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The Austin boxing team arrived in their bus at the arena in Alice, Texas a little after four in the afternoon on the Friday before the murder happened. David was asleep in the back of the bus and when he awoke he looked out the window and saw a pair of long brown legs dangling out of the passenger side of a red Camaro. A young Sophia Loren lookalike emerged a few seconds later, having retrieved her purse from the back seat. She brushed a wisp of black hair away from her eyes and stepped back into her flip-flops that had fallen off when she dove for her purse.
“Pretty girl,” Paul Hayward said. “Sturdy legs and hips. But keep your minds on the fights. Alice is a small town but they have good fighters.” Paul said he was glad women like her didn’t hang around his gym in Austin. “You can be a lover, or a fighter. But not both.”
Paul Hayward had trained hundreds of boxers all over the world. Whenever they rode into a town, Paul would have something to say about it. “You’ve all been to Dobie Mall in Austin. Frank Dobie, the famous writer, lived in Alice. The first Tejano band came from here back in the fifties.”
The Austin welterweight boxer, the class clown as they called him, said, “That was fifty years ago, what do they got now?”
“Oil drilling, mostly. And boxing.”
David watched the girl from the Camaro all the way to the arena. Their eyes met and she flashed him a bright, sexy smile. She tilted her head to the side as if to study him.
Paul said, “What did you weigh last night, David?”
“One fifty nine.”
“Three eggs and toast this morning?”
“Yes, sir. No butter or jam. Drank water.”
“Should be fine then. Let’s go get you guys weighed.”
Inside the arena the Alice team was congregated around an elderly man with an eye patch. Paul went over to speak with him and when he returned he said, “Suarez says we got two opponents from Houston, two from San Antone, and two from Alice.” He pointed to a tall skinny red-head. “David, you’re fighting him.”
“He’s from Alice? Looks white.”
“No, he’s Mexican. His name is Jorge Espinoza. Got a room full of trophies, forty knockouts. Suarez thinks he’ll win the state Golden Gloves this year.”
David and his teammates all made weight. When the red-head got on the scale David realized he was over six feet tall, maybe 6'1". Long arms and skinny. Powerful legs, looked more like a sprinter than a boxer. Espinoza got off the scale and looked round. “Donde esta mi morenita?”
Paul laughed. “That babe from the Camaro is his “little dark-headed girl.” David looked over and saw her waving to Espinoza. The tournament would start at the lowest weight and then move up until the heavyweights fought around 8 pm, prime time so to speak. The first bout was at flyweight, one boxer from San Antonio and the other from Fort Worth. David said, “Anyone seen Espinoza fight before?”
“Not me,” Paul said. “When the Fort Worth team doesn’t have a fight, I’ll ask Benny. He’s been training amateurs for years and he’s probably seen the Alice fighters.” Fort Worth didn’t have anyone at the featherweight 126-pound class, and so Paul went over to talk to the Fort Worth trainer Benny Monroe. Ten minutes later he came back looking worried.
“Benny says he’s seen all of ‘em, that Espinoza is their best, but that he doesn’t do anything spectacular –just has a hard right.”
Benny Monroe saw David and jogged over to him. “That red-headed boy has a mean overhand right. Look out fo’ it.” He patted David on the shoulder. All of the trainers liked David because he worked hard and was always polite. He looked Italian, had the manners of old Vienna, but in fact his parents were from a Caribbean country where they spoke French. The result was that people saw in him whatever they wanted.
“Fighting out of the blue corner, from Austin, David Martel.” David saw Espinoza’s girlfriend sitting on the front row. She had her hands on her knees, leaning forward as her black hair cascaded down around her shoulders.
Paul put David’s mouth piece in. “I want you to fight out of a crouch, throw your jab high going in and guard your chin with your right like we practiced. Stay low enough and you can just roll under his left jab. Keep in close so he won’t have room to punch. Benny said he doesn’t have a left hook to worry about. Got it?”
“Seconds out for Round One.”
David dipped under Espinoza’s long left jabs and blocked a right with his own right hand. It landed on his open palm with a loud smack, knocking David’s gloved fist into the side of his face. He countered with two hard left hooks that knocked his opponent back into the ropes.
The next thing David remembered was the referee counting, “...four, five, ...” Then, “You all right? Take a step forward.”
The fists flew and, once again, “...five, six...” The referee said, “What city is this?”
“Alice. I’m fine.”
Between rounds Paul told him, “He’s stepping over to his right and looping that over-hand in there. This round just circle towards his left until your head clears. There’s something wrong with his left arm. You may have hurt it when you pulled him down.”
“Pulled him down?”
“You grabbed him as a reflex.”
“Seconds out for Round Two!”
Paul returned David’s mouthpiece. “Circle to his left!”
Espinoza rushed in to end the fight and David ducked under a looping right, and then countered with a left hook under the heart. Then he weaved out and circled to Espinoza’s left. The body shot took the steam out of the red-head.
“Great round,” Paul said. “Still, keep out of range of his right, it’s like a canon.”
In the last round David could see Espinoza planting his right foot to load up to throw a bomb. Each time David would throw a quick jab then skip to his right, keeping Espinoza off balance for the whole three minutes.
“Beautiful,” Paul said at the end. “It’s gonna be a close decision.”
They announced the split decision victory for the Alice fighter and David was still a little fuzzy headed from the knockdowns. “Muchos juevos,” somebody at ringside said. A lot of guts.
David told Paul, “I was off balance in the first round, I must have slipped.”
“No, he hit you clean. He just looped that right hand in there. You thought your left was up, but it was a little low. He hit you in the temple both times.”
“Next time I’ll keep my hands higher and my head lower.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of—everyone said you won the last round. You win at the AAU next month; you’ll still be in line for the Olympic trials. You win that; they’ll throw enough money at you to put both of your sisters through college.” Paul gave David a reproachful look. “And I mean in an honest way.”
There it was again. David and three San Antonio boxers had gotten into trouble for fighting at a few of the fraternity fight nights. They had won money by betting on themselves, “like a bunch of pool sharks,” the newspapers said later. David made enough money on it to pay for a year of his older sister’s college. A few of the parents got wind of it and now Paul had to let the frat boys work out for free at his gym. Paul made cracks about it every day, couldn’t let it drop.
They looked over at the concession stand where the girl from the Camaro was hugging Espinoza. She bought them some nachos.
Paul said, “He got tired. Probably spends all his time climbing on top of his ‘morenita,’ as he calls her.”
“I wouldn’t blame him if he did,” David said. “How do I tell him in Spanish he fought a good fight?”
“Buena pelea. But he probably speaks English.”
The referee came over and said to David, “I nearly stopped it in the first round. I’m glad I didn’t, though. Great fight.”
“I apologize for pulling him down.”
“Happens a lot. I didn’t penalize you for it.”
Espinoza’s girlfriend came over to introduce herself to David. She had high cheekbones and full cherry-red lips, and said her name was Rosalinda Ruiz. “Call me Linda.” Now she had her hair tied back in a ponytail and David noticed a bruise high on her forehead. Her eyes were big green emeralds and they fixed on David’s face like a referee trying to decide whether he was fit to keep fighting. There was a sad determination about her.
“I’m David Martel.”
Linda said, “You live in Austin near South Austin Recreation Center?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Your AAU card. I check out all of Jorge’s opponents, where they’re from and stuff. Jorge fought there a couple of times.”
“I don’t remember seeing him.”
“It was, like, three years ago. He’s been fighting a long time.”
“It shows. He’s good.”
“You were good, too. Better than I thought you’d be.”
David said, “Maybe we could watch the fights together on Sunday.”
Linda raised her eyebrows.
“I mean, um, I was going to watch my teammates anyway.”
“That’s nice of you, but actually I have to go to Corpus Christi to babysit for my sister. I’ll see you at the next tournament, okay?”
She started fishing around in her purse. It was the biggest purse David had ever seen. Finally she pulled out something wrapped like a small piece of bubblegum. “Do you get headaches after a fight?”
“This is some herbs mixed with belladonna. Jorge takes it for headaches, helps him sleep.” She gave it to David and he tucked it in his sock.
David watched her leave the arena, wondering where her boyfriend had gone. Maybe she would drive him home. Boxers weren’t supposed to drive after a fight, just in case of a concussion.
The second middleweight fight was between a Houston left-hander and a stocky San Antonio fighter who seemed to have nothing other than a left hook. The Houston fighter had a style just like David’s main sparring partner, and David figured he could have easily beaten him. The Austin team didn’t have a light heavyweight, and while that division’s boxers were going at it Paul came over and sat beside David. “How you feel, Lover Boy?”
“Fine. Just a little dizzy.”
“You got hit hard. But you did good. What did his girlfriend want?”
“Not sure. Just showing hospitality to the out-of-towners, probably.”
“And she probably noticed you gawking at her. Don’t feel bad about the loss. These kids have been fighting since they were five years old. I thought you might pull it out in the last round, but the two knockdowns won it for him.”
David watched the rest of the fights with Paul Hayward. But he couldn’t get his mind off of Linda, her sad determination, her smooth skin, or the way her legs hung out of the Camaro and her pink toes curled up towards the sky when she dove for her purse. He wondered if they curled when she had sex, and what kind of noise she made.
The arena was filling up in anticipation of the heavyweight bouts. David said, “I guess boxing’s the most popular sport down here.”
Paul said, “Yeah, too bad they don’t give boxing scholarships so that some of these kids could have a way of going somewhere. Some of them turn pro; most of them end up working menial jobs or selling dope.”
That Saturday was warm for February, even for the south of Texas. David had tried Linda’s headache concoction the night before and when he woke up it took him a few minutes to remember where he was. He went to the bathroom mirror and saw a swelling over his left eye, and remembered getting hit there the night before. He felt no pain, nothing.
His roommate, Jake the heavyweight, was already downstairs at the breakfast buffet. He could eat his fill, since the heavyweight division had no upper limit. David finally made his way down to the breakfast table.
Jake and the welterweight were both banged up from fighting the San Antonio boxers. In fact the welterweight had won on a disqualification because of head butts. Jake won by a knockout. They were both icing their hands to be ready on Sunday.
Paul Hayward had rented a suite of rooms on the second floor. David was the last one down to the breakfast table, and they were all talking about his fight. Everybody was saying it was the fight of the year.
“What’s that?” Paul looked over at the television set on the other side of the room from the buffet table. He rushed over, found the remote control, and turned up the sound.
“Local police are saying that it was gang related, although Espinoza was not a known gang member. Police say he was stabbed once in the stomach and once in the throat.” Paul turned down the sound and a hush went over the room.
After a while Paul said, “You guys keep eating. I’m going to call Suarez.”
When he came back down Paul called everyone together. “It’s a puzzle,” he said. “They, uh, they don’t want to say anything until they know more about what happened. The good news is that the tournament wants David to fight in the middleweight final. David, Suarez was bragging on you, says you improved a lot since he saw you in San Antonio.”
On Sunday morning David got up at six and went to the empty room where they had a television and a pile of videos of old boxing matches. He would be fighting the left-handed Houston boxer. He watched two of the best fights of Marvin Hagler, the left-handed middleweight champion of the 1980’s. When they got to the arena David was confident he would win. He had studied the Houston fighter, but he was pretty sure the Houston fighter had only studied Espinoza.
David had the perfect combination to use against a lefty—a straight-right hand lead followed by a left hook to the body. By the middle of the second round the Houston fighter had taken so many rights to the head that his corner stopped the fight.
David felt that flush of victory and the rush of adrenalin that comes from fear and the thrill of the fight. It was a few fleeting moments, which Paul Hayward called “as ephemeral as the twilight between the sunset and the darkness.” Paul thought that was the reason so many former athletes got into drugs, to recapture that feeling.
When David had showered up at the hotel he walked back to the arena to watch the heavyweight final. Paul said, “The police called this morning. Wanted to know what you and Espinoza’s girlfriend were talking about after the fight Friday night. I told ‘em she was just being hospitable, as you put it.”
“We just talked about the fight.”
“All right, tiger. Just remember: Fools fall in love. Show me a hard luck story, and I’ll show you a guy who’s been in love.”
“Cops wanna talk to me?”
“Nah. Turns out your illustrious opponent had a pretty stout criminal record. I think the cops are glad he’s dead. He was like a football star that everybody had to put up with. Tall, good looking, they figured Espinoza would be a star.”
While the light heavyweights were fighting, Linda showed up and came over to where the Austin fighters were sitting. David said, “We’re all sorry about Jorge. When did you get back from Corpus Christi?”
Linda’s hair was down and David thought it was the longest, fullest, darkest mane he had ever seen. “Crazy gangs,” Linda said. “I warned Jorge about them.” She picked up the trophy David had won. “I wanted to congratulate you. Good job.”
“David, do you know anything about cars? Mine won’t start.”
“Let’s go take a look.”
They walked outside where it seemed half the town had parked their cars, bikes, and motorcycles so they could watch the Alice heavyweight, who everyone thought would have a good shot at an Olympic gold medal. David lifted the hood of Linda’s Camaro. “Okay, try again.”
It started right up. Linda rolled down the window and said, “What was the problem?”
“Loose battery cable. You got a pair of pliers?”
“Not here. At home, though.”
“You’ve got a couple of other problems under the hood.”
“Can you come by my house to fix them?”
“Hold on.” David pointed towards the arena and then went to tell Paul Hayward where he would be.
Paul was watching intently as the final light heavyweight fight was finishing up.“Yeah, yeah. Have fun.”
They drove by Coastal Bend College and David thought it looked like the Army-Navy stores in Austin, with its aluminum walls. Linda lived at the end of a long dirt road. There was an old broken-down truck at the side of a two-story house that was painted yellow like the ones David had seen when he fought in Juarez.
“Come on in.” Linda smiled and said suddenly, “Did you forget your trophy?”
“Mr. Hayward takes all our trophies back to Austin.”
“You know, if I hadn’t given you the medicine, you wouldn’t have been able to fight on Sunday.”
“Yeah, the good night’s sleep helped. Thanks.”
She opened the front door and they went in. “Do you have a girlfriend in Austin?”
David told her about how he and his girlfriend had broken up over going to college. “I had a fight the night before the SAT test. Didn’t make it back in time to take it. I hate school anyway, except for math.”
“I hated school too. The army recruiters, and the drug dogs, that’s why I quit. There has to be a better way out of here.”
After David got the car fixed up Linda brought him some enchiladas and said they were from her father’s restaurant. “He owns the place next to the arena. I’ve worked there five years, since I was fourteen. You know, you and Jorge fought the best fight of the tournament, the news said yesterday. In a way, you had something with him, like I did. He told me you were his toughest fight.”
“When did he say that?”
“I thought you didn’t see him that night.”
“He was hurt bad. Said his vision was fuzzy, like he was loaded but he hadn’t drunk nothing. I mixed up some herbs to relax him. When he went out that night, he was probably too relaxed to defend himself.”
“Weren’t you in Corpus Christi?”
There was a silence and then David looked around. “You live here all alone?”
“My parents are in Corpus Christi for a week.”
“I thought you were going there to babysit.”
Linda picked up their dishes, then walked over and took David’s hand in hers. “Can you stay with me a while? I’m afraid whoever killed Jorge will come after me.”
“How would I get back to Austin?”
“I have money. I’ll buy you a bus ticket.”
There was an awkward silence. Linda put a hand on David’s knee, then leaned forward and gave him a deep, wet kiss on the mouth. “Let’s go to bed, mi’jo.”
Linda’s clothes and her bedroom smelled sweetly of White Shoulders perfume. They kissed for a while and then she reached back to pull down the bed sheets, and brought him to her. She coiled her legs around his back, open and ready beneath him. He pushed into her and it wasn’t long before he felt her come in waves, intense spasms of pleasure. He wasn’t far behind.
Afterwards David said, “What does meho mean?”
“Mi hijo. It’s like calling you baby, a term of endearment. ” She got up and put on a white robe, then opened a bedroom window. “Sometimes it might not be endearing. Like, ‘Oye, mi’jo’ could mean, ‘listen up, dude.’”
David laughed. “Got it. What about your nickname? Why did Jorge call you his morenita?”
“Morena means dark headed, sometimes dark skinned. In Mexico some people think it’s a status symbol to be light skinned like Jorge. ‘Dark hair, black heart,’ he used to say.”
“So he was insulting you?”
“Hmm, kind of. Sometimes he’d call me Bruja, or witch, because I can make medicine from herbs.” She caressed David’s forehead with her fingertips. “You’re a nice boy, you would never hit me. I can see that in you. What are you going to do when your boxing is over?”
“Like, what am I going to be when I grow up?”
Linda said, “Yeah, you said you don’t like school, but you can’t fight forever. You like math?”
“At least I can see what it’s good for, counting money and stuff.”
“You could study business, then. But you still gotta read a lot in college.”
“History’s not bad. I like reading about the Greek and Roman warriors. Achilles, Ajax, Hector the Trojan.”
Linda reached down and picked up the condom wrapper that had fallen by the bedside. She pretended to study it. “Says Trojan, but nothing about Hector.”
“No. Hector was from the City of Troy.”
“I know that, mi’jo. You ever read about Medea in your Greek mythology books?”
“No, who’s he?”
Linda lay there quiet for a while before she answered. “She. She helped Jason get away with the Golden Fleece.”
“Okay, I’ve heard of that. Then what did they do?”
Linda sat up. “He—. He humiliated her. Treated her real bad.” Linda jumped off the bed and walked over to the other window. “It’s hot in here.” When she had all the windows up and the shades down she said, “Nice and cool outside.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“Leaving the windows open. Aren’t you afraid of whoever killed Jorge?”
“No, they killed him for the $500 he had in his pockets.”
“How did they know he had $500?”
Linda got back into the bed and snuggled her face into David’s chest. “Because I told them he had it.” Linda’s dusky scent mixed with the White Shoulders perfume. David brushed the dark hair from her face and kissed her forehead where he had noticed the bruise on Friday. He felt the silky touch of her beautiful bronze hands and he was ready for another round.
Later that evening David called Paul at the hotel and said he had a cold. There was no point in getting the whole team sick.
“Yeah, I used to get colds like that too when I was your age. I’d get ‘em two or three times a day.”
“No, really, I –”
“Is that girl, the hospitable one, going to get you back to Austin any time soon?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll catch a bus back to Austin tomorrow.”
“Take a whole week,” Paul Hayward said. “Kid, you earned it. Learn yourself some Spanish.”
Maggie let out a scream. The pain reached almost an almost unbearable crescendo. She forced the gas and air mask tightly down on her face and took a deep breath like the midwife had told her. But it offered no relief.
From somewhere amid a swirl of pain, Maggie heard a voice.
“You’re going to die.”
It was what she’d been frightened of all along. Dying in childbirth.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” her friend, Dorothy, had said, when she’d expressed her fear. “No one dies in childbirth these days!”
Maggie wasn’t stupid. She was an intelligent woman. They didn’t take anything less into teaching. She knew that and she knew what Dorothy was saying was true. But from somewhere deep inside her, she was experiencing fear – a deep fear like nothing she’d known before. She’d never wanted this child. She’d never wanted any children. And she’d done her best to make sure she’d never have any.
But it had all gone wrong.
“You’ll adjust,” her friend, Dorothy, had said, with an unconvincing look.
“It’s just inexperience. It’s like anything. Once you know the ropes, you’ll not trip up.”
Maybe the baby knows, thought Maggie, as another wave of pain swept upwards from nowhere and suffused her whole body.
She let out another scream and, as the pain subsided, felt ashamed of her weakness.
What must the midwife think of me? she thought. She’d been so kind from the beginning. An older woman. A maternal sort. Experienced. You could tell that. Telling me about her son, Joe. She sounded so proud of him.
Not like me. There’s nothing maternal about me, she thought.
She turned to the midwife at her side and offered a weak, apologetic smile.
“There, there. You’re doing fine,” the woman said, comfortingly. “Not much longer now. And it’ll all be over.”
Maggie smiled. It was a relief to know she was in such expert hands.
Not much longer. She could stand that. She could stand anything. And after? Well, maybe she could stand that too. It would be a bit like teaching. She’d hated that at the beginning, wondering why she’d gone into the job in the first place. Tough schools, tough kids. But she’d coped, hadn’t she?
She hadn’t done anything disastrous.
And Tom leaving when he’d found out she was expecting a child. She’d coped with that, hadn’t she? And motherhood. Who knows? As she gained more experience, she might even come to like it.
After all what could go wrong?
She heard the midwife’s voice as if from afar, amid another gigantic wave of pain.
She heard her voice scream.
“I’m going to die.”
And a reply.
No, she thought, not yet. I can come through this.
She gave one last punishing push and knew it was over at last.
“There. You did well,” the woman at her side said soothingly.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” Maggie said, sinking back on to the delivery table.
“A girl,” said the midwife. “But you let me take care of her. You need to rest, now.”
Maggie sank back gratefully on to the bed. She could relax now. It was all over. Soon the midwife would lift her on to the stretcher and wheel her back to the ward. She could begin the rest of her life.
A sharp prick in her arm brought her to her senses.
“Just a little something to help you relax,” said the midwife softly.
A little something to stop you squealing like a pig.
The midwife looked at the woman on the bed. They were all the same. Frightened. Inexperienced. No idea what motherhood meant. And they expected her to make it all right. And she had done all these years. There’d been no option. She’d needed the money for Joe. But this one was different. This one was special.
Maggie looked at her.
“It’s Mrs. Barton, isn’t it?”
Maggie nodded drowsily.
She’d been thinking being a mother might not be so bad after all. After all, no teaching! Not that this was the first time she’d thought of giving up. She swept the thought aside hastily. No, she wouldn’t think about that time. She wouldn’t think about that first class.
“You used to teach my boy, Joe.”
Maggie started. Was the woman reading her thoughts?
Maggie felt a cold chill run down her back.
She forced a smile.
“Oh, yes,” she said, startled, looking at the woman differently. She remembered her. How could she have forgotten her?
The woman who had threatened to sue her.
Joe Harvey’s mother. Joe Harvey. Her worst behaved pupil. Joe Harvey whom she’d been glad to get rid of. Of all the places to meet his mother. What must she think of her? Squealing like she did.
“How’s he doing?” Maggie forced herself to enquire.
The midwife smiled. “He’s got his own business now. You’ll remember he was always good at woodwork.”
At tossing it at people, thought Maggie, remembering Joe’s temper outbursts.
“I’m glad,” said Maggie. And she was. There was no sense in harbouring a grudge. The past was the past.
“He’s never forgiven you, you know,” the woman said looking at Maggie with a queer eye.
“Forgiven me?” repeated Maggie, a sinking feeling in her stomach. Her head was beginning to swim.
A picture was forming in her head. A picture of Joe Harvey running up the steps of the giant chute built into the hillside of the town park on the school trip. A picture of Joe Harvey pushing all the other children holding the safety ropes that lined the steps aside as he raced to the top to be first down that giant slalom. A picture of herself yelling to Joe to come down.
And he had. For the first time he’d done as he was told. But not down the chute.
Headfirst down the concrete embankment that surrounded it.
Of course the mother had threatened to sue. But she’d backed down after the statements of the other children and the case had been dropped. Much to Maggie’s relief. That was when she’d almost given up teaching. Inexperienced, that’s what she’d been. She should never have taken Joe Harvey on that trip. But she’d learned after that.
“For not taking him a second school trip,” said the midwife.
Maggie smiled, despite herself.
