back to the Black Table

 His name is Lloyd. He is one of cousin Denny’s friends who is eager to meet me, the peculiar guest mysteriously in town from New York. I remember hearing rumors about Lloyd from high school. Big dude. Crazy. Violent. Unstable. Danger. Danger. Don’t remember ever meeting him, which is just fine with me.

Before we head out to his place just past the infamous Dead Man’s Curve between Mattoon and hated neighbor Charleston, Denny assures me, as I shave pathetic strands of peach fuzz masquerading as facial hair from my face, that Lloyd’s a cool guy, that he’s different than he was in high school, that he’s good people. “He’s a fucking funny guy, Will,” Denny tells me. “I mean, he’s big and can be kind of scary, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Not anymore.”

Not anymore. I once had sex. I don’t anymore. That doesn’t necessarily mean that if the opportunity afforded itself again, I would not welcome it with obsessive fury. I am not convinced this Lloyd will not kill me. I don’t remember the exact details, and it’s probably some kind of high school myth, might not even be him, but I recollect hearing a story about Lloyd once. A poor sap had started dating a woman who had just broken up with Lloyd. After school, Lloyd found him. He punched him in the face, flooring him instantly, and then took his head to the curb. There he slammed his foot on his head, twice, knocking out two teeth (or was it three? Four?). He then picked up his limp body and threw it into the mercifully empty road. Lloyd had never met the kid before.

Denny’s car is in the shop, with a dead starter likely brought on by a grueling drive to New York City and back, so we drive one of my parents’ extra cars, an ancient, early-’70s Caprice Classic, with the same dreary olive green paint job it’s had for decades, dubbed somewhat unoriginally “The Green Monster” by my family. Attempts to make it clear to my parents that I do not want to borrow a car while I’m home - distractions, distractions - have fallen on deaf ears, which is fine for tonight. The Monster is enormous and awesome, and I feel powerful behind the wheel. It’s a power I worry I might need this evening.

Lloyd’s a little self-conscious about where he lives,” Denny tells me as we pull up. At the end of the rock side road is that unheralded gem of rural living, the trailer. As far as my knowledge of trailers extends, it seems like a nice one, with wood paneling hammered hastily to its side and, as far as I can tell, running water. Too many of my friends grew up living in trailers for me to have any classist snobbery about these living arrangements, and besides, your average trailer is about three times the size of the typical New York City apartment, including mine. Nevertheless, it’s been a while. The unfamiliar surroundings fail to ease my nerves any.

As we walk up to the front door - Denny pauses to not reassure me at all: “Man, I bet Lloyd’s freaked out that he’s never seen your car before. I better wave to him, let him know it’s me, before he thinks something’s up.” - I start to worry about my glasses. Why did I wear them? Don’t I want to give the impression that I’m good people, that I’m from here, that I can be trusted? After years of wanting to be something other than a Mattoon boy, I’m immediately crawling back, whimpering. I look like a squirrely English professor with my glasses, the kind of guy who would live in - insert the appropriate amount of disgust in the inflection here - New York City. I suddenly wish I were wearing a mesh cap and flannel while internally flogging myself for the offensive and demeaning stereotype the thought implies.

One of the first differences between Mattoon and the outside world I have noticed is how apathetic people here are about formal greetings. In New York, anytime you meet someone new, it’s a “Will Leitch, pleasure to meet you,” followed by a firm - gotta be firm, or you’re weak, impotent - handshake and brief but clear eye contact. Here, I am introduced to no one. I just walk in, and immediately I’m part of the scenery. Denny and Lloyd start talking shit, laughing to old jokes I don’t understand, and I stand there, quiet, meek, surveying the atmosphere. Two boys, likely high school age and looking quite a bit like Lloyd, only smaller, lie prostrate on the couch. One is lying on his girlfriend, who appears to be paying more attention to Con Air than him, which just can’t be a good sign. The trailer is barren. A couch, a TV, a table, a few empty cabinets. In the top left crevice of the room, where the ceiling meets the wall, there is an extravagantly designed cobweb, with the spider still there, spinning, spinning, delirious that it has built such an undisturbed home.

And then there is Lloyd. He’s not as big as I imagined, but he’s imposing in a Joe Pesci, live-wire-with-too-much-current-running-through-it type of way. The first thing you notice: his eyes. They’re enormous. He appears to have no eyelids at all. They’re the type of eyes that break your spirit, focused on the task of destroying you. The man needs no fists. I find myself suddenly very thirsty.

“Hey, anybody want a beer?” I blurt. Another thing about Mattoon: No matter where you are, there is always beer in the refrigerator, and it is always free game for anyone. It seems reasonable; you can buy a case of Natural Light for about nine bucks, which seems so cheap you almost feel obliged to tip the guy behind the counter. It’s little wonder everyone looked so bloated at the class reunion. “Yeah, I’ll have one,” Lloyd says, acknowledging my presence for the first time. I tiptoe to the fridge and grab three MGDs. A seat is waiting for me next to Lloyd at the beaten kitchen table, which has its own less impressive cobweb dangling from my chair.

Lloyd barely seems to notice I have sat down. He is, I now notice, about 95 sheets to the wind. I learn later that he has been drinking and smoking since about noon. He is a part-time plumber and a part-time farmhand, which is odd, considering the toilet doesn’t seem to work right and the land outside his trailer looks barren.

I loosen up a bit, thanks to a few beers, and Lloyd begins to seem less threatening. His parents are both alcoholics - his dad, inevitably, works for the sheriff’s department - and the two high schoolers, both seniors, mulling around the trailer are his brothers, left to his care until they graduate in June. They’re nice enough kids, and Lloyd is too. What strikes me the most is how poor he is. This, friends, is dirt poor.

“You guys hungry?” he barks a couple hours later. “Want a pizza? Shit, they wouldn’t deliver all the way out here, and I don’t have any money for a pizza anyway.” He ain’t lying. He begins to talk about the beauty of “pretend sandwiches.”

“You see, the best thing is a pretend sandwich. What you do is you take a piece of bread, right, and you fold it over and roll it up, and eat it like it’s a sandwich. All you have to do is imagine what’s in the sandwich.” He takes a piece of old bread from the loaf. “This one here’s a ham and cheese sandwich. Mmmm.” You can almost taste the cheese, he says. He then points to a cabinet. “There’s peanut butter in there, but I don’t want to waste it.”

I’m broke. A recent financial disaster of mine may end up costing me one of my closest friends. I haven’t had any income in three months. But I am not starving. I have people who care for me, who will watch over me, who will bail me out when I’ve screwed up. I have a margin for error, a margin I’ve certainly used.

Not Lloyd. Denny is in the restroom. I’m drunk now. I get up the nerve. “So, Lloyd, I heard an old story about you.” He interrupts me. “It’s probably true, whatever it is. I used to be a pissed-off guy. I’m mellow now. I’m a big, fat adult.” He then orders one of his brothers to grab him a beer out of the fridge, and off off off we go.



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