Dead Men Always Win

Your mom cut men’s hair for money.

I don’t know if she started cutting hair again after the two of you disappeared, you and your mom, because she wasn’t very good, just cheap. You knew not to expect too much from one of your mom’s haircuts. Someone told me you could get your hair cut at her place for ten guilders and that she wasn't half bad, but not to expect too much from the haircut.

So I didn’t expect much, but I got on with her when she was cutting my hair. I knew it was all part of the job, being nice to your customers, but I was better at making small talk than the average customer, so she got along with me too.

The first time I went around, I’d asked her if she liked good food, and yes, of course she liked good food, but she didn’t cook that often, she said, there was more cutting than cooking going on in her kitchen. So a few days later I’d gone around with a nice pan of stew, and a big bag of potatoes, and put them down on your kitchen counter. I said she was going to have a nice dinner that evening and all she needed to do herself was peel the potatoes, and I told her I’d be back for the pan later that week.

So, a few days after that, I went around again and we had some beers in the kitchen, and I took the pan home, and your mom said she hoped she’d see me again soon.

A week later she said she liked the cut of my jib. That’s what she said: I like the cut of your jib.

You were living in that apartment in Slotervaart and you were twelve and your dad had been dead for two years.

***

We drove back into town. I pulled up in front of Huizinga and asked if you minded if we went in for a drink.

You shrugged.

Don’t do that, I said, don’t give me all that, and I copied you, shrugging my shoulders, and I kept on doing it until you told me to stop.

Then I said it was fine by me if you wanted to say no. If you say no, we’ll drive home, I said, I just asked because I wanted to know if it was OK with you, not because I was expecting you to say yes because you thought you had to.

OK, you said.

So you don’t mind if we go in for a drink?

No, you said.

I turned off the engine and we headed into the pub. Patrick, the kid who lived downstairs from you, was there with some of his mates. They were young guys who were just old enough to drive. You thought they were grown-ups, of course, all grown-up and scary. They had a dog with them, this big, muscly thing. I said hello to Patrick and you could see him puffing himself up in front of his mates. I played with the dog for a bit, and the little dog you were carrying started to whine. Patrick asked when we were going fishing together. I’d mentioned it to him before, that we’d go sea-fishing, and he hadn’t really said much at the time, but now he wanted to show his mates that the two of us were best buddies. Give me a call sometime, I said.

The bloke behind the bar had a beer waiting for me before I even sat down.

A Chocomel for the little guy, I said to him.

You put the dog down on the floor and climbed up onto the stool next to mine; you weren’t that little, but there’s a knack to barstools. The TV in the corner was on a sports channel. So here we are, I said. You gave me a bit of a grin. If you’d rather go home, you should say so now. OK?

No, it’s all right, you said. I don’t want to go home. You told me you didn’t want to go home.

The barman put down a Chocomel in front of you—a bottle with a straw in it.

It was a crappy pub, with a long bar that bulged out into the room, so there was as much bar as possible, and just a few tables, and the pool table. Ashtrays, shot glasses with toothpicks in them, and, every couple of yards, holders full of business cards. I picked up one of the cards and looked at it.

The bloke behind the bar said they belonged to Jan Froger. Jan Froger came in to the pub on weeknights, he said, and brought gold jewelry with him, necklaces and charms and that. Cheap, he said, from Antwerp.

Fell off the back of a truck?

No, the bloke said, from Antwerp. You can order things from him too, and then come back here and pick them up on Saturday. You can’t come in and pick up stuff that fell off the back of a truck, can you?

You’re right about that, I said.

I think it’s cheap because Froger doesn’t pay tax on it, the barman said. I don’t think it’s entirely legit, but you don’t work for the tax office, do you?

That’s true, I said, that’s very true.

He put down another beer in front of me. You’re thirsty, he said.

And you know how it goes, one beer led to another. Sorry, Wes. Sorry, buddy.