Was that all?
“All the other classes in the school had two trips,” stated the woman.
There was no way I was taking them on another trip after what happened, thought Maggie but all she said was,
“Oh, sorry,” said Maggie, but she wasn’t. No more than she had been when Joe Harvey’s mother had eventually removed him from school. She was glad to put it all behind her. Though she had sometimes wondered what had happened to Joe.
“You will be,” said the woman.
Maggie looked at her. She seemed to be far away and her voice was strange.
“What do you mean?” said Maggie, trying hard to concentrate. She was sleepier than she thought. A thread of fear started to wend its way through her. “Where’s my baby?” she said suddenly.
“You won’t need her where you’re going? You don’t like children anyway,” said the woman. “And you wouldn’t want your inexperience to ruin her, would you?”
Her face peered menacingly in front of Maggie’s. And she smiled.
“You don’t need to worry. We’ll take good care of her – Joe and me.”
Maggie felt a surge of fear and tried to rise from the hospital bed but her body was a leaden weight and her head wasn’t hers.
She sank back on the bed and from somewhere she heard a laboured breathing. With horror, she realised it was hers.
The midwife watched the woman’s chest rise and fall as it struggled for air. She hadn’t time to watch. She had things to do. She wrapped the baby in a hospital blanket, placed her in the bottom of her large portmanteau and snapped it shut.
A gasp from the bed made her spin round. The woman’s jaw slid open and stopped like a theatre curtain that had got stuck.
Awful how many women are dying in childbirth these days, she thought, slipping her coat over her uniform and grabbing the portmanteau.
“That your shift over?”
The midwife nodded to the woman who’d just entered the hospital entrance.
The shift and the job, she thought. Not that she was sorry. Now she could dedicate her life to what she’d always wanted. Being a mother. She could put all her experience to good use.
A slight furrow crossed her brow. She hadn’t always been. She’d been inexperienced when she’d had Joe. And she’d made mistakes. It hadn’t been easy being a single mother. But she was going to make up for it. It was never too late.
She opened the door of her apartment. Joe was standing in the middle of the floor swaying from side to side, his hands clasped at either side of his head. He didn’t appear to see her. The apartment floor was covered with tools and wood-shavings.
“See who’s come to see you,” she said, opening her portmanteau and taking out the baby.
Joe turned and looked at her. His head hurt. He’d been working hard with his tools waiting for Mummy to come home. Mummy had promised him a surprise so he’d kept on working like Mummy had told him to do. He’d always done what Mummy had told him. Since that day.
“It’s Mrs. Barton,” said the woman. “Mrs. Barton has come to see you.”
She held the baby up lengthways. Joe looked at the face opposite him. If only his head didn’t hurt so much. It had hurt since that day. But he knew it was going to be all right. Mrs. Barton had come to take him.
He took the baby from his mother’s arms and placed it in the small box he had been working on.
His mother watched him and smiled. He was a good boy. He’d been a good boy since that day. Of course she knew his head hurt. It hadn’t at the hospital. It wasn’t until later it had started. But by then she’d taken him away from school. She was the only one who could look after him. She’d given him everything he’d wanted.
Joe smiled and placed the lid on the box. A perfect fit. He’d always been good with his hands. His mother shook her head.
Mummy’s right, thought Joe. It’s not time yet.
He lifted the lid off the small box and held the baby in the air.
It was the day. It had come at last. The day of the second school trip.
He pictured himself running up the steps of the giant chute. There would be no other children to get in his way. It was their fault, their fault he had lost his balance at the top of the chute. There’d be just him and Mrs. Barton.
Mrs. Barton. From somewhere far below he heard her voice.
“Come Down, Joe. Come down!”
She was always shouting at him telling him to come down. She was the one who needed to come down – off her high horse. Joe smiled. Today Mrs. Barton would be at the top of the chute with him. And he’d make certain she came down. Not on the chute. The way he had. Down the concrete embankment. Then he’d come down. The proper way of course. And Mummy would be there. To catch him. Just like she always was. A frown crossed his face.
“What’s the matter. Joe?”
His mother sensed his every mood.
“What if I trip up, Mummy?” he said, “like last time?”
He didn’t remember much after he’d tripped. He just remembered the fear at that moment – like nothing he’d ever experienced before. And a voice from somewhere saying.
“You’re going to die.”
“It’s all right Joe,” said his mother softly, easing one arm at a time into his coat as he held the baby. “It’s just like anything else. Once you know the ropes, you won’t trip up.”
She opened the door of the apartment and turned round. Of course they’d have to leave here. When it was all over. But they’d adjust. And put it down to experience. Wasn’t that what all life was about?
And Joe was a clever boy. Joe could start again. And she’d make sure there was plenty of business for him.
It was amazing how many women were dying in childbirth these days.
She closed the door of the apartment. Joe was happy. She could see that because he was fingering the brass plate on the apartment door lovingly.
He had reason to be proud. Like she had. And all those who thought otherwise would know one day. One by one.
“You’re going to die.”
She’d used the words herself many times.
She liked them to know. So they’d experience it. There was a lot to be said for experience. She knew.
A familiar furrow crossed Joe’s brow.
“What’s the matter, Joe?” she said.
“My head hurts, Mummy.”
“There, there. You’re doing fine. Not much longer now. And it’ll all be over,” she said comfortingly.
Not much longer. He could stand that. He could stand anything. And after? Well maybe he could stand that too. He had hated the job at first. But he’d coped, hadn’t he? And who knows? Maybe he’d even come to like it. After all, what could go wrong? He was in expert hands. And he owed it all to Mummy. Mummy had suggested he start up in business. And Mummy had provided nearly all his clients. Mummy had even suggested the plaque on the door. He rubbed it lovingly with his free arm.
“See, Mrs. Barton,” he said, softly to the baby in his arms. “See, I’ve done well. Mummy’s proud of me.”
The baby’s eyes seemed to grow in size as it looked at the shiny object in front of it.
“Joe Harvey – Funeral director – First class.”
The Basket Case
“Maybe you should hire a hit-man!”
Ed turned round from the driving seat of the trolley bus and looked with surprise at the silver-haired old lady that had boarded his bus some five seconds before.
“Yeah, right!” he laughed, pointing to his tips basket. “As though I could afford one!”
A couple of doleful dimes lay on the bottom like hamsters in a cage and one solitary dollar bill poked up like a chimney in a smokeless zone.
The day’s tips. For batting his brains out. Hell, the last couple of passengers hadn’t even left a tip!
He watched Dan’s trolley tour disappear into the distance. Stacked full of passengers. Laughing and joking. He pictured Dan’s basket brimming over with dollar bills.
And here he was sitting with one old biddy waiting for some other passengers to materialise out of somewhere so he could cover the cost of his gas.
That’s when they’d got into conversation. For the second time.
She’d been on his bus earlier, covering most of the tour of Boston, before she’d got off. He was surprised to see her again. He was surprised to see most people again. Once they’d been on Dan’s bus, they didn’t come back.
He’d commented on the fact. And apologised for the fact his bus was so empty. That she’d had such a long wait. And why.
That’s when she had said.
“Maybe you should hire a hit-man!”
He hadn’t reckoned on her having a wacky sense of humour.
She must have been on board Dan’s bus earlier. It smacked of Dan’s humour. The kind that got his trolley full and kept it that way.
But why wasn’t she on it now?
For one crazy moment he thought he’d seen her get off Dan’s Trolley and get on his without stepping off to see one of the sights on the Boston tour.
Not that he could blame her if she had. It was perishing cold out there. And she was British. Not used to the biting Boston blasts.
That’s probably what defeated them, more than the patriots, thought Ed, smiling, remembering all the history he’d learnt for the job. They couldn’t take it! Though they’d taken everything else. Before and during the Revolutionary War. Taxes. Money. Lives. Still that was all in the past. He didn’t hold grudges. Though he knew some still did. You only had to mention the word British in some trolleys and a silence would descend. An uncomfortable silence. A damning silence. Even after all this time. But he’d travelled too widely. Seen far worse. Even in his own country. No sir, he treated the British like he treated everyone else. American or otherwise.
Not that it did any good. His trolley was empty. And Dan’s and the others’ were full.
Maybe it was time he gave up. Retired. He couldn’t compete against youth, flirtation and fast chat. All he had was knowledge, the fact he was well-travelled and experience.
And who wanted that these days?
Only this old biddy. Old like himself. A dinosaur in a new age.
“They don’t get paid till after the event,” she said.
She sure is a bit of a wacko, thought Ed.
And yet she didn’t look it. She was neat, dapper. Like a school teacher hoping to disguise herself on vacation and unable to do it.
“Before or after. It’ll make no difference. The money’s not forthcoming!” laughed Ed.
“It’s surprising where money comes from,” she persisted. “After the job.”
Christ, he was in for a big tip after the job! That made a change. Not that he did the job for money. Anything but. He loved people. He loved history. And he loved Boston. He’d miss all that if he gave it up. And yet there was no alternative. He couldn’t cover his costs.
Still a big tip would cheer him up. Prove someone appreciated his efforts.
“Well it doesn’t look like anyone else is getting on so we’ll head out, shall we?” he said.
He settled comfortably into the driving seat and moved off. Quincy Market and the crowds thronging it were left behind.
He felt temporarily at ease. Only the disquieting thought that he might catch up with Dan’s trolley disturbed his equilibrium. Dan’s full trolley.
There was a comfortable silence from behind him.
Ed started his banter. Not like Dan’s of course. No jokes. No border-line vulgarity. No flirtatious behaviour. Straight talking. Straight history.
“The next stop will be Paul Revere’s house. The oldest house in Boston and the home of the patriot Paul Revere who achieved fame for his midnight ride to Lexington to warn the patriots the British were coming.”
He wondered if the old biddy would get off there. If she did he could say goodbye to her. The chances are he wouldn’t see her again. Still he had his gratuity to look forward to. That should at least cover the cost of his gas.
But there was no sound of movement from the back of the coach.
“The silversmith with a side business in false teeth,” a voice shouted.
He looked in his rear-view mirror.
The old woman had put her hand in her mouth, removed her false teeth and was waving them at him.
Christ, she’s a basket case, thought Ed. It could only happen to me.
But a knowledgeable basket case, he thought. Not many people knew about Paul Revere’s side business.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said courteously. “How did you know that?”
“I make it my business to find out things,” she said. “I always do my homework.”
Definitely an ex-schoolteacher, he thought. Everything about her said that. Except the false teeth in her hand. A batty, old ex-schoolteacher. He wondered if he’d be a batty, old ex-trolley tour driver. All that knowledge gone to waste.
It was a depressing thought.
“Are you getting off here, ma’am?”
“No, I’m looking for somewhere with a bit more action,” she said.
A bit more action! Christ, where did this old bat think she was? Dallas! There was no Bonnie and Clyde here.
“And where would that be, ma’am?”
“I’ll let you know when we get there,” she replied, shoving her false teeth back into her mouth, just as he pulled up at the stop. A Chinese couple were standing there. Ed remembered them from earlier in the day. He opened the trolley door and waited for them to board. But they took one look at him, said they’d changed their mind and would wait for the next trolley.
He knew they meant Dan’s. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Well, they’d have a long, cold wait, he thought before Dan returned to this spot.
He closed the door on the biting, early spring blast of wind that had already chilled the inside of the trolley.
Damn! thought Ed. My tour’s not that bad!
But he knew he couldn’t compete with Dan. And his Boston charm.
He moved off trying to quell his feeling of inadequacy. But at the sight of the Old North Church, he forgot them and lost himself recounting its history.
Basket case or no basket case. British or not. The old woman had a right to the best he could produce.
And produce the best he did.
Until he approached Copps Hill Burial Ground.
“There was action going on here in 1775!” he said, looking in his rear-view mirror.
The old lady lady’s eyes met his. There was a flash of navy blue. Like powder igniting.
“If you look at the gravestones, you’ll see chunks missing. The British soldiers used them for target practice during the siege of Boston!”
The navy blue eyes didn’t waver but held his though he thought he detected a flash of red. And something else. Disappointment?
“We all need a little practice now and then,” she said. “And a target.”
Ed felt his neck redden. Hell, he deserved that! He’d targeted her all right. Targeted her because she was British. Waiting for a reaction. Hell, he was no better than the other drivers. It was mean and inhospitable of him. Sure she was a basket case but he should have thought before he spoke. After all, wouldn’t he be a basket case one day? One day soon. He pulled up at the stop. To let her out. The former convivial atmosphere had evaporated. But to his surprise the old biddy didn’t get out there. He pulled away.
Poor old dear, he thought. He’d be like that shortly. Whiling his time away in the back of a bus instead of driving it. The thought made him sick. So sick he barely caught the woman’s murmur some short time later.
“I’ll get off here.”
They were just approaching the Old State House.
“Guess you want to see the Boston Massacre Site,” said Ed. “Where the British fired on Bostonians and killed five of them.”
So that was the action she was after.
“We were always a military nation,” she said, moving to the front of the bus.
“We’ve forgiven you,” laughed Ed.
“You forgive a lot, don’t you?” said the woman. “We’re not all like that.”
“No use harbouring resentment,” said Ed. “ Life’s too short.”
“It can be,” said the old woman, passing by his basket and descending the steps as the bus came to a halt and the doors opened. “Very short.”
And with that she was gone.
Before Ed realised she hadn’t left a tip.
Damn! Damn! Damn! No gratuity. After all his effort.
Then he felt ashamed of himself. The poor old woman probably didn’t have any spare cash. Had probably bankrupted herself getting here in the first place. Her last chance to do America. To do Boston.
He closed the doors of the trolley and sat back in the driving seat. He’d take a rest here. A well-earned rest. After all no-one was clamouring to get on his trolley.
He must have dozed off for when he came to, the clock showed a lost half hour. A lost half hour and no customers.
Ed felt even more depressed. He opened the trolley doors and climbed down. He made his way across to the circle of cobblestones that marked the site of The Boston Massacre. The old lady was nowhere to be seen.
Probably moved on to greener pastures, thought Ed.
He wondered if he’d see her again. She’d seemed to enjoy his commentary.
At least there’s one person my tour appeals to, thought Ed, even if she’s an old basket case.
He smiled at the thought.
From somewhere he was aware of a police siren.
Action. He bet the old lady was there.
He walked in the direction of the sound, glad to stretch his body. He might as well find out what all the ruckus was.
The old lady was right. Life was short. Very short.
He knew it was Dan as soon as he saw the empty trolley.
Empty except for Dan’s body slumped in the driving seat. Slumped where he’d been shot.
The passengers were huddled round a police officer who was taking notes.
“He’d just opened the door to let her board,” said a semi-hysterical woman’s voice. “When there was a sound of gunshot————————————and he slumped forward like———————————.”
Her voice tailed off as her eyes hit Dan’s body.
“She grabbed the money and took off. And he was such a nice man. I can’t think why anyone—————————————.”
She put her hand in her pocket and drew out a Kleenex.
“It’s the action of a lunatic!” she added, dabbing her eyes. “A basket case!”
Ed melted back into the shade of the building.
“A basket case!”
He thought of the old woman’s words.
“Maybe you should hire a hit-man!”
What if the old bat hadn’t been joking? What if the old bat had hit Dan?
And what about him? Did she have him lined up as next target?
He had to get back to his trolley.
He’d speak to the cops later.
He hurried along the street until he reached his trolley. He opened the door and mounted the steps, closing the door securely behind him.
Now to get out of here, he thought.
Before that old basket case targeted him.
Basket case. There was something different about his basket case. It was full. Full of rolled up dollar bills sticking up like tombstones in a graveyard.
The old bat had left him a tip after all.
He remembered her words.
“It’s surprising where money comes from!————————— After the job.”
Hell, she’d hit Dan, cleaned out his basket and given it to him!
Had she felt sorry for him? Like he had for her? Or was she planning on doing the same to him she’d done to Dan?
Hell, driving a trolley tour was getting way too dangerous. Maybe retiral wasn’t such a bad idea after all. It wasn’t what he’d planned perhaps but he was confident the cops would catch that old biddy. Who’d have thought she was the hit-man? A woman? He’d never have suspected it would be a woman.
When he hired a hit-man.
He remembered the grubby office in Soho, London, and the seedy guy who’d assured him he had the perfect person for the job. Perfect person? Hell, the old woman was a basket case. A British basket-case. Past her sell-by-date. What kind of professional was that?
I guess, I just got what I paid for, thought Ed. Then he smiled. After all she’d cost him nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing but forged bills. The forged bills he’d used to pay for the job. And she’d done the job, hadn’t she? And maybe the old woman being a basket case would be an advantage. If they caught her and she tried to implicate him. All it needed was a phone call and a tip-off to the cops. And, well, who was going to believe a basket case like her? As for the money in the basket. That hadn’t been part of the plan. But it would come in handy. Maybe the old bat appreciated a job well done.
The door of the trolley opened.
The police officer’s eyes scanned the money basket.
“Looks like you had a busy day!”
“The rewards of a job well done,” said Ed.
“An open display of money like that. It could be dangerous you know. A target for thieves.”
Ed waited for him to mention Dan and what had happened. He felt the sweat gather between his neck and his collar. Had the cop seen him previously?
Did the cop think he’d shot Dan and pocketed his takings?
No, there was no way he could prove that. It was a woman who had shot Dan. Everyone knew that. But Ed felt an uncomfortable anxiety as the cop pulled a dollar bill from his basket.
Why was the cop here? Why wasn’t he out chasing the hit?
“We got a tip-off,” he said. “A woman.”
He held the dollar bill up to the light.
Even from where he was Ed recognised the forged note.
That basket case wasn’t such a basket case after all. It wasn’t Dan’s takings that filled his basket. It was the forged notes he’d paid with. The forged notes he’d paid with to have Dan killed.
The old basket-case had left him a tip after all.
“Maybe you should have hired a hit-man,” said the cop.
One Last Leaf
1962. A small, rock house, with three rooms, in Jefferson City, Missouri.
“Can you bring me a leaf, Joe?”
“You know, a green one. Like from a tree.”
“A leaf from a tree?”
“I ain’t talking about a leaf from a table, Joe.” Billy laughs. “Just a plain ol’ ordinary leaf. A big one would be nice.”
“What do you want a leaf for?”
“It ain’t against the law, Joe. You asked if I wanted you to bring anything back this afternoon, and I said I want a leaf. Plain and simple.”
“Sure, Billy. I can bring you a leaf, if that’s what you want. But what do you want it for?”
“’Cause, do you know how long it’s been since I seen a leaf ? I get outside an hour a day in that crummy courtyard, all by myself. No grass, no trees, nothing but pea gravel. Ain’t even allowed to touch it. Bend down to touch the earth, the actual dirt, Joe, and it’s a week in solitary, a month without outdoor privileges, Joe. A whole month. So, I figure a leaf would be a nice thing to hold onto for a bit.”
“Sure, Billy. I can bring you a leaf.”
Father Joe puts his hand on Billy’s shoulder. Billy puts his hand on top of the priest’s and squeezes it gently. They are comforting each other.
The room is small and close. It is hot. Joe tugs at his collar. Billy wipes his face.
Noises come from the next room. Clanging, the scraping of something across the floor, the muffled sounds of men talking.
The room beyond that is silent, air tight. The gas chamber.
“I didn’t mean to do it, you know. You believe me, don’t you, Joe?”
“Yeah, Billy, I know. I wish I understood, though.”
“I’m awful sorry for what I done, but I’m grateful Ma and Pa wasn’t around to...you know.”
“They would have forgiven you, too, Billy.”
“Had to do that a lot with me, I guess, didn’t they? You know, one son a priest. And then me.”
“I got myself in some trouble, too, Billy. Pa had his hands full with me when I was in high school, remember?”
“They was going to send you off to the Army.”
“Which seemed a good time for me to join the seminary.”
They laugh. It is a shared, commonly recalled, memory. Brothers who went different directions.
“After I’m gone, will you be sure to tell them families again how sorry I was? Try to make them understand I really didn’t know what I was doing, will you?”
“Sure, Billy. Sure.”
There was a storm that afternoon as Father Joe was returning to the prison for the last time. Billy never got his leaf.
The last execution in Missouri by means of lethal gas was on January 26, 1965.
Rosie the Riveter
Rosie was reading Mein Kampf on her lunch
break, rivet gun on her lap. She really
would have liked to have a conversation
with Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson,
but Anne was busy apologizing for her
poetry and Emily, dressed in white, was
trying to escape from a cathedral.
Poor girls, Rosie mused, never made the
Saturday Evening Post, never knew “We Can
Do it!” Took a last bite from her apple, went
back to knocking in solid rivets for the boys
and their B-29s. Somewhere down Rosie’s line
Helen Reddy was warming up.
Bull on the Beach
They were trying to get a bull to the Empacadora. Why anyone would want to slaughter a bull is beyond me, but there were about twelve men. They came in pick-up trucks. Indio and I looked up from the dredge as they crossed the little bridge by Sandfly Village to see them chasing the bull with their trucks, then on foot till they had it surrounded. The huge backhoe was putting out sand fill steadily from the bay, but the sand was saturated. You couldn’t move around in it at all. And there wasn’t enough of it, either, so we brought in fill from Rio Silin, about eight kilometers away. It came by volquetas. we hired by the load. Indio would spot a truck to dump, and then yell at him to get out of the way of the dozer. Always hire dump trucks by the load, never by the hour. Then, if the driver wants to have two of his buddies in the cab with him, let him do it. Why care? He’s not on the clock.
Watching the bull’s distress made me think how you always take sides in any kind of a struggle. My dad used to drive me crazy at home. We’d be watching football or baseball or basketball and I’d ask ‘Who do you want to win?’ and he’d say ‘I really don’t care. I just want to see a good game.’ In this case I could root for the catrachos. chasing the bull on the beach, or I could root for the bull. The Empacadora. loomed a kilometer away, just west of where we were building the port.
I decided to root for the bull.
The bull snorted at the men, his nostrils dripping snot and mucus, and when his head swung, there was a terrible spray the men ran from. Now the bull broke through the line of them and went further up the beach. The piledrivers saw him coming and started cheering as the hammer kept pounding with every breath of the Vulcan hammer POOM-POOM-POOM. The noise spooked the bull, who momentarily stopped, unsure of which way to go. Now the men got in their trucks and started coming our way. We had just spread a fresh, wet lift of that wet sand. No finger haul roads were built on it yet. The dozer had backed up all the way to where the carfloat and the backhoe sat, with the ramp on the beach, ready to make another pass. The vibratory roller had just gone by. Water oozed out of the sand, which had a shiny smooth surface now, a shiny surface that looked hard and would pass a density test, but would still get you stuck. The men came charging ahead in their pickup trucks – Toyotas, Isuzus, Nissans and drove right into the wet sand, sinking immediately up to the axles. Cries of dismay went up, doors were thrown open, shoulders leaned on the fenders to no avail. The pickups would not budge. The men rushed up to me. I waited.
“Please let us have your bulldozer push us out of the sand. We can’t move.”
These were the men from Trujillo and Puerto Castilla whose brothers and friends and cousins were working for us building the port. They were swarthy and rough and had invested all their energy in getting this bull to the slaughterhouse. Their families depended on them to deliver the goods so they all could eat. I knew that. The bull seemed to know that there was a reason they wanted him to go to the dark, forbidding building waiting up ahead. The bull, now completely intimidated by the POOM-POOM-POOM of the 50-C hammer, slowly headed back this way.
