The Assistant chapter one

Every time John Dreisinger needed to meet with his biological relatives, something unexpeected happened. The family whom he considered real, the Hendersons, were not perfect but they were nowhere near as chaotic as the Dreisingers. He grew up with Milan and Edith Henderson as a foster child until he was eighteen, because his mother, Amy, was underage and not married when she was pregnant and her parents, Danny and Crystal Dreisinger, did not want to deal with having another person to feed when they already had three other children, Mike, Jeffrey and Lea, in which they had to attend. Amy went to Social Services where arrangements were made for John to stay with the Hendersons. Then, for whatever reason, she decided not to visit him.

Years later, when John finally contacted his biological relatives, he gained a family who was worse off than he had imagined. He had received a letter from Amy that her parents died, first Crystal and then a couple of years later Danny, and her father left money to the family in a will. Amy apologized for being a neglectful mother and said Social Services made things difficult for her when she tried visiting him while he was growing up. She hoped the money from the will would be at least one gesture she could do to show him she cared.

When he met the Dreisinger clan, including Amy, Mike, Jeffrey and Lea, at the law offices of Vollmann, Mark & Tunnicliffe, William Tunnicliffe explained to everybody that Danny Dreisinger left five thousand dollars to be split equally between the family. That would be one thousand two hundred and fifty dollars for Danny’s children but everyone agreed that John should benefit. The money was split so everyone received one thousand dollars. After meeting with the lawyer, Amy told John she would like to keep in contact with him if he was occasionally able to visit. John agreed reluctantly that he could handle seeing the Dreisingers once in a while if not too often.

John regretted his decision when he realized his biological family was a hindrance instead of an asset. He should have been cautious after that first meeting. Mike, the oldest uncle, was four hundred pounds. He went everywhere in a beat-up electric wheelchair though he was able to walk perfectly fine.  His shirt and pants had holes and stains on them. He continuously moved his wheelchair during the meeting, banging it on the lawyer’s desk, causing Mr. Tunnicliffe to look as though he was not going to give anyone the money. Plus, Mike kept making spitting sounds with his mouth, causing droplets of saliva to land randomly on each person’s arms.

Jeffrey, the younger uncle, was not slim but he weighed less than Mike. Jeffrey was two hundred and ten pounds but he was short and looked stout. He dressed in clean clothes. He wore a T-shirt and jeans, whereas Mike had worn a button shirt and slacks, but there was no doubt to John that Jeffrey was the together one in appearance. However, he was drunk and had occasionally called John a bitch and a family deserter. After the meeting ended, he apologized to John but then called him a bitch and a family deserter again.

Lea was dressed in a large sweatshirt and jogging pants that were way too big for her and there was no way John could determine if she was heavy or slim. She kept quiet throughout the meeting but she looked at everyone with an expression of anger, as if she would wait until later to explode. She made John nervous.

Amy seemed to exhibit the others’ characteristics as if a part of them went inside her. She was not especially well dressed. She had on a wrinkled blouse and pyjama pants but at least her clothes only smelled dirty. She would smile occasionally and then look angry, as if she could not decide whether or not she wanted to imitate her sister’s feelings or have her own. She wiggled her hands and kept interrupting the lawyer to tell him she wanted a cigarette. After the meeting, she smoked in his office. When he told her she should have went outside to do that, she explained that she could not have waited any longer.

John had been somewhat understanding about the Dreisingers on the day he was given the check for one thousand dollars but then later, when his mother called him constantly, pleading with him to help with whatever problem was haunting the family that week, he felt that the money had not been worth it. Mike was always breaking something in his house and did not want to call a repair person to fix it. Jeffrey had a girlfriend, Kelly Blum, who kept leaving him and then returning but, during the break-up period, Jeffrey would drink so much alcohol he would pass out. Once, Amy had to call the ambulance so he could go to the hospital. She was upset that he hit his head on her good coffee table while he fell down and now the table had a nick in it. Lea never came over to visit them but she called Amy on the telephone and complained for hours. All that was explained to John when his mother told him about the latest family news.

