A note from Mr. Too Many Mornings: About a week ago, I became enamored with the name of Murr Brewster and threatened to use it in a short story. And here it is. I like short stories a lot even though they seem to be a dying art form, and some of you seemed to like the last one I published here. So I thought I give it a real go this time and try your patience at least once more. I really don’t expect you to read this story because it’s very long and what I’d call “relaxed,” plus it doesn’t have any dirty jokes or explosions in it. But if you do read it, I’d appreciate a comment or two—positive or negative, you won’t hurt my feelings—about the writing, the story itself, or even current events. Thank you kindly, and have a lovely Easter.
Blue Couch In the Road
By Michael Whiteman-Jones
“Here comes Murr,” Johnny said, squinting to block the sun out of his eyes.
“Looks like he found us a newspaper,” Brewster said, grinning. Brewster couldn’t read, and Johnny just didn’t. But Murr liked to read. He’d catch them up on the news. Then they’d drink and talk. Was the economy headed up or down? Would the president pull the troops out of Iraq anytime soon? Would light rail help traffic?
Everybody had an opinion about everything. It didn’t matter much because it never got ugly. Nobody ever yelled at anybody or fought over anything at all. They just agreed to disagree. If one of them did get a little hot, he’d excuse himself and take a stroll and wait until he’d calmed down enough to come back. Then he’d have another drink and maybe tell a joke or something to let everybody know he was okay. That’s how it was, and that’s how it had been for as long as they could remember.
They were best friends.
Murr already had his nose buried in the paper when he walked up. He had to hold it close to his face on account of the fact that his eyesight wasn’t so good anymore. He was taking baby steps to keep himself from accidentally tripping over something while he read, and he looked a little funny. Like he was trying to lift off into the air, float upright, but couldn’t quite get off the ground.
Brewster laughed out loud.
Murr looked up from the paper and smiled back.
“Howdy boys,” he said.
“Yah-te-hay,” Brewster said. He wasn’t Indian, but he liked the way the Navajo greeting rolled off his tongue. It was easy to say and he thought it seemed more friendly than “Hello,” or “How you doin’,” or whatever it was most people said to break the ice.
Nobody owned a watch, but it was a little after 10 in the morning when Murr sat down with his back to the cottonwood tree like he always did and started reading. Together, they formed a tight semi-circle facing the street. Johnny was perched on a stump to Murr’ right. To his left, Brewster sat crossed legged on an old blanket he’d salvaged from a trash can. He rocked back and forth like little kids do, looking down at the ground or out at the road.
None of them worked.
Not much, anyway.
Murr lived with his mother. She was a quiet woman who cooked and cleaned without complaining or asking much of her son. He would take an odd job once in a while if he needed money for a drink or wanted to buy something special, like a candy bar from the 7-Eleven. But he couldn’t seem to hold a job. He said he liked having his free time.
Johnny was a Gulf War veteran, badly wounded in the right leg and arm and dependent on his government disability checks and a subsidized apartment. He’d been shot in the gut, too. He liked to lift up his shirt and show people the scars. They weren’t pretty, and sometimes people would say how sorry they were, and thank him for serving his country and then give him a dollar or two.
Brewster had some kind of mental issues. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade, but he wasn’t dumb. He was the businessman of the group. He sold aluminum cans for pocket money, and shared a two-room efficiency apartment with his older brother, who worked at the Coca-Cola bottling plant on the north side. Sometimes he would steal something to sell—a small thing he could take from somebody’s yard or porch and sell fast for cash, like a bike, maybe, or a folding lawn chair. Something he figured nobody would really miss.
If the weather wasn’t too wet or too cold, Murr, Johnny and Brewster spent most of their days and a lot of their nights sitting underneath the cottonwood tree on the vacant lot between the brick duplex and the salvage yard. There was an alley behind them for privacy when they needed to pee, and the lot looked across the street onto the government-run apartment buildings where Johnny lived. Nobody bothered them there and they didn’t bother anybody back. It was their home away from home. They claimed it years ago. Everybody in the neighborhood understood it was their spot. Even the police left them alone. They weren’t any trouble to anybody, and nobody gave them any trouble.
The lot itself was mostly weeds and hard-packed dirt. But it had the shade tree and a good view of the street and the apartments. When the boys weren’t talking or sleeping, they’d just sit and watch cars drive by, wondering why people seemed to be in such a hurry. Sometimes people would take a walk and give them something to stare at. Sometimes it would be a pretty girl, and that was always nice. Brewster liked to wave at the girls. Once in a while one of them was nice enough to wave back. He liked that a lot and would wave even harder.