So did the bulldozer. They were both due to arrive here about the same time. The bull had one bull power, in my mind about the equivalent of two horsepower. The bulldozer had a couple hundred horsepower, being a D-6. Plus it had swamp tracks. It could easily get those pickup trucks out of the sand. A volqueta. approached as well, coming over the Sandfly bridge with a nice load of dry clay, just what the swarthy men needed for their trucks’ traction. If, that is, they got unstuck from where they were already.
I looked at the truck driver in the cab and waved him to go dump back at the bridge, where we could build more finger roads for the clay trucks, more finger roads so more clay trucks could spread fill all day long. The men cried out.
“Please, mister, we’re stuck.”
Now the bull trotted our way. He was a magnificent animal, with broad shoulders, fire in his eyes, hooves like pistons in that compressor. Once he saw the truck not between him and the bridge, he headed for it, slow at first, then at a trot. Some of the men waved their sombreros. at him, but there were coals burning where his eyes had been, and they scattered. The bull galloped across and disappeared into a copse of trees where the road curved and the crabs gathered, his big hooves soundless in the low spots full of mud.
Then I waved to the bulldozer operator to push the trucks out of the wet sand.
“Cuidadamente.” I said.
When the trucks got free, they went after the bull. I supposed if the bull wasn’t too bright, he’d get caught around the soccer field at Cocolito, or if he was smart, he’d take off into the monte. before that. Another fill truck approached, delaying the pickups trucks crossing the bridge again, and I waved it over to dump right here.
Indio looked at me quizzically.
His eyes asked me what I was doing. I felt sorry for the bull. I liked him. He sensed exactly what the Empacadora. was. And after I got him free, I felt sorry for the men with their big sombreros., their plaid shirts collared with sweat, their mustaches dripping, their eyes afraid to confront someone who hired their families to build the new port. Sometimes you root for both sides.
Another fill truck pulled in from Rio Silin, where Indio had helped us set up the crusher near the cluster of houses the Paya Indians had by the river. Soon the trucks would be hauling fine and coarse aggregate for the concrete plant. Today it was just dirt. Indio spotted another one for a finger road as the pile driver went POOM-POOM-POOM.
Henry walked slowly back to the front steps of his house. His fourteen-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son waited at the curb as their mother pulled up in her minivan. The usual greetings were quickly interrupted by the spastic jumping and huffing of the furry, tongue-wagging creature whose unbridled joy seemed to match the pleasant afternoon breezes that worked their way down the humble row of houses on Piedmont Street, rustling amorously through the budding leaves on the adolescent maples and ash.
“So this is your new friend?” Martha asked to no one in particular. She removed her coat and set it on the car antennae. “He’s still a puppy, isn’t he?”
“Not even a year, but almost full size. Dad wouldn’t let us get a puppy,” the older girl spoke pushing bangs away from her face with one hand as she attempted to control the dog with the other, grasping for the orange collar that hung loosely on his shoulders.
“Here, Buddy!” the boy screamed as he chased desperately at the dog’s wiggling hind quarters.
“No, we’re naming him Nixon – because of his jowls,” the older girl corrected.
Martha squatted down to face the creature. “What about Henry, he kind of looks like Kissinger,” she gave a quick glance toward the silent man sitting on the steps.
Henry’s involuntary grin belied his motivations. He thought about adding to the discussion, but instead chose to lean back on his elbows.
“Can we bring him home?” the boy blurted, “I mean, can we bring him to your house, Mom?”
“No,” Martha immediately shook her head forcefully, “David’s horribly allergic.”
Henry watched the scene carefully, avoiding interjection. When the time came, and he knew he would be the last to comment, he would become the patriarch and take charge of the situation. He would command the dog to lie obediently in the grass while he hugged and kissed the kids, waved at Martha from a distance, and then stoically walked back into his house, followed in step by the unnamed dog. But now, he watched as the dog seduced their collective attention, exchanging glances with the kids who he had now known for several hours, and then inevitably looking back at Martha, willing her to engage.
“He is definitely friendly,” Martha stated, “Maybe I can show you guys a few things. He’s old enough to mind, you just have to show him who’s boss.” She knelt on one knee and allowed the dog to scratch and climb at her chest, voraciously licking at her face. “See, this is what I mean. He’s excited, but he’s really trying to figure out if he owns you, or you own him.” She stood upright again, overly rigid in her shoulders, and turned her back on the dog. She walked to the opposite end of the front yard, glancing back inconspicuously to see if the dog was following. “You should use some kind of reward system, but you don’t really need one. I know he looks happy, but he’s just excited, and that can be really uncomfortable for him, especially as he gets older.”
The kids stared at her blankly. The boy couldn’t quite tell if he was in trouble or not. The girl, drifting away in her mind, overcorrected. “I’ve taught him some tricks. Watch.” She grabbed a ball that had landed near the bushes by the house. “Nixon!” She yelled, holding the ball in an outstretched palm.
“No, no, that’s not the way,” Martha took the ball from her daughter and hid it behind her back. “See, he knows we have something he wants, and now he needs to try to figure out how to get it from us.” The dog jumped against Martha’s pant leg, snorting and slobbering. Slowly, she led the dog down the block, followed by the kids.
Henry lit a cigarette and watched the smoke drift upward, blending with the wispy afternoon clouds. He watched as the quartet moved in strange unison down the street. Soon they were out of view, and he leaned forward to watch them, listening for voices but they were drowned out by the dog’s toenails scraping against the sidewalk. Soon they were across the street, three houses down the sloping block that met a dead end in front of the old quarry. From a distance, they were all strangers to him. His son was much taller than he remembered. His daughter was even more awkward in her adolescence than he recalled. They made it a little further down the block and Henry could only see the blurry outlines of people, small and indistinguishable by the flush of forest in the distance. They were part of a collective that had become Henry’s frame of reference, a row of simple white and grey houses, some with chain-link fences surrounding the perimeter, another bearing a rusted swing-set, still another flanked by two cars propped up without wheels on top of cinder blocks. The order of this view seldom changed, and only then to reinforce the scene – a brightly-colored windsock hanging from the awning of the Helga Salazar’s house, a new mailbox at Russ Carter’s curb, a used camper trailer beside the Flannigan’s. In the midst of it now, three strangers and a dog walked back in forth in ten-foot increments. The women held something in her hand, displaying it every so often to prove to the dog that it was still in play, that it was still something to achieve.
Henry knew that Martha would never enter the house. He unconsciously maintained an untidy living room and kitchen to reinforce this law. When she came to pick up the kids he would generally guard the door from the outside, protecting it, knowing that it somehow protected him from behind. In another sense, he attempted to screen the vision of the house itself, to make it disappear in Martha’s vision, as though it didn’t even exist. From a distance now, he could see Martha as a women that he had never met, just a long-legged stranger walking forcefully up the block with two smaller humans attempting to mimic her stride, to hold their heads upright the way she did, commanding attention with graceful gestures in their arms. Soon, the shaggy brown and black creature began to mimic as well, with quietly shaking steps slowed to a march, his small head erect as his mismatched ears sat stiffly in anticipation. At night, after he had given the kids hugs and kisses, after he had politely waved goodbye to Martha as she sat in the driver’s seat of her car, he would bring the mutt into the house. He would let it chew his slippers, and he would delight as the dog frantically nibbled on his arm on the couch. While lying sleeplessly in bed that night, he would take quiet comfort in the constant scratching and panting as the noises worked their way through an otherwise silent house.
Eleanor Leonne Bennett Bio (20120229)
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old iinternationally award winning photographer and artist who has won first places with National Geographic,The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, having shown work in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and The Environmental Photographer of the year Exhibition (2011) amongst many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.
It’s been years
since we have spoken
beyond the customary
small talk and weather update
The hollow silence
audible all too well
over the telephone line
and short phrases
The hate I wore on my shoulders
is worn out and weathered,
replaced by the damp, decaying
stench of indifference
Maybe this is how
some family ties break down,
without much noise
or dramatic anguish
The Morning Headline
It all seemed
way too familiar,
it all looked
A case of
open and shut facts,
of impersonal observation
It was not me
it was just a number,
it was not me
it’s okay to forget
But then the night fell
in the back of my mind,
and my dreams
knew me all too well
Subconscious is a funny thing
it shows you what you wish to hide,
forces you to acknowledge
what you wish to erase forever
And so, that night
behind closed eyes,
I became the unknown victim,
the nameless number was me
I saw it all happen
the explosions, the bombs,
terror and helplessness
smeared across my face
Desperate to know
whether my brother, my sister
my father, my mother
were safe, or lost in oblivion
It was a nightmare
darker than the darkest night
It was a fear
more crippling than death itself
And when the yellow morning
brought me back to my reality,
I could not forget
what my dreams had to tell me
And it struck me
that I could wake up from this nightmare,
but that nameless victim in the headlines
Foster sat on the edge of his desk and stared at the blackboard where a mathematical mélange of numbers and symbols flowed in a stream. Incomprehensible to most, Foster reveled in the elegance of the mathematics and the subtle nuances. He was deep in the intricacies when he heard the door open. Foster didn’t bother to glance toward the door. He presumed it was another grad student – several shared the office.
Foster spun toward the door. Although his physical response was rapid, it lagged behind his mental reaction. Instantaneously Foster recognized the voice as belonging not to one of his officemates, but rather to Thurman, one of his climbing partners, and there was something unusual, even foreboding, in his friend’s tone. By the time Foster’s eyes fastened on Thurman, he was tense. The grim look on Thurman’s face did nothing to ease Foster’s concern. He stared silently at Thurman, his mind frozen in anticipation.
“News report from Nepal. Avalanche. Got eight of ‘em.” Thurman waved a paper. “You know someone on that expedition, don’t you?”
“Gimme the paper.”
Thurman handed it to Foster, who stared at it, frowning. “Where’s the article?”
Thurman pointed to it.
Foster scanned the article. “Oh, shit. Carson got it.”
“I thought that was him.”
Foster slammed the paper on the desk and cradled his head in his hands. Images careered wildly through his mind — Carson’s form barely visible at the end of the rope in a whiteout; Carson hunched over in the back of the tent writing in his journal; Carson grinning on a godforsaken cold, windy summit; the snap of the rope as it caught Carson at the end of wild glissade. Images piled up in an achronological heap. Emotions tumbled over one another in an equally chaotic collage. Anger, grief, despair, dismay, anguish, bitterness, outrage. None registered. The whole ebbed leaving a pit of emptiness.
“It’s for sure?” He looked up at Thurman.
“There’s a survivor. He says there’s no doubt. They searched for two days. Found nothing.”
Foster took a deep breath. He could feel the shock-tension draining.
Thurman dropped onto a chair facing him. He averted his eyes from Foster. Thurman was new to climbing. He had never met Carson, having only heard Foster’s stories. He felt awkward and had no idea what to say. He contemplated leaving but that seemed even more awkward. As a result, he did nothing.
For a full minute they sat mutely staring, Foster’s eyes unfocused and Thurman studying the floor. Foster tried to sort out his emotions but soon abandoned the project. It took a mental agility that he did not posses at the moment. He returned his focus to the room. He had never noticed how close the walls were. He almost laughed at the absurdity of the thought. Of course the walls were close. He was in a small room. That was the problem. He was inside. He wanted a release. Somewhere. Anywhere but in a room. He caught himself. Not anywhere. He wanted to be in the mountains. He glanced at the blackboard. The string of symbols and numbers evoked no emotion or interest. They were meaningless, tied to the stifling claustrophobia of the room.
“How long would it take me to get to San Jac, Thur?” Foster fixed his gaze on Thurman.
“San Jac? I don’t know. I suppose about three hours at this time of the day. Why?”
“I’ve got to get to the mountains. That’s the only way I can handle this. San Jac’s the closest thing. It’s not much of a mountain, but it’ll have to do.”
“I don’t know.” Thurman glanced at his watch. “You’d be climbing in the dark.”
“So what? It’s a walkup. I’ve got a headlamp.”
Thurman rubbed his jaw. Foster was right. The climb was little more than a hike and Foster would have no problem. But he had never seen Foster upset like this. He was known among those who climbed with him for his nerves of steel. Thurman didn’t think Foster needed to be alone. “Mind if I go with you?”
Foster shrugged. “No. But I thought you had a paper to give next week.”
“Yeah.” Thurman paused. “I’m pretty well set for it.”
“Okay! Let’s go.”
The two exited the room. As they were leaving another grad student was entering. “Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked Foster.
“Hell, with any sort of luck.”
The student looked surprised as Foster and Thurman hurried down the hall.
“I’ll pick you in half an hour,” Thurman said.
Foster nodded as he started his motorcycle.
Half an hour later Foster threw his pack in the backseat of Thurman’s ancient Ford.
They fought the rush hour traffic for over an hour before reaching the highway that led to the mountains. They spoke little during the drive. Foster watched the familiar scenery slide by. It had no more meaning than the mathematics hanging on the blackboard in his office. At least the mathematics were elegant. Nothing he saw as they drove by — unimaginative strip malls, sleepy small towns, insipid brown expanse of water-starved grass — could be construed as elegant. None of it, the mathematics or the scenery, was associated with Carson. As far as Foster knew, Carson had never been in this part of the country. And mathematics was completely alien to him.
They arrived at the base of the mountain at dusk. The parking lot was empty. A popular climb, or more properly a hike, it was crowded on a summer weekend. But late in the day on an early spring day in the middle of the week, there was no one around.
They took out their packs, locked the car and started up the trail.
“I assume this wouldn’t be much of a climb for someone of Carson’s caliber,” Thurman said.
“It’s the best we can do. Besides, Carson loved the mountains and it didn’t have to be a major peak. He’d be fine with something like this. It’s a few thousand feet to climb and the summits over ten thousand. Not too shabby.”
“Yeah, I guess not.”
It was a crisp, clear night. The mountain hid the setting sun. A few wisps of sunset red showed on each side of the mountain’s bulk. As they climbed, stars began to appear. Although a sharp wind dropped the temperature to an uncomfortable level, windbreakers and the exertion of the climb kept the two warm. They continued without stopping. There were no technical difficulties. Remnants of the winter snowcap crunched under their boots as they neared the top. On the summit the wind had strengthened and the temperature had dropped significantly.
“Let’s get the tent up fast,” Thurman said, “before we freeze our collective ass off.”
“Welcome to the arctic.” Foster pulled the tent out of his pack.
The summit was broad enough to easily hold the two-man tent. They worked quickly at the familiar task; nevertheless, handling the aluminum poles in the freezing weather was not pleasant. A thin crescent moon hung near the horizon as they ducked inside the tent.
“Man,” Thurman said. “We’re a couple of hours from a major metropolitan area and we could die of hyperthermia.”
“Got the stove?’
“Yep.” Foster set it up and soon had a pot of water heating. A few minutes later a mixture of instant rice and dried soup was bubbling contentedly. The gluttonous mass that resulted and the later cup of tea constituted dinner. As soon as they had finished, they crawled into their sleeping bags.
“This where I need to be,” Foster said. “I couldn’t have put up with staying down there.”
Thurman grunted and they fell silent, listening to the howling wind and the flapping nylon of the tent.
“Bifurcation,” Foster said finally.
“Yeah. The decision point. We come across them all the time. What school you go to. What girl you date. Whether you join the service or not. Sometimes the consequences are negligible. Sometimes it can make a big difference. Like the time Carson, another guy and I were fighting our way through an icefall on some glacier or other in Alaska. It was a jumble of ice towers and crevasses. It was completely unstable. The ice was groaning. You could almost feel it move. We came to a point where the route we were following, sort of a slot canyon between two walls of ice, divided into two canyons. A bifurcation point, if you will. We could go left or right. They looked the same and either one would probably get us out of the icefall. Carson was leading. He started into the left-hand slot. After about fifty feet, he stopped and came back out. ‘Take the other one,’ he said. ‘This doesn’t feel right.’ Damned good thing. We had just started into the right-hand slot when the left-handed one collapsed.”
Thurman snorted. “That was a piece of luck.”
“I suppose. But that’s not the point.”
“The bifurcation point. One way was sudden death. The other was life. That’s where I am right now. I can go left or right — academia or the mountains.”
“Academia or the mountains isn’t exactly a life or death choice, at least not in the sense it was on the glacier. Besides, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You could pull off both. Get your degree, land a job at some university or other, and take the summers off for climbing.”
“It’d never work. Look at the profs here. They’re lucky to get a two-week vacation. All they do is research.”
“You don’t have to stay in the high pressure world. Go someplace obscure.”
Foster shook his head. “They’ll rope you in. You get the degree and then it’s a postdoc in some research pressure cooker. From there it’s a university where you have to crank out papers.”
A violent gust hit the tent, which almost flattened from the force of the wind.
“That was a good one!” Thurman said once the gust had passed. “Many more like that and we’ll be rolling down the mountain!”
Foster laughed. “It’s taken worse.”
“Look at things long-term.” Thurman returned to the earlier conversation. “How are things going to look in forty years, when you’re too old to climb. No savings or good insurance to take care of a major illness.”
“I doubt that Carson ever worried about that sort of thing. He never wasted his time sitting in classes, reading journals, and trying to come up with research projects. He never did any of that nonsense.”
“And look what it got him. Death in an avalanche.”
“And he doesn’t have to worry about retirement, major illnesses and that sort of thing. Besides, he bought it doing something he wanted to do. Something he wanted to do more than anything else in the world. I look down the road at what I’m doing and what do I see? A comfortable life teaching somewhere, writing papers, going to conferences, and dying old. Carson had it figured out.”
“I don’t know.”
“At least he would have been able to look back on having done something.”
“So would you if wrote some papers, maybe a textbook. Made a contribution. You’re smart. You wouldn’t be where you are if you weren’t. You have a duty to use your intelligence.”
“I have a duty to live.”
“What does Caroline think about it?” Thurman referred to Foster’s girlfriend.
“She hasn’t the foggiest idea why I climb.”
“She would love to spend the rest of her life with you and have your kids. She’s a good woman. You could do worse.”
Foster shook his head. “I’d be living a lie. Sooner or later it’d catch up with me. That’s when people go nuts, after living a lie for twenty years.”
Thurman yawned. “You’re all worked up over Carson’s death. Give it a few months. You’ll look at things differently then.’
Foster did not respond and soon he heard the regular breathing of sleep coming from Thurman. Foster remained awake, staring at the darkness of the tent and listening to the racket of the wind. He visualized the icefall and the bifurcation point. Down one slot he saw strings of equations. He recognized them, a potpourri of advanced mathematics. Down the other was a sharp fang of a peak, enameled with ice and snow. Without hesitation he started toward the peak. He took a deep breath, smiled, and was soon asleep.
I remember. On Patriot’s Day, April 15, 2013, I watched the kaleidoscopic horror, the flood of fresh fantastic fragmentary images exploding on my TV screen in Brooklyn, New York.
I remember the bombardment, the furious flow and fusillade of explosive imagery, and the sound of two bombs exploding; the shattering, and the shards of unreality, an unfathomable rush of stimulus overload overflowing in phantasmagoria.
And in my home, my haven, I remember the coming forth and return of old memories, intrusive memories, the recurrent images of one September day, when I gazed at the Manhattan skyline and saw a tornado of toxic smoke rise above the city.
I remember the Boston Marathon bombings and 9/11 and in the labyrinth of my mind, I remember the healing and the omnipotent power of love.
A 5-year-old hides in a claustrophobic room
a little tomb.
Hazel eyes fix on a blank sheet of paper,
pristine white, and the boy’s left hand
grips a ball point pen,
eager to write.
With his right hemisphere brain, he dreams
of a snow-covered universe,
a turquoise sunset,
a red dawn,
The taste of crimson, the soft whisper of lilac,
fragments of sadness,
fragments of his life projected onto a blank
sheet, madness and sin launched in the
heat of creation.
Human fragments, feed, merge, discover, create
the man chiseled from trauma, emerging
from the Void, a mutilated soul, the skin
of pitch-black darkness, having
witnessed ineffable evil but
still blessed with the choice
between good and evil,
the left hand grasping for transcendence,
sweat pouring from its pores, like tears
and shards of soul, holding the
severed memory in its skin,
but clinging to blind faith
and scribbling truth until
flesh no longer breathes.
Mel Waldman, Ph. D.
Dr. Mel Waldman is a licensed New York State psychologist and a candidate in Psychoanalysis at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (CMPS). He is also a poet, writer, artist, and singer/songwriter. After 9/11, he wrote 4 songs, including Our Song, which addresses the tragedy. His stories have appeared in numerous literary reviews and commercial magazines including HAPPY, SWEET ANNIE PRESS, CHILDREN, CHURCHES AND DADDIES and DOWN IN THE DIRT (SCARS PUBLICATIONS), NEW THOUGHT JOURNAL, THE BROOKLYN LITERARY REVIEW, HARDBOILED, HARDBOILED DETECTIVE, DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE, ESPIONAGE, and THE SAINT. He is a past winner of the literary GRADIVA AWARD in Psychoanalysis and was nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE in literature. Periodically, he has given poetry and prose readings and has appeared on national T.V. and cable T.V. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America, American Mensa, Ltd., and the American Psychological Association. He is currently working on a mystery novel inspired by Freuds case studies. Who Killed the Heartbreak Kid?, a mystery novel, was published by iUniverse in February 2006. It can be purchased at www.iuniverse.com/bookstore/, www.bn.com, at /www.amazon.com, and other online bookstores or through local bookstores. Recently, some of his poems have appeared online in THE JERUSALEM POST. Dark Soul of the Millennium, a collection of plays and poetry, was published by World Audience, Inc. in January 2007. It can be purchased at www.worldaudience.org, www.bn.com, at /www.amazon.com, and other online bookstores or through local bookstores. A 7-volume short story collection was published by World Audience, Inc. in June 2007 and can also be purchased online at the above-mentioned sites.
Immediately after breakfast Shawna ran in and started yelling at Phil about “the incident” again where his son in law had been in her daughter’s—his stepdaughter’s—bed without permission.
“...BUT NOTHING HAPPENED!” he said.
“BUT HE WAS IN HER BED!” she said.
“BUT HE WAS DRUNK!”
“THAT’S NO EXCUSE!” she said then suddenly turned to Bridget, “What do you think?!”
“I... I’ve got a job interview,” she said and rushed to the basement to change into her blue jeans and midnight blue work shirt then rushed out of the house, not wanting to get involved in the whole “he said/she said” dispute that made it look like both of them were exaggerating the facts of what did and did not happen. Bridget hadn’t been there when something did or didn’t happen and she had problems of her own besides. She knew better than to get involved in a family dispute anyway.
She got in her white beater truck and drove to a small, one-story office building, filled out an application, and briefly talked with a woman in her back office with her two medium-sized black dogs. It worked in her favor that she got along well with dogs. She was set up for telemarketing in a small room with three other new employees and a seasoned angry black woman. After three hours she decided that it seemed like this was an operation that constantly turned new people in unpaid training over to get free labor so she grabbed her things and left. In exhaustion and boredom she retreated to a dinner at the nearest Perkin’s Diner, even though she really couldn’t afford to. After dinner she made one cup of coffee last as long as humanly possible then slowly went back to the house.