Before the Dreisingers appeared in his life, John spent leisure time writing stories. He lived in the downtown area of Oakland, California where there was Laney College, Chinatown, art galleries, studios and a very decent public library. He would go to the library and be influenced by looking at various people who were engaged in interesting conversations. At a cafe where he got his morning coffee, the cashier was a good looking woman who touched his hand when giving his change and he enjoyed that little bit of transference. It gave him an urge to write another story, as if his mind was guided by the energy of her touch. On days when she wore shirts tucked tightly into belted jeans, she looked especially sexy and John was that much more delighted when she handed him his change. Since the rest of his day would be spent alone with pen and paper, he appreciated that little bit of interaction.

After contact with his biological family, things went downhill for him. When Amy called after he received the money, that was coincidentally the last day the female cashier worked in the cafe. Now, the cashier was a man. Amy wanted to hook John up with a single woman who was very overweight and not at all attractive. None of the Dreisingers  ever wore their shirts tucked in. Every time he came in contact with them, there were less and less slim people appearing in his vicinity, as if something metaphysical was happening on account of his being a part of the Dreisingers clan again. He would not have ordinarily put the two situations together in that way but, then again, he would never have thought a family could be as ridiculous as they were.

As the weeks went by, Amy and Jeffrey gained a lot more weight. Mike stayed the same weight but he was already four hundred pounds. Seemingly, his sister and brother wanted to catch up with him. During a family dinner, John discovered they ate the cheapest and least flavorful turkey pot pies and Salisbury steak dinners. Mike would spill the food on his clothes. Amy would put out her cigarette on the food and then continue to eat it. Jeffrey would not eat. He sat on the couch and drank alcohol. Lea came for dinner once only. She brought an actual good meal she made, a rice and beans casserole with cheese that was tasty, but no one other than she and John would eat it and she never came back to visit them.

Amy lived next door to Mike and next door to him lived Jeffrey. They all visited each other. When John would see them, more and more frequently as his mother’s calls continued and she would nag him if he did not show up, he would either go to Amy’s house or Mike’s. Jeffrey preferred no one visit him at his place. He said his girlfriend, whom John never met, was crazy and he did not want to subject anyone to her outbursts. Amy’s place was filled with litter and cigarette butts. The house smelled of cigarette smoke and John had to walk outside every five minutes so he would not feel ill. Mike had two dogs that jumped up on his clothes dresser where his clothes were stacked, not in the drawers but on top of the dresser. The dogs chewed on his clothes and made dirty paw marks. His house was not as cluttered as Amy’s but it was not clean. His  place was dirty because of spilled food on the floors. John never previously had to decide which smelled worse, cigarettes or mold.

Today, when he received Amy’s early-morning phone call, John figured something problematic was in store for him. His mother’s voice was calm and casual but her exact words were for him to “come here immediately.”

John asked, “Can you please wait until I have a cup of coffee? It’s six o’clock in the morning.”

Amy answered, “That’ll take too long. I need you here now, honey.”

Whenever she called him honey, he felt annoyed. Why did he have to be born by her? Was life that cruel, making sure his biological relatives were the least compatible people possible? However, he remained composed. “Can you tell me why you need me over there?”

“Mike banged his wheelchair on the front of the grocery store and he had to be brought to the hospital. He’s acting up, wanting to stay with you.”

John was nervous hearing that. “He has his own place. He can’t stay with me.”

“Yes, he can. He’s feeling scared. He said he needed to stay with a family member who was young and male. He wants to be reminded of how he used to be.”

“He would be better off staying with uncle Jeffrey.”

“He won’t take Mike in. You’ve never seen his place but he keeps it quite clean. He’s afraid of letting any relatives go over there, including you.” John hung up the phone. If Amy called again, he would not answer. She would have to wait until he was ready to show up.

When John arrived at his mother’s house, he noticed a note taped to the door: “I am at the hospital. See me there.” Ordinarily, he would have went back home at that point because, as far as he was concerned, she could have at least waited for him after she had insisted he arrive so early. However, the hospital was only six blocks away so the walk there was no inconvenience to him.

As he went to the hospital, he was reminded of the difference between Oakland, where he lived, and Antioch, where he was now. Aside from a few pleasant streets scattered in different areas, Antioch had no interesting places in it. If one had a low-paying job and a family, and all members of that family were overweight and tired and talked loudly, one lived there. The exception could be Los Medanos Community College, where John passed as he rode on the bus towards his family’s neighborhood, but that place had nobody walking around. Maybe once he saw a nondescript person stroll by. Somersville Hospital did look nice, though. If he was to have an irritating conversation with his mother and his uncle about Mike not being able to stay with him, at least he could observe the view of the trees and the lawn and feel better because of it.

