Tag Archives: fiction

Deep Cleaning

Deep Cleaning

Ron Singer

 

The first time you make a mistake, you can usually shrug it off. But, if you make it again, you may be stupid. (Is there a saying to this effect?) I also believe that serious pain can teach enduring lessons. In the course of two recent cleanings, for example, I have become a poster boy (aged 72) for dental hygiene. Not to belabor the obvious, but this means thorough brushing and flossing after every meal, and no shortcuts with what Scott, my dentist, calls “the electric”: two minutes every night, before bedtime. I have also put an end to procrastination over office visits (to his office—I don’t have one, anymore). These days, I’m not especially busy, and since Mary is still toiling away in the vineyards of primary-school education, we continue to enjoy adequate dental insurance. Ergo, I go. No excuses. 

Accordingly, three months after the last, routine cleaning, and the day after receiving Scott’s friendly reminder (by snail, still), I made a new appointment, then showed up at the appointed hour, on the appointed day. As I climbed out of the cab and paid the driver, I dared to anticipate another “shallow” cleaning. 

While I waited in the anteroom for Scott to finish up with another patient, my whole dental life flashed before me (the last two visits, anyway): two voyages around the eight surfaces of the four quadrants of my mouth (each, recto and verso); my thoughts during the first, “deep” cleaning, which had included the sudden death, from a brain aneurysm, of a thirty-something friend, Charles Goldstein, and the funeral and sightings of his unquiet ghost; and, finally, Scott’s having confided in me that his son had been diagnosed with bi-polar disease. To my subsequent self-flagellation, his unspoken plea for sympathy and guidance had gone unanswered. 

By now, all that seemed like old hat: omissions, obsessions, and mistakes, there was no reason to dwell upon them–or repeat them. Charles’ restless ghost was long gone, even from my dreams. And, at the start of the second visit, I had asked about the boy — albeit rather brusquely. Not to be cynical, but the best good deed may be when you are rewarded for the intention. Scott had replied that his son’s illness had turned out to be “blessedly mild.” After a dicey start, they had regulated the lithium dosage, and the young man seemed to be doing better. 

“Thanks for asking, Marty.”

As soon as he ushered me into his office, I asked again. This time, although I couldn’t remember the son’s name, I tried to put a little feeling into the question: “How’s your boy doing these days, Scott?” In response, I received the same information as last time. Even Scott’s words, if I remember correctly, were the same: “…regulated the dosage … managing better.” Did he use those words with every patient? For an instant, the possibility hurt my amour propre. But then I remembered my cold reaction when he first confided in me. By what right could I now expect a personalized response? As you sow…. Besides, it would have been strange if Scott enjoyed this topic of conversation.

The moment before asking the question, I had hesitated for a single beat. I was having a little tussle with the residue of superstition that I suspect lingers even in rational people. When my wife holds her breath as we drive past that mile-long cemetery in western Queens, or when my daughter throws spilled salt over her shoulder, I confess to a feeling of amused superiority. But I don’t believe anyone is completely un-superstitious. 

Speaking of which, although I stopped seeing the ghost of Charles Goldstein long ago, it occurs to me that the sightings may also have been a subtle form of superstition. When someone several decades younger than you drops dead on the street one day, resurrecting them could be a way of shrugging off the actuarial implication that you are living on borrowed time. And don’t give me that crap about how “we all live on borrowed time.” The borrowed time of a thirty-something is nothing like the borrowed time of a seventy-something.  

As I was saying, at the moment of opening my mouth to ask Scott how his son was doing, I was brought up short by superstition. To ask the question might upset the stasis that the boy had apparently reached. But, then, I thought how superstitious it would be not to ask. And I realized something else: if the stasis (like a bad dental crown) had not held, I did not want to know. The fact remained that I still didn’t really want to share Scott’s burden. What an ignoble feeling! What a relapse into the coldness for which I had berated myself after the deep cleaning! So, as I have indicated, I did ask, after all, and Scott replied, also as indicated. After that, he changed the subject.

“Let’s get started, Marty, I’m running a little late today. Open, please.” 

And he launched into his usual expert renewal of my mouth. Scott’s care is personalized. As usual, he had hung my x-rays from a clothespin in front of a magnifying light three feet from the chair, so he could refer to them. After the hygienist had glided in, painted a little of the “local” onto my gums, and glided back out, Scott did a quick survey of the territory, accompanied by a blow-by-blow description. 

“Ve-ry good. That old crown, back bottom left, seems to be holding. We can postpone replacing it until the new insurance year kicks in…. And, let’s see … the temporary filling, third one in, top right…” Scott has an exceptional chair-side manner.  

Twenty minutes and three quadrants later, as we paused for a rinse and a jaw stretch, superstition once again pounded at the portals of my mind. (Whew!) Perhaps it was because, for whatever reason, we had not been saying much. Under the circumstances, of course, my own capacity to initiate conversation had been very limited. (“Ehhhee, aaww ett.”) But what about Scott? Had his excellent wife run off with the postman? Had his other, “normal” son disappointed? 

Not that our silence had been uncomfortable, but it was anomalous because, normally, Scott natters. Come to think of it, I would be surprised if there were many silent dentists. If he is typical (and I’m not forgetting the bi-polar son), it could be that many dentists suffer from incipient melancholy, which, most of the time, they fend off by nattering. But now and then, their motors must run down.

Thus far, the cleaning had been smooth and easy –a little picking, a little scraping, nothing that tested my medium-low pain threshold. So now I almost said, “Seems to be going much better this time, Scott. All those two-minute sessions with the electric must be paying off.” Yes, I may as well admit it: I was feeling a little cocky about my newfound dental fitness. But I kept my proverbial pie hole shut. Why? Again, superstition: I feared the evil eye (or tooth). So I rinsed (very little blood), he reinserted the sucker, and we proceeded without incident to the northwest quadrant (top left, verso). As we glided toward this ultima thule, I filled our still-companionable silence by revisiting images from a favorite film, Master and Commander. 

“Which of us is which?” I wondered. And “do Galapagos tortoises have teeth? If so, do they decay and fall out as the animals approach an age not unlike eternity?” In fact, as I have since determined via a thirty-second visit to the Google Virtual Public Library, no modern tortoise has so much as a single tooth. 

On we sped, coming without incident into port. Toothbrush, floss, and paste were proffered, hands shaken, and that was that. Promising to “keep up the good work,” I danced from the office, mentally clasping my clean bill of dental health. As I sailed across the sidewalk, hoping to catch a cab home, I did not suffer, as I had after the deep cleaning, from any self-flagellating thoughts about insensitivity or stupidity, connected, of course, with ever-encroaching mortality. But I did recall something else, which made me freeze right there on the curb, on this typically warm June day. 

Early in the course of today’s session, an unwelcome image from another film had flashed, like heat lightning, across my mental horizon. (The careful reader –frequent sailor on these strange seas of literary thought– will see an epiphany about to appear on his own horizon. Not even a shot across the bows could make it tack and turn.)

The unwelcome image was of Lawrence Olivier, the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, torturing poor Dustin Hoffman. Fleetingly, back there in the bottom right recto, it had occurred to me to ask Scott his opinion of this film. The question could possibly have started us on a survey of famous movie dental scenes, like the hilarious one in which biker/dentist Bill Murray tortures Steve Martin. But, once again, I had kept my pie hole –well, not shut, but silent. 

No, I had not asked, “Uhht ooo ink uh Awruhnce Oeeiuheh …?” etc. That question might have been given point by the fact that Scott (like many New York dentists) is, as am I (like many of their patients) a member of what I refer to as “the Jewish perversion” (i.e. persuasion). Not to mention that Hoffman plays the eponymous (Jewish) runner, and that Scott is himself a serious jogger. 

Back out on the sidewalk, on this morning of only moderate humility (boom boom), as I stood at the curb, arm upraised for a cab, I imagined how, had I given rein to curiosity and asked the Olivier question, the conversation might have gone:

Marty (I, me):  You’ve seen Marathon Man, right, Scott?

Scott: Hasn’t everyone seen Marathon Man? 

Marty: Well?

Scott: ‘Well,’ what? (Note: doesn’t want to answer. Drop it!)

Marty: What did you think of the dental scene? 

Scott: What do you think I thought? It was horrible.

Marty: Well, of course, Olivier was playing a Nazi.

Scott: Yeah, I noticed. But he was also playing a dentist. A very bad dentist, one who intentionally inflicts pain. 

So, as my raised arm began to tire, and I realized that this was the hour when the taxi drivers’ shift ends, and that I might have to resort to the hated subway, I decided I had done the right thing, after all. Had this conversation actually taken place, during subsequent procedures of any kind, if Scott happened to inflict any pain on me –unintentional, of course—we would both have awkward flashbacks to the Marathon Man conversation.

Yes, over the (I hope) years to come, during numerous visits (not, I hope, too numerous) to Scott’s office, as I try to preserve my teeth, in order to help sustain a Galapagos-like longevity (if I may be permitted a little latitude), I can schedule my regular appointments, then settle into the familiar chair and enjoy Scott’s wizardry, with the small satisfaction of not having evoked the confused archetype of cruel dentist/Nazi/Jew and hapless patient/victim/also Jew. When one visits a dentist repeatedly over the years, one does not need to bring along needless mental plaque. No, the dentist-patient relationship is sufficiently fraught, without making it worse. Scott, the Dentist, and Marty, the Patient, must and will continue to work together in relative harmony.

Note: “Deep Cleaning” (1) narrates two earlier visits by Marty, a retired advertising copywriter, to Scott, his dentist. “Deep Cleaning” (1) appeared at www.snreview.org › Spring2009

My Yoke is Easy

My Yoke is Easy

James William Gardner

It was just Amos Handy and God standing there together on a lonely two lane road in Mississippi in the dark in the middle of the night.  It was God who first spoke.  He said, “Amos, what in the world are you aiming on doing now?”  There was a soft, breeze like God’s breath.  Amos didn’t answer the Lord right away.  He thought about it a while and of course when it’s just you and the Lord that doesn’t really matter because the Lord hears everything you’re thinking anyway.  He more than likely knows it before you do.

Finally Amos Handy said to the Lord, “I really ain’t sure.   I reckon I’ll just go wherever it is that you lead me.”  He didn’t say it out loud.  He said it with his mind’s voice the way he was accustomed to talk to God.  He felt the breeze again.  God’s voice always seemed to come in through the top of his head.  It was almost warm like a stocking hat feels.  Amos Handy hadn’t eaten since Tuesday afternoon and it was Thursday.  “Lord, I sure could use me something to eat if you could manage it.  My stomach’s empty as a drum.”

He began to walk again.  He could hear the gravels crunch under his feet.  He remembered that piece of scripture when Jesus talked about how the Father takes care of his children.  He couldn’t think of the exact words.  That’s how scripture works sometimes.  Just then he saw headlights coming up behind him and he heard a growl of a diesel engine getting louder and louder.  He turned to face the light.  He wasn’t sure, but it looked like a logging truck.  He stuck out his thumb and smiled his best, friendliest smile at the driver.  The big truck slowed down.  The air breaks hissed and it came to a stop right beside him.

“You need you a ride?” said a deep, raspy voice through the open passenger side window.  Behind the voice Amos Handy heard Charlie Pride singing, Kiss an Angel Good Morning.

“I sure do!” answered Amos Handy still smiling as nice as he could.  The door swung open and the voice said to climb on up.  Amos Handy threw his backpack up into the floorboard and got in.  “Man, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”  All he could see was the dark silhouetted profile of a face in the dashboard light.  It had a cigarette stuck in it that wiggled up and down when the silhouette spoke.

“No problem Brother,” it said.  “I’ve done been down and out.  I know what it’s like.  Where you headed?”

“I ain’t really sure.  I’m just walking and seeing where I can get to.”

The silhouette offered Amos Handy a cigarette.  He pulled one from the pack.  Then a hand came over with a light and for an instant he saw the face of the driver.  “Where’re you coming from?”

“I was staying with this woman over near Montgomery until she kicked me out.”

“Women will do that,” said the driver as if it were nothing.  The big diesel started moving again.  The hand that had held the lighter gripped the gearshift knob and started moving through the gears.  “This is a damn lonely old highway,” he said.  “How come you to come this way?”

“”I caught me a ride with this guy and he dropped me off back there a ways,” replied Amos Handy.  The cigarette tasted good.  He hadn’t had one all day.  He held the smoke in for a long time and savored every puff.

“Hell Buddy, you look like you could use a meal.”

“Man, you got that right.”  Then the big hand came over again and it had a twenty in it.  The driver didn’t say a word.  Amos Handy took the money and put it in his shirt pocket.  “Thank you,” he said.

“There’s a little truck stop up here a piece.  A woman named Leona runs it and she makes some damn good biscuits.  You tell her Travis told her to fix you up.”

“Okay,” said Amos Handy.  Then he got quiet.  He was talking to the Lord again.  “Lord, you’re mighty good to me and you know I appreciate it.”  The Lord just smiled.  You know how it is when God does that, just smiles at you.  You can feel that too, just as real as anything.”