When she returned she walked past the front door, sitting room, and dining area to the kitchen to see in the backyard Phil was bob-catting again, tearing up the backyard as his son Jackson stood nearby clearly irritated. Jackson’s girlfriend Kylie stood in the kitchen grinning. She said, “You know he didn’t put boards of plywood on the yard when he rolled it back there so he wrecked the whole lawn.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Phil,” Bridget said. “He was haphazard when he had us move the fridge out and put a new one in, and the oven, and another fridge after the one stopped working. Every time I turn around I want to start singing Imelda May’s ‘Mayhem’.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said almost laughing as Bridget leaned on the kitchen table and looked down at the mail between her right hand and Shawna’s purse.
“A baby magazine addressed to Delilah?!” she said.
“Oh really?” Kylie said with a country girl smile that matched her confident stance, blue jeans, and sweatshirt with her long light brown hair.
“She’s only 16!”
“Yeah, that’s not right. My dad said no babies until I’ve graduated college and my mom gave me a good talking to about those things so I know, you know, what I need to know to protect myself.”
“Yeah, that sounds like my mom. This is just ridiculous—Delilah’s so talented... I mean, she excels in reading, writing, math, and she plays the keyboard. They really should be encouraging her to do something with her life. She shouldn’t be thinking about kids until she’s, maybe, 30.”
“Yeah, after school. It’s so weird that Shawna would let her get that.”
“Uh... yes and no. My mother was showing me her books on caring for babies when I was four yet she didn’t start teaching me to read until I was six, and then only because I had to get ready for school, like by law. I pretty much had to teach myself to read.”
“Jeez, that’s weird.”
“It’s weird but it’s sadly not all that uncommon. I mean, the first week I was here Shawna and hers threw a baby shower for a 19-year-old and no one was talking to the young woman about college or anything. And when I hinted that I thought it was a bad idea to celebrate a teenage pregnancy Phil just got mad at me and said, ‘They’re not teenagers—they’re both 19!’” she said as Kylie laughed.
“You know when my friend Jenna was joining the Navy to get job training, the GI bill for college, health benefits, world travel, and so on many women practically ran up to her to preach to her about what a mistake she was making and how they didn’t understand how any female could join the military.”
“Yeah, and when she graduated Boot Camp and later A School she didn’t get any Hallmark cards or anything. But girls I knew in high school that got pregnant and didn’t have abortions got cards, baby showers, the works. We didn’t even get cards for finishing high school. Women really get nothing for any accomplishments that don’t involve motherhood. Even weddings are celebrated mostly because everyone thinks babies will come from them.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Yeah, there’s Mother’s Day, there’s no Professional Career Woman’s Day or Female College Graduate Day or anything like that.”
“There’s Father’s Day but no Career Man’s Day.”
“There’s only Father’s Day because there’s Mother’s Day, and no one needs a Career Man’s Day, working men and men’s education has never been a problem,” she said as Jackson stormed in and off to his room.
“Uh-oh, time to go be supportive girlfriend, he’s my ride to school,” Kylie said and followed him. Bridget smiled and returned to the basement.
The next morning she got up early and tip-toed by Phil in the front room sleeping on the couch and snoring loudly. She slipped through the living room and into the kitchen and began making breakfast as quietly as possible. She looked around for her eggs, cereal mix, and other food and couldn’t find any of it. “Oh no,” she said under her breath, “he ‘re-organized’ the kitchen again, just like his mom when I was staying with her—oh my god!” After searching for her food for several minutes she shrugged her shoulders and ate whatever looked like something she might buy. She rushed to the upstairs bathroom as Shawna came down and Phil began waking up. She brushed her teeth, used the toilet, and showered then rushed back down to the basement as she heard them fighting again. She rushed out the garage and down the driveway to her dusty white beater Ford truck and drove 15 miles away to the Coon Rapids, Minnesota Temp Agency and walked into the front desk.
“Hi, it’s me again. Do you have any work this week?”
“Uh... no. We might have a little work next week,” the receptionist said.
“That’s what you said last week.”
“Well that’s how it is. You know we have a lot of men coming in here with qualifications. Excuse me,” she said and walked some files into a back room as Bridget threw up her hands in frustration.
She drove back to the house with her mind already made up. She checked the oil and added a quart then checked the water and antifreeze by sticking a small tester into the radiator then added half a gallon of water. She turned the engine on and ran it hot then turned it off and checked the transmission fluid and added half a quart.
She entered the house casually and used their computer to check her e-mails by the light of the lamp she’d bought. She went to Google Maps and printed out a couple of pages with the ink cartridge she’d bought then made some notes in her U.S. driving atlas as Shawna and Phil continued to argue in the kitchen as they passed each other between cigarette breaks, his on the back porch and hers in the garage. Bridget tried to ignore it then went back downstairs and tidied up her loose things into her two suitcases, two backpacks, and her laptop bag.
She went back upstairs and began looking for her food and gathering it together in two brown paper sacks then shoved them into a cupboard as Shawna and Phil brought their argument in again. They wound up asking her about things and she counseled them once again, nearly quoting psychology and counseling books she’d read over the years. She sympathized with both of them; Shawna for her dad never being around and her mother being an alcoholic and Phil for having an abusive step dad and a terrible mother who was impossible to be around, and then bit her tongue before she’d say too much again and would make him mad at her for telling the truth about his mother. But she had said too much and he walked off and pranced around giving her the silent treatment. He’d never done that before. It made her wish he and his family had done that all along. Between their cigarette breaks she snuck her bags of food out to the truck, then her two suitcases, and then her two backpacks and laptop bag. She started the truck and drove through Anoka County and into Hennepin County then drove into Saint Paul to take in the Twin Cities one last time.
She drove through Saint Paul and its comfortable neighborhoods and classic buildings with nice architecture and across the Mississippi River on First Avenue Bridge into picturesque downtown Minneapolis with its bright tall buildings silhouetted against the dusk sky. Then she hit I-35 West and went South for two hours while listening to her mixed Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart CDs to relax. When she could she pulled over to get out a fleece blanket and a towel to put over herself since the heater was broken.
The night was dark and the sky heavy with clouds. As she drove ever lower she reached beyond the shadow of the clouds. Hours later on a desolate stretch of open freeway the truck’s engine began having problems. She checked to make sure the gauge wasn’t in the red and it was fine. Even still she pulled over and stepped out of the towels and blankets she’d piled over her into the freezing windy night to check the radiator. She slipped under the engine with a flashlight to make sure the new freeze plug she’d hammered in was still in place and it was. Then the engine wouldn’t start. She pumped the gas pedal when starting and that made it go for a while, then it shut off again and she coasted onto the shoulder of the freeway. After a few tries she got it going again just to have it shut off and she coasted onto the shoulder again. Then it wouldn’t start at all. She popped the hood and went outside. The engine was making a hissing noise but she couldn’t tell what was wrong. She knew it wasn’t electrical but that was about all she knew. She got back in the truck and bundled up again. She didn’t know if she was in Minnesota or Iowa since state borders in the Midwest weren’t marked as well as borders elsewhere in the country. She breathed deeply then sighed. “Well,” she said to herself, “at least I’m not still stuck with those crazy people in Minnesota,” and she meant it. They reminded her of the Verve Pipe lyrics:
“The only thing you ever gave were bad directions/
I’d say it to your face but I can’t find you.”
Out there she felt relief because if she was on her own she could handle whatever came up because she could remain calm and drama-free. The nearest city lights looked about 20 miles away but so be it, she would think of something. She wanted to take a nap actually but it was too cold for sleep. She thought about putting on her heaviest jacket and piling clothes over her legs when a state trooper pulled in behind her. She slowly got out and walked towards the back of her truck. “Are you broken down then?” he said.
“Yep, sure am. So do you know if I’m in Minnesota or Iowa?”
“You’re in Iowa,” he said and gave her the exact mile marker. She thanked him and said, “I can take it from here,” then got back in the truck. She called AAA and they sent a tow truck within the hour. The driver was a tall slim but sturdy man with dark blonde hair and an infectious smile. As he drove her to the nearest auto shop with her truck in tow they talked about trips they’d taken; she’d driven that truck over to the West Coast, up to British Columbia, Canada and down to Baja California Mexico, hitting Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas in between. He’d driven his old Camero to the East Coast, Ontario, Canada, and Coahuila, Mexico. They talked about trips by driving, by Greyhound bus, by train, and by plane. They loved travel and would scrape together whatever money they could to escape to anywhere new. She talked about dance classes she’d tried: Rumba, Tango, Waltz, and the hot dance instructors—tall muscular men, a blonde Russian woman, and a married couple fighting that she didn’t get into it with. He talked about fishing and camping. “You’ve never gone?” he said, “You seem like the type.”
“I grew up on a farm. I helped my dad and brothers hammer up barns and work sheds. I had enough of that and just want city life. In fact I’ve been meaning to go to college so I could get supervisory or managerial work, you know, not real work,” she said and they laughed.
“I’m Jack Douglass by the way.”
“I’m Bridget Shaughnessy, nice to meet you.”
Eventually they pulled into the nearest AAA-approved auto shop, in Clear Lake, where she left the truck. Jack took her to the nearest AAA-approved hotel and waited in line with her to make sure she got the AAA stranded discount, knocking 30% off the price.
In her room she took a hot shower then fell into a warm, soft bed. She picked up her phone and thought about calling her friends for some support but felt awkward knowing how much more together they all were so she just put the phone down. A while later there was a knock on the door. She answered it to find Jack, freshly showered and shaved, wearing nice slacks and a casual wool sweater. He smiled warmly and said, “Would you like to go to dinner?”
“Sure, just one moment,” she said and closed the door. She popped out of her old Lara Croft Tomb Raider T-shirt and boxer shorts for bed and into tight jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket then went out with him. They walked to the nearest Perkin’s Diner and had a nice big meal followed by a home-baked pie for dessert. Then they walked back to the hotel, “You know, there’s a great view from my room,” she lied, “do you want to see it?”
“Sure,” he said, playing along, and they ran up to her room. Within five minutes they were kissing and had their hands all over each other. They turned off the overhead light but left the bathroom light on for some soft lighting, took out some condoms, and had fun taking turns on top. They cuddled for a while then separated so they could sleep soundly.
In the morning she awoke early, left him in bed, and went downstairs. She ate two complimentary continental breakfasts before she started working on the situation. She sat down in the lobby with black coffee and spent the next few hours making phone calls and sorting everything out while Sheila, the middle-aged blonde woman at the front counter, helped her out as much as she could.
She found out the truck’s engine was beyond repair but the mechanic knew a guy who might buy the deadweight vehicle so he could put a new engine in it and sell it. There was a U-Haul nearby but AAA offered discounts on Penske truck rentals. She only needed a pickup truck or smaller but the smallest truck they had at the moment was a 24-foot Mack truck and it wasn’t cheap. The woman on the phone worked out as many discounts as she could, even an AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) discount because Bridget had previously been on her dad’s AAA policy and he was with AARP. Then she just needed to find a way to get to the Penske place in Mason City. Sheila handed her a phone book and there were a few cabs listed. When she called one was out of town, one was sick, one might be able to be there in several hours, and one was busy but could pick her up in about an hour.
She waited for the taxi while drinking more coffee and appreciating how very nice everyone in Iowa was. It was about a seven mile and 15 minute ride into Mason City with two pleasant working class women listening to a classic rock radio station. They chatted about the weather, music, and the fact Minnesotans were crazy and their road systems made no sense at all whereas Iowan roads made perfect sense. She handed them a $20 bill then walked into the Penske place with her three credit cards in hand, hoping that they’d approve or take pity on her.
20 minutes later she was driving back to Clear Lake using a small map Sheila had given her. At the auto shop she talked with the shop owner and handed him $50 then met with his friend, an older man, and shook hands on a deal to sell her truck for $500. She handed him the title and he handed her the money.
She moved her two suitcases, two backpacks, laptop bag, bicycle, helmet, tool set, spare tires and inner tubes, and various truck engine supplies, the jack, the five-gallon gas can, the wool blanket and emergency and first aid kit, and everything else from the pickup to the Penske truck then ran into Jack. They walked to Perkin’s again and he bought her lunch, then they walked back to the auto shop. He led her into the back room of the auto shop to an office that was comparatively posh so they could have sex again. Half an hour later they smiled and waved at each other as they drove their separate ways.
She drove to I-35 south for about 113 miles and 1 hour and 40 minutes to Des Moines while she blasted herself with heat, an incredible luxury by then. She put on one of her mixed Garth Brooks CDs. It was so black that all she could see was well lit freeways and the fact she was driving through a very flat expanse of land. In Des Moines she took an exit onto I-80 west. The rest of the approximately 140-mile and two hour and 10 minute drive through Iowa was uneventful. She snacked on food she had rather than stopping for food and peed by the freeway. She stopped in gas stations marked with green for diesel fuel availability and used those bathrooms when she needed to. The gas tank was huge and the cost stunning. She knew the $500 would be used up by or before she reached Oregon and she might have to start charging gas on one of her three credit cards and hope to find a job to pay them off.
As she entered the late night she drove into Omaha, Nebraska, a place that looked full of freeways and tons of big rigs and therefore industry. Up until then Nebraska had been like the state that didn’t really exist to her, just as Wyoming had been before she’d gone through it a few years before. It was flat just like Sheila had said, but she was always happy to be anywhere new. Somewhere in Nebraska in the dead of the black night she pulled over for a snack and a big rig smashed off the driver’s side rearview mirror as it passed at 65 miles per hour. The metal frame smacked into and cracked the windshield. Given that it was night and she was in the apparent middle of nowhere she decided to keep going until morning then sort it out. She could see approaching vehicles by their headlight glare and there were very few other vehicles anyway. She thought in the morning, as soon as she saw a big enough city, she’d call Penske about a replacement truck and hope they’d let her transfer to one without having to pay any more money.
She continued to drive, stopping for black coffee at gas stations when she filled up. The freeway was a straight line along the 450 miles and six hours, and several CDs with everything from Evanescence to Metallica, to Utah but she kept her eyes on the roadway.
As morning came she saw the familiar flat rocky plains of Wyoming, a rugged desert having its own kind of beauty. She drove through the 393 miles and 5 hours and 41 minutes of Wyoming, a place that seemed so devoid of towns she couldn’t get a new Penske truck. She drove by staying in one lane as much as possible. When she had to move she’d look for the shadows the vehicles around her might cast and leave her blinker on for very generous amounts of time before changing lanes. It wasn’t all that hard to drive without a driver’s rearview mirror until she’d have to egress the freeway to gas stations then ingress the freeway again.
The scenery didn’t change much until she reached Utah and continued as the freeway lead down through some hills and by a river. Outside of Ogden she took a gas stop that led up a hill and to a strip mall with a Wal-Mart, which she knew would have just what she needed for the idea she’d come up with the night before. After she got the gas she parked the truck and ran across the street and into the Wal-Mart. When she got back she duct-taped a handheld mirror to what was left of the framing for the driver’s side rearview mirror, which just barely got the job done.
Into the evening she drove through 80 miles and one hour to Idaho and 270 miles and three hours and 50 minutes through it on I-84. Into the night she drove into Oregon, across the border and to the edge of the Rocky Mountain Range and down its cascading waves of highway until she reached relatively flat ground in the desert terrain of eastern Oregon. Around 1 a.m. and 72 miles and one and a half hours into Oregon she stopped in Baker City for gas and two large black coffees. She drank both as she kept driving west with her single-minded imperative of reaching home. A while later she stopped to pee by the desolate freeway. She felt a strange feeling of someone dangerous watching her, assumed it might be a wild animal, got back in the truck, and hurried away. She felt better when familiar names like La Grande, Hermiston, and Pendleton started popping up on signs. She drove without stop, continuing to play different CDs like Raphael’s Los Exitos, which she’d hoped would help her pick up some Spanish. She drove until after dawn had broken the black night and 240 miles and three hours and 45 minutes from Baker City. She began to feel strained and tired by the time she was passing Hood River but she just rolled the window down and breathed some fresh, cold air then ate some more carrots for energy and because the chewing helped to keep her alert. 58 miles and 1 hour and 20 minutes later she was happy to be back in Portland and turned on the radio to hear Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”.
She drove 20 miles and half an hour across town out Saint Helens Road and Highway 30 to Sauvie Island, so far out into northwest Multnomah County that although the addresses said Portland it wasn’t legally considered part of Portland for voting purposes.
All of the western Pacific Northwest was gorgeous with towering hills of green trees and water falls but Sauvie Island was particularly calm and pleasant. Most of the island was made up of small, family-owned farms but there were also nature aficionados, pretend back to the landers, and outright hermits. She drove along the two-lane roads without guard rail, off a side road, and up the gravel driveway to a large farm house surrounded by blackberry vines, raspberry bushes, blueberry trees, and patches of lavender. She stumbled into the house and fell asleep on a futon couch.
She awoke with a cat sleeping on her shoulder. She got up and fed the cats then began to make some lunch or dinner or breakfast, or whatever it was. She found cans of soup, beans, and vegetables, opened and mixed them, first rinsing out the sugary sauce they were packed in. She microwaved them in a large bowl and added Smart Balance healthy fake butter alternative and a dash of sea salt as a truck pulled into the driveway. A few minutes later two older middle-aged men came in.
“Hi dad, hi Mr. Flanagan,” she said.
“You’re back!” Bob said with surprise and delight.
“You can just call me Doug—I’m practically your uncle.”
“Where’s the truck?” Bob said.
“Uh, it’s in Clear Lake, Iowa. It had a total meltdown.”
“Really? You should have called, I would have sent you some money.”
“No, it’s fine,” Bridget said dismissively, “I was just glad to get away from my mom’s family. You know a lot of my half cousins once or twice removed or whatever have businesses and Phil was supposed to own a contracting business but they either had no jobs or offered me none. Then they’d complain I wasn’t paying for enough, when I had no money coming in.”
“Really?” Bob said.
“That must have been annoying,” Doug said.
“Yeah, but they sure tried to get me to rent a trailer in a park outside of Grand Rapids and a house in Bemidji, and lied to me about the rental prices. For one, I heard Aunt Priscilla placing an ad in the paper for her house then she lied to me about the price.”
“Really?!” Bob and Doug said.
“Yeah, I think I know why grandma stopped doing much with them. I like Phil’s sister actually and was going to stay with her. Then when I got there they were like, oh by the way we forgot to mention she now has a woman with a baby sleeping on her couch, and I told them I do not like babies or small children but they wouldn’t listen. It was enough that she has kids around 10 but a screaming newborn? Oh my god—it was total sexist insanity, and insanity in general. But Aunt Rhoda did have a zip-line that her sons had put in and I rode it then found out I was the only female ever to ride it. For all her big talk and big chainsaw she really is a very typical woman.”
“What chainsaw?” Bob said.
“Oh this big chainsaw that she made a huge fuss about to saw a small branch that wasn’t blocking a path anyway. It was a status symbol to her to prove her strength and then it wouldn’t start so she took it from me and said I wasn’t pulling the chord hard enough and I was like, look lady I did this for the first time at 12 and I know how to do it. So she couldn’t get it to start and then said she didn’t know why and got me a handsaw. I chucked the branch aside and went swimming in the creek she called a river. I tried to tell her that either the chord was frayed or she put gas instead of gas/oil mix in it.”
“That’s what most people do.”
“Yeah, but she wouldn’t listen. Anyway, I’m glad to be back. We’ll have to catch up after I get some rest.”
“Yeah, okay,” Bob said with a smile as Doug walked into the next room to read the latest issue of The Oregonian.
“So... how are you getting along with your friend Doug?”
“Oh it’s okay. The rent was cheap and I... I really didn’t know where else to go. And there are plenty of farms on this island so I should be able to get some work and maybe stay here until I’m retired.”
“Really? Cool,” she said and they paused in awkward silence. “I’m really sorry you lost the farm dad.”
“Yeah, so am I. That farm was in our family since they came over on the Oregon Trail in 1893. Have you heard from your mother at all?”
“Uh, no, we’re not talking. Not since I berated her for running off with that guy.”
“So you don’t know how your sister and brothers are?”
“Uh, well, I’m sure they’re fine dad.”
“Yeah, yeah, I guess,” he said, and their postures slumped.
“So... is there another guest room or...”
“Uh, yeah... hey Doug, can she stay in that other room?!” he called into the next room.
“So, what’s the rent?”
“Don’t worry about it honey I’ll pay it. You have enough to worry about.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said, almost wanting to argue then deciding not to since he didn’t need his status as a man and a provider knocked down any further. They paused for a moment then she went off to bed.
After a day’s rest she drove down past Saint Johns Bridge to the nearest Penske depot. She took out the papers and a Penske employee looked over the truck. “I refilled the gas tank on my way out here,” she said with a smile. “I was warned that if I didn’t I’d get charged for a full tank. I don’t know if it got a little low on the drive out here but I did just refill it,” she said and continued to smile as she saw the young man notice the beauty mirror duct-taped to the smashed driver’s side mirror frame by the cracked windshield. “I bought the insurance too,” she said. “It should all be in the forms.”
“Yeah... it is,” he said, still staring at the riddle in front of him.
“Well great, I’ll be on my way with a receipt then, okay?”
“O... kay,” he said hesitantly as Bridget grabbed the receipt from him and rushed to Doug’s car and drove back to the island while muttering instructions about driving a clutch to herself. She thought it might have been dishonest to say she’d driven one before but she didn’t know when she’d ever get another chance to learn how to drive one and she was finding it wasn’t all that hard anyway, it was just a matter of getting enough practice.
Back at the house she chopped wood, built a fire, and warmed the house. Later she took out her laptop, connected to the Wi-Fi, and checked her e-mails. Then she went to the website of Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where singer-songwriter-activist-author-actress Jewel went as a teenager. She filled out a request for an informational pamphlet to be sent to Delilah in Minnesota. She did the same for Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, where Sarah McLachlan’s husband and drummer Ash Sood went. She found a few colleges in Minnesota and requested they send Delilah their information too. Then she put the computer down and walked away. It was all she could do for her, and more than she’d been obligated to do.
About Ava Collopy
Ava Collopy has been published in In Our Own Words, Pulse Literary Journal, Ascent Aspirations, and others. Her website, with samples of her work and more, is dreamscaperealities.weebly.com.
She’s from Oregon, has traveled around North America from Canada to Mexico, and currently resides in Ireland.
Michael B. Tager
Normally, Bernard didn’t pay much attention to what people bought when he was ringing them up. He’d had in the beginning, curious, but all too soon they just became a line of miscellany. They weren’t even groceries anymore, just bar codes and plastic. Last week, when a carton of orange juice, frozen tater tots, a home pregnancy test and a dozen eggs rolled by, he didn’t even blink. Not until a pale, slender hand touched his. “Bernard?” Denise asked.
Her hair was cut in a severe bob that didn’t suit her and her waist was a little thicker since graduation. Otherwise, she looked the same as she did at graduation the year before: a little mousey, a little forgettable. They weren’t close friends, but they’d known each other enough to say hello. Once, when they were sophomores, they’d shared a tipsy kiss during a game of spin-the-bottle. The kiss had taken all of three seconds, but he’d remembered how soft her lips were and how they tasted faintly of Juicy Fruit and clove cigarettes. Afterwards, whenever he saw her, Bernard’s heart would beat a little quicker in his chest. Even so, there was always a undercurrent of resentment, almost as if he liked her despite himself. There was little decision making; he kissed her and thus liked her.
He’d thought it was supposed to work differently.