When he was told where Mike Dreisinger’s room was and he approached it, he heard a loud sound like someone was trying to speak and another person was preventing that from happening. He walked in and noticed Mike strapped to a bed, thrasing around. Amy stared at him, alarmed. A doctor had his arms folded and he shook his head.

Though he did not want to show signs of how he was feeling, John was happy to see his uncle in such a restrained situation. Mike was usually insistent about everything, asking continually for glasses of water and never listening when another person spoke. He was being forced to stay put. With his every effort of trying to free himself of the straps, he was reminded of the power of bondage. The doctor, if John’s observation was correct, showed a hint of relief, if not joy, at his patient.

John asked, “Is my uncle going to be okay?”

The doctor sighed. “That depends on your interpretation of the word. Is he going to become a competent member of society? Never. Is he going to be a nuisance upon every living thing in the universe? That is closer to the reality. Mr. Dreisinger is under the delusion that when he bumps his wheelchair on someone’s desk or he tries to crash through a doorway and break the glass, he’s entitled to sue and get money. His sister showed me various files from his past. Once, he rode his wheelchair on the freeway and stopped in the middle of it, causing traffic to halt. There could have been an accident. Luckily, as he was admitted here last night, he was willing to sign a paper stating he was legally incompetent and could no longer be responsible for himself. I told him exactly what he was signing and he agreed to it. However, when we explained to him that his being incompetent did not mean he was getting compensation, he screamed. We already had put the restraints on him but his screams disturbed everybody. That’s why he has the gag.”

John smiled. “That’s good. My mom told me my uncle wants to live with me. I won’t be able to take him in.”

“He’s not going with you. That’s an impossibility.”

“You’re an awesome doctor. What’s your name again?”

“Doctor Richard Amis.”

John nodded. “So, I guess my being here is no longer necessary.”

Mike turned his head to look at John. He nodded, not so much in agreement but because that was the only way he could move his head, and made an extremely loud sound.

John asked, “Is he trying to say something?”

Doctor Amis shrugged. “He has been trying to say things all morning and they’re all crazy.”

“I’m curious what he has to say. Can you take off the gag? If he screams, you can put it back on.”

“I’ll allow that because you’re family but I’m only giving him a minute to speak.” He removed Mike’s gag.

Mike said, “John, don’t believe him. I’m fine and there’s a reason I want to stay with you. I can’t tell you everything now. You have to listen, though. Go back to my apartment and look on the nightstand in my bedroom. You’ll see a card with a name and a number on it. That’s all I can say. I can’t reveal too much.”

Doctor Amis nodded. “Okay, if you’re able to talk like this and not yell, we can keep the gag off.”

Mike screamed.

Doctor Amis put the gag back on. “You’re in a hospital, not a We-Do-What-We-Want place. I guess you like the flavor of handkerchief.”

John smiled. “Doesn’t that sound yummy, uncle?” He and the doctor laughed.

Amy, who had stood there the whole time as if in shock, asked, “Is it okay if I go now?”

Doctor Amis said, “I think I might want to check and see if you’re okay. Is that alright?”

She shrugged. “I guess so. My soap opera does not come on yet. John, I’ll meet you at my house. We need to talk about a few things.”

As John was walking out, he waved, not in agreement but a gesture indicating he was going home. However, without his knowing why, he was curious as to the mysterious card Mike mentioned.

He went in his uncle’s house. The dogs, Snack and Salsa, were asleep, for the first time ever since John went there. If they woke up, they would assuredly jump on him and get his pants dirty. He tiptoed in Mike’s bedroom. On the nightstand, there was a card. He picked it up and saw the name Cynthia Flanagan and an address: 72 Somersville Avenue. She lived a few blocks up the street from the hospital. There was also a phone number. The time was nine thirty a.m. He was not sure whether or not she would be up yet. Then again, why was he thinking of contacting her? He had no idea. However, he wondered to what his uncle had alluded. Was there a situation that needed resolving? Mike had not said much. He sounded as if he was hiding something.

John wanted to talk with Cynthia Flanagan, if for no other reason than for him to see if she also was heavyset like all of the Dreisingers’ other friends. If he met her and the situation proved pointless, he could justify his wanting to stay away from them. He would decide what to do when he approached the bus stop.

