worry that he’d never be able to pay his
The years passed, with Larry spending
most of his time in the “tin can.” He’d cook oatmeal for himself for
breakfast and eat Sunday dinner with his parents. At all other meals
he’d appear in the kitchen at about the time his mother was finished
cooking, load up a plate for himself and head back to the tin can, where
he’d first record the estimated cost of the meal under the debits, then
eat whatever was on the plate while he watched his 13-inch color Sony.
He’d bought it back in Memphis, but it still worked fine. You couldn’t
beat a Sony.
He didn’t enjoy his life. Just like
poverty or poor health, boredom can grind a man’s soul. Add loneliness,
and Larry’s life on Sardis Road was a mill that ground him exceedingly
He’d spend days on end without leaving
the half-acre of land where the house and mobile-home stood. If he was
very lucky he’d find some part-time job that’d last for a few months, at
most. Or he’d do an occasional odd-job for Lola Smith, a hefty
widow-woman who lived by herself across the road in a white clapboard
house almost identical to his parents’, or some day labor for Mel
Seifert on his farm a quarter-mile down the road.
There you have it, years at a time: a
stretch of part-time work, odd jobs, day labor. A lot of watching that
Sony. And keeping strict accounts, of course. That’s all she wrote,
On December 31, 1999, midnight
approaching, fireworks going off and gunshots cracking up and down
Sardis Road, Larry looked back over the ‘90’s and concluded that, if he
were keeping a diary instead of an account book of the decade, other
than moving in to the mobile home there were only two events he’d bother
The first occurred in the summer of
1993. Larry had never been one to go out on the town much, but every
few months the urge would take him and he’d visit a tavern or two, drink
a couple of beers, check out the ladies. (It never went beyond
looking. What would be the point, with all his debts?) It doesn’t take
much for things to go wrong on Sardis Road, hot summer nights, a bar
full of good ol’ boys pounding that beer. “Hey, there’s ol’ Crenshaw,
still livin’ with his mommy and daddy!” It wasn’t until the next day,
looking over his copy of the police report, that Larry realized the guy
was Eric Gorman, who Larry had played ball with on the McClellan High
J.V. Larry had whipped up on him pretty good. Eric was slouched over
on the curb behind the ambulance the last time Larry saw him, out of the
back window of the patrol car. Eric didn’t press charges, though, and
Larry was released later that night to his parents.
Back at home, his mother was almost
jubilant: “That’s it! That’s what happened! Our boy never was the
kind to take much off anybody. Somebody pushed him a little too far,
and Larry popped him, and then the police got involved. That’s it in a
Although she didn’t say so, Larry knew
that his mother was referring to the incident in Memphis. She was
desperate that it be something heroic, sign of an iron will, a spirit
not to be beaten down by man or law. He understood, but it made him so
sad that for weeks afterwards he never left the property. And he never
went to a tavern again.
The second memorable event of the ‘90’s
was the death of his father, October 1, 1995. Ray hadn’t been in ill
health as far as Larry knew, although the Crenshaws never went to a
doctor for checkups or anything fancy like that. He was only fifty-nine
when he dropped dead one morning on the Cardboard Container Mfg. glue
Larry missed his father, of course, but
the chief material result of his death was an immediate improvement in
Larry’s economic situation. With his father gone Larry had to take on
many more duties around the house, and in the years following 1995
credits almost equaled debits in his account books.
Almost, but not quite. The debt was
still there, thousands and thousands of dollars, and the possibility of
it shrinking seemed to fade with the years. Worse, now it was just him
and his mother. Larry lived in fear of walking into a gas station or
store somewhere and there would be Eric Gorman, and Eric would say,
“Hey, here’s ol’ Larry Crenshaw, still living with his mommy!” For some
reason, a forty-odd-year-old man living with his mother seemed so much
worse than one living with his parents.
The shame of it all twisted him. He
walked with his head down, with a scowl and a slouch that made him
He was hard to live with, apparently,
for one day for no reason that he could tell his mother put her face in
her hands and burst out crying. He was too stunned even to ask her what
was wrong, but she told him anyway: “You could think about somebody
other than yourself sometime, Larry! Couldn’t you just once think of
somebody other than yourself?”
Larry tried to reconstruct the last few
minutes to see what had brought this on, but there seemed to be no good
explanation. And because he could find none, suddenly he was angry.
“Who do I have to think about, huh? Who? I’ve got nobody in my life,
His mother just kept on crying.
She began to die sometime in 2001. At
first she thought it was just bad indigestion, and Beano did seem to
help some. She swore by it. When the Beano stopped doing the trick,
she wrote it off to “female trouble”—“problems with the plumbing” was
the way she described it to Larry. Even then, though, she suspected it
was something worse. Still, it took blood in her stool and pain bad
enough to double her over before she’d see the doc. She needed some
tests. Larry drove her to the hospital, sat in the cafeteria drinking
coffee and feeling like he was in a foreign country.