She was still small, still somewhat forgettable, though Bernard felt the familiar beating of his heart when they stepped outside to catch up. He covered his eyes to block out the May sun while she talked. She’d left for college in Florida and come back after half a semester, she told him. “It wasn’t a nervous breakdown,” she said, though he hadn’t suggested it was. “It was more like I was there because that’s what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t for me.” She’d been on the way to failing before she drove home in the middle of the night. “It’s a long drive to Maryland, Bernie.”
“I met Will a few days after I got home,” she continued. “Moved in with him a few weeks later; he lives out in the country. He’s older.” There was an awkward pause as she seemed to search for words to say. It was if, Bernard thought, she just remembered that they weren’t particularly close friends. He wondered if it was often this way when all your real friends were gone. “You should come by sometime. You’ll like each other.” For no reason that Bernard discerned, he said yes and gave her his number.
Later that night, he called Nick to tell him the news. He’d been leaving messages the past few weeks – one here, another there – and had been searching for another excuse to call. Of all his friends, Nick was the one he’d stayed in the best contact with. It’s hard to be friends with people who’ve moved half-a-country away.
He answered after the tenth ring. If it had been his cell phone, he probably wouldn’t have answered at all. Dorm rooms, though, still came wired for land lines and savvy parents, he assumed, must love the ability to actually reach their kids. Bernard knew he found it handy.
“Nick, man. You won’t believe who I ran into,” he said. He wanted to jump right to when his friend was coming home so they could hang out, but he could wait a moment.
“Hey Bernie.” In the background, he heard loud voices and the popping sound of beer tabs. The silence stretched.
“So, you want to guess?”
“Yeah, hold on guys. Don’t start the game without me.” There was some mumbling and curses on the other side. “Look, Bernie, I gotta go. Kind of busy. I’ll see you in August, though.”
“August? I thought you were coming home in a couple weeks.” He’d been worried about this. Every summer before now, his friends and he went to the beach for a week of debauchery. But ever since his mother asked him to defer college, his friends slipped further away. He’d been accepted at University of Maryland, but his father’s sudden stroke had put a damper on his plans. Working the register at the Giant was not what Bernard envisioned
When he’d first gotten the job, his friends made it a point to stop by. “Sucks you can’t make it to the beach,” Nick had said during the last visit, when all their friends came, their smiles a hair too broad. He’d been dressed in his uniform: white shirts, green apron and Nick looked ready for the Summer, in a tank top, with bleached-by-the-sun hair. “We’ll miss you, you know. And we’ll do it again next summer.”
After that trip, they hadn’t come to visit him again and, when school began, the phone calls and emails and messages came less and less frequently. He sort of understood, as time went on, what his parents had always griped about. The only difference between the seasons was the irritation of getting to work. In the winter, his father’s Thunderbird wouldn’t defrost; in the summer, it boiled inside.
Nick answered while he sipped from a drink. “Nah, going up north with some people out here. I thought I told you.” A girl said something and Nick laughed. “Anyway man, sorry to cut this short. I got to go. See ya!” The phone clicked.
Bernard thought about calling the other guys: Daniel, Lindsay, Mark, but something told him that the situation would only be repeated. He’d been closest with Nick. In the year that had passed since he’d taken the job at the Giant, he hadn’t made a single friend. It was different when you worked. No one liked the same things as he did and he was an awkward age: everyone else was either super young, like sixteen, or grown up. No one wanted to talk about David Lynch movies or Kung-Fu. The kids didn’t care and the older folks knew all about it.
Most nights he just went home after work and hung out with his mother and his little sisters. After he gave Denise his number and after he hung up with Nick, he did just that. On the way, he stopped off at the Royal Farms and got a chicken box. The cashier, a big black dude who wore forty-niners gear no matter the season, knew his face well. Bernard tried to talk to him about football once, but he only knew the Ravens and no one on the team. Now he just kept quiet.
His phone blinked at him when he got back inside. The chicken put to one side, he flipped open the phone and read the text. “Feel like getting some Rita’s?” He didn’t recognize the number, but even so, he typed out, “Sure. Which one?” They both spelled things out, he noticed, instead of text speech. Such things drove him crazy. A second later, the address appeared and he replied, saying he’d be there in twenty minutes.
Rita’s was pretty empty when he got there, just a couple of kids running around the parking lot and an old couple sitting on a bench, splitting a single Italian Ice. In the little storefront, in one of the handful of chairs, sat Denise. She looked the same as earlier in the day, except she wore an ancient Orioles hat, the bill bent and wrinkled, an outdated graphic of the Oriole bird clutching a bat.
“Hey Denise,” he said when he walked inside, the young teller squinting at them, playing the are these two dating game that he liked to play himself sometimes. “Been here long?” She shook her head and stood. “Well, good.”
It wasm’t until they were ordering that Bernard wondered if it actually was a date. He knew that she had a boyfriend – Will? – but still, it felt kind of date-like. When was the last time he’d been on one of those? He’d asked a baker at the Giant out, only to find out she was married with three kids. They didn’t wear wedding rings in the bakery, he discovered. And he was also terrible at guessing ages, or reading signals.
They settled on small cherry ices and moved outside. “Glad you came out,” she said after a moment. “I didn’t think you would, so last minute and all.”
“Well, I don’t have much going on,” he replied, thinking about his chicken in the backseat. He’d eaten one wing on the way over. It was probably cold by now. “Just heading home to watch reruns with my family.”
“I don’t know. My sisters or my mom pick usually. My dad and I would usually watch the Os.” He paused and thought. “The girls aren’t too into it. Are you?” He pointed at her hat.
“Oh, me? No. This is Will’s. I use it when I’m ... working.”
“Oh.” Suddenly, he had nothing else to say. Neither did Denise, apparently, and they sat on the curb by his car. The other customers had left in the short time it took them to order and the only other cars in the parking lot was an blue pickup and a tiny Japanese car of indeterminate make. Bernard figured the truck was Denise’s. Or Will’s anyway.
Before long, their plastic spoons scraped on wet paper and Denise sighed. “Well, thanks for coming out, Bernie. This was fun.” She didn’t sound like she believed it herself, but Bernard nodded anyway.
“Yeah, this was great. We’ll have to do it again, soon.” He stood to walk her to her car, but she held out a hand for a shake instead. “See you later, Bernie,” and hurried to the pickup truck. When she drove away, clouds of smoke filled the parking lot.
When he got home, his mother and sisters were halfway through a movie. “You ok?” his mother asked. She looked nice, as if her new job agreed with her. She’d been working the past six months and he wondered if his meager income was really needed. His deferment from the University of Maryland was only good for a year. He’d received a letter just the other day about that. He hadn’t broached the subject, though. “You’re a little late.”
“I guess so,” he said. On his ride back, he’d tried calling his other friends. None had picked up. “I think I’m going to go to bed.” His sisters didn’t even look at him. Lying in the single bed he’d been sleeping in since grade school, he wondered just what he was doing. Why was he still here? He didn’t have anything tying him here, did he? He wasn’t sure. Family meant something, didn’t it? When he fell asleep, he certainly hadn’t come to any conclusions.
Three days later, Denise called and said to come to her boyfriend’s house for a drink. He hadn’t done anything since seeing her for Rita’s except work and watch movies with his family, movies he didn’t know the names of, so he said, “Sure, why not?” immediately.
The drive wasn’t long; maybe ten minutes from his mother’s home, where he still stayed. He followed the directions, driving his father’s old red Ford and pulled up to a large, country-chic house. While the car idled, he picked up an opened envelope lying on the passenger seat. He turned it over in his hands, shook his head and shoved it in the glove box.
When the front door opened, he was more than a little surprised and chagrined to see Mr. Aviles answer the door. He known he was supposed to be older, but Mr. Aviles didn’t seem like a retired Physics teacher dating a woman a quarter his age; he belonged on the Serengeti, hunting elephants. He was ... intimidating, large, he took up space. Bernard struggled to fill his own bedroom.
Mr. Aviles had large, even teeth stained yellow. He held a cigar in his huge, hairy hand. White tufts burst from his knuckles and sprouted along his wrist. Mr. Aviles’s face was hidden by a white mane. “Denise is upstairs,” he said, shaking Bernard’s hand. “Why don’t you sit down, drink a beer?”
He was guided through the eclectic old house, decorated with bohemian rugs and country charm side-by-side. Animal heads stared from the wall, shag carpets ate his footsteps and pictures of dead French jazz musicians took up mantel space (he assumed they were dead and French, anyway. They had long, thin cigarettes and berets). Everything was spotless, old and well-maintained. Only the kitchen was modern, filled with stainless steel appliances and a flat-screen TV, on, muted and turned to ESPN.
“I know you, don’t I ...,” Mr. Aviles started when they stepped outside. They admired the flowers ringing the patio - red, yellow, purple - in different stages of bloom. A Croquet match was set up in the middle of the expansive yard; it looked like the red ball was a hit or two away from victory. The field verged on a copse of trees and beyond that, darkened woods. The only noise was the chirping of birds crickets. Bernard found himself falling into a sort of trance. He was unused to the country.
“Yes, of course,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Sorry, names escape me. But I do know you, though?”
“No sir, not really. I mean, a little.” Seeing a lack of recognition, Bernard continued. “I took Physics last year.” He smiled and added, “Not my thing but you gave me a B minus.”
“Hmm ..., guess so.” Mr. Aviles motioned for Bernard to sit and handed him a beer from a cooler at his feet. “You don’t have to call me ‘sir’. Call me Will.” Bernard nodded and they sat in silence for some time. Mr. Aviles turned on a radio and found the O’s game before going inside. He returned shortly, carrying an easel and some paints. He set it up and turned to it, leaving Bernard to his thoughts.
“Maybe you know my mother, Helen,” Bernard said as the silence grew long. Mr. Aviles glanced over from his painting. “She used to work at the high school back in the 80s; she taught English. Helen Delano.”
“Yeah, I remember her. How is she?” Mr. Aviles turned to his painting again, but kept on listening.
“She’s fine, better now. Working again,” Bernard said.
“Was she not working before? She left the school and I just assumed ...”
Bernard didn’t normally like talking about his family, but he felt reckless. “Well, she stopped working when she married my dad. She was pregnant with me, you know.” Mr. Aviles shook his head, no. “Yeah, well, anyway, she had to scramble to get a job last year. It took a while, but she’s working over at the factory, doing administration stuff.”
“Ah. I see. And so you’re going to school, I assume. Denise said something about a scholarship.”
“Did she?” Bernard was surprised. He hadn’t told many people and wondered how Denise knew. “Well, I was going to, but my mom asked me to defer for a year when my dad died. Stay home and help out with a job, with my sisters.” Mr. Aviles stopped painting for a second, and Bernard continued. “She asked me about it again the other day. If I’d put it off for another year.”
“I don’t know. I guess. I can always go back later.” Bernard ran out of things to say, all of a sudden. He often did, when discussing the future and choices he had to make. He was never sure which direction to go. His mother had so many good points about staying home, saving money, getting experience and helping her with everything. He owed it to her, maybe.
“Reckon so,” Mr. Aviles said. There didn’t seem to be much to say to that, so Bernard let the silence lapse. After a moment and a few sips, he sighed.
“What’s Denise doing upstairs?” he asked Mr. Aviles, who shrugged.
“I imagine she’s cleaning herself up. I fixed her up with a studio; she likes to paint, you know.”
“I didn’t, actually.”
“No? I thought you were friends?” He raised one bushy eye at Bernard.
“I don’t know if we were friends,” Bernard thought for a moment. “We knew each other. I thought she was nice, if that’s what you mean.”
“No.” Mr. Aviles frowned and took a sip of beer. “That’s not what I meant.” Bernard waited for him to finish and thought about the future while they drank in increasingly uncomfortable silence. The letter in his car had come just today from the University of Maryland. They wanted to know if he was going to defer again.
Bernard jumped when one of Mr. Aviles’s paws thumped his shoulder. Mr. Aviles asked, “You ok there, son?”, his voice low and melodic. “Didn’t mean to startle you.” He offered Bernard a cigar and he put the letter from his mind, grinned
“You didn’t startle me.” Bernard’s voice cracked and he winced. He’d read that men’s voices subconsciously deepen when they think they can kick another man’s ass and rise when intimidated. He wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but a case could be made. Mr. Aviles was just so much taller, broader, wider, thicker. In every measureable way, Mr. Aviles dwarfed Bernard. “I was just thinking.” He accepted the proffered cigar and put it between his teeth. He felt awkward, but slightly more manly.
The older man lit Bernard’s cigar and leaned back to watch the setting sun as the Orioles lost another one to the Padres. Maybe the beer had helped; Bernard felt his muscles relax as the darkening sun set off the flowers in a riot of color. Mr. Aviles leaned over his chair occasionally as the long minutes passed and applied a paintbrush into the swirl of color that vaguely resembled the backyard.
“It’s nice out here,” he said to Mr. Aviles after several moments of smoking. “I’d be out here every night, if I could.”
“Would you now?” Mr. Aviles asked, raising one bushy eyebrow. “Denise is out here all the time, futzing with the flowers and all.”
Mr. Aviles nodded and sucked on his cigar, letting out plumes of smoke. Bernard imitated him, with minimal success. During a coughing fit, Mr. Aviles said, “Try not to inhale, son. It works ... poorly.”
“I’m sure,” Bernard said, in between gasps. “I was just thinking and, um, forgot.”
“You think a lot, it seems.” Mr Aviles laughed. “Thinking is good,”
“Thinking is good?” he asked. He wasn’t sure how to take that. It seemed so obvious. “Are you being sarcastic?”
Mr. Aviles laughed. “Of course not. I mean just that: thinking is good. Denise is all in her head all the time. She comes up with the craziest shit. You’d think I’d be prepared, but I never am.”
“I see.” He wasn’t sure he did.
“You’re a thinker. I’m not, never have been.”
“But ...,” He trailed off and Mr. Aviles cut him short with a look. He opened his mouth to continue, but as he did, the glass door opened.
“Hey boys,” Denise said. Mr. Aviles stood when she walked over and Bernard aped him, albeit slowly. “Don’t get up,” she said.
“Too late, eh?’ Will said, leaning in for a kiss. It started innocently enough, Bernard thought, but it swiftly became less so. He turned his head and blanched when the kiss deepened. He couldn’t help but think of their ages. Denise was the same age as him: nineteen. Meanwhile, Mr. Aviles was easily in his sixties. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw them break. Mr. Aviles’s beard looked damp.
“Hey Denise,” he said, holding up his near-empty beer as if to toast. Her hair in a simple ponytail, flecks of paint splattered her face. She wore old coveralls, also covered in paint. “Good to see you.”
“Sorry about the mess,” she touched her cheek and clothes. “I sort of lost track of time.”
“Denise is quite the artist,” Mr. Aviles put his large hand on her shoulder. Bernard noticed that his palm could almost swallow her head. “I’m quite proud of her.”
She frowned and squirmed under his hand. “They’re nothing,” she said.
“No, really. She’s very good. Better than me,” he said, flipping his brush at his easel. When the painting toppled over, he chuckled, unconcerned. “Show him your paintings, darling.” Mr. Aviles spoke quickly, grabbed Bernard and Denise’s hands, pushed them toward the door. “Come back when you’re done.”
They stared at each other in the large kitchen as the door closed behind them. Bernard’s hand and shoulder itched from where they were pushed/pulled. He hated being directed like that, like he was a child, unable to take initiative. He shrugged it off; outside, Mr. Aviles walked away, toward the croquet set. Denise shrugged.
“He plays against himself, you know.”
“Really?” Bernard laughed.
“Yeah, really. He says it keeps his mind working. He plays chess against himself, too.” She pointed toward a chess set on the kitchen counter. Black was losing, badly. “He plays one move a day, alternating sides. He’s not very good, though.” She stood there a moment and said, “Come on.”
They walked through the large house in silence; Bernard’s shoes lost in the plush carpets. He blushed when he noticed Denise’s bare feet. He slipped off his own shoes at the front door. When they reached the stairs, Denise hesitated at a collage of pictures on the wall before passing them and heading upstairs. Bernard stopped and saw all the smiling faces: children and families, all clearly related to Mr. Aviles. “Who are these people?” he asked.
“Will’s children and their kids,” she said without turning. She disappeared around a corner and Bernard hurried up the stairs. “Right through here.” She pointed at a door to their right. When he paused, she jerked her head. Bernard pushed the door open.
Almost all of the wall space was taken by oil paintings. The colors were dark: reds and deep purples and browns and blacks. Children with alien-large eyes held the hands of demons in one painting. On another, vehicles of fire rode through buildings. One painting captured his attention, than he was caught by another. “These are ... something,” he said, discomfited.
“They’re a little dark,” she said from behind him. “I know it’s weird.”
“You don’t seem ...,” he looked for the words.
Bernard thought. “I guess.” He wandered around the room. He came to the canvas set in the middle of the room that caught the last of the sun’s rays. “I guess I don’t know you that well,” he said. The painting was half-finished, the paint wet. In it, a naked woman stretched out on a mattress of flowers, her waist half severed. She smiled.
“Will wants me to express myself. He says that it’ll, I don’t know, help.” She laughed, but to Bernard, it sounded like a choke. “Will says a lot.”
“That so?” Bernard wasn’t convinced. In the thirty minutes they’d been outside, Mr. Aviles had barely spoken ten sentences.
“My friends make him nervous. Not that I have many around here anymore, but I invited two girls over a couple weeks ago. He didn’t know how to act around them; one of them was in his last class before he retired. He tried talking about Hip-Hop; stayed up watching BET the night before. It didn’t work well so he wound up lecturing us on the history of Rock n Roll. He said they made him feel old.” She picked up a brush and dipped it in paint before putting it to the canvas. “Not sure why.” She grinned.
They stood there in silence while Denise painted and Bernard observed. Though the finished paintings depicted disturbing things, they didn’t make him feel particularly uncomfortable. “These are really good. He was right.”
“He tries to show me off, sometimes. It can get weird; we went to his buddy’s house to fish a few weeks back. He wanted me to wear this little bikini. The old dudes ...,” She frowned at the painting. “You know, I thought I was pregnant. When I saw you the other day.”
“I’m not. I got my period yesterday.” Bernard shifted his weight from one foot to another and waited. “I didn’t tell him.” She turned to face him. “I’m not planning on it, either.”
“Sorry to lay this all on you. It’s just that ... I don’t really have anyone else to talk to about it. Even if I wanted to tell my parents about this, they don’t want to hear about me and Will. They don’t. Um. Approve.” While she spoke, her hand holding the paint brush attacked the canvas. Bernard was fascinated as the violent scene took on form. Clouds formed, not happy ones, but masses full of darkness. A hand from the sky came down through the clouds and grasped the woman, nails gouging and ripping. As Denise painted, the woman’s smile became larger, desperate. It made Bernard, queasy, yet not as much as he would have expected.
When the light from outside faded completely, Denise laid her brush down. “Let’s go,” she said. She took Bernard’s hand in the near-dark, their fingers fumbling. Bernard felt a shock as they connected. “Will’s waiting downstairs, I’m sure.”
The old wood echoed their bare footsteps. They didn’t speak or let go of each other’s hands. When they got to the patio door, Bernard paused. “It’s getting late,” he said.
“Yeah. You probably need to get home, don’t you?”
“Little bit. I work tomorrow morning and my mom asked me to come home early, help her around the house.” He thought for a moment. “She’s probably home by now. It took a while for that to happen.”
“For what?” Denise looked confused.
“Her to find a job. It’s why I didn’t go to college, you know? She wasn’t working when my dad died and everything...”
“So you could go back now? If you wanted to.” She paused. “To college, I mean.”
“I could. I’ve thought about it. I got a letter the other day saying I could re-enroll.” He fell silent. “It’s getting late. I really should go now.”
Denise nodded. “You should come back over sometime. The three of us can ...,” she trailed off.
“For sure.” He let go of her hand and took a step back. Then he held his hand up again, awkward. “Good to see you, Denise,” he said, waiting until she followed his lead. They high-fived, limp-wristed. “I know the way out.”
Bernard turned and went through the kitchen. He listened for the sound of the glass door to the patio and didn’t hear it. He felt her stare. At the front door, he fumbled with his shoes and waited for Denise to appear. When she didn’t, he opened the door and walked outside.
It was pitch black outside and he could barely see his car where it waited on the gravel driveway. Somehow, though, he could see the outline of Mr. Aviles where he leaned against the hood.
“Just inspecting your car, son. It’s nice. Firebird?”
“I guess so, sir.” Bernard looked at it in the darkness. It looked like a car to him. “It’s my father’s.”
“Ah. I see. I like cars, got a few of them. Some from when I was younger, some I bought a couple years ago, ‘cause fuck it, I’m old and I want them. I talk to Denise about cars sometimes. She doesn’t seem to care much.” Bernard didn’t know how to respond, so said nothing. Mr. Aviles turned to him and even in the dark, it was obvious he wanted to say something. Finally, he blurted out. “She’s lonely up here, son,” he said. “She’s a special girl, you know that, right?”
“I suppose so.” He paused. “I don’t really know her that well.”
“She told me about you, Bernard. Said you guys dated back in high school.”
“I don’t know if I would call it dating, sir ...”
“I told you not to call me sir.” There was a smile in his voice. “Whatever you’d call it, she told me about it. She was excited when she said you were coming to visit. You think I’m blind?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Mr. Aviles studied him in the dark. “You don’t, do you? That’s refreshing. Boy, I’m old and she’s young. She’s confused and I’m lucky, but I have grandchildren older than her.” His laugh had no mirth in it. “Her parents want to kill me and my children want to kill her, afraid she’s trying to get something over on me. They don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what sir – I mean, Will?”
“I’m just here until she figures out what she wants and grows up. She’s here until I decide I’m old and going to die.” He coughed, continued. “It isn’t bad; we’re just two lonely people using each other. But she’s going to need to go back to people her own age. Like you. And I’m not asking you to take her from me (that’d be strange, don’t you think?) but she needs a friend. You understand me?”
“Not really.” But he did, kind of. They were lost and alone, all three of them, treading water. He wanted to tell Mr. Aviles how he felt, how all his friends had left and how there was nothing for him here. But he still didn’t know how. “Maybe.”
“Good. All I can ask is you be her friend. You don’t have to do it.” Mr. Aviles – Will – stuck out his hand. He shook, matching Will’s grip with effort. “You have a good night, Bernard. Hope to see you soon.” He went inside, leaving Bernard alone.
The drive went quickly, Bernard on auto-pilot. They wanted him to come back, which was nice. He hadn’t made a friend in quite some time. And Denise was ... what was she? When he pulled up to his mother’s house, he still wasn’t sure.
He turned the engine off and stared at his mother’s house. It wasn’t anything remarkable: a small three bedroom brick building with a small deck and fenced in backyard. He slept in the attic, his young sisters and mother in the bedrooms. He’d been here for a long time. Bernard was getting older and he felt stifled. He wanted to decide something, anything for himself.
Just then, his cell phone rang. He looked at the display, clearly outlined in the darkness and saw the name Denise flashing over and over. He started to pick it up, hesitated, and let it ring itself out. When it stopped, he looked at his mother’s house in front of him. He turned to the back seat and saw his uniform, hanging, neatly pressed and waiting for tomorrow. He groaned.
Bernard reached over the passenger’s seat and flipped open the glove box. The letter from the University of Maryland lay there. He grabbed it and pulled out the application to re-enroll. “Better do something,” he said. He turned the car on and pulled out of the driveway, wondering where he could find stamps at this time of night.