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Time With Susan: a novel

Time with Susan by Lee Gerstmann Copyright ©2012Chapter One

    I looked at her and smiled. “Thank you for doing this.”

    She nodded. “You’re very welcome.”

    Her name was Susan Schlater. She lived next door to me. Today, we decided to hold hands for as long as possible. If our families reacted strangely, we would be prepared. 

    We were walking down Buchanan Road where the street kept going with few sights except occasional stop signs, parking lots and empty store fronts. Most people in our town were without ambition other than shopping at dollar stores. The biggest subject of conversation was about what store would be selling the cheapest cans of strawberry pie filling. On rare moments, a family might go to a movie but no one liked the film, everyone smoked cigarettes and hand-holding never happened.

    Susan and I had previously discussed the idea of doing something that was not centered on outside entertainment.

    I said, “I can’t wait to hear what my mother will say when she sees me holding hands with you. Not only am I going against the grain of family tradition by associating with someone slim but I will be showing her that there’s more to sexual fulfillment than bedroom activities. For me, the greatest part of this is the willingness. Not only are you willing to touch someone for this amount of time but you’re willing to do so with me. It’s like a dream image when a young woman walks casually up to a young man she’s never seen before and just starts to talk about something incidental like the weather but then she grabs his finger and keeps a tight grip on him while they both talk as if that was a natural and typical thing for anyone to do.”

    She smiled. “I appreciate the way you think. You give me ideas. You make me feel upscale and intelligent.”

    “What bothers me about my family is not that they’re strange but because their strangeness is based on a certain fear about doing anything new. Right now, my aunt has accused me of being gay, on drugs, a thief and she constantly says I need to take a shower and change my clothes even if she hasn’t seen me for six months. Well, if I had to deal with her by myself, I would probably get depressed but if she sees me with you, I’ll be satisfied with shocking her world. She won’t be able to hurt my feelings.”

    “I like walking on the street. I feel as if each step is going away from my problems and going towards my future.”

    We continued on our slow and steady pace on our Saturday afternoon stroll. The weather was pleasantly cool. There was no momentary need for more conversation. I could understand what my other next-door neighbor, Elliot Smith, meant when he told him he preferred listening to the wind blow while he was driving his car and not the radio. I felt the same way about lying on my bed and thinking about nothing. I was satisfactorily vacant. Now, the most beautiful concept I could imagine was the sense that Susan and I achieved the pinnacle of our desires. She wanted escape from boredom and I wanted to feel successful and we were teaching a lesson for others to see.

    I realized human beings were usually too engulfed in complications for them to communicate together without resorting to excessive interpretations and self-conscious excuses against knowing each other. There were a lot of situations when men chose to talk more with other men than with women. Even if they really wanted to talk with women, they talked with their male neighbors.

    Before I had the idea of sustained hand holding with Susan, I thought about how I wanted to make a difference in the way people perceived life. I knew that I had the same chance as anyone else did to alter human connections. Every aspect of etiquette and manners was based on a person’s idea to put the custom in place. The things that were now accepted as tradition were originally scoffed at by people who were afraid of change. However, when those concepts were no longer new, they were accepted. My hope was that long touches would eventually be a normal part of everyday culture.

    Twenty minutes later, we were approaching Somersville Avenue where Somersville Towne Centre was located. That place was the closest anyone had to an exciting experience. Most of the stores had few customers except for either obese grandmothers or druggie punk rocker types who looked six years old. Occasionally, a dog might run through the clothing store and no one paid attention. I asked, “Would you like to stroll through the mall?”

    She shrugged. “I guess so.”

    We looked at each other and realized what we would do. We chose to go to Llewellyn’s Contemporary Gear, the clothing store. I nodded and said, “Let’s be weird.”

    We walked inside. The salesman approached us and asked, “How may I help you?”

    Susan asked, “Do you sell tucked-in shirts?”

    He looked puzzled. “What do you mean? We have shirts tucked away on shelves and in our back room.”

    “No. I’m interested in a shirt like the one I’m wearing.”

    “We have those types of shirts over in aisle twelve.”

    “Are they tucked-in? My shirt’s tucked-in. I want one already tucked-in.”