After a little while the lights of the little truck stop came into sight.  The driver pulled the old truck up to the fuel pumps and let Amos Handy out.  “Good luck wherever it is you’re headed.  Remember; tell Leona that Travis sent you.”

Amos Handy said he would.  The airbrakes hissed, and the log truck drove off down the road.  Amos Handy reached to check and make sure that the twenty was still in his pocket.  It was.  He slung his pack over his shoulder and walked inside.  It was warm in there.  He could smell coffee and bacon.  Those are two fine smells when they mix together in the air.  He made his way across the little dining room past the tables to the counter and sat down.  That Charlie Pride song was stuck in his head.  He was humming it under his breath.

“Morning!” shouted a woman’s voice.  Amos Handy looked to see.  A face was staring at him through the kitchen window, a big round face with little twinkling eyes like two raisins in a sweet roll.  “You want coffee?” said the face.

“Yes Ma’am,” answered Amos Handy.

“Just a second Honey, it’s about finished brewing.”  He pulled a paper menu out from between the ketchup bottle and the sugar and opened it up.  There they were right on top, biscuits and gravy.  That’s what he wanted.  A minute later the kitchen door swung open and a little fat woman waddled out with a mug in one hand and a coffee pot in the other.  She sat the mug down and filled it.  “You want cream?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a hand full of little half and half creamers and dropped them in a mound on the counter.  “Are you Leona?” asked Amos Handy looking at the two little raisin eyes.

“That’s me,” she said.

“A truck driver named Travis said to say that he sent me.  He said you fixed some extra good biscuits.”

“Travis Sellers?” she asked.

“I don’t know his last name.  He drives a log truck.”

“That him,” she smiled.  “Do you know what you want?”

“Well Ma’am, I tell you the truth I’m awful hungry.  I believe I’ll have me a plate of gravy biscuits.”

“Do you want any eggs or grits or anything with that?”

“No, just biscuits and gravy,” he said.  The woman nodded and headed back to the kitchen.  He watched her as she walked away.  She had on jeans, tight jeans and you could see the little dimples of fat on the back of her thighs through the denim.  He opened the creamers and stirred his coffee.  Then he raised his mug, blew a couple times and took a sip.  It was hot, but it was good.  An old Pepsi-Cola clock on the wall next to a big mounted fish said that it was a quarter to five.  Amos Handy didn’t have a watch.  He’d sold it to a guy he met in jail one night in Montgomery for seven dollars.  It was all the man had, but the watch wasn’t worth any more than that.  He remembered that he’d bought him a pack of Winstons and a can of beanie weenies with the money.  After just a little while they were gone and Amos Handy wished that he had his watch back, but really when you get right down to it, he didn’t need to know what time it was.  It didn’t matter that much. Time and watches were for people with things to do, places to go and people to meet.

He thought about that girl Tammy, the one in Montgomery that had let him stay with her and then kicked him out.  “Get your shit and get the fuck out of my house this minute!” he could hear her shout.  The sound of it ringing in his head pushed out the Charlie Pride song.  Tammy was a raunchy, messed up chick anyway.  She was on something, nervous and twitching all the time and skinny as a rail.  He though about it a lot after he left and he figured it was probably the best thing that could have happened after all.  Still, he couldn’t understand why she’d turned on him all of a sudden like that.  She’d even said that she loved him.

“Here you go, Baby,” said the little fat, raisin eyed woman as she sat the plate of biscuits and gravy down in front of him.

“Lord!” he said.  “That’s the prettiest, biggest plate of biscuits I’ve ever seen!”

“Any friend of Travis Sellers is a friend of mine.”  She laughed.  “You enjoy that, Honey.  It’s on the house.”  Then she turned and waddled away.  He looked at the biscuits.  There are very few things as pretty as good soft biscuits and sausage gravy with plenty of meat in it.  It was steaming.

“Thank you Lord,” he whispered under his breath.

“Certainly, Amos,” answered the Lord.  “I hope you enjoy it.”  That’s the way the Lord works sometimes at least on easy things, at least for Amos Handy.  He picked up his fork and took a bite. It was as good as he’d ever tasted.   As he was eating a guy walked in and sat right down beside him.  He was a heavyset guy with a black leather cowboy hat perched back on the head and a leather vest with tassels.  He looked over at Amos Handy.  First he looked at his face.  Then, he glanced down and eyed his backpack on the floor.  For a second he looked judgmental, like he was going to say something mean, but then he brightened up and the guy smiled.  He was missing two bottom teeth right in the middle.

“How’re you, Buddy?” he said.

“I’m doing right good,” answered Amos Handy.

“Them’s some damn pretty biscuits,” he said.

“They are.  You ought to get you some.”

The guy hollered out, “Leona!  Get me a cup of Joe and a big plate of biscuits and gravy!”  The woman with the eyes looked out from the kitchen.

“Billy Ray, where in the devil have you been?  I ain’t seen you in over a week.”

“I been down in Hattiesburg.  We’re putting up a warehouse down there.  It’s a big job, thirty-two-hundred square feet.”

The woman pushed the kitchen door open with her knee and came out.  She poured the man’s coffee.  “I seen Shelly the other day.  She was asking about you.”

“We ain’t seeing each other no more,” he said.  “Not since Friday before last. I’m done with her this time for good.”

“Hell, I’m sorry to hear that.  What happened?”

“Aw, I don’t feel like talking about it.  I’ve done pushed it out of my mind.”

The woman didn’t say anything for a minute.  The man just looked at her over his coffee cup.  Amos Handy stared at his plate and ate.

Then the woman said, “Well…” and let it just trail off.  Then she walked back in the kitchen.

The guy in the hat turned to Amos Handy.  “You know something, Buddy?  You can’t trust a woman, not no woman.  They’ll do you wrong as soon as your back is turned.”

Amos Handy thought about that Tammy in Montgomery again.  Then he said one of those stupid, predictable things you say when you don’t know what else to say.  “You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.”

“You got that right,” said the guy.  The woman, Leona came back out with the guy’s order and sat it down.  Amos Handy ate slow.  He was making it last, enjoying every bite as much as he could.  After a while the woman brought more coffee.  She filled their cups without even asking.  Finally, Amos Handy got down to his last bite.  He looked at it.  Then he stabbed it with his fork, mopped up the last of the gravy and popped it into his mouth.  Sometimes the last bite is the best of all.  Other times you can barely taste it.  He had one more cup of coffee, then thanked the woman and stood up from the counter.

“You on the road?” asked the guy in the hat.

“Yeah,” said Amos Handy as he slung his pack over his shoulder.

“Want a lift?  I’m headed back down to Hattiesburg if you’re going that way.”

Amos Handy looked at the Lord.  He wondered if that’s where the Lord wanted him to go.  He’d never been to Hattiesburg.  Maybe something good was waiting there.  He glanced over at the Pepsi-Cola clock next to the fish.  It was almost six.  “Okay,” he said to the man.”

“Leona Honey, let me have one more cup of coffee to go.”

The woman got it.  The man paid and then they walked out.  It was just starting to get light.  Amos Handy saw an old man coming through the parking lot.  The old guy was pushing a baby stroller.  When he got close Amos Handy noticed that inside the stroller the man had a twenty-four pack of Blue Ribbon Beer.  The guy never looked.  He just walked on by.  “Wonder what the hell that old dude’s doing with that beer at this time of morning,” said the man in the hat.  Amos Handy didn’t answer.  The man pulled out a pack of smokes and offered him one.  Then, they just stood there and watched it grow light.  The breeze of the Lord blew softly across Amos Handy’s face.  Over on the other side of the parking lot next to a puddle of water, he saw a duck sitting there.  It was just as still.  It didn’t move a bit.

They finished their cigarettes.  The guy flicked his butt high over into the bushes.  Amos Handy flicked his.  Then they stepped down off the curb and walked out into the parking lot.  Amos Handy kept looking at the duck, waiting for the thing to move, but it didn’t.  Then he squinted.  It wasn’t a duck at all. It was a damn plastic grocery bag.  It sure looked like a duck.  A lot of times it’s hard to say what’s real.  Then sometimes, it doesn’t matter anyway.  He climbed up into the cab of the truck with the guy in the hat and they headed off for Hattiesburg.

Sea Foam

Sea Foam

Hayden Moore

 

‘Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep’

(William Shakespeare: Henry VI part II)

It was a place where the sea met the rocks and the rocks melted into the sea. In the shade of a twisted palm tree hosting thousands of glistening blackberries at its base, the girl watched as the translucent moon in a sky of mineral blue pulled the tide further up her legs. On the rocks beside her, a dead sea catfish stirred in the rising waters, its sun-hardened whiskers giving the eyeless body the look of petrified hope. A single crab prodded at the corpse with the patience of a matador past his prime. Dried bits of flesh were poked and prodded from the body of the fish. The girl knew the sea would take care of the rest. 

Galatea rubbed her left eye and winced. Over the years, she had been stung plenty of times. But this time, the walk through the swamp on her way to the jetty came at the cost of half of her vision for the day. The wasp that stung her eyelid was either smarter than the rest or just plain lucky. Galatea looked out to sea and watched the wind cast its sparkles onto the water. She reminded herself that beneath the surface an eternal battle was raging. From whale to minnow, everything was in a constant state of alarm. She knew there was no point in looking towards town. It was the same there, too. The only difference was the medium. But here, in the gray existence between water and air, Galatea felt like she was halfway home.

Dark clumps of seaweed drifted with the current and Galatea closed her good eye. The hirsute image of her father drifted across her mind. All those promises of riches and happiness, all the drunken blame on her mother and herself for the failure of the family Wool-works. It took three generations to build the family business, her great-grandfather nothing but a dirt poor sheep herder much further inland. But it only took a little more than a decade for her father, that monster of a man both in form and action, to ruin it. Fire took care of the rest. There was no reason to bury her mother, she was turned to ashes along with her father whose body was full of fuel in the form of cheap whiskey.

When the sea had reached her knees, Galatea was still deep in reflection with only a sliver of the seascape coming through her swollen eyelid. Then something soft struck her bare back. Again and again, she was struck with something that felt far better than some kind of malicious aerial assault. She looked up into the palm tree and saw nothing but the alternate fronds swaying in the breeze. When she turned back, she saw a few bruised golden grapes on the rocks. The grapes looked exotic, juxtaposed to the countless blackberries that stained the rocks they rested on with a deep purple. She had never tasted golden grapes, just green ones. Galatea picked up one of the grapes, took a deep breath and tossed it into her mouth. A smooth sweetness tinged with just a bit of acid made her tongue swell and her mouth water. When she swallowed, she saw her.

“I know, I know. It’s delicious isn’t it? I wasn’t sure if you’d eat it. Probably thought it just fell out of the sky from nowhere. But everything comes from someone,” the girl’s voice laughed from the palm tree.

“I can’t see you,” Galatea called out, shielding her good eye with her hand.

“You will. It just has to reach your eyes. Sorry. Your eye. Didn’t think I’d come across a cyclops today.”

“I’m not—“

“The name’s Acis.”

“I’m Galatea.”

“Well, what a pair we make. Hey, look!”

“Where?” Galatea shouted, looking around.

“At me.”

  If the sunlight dreamed of being a shadow in the form of a person, it would be who was climbing down the palm. Galatea put her hands into the rising waters to feel some kind of comfort as she watched. When the glistening shadow reached the rocks, texture and detail began to fill out the light. With every step, the form was walking towards personhood. By the time Acis reached Galatea, she was smiling, and in every particle a girl Galatea’s age in appearance. The dark-haired girl laughed as she sat next to Galatea.

“The last person ran away when I tried this,” Acis smiled.

“What are you?” Galatea asked.

“What are you?”

“I don’t know—“

“Me either. I’m just thrilled you can actually see me. Most people don’t get past a voice without a body.”

“But here you are,” Galatea muttered, not daring to make eye-contact.

“Here I am.”

“Well, I don’t like seeing most people and most people don’t take any mind to see me. So I guess we’re kind of even.”

“That makes us almost even. The water feels so good. It always does.”

It was then that Galatea noticed Acis’ legs in the water. Where the sea met her knees, the lower part of her legs were gone. Between the rolling wavelets, when the water had a moment of calm, there was nothing beneath the surface but the green water. A ring of sea-foam marked where Acis’ body gave way to water. Galatea marveled as a gust of wind sent the water to both their waists, leaving nothing below for Acis. As it receded, her body seamlessly was revealed.

“Quite a sympathetic thing I have going here with the sea, huh?” Acis laughed softly, looking down at herself. “When I go for a swim, I lose myself in it. Hey…you’re still here.”

“Me? Of course, I am,” Galatea laughed nervously. “But I keep on watching you disappear.”

“It looks like that. It always has. But you have a sea inside of you. Everyone does. I just have more. Look at your own legs. See how they change underwater?”

“Yes, but thats because of….refraction.”

“Sure. Call it what you want. But every particle of you wants to be what it once was. The sea is the womb of the world. We’re all sea-foam.”

“Can you breathe underwater?” Galatea asked, edging closer to Acis.

“I wouldn’t call it breathing. It’s more like a kind of being underwater. I just am as much as the water just is. Wait a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”

“What?”