Right on Cue
Like many 16 year olds, Billy hated school, and he constantly compared Kennedy High School to the concentration camps of the Holocaust, although he knew it was wrong to do so. He was fine with going to class, and almost always got straight A’s, but despised the other students who knew him since Kindergarten and tormented him daily. When he read Kerouac at lunch, a popular guy would slap him over the head with the book, and call him a “fag.” When he blushed while talking to a pretty girl, he would soon hear her snickering about it with her friends and calling him an “ugly retard,” and make fun of his acne. When he was forced to play volleyball in gym, another jock type pulled his shorts down while he reached upwards for the ball, and everyone including the coach laughed at him and absolutely nothing was done about anything. That’s how it went every single day. It was like his peers figured out new methods of torture especially for him, rather than doing their algebra equations every night; all in preparation for the next day- well, almost every day.
Life at home wasn’t any easier. Both his parents were alcoholics and lived off Social Security and his father’s VA Disability checks in a three bedroom apartment about two miles farther than where the other kids lived, while the rest of his class lived in white picket fenced suburban palaces, most likely with two cars, siblings and a dog in the yard. He was also probably the only student in his 11th grade class who didn’t own a car. He only owned three pairs of jeans, four t-shirts, and two sweaters, which he had been rotating continuously for the past three years. Despite his impressive GPA, unless he got a substantial scholarship, college seemed far out of the picture. Unless he got a decent job, he couldn’t even afford the application fees. And how would he get a decent job without driving, and his two parents were always too drunk by noon to drop him off. At least the bus took him to school, just like the trains took the Jews off to Auschwitz he’d imagine. There didn’t seem to be a way out of this hole and the future looked bleaker and darker the older he got. I will never fit in anywhere, ran through his head as a constant mantra. He figured he might just join the Army when he graduated. That seemed like the only way out of all of this nothingness.
Like many a troubled kid, Billy was intrigued by Columbine and other mass shootings, although he knew in his heart he would or could never do it. Despite the fact that his Vietnam Vet father had once been an avid hunter, before becoming a full time lush, and had enough guns and ammo in his possession to pull it off, he knew he never could. He respected art and beauty and even life at times too much to become a murderer. As his dad would say, he was just too sensitive and lost in his own thick skull.
Suicide often crossed his mind, but he figured what solution would that be if nobody would miss him; and what if there really was a hell like Dante wrote about specifically for suicides? He was scared of the Inferno but life often seemed so much worse. His only hobbies were reading, writing short stories, and watching old movies. The kind the kids at school had never heard of. He was an obvious virgin and desperately wanted old Hollywood romance, but had never even masturbated. He wanted love from Lauren Bacall or Lana Turner, not the cheerleaders who called him a mongoloid in the hallways between classes.
One afternoon, during the middle of the school year, he saw a flyer for auditions for a play adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Although, he never acted before, Billy decided to sign up since it was one of his favorite novels, and he would love to do it since he knew the book back and front, even though he probably wouldn’t land one of the leading roles, he’d give it his best shot and signed up on the flyer for an audition after school in two days. It raised his spirits considerably to be doing something different for a change.
He originally read for Gatsby, giving the Drama teacher his most pompous “Old Sport,” but also read for Nick Caraway, as he also longed to recite the novels’ famous, and in his own opinion, one of the very best, closing lines in English Literature. The Drama teacher was noticeably impressed, especially because Billy already knew pretty much all the lines, but when the cast list was posted the following week, to his utter dismay, he saw he was cast as George Wilson.
Figures, he thought, I get to be the dumb mechanic, while the two of the most popular kids get Gatsby and Nick. The kid, who landed Gatsby’s role, Scott Matheson, was one of his constant tormentors to add insult to injury. He was of the football set, so why the hell would he want to be in a school play? Oh well, at least I get to shoot the bastard at the end, he muttered to no one but himself.
When he went home that night, he told his parents who were already deep into their daily supply of whiskey and wine. While they were continuously drunk, they were never the violent argumentative types. They were much more likely to just pass out in strange places and say stupid things than engage in any kind of abuse or real interest in anything but liquor.
It was the seizures that scared him. Once when his Mom said she was quitting drinking for a week, she threw a raging Grand Mal right in front of Billy, scarring her face on the kitchen sink in her fall, mere minutes after he came home from school. He heard the crash and called 911 since his Dad was already passed out and couldn’t be roused, while Mom flopped around the linoleum like a dying fish gasping for air. That was how he learned if they quit drinking they could die, so he just took it all in stride after that first scare.
Billy asked them, as they watched television, “I am going to be in a school play, The Great Gatsby, in a month. Do you want to go?”
“Sure bud,” his dad replied, then took a swig from his iced glass of Kessler’s.
“Sounds great Son,” his mom said, “We’ll go. Won’t we?”
His father nodded, and took another swig and although Billy was less than infatuated with the role of George Wilson, he beamed with pride.
“Thanks guys. I got to go study. I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Go hit those books Tiger,” his dad slurred, thinking of baseball yet again. “Good going Kiddo.”
He went and did his homework as Kurt Cobain howled in the background. Finally, maybe, he had found some footing in this world.
When rehearsals began, the daily abuse of Billy increased three fold. The first day someone smeared dog shit on his locker. Three days later, Scott and a group of his buddies drove past him in a Range Rover as he was standing at the bus-stop, and hit him in the back with an aluminum baseball bat. He recognized him and the rest of the crew from their letterman jackets, but didn’t say anything to anyone. The following week, while showering after swimming in Gym, a towel was thrown over his head and he was attacked by several unknown laughing shadow figures and left on the tile floor whimpering in agony like a puppy. He now was starting to ponder other plans.
The rehearsals continued, and were becoming increasingly nothing to Billy. George Wilson had so few lines he had them down the first day. He just kept going, despite his boredom, because he wanted to feel what it was like to be on stage. That and to kill Scott while he was floating in his luxurious swimming pool.
The dress rehearsals went off without a hitch and before he knew it, it was opening night. Most of the school was forced to attend by their English and Drama teachers so the gymnasium, usually reserved for pep-rallies, was packed. He was sure Scott’s popularity also added to the enthusiasm. Like they had said, both Billy’s parents came, although they took a taxi to avoid catching any more DUI’s.
The play was only an hour and a half long, and Billy only appeared sporadically, stumbling over his lines as stupidly imperfect as his character seemed to entail. Finally, there came the finale, the moment Billy had patiently been waiting for. Scott was wearing swimming trunks and sunglasses, lying on a floating mattress over a blue tarp meant to symbolize a swimming pool. Billy came out of the shadows of Stage Left, wearing greasy overalls and a purposefully unkempt head of hair. He fingered his father’s old .45 service pistol he had taken from his closet that very morning, which was now concealed in his overall’s bib. The cap-gun the drama department supplied him with just sat uselessly in his right hip pocket. He wasn’t going to kill Scott. He was just going to scare him the shit out of him.
On cue, Billy pulled out his father’s pistol and shot twice at the tarp and into the ground but deliberately missing the football player’s body. Scott jumped upwards, obviously terrified, while the rest of the crowd started questioning each other whether those were real gunshots. Billy knew his father would know what they were instantly, and most likely recognized the pistol if he hadn’t imbibed too much liquor before his only son’s stage premiere.
Just as in the story, Billy raised the handgun to his own head, right by the plastic bushes where the “gardener” and Nick would find him. Smiling a simultaneously extraordinary and serene smile, a smile he’d never shown the world before, pulled the trigger without the slightest hesitation. The splatter on the stage showed everyone witnessing that this was indeed a literal suicide not just another act overblown for the stage.
First the Principal and Vice-Principal, and the very same coaches that laughed at and ignored him rushed the stage, shortly followed by the staggering and blubbering of his parents. Billy had blown a hole clear between his eyes, a third eye which still stared onwards- between the two baby blues long broken and begotten; but it was the smile...with a small amount of blood smearing the left side of his lips, like Judy Garland’s lipstick, that firmly held it’s mark. While it was obviously noted that he was no longer breathing. Billy was far, far away...but still silently dreaming- just like a boat borne ceaselessly back out of his almost predetermined to be poor, loveless and lonely past.
Linda Cancer (V3)
Michael Lee Johnson
Doctor report $223,694.23
in debt, confirm I am ill.
This chemotherapy kills not this cancer, but me.
I walk around during
my day knowing I am dying of cancer.
I place smiles on my face as a testimony of courage.
Hopscotch, the games begin.
Tumors traveling from a hangman’s noose
around my aorta, it squeezes it dances in laughter,
it skips out, hops, shoves the savagery of itself
like a small canon ball up my cranium.
It spreads like morphine; overdose of Coumadin.
This cleavage of cancer is sleazy.
I own a mask of many colors
hallucinate on my face.
I transform my children.
I preempt being a divorced marriage closer.
Extra time is the slut of my life, yes, redemption.
This ill-fit wig comes alive on my baldhead.
I stare psychopathically into the daylight, the night.
I have passed through tar pitched negativity.
I have bleached my friends, my Jesus, church choir,
my children drenched in reality.
I know the devil seeks sleep not life.
I rebel show love, character to all.
I watched myself watch my daughter marry lover early October 2009.
I refuse to beg or curse God; I still sing in a local church choir.
I do not know what is more potent, revengeful.
I hand delete many sentences in my life.
Death only is perfect and so quiet.
I play duty who is conductor of this symphony.
Death only is tags, strings attached like cello,
malformations, verbal stutter hawk of philosophy.
Jesus cramps in devil for vacations.
Life is a wrester of issues, engaged, with others.
My breath is short, explosions of happiness.
My words and my life are short.
I remember my true friends at our condominium.
I am a female soldier of positive thought.
I bank deposits on all my friends.
Last, my days I switch over Halloween
to summer carnivals, circus acts.
Those suppers you offered I remember.
Now in heaven I spend my time in transitions.
I find myself in fragments at times like most poets.
These dark skies are turning florescent yellow dawn.
Tell Michael, on our condominium board; he needs to learn to write,
check his spelling and grammar; keep working hard at this poem.
Being here I roller skate to music from the sixties:
Sweet Caroline/You Lost That Loving Feeling/It’s The Same Old Song.
I now toss candy kisses on surfaces of clouds beneath me,
squeeze these last stripes of licorice candy make it all melt.
That chemotherapy killed not my cancer, but me.
I freeze fragments of it, poison in a jar,
turn loose chemo to flames of sun.
Send me postcard from earth, run away.
Last doctor reports $453,495.32.
Debt confirms I was ill.
I have seen the future and it sucks. Not the future itself, although I guess that’s a matter of personal taste. What sucks is being able to see it all the time.
Since I was ten, I’ve been able to see two seconds into the future. The first day it happened, I thought I was going crazy, barely able to walk straight as the echoes overwhelmed me. Now, seven years later, I’m still dealing with this stupid problem.
This has to be the worst superpower ever. Teachers always come down on me because I seem to be distracted all the time, and I want to tell them to try watching TV, talking on the phone, and reading all at the same time. At least one of the three is going to suffer.
What sucks even more is that I can’t do anything about what I see. I mean, how cool would that have been, right? I could have, like, killed at blackjack or something. You know that old movie “The Terminator”? “There’s no fate but what we make?” I hate to tell you this, but that’s bullcrap. I get a two- second preview of what’s about to happen and can’t do a freakin’ thing to change it. I don’t pretend to understand any of this, but I think it says a lot about how we are victims of fate, born to follow a particular path that nothing in the universe can change. Kind of a buzzkill, right? Goodbye, hope. Welcome to my world.
There are so many times when I could really do without a sneak preview,too . Like yesterday. Jimmy Collins decides to sucker punch me in gym class and I see it coming. Then, of course, I have to wait for it to actually happen. One? Mississippi, two-Mississippi, kapow. I couldn’t duck, dodge,or run away. All I could do was keep smiling like an idiot until that fist hit me in the face.
Or that time in math class. Mr. Eckhart had me working out a problemat the board and I’m just copying what I see in the echoes, knowing in two seconds I’m going to make a dumb mistake and the teacher is going to humiliate me in front of everybody.
See what I mean? Sucks, right? Of course, there is the occasional upside, like the time I made it to second base with Melissa Wilson. That was something I really didn’t mind seeing more than once. I n fact, I wished I had the ability to tack on an instant replay.
Still, I really hate my life sometimes. I can either be here in the now trying to ignore the echoes, or I can focus on what’s about to happen and tune out the now. Either way, I’m devoting way too much brain power just coping with seeing a preview of my life instead of being able to actually live it.
The worst, though, was when I saw my own death. I was probably distracted as always as I stepped off the curb right in front of the bus, the driver’s face a mixture of horror and surprise as she realized she had no room to swerve or brake . All she could do was watch as I smacked into the grille. Then, it was over.
That’s when the echoes stopped. I couldn’t believe it, my head clear for the first time in years . I knew I only had a couple of seconds to enjoy it before it would all be over and tried to savor every millisecond of the peace.
I was so happy because of the lack of echoes, I didn’t even notice myself step off the curb, but I did make eye contact with the panicked driver and gave her a big smile. She would never know what an amazing gift she gave me, never know how happy my last moments were.
So, like I said, my future didn’t exactly suck. For someone stuck riding the rails of destiny, it could have been worse. I mean, most people don’t get a parting gift.
Simon Hardy Butler
After his wife died, Jimmy began installing screens in his apartment. He placed one over each window, then bought a couple more to separate the kitchen from the dining room. When his friend Robert visited only a month after Mary’s death, he said it “felt like jail.” Jimmy took offense.
“It’s protection,” he said. “You want insects in your building?”
The problem was, it didn’t stop there. More screens followed, which Jimmy kept in a pile beside his bed. He stood a few against the wall, stored others in his closets. Robert decided he was a hoarder, but Jimmy shook his head at the word.
“You don’t want things coming into your home,” he said. “They could ruin your life.”
“Don’t you think you’re doing just that?” Robert asked.
Jimmy made a face. At 60 years old, he was too young to be a widower, but it was a fact, and he had to live with it. Mary’s cancer was devious; it came up quickly after she stopped smoking, as if punishing her for the practice. He wasn’t there when she died in the hospital – he was in transit, stuck on Lexington Avenue – and blamed the traffic for her demise. “If I took the subway,” he said, “I’d have been there, saved her.”
The doctor, of course, said there was nothing he could do. Jimmy, however, knew he was lying.
At the funeral, Robert spoke about the temporary nature of life. He said when he first met Mary, she reminded him of a girlfriend from long ago. Jimmy then spoke up and said that never happened. “She didn’t remind you of anyone,” he snapped.
People forgave him – they realized he was distraught – but Robert wondered if this was the start of a larger issue. Soon after, Jimmy punched a hole in one of his window screens and took it down before installing a new one. He then punched a hole in that screen, too.
“Thankfully, I have extras,” he said to Robert at dinner one night. His friend, a psychologist specializing in OCD behavior, pointed to his irrationality.
“Let me be irrational, then,” barked Jimmy, hitting the table with his fist. A bit of foam spilled from his beer to the surface. Robert frowned.
“You can’t cope,” he said, “so you’re starting patterns. Bad patterns. You need a hobby.”
“Do I? Painting stinks. I haven’t written for years. What would I be good at?”
“You could go back to writing, maybe blogging. You don’t lose the knack for that.”
Jimmy tapped his glass with a fingernail. “Mary said I couldn’t write. Not for shit.”
“She was joking. She really loved it.”
“She loved me – not my writing.”
“Sometimes people aren’t good judges. Mary was a sweetheart, but she wasn’t a connoisseur. She didn’t even write herself.”
“You don’t need to,” Jimmy opined, “to tell other people how to do it.”
With that, he picked up his plate and brought it to the kitchen. Robert’s still had food on it, the remains of a T-bone steak still on the bone. Peas and carrots, too. He gazed at the food, thinking that it somehow was like his friend, half-finished ... and then discarded. He took another bite, then pushed it away.
“You having coffee?” Jimmy asked from the kitchen.
The next day, Robert called to make sure his buddy wasn’t punching things again. Jimmy said he’d taken up writing.
“Against Mary’s wishes,” he joked.
“She’d appreciate it,” said Robert, with a chuckle. “At least she’d be polite.”
“No, she wouldn’t.”
Apparently, the first thing Jimmy wrote about was meeting Mary, a short story about their first date. They’d met in a coffee shop on First Avenue the day after Christmas about 30 years ago. She’d ordered a hamburger; he was trying to figure out why they wouldn’t serve him beer.
“But you have it on the menu,” he protested.
The waiter brushed him off. “They have it on the menu,” he said to Mary.
“I like wine instead,” she said.
“Hate it,” Jimmy muttered.
It was a blind date, one where the participants don’t like each other immediately, but begin to show affection once they get out of the appointed restaurant. Walking down the street, they came across a derelict by the garbage can. Jimmy gave him five bucks, despite being out of work.
“Good sir,” said Mary, dancing in front of him, “wouldst thou give me money, too? I’m hungry and poor.”
“Aye, but I’m poor, too,” Jimmy said, laughing. The derelict didn’t find it funny.
“Just wait until you find yourself here,” he said to them. “When your friends disappear and you’re stuck with bullshit. You won’t be laughing then.”
Mary let out a guffaw, and they decided to cross the street so as not to offend the fellow anymore. At the light, they had their first kiss. Jimmy tasted her lip gloss, grape, and she felt around his solid white teeth with her tongue. Then they lit cigarettes and smoked a bit before holding hands.
“I never met someone so open,” she told him.
“What?” he said. “I’m always on the defensive.”
“Not you. You’re transparent. I understand you. We’re like sandwiches.”
“Sandwiches.” What kind? Jimmy wondered. But he didn’t ask. She told him.
“Club sandwiches,” she said, and shrieked with laughter. “I’m the lettuce,” she added. “You’re the chicken ... and the bacon.”
“I want to be the lettuce,” he said.
“Oh, yeah. We’ll hire someone.”
Robert smiled after hearing Jimmy recount this. “Maybe I’m the tomato,” he said.
“We didn’t have any,” Jimmy noted. “It was a tomato-less club sandwich.”
There was something mournful in his voice, despite the silly context. It was like he missed the conversation, all that nonsense. Robert tried to perk him up.
“You and I, we’re both 60,” he said, though he actually was 58. “How about we go to Coney Island, check out the aquarium? When was the last time you went to the aquarium?”
“I don’t know ... before Mary died.”
“That’s why I’m asking. Why don’t we do that? It’ll get your mind off death. Off Mary.”
Jimmy sighed. “What will we see? Some stupid fish and a couple of whales? A few sea lions do tricks?”
“Maybe it’ll rain,” Robert said. “Then the only thing you’ll see is the otters.”
“I hope it rains,” Jimmy said.
It turned out he didn’t, and they went to the aquarium on Coney Island that Saturday. It was packed, but they were able to visit the tanks and see a show, as well as watch the penguins get fed. Jimmy told Robert that the reason he stopped writing was that he had nothing to write about anymore – except his life. Was that worthy? he wondered.
“Sure,” Robert said, as a seagull stole some fish from a penguin’s beak. “Look at that – what a bastard.”
“I once stole a pack of gum when I was a child,” Jimmy said. “They never caught me.”
“I’m catching you right now,” Robert snapped, taking his friend’s wrist.
One of the penguins dove into the water and swam right near them, his undersides visible through the glass. Jimmy stopped horsing around and watched.
“You know,” he said, “if this was a screen, the water would drown us.”
“Or we’d run away,” Robert said.
“I’m glad it’s not. I’m glad the animals are separated. You know? I’m glad there’s one thing and another, and we’ve got the right boundaries.”
His pal gazed at him. “You need therapy,” he said, as he let his wrist go.
In reality, Jimmy was seeing a therapist, but he didn’t like him, so he often cancelled appointments. “The guy’s so damn critical,” he said while digging into his burger at the café. “He never says, ‘Oh, you’re mourning.’ Instead, he’s like, ‘Why are you complaining?’ I’m complaining because I’m mourning. He doesn’t get it.”
“You should get a new therapist,” Robert said.
“Then he told me I should go to one of those groups. They’re for idiots. I can’t do that. I mourn privately.”
“Except to me. You complain all the time.”
“True.” It was obvious he was feeling better. The sun was blistering; Robert wished he was one of the penguins in the pool. Jimmy, however, didn’t wish anything. He noticed a young woman cutting up a hot dog for her toddler.
“Good thing I don’t have that,” he said.
“I always thought you’d be a good daddy,” Robert said.
“Mary and I didn’t want kids. And I don’t want someone holding my hand when I die. I want to be alone, comfortable. I want no one to notice.”
A cloud came over the sun briefly. “She wanted to die with me,” Jimmy said.
They finished their burgers and left the aquarium afterward. That evening, after he got home, Robert received a call from Jimmy complaining about his screens.
“They’re falling apart,” he said. “They’re bad quality. I think they’re wrecked.”
But Robert didn’t call him back. The next day, Jimmy texted him with the message: “I took the screens down.” His friend texted back: “Why?”
“Well,” said Jimmy, during lunch at a local diner, “they didn’t keep out the insects after all. The bugs still got in the apartment. I tried and tried, but nothing stopped them. Some of the bugs were dead on the windowsill. A couple of flies were in the bathroom.”
“So you took all of them down?” Robert asked.
“All of them – even the ones by the kitchen. They don’t work.”
“So you can move freely now, right?”
“It’ll get better,” Robert noted. “Just remember: You’re not a penguin. You don’t have gulls taking your food.”
“I’m happy about that,” Jimmy said softly. “I’m happy.”
They talked about this and that for the rest of the meal, then left to do whatever. Jimmy went back to writing. Robert headed to an appointment. Before he went, he dropped a piece of bread on the sidewalk for a pigeon. The bird pecked at it, and the bread flew into the street.
“Better get it before a car hits you,” he said. And he turned the corner toward his building.
On Good Terms
I entered Penn Station from Seventh Avenue. It was 2:45 according to my cell phone. I looked at the giant board that was being stared at by a hundred faces, all lifted up to see it, like some kind of cult ritual. My train was leaving in 2 minutes, on track 19. Luckily, the entrance was right in front of me. I followed the fast moving line of people down the stairs. At the bottom, the people scattered, some left, some right, hoping for a last-minute seat.
I peer into one of the cars. Down the row of seats there’s few opportunities to have a sitting ride. In the seats of three, I look for two people that I could tolerate sitting between. I hope for two young attractive women, but never have such luck. Most of the seats in groups of two opposite the threes are filled. I see one seat open, but occupied by a man who is sleeping and taking up one and a half seats. I put my carry bag down while standing near the doors, and as I do, I see something available in the seats of two that I missed at first glance. It’s an elderly woman with grey hair, taking up no more than her share of space. I grab my bag and plop down next to her.
Sometimes a person will greet you in a friendly way. They’ll smile and nod and say hello. Sometimes even a comment about the crowd or the weather or the burden you carry in your arms. But this woman doesn’t flinch at all, as if I never sat down. I turn directly to look at her, hoping that she senses it and at least acknowledges my presence. But she continues to stare out the window, leaving only the right side of her face visible to me.
I get my book out, thinking that she may notice and comment on my short stories of Vonnegut. But she remains a fixed statue, arms on her lap, not moving at all. I open my book, but at this point I’m still a little curious about this woman, so I begin to look closely at her. I’ve become quite skillful at turning my eyes sharply without turning my head. This is especially effective when wearing sunglasses in a car, but works just as well with reading glasses on a train. Perhaps she’s asleep. But no, her eyes are open, though not fully. Her short trimmed gray hair curls around her face. She’s got wire-rimmed bifocals. Her lips are thin, and for a second I’m pretty sure it’s someone I know. I think that it’s Catherine.