She had stomach cancer. It took the
better part of two more years for her to die, and she died hard. Three
months before the end, her body started breaking down; nothing worked
right. She went to the hospital for a few days as different things were
tried, and then the social worker talked to Larry. There was nothing
more they could do for her. Medicare wouldn’t pay for more hospital
time unless there was some hope of recovery. The only options now were
home care or a nursing home.
“It’s a death watch now, you mean,”
“I wouldn’t put it like that, but . .
“I’ll take her home. She wouldn’t want
to be in no nursing home.”
“OK, you can try it for a while, Mr.
Crenshaw. I’ll have the nurse talk to you, give you some instructions.
You’ll have to give her her medications, including shots. Are you up
for that? . . . OK, we can try it, but at a certain point you’re going
to need in-home nursing care for your mother.”
“At what point is that?”
“When you can’t stand it anymore.”
Sometimes his mother felt well enough
to get up and try to help around the house, but even then she mostly got
in the way. Larry did the cooking, cleaning, and shopping, paid the
bills out of his mother’s checkbook, answered the telephone and greeted
the ladies from his mother’s church circle and, once a week over the
last month, her minister, a sandy-haired, round-faced smiler in his
The daily credits were now exceeding
the debits in his accounts, although it was impossible she’d live long
enough for things to even out. Such considerations were meaningless in
light of what his mother was going through, Larry told himself. But he
couldn’t help feeling bitter.
Over the last month of her life she
became too weak to walk. Larry would lift her from the bed into the
wheelchair and then from the wheelchair into the bathtub or onto the
toilet. The sight of her yellowish flaccid flesh horrified him, and
he’d try to avert his eyes. Soon he was having to bathe her, wipe her
after her stools, and then to give her sponge baths in bed and change
the bedding when her bowels failed. She wept; sometimes she screamed;
often she didn’t know who he was.
His mother’s parents were long since
dead, and she had no brothers and sisters. She did have an aunt and a
number of cousins in Arkansas, but they had paid their one visit apiece
and weren’t due for another one until the funeral. The ladies from her
church circle stopped coming. Her minister, though, came once a week,
stayed long enough to say a prayer as he held her hand in one of his and
Larry’s in the other. His prayers seemed sincere, and Larry lost the
desire to punch him in the face.
After one such visit the minister
stopped on the porch and put his hand on Larry’s forearm, gave it a
little squeeze. “You’re a good man, Larry,” he said. “Not many would
do what you’re doing for your mother. You’re a good man.”
“I don’t know,” Larry said. “I don’t
He felt tears stinging to his eyes—not
because his mother was lying in shit in her bed but because he did not
know if he was a good man.
“You’re a good man, Larry Crenshaw.”
Larry was so startled he almost dropped
the casserole dish Lola Smith had just handed him.
They were standing on the porch. Lola
came over about every day now, bringing him a casserole or cold fried
chicken, a Crockpot full of chili, Jell-O salad, sliced candied apples,
homemade pimento cheese spread for sandwiches. He’d done a few odd jobs
for her over the years—tilled up her garden in the spring, cleared brush
after the big ice storm, put up a pre-fab metal shed behind her
house—but he really didn’t know much about her. He thought of her as a
widow but couldn’t say for sure that was the case. She worked in town
but he didn’t know where, exactly. He guessed her to be about forty,
but he was no judge of ages. All he knew for sure was that she was
hefty, that she went barefooted in warm weather and always had bug-bites
on her feet and ankles, and that she’d talk your arm off.
He’d stand on the front porch cradling
whatever dish she’d brought him, holding the screen door ajar with his
shoulder while waiting for her to pause long enough for him to mumble an
excuse and duck back inside. Not that he wasn’t grateful for the food,
and stepping outside that house even for a minute was a joy akin to a
drowning man’s breaking above the waves for one more breath. But she
made him nervous. He never knew what to say to her. He half suspected
she had designs on him.
Generally, then, he didn’t pay much
attention to what she was saying, but when he heard her call him a good
man, echoing almost verbatim the preacher’s words, he was stunned.
He didn’t know if he was a good man, he
told her. He didn’t really think he was.
“Sure you are. Look at all you’re
doing for your mother.”
“I’m just doing what anyone else would
do in the same situation.”
But he knew that wasn’t true. Most
people would ship the dying relative off to a nursing home or at least
hire someone to do the dirty work. Larry didn’t blame them. Caring for
his mother was a daily, hourly, minute by minute horror marked by no
tenderness or gratitude but only piss-scented drudgery that tortured
both of them. Yet when the social worker had told him just last week
that now was the time, that he couldn’t handle it alone anymore, he’d
rejected outright the notion of nursing help. Why? Why did he do it?