Just as Galatea glanced out to sea, a rogue wave crested and crashed on the rocks. Countless particles of united seawater sent Galatea onto her back and into the blackberry bushes. When she looked up, in spite of the thorns pricking her knees and hands, she saw that Acis had disappeared. But when she looked down at the rocks, in a pool of sea-foam, she saw a glimpse of Acis. Looking to her left and right, she saw other bits of the girl as she crawled on her hands and knees back towards the edge of the rocks. 

As the water spilled back into the sea, the form of Acis appeared. Galatea watched as Acis lingered just beneath the surface like an aqueous hologram composed of water rather than light. Jellyfish, catfish, minnows of various sorts, a sea-turtle, a school of dolphins, nurse sharks and indistinct simple-celled organisms gathered around the image of Acis. Galatea watched and waited as the hot wind began its task of eradicating the rogue water on the rocks and herself.

Galatea had always found the wind disorienting. Wind proved the air was one of the minions of death and decay, the slow eater of everything standing. It was the wind that portended what was happening to her. As the creatures of the sea danced with Acis, Galatea felt her swollen eye begin to sting. The tinge of tickling pain turned to torment as the sensation crept down her face and throughout her body. Somewhere in her stomach, a white-hot lump of fire was cooking her from the inside. Galatea tried not to scream and expected to smell burning flesh but the stench never came. A gust of wind took her eyelids first. A dark liquid spilled out of her navel as her insides poured out of her in a viscous goo tending towards molasses. By the time she fell to her knees, nothing remained of her but clinging sinews and her lidless eyes. She wanted to close her eyes and destroy her sight but the setting sun mocked her in its radiance from afar.

Harmony, that strength of binding opposites, found its masterpiece when the wind sent a wave crashing onto the tormented body of Galatea. Following the slant and crevices of the rocks, the water brought her along on its journey back into the sea.

When her ruined body found its way into the sea, when the wind was nothing but an effect in the medium outside of the water, Galatea opened her eyes and saw.

The sea creatures were gathered around her and moving in their multifarious ways in a counter-clockwise direction. Galatea took no breaths, there was no need. She moved through the water as light does through space. There was no space or time, only a being. Her name sank to the bottom of wherever she happened to be like a hailstone would from a storm over the sea, sinking and diminishing before it even forgot it came from the sky. She was someone who had found where she was supposed to be, as true as water.

The palm fronds below her danced in the breeze as she looked down towards the rocks of the jetty. A small cloud high in the atmosphere drifted by the afternoon sun and melted before it passed. Below her, sitting on the edge of the rocks where the rising tide had almost reached her knees, a girl was rocking back and forth. Her left eye was swollen shut. From the top of the palm tree, she closed her eyes for a moment as she felt the light passing through her. Then she remembered the grapes. There were only three but she knew her aim was true. She pulled out one of the golden grapes and threw it at the girl below. Contact. She threw another. Contact again. Then another. The girl on the rocks at the edge of the sea turned and looked up into the palm tree. Acis smiled to herself as she watched the girl eat one of the grapes. When the girl’s lips pursed, Acis felt her own voice return.

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Johnny Six-Shoooter

Johnny Six-Shoooter

 Tim Snyder

Near Winona, Mississippi, the road trip laughs and stories turned sour. Mini complained of nausea and asked to pull over at the nearest rest stop, but Johnny refused. They had made good time so far and were only an hour and a half outside Memphis. Mini needed to buck up. A couple minutes later, however, her stomach – against her wishes – gurgled. Mini tried to explain, but before her plea was stated, Johnny stifled her again: 

“You have to stop whining. You know, sickness is 95% psychosomatic.”

“You’re a jerk.”

“It’s a known fact.”

“Ooooooh. I feel queasy.”

“There you go whining again.”

Mini’s stomach obstinately grew worse. Minutes later, an irrepressible green sludge rode a potent wave of nausea from the pit of her stomach. Somehow, Mini subdued most of it, minus a small shot that whizzed across the cabin and landed half on the dash and half on Johnny’s steering hand. This small glob was enough to cause a chain reaction in which Johnny, horrified, swerved from the right hand lane into the left, which then caused an approaching blood red Chevy pickup to swerve into the grassy median. Fortunately, nobody died in the exchange. No damage, either. The Chevy pickup’s horn did blare, though, while the driver – a sunburned monster of a man – hurled a barrage of muffled curses and middle fingers. Mini whimpered, and Johnny quickly sped off from the scene before the Chevy driver could reorient his vehicle. 

A few miles down the road, Mini started in again.

“Johnny, I’m not kidding. You have to stop. It’s getting worse.”

“Can’t. Not after we almost killed that guy.” 

“I think I’m having morning sickness.”

“It’s three in the afternoon.” 

“Johnny, now!” The creature within erupted. “I’M PREGNANT!”

A dozen miles down the road, Johnny grudgingly pulled off at an exit in Oakland, Mississippi, a town with a population of 536, according to the sign. Sliding into a McDonalds’ parking lot, Mini rushed inside, while Johnny stayed out in the car. 

As Johnny sat brooding, an unexpected pain stabbed at his stomach. His head dizzied and panic engulfed him. Johnny’s life had been a whirlwind since receiving news of Mini’s pregnancy. Now, in this moment alone, a cascade of thoughts concerning the baby gushed for the first time. The sacrifices were already starting. Today, he waited in a fast food parking lot. In no time, he’d be waiting at a baby shower. Then in a hospital. A year down the line, he’d be at the tail end of a grocery line holding a jar of baby slop. He was turning into a domestic field hand. It had taken him years just to resemble a boyfriend, loving and monogamous. Now, a father? A husband? 

Johnny reached into the backseat inside his travel bag and rummaged for his prescription bottle. Eventually, he snagged it and shook it furiously when he saw that no pills remained. 

Johnny rolled down both windows for air. He leaned back in his seat and looked out over the landscape in hopes that the heavenly countryside might offer some redress. Mostly, the area was dense forest. Autumn winds, carrying whispers of winter, had created a leafy kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows, and purples. A nearby creek burbled as misty water rippled overtop its gravel belly. Johnny closed his eyes. His surroundings conjured up a vision in which he was an adult Huck Finn, venturing up the Mississippi through the beautiful southern sticks. In this fantasy, he had no worries. No obligations. He simply lived peacefully inside of fleeting moments and humorous happenings.

Johnny opened his eyes again, his pulse lightened. He looked around.

There were only two other vehicles in the McDonalds’ parking lot, presumably belonging to a couple of the worker folk. Other than that, the only signs of civilization at the exit were an old HEIFERS filling station with a few pumps (but no customers) and a corroded Model T sitting off the side of the road about a hundred yards down. The historical remnant intrigued Johnny. He imagined an old carpenter, maybe even his own grandpappy, hauling lumber in the wagon. A simpler, better time. He romanticized that maybe now a sleuth (?) of little black bears were using the old vehicle as a home. Johnny needed to stretch his legs, so he got out of the hatchback and walked up behind the rusty rig to study it further.

However, with each step that drew him closer to the back bumper, the vehicle grew more ghoulish. There was a gaping hole in the cabin roof. Punched out were the side windows, and cinder blocks – rather than wheels – propped up the back axle. Chips in the black paint job made the vehicle look diseased with leprosy. Inside, somebody had draped a mangy blanket over the front row seat.

Johnny was upset the truck corrupted his romantic mood. He circled the wagon and stopped at the vehicle’s rear-end, outside the view of the McDonalds and filling station. He then unzipped and started to relieve himself on the old hunk of steel. In the midst of his urinary daze, Johnny suddenly saw a furtive head peep up and then go back down inside the cabin. Johnny ignored it thinking it was simply an illusion. He turned his head in the opposite direction and stared down the long stretch of pavement. A gust of wind shuddered the thick autumn leaves on the highway’s edge. Under the sun’s midday glaze, the scene bled together like watercolors on canvas.

Heyy. Pssst. A fink voice whispered.

Johnny then heard a small rustling inside the cabin. He turned his head back and saw the mangy blanket shift. 

“Hell, come on now. Who’s the peeping pervert?”

Johnny. 

Johnny staggered and pissed on his shoe. 

Why do you do such things-s-s-s?

Johnny hopped back and zipped himself in a single defensive motion.

The woman.

The voice was hypnotizing. Unreal even. Johnny knew not to answer, for what good could come from it? Still, he felt compelled.

“You mean Mini?” 

Yeessss. The voice grew pleased, which encouraged Johnny.

“She’s a good woman,” he continued unsure initially but gaining momentum. “A little nuts, but I’m going to follow through.”

Fooool.

“What?” 

The voice said nothing.

“What would you know about it? A man has to make a decision at some point. Settle down. Even if the heart’s not all the way in it, he has to pretend. The heart will eventually follow.”

Listen to the big man. He pours out his soul.

Silence lingered. Johnny felt offended.

Why do you berate her?

“Do I?”

Why did you not pull over the car? Why have no s-s-sympathy?

“Who the hell is this?”

She trusts-s-s you. Looks-s-s to you.

“What do you want?”

Your soul. The laugh was fiendish.

“I don’t think I can give that away.”

Maybe you already have.

“What are we really talking about here?”

From here on out, I want you to remember how weak and pathetic you actually are. I want you to know that I could’ve destroyed you.

“Yeah?”

But only through my mercy do you live. That makes you a slave. And for the rest of your life, you’ll always be that. Nothing more. An inferior being that only through mercy still walks the earth. 

“You’re a piece of shit. You know that? Nobody’s taking my fucking soul.”

Johnny leaned up to the door and took a full look inside the cabin. Sitting there, jaw open, teeth glistening, was a grubby little red fox. Spittle and hisses spewed from his yap. His fur was patchy. 

“Jesus!”

With a bound, the red fox positioned himself at the window opening, only a foot and a half away from Johnny and his sweating torso. The fox’s eyes were a sleazy emerald green. He seemed to smile knowingly. Was this the source of the voice? It couldn’t have been. It must have been.

Johnny dared not move for fear of the fox pouncing. Any sudden movement might lead to punishment. Johnny stared into the fox’s eyes. Deep inside there seemed to be a twinkle. Maybe it was the devil himself. 

Johnny slowly crept his hand into his jeans in search of a peace offering. As he fingered the lint in his pocket, he came across a pack of Bubblicious. Watermelon flavored. Johnny snagged a chunk of the gum and displayed it to the fox. The fox’s head tilted sideways. Johnny, slowly, raised his arm, made the sign of the cross, and tossed the gum up into the air. The fox snatched the chunk in its mouth. The gum seemed to slide down immediately, and the fox’s sneer dissipated. His tail wagged, stupidly. The devil gone. Johnny crept away from the rig and staggered across the old highway.

Reaching the hatchback, Johnny flopped down in the driver’s seat and closed his eyes. He rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and drifted into nothingness.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

The explosive pounding nearly shattered the passenger’s side window and almost caused Johnny to soil his pants. Outside the glass was Mini. Her face had a scowl etched in it. Her hair was disheveled and greasy. Sweat coated her pasty skin. Her breasts, though, seemed plumper than ever.

“Open this door. You’re not funny.”

Johnny pressed the unlock button. The door snapped open, and Mini awkwardly plunked down. Johnny’s eyes deglazed as his spirit returned from its unnerving twilight zone. 

“You feeling better?”

“I puked.”

“What do you have there?”

“I got us some combo meals.” 

“Num.”

“Shut up. I’m not giving you any if you keep being a jerk.”

“I’m sorry for getting crazy.” He genuinely was. Johnny had no plans to mention or credit the fox for his apologetic turn around. Rather, he buried the patchy skank six feet deep in his subconscious. 

“There was no need for it.”

“I just wanted to make good time, I guess.”

“What’s the rush?” Mini shifted around trying to get comfortable, and Johnny for the first time noticed her belly’s bulge. The vision was sobering.

“I guess there’s not,” Johnny said, although he thought being in the car for unnecessary periods was excruciating.

“You have to be a little patient, especially with me being pregnant, especially when the baby gets here.”

“Mmmhmm.” Johnny said, bothered she would play those cards.

“You have to mature a little bit. You can’t keep acting like a child.”

Johnny nodded along and managed to muzzle himself for the sake of peace. To keep the fox at bay.

Mini, meanwhile, looked pleased with her airing of grievances. She seemed happy that Johnny kept relatively quiet through it, too. She smiled at Johnny. Johnny smiled right back. Could this be what women wanted, a nodding imbecile? Johnny wondered. Probably. He supposed men desired the same. The dynamic created a war of emotional attrition for which women – the more complex emotional beings – were better equipped. In this battle of wills, women came prepared as emotional tanks, whereas men arrived with emotional six shooters.

 

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rideshare

Rideshare

Jonathan B. Ferrini

It was a hot summer, and I was “sweating” my physics final exam. I was required to take physics for a second time during summer school after failing the course during the Spring Quarter of my sophomore year in college. I was also “sweating” the grueling, twelve hour days, I was working as a rideshare driver.

My family lived in a large, luxurious home, in an affluent part of town. My parents were both successful professionals. Although I wanted to become a software engineer and design new Apps, I spent most of my time playing video games, drinking with my friends, and slacking. I attended a rigorous STEM university, and the students were very competitive. The coursework was tough and required intense study. Nobody reached out to one another to share notes, or help explain difficult subject matter. Our access to the professors was limited, and we waited in line to approach overworked graduate students, serving as teaching assistants, who had limited time, and patience for our questions. 