I’m not on good terms with Catherine, though. I don’t just say, to her, “Hey Catherine, how’s it going? Long time no see.” I also don’t get up and leave. I try to think about how sure I am that it’s her, because it’s been over ten years since I last saw her. I wonder if she recognized me and that’s why she’s staring out the window, pretending not to know me, pretending that neither of us are on this train sitting next to each other.
One of my worries is that if I find out it’s her, there’s going to be an uncomfortable ride, and I don’t want that. I don’t want to go searching for another seat either. I begin to look more carefully at her to make my determination. She seems old to me, but I’m sure that she’s my age. I wonder if I look old to people, with my gray thinning hair and beard, and my ever-increasing wrinkles. I look down at my stomach. I need to lose a little weight.
Her arms look bloated, and hairy. Unattractive. The first time that I met Catherine was about 35 years ago. It was in the lounge of the Music Department at the college we both attended. She had long brown hair, skin like a child and was quite pretty. There was a heavy thunderstorm outside and we both had run into the cozy lounge for shelter. At 20, it felt briefly like a fateful moment. We talked nearly 15 minutes before revealing that she was waiting for her boyfriend. My heart fell out of my chest and landed like a brick in a puddle. Six months later, we would meet again. She was accompanied by another woman, who is now known as my ex-wife.
My eyes are still sharply turned left while my head is pretending to read the book. The train had already been moving, and now we’re coming out of the tunnel that goes under the East River. The afternoon sunlight fills the car with flickering shadows. I gaze at her legs. She’s wearing worn jeans, but she looks to be the build and the height of Catherine. I can see the ring on her left hand. I remember her wedding, just two months after my own. She had dumped that boyfriend she had and married a bright and articulate man and my ex was the maid of honor. Her husband suffered from obesity and a bad heart, and they never had children, neither of them having the desire or patience. One day my ex will call me and say that Catherine’s husband died. I’ll go to the wake out of respect and I’ll know then if it’s her.
I look at her ears and she’s not wearing earrings. She was not one for taking advantage of her beauty. She despised glamor and glamorous people. I remember how attractive she seemed to me back then and how naturally beautiful. I begin to imagine myself being married to her. We’re on this train together. I’m not feeling happiness. Does someone grow unattractive and you don’t notice because it’s just a little at a time? I realize I would have divorced whomever I married. The only method that I had for judging a woman back then was by the way she looked. I thought I could judge intelligence and other features like loyalty but I was wrong. I was doomed for marital failure when I was talking with Catherine in the Music Lounge, but I never had a clue.
Her lips are what are convincing me that it’s her. Back then in the Music Lounge I had imagined kissing them while she sat next to me on the couch, my heart ablaze with youthful desire and lust. I think once a person has imagined kissing a pair of lips, the picture of those lips never leaves you. Thin and curvy, with a lovely wide mouth.
The stations come ten minutes apart. One, two three stops. Only two more until I get off. People get up and leave. I turn my head straight and again using my eyes to look and not my head, I see the people on the train as their bodies sway to the curves and the bumps in the tracks. It’s after 3 PM and the train is nearly full. People wearing nice clothes. People with and without children. People with frowns and smiles and sleepy eyes. A 60 year old man with a bad toupee and a suit to match.
The last time I saw Catherine, she was helping my ex move out of our house. It was shortly after I got the surprise divorce papers. I remember the look that Catherine gave me. As if I was the devil. As if I was evil itself. I can only imagine what my ex was telling her about me, about our failure of a marriage. Some of it may have even been true.
I feel so distracted that I’ve hardly read any of my book. And I love to read on the train with the stretch of uninterrupted time. No one around me has a book. They are talking on cell phones, playing games on cell phones, reading email on cell phones. Texting on cell phones. I read one story about a Monkey House. I forget about Catherine for awhile.
The computerized conductor reads out my stop. The last time that I talked to someone who I thought I knew, I was wrong. I was in a bar and thought I recognized an ex-student. She was with a man much older than her who then began to eye me with suspicion after my mistaken identification. There’s not much of a line between those of us just trying to get by and make sense of things and the really creepy ones I guess.
I return the book back to my carry bag. The train hits the brakes and we’re slowing for my stop. Catherine hasn’t moved any more than a cadaver would in her seat. I’ve decided that I’m going to say something just before I get up. That seems to be the best thing. This seems to be the best time.
As the train crawls to a stop, I say, “Hey Catherine, how’s it going?
She doesn’t move or react in any way, though I’m sure now that it’s her. I think I’m sure. There are no earplugs in her ears, so she had to have heard me. I decide not to try again. I turn away from her, and as I’m just about to step off the train, she turns around to look, and our eyes meet just for a brief second or less.
I walk on the platform and pass by her window. She’s back to sitting and staring and makes no effort at eye contact. I remember her as a writer and a poet and for a second I’m surprised she’s not reading a book. Maybe she’s given it up. I went to a workshop that she gave in a bookstore once. She gave out a poem by Langston Hughes to the twelve of us there. Some guy raises his hand and says, “I can’t relate to this. I don’t care about this poem at all.” She turns to him and says, “Reading poetry is about opening up and understanding someone else’s experience, not about locking yourself inside your own bigoted mind.” The guy sat there for a moment while it sank in and then he got up and left. We were pretty good friends at that time.
The train pulls away and the conductor passes by with his head out the window. He’s enjoying the spring air, like a dog enjoying the adventure of movement and new experience when he hangs his head and tongue out a car window.
I climb the stairs over the tracks to get to my car. On the other side, at the bottom, there’s a younger woman with a heavy piece of luggage. She’s trying to pull it but the wheels seem to be broken. I ask her if she’d like me to carry it for her, and without hesitation she says, “Oh, that would be so kind of you.” I pick it up and start to carry it to her car. “That suitcase would pick today to break. Thanks so much.” She’s wearing a white dress with printed roses on it. It’s a short walk to her car and we’re there before either of us can start a conversation.
She opens the trunk of her Kia for me to put it in. Then there’s that moment where we are facing each other behind the car right after the trunk is closed. “It’s a lovely day isn’t it?” she says, and I want to give her a hug or a kiss or even a handshake, but my body doesn’t move. She gets in her car. I smile and she says, “Thanks again,” out the window while she backs out of her parking space.
I can see her blue eyes and say, “You’re welcome,” the last words we will have together.
When I get to my own car, I find that a bird has done its business right in the middle of the windshield on the driver’s side. I put on the washer and wipers, but it just makes more of a mess.
With my vision partially obstructed, I start the engine anyway. I take a deep breath that I feel go all the way into my toes. Exhaling, I grab the stick shift, and unconsciously slide it into gear. Keeping my hand on the automatic stick, I’m on my way home.
About Barry Hill
Barry lives in a rural section of Long Island that used to be a farm. His daughter and son are in High School. He’s divorced and semi-retired from public education after 25 years. He continues to write, teach and play bass.
He has studied writing at the Writers Studio for over 5 years and he videos the monthly readings to post on YouTube. He has also studied literacy at the doctoral level, and writing at NYU.
He’s interested in the study of technique, and writes in several genres including Fiction, Flash Fiction and Poetry.
He’s been published in:
Great South Bay Magazine and
Native West Press
Wine glugged its’ way into her glass
Before meeting her eager lips.
The evening was underway.
They looked at each other appreciatively,
Talking and drinking and laughing
remembered times together.
Laughter echoed off the walls of the old apartment
Remnants of decades and even generations past.
Their eyes held the sorrow of knowledge.
She sat there, a mere twenty-two
Barely started in the world. Young and beautiful.
Determined. Destructive. Destined.
He was forty, sitting there in his sweat stained uniform.
Set in the world with a “good job.”
Paying his dues yet again..
“I can’t stay long...” Her words echoed off mournful walls.
He stopped dead in his tracks.“It is what it is” He thought.
“Ok, I gotta go. Lemme roll one cigarette first.”
“Just stay for one more smoke. That way you can finish your wine.”
She rolled, drank and smoked...quickly.
“I’ll be by tomorrow night, if it’s ok.”
“Ok. We’ll see. Either way...I’m not sure I can get past it.”
“Umm..ok. Well, I might be by tomorrow night.”
Her things packed, they stood in the old place
Holding each other one last time.
Gripping so hard. Not wanting to let go.
But it was time, and they each knew it.
Nonetheless, whenever the hold would weaken,
New strength was found.
“When you leave, close the door gently,
So I can watch as you go.”His voice broke...
“What?!” The shrill tragic shock of a love murdered
Bounced through the old apartment.
Grips and tears dominated the world.
Her tears soaked through his sweat stained uniform shirt
And tickled him as they rolled down
His chest containing a heavy heart.
When the embrace finally broke
She did not look at him
Or anything else.
Instead, she just looked down,
turned her back on him
Picked up her backpack
slow march to the door
As he sat in his usual chair
Near his laptop.
She opened the door
And backed out of what had been
Their apartment. A home.
She looked down the whole time
Not looking at him or the old place.
She did indeed close the door gently...
He watched as the door
Slowly and forever hid her
Young and beautiful face.
He sat there, staring at where she had been
Just moments before.
So young and beautiful.
He sat still looking at the door that had hid
Her young beautiful face forever,
Remembering that just a few moments ago...
The outside door to the apartment building
Always slams shut with what sounds almost
Like a gunshot.
...and there it was. BAM!
He raised his bottle of beer, drank heavily
A long sigh from deep within
“Have a great life, Stephanie.”
woman had left his life.
I Am Ocean
a shimmering body you rush
into like a child born in the desert.
I am calm
on the surface, inviting.
My voice relaxes, calls you
again and again, but I am full
of depths and threats.
My shadows have hidden
teeth, claws. You
wade into my embrace
too quickly. I erupt,
waving three feet over your head,
all the while still
pulling your further from shore.
Scoot Filson had decided that after fifty years crafting furniture out of his garage for the residents of Black Dog, North Carolina, it was time to hang up the old coping saw responsible for the glossy four-inch scar across the top of his right thigh, the thumbnail gouge responsible for the dead nerves in the lower half of his left palm, the jack plane that thankfully’d never caused him a bit of hurt, and all the other tools that’d provided his living. He was seventy-seven after all, and even though he was still more than capable of building furniture that’d live longer than its owner, he had to admit his last couple projects hadn’t been his finest. Scoot hadn’t notched the walnut just right on the butcherblock Smithy Hungar’d ordered. He also hadn’t clamped the glued slats tight as they should’ve been, and Smithy’d returned the piece after just a week of use because sections of wood had started to separate.p “I ‘member when you used to boast your work was guaranteed for life,” Smithy’d said as he dropped the broken butcherblock on Scoot’s workbench.p “People livin’ a lot longer these days,” Scoot’d replied as he unfolded ten greasy twenties to refund Smithy.p Over the years, Scoot hadn’t spent much of the money he’d earned. He’d never taken a wife, and he didn’t have children, so he didn’t have many expenses outside good-looking wood for his projects, replacement tools, or a fresh pair of work gloves when he wore through the previous pair. Unlike most men in Black Dog, he didn’t have a taste for liquor, so he hadn’t drunk away his earnings at the Block ’N’ Tackle. His little house at the foot of Mount Sugar Fiona off Bramblewine Drive had been in his family for three generations, so he didn’t owe anything on it except taxes, which he grudgingly paid every April. p Scoot figured he had enough money stuffed in his boxspring to last him ten or twelve years, maybe more if he was careful, his age be damned, so other than a faint feeling of emptiness, like learning a favorite family legend turned up a lie, Scoot put woodworking behind him.
p The first couple months of retirement, Scoot was content to sit on his porch with a flannel pulled over his bony shoulders against the early-Spring chill, drinking coffee thick enough to chew as he read his Bible and dogeared passages he’d return to until he had them memorized. But as the days grew warmer and the sun’s meander lengthened, he felt an itch to take advantage of the weather, and every other day or so, he’d wander to Main Street, settle into the porch swing at Callaghan’s General Store, and make small talk with whoever’d happen by.p On the first day warm enough for Scoot to leave his jacket at home, Hester Maguire stopped by Callaghan’s to peruse the flats of flowers freshly carted over from a greenhouse in Asheville.p “You know you made me a dresser back in the nineties that looks better now than the day Gregor brought it home,” Hester said.p “Happy to hear it,” Scoot replied, smiling behind his chest-length beard that, years back, had gone white as the willowy clouds overhead.p Hester squeezed the blossom of a snapdragon, and the little yellow flower yawned. “Rumor has it you ain’t woodworkin’ no more,” she said.p “No ma’am,” Scoot replied, and nostalgia nipped at the pit of his stomach.p “How the hell you passin’ the time, Scoot?” she said. She fingered a flat of fawn lilies, their cream blossoms drooping like bells. She tipped a lily upward, held it to her nose, and closed her eyes.p “I do alright,” Scoot said. “I read my Bible and chat with folks like we’re doin’ now.”p “That all?” Hester asked.p “Life’s quiet,” Scoot said. “I’m happy enough.” But there was no denying he was tiring of the Bible, and without woodworking to occupy his time and hands, he found there were too many hours in his day.p “Y’ever thought about startin’ a garden?” Hester asked. She balanced a tray of flowers against her broad chest, and she thumbed through the packets of Summer seeds in the spinning rack next to the flats. “Garden’s a great way to keep yourself busy, and corn fresh from the stalk’s about as good as it comes.” She smiled, the apples of her cheeks pink as blush roses. “You’ll have to wait a few months for corn, though.”p Hester went inside to pay, and Scoot eyed the flowers she’d just picked through. Flowers were flimsy, he though, too delicate for old woodworker’s hands. But it would be nice to eat produce he’d grown himself instead of the half-rotted tomatoes, brown iceberg lettuce, and bagged baby carrots he bought from Smallwater’s. In fact, as Scoot toyed with the idea of a vegetable garden, his fancies grew. He imagined tomatoes large and round as softballs, ready to burst with fresh juice, hanging every inch from vines climbing stakes hewn from saplings. He imagined a corner of his garden populated with corn stalks skinny as him sprouting cobs every direction. He wasn’t quite sure what carrots looked like growing, but he imagined rows of orange cones poking up from the earth in military formation.p Scoot spun the rack, plucking packets of anything that sounded tasty. Peas? Sure. Runner beans? Yep. Eggplant...? What the hell was that? He left the eggplant seeds on the rack. He stacked his seeds at the end of a set of potatoes, and even though he wasn’t fond of onions, he snagged an onion set as well. He’d serve onions when he had folks over to feast on his garden’s offerings.p “Looks like you’re fixin’ for a football field-sized garden this year, Scoot,” Donal Callaghan, the owner of the General Store, said as Scoot slapped the sets and seeds onto the chipped formica counter by the register.p “Gotta find somethin’ to pass the time,” Scoot replied.p “Just so you know,” Donal said as he arranged the seeds and sets in small cardboard box. “Unless your plot gets sunlight most all day, you’ll have a hell of time with a couple these.”p Scoot’s backyard ran up the foot of Mount Sugar Fiona. It never saw sunlight, and the soil was always spongy with with mountain runoff.p “Where there’s a will,” Scoot replied, smiling. He handed Donal seventeen dollars to cover the cost, but something like disappointment slithered in his stomach as he collected his box and started home.
p Scoot leaned against the backside of his house and surveyed his sloping yard. Several places, boulders sprouted from the sparse grass like turtles half-buried, but thirty feet from his back door, right before his yard bled into the red spruce forest covering most of Mount Sugar Fiona, there was a stretch Scoot figured would make a fine garden. Unlike much of the rest of his yard, the plot got a couple hours of sunlight a day.p The hoe Scoot fetched from under his porch had been handed down at least two generations, and the tool’s old iron blade was blunt and heavy enough to knock the head off a possum with a halfhearted swing. p Scoot struggled the hoe over his shoulder and hefted it earthward. When the blade hit, the mud swallowed it whole, and Scoot pitched forward, which caused a muscle in his lower back to twist and pop like a rubber band stretched past its limit. Scoot dropped the hoe and rubbed the area above his ass, trying like hell to slow the pulsing pain.p He eased the hoe from where it had been swallowed, and swung slower, aware of how the ground would react. His back smoldered with the motion, but he grit his teeth, and half an hour later, he’d turned up the bottom edge of his garden.p Scoot was working his way toward the treeline, and he’d just navigated past one of the turtle boulders that populated his yard when the hoe’s heavy blade glanced off something solid hidden under the grass, and for the second time in under an hour, sharp pain climbed Scoot’s back. “I’ll be goddamned,” he cursed aloud. He threw the hoe to the ground, and knelt next to it to wipe dirt away from whatever he’d hit. He clawed the loam. Loose tendrils of grass clung to his fingertips like hair, and eventually he found a layer of granite three or four inches under the topsoil. The sun was setting off to the west, and most of Scoot’s yard was cast in shadow, but he kept digging until his fingertips were raw and flecked with mica. p Even after clearing a considerable patch of dirt, he hadn’t found the edge of the speckled granite.p Frustrated, Scoot stood, hefted his hoe, and chopped at the earth until the ground gave way beyond the shallow bedrock. The sun was now behind Mount Sugar Fiona, and the warm day had gone cold. Scoot shivered beneath his sweaty shirt, but he kept working, because, despite the discomfort, his yard was cooperating again and he was determined to at least outline his garden before he turned in.p Turning the soft soil, Scoot fell into a rhythm. The slice of his hoe working earth carried his mind off, and he recalled the striped cherry dresser he’d fashioned for Gracie and Abelard Thurkettel back in the ‘80s. He could still trace the scalloping along the lips of the drawers, as well as the crow feathers he’d fashioned under each handle. p When Ramsey Whittaker was born, Scoot’d whittled a toy soldier that Butch, Ramsey’s daddy, had said looked so real it might climb Ramsey’s crib and march straight out of their trailer. p And when Mildred McCree was suffering flooded lungs, Scoot’d built her a black walnut dying chair with a high, straight back to keep her lungs above the phlegm. Mildred’d died in that chair, and Scoot was certain it would be busted up. But Carol Rose, Mildred’s daughter, said Scoot hadn’t just made her mama a dying chair but a throne, and she’d called an Appalachian Cultural society from a university down in Raleigh come pick it up.p A blinding light and a roar of pain that ran from shoulders, to spine, to the pool of pain present in his lower back tore Scoot from his thoughts and thrust him back to the task-at-hand as the blade of the hoe glanced hard off another rock buried half an inch under the grass along his planned path. Scoot crumpled where he stood, muscles suddenly unable to support his gaunt frame, and when he tried to stand, his muscles insisted he stay put until the nerves cooled.p It was full night behind him to the east, and the stars had begun to show. A pastel orange and purple band had settled on the western horizon on either side of Mount Sugar Fiona, and Scoot felt a chill under his skin as dew collected along his sparse, gray arm hair. He reminded himself he was seventy-seven, pushing seventy-eight, and he cursed himself for committing to yard work that would tax a man thirty years his junior. But he thought he could handle the labor, because the only signs of age his body had ever given him were a few wrinkles around his eyes, a white beard, and stiff fingers. Sure, when he woke in the morning, he had to let his muscles loosen in order to pull himself out of bed, but everyone who understood hard work suffered a stiff back before breakfast. And sure, when he pissed, the stream came slower than it had even a year ago, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of manual labor.p Scoot pawed the ground and found another patch of granite under the wet topsoil. He clenched his teeth until his jaw throbbed. He was going to have a goddamn garden if he had to buy a jackhammer and grind the shallow bedrock to gravel so he could shovel it out of the way.p Night had fallen completely before his muscles had calmed enough to let him up, but while he was down, knees sinking ever-deeper into the loam, an idea’d come to him. Hester Maguire’s boy, Brock, had a pickup with tires tall as Scoot’s waist. You could hear that machine for miles near every morning when Brock shifted gears and tore ass down Main Street out of town towards the highway that took him to the garage over in Waynesville where he worked. Scoot was sure if he and Brock could figure out a way to get a chain attached to the rocks in Scoot’s yard, they could pull them up out of the earth.p When Scoot finally forced himself to standing, his sore muscles wouldn’t allow him to walk upright, so he hobbled hunchbacked toward his cabin, and he let the screen slam hard behind him as he tracked watery mud and blades of broken grass across this kitchen’s yellowing linoleum. He didn’t bother shutting the brass-handled hickory door behind the screen. His boots were almost clean by the time he shuffled into his living room, and what mud was left, his faded green shag carpeting wiped clean. Scoot tried to gingerly settle in his hard pine rocker, but his muscles seized as he sat. He fell the last six inches, and a bolt of pain shot up his back as he hit the worn wood. Scoot cursed and grunted as he turned on the lamp by the phone and mashed the buttons to call the Maguires.p “Need to speak with Brock, please,” Scoot said when Hester picked up.p “What can I do you for, old man?” Brock said after Hester’d handed him the phone.p Scoot winced when the boy called him old, but he ignored it and explained his rock problem.p “Truck’ll prob’ly tear your yard up,” Brock said after a hesitant pause. “But if you don’t mind, we could give it a try.” p Brock said he’d be over the following morning just after sunrise. Scoot set the phone back on the receiver and smiled, satisfied, behind his white beard. All the while, the pain in his back hummed.
p Scoot woke well before sunrise, and once his back was limber enough to allow him to swing his feet over the side of his bed, he shuffled to the kitchen and put a pot of coffee on. Scoot slipped his quilted flannel over his shoulders as the mud percolated, and after the coffee was finished, he poured himself a cup and limped outside. He tried to enjoy the morning sun cutting through the low-hanging fog as he waited for Brock’s pickup to come growling up the driveway, but as he sipped his steaming coffee, he couldn’t ignore the pain in his back, which he’d expected to feel better after a long night’s sleep instead of worse.p The sun was cresting above the Carolina hemlocks at the eastern edge of the front yard when Brock’s grumbling truck crawled around the switchback in Scoot’s driveway.p Brock pulled into Scoot’s front yard, just feet from Scoot’s porch. “Howdy, old fella,” Brock called down out his open window.p “I ain’t old yet, boy,” Scoot said, shielding his eyes from the morning sun reflecting off the mirrored chrome that seemed to cover every inch of Brock’s truck.p Brock leapt from the cab and jogged over to Scoot. He extended his hand, big as a baseball mitt, and Scoot took it. Brock had hair black as crow’s down, and his wide, square shoulders strained his old Swain County High wrestling t-shirt.p “Let’s get ‘round back and get this job finished so I can get to the garage,” Brock said. “Hop on in so you can show me where to pull up out back.”p Scoot knew he wouldn’t be able to climb into the passenger’s seat of Brock’s lifted machine, so he told the boy he’d just meet him out back.p “Suit yourself, old timer,” Brock said, and he swung himself back up into the driver’s seat.p Old timer echoed off the walls of Scoot’s skull as he loped through his cabin, passed the mud from night before that’d dried to dirt, and out his back door.