    “That sounds strange. The only way to buy a tucked-in shirt is to have it appear on your body that way before you buy it. I’m sure that shirt didn’t grow on you.”

    “I forget what happened but it was already tucked in the jeans and I was able to put it on without taking it apart.”

    “Oh, so you’re looking for a one-piece like a jumpsuit.”

    “No. I’m looking for a shirt that I can put on and take off without un-tucking it.”

    “Have you been able to do that with your shirt?”

    “Not yet. I haven’t been able to take it off at all.”

    “You’re acting impossible. Look around the store if you want to but I’m going to deal with some serious customers.”

    “I’m sorry. We really are serious customers. We’ll browse and probably buy something.”

    He nodded and walked away.

    We went to the shirt section. I asked, “Do you see anything you want?”

    She answered, “There’s a few interesting things. I’ll have to see if I can take off my clothes in the dressing room and try these on. It will be difficult because I can’t un-tuck my shirt.”

    We looked and noticed the salesman was irritated.

    I said, “You can put the shirt on over what you’re wearing.”

    She nodded. “That’s possible but how can I slip the shirt on over your hand?”

    “Good point. My body is too big to fit in the sleeve so we’ll have to improvise.”

    She took a couple of shirts off the shelf and we walked towards the dressing room. She walked behind the curtain while I waited outside with my hand in the curtain. The salesman looked as though he thought we were on drugs. We were acting for his benefit.

    I handed a shirt to Susan. She said, “I can’t put this on. My arm is too big and my shirt won’t come off.”

    The salesman started to approach us but then I said, “We’re going to buy these.”

    Susan smiled. “They all fit.”

    We walked to the front counter. The salesman rung up our purchase and said, “That will be twenty dollars.”

    I tried reaching in my pants pocket with the hand Susan was holding. Our hands fumbled in there for a few minutes. I said, “It’s difficult getting my wallet. Please be patient.”

    The salesman shook his head. “This must be some kind of hidden camera show.”

    I shrugged and said, “We change our minds. Goodbye.” Susan and I walked outside. 

    The parking lot was close to empty. Perhaps there were a few cars but they always seemed unnoticeable because the ambiance of the area was like Nowheresville. We walked around the perimeter. I said, “Let’s play ‘Traffic’s coming.’ I’ll act like a little kid trying to run off while you keep a tight grip on me. We can say some silly things to each other so we can pass the time.”

    She said, “That’ll be fun.”

    As we walked, I tried wiggling out of her grip while her fingers pinned my hand tight. I said, “Please, miss baby sitter, let little Phil do his duty.”

    She shook her head. “No, sir… The last time you wandered off, the pumpkin was screaming.”

    “But I want you to let me do the buggy-wuggy and I have to be able to sniff the flowers.”

    “Next time, bring your orange rubber ball so Auntie Vinegar can sweep up the mess.”

    “I’ll do that only if you can keep the dogs from chasing the dust.” I pulled harder.

    She squeezed tight. “The only dust available is in boxes for a reasonable English discount. You have to solve the mystery with a moaning groan and a bad case of your uncle’s oatmeal.”

    “Well, I have to escape before it gets to be four o’clock in the afternoon.”

    “That’s fine as long as it doesn’t get to be ten o’clock at night.”

    We continued walking around the parking lot for a few more minutes without saying anything. The switching back and forth between conversation and silence was like the mixing of sweet and salty flavors. Finally, I said, “We might as well go back to my family’s neighborhood so they can be puzzled about our situation.”

    She nodded. “One thing I like about visiting your family is it keeps me from thinking about my own troubles. Plus, that’s why I like holding your hand. I don’t have to worry about anything that might happen. The point of life, right now for me, is the present moment. No matter how strange things will become, I have you by my side.”

    I said, “I like how we’re not thinking about the outcome. All we’re doing is continuously experimenting.”

    “I think there could be a television show about this. All we need to do is find a producer who thinks creatively. Then again, show business is full of creative people who have no original ideas.”

    “Now, that sounds like my mother except for the part about being creative.”

    She nodded. “I can believe that except you probably inherited your imagination from one of your relatives.”

    I laughed. “My relatives are going to see some quality strangeness for once.”

    She smiled. “Maybe once is all they can handle but at least they’ll experience it.”

    I did thumbs up. “Off we go.”

    We smiled and walked together, swinging arms, towards our destination.