An hour or two later, you were sitting at the table beneath the television and the barman had put on a Tom and Jerry for you and you were on your fourth Chocomel and the dog was asleep on the table in front of you. You were leaning back in your chair and looking up at the screen. Someone had said dogs weren’t allowed on the table, but the guy behind the bar said he was in charge and he thought it was allowed. I was talking to two guys who had told me a good story and then I told them a good story and then they came up with another good one and it went back and forth like that for a while, and the same with the beers— I’d buy one round and they’d buy the next, and every now and then we got one for the bloke behind the bar. His name was Simon, the barman: Simon, another round of beers, pal. Sorry.

When we’d been there for three hours, you came over to me and said you wanted to go home.

But Simon put on that video for you, I said.

He’s already rewound it and put it on again three times, you said.

I said that was nice of Simon. Don’t you think that was nice of Simon?

Yes, you said. But I’m bored.

When I asked if you wanted to go home, you said no.

But that was ages ago, you said. You said it in this whiny voice: that was aaaages ago.

Stop whining, I said.

But . . . you said.

So I grabbed you by the arm. Stop whining. I let go right away—sorry, I said, hey, Wesley, sorry. Come on, let’s go home. I put two notes on the bar and I stood up and I realized that it’d been a while since I’d had ten or twelve beers and a few of those beers had actually been shots and you looked at me and I knew that you knew. Sorry, Wes, I said. And it was just as well I stopped, because I wasn’t in the mood for the snakes. I never knew exactly when they’d come, but I wasn’t in the mood for them right then, and it would have been awkward—I hadn’t reached that point with the two of you yet.

I walked slowly to the car and got in, dead calm, and then I pushed the passenger door open and you got in too.

You made sure I saw you putting on your seatbelt. Yeah, I said, put your seatbelt on. Put that seatbelt on. I can laugh about it now, Wes, but at the time I could have belted you. I waited for a while before starting the car and, when the engine was running, I said I’d drive carefully. I’m going to drive dead carefully.

OK, you said.

So I looked at my mirror for a really long time, to make sure nothing was coming, and when I was certain it wasn’t going to be busy behind me for a while, I drove out of the parking lot and we headed home, you, slumped down in your seat, with your hands on your knees and your eyes on the mirror.

I drove dead steady. I thought for a long time about what route to take. If I went down Calandlaan, I might get pulled over. I’d often seen speed traps down there. I thought about carrying straight on along Johan Huizingalaan and then turning onto Comeniusstraat, but I finally decided to go down Calandlaan anyway. The car I had back then, a Mercedes, didn’t like going slowly. It started juddering whenever I went too slowly, so I had to concentrate on not driving too slowly, because then it’d start jerking around and you’d have proof that I was too drunk to drive, but still slowly enough that you could see I was doing my best for you.

But, you know something, Wes? Right then I came so close to not wanting to do my best for you anymore. You were making such a fuss, hugging yourself in your seat. I just wanted to belt you. Not badly. I didn’t really hit kids, but God, you were getting on my nerves.

Before I put the key in the lock, I stopped and listened. You were standing behind me, halfway up the last set of stairs. I could hear voices.

Mom’s doing someone’s hair, you said. It was Sunday evening, eight or nine o’clock, and your mom was doing someone’s hair.

She was in the kitchen with a customer. It was a guy with a big gut—you could see it bulging beneath the apron. I said hello to him.

Hello, he said.

Dimphy nodded at me, then looked pointedly at the living room. She didn’t want me hanging around when she had a customer.

You headed to your bedroom. Your mom called after you and told you to take a shower.

I sat down in the living room and listened. I could hear her working, but she’d stopped talking to her customer.

Ten or twenty minutes later, I heard him get up and push back the kitchen chair. He said thanks, and she said thanks—he gave her some money, ten guilders, men cost ten guilders. See you next time.

I sat there for a while, but Dimphy didn’t come into the living room. I heard her folding out the table, so I got up and walked into the kitchen.