p As Brock steered his truck over the rocks jutting from Scoot’s yard, the vehicle’s suspension bent and flexed at impossible angles, tubes and rods compressing and stretching to their limits. Brock parked with one of his monstrous tires atop a turtle boulder.p “Show me what we need to hitch,” Brock said, leaping from the cab, and Scoot led the boy a few feet up the gentle slope to the first patch he’d clawed up the evening before.p Scoot watched Brock squat and paw through the mud. The boy moved like an animal, supporting his weight with different limbs as he needed to, and before long, Brock found a notch in the rock where he could attach the hook at the end of his towing chain.p “If this is just a slab, it should give easy enough,” Brock said. “But if it goes deeper, it’ll be a different story. You sure you wanna give this a try, Scoot?”p “Do it,” Scoot replied. Over the course of his life, there might have been one or two things he’d let go of once he set his mind to them, but that was because they’d gotten in the way of other things he’d wanted worse. With woodworking behind him and his Bible read through time-and-again, there wasn’t a thing Scoot wanted more than this garden, even if it turned his yard to a patch of hell.p Brock retrieved the chains from the bed of his truck and set the hooks against the rock. “Since you been around since the prophets, you might want to ask ‘em for help,” Brock said with a sideways smile.p “Shut the hell up,” Scoot mumbled once Brock was out of earshot.p The machine roared to life and belched a plume of black smoke into the clean dawn air. The tires spun, and the tread tore at Scoot’s yard, spewing seven-foot columns of mud into the air. The chains strained, and the rock didn’t budge at first. But when Brock gunned it again, the chunk of granite began to buck up out of the earth. It was a flat stone, thank goodness, and after Brock hit the gas a third time, the rock stood on end before toppling over. Brock drug the slab down Scoot’s yard ten or twelve feet, and it cleft a shallow gash in its wake.p The morning sun had crept above the mossy roof of Scoot’s house, and from the turtle boulder Scoot had chosen to watch Brock and his truck wrestle the old earth, he now saw something stark white shining in the center of the fresh black crater. Scoot struggled to standing, his back pulsing with pain, muscles expanding and contracting as his nerves flared just under the skin, and he shuffled toward the hole, sliding his feet against the dewy grass instead of lifting them and placing one in front of the other. Scoot looked over his shoulder to see if Brock was watching him labor towards whatever waited exhumed.p At the edge of the muddy patch, Scoot found himself staring into the empty eye sockets of a pearly, grinning skull a foot from the top few vertebrae, clavicle, and dislocated right ball-and-socket shoulder of a skeleton.p “I’ll be goddamned,” Scoot whispered, and despite his protesting back, he knelt and shoveled handfuls of mud from the bones. His fingers tangled in a mess of beads and sinew as he uncovered a smooth stick lashed to an animal skull. Shards of a shattered pot lacquered black were scattered like confetti around the skeleton, and a chip with a razor’s edge opened his right index finger from the second knuckle to just below his nail.p “That was easy enough,” Brock hollered from down the yard. “Ready to try the next one?” p Scoot ignored the boy as he cleared dirt from the bones. p “Hearing not as good as it used to be, old man?” Brock teased, and when Scoot didn’t answer, Brock yelled the same again. Scoot continued to ignore Brock until the boy stood by him at the edge of the pit, over the bones. p “What the hell is that?” Brock asked.p “An indian,” Scoot said. “Probably a Cherokee.”p And to Scoot’s surprise, Brock chuckled high and light. “You remember his name?”p Scoot forced down a flash of anger and continued to dig despite his bleeding finger. Scoot knew the teasing hit home because it pointed towards a truth Scoot wasn’t ready to face down.p “Was that old fella a buddy of yours?” Brock chuckled.p Clumps of mud clung to Scoot’s bleeding cut, and pill bugs scurried in the spaces where his gnarled knuckles kept his fingers spread. p “Even now, he ain’t quite skinny as you are,” Brock contined, laughing like a child with a housefly on a string, toying with it before plucking its wings. p Scoot Filson stood, ignoring the pain like his back muscles were forcing themselves from under his skin, tearing their way through his translucent skin. Standing tall, the man towered a full foot over the boy. “I ain’t that old,” Scoot spat. “And I’d say it’s about time you leave.”p “Whoa Scoot,” Brock said. “I was just teasin’.” The boy had his hands up, palms forward like he’d just had a pistol thrust in his face.p Scoot turned his back on Brock, eyes on the shallow grave.p “Are you at least gonna throw me a couple bucks?” Brock said, the hint of a whimper on his voice. “A little gas money?”p “Git,” Scoot grunted.p “To hell with you then,” Brock said. “Won’t be long ‘til you’re dead as that old indian, anyway.” Scoot listened to Brock’s soggy footsteps grow quieter before the truck roared to life. p Scoot knelt at the edge of the Cherokee’s grave, and the pain in his back was such he worried he might spit up the thick coffee he’d had earlier. The skull grinned at Scoot like it was still amused by Brock’s teasing.p Scoot sat on his heels staring into the empty eyes of the dead, and he felt a pain that had nothing to do with his back. Scoot Filson had wandered into the twilight of his life, and what he thought would only be the next step of his life was, in fact, the last.p The sun had climbed well above Scoot’s house, and another warm day was blossoming over Black Dog. But Scoot stayed low to the ground. He sunk his hands deep into the shallow grave and blood from his cut smeared rust up his arm. He lifted fistfuls of cold dirt from the earth, closed his eyes, and felt it fall from his fingers.
Tony stared down the barrel of the gun. It was recently cleaned an oiled—a Beretta 9000S.
“Do I really have to die?” he asked. The room was dark and smelled of piss.
“We’re beyond that now,” came the voice from the shadows, “think not of your coming death, but of your life. We live in the Age of the Higher Brain; the cerebral cortex has grown enormously over the past few millennia, overshadowing the ancient, instinctive lower brain. In ancient times, we couldn’t think logically and critically—the prospect of a bullet through the brain would mean nothing to us on the surface. But we could be. We could feel a mysterious presence around us, like an ether—before we found so much clutter in our systems. In your last few minutes let us be quiet. I’m going to free you into bliss.”
Abatha cut the snake and allowed its blood to drip into the bowl. She selected the runes and bone powder and mixed it with the blood, then took a hunk of white wax with a makeshift wick and soaked it in the concoction. When she lit the candle she meditated on the flame and its aura. The spirit she was waiting for materialized in the corner of her cluttered room. The cold void created by its blackness made Abatha shiver.
“I’m sorry I had to draw you from so far,” she said.
“Anything for my lovely lady.” The being hissed like a common specter.
“I called you to ask you some questions.”
“In the truth of one reality, it shall be revealed without effort or struggle.” The origin of its dimension made its voice echo in her chambers. Abatha returned her eyes to the flame and soaked in The Creator’s bliss. It fused into her like the sun’s rays in her garden on a bright day.
“Now I suppose you’re going to lecture me on perception,” she said.
“We both know that this one reality is spirit, and the surface life only a disguise with a thousand masks that keeps us from discovering what is real. But here’s what you don’t know. I need your help.”
“Don’t be pithy,” the witch said, “neither of us are servants.”
“Ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“But I must know now! I can’t wait a moment longer!” Abatha cried.
“Then you are on the right track.”
“So you recognize that there are secrets I don’t know.”
“As immutable as the seasons.”
The candle’s flame danced in her gaze as the information fused into her being. She began to search for her wicker doll.
“I suppose everyone has their time,” Tony said. Tears welled in his eyes.
“You are the most important being in the world,” came the voice in the shadows.
“Is that so?”
“At the level of the soul, we are all the world. The most important and the one and only.”
The trigger was pulled and the bullet backfired. Blood splattered in Tony’s face. He got off his knees and ran.
In Sound’s High
What to do with a mind, center
Of twenty dollar bills floating
On a lake toward sound’s high on
The beach, hair loaded
With the sun’s trees. And setting between
Two maple trunks, its skeleton, after
Mind’s shadow’s been shed, and
The moon. It is full.
The two maples
Have roots that reach
Under the sand’s
And the moon’s blue light
Falls in sound’s high, where a skylight
Takes in the cardinal’s song,
Shivering chests as exhales
Descend into enemy territory,
Parachutes sky-shaped and ready to land
On and cover their most evil shadows’
Heads so they can have skeletons again.
Otherwise the disembodied nights will rage in all directions,
And the parachutes won’t be folded back tightly into
Their packs for the next jump. The Serpent’s head
Eclipses the moon over the house of sand
That’s spreading back to the tide’s blue castle.
The night that’s oblivion, weakness
Given away instead of accepted, has been pulled
Up from its roots like Medusa’a head,
Claws pulled across the beach toward the next wave,
Scattered with cut up snakes.
The moon is pulling the dark water back
Into its bosom, an isolated swirl
Of bones exposed at dawn’s low tide.
The enemies of the parachuters
Pick the bones up while weeping.
All of the blue of the ocean has been returned,
Homes washed away.
Light’s made the shadows clearer. That they’re in me,
Even when covering skeletons of dead trees
Of Knowledge. Their roots have been drained,
From tire swing ropes to suicides.
See how war collides sky with land and water,
Skin of moon floating on coins and dollar bills, washed away.
Bones sucked of marrow like syrup from the maples.
Mark Fleury Bio
Mark Fleury lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has recently had poems published in Experiential-Experimental Literature, Vext Magazine, Clockwise Cat, Counterexample Poetics, Medulla Review, ditch, UFO Gigolo, The Original Van Goghs Ear Anthology, and others. Mark also has poems forthcoming in Altpoetics, Of/ With and Altered Scale. Mark has a trilogy of poetry books published through Scars Publications and Design entitled Seeing Strangers (2010-2012) and a new poetry book published through The Medulla Review Publishing entitled The Precious Surreal Door Opened (2014).
“Mark wants to beat your ass,” Julian had warned me at the beginning of the school day.
More like Mark is going to beat my ass. Everyone knows I can’t fight. I sit in my seat wondering what will happen next.
Julian sees my worried face and says, “Relax, I got your back.”
The teacher walks out and I can feel Mark watching me.
Rachel whispers, “It’ll be really funny if you win,” into my ear from her seat beside me.
I turn and Mark is in my face. He pushes me and I instinctively push him back.
He hits me. Then I’m on the ground. Completely disoriented.
I wait for another punch to come but it never does. I finally regain my senses and get up to see Julian holding Mark with his arms pinned behind his back.
“If you are going to do something, do it now,” he says, struggling to hold him.
I hit Mark three times with my left hand then he elbows Julian and breaks free. He charges at me and before I can react his fist connects with my jaw.
I wake up with Rachel in my face.
“That was pretty funny too.”
A Little Life
Judith Ann Levison
When she died a broad chalk
Cracked the sky and thunder
Shivered billows of smoke
They knew the sequestered
Ways she darted through life
Always with a hanky or with alarm
Pressing logs against the door
She never had a secret chat
Or dressed a table with napkins
Meaningless remarks made her brood
And sometimes she peered to see in the mirror
Any sanity to pool her eyes
Such a little life consumed by rage
One night jagged sobs ignited the town
They heard just another woman’s
Rant and rave storm after storm
Wooden men, daughters running through
The spaces of stars for these wooden men
To lift warm spoons to their lips
Dandelions for a Passing Stranger
I loved my silly red tricycle, the type that every suburban three year old probably had. I would play on my driveway, riding past the evergreens, past the white mailbox... But I’d usually turn around before I rode past the gravel and onto the neighbor’s driveway and ride back toward the security of my own garage. I would sometimes play on the neighbor’s driveway, since it was on a hill. I would scale to the top by their maroon colored garage, navigate my trusted tricycle around by its rusted handlebars, hop on the seat and zoom downhill. But those times were only for when I thought no one was home at their house, and for when I was feeling particularly adventurous.
Once I was riding up and down my own driveway and I saw another little girl walking on the neighbor’s yard. I watched her approach my driveway, walking on the edge of our lawn. I was fascinated by this girl. There was a new face to look at -- a girl with long blonde hair, so different from my own. She came from the lawn behind my house and was walking along the side of my driveway, away from my home. I just watched her walk. When she passed me, I looked over to the neighbor’s yard. Our lawn was full of green grass. Theirs was full of dandelions. I rode over to the side of my driveway, got off my tricycle, hopped over the ledge and ran onto the neighbor’s lawn. I picked a dandelion.
I quickly ran back to my tricycle. It patiently waited there, just where I left it... I pedaled fiercely to the end of my driveway, and caught up with that little girl. Still sitting on my tricycle, I looked up at her until she stopped walking right in front of me. I held up the dandelion to her.
Like when the Grossman’s German shepherd bit the inside of my knee. I was baby sitting two girls and a dog named “Rosco.” I remember being pushed to the floor by the dog, I was on my back, kicking, as this dog was gnawing on my leg, and I remember thinking, “I can’t believe a dog named Rosco is attacking me.” And I was thinking that I had to be strong for those two little girls, who were watching it all. I couldn’t cry.
Or when I stepped off Scott’s motorcycle at 2:00 a.m. and burned my calf on the exhaust pipe. I was drunk when he was driving and I was careless when I swung my leg over the back. It didn’t even hurt when I did it, but the next day it blistered and peeled; it looked inhuman. I had to bandage it for weeks. It hurt like hell.
When I was little, roller skating in my driveway, and I fell. My parents yelled at me, “Did you crack the sidewalk?”
When I was kissing someone, and I scraped my right knee against the wall. Or maybe it was the carpet. When someone asks me what that scar is from, I tell them I fell.
Or when I was riding my bicycle and I fell when my front wheel skidded in the gravel. I had to walk home. Blood was dripping from my elbow to my wrist; I remember thinking that the blood looked thick, but that nothing hurt. I sat on the toilet seat cover while my sister cleaned me up. It was a small bathroom. I felt like the walls could have fallen in on me at any time. Years later, and I can still see the dirt under my skin on my elbows.
Or when I was five years old and my dad called me an ass-hole because I made a mess in the living room. I didn’t.
Like when I scratched my chin when I had the chicken pox.
I was watching Oprah today and a woman said she came from a dysfunctional family, that she was beaten when she was little, that her mother wouldn’t tell her who her father was. And I heard another woman on a talk show say that there are so many dysfunctional families that it seems to be becoming the norm — that dysfunctional is becoming functional.
And then I see a commercial on t.v. from the Church of Latter-Day Saints that tells your family to communicate and shows a picture of a man teaching his son to ride a bicycle and I have to leave the room.
And then I watch a movie with a scene where the father hugs the daughter and tells her he loves her and I cry.
I was working in another room while my parents were watching t.v. in the living room. They must have heard a stat that said one in five children are abused. I’m the last child of five in my family.
Well, I heard my mother say to my father, gee, that would mean that one of the kids was abused. And then she said, I didn’t abuse any of them, did you? And father said, no.
I think that’s when he proceeded to say that that figure is probably for lower class families, and not families like ours.
And I just stopped my work for a moment. A moment of peace. A memorial, you could say.
He doesn’t think I know. But I do. How about sexual abuse? Yes, I know what you did to your first daughter. Twenty years later, and the thought still brings tears to her eyes. How about emotional abuse? Yeah, I’d call what you’ve done to me abuse. You still have to power to make me cry at the drop of a hat. Sixty-three, and you still have it in you.
And there is a lot about you I’m sure I don’t know.
According to my figures, we’re above average.
Have you ever jumped in a vat of soybeans before? It’s very strange, it feels like you’re a kid in one of those playground things where you jump in a pit of colored plastic balls. Except soybeans are a lot smaller than those balls in the playgrounds, and I guess they don’t have all those colors. Well anyway, I went over to his grandparent’s farm, and he decided to take me on a tour of the farmhouse. The cows were smelly, I made sure I kept my distance, and I just kept calling to them, saying, “hello, moo-cow.” And there were a bunch of cats running around the field, and we picked up a couple kittens and held them up high in the air. I kept asking the cats, “do you love me?” and he kept asking me why I was asking for approval from cats. Then we gave them some milk from his uncle’s farmhouse. And then he took me up a ladder to the top floor of the barn.
That’s when he proceeded to take off his shoes and jump over into a ledge. He told me to join him. I couldn’t quite see what I was about to jump into, it was almost dusk, but I took off my shoes and socks and jumped in anyway.
And my ankles sunk into the soybeans. And I started laughing. And I fell, and then I started to bury myself in soybeans. And then I jumped around a few more times, then I just started throwing soybeans at him.
And then I just laid down in the pit of soybeans for awhile. They felt cool on my skin. I could feel the dust from them covering my legs, my calves.
There are time like that, times when I just have to let go.
Okay, so you were going to be in Chicago for a few hours, and then you’d be driving out of town again, and I really wanted to see you, so I said I’d be more than happy to drive to the city to see you for an hour or two. Okay, let’s meet at the Planetarium, I said, because it would be the quickest place for me to get to from the interstate, besides, you were in the city anyway, you’d easily get to the Planetarium before I would. So okay, we’d meet at 3:15, you said, and I got off the phone and rushed out the door.
And I got there, traffic was a bitch, but I got there, parked my car and then proceeded to walk back and forth looking for you. Where the hell was he, he didn’t have much time before he had to leave, where could he be, it’s been over twenty minutes, what trouble has he gotten himself into now? Knowing him, he probably thought I said the Aquarium and was waiting at the building a block away from me, the big jerk. And all these men were staring at me, like they’ve never seen a woman in a suede skirt before, one of them even said hello to me, and I had to sit there and try to ignore everyone and brood because you were late. You probably crashed the car and were bickering over insurance with someone while I sat there. Made me drive for a couple of hours for nothing.
So then I finally see you sprinting up the block. Your oxford is unbuttoned, and the closer you get, the more red you look. Okay, now I’m intrigued. “Where have you been?” I asked, and as you’re panting in a vain attempt to catch your breath you explain that you couldn’t get the car out of the parking lot because the person who has the ticket stub for the car is in the doctor’s office, so you ran seven miles to get here so that I wouldn’t wait.
Okay, I feel like a heel. And you never cease to amaze me. I know you said you’d go to the ends of the earth for me. Seven miles is more than enough.
Janet Kuypers has a Communications degree in News/Editorial Journalism (starting in computer science engineering studies) from the UIUC. She had the equivalent of a minor in photography and specialized in creative writing. A portrait photographer for years in the early 1990s, she was also an acquaintance rape workshop facilitator, and she started her publishing career as an editor of two literary magazines. Later she was an art director, webmaster and photographer for a few magazines for a publishing company in Chicago, and this Journalism major was even the final featured poetry performer of 15 poets with a 10 minute feature at the 2006 Society of Professional Journalism Expo’s Chicago Poetry Showcase. This certified minister was even the officiant of a wedding in 2006.
She sang with acoustic bands “Mom’s Favorite Vase”, “Weeds and Flowers” and “the Second Axing”, and does music sampling. Kuypers is published in books, magazines and on the internet around 9,300 times for writing, and over 17,800 times for art work in her professional career, and has been profiled in such magazines as Nation and Discover U, won the award for a Poetry Ambassador and was nominated as Poet of the Year for 2006 by the International Society of Poets. She has also been highlighted on radio stations, including WEFT (90.1FM), WLUW (88.7FM), WSUM (91.7FM), WZRD (88.3FM), WLS (8900AM), the internet radio stations ArtistFirst dot com, chicagopoetry.com’s Poetry World Radio and Scars Internet Radio (SIR), and was even shortly on Q101 FM radio. She has also appeared on television for poetry in Nashville (in 1997), Chicago (in 1997), and northern Illinois (in a few appearances on the show for the Lake County Poets Society in 2006). Kuypers was also interviewed on her art work on Urbana’s WCIA channel 3 10 o’clock news.
She turned her writing into performance art on her own and with musical groups like Pointless Orchestra, 5D/5D, The DMJ Art Connection, Order From Chaos, Peter Bartels, Jake and Haystack, the Bastard Trio, and the JoAnne Pow!ers Trio, and starting in 2005 Kuypers ran a monthly iPodCast of her work, as well mixed JK Radio — an Internet radio station — into Scars Internet Radio (both radio stations on the Internet air 2005-2009). She even managed the Chaotic Radio show (an hour long Internet radio show 1.5 years, 2006-2007) through BZoO.org and chaoticarts.org. She has performed spoken word and music across the country - in the spring of 1998 she embarked on her first national poetry tour, with featured performances, among other venues, at the Albuquerque Spoken Word Festival during the National Poetry Slam; her bands have had concerts in Chicago and in Alaska; in 2003 she hosted and performed at a weekly poetry and music open mike (called Sing Your Life), and from 2002 through 2005 was a featured performance artist, doing quarterly performance art shows with readings, music and images.
Since 2010 Kuypers also hosts the Chicago poetry open mic at the Café Gallery, while also broadcasting the Cafés weekly feature podcasts (and where she sometimes also performs impromptu mini-features of poetry or short stories or songs, in addition to other shows she performs live in the Chicago area).
In addition to being published with Bernadette Miller in the short story collection book Domestic Blisters, as well as in a book of poetry turned to prose with Eric Bonholtzer in the book Duality, Kuypers has had many books of her own published: Hope Chest in the Attic, The Window, Close Cover Before Striking, (woman.) (spiral bound), Autumn Reason (novel in letter form), the Average Guy’s Guide (to Feminism), Contents Under Pressure, etc., and eventually The Key To Believing (2002 650 page novel), Changing Gears (travel journals around the United States), The Other Side (European travel book), The Boss Lady’s Editorials, The Boss Lady’s Editorials (2005 Expanded Edition), Seeing Things Differently, Change/Rearrange, Death Comes in Threes, Moving Performances, Six Eleven, Live at Cafe Aloha, Dreams, Rough Mixes, The Entropy Project, The Other Side (2006 edition), Stop., Sing Your Life, the hardcover art book (with an editorial) in cc&d v165.25, the Kuypers edition of Writings to Honour & Cherish, The Kuypers Edition: Blister and Burn, S&M, cc&d v170.5, cc&d v171.5: Living in Chaos, Tick Tock, cc&d v1273.22: Silent Screams, Taking It All In, It All Comes Down, Rising to the Surface, Galapagos, Chapter 38 (v1 and volume 1), Chapter 38 (v2 and Volume 2), Chapter 38 v3, Finally: Literature for the Snotty and Elite (Volume 1, Volume 2 and part 1 of a 3 part set), A Wake-Up Call From Tradition (part 2 of a 3 part set), (recovery), Dark Matter: the mind of Janet Kuypers , Evolution, Adolph Hitler, O .J. Simpson and U.S. Politics, the one thing the government still has no control over, (tweet), Get Your Buzz On, Janet & Jean Together, poem, Taking Poetry to the Streets, the Cana-Dixie Chi-town Union, the Written Word, Dual, Prepare Her for This, uncorrect, Living in a Big World (color interior book with art and with “Seeing a Psychiatrist”), Pulled the Trigger (part 3 of a 3 part set), Venture to the Unknown (select writings with extensive color NASA/Huubble Space Telescope images), Janet Kuypers: Enriched, She’s an Open Book, “40”, Sexism and Other Stories, the Stories of Women, Prominent Pen (Kuypers edition), Elemental, the paperback book of the 2012 Datebook (which was also released as a spiral-bound cc&d ISSN# 2012 little spiral datebook, , Chaotic Elements, and Fusion, the (select) death poetry book Stabity Stabity Stab Stab Stab, the 2012 art book a Picture’s Worth 1,000 words (available with both b&w interior pages and full color interior pages, the 2013 ISSN# color art book Life, in Color, Post Apocalyptic Burn Through Me and Under the Sea (photo book). Three collection books were also published of her work in 2004, Oeuvre (poetry), Exaro Versus (prose) and L’arte (art).
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