It was quiet today, and it was heating up fast, like it does in Colorado in summer. They all appreciated the shade from the tree. Murr had his newspaper and a bottle of something good. He took the bottle from his pocket and passed it to Brewster. Brewster took a swig and passed it on to Johnny. Johnny took a swig, and handed it back to Murr. They would pass the bottle around and drink like that for a long time, savoring the heat of the alcohol and discussing the news.
Around noon or one in the afternoon, the boys were all talked out for a while and maybe a little tipsy. Brewster visited the alley and by the time he came back Johnny was laid out on his back, sleeping. Murr had the newspaper tented over his face. He was probably asleep, too. Brewster curled up on his blanket with his head laid in the crook of his arm and looked out at the street. It was getting hot now, maybe ninety-five or a hundred degrees. Nothing was moving. His eyes closed and he fell asleep, too. If anybody had cared to look, they would have seen that he was smiling.
There was a loud noise.
Murr, Brewster and Johnny all sat up at once.
It was late afternoon now. Nothing was moving on the street, but they could hear an engine racing a couple of blocks down. The noise got louder and louder and then they saw the pickup truck. It was an old beat-up Chevrolet painted bright orange, but faded from sun and age. One fender was dented. It had been sprayed with gray primer. There must have been a hole in the truck’s muffler because it was making a hell of noise. Two Mexicans were sitting in the cab wearing straw cowboy hats. The driver had one hand on the wheel and the other hanging out the window. He was laughing about something. The passenger had his arm hung out the window and he was laughing, too. Tejano music was playing on the radio.
The bed of the pickup was filled with a lot of stuff—cardboard boxes, a few wooden chairs, an exercise bike. On top of it all there was a big blue couch. And over the top of that, stretched tight, was a single black bungee cord holding it all down.
The truck was moving pretty fast, and the men inside didn’t see the pothole in the road soon enough to avoid it. It was a real wheel bender—almost a foot deep with steep sides, and big enough to swallow a tire. The truck’s left front wheel dropped into it with a solid thud. The men in the cab stopped laughing. The front of the truck rose out of the pothole like a scared duck taking flight. You could see daylight between it and the road. In another split second the rear wheel disappeared into the hole and came back out again. The truck bounced hard three or four times and lurched from side to side.
Then the bungee cord snapped. Two chairs and the couch went flying into the air. One chair hit the asphalt and broke into a dozen pieces. The other one rolled and landed upright, scratched but intact. The couch flew in an arc and landed on a rear leg, breaking it off. Then it rolled onto its back and slid a few feet, spinning a full circle before it stopped. Bits of stuffing floated up into the air and then back down to the asphalt.
The driver hit the brakes hard and the truck stopped with a jarring screech as the rubber tires scraped on the hot pavement. The motor stalled because he forgot to let in the clutch in the panic.
Both doors flew open and the men ran behind the truck to look at the damage.
The driver took off his hat, slicked back his hair with his fingers and hung his head. He poked at the pieces of the broken chair with the toes of his boots. Then he rested a hand on the back of the one that had landed okay. He shook his head angrily, and Murr, Brewster and Johnny heard him cussing in Spanish.
Maybe he was moving and it was his stuff.
Maybe it was his girlfriend’s stuff and he knew he’d have a lot of explaining to do when he got back.
The other man didn’t say anything. He just tipped the couch upright, rubbed his hands across the torn cloth and pulled out some more stuffing. He held up the wad of cotton for the driver to see, and then dropped it to the ground. The driver spat, and kicked some of the broken wood and shrugged. Then they walked back to the truck, shoved the good chair back into the bed of the pickup, slammed the doors and drove away.
It got very quiet again.
It was too hot even for grasshoppers and crickets.
Murr, Brewster and Johnny stared at the road and the pile of broken wood and the couch.
“Well, that could have been worse,” Murr said.
“Could’ve been,” Johnny said.
“Kind of funny, though,” Brewster said, and he laughed out loud.
About an hour passed and nobody said anything. They just sat looking at the couch, passing a bottle around, relaxing the evening away. The sun was starting to set behind the mountains and the clouds were turning pink, purple and orange when Brewster broke the silence.
“Do you think we ought to move it?” Brewster said.
“Whaddaya mean? What if they come back for it?” Murr said.
“I don’t think they’re coming back. It’s too torn up. Besides, it’s getting dark and somebody might come along and hit it.”