He didn’t know.
“You have a tender heart,” Lola said.
“You don’t want to put your mother in anyone else’s hands at a time like
this. You’re a man with a good heart.”
He looked away, searching the horizon
as if the answer were there.
“And I know you’re not just trying to
save money because Medicare would pay for a nurse,” Lola went on. “Good
thing. A nurse would cost you four, five hundred dollars a day.”
“Four or five hundred, easy—if she
lived in, and that’s what you’d need at this point.”
Caring for his mother had taken so much
of his time and energy that Larry hadn’t done his accounts for a week,
but that night he spent two solid hours on the books. The result of his
tabulations—in light of this new information from Lola—showed that he
was out of the hole.
“Mom, you now owe me twelve-hundred and
twenty-eight dollars,” he told her, holding up the emerald-colored
spiral notebook for her to see, like a little boy bringing home a test
that he’d gotten an A on.
But it didn’t seem to make much of an
impression on her.
Finally, it got to be too much for
him. He gave up and took his mother to the hospital, where she died two
Larry had never thought about funeral
arrangements. The hospital social worker helped some, but mostly it was
Lola Smith. She took him in hand and walked him through the whole
thing. In the funeral home director’s office Larry sat there like a
simpleton. It was Lola who asked all the questions, and she accompanied
Larry into the big room where the coffins were arranged from most to
least expensive. She encouraged him to choose one of the cheaper ones.
You had to be careful not to get carried away with the emotion of the
moment and commit yourself to something beyond your means. If it wasn’t
one of the expensive ones, though, the coffin Larry chose was a real
pretty one, lilac with silver handles.
“She’ll rest peaceful in it,” Lola
After the funeral was over and all the
relatives and friends who’d attended the services were gone, Larry,
exhausted and grateful, pressed Lola’s hand between his own and said, “I
owe you, Lola.”
“Get out of here.”
“No, I owe you big time. I didn’t know
anything about funerals. Didn’t have a clue. You were a real pro.
Guess you must have had some experience—when your husband died, I mean.”
Lola was taken aback. “Who, me? I’ve
never been married!” She laughed like it was just the funniest thing
but then, remembering the occasion, stopped and excused herself.
Neither seemed to know what to say then, so Lola said to call her if he
needed anything and crossed the road to her house.
Larry watched her close the door behind
her, then he snapped his fingers as if he’d just remembered something.
He gathered up the spiral notebooks, took them out back, and burned them
in the rusted-out trash barrel. He was out of the hole, man. He didn’t
owe anybody a damn thing. To celebrate the occasion, he drank half a
bottle of Jim Beam and passed out on the kitchen floor.
He was still there when he woke the
next morning. He lay very still. It was pleasant enough on the cool
linoleum, and he knew as soon as he moved the hangover would visit him
with pain and nausea.
But it wasn’t a hangover that came to
him. It was Lola Smith. She was knocking on the screen door that led
from the kitchen to the back porch.
“Are you all right, Larry?”
“I’m all right,” he said. “I think.”
He tested it,
sat slowly upright. Surprisingly, he didn’t feel too bad.
“I kept knocking on the
front door but couldn’t raise you. I was worried about you.”
“Oh, I’m all right.”
He opened the screen door and joined
her on the porch. He expected to find her with a casserole dish or
plate of food in her hands, but she had nothing. She seemed to guess
what he was thinking.
“I figured you probably had food left
from what folks have been bringing you these last few days.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I’m pretty well
fixed for now.”
“Good, good. But I was thinking, you
know, probably you shouldn’t be alone all the time so soon after—well,
you know. So maybe you’d like to come over to my place for supper
wanted more than anything right now was to be by himself, but he owed
Lola too much.
“Hey, that sounds good.”
Lola had him in her crosshairs, that
was for sure. And while he was grateful to her for all she’d done, he
didn’t want to do something damn silly and wind up paying out more in
return than he’d received.
Larry crossed Sardis Road that evening,
then, determined to be polite but on his guard.
It wasn’t the same Lola Smith, though.
Instead of being loud and sort of pushy—in a nice way, but still
pushy—she seemed shy, unsure of herself, alternately chattering
nervously and lapsing into awkward silences. It threw off Larry’s plans
to keep his guard up, and he found himself trying to put her at ease.
Things got better once they got to the
food, which gave them something to talk about. The main dish was
grilled pork chops. Larry had never had them that way before since his
mother fried about everything, but he said they were great. He’d never
had wild rice, either, and asked Lola how she made it. She blushed and
said it just came in a package, add a little water and butter is all,
there wasn’t anything to it. The tomatoes were Early Girls from her
garden, and the ice tea was sun tea, which Larry had her explain
although he knew perfectly well what sun tea was. Larry had a bad
moment over dessert, German chocolate cake, the icing loaded with
coconut. He’d always hated coconut but managed to get it down and
pronounced it good stuff.