Dimphy was sitting at the table. That kitchen table of yours was a small square fold-up thing and it used to get in the way in that little kitchen, so she had to fold it up whenever she was cutting customers’ hair, but Dimphy had a rule that smoking was only allowed in the kitchen and only when she wasn’t cooking, so that’s why she had the table. We often used to sit there after you’d gone to bed.

I kissed her and sat down across from her.

She asked me if I’d driven like that.

Well, I didn’t walk here, I said.

I don’t like the idea of you driving when you’ve been drinking.

I was at Huizinga, I said. It’s practically around the corner.

I don’t want you driving with my son in the car when you’ve been drinking.

You were standing in the doorway. You had your pajamas on and your hair was wet. You told her I’d driven really slowly.

You need to brush your teeth, your mom said. It’s time for bed.

But he drove really slowly, you said again, and then you turned around and went to the bathroom.

I looked at the empty doorway.

Listen, said Dimphy: I will not have you drunk-driving when Wesley’s with you. She jabbed the tabletop with her finger to stress her words. I don’t care what you get up to when you’re on your own, you can crash your car into a tree for all I care, but do not do it with my son in your car.

I nodded. That’s cold, I said.

Well, I’m upset.

So you wouldn’t care if I crashed my car into a tree?

Not right now, no.

I’m sorry.

Yeah, I bet you are.

I slammed my hand on the table.

Dimphy flinched, the way a frightened dog does when you hold your hand over its head, a dog that’s used to being beaten.

When I say I’m sorry, I mean it, I said. Do you get that?

She didn’t reply, just kept looking at me like a nervous dog.

Do you understand?

Yes, she said.

I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to that boy. It’d be a nightmare. I. Am. Sorry.

She looked up at the ceiling, breathed out loudly, a kind of cross between a sigh and a snort, and then stared at the edge of the table.

If you crashed your car into a tree, I would mind very, very much, she said, without looking up.

I put out my hand and took hold of hers. Then she looked up and smiled. She had tears in her eyes.

I’m sorry, I repeated. It’ll never, ever happen again. And remember that’s something I never say unless I mean it. But I don’t ever want to hear you come out with anything like that ever again. Yeah, I bet you are. OK?

OK, she said.

***

But then your mom did what women always do. You’re done talking but they just keep harping on. It went on for a few days, a few days when I could feel it hanging in the air, and she laughed at stuff, but it was a bit forced, so after a while I stopped making jokes, because I knew it was still there, still hanging in the air, and I wasn’t in the mood for it then. I hadn’t been with you long enough to say what I really thought about things, and I was beginning to understand what kind of woman I was dealing with. It didn’t surprise me, but it did disappoint me, and I just wasn’t in the mood for it. It never turned into an actual row, if it had been an actual row . . . but yeah, I made sure that didn’t happen. I told your mom I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of sulking, and that, in a relationship, when you’re done talking about something, you’re done talking about it, and she said she could still feel the fear lingering, the fear of losing Wesley and you, that’s how she put it, and that was another one, another little signal to let me know that I’d done something very, very bad, because she’d almost lost us, and that, of course, was my fault.

Exactly, I said, and you just have to let it linger, don’t you? So I’ll go away and then you won’t need to be scared of me doing anything else wrong, will you? OK?

But that wasn’t what she meant at all, and why was I being like that, and hadn’t she said how much she’d hate to lose me?

I said I wasn’t in the mood for all the accusations, all the stuff she wasn’t saying, and I told her I’d go, that I’d pack my stuff the next morning and be on my way.

But you don’t want to go back to that boat, she said, you can just stay here, can’t you? She was crying as she said it.

I hadn’t told her yet that I’d given notice on the boat, so I said I didn’t know what I was going to do, but that I was definitely leaving in any case. I said I’d sleep on the sofa that night.

She cried and said she was trying really hard to get over her fear. She told me she really was trying very hard.

I told her to go to bed. I lay down on the sofa and went to sleep.