Distraught because I flunked physics and wasn’t devoting the necessary time to my studies, my parents meted out “tough love” to me; they kicked me out of the house for the summer with no money, and told me “to make it on my own.” They explained the experience would be “good for me” and motivate me to take my “studies seriously.” 

I found a friend’s couch to sleep on for the summer. I needed spending money, fast, and signed up for a ride share job using my hybrid car which was ideal because it had great gas mileage. Being a ride share driver had its advantages because I could “cash out” my earnings daily which were immediately deposited into my checking account without tax withholding. I drove twelve hour days, earning about $200, less gas money. After twelve hours of driving in heavy traffic, I returned home, hungry and exhausted. After a few hours of physics study, I’d fall asleep after eating a frozen dinner.

The job took me all over town, and into parts of town I didn’t know; mostly lower income. I’d often race through these “bad” neighborhoods, running red lights, to avoid potential car jackers, and fearful of the menacing appearing homeless who roamed these streets. It was tiring work but I met interesting people, beautiful girls, and felt a satisfaction from a hard day’s work. 

My rideshare app would alert me to a pick up at a downtown, budget motel, which always resulted in a scary ride. The passengers were usually frantic after being evicted, intoxicated or mentally ill. I accepted the rides because I needed the money, and all rides have the potential of becoming long and lucrative.

I arrived at the motel where an elderly, grey haired, black man, was tending to an elderly, frail, silver haired, caucasian woman in a wheel chair. As I approached, he was eager to see me, waived, and approached the vehicle. He told me they were only going a “few blocks”, and apologized for the “short ride.” It was a hot day, and I gave them my last bottle of water because they were perspiring, and I feared they were suffering from heat stroke. They were thirsty and grateful for the water. I noticed the elderly woman’s hands were grotesquely twisted, and she had difficulty holding the water bottle with both hands. The black man gently held the bottle to her mouth, allowing her to sip the water.

I opened up the trunk. The man carefully lifted the elderly woman from the wheel chair, and buckled her into the rear seat with tenderness and care, suggesting a relationship similar to a mother and son. He folded the wheel chair and placed it in my trunk. This man was large and imposing but exhibited chivalry, kindness, and love for the crippled old woman. 

He thanked me for “picking him up” which suggested he may have been the victim of rideshare discrimination by frightened or insensitive drivers. 

He remarked “I’m sweating worse than an Arkansas mule.” 

I had never heard that expression before, asking, “Where did that saying come from?” 

“My pop was a sharecropper in Mississippi and used it and other sayings often.” 

He was perspiring and distraught about his cell phone battery dying. I plugged his cell phone into my recharger cord, cranked up the air conditioning which calmed him down, and he thanked me. We immediately liked each other. 

He introduced himself as “Rollo”, short for “Rollin’ On”. He described himself as a “rolling stone”, never spending too much time in one place. He introduced the old woman as “Beatrice”. I introduced myself as Zack. 

Rollo was an imposing figure but a “gentle giant”. He was about 6’2”, 220+, and his body looked beaten down from a long life of grueling work. His face also showed the many years of a difficult life. He was maybe seventy. The elderly woman looked to be pushing eighty.

“What’s your story, Rollo?” 

“I grew up in rural Mississippi and I was a troublemaker raised by a single mom. We got by on food stamps and a vegetable garden. Despite our frugalness, the food stamps would run out by the third week of the month. Mama was a great cook and could make a nutritious meal from very little foodstuffs. After the food stamps for the month ran out, I wanted to surprise her with a good cut of meat. I got caught stealing a chuck steak from the market, and the judge gave me a choice of spending a year in county jail or joining the Army. I chose the Army which provided me discipline, a work ethic, self-respect, and “straightened” me out. I was happy to send most of my Army pay home to Mama. I did one tour in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1972. I was spat on when arriving home at the airport up north by war protestors, and caught the first bus home, back to my poverty-stricken town in Mississippi. Life was slow, no work, so I took to the bottle, and fell in with the wrong crowd. Mama was having difficulty walking and complaining of numbness in her feet. White doctors wouldn’t treat black folk so I took mama to the only 

Black doctor in town. He diagnosed Mama with Type 2 diabetes. He couldn’t treat her and urged me to take her for treatment to the nearest town with a university medical school hospital. Despite her Medicare benefits, the treatment was too costly for mama to pay. I took to stealing to pay mama’s medical bills. I stole anything I could pawn or fence for immediate cash. When she asked me where the money was coming from, I said I was sharecropping by day, and working as a night watchman. 

“I was eventually arrested, convicted, and I spent two years on a chain gang. Mama’s condition continued to worsen while I was on the chain gang but she managed to survive until I was released.

“After serving my sentence, and with the help of a veteran’s organization, I found work as a truck driver trainee, offering full training; decent pay which enabled me to pay all of mama’s bills, and the job had good benefits, including medical insurance for Mama. I moved to Phoenix where the trucking company was headquartered. Man, I loved driving. I drove the entire country and Canada, digging the freedom, and independence of working for myself. North America is one of the most beautiful places on earth, Zack. I’d call Mama every week from a different state or province, and mail her a souvenir. She was proud of me which gave me the self respect I sorely needed. Over the years, I developed lower back pain from hours of driving, and was prescribed opiate-based medicines which hooked me. I drank booze along with the opiates. The booze and opiates created a wonderful high and removed the back pain but I became addicted. 

“When I returned the rig to Phoenix after a thirty day run, I failed my drug test, got fired on the spot, lost my commercial driving license, and ended up on the streets as a homeless man in hot as hell Phoenix. I survived on unemployment benefits for six months, and then turned to welfare. I took on odd jobs, when and if I could find them. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mama I was fired, and was too ashamed to call Mama or return home to Mississippi. I became a drug addict. Within a year, the trucking company forwarded me a faded, official letter from the Mississippi Coroner’s office informing me that Mama died ,and was cremated because no next of kin could be located. I suffered, Zack. The guilt of abandoning Mama was so intense; it could only be quelled with heroin, booze, and meth.” 

Beatrice couldn’t talk, except to mumble. Rollo reached over to wipe the spittle dripping from the side of her mouth. She was petite, and held tightly on to the arms of her car seat as if she was holding on to life. 

Rollo explained, “Beatrice was evicted from a hospice where she was expected to die from liver cancer. Her Social Security disability benefits weren’t enough to cover the expenses even in a poor quality hospice. Beatrice has no family. She is going to die on the streets, alone, without me. Until her time comes, I’m determined to make her life as comfortable as I can. We’re like family, Zack.” 

“Where did Beatrice come from?” 

“I met her at the Salvation Army, sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria, having difficulty feeding herself with her shaking, twisted hands. I sat next to her and fed her. We’ve been together ever since.” 

“How did she end up at the Salvation Army, Rollo?” 

“Back in the eighties, politicians closed all the mental institutions and released helpless psychiatric patients, who had spent their entire lives under the care and supervision of mental health professionals, into the streets. Beatrice had been placed in a mental hospital for developmentally disabled children as a baby. She never learned to speak nor walk, but could hear, and understand most of what was said. She has cerebral palsy which crippled her hands. She never knew life outside of the state hospital. When they closed the hospital, she met briefly with an overworked social worker who couldn’t understand her, handing her a list of privately owned, overcrowded, board and care facilities, and a pharmacy where she could get her medications filled. It was like casting a newborn to the wolves. Most of her life has included short term stays in emergency rooms, prison cells, or sleeping on the sidewalk. 

“I’ve never let go of the guilt associated with not being by Mama’s side when she died. Beatrice reminded me of my mother. I was drawn to looking after her because it dampened the guilt raging within me. You like this ride share driving gig, Zack?” 

“No, I hate it.” 

“Why the hell do it then?” 

“Because my parents kicked me out of the house for the summer for failing physics and I need money.” 

“They kicked you out of the house for flunking a course?” 

“You have to understand, my parents are over-achievers. Dad’s a neurologist and a clinical professor of neurology at the medical school, and mom’s manages a Wall Street investment fund. They think by kicking me out of the house, and forcing me to “make it on my own for the summer”, they’d “toughen me up”, and I’d take my college coursework more seriously.” 

“Well son, I can tell you stories about tough love.” 

Rollo pulled his shirt up over his head revealing scars on his back. 

“The scars on my back are from whippings my drunken father gave me trying to straighten me out. I begged mama not to intervene because he would turn the whip on her. He eventually split, leaving me and mom to fend for ourselves, never returning. “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime, son. Your parents are showing’ you how hard life can be. Me and Beatrice are perfect examples. It was fate that led you to pick us up. Maybe we’ll teach you about life?” 

Beatrice tapped Rollo on the shoulder with her disfigured hand as if in agreement.

“I don’t even know what physics looks like, but I flunked life, Zack. I wish I could get those years back because I’d accept all the “tough love” my parents could give me, if it would provide me with a future like the one you’ll enjoy. You just treat this summer job as a brief stay in hell, drive the long hours, and remember the faces of the many homeless you’ll see. Take each day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and hope for the best. If the wisdom you learn passes through one ear and out the other, or remains embedded in your memory, is up to you. When you go back to school, attack your subjects like your life depends upon your passing each course. Any time you find yourself backsliding, remember me and Beatrice. We won’t forget you.”

I drove them a few blocks to skid row where he asked me to drop them. Rollo unloaded the wheel chair from the trunk, and carefully helped Beatrice into the chair. I felt guilty leaving them on a busy, hot street corner, amidst despair. Rollo thanked me for the ride, shook my hand, offering me the following advice, “Zack, you make your own luck in life. You have all the tools necessary for success. Don’t squander them. Seize every opportunity. Failure is your friend because it will eventually lead you to success. Nothing can stop you, brother.” 

Beatrice nodded her head in agreement. She pointed to a faded, green, plastic, shamrock amulet, attached to a tattered string around her neck she must have worn for decades. Beatrice motioned Rollo to remove it from her neck and give it to me. The shamrock had the date of her birth inscribed upon it and must have been a present from jubilant new parents to their baby girl. The faded green paint, and lack of a chain, was like a metaphor for parents who gave up when they discovered their new born was disabled for life. I pondered the pain or relief they must have felt leaving their baby at a state hospital, never to see her again. 

I was saddened watching Rollo carefully wheel Beatrice down the sidewalk to a rescue mission. I hung the faded shamrock from my rear view mirror as a reminder of my new friends. 

As the remaining weeks of summer ground along, I treated my rideshare job like a sociology class. I purposely sought out rides in the downtrodden parts of town, and was pleased to pick up riders who I would have previously shunned for their appearance, mental condition, or economic standing. I was eager to learn who they were, what they thought, and how they came to be? I always learned something new about life and humanity from these sages of the streets. 

It wasn’t until I began receiving voice mail and text messages from my parents demanding I meet with them and “discuss the lessons I learned from my summer job” that I realized the summer had ended, and the fall term was soon to commence. I dreaded the specter of having to explain to my parents “what I had learned” from my summer of driving. They wouldn’t understand, and it wouldn’t be what they wanted to hear.

I was the first student to complete the physics final, racing through it as if it was an elementary school math test. I received an “A”. 

The summer of rideshare driving changed me. I didn’t want to return to the comfort of my home and plush bedroom, full of distractions, and light years from the reality of the streets I witnessed. I was independent now. I sought out minimalist accommodations within walking distance to campus, hoping it would keep me grounded in reality, and permit me to focus on my studies. I was fortunate to find a small apartment above a liquor store a few blocks from campus. The proprietor was the owner of the liquor store, giving me a bargain rent because I was a “responsible college student”, and would watch over the liquor store during closing hours. Although the apartment was a single room, dingy flat, with an old refrigerator, Murphy bed, and small stove, it was mine. I was beholden to nobody’s rules but my own.

I made contact with my parents by text message, with a lyric from a tune from my playlist. I chose Bob Dylan’s album, “Highway 61 Revisited”, hoping the lyrics would convey to them what I had learned over my summer of “tough love”, 

“When ya ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” 

At night, I lay in the Murphy bed, and thought of Rollo and Beatrice, alone in the world, roaming from soup kitchen to homeless shelters. Rollo and Beatrice profoundly changed my life from that of a slacker to a motivated student because I saw the pain or affluence life can mete out. When the college term began, I attacked my studies with a new resolve. I couldn’t relate to my former classmates. I was a changed person. I fondly recalled the loving assistance Rollo extended to Beatrice and, whenever I encountered a student struggling with the coursework, I volunteered to help them. 

I approached the university and volunteered to become a tutor in those courses I now was mastering. My offer was gladly accepted by the university, and, as students began attending my tutoring sessions, additional gifted students volunteered as tutors. I’m happy to say, I changed the reputation of my college major from a competitive, “lone wolf” major, to a collegial, “help thy neighbor” major. My efforts were not lost on the Dean of Students who promised to write me a letter of recommendation upon my graduation, and encouraged me to attend graduate school at our university. 