“Yeah, well, okay, I can see that. Maybe you’re right.”
“Where would we put it?” Johnny said.
Brewster looked down at his feet. He looked like he was thinking about it, but he’d already thought about it for over an hour. He had an idea. He was hoping to get Murr and Johnny to see things his way.
“Well, there’s the sidewalk. That’d be out of the way.” He paused. “Or, I guess we could move it over here under the tree.” He looked up from underneath his eyebrows to see how Murr and Johnny would react.
“What do we need a couch for? We’ve got places to sit.” Murr said.
“I was just thinking that sometimes it might be nice to have a soft place to sit,” Brewster said.
“Yeah, sure, I guess. Whaddaya think, Johnny?”
“It’s okay by me, I guess,” Johnny said. He was thinking that maybe his leg wouldn’t hurt him so much if he didn’t have to sit on the stump all the time.
“Well, let’s go get it then,” Murr said.
Murr, Johnny and Brewster walked over the couch. Murr grabbed one end by himself, and Brewster helped Johnny, who had a bum arm and leg, with the other end. They carried it to the old cottonwood and set the couch down right in front of the trunk facing the street. Brewster hunted around for a piece of wood that was right size and shoved it under the broken leg to balance it out. They stood back and admired their work for a few seconds, then sat down on the couch together, Brewster on the right, Johnny in the middle, Murr on the left. Brewster passed a bottle down the line and they all stared out at the street.
It was comfortable, all right. But after a while Johnny stood up and went back to his stump.
“Why’d you get up?” Brewster said.
“Well, it feels good all right, but it seems a little crowded with the three of us on it,” Johnny said.
Brewster frowned. “Sure, okay, but it doesn’t seem fair that we get the couch and you get the stump.”
“Well, what else are we going to do?” Johnny said.
Nobody said anything for a minute or two, and then Brewster had an idea.
“I got it! How about we take turns? First, me and Murr’ll sit here. Then Murr and you. Then you and me and so on. That’s fair isn’t it?”
“Sure,” Johnny said. “That’s fair.”
And that’s what they did for the rest of the night, passing the bottle around and talking about current events, and switching places every so often.
Days passed and Murr, Johnny and Brewster came to appreciate the comfort of the couch more and more. Murr even slept on it one night when he drank a little too much and didn’t feel like walking home. Once, Brewster told Murr to brush some dirt off his pants before he sat down. Murr grumbled something about not remembering having Brewster for a mother or a wife, but he did it anyway to keep the peace. There were some arguments about whose turn it was, or how long somebody had to wait for his turn, but they worked them out. If one of them got angry, he took a walk, told a joke, passed the bottle around. Remained friends like friends should do.
Then one afternoon, Brewster was sitting on his blanket looking at the clouds when he realized they might have a problem.
“What if it rains?” he said to Murr and Johnny.
“We could use some rain,” Murr said. “It’s been too dry this summer.”
“No, I mean what if it rains and the couch gets wet? That wouldn’t be very good,” Brewster said.
“Oh,” Murr said. He shrugged. “It’s not going to rain today.”
“This is Colorado. It could rain anytime,” Brewster said.
“I guess we could cover it with a tarp,” Johnny said.
“Where are we going to get a tarp?” Murr said.
“Plastic bags, then. We could pull some from trashcans and lay them over it,” Brewster said.
“They’ll just blow away,” Murr said.
“We’ll put some rocks on top of them to keep them blowing away,” Brewster said.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “That’ll hold it.”
“Okay,” Murr said, “we’ll get some plastic bags tomorrow or the next day. Maybe that’ll keep you happy. There’s no hurry.”
“I think we ought to do it now in case it rains,” Brewster said.
“He’s probably right,” Johnny said.
“I don’t want to do it now,” Murr said. “Anyway, I’ve got a fresh bottle, boys. Let’s relax a little. We don’t got to worry about it today.”
Brewster frowned. He looked at Murr and then at Johnny and then back to Murr. He spit, kicked some dirt over it, and pressed it down into the ground with a grinding motion.
“We should do it now,” he said. “Are you in, Johnny?”
Johnny hesitated before speaking. He didn’t like to disagree with Murr, but Brewster was right. It could rain. He didn’t want the couch getting wet, either. His leg felt better on the couch, but that would go away if it got wet. “Yeah, I’m in,” he said.
Murr looked them both in the eyes for a second or two without speaking. Then he unscrewed the cap on the bottle, took a swig and stretched out on the couch. He threw his left arm over his eyes.
