Bob’s Keys the the Kingdom by Alexandria Peary

Tin cans

Bob could be a S.O.B. Bob stood too close when he talked to you. Bob was 6’4” and weighed 275 pounds and was a quarter Penobscot. Even as a seventy-year old, he could, my husband freely admitted, kick my husband’s ass. Bob was our tenant. He lived in a 20-by-20 foot studio apartment for fifteen years. He washed his clothing in the sink, and the hallway reeked of his bathroom, cleaned every few years. He ate canned goods he bought at Walgreens. From his recycling, I could tell he favored canned sweet potatoes and Hormel chili. He had been an alcoholic but quit cold turkey. He beat his second wife. His first wife died in childbirth. Afternoons and evenings, he played video games and watched NASCAR. In town, he was known for his pair of red short-shorts on legs nearly as long as some of my friends are tall. It signaled spring. He’d sun himself on a park bench—cheap dark sunglasses, shock of white hair, spring, summer and into fall. It was like he was wearing doll clothing. Lithe, fawn-like pre-teens in packs would jeer at his shorts. On one of his perambulations, he was hit by a car (I felt bad for the car) and had a hip replacement. Each of these sentences one of his rigid strides. Bob did not like doctors. Bob did not like schoolteachers—that’s what he’d call them, “schoolteachers,” as though education ended at seventh grade. He told my husband (a high school teacher) that he’d once held his teacher upside-down by the ankles outside a third-story window.

Bob was alone on holidays and his birthday. We brought him paper plates of food from our parties, nothing too exotic—not like saying you look like de Chirico’s portrait of Apollinaire in those sunglasses. Bob had been a longshoreman, a 19th century lonely man’s profession. He lived off Social Security and his fireman’s pension. You would want Bob around if your house were on fire. Our apartment was like a fish tank because of its two picture windows. When we were first married, I’d duck below the kitchen counter so it appeared that my husband was fixing dinner, bringing on Bob’s heckling about my husband’s manhood. Bob bragged he’d brought a “lady friend” upstairs, ho, ho. Bob would corner my husband and say he’d spotted him downtown carousing with ladies. I was just exiting my own years of loneliness and didn’t like the thought that loneliness might not be a matter of bad luck but something deserved. Bob claimed he was friends with Dale Earnhardt. After Bob died, my husband found letters to mail order Asian and Russian girlfriends. It took Bob half a minute of 45 degree pivoting to turn to watch teenage girls’ butts. When he talked about his first wife, a tear traveled down his cheek. Bob struck up a friendship with the clerk with a handlebar mustache at Cumberland Farms, and when he realized the guy was gay he wanted to smash his face in. Bob took taxis to doctor appointments or was picked up by another old man who drove a white K-car ghetto-style, seat tilted back, his cap backwards, and who gave the Bird to the woman from downstairs who complained. When he was sick and in a nursing home, Bob asked our mailman if he wanted to become roommates. We found, left behind in his apartment, a Fanny Farmer’s box with a dozen school photos and Polaroids of the second family he hadn’t raised. For a year, Bob’s son Little Bob, a man with a bear’s girth, stayed with Bob in the studio apartment while he was getting a divorce, and brought two children on weekends. Not a peep. One summer afternoon while Bob and Little Bob were napping—poignant to think of this preschooler-like companionship—Little Bob woke to find a squirrel perched on the enormous rise of his belly. Bob found a Baptist church within walking distance of his apartment but stopped attending when the minister’s sermon was about the untrustworthiness of bachelors. First Bob’s son left for good, and then a tow truck wrecked his car. Bob took a taxi to a last doctor’s appointment and never came back. In the nursing home, Bob gave his diabetic roommate extra sweets to kill him off early. When Bob could no longer bend over, my husband trimmed his toenails, washed Bob’s feet biblically.

Alexandria Peary in front of rock on trailAlexandria Peary’s third book of poetry, Control Bird Alt Delete, received the 2013 Iowa Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers and Lid to the Shadow. Her work received the Joseph Langland Award from the Academy of American Poets and the 2010 Slope Editions Book Prize. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, the Chariton Review, Volt, The Gettysburg Review, and at Superstition Review. She is an associate professor in the English department at Salem State University. Follow her on Twitter at @writemindfully or visit her blog, Your Ability to Write is Always Present.

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  • Brett

    Fascinating character portrait.