My father and mother were very proud of my academic success. My father invited me to the Faculty Club to show off his over-achieving son. After lunch, we headed back to his laboratory where some medical students were dissecting, and studying the central nervous system of a cadaver. To my dismay, it was Beatrice lying on the stainless steel autopsy table. The autopsy technician approached saying, “She was brought into the ER yesterday by a large Black man. She was diagnosed as having terminal liver failure. She died in the ER. The man wasn’t a relative but produced a legal document showing he was conservator for the woman, and he produced a notarized Last Will and Testament, including a “Statement of Donation” of the woman’s body to our medical school.” 

A medical student spoke up while dissecting Beatrice, “We lucked out with this cadaver because it gives us the opportunity to study her liver disease, palsy, and developmental disability. We might find a link!” I was tempted to reply, “Her name is Beatrice and treat her with dignity!” 

I approached the autopsy table and stroked Beatrice’s fine silver hair. She was a small, frail woman, and terribly thin from years of starvation. I stared at her mouth closely, and could make out a glimmer of a smile. I was surprised to find that both of her hands were free from the contortions of cerebral palsy. Her fingers were straight, long, thin, elegant, and resembled those of a pianist. 

I asked the autopsy tech, “I’ve seen this homeless woman around town and know that her hands were severely contorted by cerebral palsy. Why are they straight?” 

My father overheard my question and answered, “I’ve seen this before, Zack. For some misfortunate people, the gift of life carries with it a price in the form of unfair burdens they must carry throughout their lives. For this woman, it was cerebral palsy of her hands and developmental disabilities. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen death provide a “repayment” of sorts for their burdens, and for this poor woman, it was the reward of beautiful hands.”

I suspected Beatrice was happy to leave this world, and I’m certain she was delighted to donate her body for the furtherance of medical science. I excused myself, entered the men’s room, closed the stall door, and wept. I was happy Beatrice found peace and beautiful hands in death, but wondered about Rollo’s fate, recalling the lyrics to the Dylan song, 

“How does it feel? How does it feel? To be on your own With no direction home A complete unknown 

Like a rolling stone?” 

I knew he missed Beatrice and his Mama. I also know he would take delight to see the gift of beautiful hands death provided Beatrice. I washed and dried my face while looking in the mirror, and recited Rollo’s advice, “I’ll take “tough love”, rather than no love, anytime.”

Eclipses

ECLIPSES

by

Rima Lyn

Iluna was confident that today was a very important day. She added extra moonshine to her sleigh. She showed her intended path to her four milky-gray horses. “We must stay in alignment. We must keep our pace,” she instructed them. She zipped up her soft faux-fur coat with the pearlized sheen. The fabric had the magical ability to keep her warm or cool depending on the heat. 

The heat would depend on how angry Solaris became when she blocked his view. He was so arrogant and full of his own magnificence that daily dominance wasn’t enough. His horses were even bolder. They never became tired, for they were made entirely of fire. The golden skin of Solaris would never burn from the heat because he was the heat.

Solaris, who so generously warmed them all, spoke his mind at all times. His sculpted legs never faltered. His chiseled arms never became fatigued from reining in his majestic solar steeds. But today would be different. Today, when sleep would normally claim her, Iluna would be wide awake. 

Awake and floating like a cloud of stars. Her unusual activity would give parts of the Earth two unexpected hours of cool relief. The stars would shine in the morning. A pleasing breeze would billow, and her lunar love would cool the sizzling Solaris to a fizzle. 

This did not happen often. Zoyu would not allow it. But today! Today was her day. She kissed the whiskery nose of each moon pony. One by one, she rested her smooth brow against the foreheads of Star, Silk, Sand, and Stellar. She fed them each a treat, a small square of milky whey cubes. 

Iluna closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she exhaled, the sound of wind chimes blew through the air. She gracefully stepped into her silver sleigh and reclined on her llama-hair pillows. She gently claimed her pearl reins and started the countdown…five, four, three, two, and RISE.

The mythical ponies took to the sky. Iluna donned a pair of iridescent glasses, the rims studded with stardust. Again she took a breath, deeply calm. The large but elegant ponies flew straight up like a team of equine fairies. High above they rose, to where the steeds of Solaris were beginning to flick their ears along the horizon. 

Iluna flew in what seemed like the opposite direction, but she knew where she was going. Unerringly, she navigated the sky to reach the impasse ahead of the fire. Instead of oozing through the sky like marshmallows, she rolled along like a tidal wave of pure foam. 

There! A flick of her ring finger against the reins and her beasts hovered to a pause. The moonglow radiated from the ponies’ manes and tails. They floated, galloping in place, gaining strength and speed without moving forward. 

Unaware, Solaris charged upward into the shimmering sky like a wildfire. He didn’t even see her. Enchanted by his own glory, confident that everything would be the same today as always. (It wouldn’t be.) He felt victorious in advance. Yes! Once again he would rule the day and enjoy a sense of accomplishment. He was amazed that something so simple could provide such endless enjoyment for him.

As he hit the 9:00 a.m. section of the sky, everything went dark. Solaris looked up in confusion while Iluna held her position and closed her eyes. He checked the dial he kept on his wrist. Why was the sky a cavern at 9:00 a.m.? Why could he see the stars? It was impossible. Utterly ridiculous in fact. 

For a moment Solaris assumed Zoyu was playing a trick on him, one he would consider forgiving this once. He looked to his right and saw Iluna and her silver sleigh glowing below him. Her horses continued to thunder in place. 

The beams of moonlight flowing from her chariot calmed him down. And yet, he was furious and wanted to punish her for interfering. Before he could plan his revenge he decided that a nap was the best idea. Solaris drooped into drowsiness. His chin crashed to his chest while his horses buckled their knees. 

Iluna removed her glasses and stood up. She stretched her arms wide and tilted her head back to take in her beloved stars against a daytime sky. The stars smiled at her. Iluna swayed and the light from her hair looked like shooting stars to the people watching below. 

Iluna enjoyed every extra minute of this glorious freedom from the heat of the sun—every delightful drop. But she did not stay a moment longer than the fates had planned. The hours felt like years. She was luxuriously drunk on moonshine.

At exactly the right moment, she sat back down. She replaced her eye guards and deftly flicked the luminous reins. She moved out of position, and as she did, Solaris awoke as if from a dream, disoriented like a confused child after a sticky summer nap. His chariot lurched ahead as his horses came back to life with fiery snorts. Within minutes they were awake and scorching the sky with contained fury.

The day proceeded without further incident. Solaris managed to forget his misty interlude. At the end of the day he devoured a bottomless bowl of fireflies with lamb as his second course. His horses dined on lava from a nearby volcano.

Iluna went to bed much later than usual. High on her invigorating change of routine, she skipped dinner altogether. Iluna had the most delicious, peaceful sleep. It was a restful, dreamless sleep. She floated on moonbeams, and relaxed to the smell of jasmine and gardenia. The whole time a smile played across her incandescent lips.

* * *

Racy stood on the tarmac with all the other sixth graders and their pinhole shoeboxes. She’d cut the hole in her box with Aunt Becky’s sewing scissors. With precision, she taped the small piece of aluminum foil over the square opening. Then she poked a hole in it with a needle. How could anything come through such a tiny hole? 

At the opposite end of the box she’d taped a small piece of printing paper as instructed. Instead of making her peephole round, she made it the shape of her eye and drew purple eyelashes around it. Miss Simmons had complimented Racy on what she called her artistic touch.

The eclipse began at 9:00 a.m.. From where they watched in central California, they would only see a partial eclipse. The moon would completely align with the sun, covering it all except for a ring of light around the edge. A total eclipse would only exist for people halfway around the world. 

They were waiting in orderly lines, organized by classroom. Racy searched the yard for Cory’s class. They were clear across on the other end, which might as well have been the moon it seemed so far. But if he was there, Racy felt sure her eyes would recognize the imagined halo around his blond head. That was how keen she was on bumping into him on any given day. 

The sky was clear. The children turned their boxes and the sunlight came through the pinhole in the tinfoil. Racy lined her right eye up and looked into her shoebox with wonder and anticipation…

It worked! The shadow of the sun projected through the tiny hole and onto the piece of paper. It looked like a cookie with a bite taken out of it. As she watched, the shadow became a half-eaten cookie. Then the moon took one more small bite out of the sun. Racy resisted the urge to look directly at the sun. She didn’t want her eyeballs to burn. Would they really?

Later, the children stayed outside on the schoolyard, talking and playing for over an hour. When they went back inside, there was juice and round, yellow crackers. She tried to make her first bite look like the partially eaten sun. 

After the bell rang, as she was leaving school, she forced her mind away from possible Cory sightings. As her mind cleared and became quiet, someone ran up behind Racy and put their hands over her eyes. First, she wondered if it was one of the girls from recess—but the hands were rough, so she knew it had to be a boy. 

She wasn’t friendly with any other boys besides Cory, so common logic said it had to be him. But she didn’t want him to know that she knew it was him, so she pretended not to know. She tried to turn around. “Who could it be?” She said aloud with what she hoped sounded like genuine surprise.

“No, no. No cheating,” clearly Cory’s voice said. His body standing right behind hers kept her from turning and looking. Racy peeped a smidgeon. She could see through Cory’s fingers and saw her shadow against the cement. For some reason, she had an extra head. 

She realized that Cory’s head was higher than her own. Their perfect alignment made them look like a tall creature with a giant Adam’s apple. In their joint shadow, her pony tails landed somewhere near his armpits. She laughed.

“What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.

“Oh nothing. I wish I could figure out who you are…” Racy laid it on a bit thick.

“Guess.”

“Ummm…Jamie?”

“Who’s Jamie?” Cory actually sounded worried. This made Racy giggle.

Now what’s so funny?”

“Your hair is tickling my neck.” Racy laughed through her words. As Cory let go, he tickled her ribs and goosed her under her armpits. Racy shrieked, “Stop, stop, please…” Her request dissolved into laughter. She was aware that some of the other kids were watching them, but she didn’t care.

“Truce!” Racy shouted.

“Okay, okay… Truce.” Cory put out his hand for her to shake, but as she grabbed it, he pulled her closer and began tickling her again. Then he grabbed her under both armpits and swung her around in a circle. 

Racy closed her eyes and felt the wind lift her as the sun warmed her face. Cory put her down after what seemed like hours and then collapsed to the ground. “Man, you’re heavy!”

“I am not. Take it back!”

“I’m just teasing.”

Racy looked at him, trying to catch her breath. She wanted to stay mad, but she couldn’t. She flopped to the ground beside him and blew air across her lower lip.

“Nifty trick with the shoebox, huh?” Cory asked her, as his gaze drifted up at the sky. He folded his hands behind his head.

“Yeah…I looked for you this morning, but your class was on the opposite side from mine.”

“I looked for you too,” Cory said, as he lowered his voice and stared at her.

Her red-hot face was saved by the sound of a car honking. Cory leapt to his feet. “That’s my mom, I gotta go. But we should hang out sometime—with or without eclipses.” 

Racy smiled and nodded at the sunlight that rounded his head in rays. She shielded her eyes and waved as he jogged backward toward his mother’s station wagon. After they drove away, Racy got to her feet and dusted off her cotton print dress. If it wasn’t for the warmth lingering on her cheeks and the smile in her heart, she would have doubted the whole thing.

Stuff Like That

Stuff Like That

Michael Johansen

 

“Coat-racks!”

That was Stig talking.

“What?”

That was me.

“Coat-racks!” Stig was adamant. “We can sell ’em as coat-racks.”

“Sell what as coat-racks?”

Stig was always trying to sell something as something else.

“The old hydro poles by the railway line.”

“Hydro poles? They’d make pretty big coat-racks,” I said.

“Not the whole thing! We take the cross pieces with all the insulators, turn ’em sideways and mount ’em on a wall. Two hundred bucks, easy. We sell loose insulators for 20 bucks a pop down in the city and add five bucks if it’s still got a peg poked up its ass.”

Stig had his thinking look on his face.

“You know, we could roll up the wire, ’cause there must be all copper inside them, what?”

What nothing. For once Stig’s idea wasn’t so stupid. He was right about the wires. There were miles and miles and miles of them alongside all the tracks. They must go right across the country. They used to turn switches and stuff like that, but the railways started using satellites instead. They let the wires go dead. They let them rot, too – just letting the poles fall down any way they like: easy pickings for a fellow like Stig.

He was right about everything else, too. I’ve seen myself how much people charge for old glass and that wasn’t even in the city. I thought his coat-rack idea could work. Slap on a bit of paint, or call it rustic. Some’ll pay good money for stuff like that.

 

That’s how Stig got me out on snowmobile. I followed him way the hell back off the trail. I pulled a bobsled – better, he said, for the cross pieces. He had an ordinary box sled and said we’d toss the loose insulators in there. He said he’d already found a spot. We just had to follow his old tracks. The spot was perfect, he said, because none of the poles had fallen down along that stretch. They’re still fresh, he said.

He was right about that, too. There was a whole long straight row of poles and none of them were down. All the insulators looked ripe for picking, all the wires still strung between them all the way down the stretch.

“You sure they’re dead?” I asked.

Stig ignored me.