“You boys do what you have to do,” he said, sounding defiant. “I’m going to take a little nap.”
Brewster and Johnny stood there for a moment thinking they didn’t like that idea very much. Johnny made a face at Murr, but he didn’t say anything. Then Brewster waved Murr off.
“Who needs him? Let’s go,” he said to Johnny, and they did.
It was early evening when Brewster and Johnny returned with an armload of plastic bags and a partial roll of duct tape somebody had thrown away. Brewster meant to use it to tape some of the bags together.
Murr was still laid out on the couch. He’d finished about half his bottle and was feeling a little groggy. But he opened his eyes when Murr and Johnny walked up.
“Find what you want?”
“No thanks to you,” Brewster said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Murr said. “Isn’t going to rain tonight.”
“Why don’t you get up and let us piece these bags together?” Brewster said.
“I’m resting,” Murr said.
“Get up,” Brewster said. “You’ve been there the whole time we were gone. It’s our turn anyway.”
“I don’t gotta get up. You’ll have to stand anyway. Just work around me.”
Johnny’s face was turning red.
“Get up before I get you up,” he said, hissing.
“Oh, yeah, you and whose army?” Murr said, laughing.
This was a mistake. Johnny was slow to anger, but he had a lot of it walled up inside him on account of the war and his injuries, and now he was about to bust.
“The left army and the right army,” Johnny said, holding up his fists.
“You can barely walk straight, you gimp. You think you can hurt me?” Murr said.
And with that, Johnny lost it. Roaring, he and lunged at Murr with both arms swinging.
Across the street, in apartment 2B, Mrs. Lopez was busy making dinner for her family when she heard shouting outside. She looked out her kitchen window and saw the three men arguing with each other in the lot across the street. This was so unusual, and surprised her so much, that she stopped what she was doing and stared in amazement, making little clucking sounds with her tongue against her teeth. She barely moved a muscle until she saw one of the men jump up and hit the man with the bad leg in his head. The blow knocked him to his back. And then the third man, who had been standing still just watching the other two fight, yelled and jumped on the first man. Now all three of them were on the ground, shouting and kicking and punching and wrestling in the dirt. And Mrs. Lopez did what anybody would do in this situation. She grabbed the phone off the wall and dialed 911.
The cops arrived in minutes and broke up the fight. After some questions were asked and answered, they handcuffed Murr, eased him into the back of their squad car, and drove off. Bits of couch stuffing flew up into the air, and back down to the asphalt.
Brewster and Johnny watched him go.
And they stood at the side of the road for a long time after he was gone.
When Murr got out of jail three days later, the first thing he did after he collected his personal effects was to walk straight back to the lot. Brewster and Johnny were there, sitting on the blanket and the stump with their backs to the couch and looking out at the street. Murr waved at them from the sidewalk.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere.”
They nodded, a little puzzled.
Then Murr walked down two more blocks, turned the corner, walked three more blocks and into the 7-Eleven. He pulled some dollar bills out of his pocket, and bought a newspaper and three dark chocolate bars, one for each of them. Then he walked across the street to the liquor store and put down what money he had left in his pocket for a bottle of the good stuff. He hurried back to Brewster and Johnny at a half trot.
“I’m back, boys,” he said matter of factly. “Have you heard the one about the old woman who wouldn’t stop talking?”
Brewster and Johnny shook their heads no.
“Well, I’m going to tell it to you and then I got us something to read.” He held up the newspaper. “But first, I think it’s time to get rid of that ugly, broken-down excuse for a couch. Waddaya think, boys?”
“Sounds good,” Johnny said.
“Sure thing,” Brewster said.
In a flash, Murr, Brewster and Johnny jumped on the couch and broke it into pieces. Then they carried the whole mess across the street to the apartments, and threw it into two open dumpsters. When their work was done, they ceremoniously shook hands with one another and then walked shoulder to shoulder back to their spot under the cottonwood tree.
Murr sat down with his back to the tree and pulled his knees up to his chest. Johnny dragged the stump closer to Murr and sat down, too, his bum leg sticking straight out. Brewster settled down on his blanket and looked up expectantly at Murr, who was taking the cap off the bottle he had pulled from his pocket. He took a drink, and passed the bottle to Johnny.
Then Murr opened the newspaper, rested it on his knees and started reading out loud. And the three of them sat there under the cottonwood tree until long after the moon rose, laughing at jokes and talking about the news while they shared their bottle and ate their chocolate bars.