A walking, talking natural disaster


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The phone rang at half-past eleven, just as I was ready to fall asleep. I didn't want to answer it, but my wife said it might be important so I fumbled in the dark to find the receiver only to hear Bill, my cousin, on the other end. We hadn’t talked in some time, so the late call seemed to confirm my wife’s fear.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

"Mom and dad threw me out of the house," he said, his tone so pathetic I knew the new had to be true.

"You're 29, I'm surprised it took them that long," I said, although always presumed his parents – my uncle and aunt – didn’t have the heart to cut him off.

Bill was always the baby of that family, the last of five siblings and the one his parents had spoiled to death over the years.

While the rest of his brothers and sister got yelled at for low marks on their report cards, Bill got a pat of sympathy and asked to try harder next time. When his brothers got in trouble with the police for some small prank in town, they received additional punishment when they got home. Not so with Bill, whose level of trouble exceeded everyone’s, all through no apparent fault of his own.

Bill seemed to stumble into trouble, as if trouble lay in wait for him. If a fight occurred at school, we could be assured Bill would find his way into the middle of it, puzzled by all the fists flying around him. If a building caught fire or a car crashed on our block, we could rest assured Bill was at least in part the cause.

"I guess I should have seen it coming when Dad suggested a couple of months ago that I get a job," Bill told me on the telephone. "He seemed to think my four meals and two snacks a day put a crimp in the house hold budget."

"That doesn't sound like Uncle Abe," I said.

"To tell you the truth, I think mom put him up to it," Bill said. "She'd been moaning for months over my so-called bad habits, saying she had better things to do than pick up my empty beer cans from the living room or the crumbs from my potato chips off the couch. But I think my laundry riled her most. One afternoon when I woke up I found my clothes in the basket still dirty. Meals got skimpy, too. No more quarter pound steaks. Not even a measly hamburger. Mom said I was getting fat and stopped buying beer altogether. She suggested I get some exercise, as if going to the refrigerator during commercials wasn't enough. That's when Dad suggested I get a job."

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I told them I would find work."

"Did you?"

"No, but they thought I did, and seemed happy for a few weeks. And I suppose it must have shocked them to come home to find me drunk on the couch.”

"What did they do?"

"Mom told Dad to take me down to the shop with him."

"What? You mean after the disaster you had at shop in school," I said, recalling the moment when the school alarm sounded and we had to evacuate the school, uncertain whether the roof to the building would hold after Bill accidentally cut through several of the support beams while constructing a shelf.

"Dad remembered fast enough when I ruined his buzz saw and half the other tools in his shop," Bill said. "Then I dropped the pallet on him."

"My God! Is he all right?"

"The hospital said he might have use of his legs within a year," Bill said. "I thought they would leave me alone after that, but Mom got it into her head that I might be good at house work. You know: cleaning, dusting and cooking. I tried to warn her, but she didn't listen. By the time she got back from visiting Dad in the hospital, the fire department was just finished putting out the flames on the second floor. The insurance carrier isn't sure we're covered and called me a walking, talking natural disaster. I tried to tell myself everything would go back to normal after that. I even convinced myself Mom's silence was a good thing. But when I came home one day and found my stuff on the stoop and the locks all changed, I knew she wanted me to leave.”

"I would say that's a pretty obvious sign," I said. "But why call me?"

"I was wondering if I could come stay with you," Bill asked.



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