We had two chainsaws with us, but Stig wanted to make the first cut. I didn’t care. He said he wanted to do it just right, so we left the snowmachines down the line where the bushes would keep the railway folks from seeing them. We walked and Stig picked the pole just about in the middle and started up his saw. I stood back. He cut out a big wedge on the side where he wanted it to fall – away from the tracks – and then tramped around in the snow to make the third cut on the other side.

“Get ready!” he shouted when he was just about through, stepping back when his saw bit air.

Nothing happened.

Stig let the motor stop and then gave the pole a push. It teetered a little one way and then back, but it stayed upright. It looked like the wires were holding it there.

“We’ll need to take another one down,” Stig said.

Five poles later and they still wouldn’t fall. I’ve never seen Stig so pissed off. I was thinking I should take the chainsaw away from him. He was hardly even taking any care any more, just hacking through the pole as fast as he could, no wedge or nothing. When it wouldn’t go down he just cursed it and stamped to the next, attacking it like all the others. I was glad when his saw ran out of gas and sputtered off by itself. He cursed that, too, and it looked like he was going to throw it, but something caught his eye and he just cursed that instead.

“That’s it,” he shouted at me and pointed. “That’s what’s doing it: It’s that tree!”

He was right again because a few poles past us there was a big tree had fallen across the lines and was pinning them down, pulling them really tight. It sure looked like what was holding our poles up and I wondered how we were going to get it off. I wanted to think about it some more, but Stig already had the answer.

“I’m going to pull that son of a bitch down,” he said and stamped to where we left the snowmobiles.

He didn’t say he needed me for anything so I just had a smoke. It really was a nice day – sunny and not too cold. Without the saw running I could hear birds in the trees and wind and stuff like that – and far away I’m pretty sure I heard a train. It was a good smoke.

Stig started up his machine and drove towards me along the poles he’d just cut, but then he did a little loop in the woods around me, coming out not too far from the big tree. He had me take a rope and go back to tie it as high up as I could, so he could drag it off.

It was a spruce, so it wasn’t too hard to climb, especially as it was laying down pretty straight. I was still thinking about everything and I wasn’t sure if his rope was good enough for the job and I was thinking he should maybe cut the tree first, before he pulled it, but I climbed up it and tied the rope and got down again and Stig never gave me a chance to say anything. I was walking back to him where he was gunning the motor and he couldn’t hear me. He couldn’t wait so even before I got to him he took off fast, spraying me with snow, ’cause he must have figured the faster he pulled the rope tight the easier the tree would come down.

Well, he was right about that, too, but I was right about the rope. When the rope came tight the tree kind of bounced and the snowmachine bounced too and the tree came over sideways, but then the rope was tight again and it snapped. I could hear it and then I could feel it because I was right beside the rope and it wrapped around me and jerked me off my feet. I just had time to grab the rope myself so at least I’d be dragged frontwards and I yelled at Stig to stop and for once he heard me and stopped, looking back to see what I was yelling about. I rolled over onto my back so I could get the snow out of my nose. That way I could see Stig had been right about the tree holding the poles up. The tree was down and the first pole was starting to teeter, first one way and then the other, and then it started to fall. The second pole was right beside me and I knew where it was going to come down.

“Go on, drive!” I yelled. “Go on, man!”

Stig couldn’t hear me though, ’cause suddenly there was this train running right alongside us and blowing its horn. Stig must have seen the poles coming down anyway because he booted it, jerking me on the end of the rope and dragging me backwards. First I was too busy to notice anything else happening because I was watching one pole after the other slam down right behind me, the coat-racks pounding themselves deep into the snow right where I’d been seconds before, but then I saw these faces staring out at me from the train windows – a few little kids with these shocked little expressions on their faces seeing me almost get clobbered by those hydro poles. I tried to give them a smile and a wave – let them know I’d be all right so they shouldn’t be afraid – but Stig had come to the end of the trail and had to veer around the sled he’d left there. The rope hauled me clear into the air and then let go of me. Lucky for me I didn’t hit anything except a thick drift of snow, but I sank into that pretty quick. It took me a few minutes to dig myself out. The train was gone and Stig was looking at all the poles. They’d fallen just like they were supposed to, but the wires had wrecked all the insulators, shattering them when they pulled tight and snapped.

“Barn boards,” Stig said.

“What?”

“Barn boards,” he repeated. “We take the broken insulators off and sell the cross pieces as barn boards. You know how much people will pay for stuff like that?”

 

VELO CITY


VELO CITY  

MARK C. HULL

We sat there plopped like puddles of water on the floor, at the gate, waiting for the flight to depart. She was a stranger to me and I to her, and sometimes those are the best friendships I’ve ever had, fleeting as they are. It wasn’t obvious that we had anything in common, other than the fact that, due to the crowd, we had taken up spots on the marbled tile. It was as good a bond as any, us sitting on the floor together. As it turns out we were both heading home, too. Home as in the geography of our youth, not necessarily where we were currently living. 

“Did you hear they found D. B. Cooper?” she said.  

“Oh?” I said, not believing it. 

“He gave a sworn deposition. He’s been living as an investment counselor outside of Seattle for almost fifty years,” she nodded, intent on convincing me. I was familiar with the story. D.B. Cooper was the notorious bank heist villain who parachuted from a commercial airliner in nineteen-seventy-whatever, most likely dead, the stuff of lore and legend. I suspected that, somewhere in the United States, every day, someone was claiming to be D.B. Cooper.

“I hadn’t heard.” 

“What fantastic speed these things have,” she said, looking out the window, regarding the airplane parked at the gate. I sensed she was the type to toggle back and forth between subjects, in a way, traveling twice as fast in conversation as I was. 

“From the outside, sure. From the inside it feels like you’re sitting still,” I said. 

“Are you trying to be clever?” 

“Always trying. Rarely succeeding.” 

“Technically, the first American to travel to outer space was a chimpanzee named Ham,” she told me. 

“A pioneer,” I nodded. 

“Imagine if everything came to a screeching halt,” she said. 

“I believe that is referred to as death,” I said. 

She winced, almost imperceptibly, at the mention of the concept, although I got the impression that she was less afraid of death than she was of stillness, of being rooted to one spot, of running out of gas. She tapped a message into the phone she was holding, fielding yet another conversation. I sat back and thought about my trip home. Speaking of being motionless, I was traveling in order to sit, for a while, in a parked 56’ Buick Skylark convertible. I was going to sit in the backseat on the passenger side. It was a thrilling and scary and stupid plan, to make a thousand-mile journey in order to sit in the backseat of an old parked car. Yet here I was, making it. 

“They discontinued them, you know,” she said. 

“What?” 

“The rear hatches that used to be in planes. The one D.B. parachuted out of. They stopped installing them.” 

“Were you planning on trying one out?” I said. 

“Oh, oh, look! That guy’s luggage bag is open and his stuff is spilling all over the place!” 

I turned to see a man wheeling a suitcase down the concourse with a line of random items in a trail behind him. Someone stopped him to point out his open bag. He turned and began cleaning up the path of clothing he had left. 

“Where are you heading today?” I asked. 

“Same place as you, hopefully, since we are on the same plane.” 

“Velo City?” 

“Yep.” 

“Going for something fun?” 

“I have to go to a funeral,” she said, not sounding the least bit sad. 

“Oh,” I said, in sudden realization. “I’m sorry.” 

“It’s going to be great,” she said. “My friend that died is going to be there.” 

She had me stumped with that one. It was so obvious as to be utterly confounding. My own phone came alive in my pocket with a tiny spastic shudder. I looked at it, hoping that the girl sitting next to me, a complete unknown, had somehow figured out my phone number and decided to send me a fun little message. No such luck. Instead it was from someone named Constantin, another stranger. “Constantin here,” the message read. “Meeting A.S.A.P.! Stock in free fall. Circle the wagons on software crash!” 

“Wrong number,” I typed back. 

“Oops. Thanks,” responded Constantin, now gone forever.  

My phone never gives me anything exciting. It is a gadget of spam mail and wrong numbers. It promises the world of possibility at my fingertips and keeps it just out of reach. All the mystical opportunities, invitations and offers are careful to avoid my inbox, like sailors circumnavigating the Bermuda Triangle. 

“What are you going to Velo for?” she asked me. 

“If I tell you it will sound like I’m crazy,” I said. 

“No judgment,” she promised. 

“A car from my past has reappeared. It holds a special place in my heart and I am going to go sit in it and try to relive a very special night.” 

“Reappeared! Like D.B. Cooper,” she said, aglow with the connection. “Did you lose your virginity in it?” 

“No. We used it to rescue a mermaid down at Swift Beach once,” I said. 

“I love Swift Beach. In fact, if I am ever reincarnated I want to come back as a seashell on Swift Beach.” 

I guess the 56’ Buick Skylark convertible was my own personal D.B. Cooper. I didn’t even know what year the car was actually made in, I just liked to say 56’ because it sounded cool. It had fins on it, and a lot of chrome. I had been obsessed with it since I was seventeen, casually obsessed, if there is such a thing, because my ride in the car was the result of a blast of spontaneity that still mystifies me, twenty-five years later. There had been a high school band recital, and I had been playing the kettle drums, which means I commanded the thunder, and there is no greater rush than commanding the thunder in a hundred-piece orchestra. I was so powerful that the conductor himself, started melting. Really, the man’s arms began dripping off him. 

“I wonder if they sell battery chargers around here?” she asked, frowning at her phone. 

“I’m sure they…” 

“I can’t wait for a slice of pizza,” she declared. “First place I’m stopping when I get to Velo. A slice of pizza with extra grease.” 

“It’s funny about home,” I said. “The things about it that we love and the things about it that we hate.” 

“It’s the place where I keep all the embarrassing stuff from my past tucked away, like in an old attic, gathering dust,” she said. “All the zits, the punishments, the taunts, the tantrums, the awkward kisses, the growth spurts, the wild spread of pubic hair, a hundred broken hearts. All the wrong words I’ve ever spoken I’ve spoken at home.” 

“That is my philosophy,” I said. 

“I don’t like philosophy. Philosophy is stupid,” she said. I nodded. It would make sense that she would think that and I would disagree, given that she was seven or eight years old and I was a hundred and forty. These ages were very rough estimates. 

“It is the tether that keeps pulling me back, like a child tugging on a balloon that keeps trying to escape to the sky,” I said. Not a child, though, a Buick. Jodi’s Buick had been taken away from her by her parents because she wasn’t supposed to be driving it that night and now it was back, somehow, in the driveway. My brother had called me to tell me the news. After I hung up the phone I booked my plane ticket, before it disappeared again.  

“These days I seem to only return for funerals,” she said. 

“Was the person who died close to you?” I said. 

“He is my one crazy friend. He was out in Moab doing some dangerous hike through the desert and something bit his foot, and by the time he got help his foot had shriveled up and died, so he is having a funeral for his foot.” 

“Just the foot?” 

“Yes. He is the only person I know wild enough to pull off a stunt like this. He is always risking his life for something or other. I suspect he will die off in increments. One day there will be nothing left but his head.” 

I chuckled, and excused myself for finding amusement in tragedy. She encouraged me to laugh like she was.  It was ridiculous, after all. Though we were sitting next to each other right there on the floor of the airport I felt that she was a satellite, above me and around me, whizzing by in an arc of movement and flux. Every soul has its own momentum, and some travel faster than others. 

“Was it your car that you lost?” she asked. “The old Buick?” 

“The car was Jodi Kilgore’s,” I said. “She lived in the neighborhood and was part of the band. Played the flute, if I remember. What had happened was we had a band recital and I was playing the kettle drums…” 

“A fine instrument…” 

“And I was hammering away with such intensity that the conductor’s arms fell off.” 

“What?” 

“He was a guest conductor and he was flailing so wildly that he split open the  tuxedo jacket that he was wearing. At first I couldn’t understand why he kept pushing his coat sleeves up, and his tempo got faster and faster and the orchestra got faster and faster as he tried to keep his sleeves on and still keep his baton moving, except he couldn’t because the jacket had ripped right down the back and eventually he had to let it fall off him. It was a miracle the musicians kept playing, I mean, a few slight flutters but we got through the piece. To have teenage musicians watching a grown man burst out of his concert jacket and still keep it together is evidence that some kids are amazing and the future is not doomed. We were young professionals. We held tight. Once the show was over, though, and we were outside the auditorium we howled, the kind of laughter that makes you think something in your chest will be damaged beyond repair.”  

“So what about the Buick?” 

“There was an after-party at a band kid’s house, the tuba player, and I didn’t have a ride and so Jodi had an extra seat in her dad’s Skylark, which she wasn’t supposed to be driving, as it turns out. Until that moment we never had spoken and now I was in a car with her and her friend Sarah riding shotgun, and two guys that played the trumpet in the backseat with me, and we set off to this kid’s house but we were still laughing so hard about the conductor’s arms falling off that Jodi had to pull off into the Swift Beach parking lot because her eyes were filled with joyful tears. Then she decided to whip the laughter out of us by driving that Buick in big wild circles through the empty stretch of pavement. We went sailing around and around in crazy orbit. I was pinned to the back wall of that car and the two guys next to me were pinned against me, and we laughed and I looked over at Jodi Kilgore and fell in love with her right then and there, her magical profile, and her stunt driving, and the song that was cranked up on the radio that was the best song ever even though it was super cheesy, and when she finally screeched to a halt we all decided that wasn’t enough and so we jumped out of the convertible without opening the doors and ran straight into the water, fully clothed, drifting in the surf that reflected a billion stars above us. That’s where we found the mermaid.”