I was thirty-four, thirty-five when I moved in with you. Your mom was older than me, by about eight years, I think. It’s easier when they’re a bit older, which made sense: when they’re a bit older, they’re settled, and they’ve stopped wondering what they wanted.

I’d lived with a few women before your mom. You know how relationships go. It goes well, it goes badly, until finally, every single time, you realize that, no matter how hard you try, it always ends up with them giving you shit.

Before the boat I was living with this woman in Bonairestraat. I’d met her when I was driving a cab. I shared a badge with a mate, who bought me out later, and I’d driven her home once and we’d started chatting, and a week later she’d called the number of the taxi depot on Surinameplein and I was at the front of the line. We recognized each other and we had another chat and I dropped her off and I didn’t want a tip from her, and the next day she came to the depot, looking a bit awkward, and I was there, and she asked me if I fancied going out for a drink sometime. That should have told me enough. A woman coming to ask a man like that, that should have been enough warning. But I’m a man, and men aren’t always the brightest of creatures.

I’d been staying at a B&B, so a couple of weeks later I moved in with her, and I didn’t have much stuff, so it didn’t make much difference to her; her bed was a bit more full, but the rest of her house stayed more or less the same.

I was there for about six months, and I never trusted her, because I reckon she had a thing for taxi drivers, they used to turn her on, and I started noticing it more and more. Whenever I took her out to a place where there were lots of men, she’d keep checking them all out, looking to see who the next one would be, and the men were all ogling her, so she deserved everything she got. The worst thing was that she did it with that mate of mine, the one I shared the badge with, so, of course, that all went to shit. I made sure he bought me out. He didn’t want to, he didn’t have the money, but yeah, I made sure that he wanted to.

You know, that sort of thing damages your trust in the people around you, Wes. That was a really bad time for me; I was angry and I had money. So everything went wrong for me for a while, and when things are going really badly for me, I lose chunks and the snakes come.

I reckon she was lucky, that woman in Bonairestraat.

I woke up in Spain, with no money, even though I’d got 50,000 guilders for that share in the taxi, and it took me a while to get back home, and when I went to take a look at the place in Bonairestraat, of course there was a new lock on the door. That didn’t surprise me, but when I saw her again, it was obvious I hadn’t punished her enough. So I finally did a proper job of it. And now and then I went around and paid her a visit, just to keep her on her toes, and I saw no need to stop when I was with you and your mom.

That day I popped round again just to see how she was doing. I stopped my car in Bonairestraat and I looked up at the window. I knew she’d be at home; around that time she’d have finished her shopping, and shopping was all she ever did. So she’d be sitting at her table with a crossword and the TV on a German channel because the German channels had daytime TV. And if I waited there for long enough, she’d come over to the window.

I got out of the car and put the dog down on the ground.

She was sitting at the table with her crossword, because that was all she ever did when she wasn’t fucking guys from the taxi depot. I always sat across the table from her with a beer, like I used to sit with you and your mom, and she’d just stare at that crossword of hers.

You know something, Wesley? Those games you made when you grew up, I looked at all of them on the computer, and in that one game, that Be the Monster one, there’s a man sitting at a table with a beer, blind drunk, with a frightened woman across the table from him, and I know you meant it to be me, but I know you hardly ever saw me like that, because I took it easy with the beers until you’d gone to bed. But when I had another look at the game, I had to laugh, because I did sit like that across the table from the woman in Bonairestraat. You made the character in the game jab his finger on the table, the way drunk people do when they have a point to prove, and I did a whole lot of table-jabbing when I was there.

Yep.

Maybe I did the same with your mom. Maybe even when you were there, once or twice. I think I told you and your mom about that woman as well, just to let you know that you can’t get rid of me simply by changing the locks.

"Van Dode mannen win je niet" © Walter van den Berg. By arrangement with De Bezige Bij. Translation  © 2014 by Laura Watkinson. All rights reserved.