Lowell George never sounded finer as Twillbear Hopkins contemplated the bluesy rendition of Fat Man in the Bathtub, his long legs stretched out in front of him and crossed on the ottoman. Against his better judgment, he’d decided to play it despite its effects on his mood. Fat man in the bathtub, I hear you moan. Cryin’ and a-singin’, laying back in the chair, Twillbear put on his sailin’ shoes and tried to delete the files Shirley had forced him to download at Chubby’s last night. The two spent the majority of the night at small town America’s version of Denny’s, swilling coffee and trying to figure out when and why they’d fallen out. After the first hour or so, the server had placed a decanter of coffee in front of them and instructed them to call her if they needed anything else.
Silence became the hallmark of revelation as Shirley filled the table with photos of a baby girl morphing into a middle school adolescent, then just as quickly changing into a smiling, pom-pom bedecked cheerleader. Twillbear said little, choosing, instead, to listen and savor each word of Shirley’s running commentary. His daughter… what would she look like now? Certainly not a carbon copy of her mother, maybe a little fuller mouth, like her daddy; sometimes it’s tough to project what the adult version might look like, just from decades-old photos.
At some point, Shirley stopped talking. Seconds passed like minutes before Twillbear finally spoke. “Well, there’s no doubt that she’s beautiful, and I’m not being critical, but you’ve left out one essential detail—would you mind telling me her name?”
Shirley covered her face with her hands and began to weep silently. Between sobs, she dabbed at her eyes with a napkin, unable to control her emotions. “I— I— oh, Twill…”
“You can’t even tell me her name, Shirley? You’ve tortured me for three hours with pictures, but I’m not worthy of hearing her name?”
With a sudden lunge, Shirley jammed both elbows onto the table and once again buried her face in her hands, bawling loudly and causing old photos to fall onto the floor. Sobbing, her efforts to calm herself fell short as wave after wave of nausea hit her. Quickly, she ran into the ladies’ room, leaving Twillbear Hopkins to pick up photos and contemplate the confusion created. It would be easy to simply walk away; Lord knows he’d done it many times before. Twillbear, though naturally disposed toward confrontation, tended to err on the side of passivity, especially when dealing with the opposite sex. Years ago, as a small boy, while still living on the Navajo reservation at Windowrock, he’d witnessed a tribal elder beat his wife nearly senseless before being stopped by her lover. The cuckolded husband stopped, but only long enough to pick up a rifle and shoot them both, killing them instantly. Though the family soon after moved back to the Midwest, Twillbear never forgot the lesson— it’s best for everyone concerned if all parties to a disagreement stay calm and try to reason things out. Twillbear remembered his history and merely sat. She’d be back soon enough and they’d talk again. Hopefully, this time she’d see that he wasn’t going anywhere until this matter was resolved.
Shirley Lynn Matthews Tyler Gallipoli Hagerman returned to the table, her legs moving as quickly as humanly possible without running. Once there, she began collecting the photos, not bothering to sit. “I’m sorry, Twill, I can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t. I’m sorry for having bothered you with all this, I guess I’m just a coward.”
Before she could react, Twill stood up and placed both his hands on her shoulders, forcing her to stand still. “Stop it!” he screamed. Shirley recoiled, her face screwed into a twisted mask of sheer terror, expecting to be struck across the face. As she started to cower, Twill whispered, “Please… sit. Let’s talk some more. I’m not angry.” Gently, he steered her towards the booth where she’d been sitting. Once seated himself, Twill merely stared at her, his gaze fixed upon her untrusting eyes, her been-screwed-over-so-many-times-you-wouldn’t-believe-it glazed expression, and he wondered if she supplemented her booze with pills or needles. Frankly, her demeanor made him think of junkies he’d known, wretches who’d steal anything that wasn’t nailed down.
For a few minutes, neither spoke. Twill offered her a cigarette and she waved it off. Shaking the pack in her direction, he insisted, “Oh, come on, take one and smoke it before they decide to make us go outside.” This seemed to lighten her mood a bit, and she took one from the pack. Almost as soon as it hit her lips, Twill’s lighter flame burned bright before her eyes. Inhaling deeply, she felt the warmth of the smoke permeate her lungs and her psyche, further soothing and calming her. The cut-and-run urge now subsided and she sat back in the booth and folded her arms.
“Now… let’s forget all about history, hurt feelings, repercussions and payback. Obviously, our daughter isn’t a kid any more, so when you come to me asking for my help, I can only assume her problem involves a vice, bad choice on her part, or some combination of the two. Am I right?”
The woman sitting across the booth from Twillbear Hopkins said nothing, preferring to stare at him, to formulate a response. “Her name is Shannon Patricia Matthews, but you know her as…” Shirley stopped speaking, her lower lip quivering as she spoke. “You probably know her as Tish, the night bartender at the Sugar Shack.” Then, her head and eyes lowered and the sobs returned.
Scenes of debauchery flashed before Twillbear’s eyes. Without another word, Twillbear Hopkins stood up and stared at the oozing mass of hysteria seated across the table from him. Making eye contact with no one, he walked out and drove his bike off into the night, finally arriving back at his apartment.
Sleep would come slowly tonight, Twillbear figured, and not without exacting a price. Even now, lingering in his Barcalounger, in the safety of his own living room, he couldn’t escape the feeling that the world’s longest, most intense shower could never wash away his self-loathing, no amount of soap would ever again make his soul feel clean. How many times had he made suggestive comments to Tish? On how many occasions had he tried to squeeze her butt as he handed her a dollar tip?
Leaning to his right, Twillbear poured another three fingers of Lynchburg Lightning into the water glass and held it at eye level in front of him. As Little Feat implored him to ‘pop a top again, I just got time for one more round’, Twillbear Hopkins opened his throat and poured down the fifth leg of his traveling circus, the Twillbear Hopkins Oblivion Express. Or was it the sixth?
No matter, so long as the images stopped he didn’t care. Maybe sleep would help clear his mind and bring perspective to Shirley’s revelatory chaos. Twillbear recalled his childhood nightmares as thoughts of his mother streamed front and center in his head. The sounds of the slaps across her face reverberated in his ears as his father’s abusive, screaming, drunken voice obfuscated all else. Soon he would stomp out into the night, not to return until Twillbear had left for school. A seven-year-old half-Navajo, half-white-eye would knock on his mother’s bedroom door before leaving for school, warming to the sound of her voice through the walls wishing him a great day at school but knowing that she wouldn’t come kiss him because she didn’t want him to see the bruises and welts on her face. He knew that she’d be calling in sick again today, and a class of Navajo children would be ushered into another room, where they would share desks and crayons with the others.
Later that week, he’d looked out the passenger window as his mother’s 1949 Ford passed rows of two-bedroom stucco bungalows. Quietly he waved at Albert Runs-Along-The-Edge and Charlie Never-Miss-A-Shot as they ran alongside the car, waving and smiling. Twillbear Hopkins would never again lay eyes on his father. Tonight, sixteen days short of his fifty-ninth birthday and reclining in his chair, a little drunk with eyes heavy and starting to close, he wondered if he’d become a self-fulfilling prophecy.