“A real mermaid?” 

“It was a six-foot wooden masthead washed up on shore, covered in seaweed. We had to save her. So we loaded our mermaid up into the Skylark and took her to the party. We arrived all damp and wild-haired and we were hailed as heroes for rescuing a mermaid and also for playing a smashing concert even though the maestro had fallen to pieces.” 

“Sounds like a great night,” she said. 

“After that everything started to unravel,” I said. “A gang of football players showed up uninvited to the party and stole our mermaid. Then when Jodi’s dad found out that she had taken the car he was so angry that he got rid of it the next day, or so we thought. Now it’s back in the driveway of that old Kilgore house and I’m going to walk right up to it, yank that canvas top down and climb into it and sit there for as long as I need to, and in my head I’m going to drive in big wild circles. I don’t care if they call the police.” 

“You’ve left a part of yourself in that car,” she said. “Since then you’ve been dying off piece by piece, like my friend.” 

“You have been very helpful,” I said. “Enjoy your funeral.” 

Time to board. We gathered ourselves up and got on the plane. I hoped, maybe, that her seat was next to mine, but of course it wasn’t. Instead a man sat down next to me, a man that looked strangely similar to the police sketch of D.B. Cooper. Somehow I knew she wouldn’t be sitting next to me because all the magic, fortune and luck I had ever known had come and gone in that one strange night with the melting maestro and the Skylark and the mermaid and Jodi Kilgore, who went off to college and never came back. Just as well. Let her exist in her perfect state in the dells and glens of my memory. 

As eager as I was to see that Buick again I was also a little scared that it would not be the fascinating transport of my nostalgic youth. It may have, over the years, settled into being a plain old car. Maybe it would sense my presence, remember me and, between the two of us we could get a little bit of that old sizzle happening again. Victory or failure. Either was possible. 

It occurred to me that the elusive concept of heaven may just be getting to return to a moment, a cherished, full moment, and realizing that it was as glorious as you remembered it to be, that it did hold all the sacred energy you had assigned it for all time since then, that it was the boost of velocity that kept you going for years afterward. Hell, on the other hand, would be getting to go back to that same moment and realizing you had it all wrong; that it was a con, a mirage, a false event, a dead boneyard that was forever playing a trick on the senses. I got off the plane, hailed a taxi, and crossed my fingers for heaven. 

Just The Lights

 

Just The Lights

Barbara Biles

The sun was up, the sky overcast. Josie skipped along beside her father, her hand in his, and saw their reflection, a bonded pair, in the blinded windows that they passed. He whistled a tune that cheered her and confirmed that she belonged in this very moment.

“Tell me about the Spunkie, Papa.” This was a favourite request when Josie’s mother, who was not fond of hearing about spirits, was out of town.

“Lights, dear. Strange and suspicious lights appeared over the loch.”

“And a loch is a lake, right?

“Right.”

“And do they come here, those fairies?”

“No. They live in Scotland. And they are not exactly fairies. More like ghosts.”

“Well I think they are fairies. Do they live anywhere else?”

“They have been spotted on the continent but I only know about Scotland, as you know.”

“And you saw the Spunkie yourself?”

“Just the lights, Josie. Just the lights.”

  On this morning, a spangle of lights, not lights diffused from a ceiling fixture, shone through the window of one building. It was one-storey rather than two like the others on this block and the window was draped with a white sheet and Josie supposed that some kind of stranger existed inside. Although the town was small and people claimed that everyone was known she was not yet old enough to make this claim herself. As they both looked in, her father broke his tune but then continued on as though everything was normal. Except their hand grip was broken. Except he did not pick up on another tune and their pace quickened though they had plenty of time before he would open his store in the next block.  

Once settled at the back of the store, Josie spun in her father’s desk chair while a farmer paid for a tractor part and prophesied on the weather and vowed to teach Ottawa a lesson. All of no significance to her. It cued her to look for her friend to play out the next part of her day. “I’m going to Carol’s, okay?” she said to her father.

“See you back at lunch,” he said. Josie’s mother was off to the city for a day of shopping and a night of visiting with her sister, Auntie Irene. Josie and her father would cross the street to the hotel and she could order fish and chips and a butterscotch sundae.

She was on her way to Carol’s house, anxious to resume their paper doll scenarios, developed the day before, when she ran into Terry who was older and prone to going down streets and alleys that Josie would never go down herself.

“Where you going?” said Terry.

“Carol Smither’s.” 

Terry put her feet on the ground and maneuvered her bike, pushing along with tip toes and matching pace with Josie. Her front wheel wobbled at times, having to go so slow. “She’s at Mary’s house. They put up a tent.”

“Oh,” said Josie in her ultra-neutral tone. Had not she and Carol been, like her mother said, two peas in a pod the day before and had they not vowed to continue with their paper doll fairies in a tableau inspired by her father’s will-o-the-wisp tales? The ones she begged him to tell over and over?

Suddenly Terry turned left at the corner and right into the alley and Josie followed along, corralling her feelings of betrayal and disregarding her natural inclination to keep away. They skirted ruts that held rain from the day before and candy wrappings that stuck to the ground. Empty beer bottles glistened through weeds and grassy edges and the unpainted backs of the buildings looked oily ochre brown. The one-story building was different though. It was painted blue with grey enamel steps. Thistles and dandelions grew along the base and stinkweed and wild grass spread out towards the lane. Lights had shone out the front of this building, just a little earlier, but the back was totally dark. The door window was covered with a dark curtain.

“They’re bohunks,” said Terry as she aimed a pebble right at the door. It struck with one sharp clink, obviously hitting metal.

While the urge to flee hit Josie, big time, a corner of the curtain lifted and the head and shoulders of a girl appeared.  Josie had never seen her before. The girl was wraith-like with dark brown hair and big eyes that for some reason did not seem matched. Her face was without expression. Josie could not help but stare before fear clicked in and she ran.

“She can’t talk, you know,” said Terry as she coasted by. “She’s dumb!”

***

They never warned of staying out of certain alleys but Josie suspected that she had taken a route that her parents would not recommend. Therefore she would not bring it up. She would not ask about the building, surely never meant to be a home, with lights flashing in front and a dumb little girl staring out the back. And just how dumb was she? Could she not read nor write and why couldn’t or wouldn’t she talk?

Josie headed to Carol’s, just in case Terry was wrong, and knocked on her door.

Mrs. Smithers opened up. “Well Josie,” she said, “Carol is at Mary’s today and will be staying overnight. Perhaps you can try again tomorrow.”

“I’ll need my paper dolls then,” said Josie, embarrassed by her own anger and feeling close to tears. “I need them for another friend!” It was a lie of course but a good one, she thought, and she headed back to the store with the shoe box of fairies under her arm while dark purple clouds formed overhead.

It was easy to pass by Mary’s house on the way back to the store. Sure enough a tent was pitched right next to the crab apple tree and she could hear Carol and Mary’s voices. They giggled and scuffled while flashlights jitter-bugged through canvas walls. A pox on them, Josie thought.

***

There were four of them; fairies with flowing pastel dresses and sashes and wild flowers permanently set in their hair, but none had wings. They were mostly like teenage girls with magical skills who prepared fairy food, tiny biscuits with cream and clover honey, and they treated girls and boys, especially boys, to secret meadow ballets. Sometimes Josie and Carol performed the dances themselves before getting back to their story. It was so much fun. But never again. Never again. 

As she laid out the paper fairies on her father’s desk the ceiling lights flickered and the store turned dark. The scent of newly applied oil rose from the wooden floor and filled the air. It was a warm aroma, familiar and reassuring. Then a wild crack of thunder, a powerful boom, rattled the china and windows and jiggled the front door. She thought about the H-bomb they were talking about on the news and about how her mother often said H instead of hell, as in “Who the H do they think they are?”

The first ping of hail sounded like the pebble hitting the dumb girl’s door but then a swath of white stones began to attack the windows and the cars out front. She covered her ears and her eyes, and cowered at the back, waiting for it to be over, but suddenly the town siren filled the air and both she and her father rushed to the front. The sidewalk and road were white like a snow day in winter but not a reason to send out the warning. There was nothing unusual going on that they could see and the onslaught seemed to be over.

“Maybe it’s an electrical short,” said her father. They both breathed a sigh of strange relief and Josie ran out to collect some ice stones, sounding delirious whenever she found one larger than before.

***

The news travelled fast as it does in a town. Lightning struck the tree and the tent. Of all the places it could come down it chose Carol and Mary’s sanctum. And it rendered Josie speechless.

It was a town of mourning. It was a town of hail damage talk. It was a town of broken windows and Josie’s father was set to work cutting glass in the store for all those affected. One Saturday morning, while robins announced imminent travel south and the sun was just rising because the days were now shorter, Josie held her father’s hand, or he held hers, as they headed to the store. But on this morning he stopped at the one-story building. The window was opaque because cardboard lined the other side of fractured glass. Light could neither travel in nor out. He let go of her hand and knocked on the door. An old lady, with a kerchief tied under her chin, peered out through the narrow opening then hollered something Josie did not understand. A man with a mustache appeared and gestured for them to go inside. Bohunks, she remembered Terry saying, and DPs too, whatever that meant.

Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy filled the air and the dark-haired girl with the unmatched eyes was dancing away, oblivious to their arrival. Above her head was a twirling glitter ball sending spangles of light onto the ceiling and the floor and the cardboard window.

Suddenly the girl was aware of eyes on her and she ran and hid behind her father, clinging to his shirt, hiding her face as best she could.

“My daughter,” the man said, “she doesn’t speak since they burned our house. But we are lucky still, to finally come here.”

“I want to fix your window,” Josie’s father said.

“Ah, we cannot afford.”

“But it’s on me. I will do it for free.”

***

The shoe box of fairies sat on a shelf at the back of the store but had become invisible to Josie’s eyes. Sometimes things don’t exist anymore, like the Spunkie who lived in her father’s time and created receding lights that scientists now say are ignited methane gas on the rise. They probably did look more like ghosts than fairies. It had been a wonderful, fanciful world, the one she and Carol had created, when Carol was still alive.

“I have an idea,” her father said once he had cut the glass and wrapped it with brown paper. “Bring your box of paper dolls and share them with Alina.” 

The dumb girl now had a name. Josie also learned that she could read and write. Both girls simply had nothing to say out loud. Perhaps they could dance under the glitter ball with a fairy in each hand. It was possible.

MR. FLINT’S POND

MR. FLINT’S POND

by

Marty Carlock

 

‘Mr. Flint turned him down.’

‘Justifiably so, I say. A pointless scheme it is, I say.’

‘Well. It’s good to see the boy with a worthy goal in mind, for a change.’

‘Boy! Twenty-eight years old! And no career. No vocation. Terms himself a surveyor, and works not one day out of thirty. Or a schoolmaster, and has no pupils.’ Her husband’s eyes began to bulge and his color grew high. ‘I’ve given him time enough and over, Lord knows, to get himself established. Help and advice. A year of college. Which he had not the self-discipline for. I have honest work awaiting him at the factory, but will he have it? No-o-o. And not as if I’d expect him to dirty his hands; a clerk’s job it is, but honest.’

She took an ear of corn, broke off the stem and yanked the green husk down, like stripping off a stocking. She pulled the pale silk from the other end and meticulously picked out a few remaining strands of it ‘It’s not as if he’s wasting himself in drink or chasing after women.’

‘Yes, and that’s another thing. It’s not normal. A man his age ought to be establishing himself, thinking about acquiring a wife, thinking about a family. Does he even look at a female?’ He glowered in silence for a moment. ‘But then, who’d have him, penniless as he is?’

‘Hush, here he comes.’

Out the window she watched his lanky, stooped figure shambling up the road, dressed in flannel shirt and canvas britches, a handkerchief knotted around his neck. He stopped unaccountably and stared into the bushes, stepped closer, slowly extended his cupped hands and with a graceful gesture trapped something between them, careful not to crush it. He put his eye to the gap between his thumbs and inspected his prey intently for a longer time than she thought necessary, then opened his hands and watched it fly. She could not see what it was. She finished husking the corn and slid the ears into a kettle on the black-iron stove.

She had to admit her second-born was not a man to turn a girl’s head. Face-on, comely enough; his intelligent eyes took your thoughts off the rest. But his profile, with its great beak of a French nose, was almost laughable. He had begun to affect a fringe of beard which counterbalanced the nose somewhat. She sighed. A good man, but impractical. Perhaps weak.

Continue reading MR. FLINT’S POND

Moose Pond

Moose Pond

Steve Pinette 

 

John turned the truck into a turn-out and cut the engine.

“Well,” Suzy said. “Here I go.” 

“Wish I could’ve cancelled this meeting tonight and hiked in with you,” John said. 