“I’m kind of getting used to cooking
for two, what with bringing you over a dish every day or so,” she said.
Larry said, “I’m real grateful for
“Oh, I didn’t mean that,” Lola said,
flustered. “I wasn’t trying to say you should be grateful for
anything. I was just saying about cooking for two is all.”
“I know, I know, but I am grateful, and
I want you to know that. I owe you a lot.”
“Well, if you ever owed me anything,
you’ve paid it all back tonight.”
“I mean, coming over here, having
supper with me.”
Lola seemed even more flustered now, as
if she’d revealed more than she’d meant to. She jumped up and grabbed
the dessert plates, took them to the sink, and stood there with her back
to Larry as she fiddled with the dishes.
Larry watched her. She wore a pale
rose sleeveless top that made her hammy arms look even bigger and a sky
blue skirt, short enough to accentuate her broad hips and thick thighs.
She was wearing hose, a color that made her pasty legs look tanned.
Still, they didn’t hide the chigger bites on her ankles.
Larry couldn’t kid himself: she wasn’t
attractive. If he saw her on the street he wouldn’t give her a second
look. But then he had a thought: would she give him a second
look? He straightened up, pushed his chest out and his head back. Did
that get rid of that hump on his back? There was no reflective surface
that he could check himself in, but sitting like that was too painful,
anyway, so he slumped again.
Lola returned to the table with two
cups of coffee. She fetched sugar and milk, then sat down. She stared
at her coffee without touching it.
“Funny that you should think I was a
widow,” she said.
“I don’t know where I got that idea.”
“I’ve never been married,” she said, as
if she hadn’t already told him. This time, though, it sounded like a
confession. “When a person goes long enough without being married, they
get kind of marked, you know? There she is, forty years old and never
He knew exactly what she meant. He
also knew he had to watch his step here because they were getting to a
dangerous point, emotions getting high, and the wrong word here and no
telling where you’d wind up.
What he’d meant to say was that he
understood what she was saying but what other people thought didn’t mean
crap. But before he knew it he was saying something entirely different.
“I got arrested once, in Memphis. This
was way back when I was in my twenties. It wasn’t any big deal, I
didn’t do time or anything, but it cost me my job with Foley. Damn good
“What did you do?”
“Aw, kid stuff, really. Me and this
other guy had had a few, came out of a bar and right there at the curb
in front of us was a police car, engine running, no one inside. The cop
had run in to buy a pack of cigarettes or something. Anyway, we jumped
in and took it for a ride. They caught us heading over the bridge into
Arkansas. I guess I was coming home to show off my new car.”
“You laugh,” he said, “but it cost me
my job, and it’s right there on my record any time I apply for a job
But Lola couldn’t stop laughing.
“Keep on laughing,” Larry
said, irritated but at the same time fighting a grin, “but I tell you it
screwed me good.”
“Oh, Larry, it’s way in
the past,” Lola said, reaching over and patting his hand. “It’s a new
day every time the sun comes up.”
“Yeah, well, the past’s
“Sure, but it’s a
different past every day, too.”
At a certain point in the evening Larry
said he guessed it was time he was getting home. Lola said he could
stay if he wanted to. He knew what she meant by “stay,” but he said
there were some things he had to take care of.
He crossed the road to his place. Yes,
it was his place now, all of it. He gave the house a wide berth,
though, and entered the mobile home. He’d slept in the house for the
last several weeks to be near his mother, and the “tin can” had that
musty, unlived-in smell. He sat down and stared at the TV a moment
without turning it on. Then he crossed over to a little chest and
opened the top drawer.
It wasn’t until he saw the empty drawer
that Larry remembered he’d burned all the spiral notebooks the day
before. What he’d intended to do was take the notebooks and hug them to
his chest; he thought they’d give him some comfort. Now that was
He started to close the drawer and then
noticed it wasn’t completely empty. There was a sheet of paper in the
bottom, the very last page of his accounts showing the grand total
debits and credits for all the years he’d lived with his parents, then
the final figure, one thousand two hundred and twenty-eight dollars.
There was a big plus-sign to the left of it, and it was underlined three
times, the last underline spiraling down the page in a flourish. Even
though he’d written the figures only days ago, they bemused him now,
like some childish scrawl, something he’d done in kindergarten, later
thrown into a drawer and saved by a doting parent.
He wadded the paper into a ball and
tossed it across the little room at the trash can in the corner.
“Bingo. Two points.”
Larry squared his shoulders and took a
deep breath. Took another. He was a little nervous, he had to admit.
A little scared, a little excited like someone about to leave the
country of his birth for a new land.
Then he turned off the light, locked
the door behind him, and crossed back over Sardis Road.
by Richard Stephens