“It’s okay, I can handle it.” Suzy eyed the two forest-green pickups with the Fisheries & Wildlife emblems parked along the five-foot snow bank. “I’ll look for you mid-afternoon tomorrow. Hopefully, I’ll catch some trout to fry for dinner.”

 John gestured toward the trucks. “Probably state biologists checking bear dens. Maybe they’ve broken the trail to the pond.”

“That’d be my lucky day,” Suzy said as she stepped outside.

She stretched and looked around. John removed the red pack sled and two sections of aluminum tubing from the truck box.

“Hawk?” Suzy pointed to the brown bird sailing overhead. 

“More likely a juvenile bald eagle. The head turns white around four years.” John smiled at her. “You’ve been away too long.”

“I haven’t heard that in a while.” Suzy knew her mother and father had been proud of her. The first girl on either side to graduate from college. But her thirty-year foray into Africa and South America as a mining geologist and two failed marriages had diminished her family currency.

Continue reading Moose Pond

Mother Tugboat’s Children

Mother Tugboat’s Children

a short story

Stephen Poleskie

To our great distress my wife and I had been summoned down to Florida for one of my mother-in-law’s frequent family affairs. Technically, she was my stepmother-in-law. After my wife’s mother died her father had remarried to the “Tugboat,” a massive figure who steamed along pulling everyone in her wake. My wife couldn’t stand the woman, so I had driven down here alone, to get away from the cold and snow for a few days and to “show the flag for our side.”
It was my first visit to their new apartment in a retirement compound, which Tugboat had berthed them in after convincing my father-in-law to sell the house he had lived in with my wife’s mother since they retired to Florida some twelve years ago.
“Ugh! You smell bad, John,” Tugboat grunted at me as a greeting when I arrived. “Go take a shower.”
My reminding Tugboat that I had just driven twelve hours to get here from my last motel stop, one of two overnights, cut me no slack. When Mother Tugboat speaks, you do what you are told.
I pushed open the bathroom door. The room was small, dirty and
crowded with ‘stuff,’ including my father-in-law standing there in his underwear.
“You can’t come in here yet, John,” father-in-law insisted. “I’m not finished shaving. Go sit out on the porch.”
As I had stripped down and only had on my boxer shorts, he handed me a white bathrobe and a pair of Tugboat’s pink bunny slippers, and pushed me out a side door, saying, “I’ll call you when I’m finished.” I stepped out onto the empty porch and sat down in one of the empty chairs.
“Can I get you something, sir?” a man, dressed as a waiter, who had suddenly appeared asked. “I’m sorry; I didn’t know anyone was sitting out here.”
“Sitting where?” I asked.
“Sitting on this porch, this is the porch for the hotel,” was his curt reply.
“What hotel?”
“The hotel you’re staying at.”
“I’m not staying at a hotel; I’m staying at an apartment . . . through that door.” I said pointing.
“But there is no apartment through that door,” he the waiter explained.
To prove the waiter wrong, I knocked on the door; “It’s me, John. . . .”
“I’m not finished shaving yet,” my father-in-law shouted out. “Very good, sir,” the waiter said politely and went away.
Several people passed along the sidewalk, some eying my costume of white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers with interest. Curious myself as to where I was, I walked around the corner of the porch to the front entrance.

“May I help you, sir?” a man behind a reception desk asked.
“Oh, not really, I was just trying to find out where I was.”
“You are in the lobby, sir.”
“The lobby? . . .”
“Yes. Would you like a room, sir? We have a special rate today, only $199 for a single.”
“No thank you, I am staying in the apartment around back,” I informed him.
“But there is no apartment around back, sir,” he assured me.
Not wanting to argue, and perhaps questioning my own credibility, I went and pounded on the door I had just come from.
“I’m not finished shaving yet,” my father-in-law shouted again.

I wondered what he was shaving that was taking so long—perhaps his whole body.

A couple came out from the hotel and hailed a taxi. The driver, who had been parked out front with the motor off, got out, handed them a length of white rope and got back in. The two tied the rope to the front bumper, and then, slinging it over their shoulders began to pull the taxi forward. When they got it up to enough speed, the taxi driver popped the clutch and the engine started. The couple untied the rope, returned it to the driver, and got in. The taxi drove off.
I sat there for some time wondering about this. Then another taxi drove up and parked and the process was repeated. All in all I saw this happen three times in approximately half an hour.

“The dining room is open now, sir,” a waiter announced, a different person than had come around before, a Hispanic. “We have a special today, the roast beef is only $22.”
I was tempted, being hungry, but I didn’t have $22 on me, and Tugboat had promised us a slap up dinner. “No, thank you,” I said. “I don’t believe I’m dressed for dinner.”
“It’s not a problem, sir; our dining room is very casual; a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers would be completely acceptable.”
“No thank you,” I repeated. “I am having dinner in that apartment back there.” I pounded on the door.
“I’m not through shaving yet,” a familiar voice replied.
A short time later yet another waiter arrived. “Do you have a dinner reservation, sir?”
“No.”
“Are you waiting for a taxi?”
“No.”
“Are you a guest at the hotel?”
“No.”
“Then you can’t sit here in a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers.”
“No?”
“No!”
“But just a while ago it was okay to go into the dining room in a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers.”
“That was then, sir; the rules have changed.”
“I didn’t know,” I apologized.
“Haven’t you been listening to the public address announcements?”
“What announcements?”
Just then there was a squeal, and the blare of a loud speaker: “It is not allowed to sit on the porch wearing a white bathrobe and pink bunny slippers.”
“You have got to leave, sir.”
I pounded on the door. “Father-in-law! If you’re there you’ve got to let me in!”
“You’re in luck, I’ve just finished shaving,” was his welcome reply, “and dinner is just about ready.”
The small apartment was full of people, all wearing white bathrobes and pink bunny slippers. They must have arrived through some other door as I had not seen them come across the porch. Half of the men were male versions of the Tugboat, in various sizes and shapes, while half of the women were female tugboats. The rest of the crowd was made up of river barges, ferry boats, skiffs, and scows.

“I’ll make the salad,” said a little female tug.
“I’ll do the desert,” added a medium lady barge.
“My children are so wonderful,” beamed Mother Tugboat as her family backed and filled around her. And the sons were not idle either. ”
“I’ll convert the basement into a game room while dinners cooking,” said one.
“The roof looks a little ragged,” declared another,” I should be able to get a new one on before it’s time to eat.”
“I could put on a new overhead garage door and still have time to mow the lawn,” the littlest man tug volunteered.

The place was a flurry of activity as white bathrobes and pink
bunny slippers hurried to and fro.”And what are you going to do, John?” Mother Tugboat asked, staring at me in what I took to be a hostile manner.
“Oh, I thought I’d take a shower.”
“You were supposed to have done that earlier,” she glowered.
“But the bathroom was occupied,” I said, “So I sat out on the porch.”
“THE PORCH!” everyone said in unison, stopping their activities. “There is no porch,” Mother Tugboat said firmly.
“Yes there is . . . it belongs to the hotel,” I replied, “through that door; I sat there watching the taxis.”
“THE TAXIS!” everyone shouted, again in chorus.
“Yes, taxis would arrive, and the people who took them would have to pull the cabs a short way by a rope to get them started.”
“So?”
“So I thought it odd. . . .”
“Why?” Tugboat asked.
“Well … that’s not the way it’s usually done, at least not where I come from.”
“If you just get in you have to pay full fare,” Tugboat explained. “But if you pull the taxi to get the engine started you get to pay a much lower rate, it saves the battery.”
“Oh, I see, kind of like those ‘early bird dinners’ everyone eats down here,” I said. “I guess everyone living in Florida is out to save money.”
“But we’re not in Florida now, were in New Jersey,” Mother Tugboat declared with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“New Jersey!” I exclaimed.
“Yes . . . New Jersey.”
“How did we get to New Jersey? . . .”

The bustle in the kitchen had resumed; a clanging of pots and pans. And from the basement, garage, and roof came the sounds of male tugs hammering and sawing. I was lost at sea in a storm. My mind told me I was supposed to be feeling guilty, but I did not. I lifted up my armpit and sniffed; I did smell bad.

Seeing my gesture, a middle-sized female tug sailed up to me and announced: “I’m going to take a shower now.” Opening up her white robe, she flashed her naked body at my startled eyes. “Would you like to join me?” she said with a wink.
“Oh, are we still in New Jersey?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Does it make a difference where we are,” she replied with a smile.
“I think I’ll just go sit on the porch until dinner,” I said, pushing open the door to the porch, but there was no porch there, only a sidewalk and a parking lot.

image by Harry Rajchgot, 2016, Montreal, Quebec

Inmate Trout

Inmate Trout

By Dr. Patrick Dobson

 

Fishing the North Platte River under crystalline sky, I cast a Royal Coachman on a number-eight hook behind a large rock midstream. Immediately, a big trout pulled my rod over, silencing the wind on the sagebrush hills and rocky outcrops where the night before I had heard mountain lions. The trout fought up and back downstream, narrowing my vision to the width of the line as it telegraphed messages to my hands. Reading code, I could tell when its fear turned into determination, and I lowered my rod tip to keep the fish from jumping and getting a good look at me.

I played that trout several minutes before it tired and moved in fits toward me. It was a healthy rainbow, twelve inches long, not fat but not skinny. It was picture book. The silver of its belly blended like sunset into blue and red on its sides. Black flecks started at the pectoral fins, gathered momentum along the sides and melted into themselves along its back. Had the trout been human, I would have just caught the perfect physical specimen, ideally proportioned, with wiry arms and shoulders to gather fruit and carry babies, and legs made to walk.

I held the trout up from the water, and in the clear depth of its black eye, I saw a couple I met three years before. Standing there with a trout inches from my nose, the sun stopped and the North Platte turned into a flowing mirror of memory.

The couple seemed old beyond their years as they moved around the gourmet coffee and cheese shop. They lightly touched packages of chocolate covered espresso beans and tiny packets of saffron with their callused fingers. The racks of wines packed between shelves of ceramic cups and specialty mustards intrigued them for a moment. Then, they shook their heads and moved on. As they walked the narrow aisles, they stopped now and then before bins of tea leaves. They whispered to each other, shifting in their worn shoes and adjusting their dusty spectacles.

Years of work bowed the backs of the man and the woman. His tall frame dropped like a waterfall about to dry up in a curve from beneath his ball cap into his loose jeans. She wore a fading pink button-up sweater and a translucent polyester scarf over her gray mane. In their eyes flashed dreams like rays of sun through pines reflected off dark, blue trout pools.
The other store clerks ignored them, and customers for the boutique restaurant and coffee bar in the back of the crowded shop shuffled past them as if they did not exist. After packaging up some Stilton cheese and a jar of Devonshire cream for a blustery and parsimonious real estate agent, I came from behind the counter of glass bins full of coffee beans.

“Can I help you find something?” I asked the old people.

“We’d like something special for our son,” the man said quietly, his wife nodding as she stood close to him, love of decades binding them into one. “He is far away. We need something nice.”

“Any idea what he would like?”

“We think he might like some sausage,” he said, “the kind you have in the case there, and some cheese. He would probably like some crackers to go with it. We will have to send it to him, so it can’t be anything that spoils easy.”

The three of us walked over to the deli case. Tins of caviar, glass jars of marinated sardines and anchovies lined the shelves. Wheels and odd pieces of cheese were laid out on decorative mats and surrounded with plastic grape leaves. The man pointed to some hard salami from Italy, some pepperoni and wheels of Swiss cheese.

I took the things out of the case and sliced a hefty length of sausage from a long moldy link. I gathered some pepperoni and cut and wrapped a piece of aged Swiss cheese. I folded it all among wafts of tissue paper in a box on the counter. The woman placed a small jar of mustard and some expensive crackers gently, but firmly, into the box, like she might assemble a jigsaw puzzle. I closed the box, taped it, began to fill out a form for the parcel delivery service. They handed me their son’s name and address on a small piece of paper.
Their son’s name was written in tight, neat script. I recognized it. The story of the murder and his trial had appeared on the front-pages of the newspaper. The stories recounted his terrible mistake, a murder. But it seemed to me he was not the murderous maniac the news made him out to be. His lawyer was a drunken, dottering sot. His parents attended court every day of the trial. They were in pictures in the papers, holding each other as they did in the food shop.

They thanked me quietly after paying their bill for $29.46 and $7 post. I had no idea what prison regulations were for packages to inmates. The couple disappeared through the door, still holding on to each other, as I finished the form and attached it to the box. I never saw them again—until I looked into that trout’s eye.

I think about that couple frequently now. I know the sausage and cheese never made it past the door of the Kansas State Maximum Security Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kansas. Prisons don’t take food delivered in the mail. Their son never knew the moment his mother placed the mustard and crackers into that box.

Sometimes, that couple comes to me late at night, when I am not sleeping well, and I dream I deliver that package to their son. I swim past wires and bars, walls and guards on rays of light flowing from his cell window. I see him open the box while he sits on his bunk staring into forty years-to-life. He pulls one of the carton flaps back, and the ice-blue sky over the North Platte streams from the folds of tissue paper and fills his cell. The river itself flows through the holes in the Swiss cheese, spilling over riffles of crackers and falls of salami. He peers into the pool behind the mustard jar and finds his parents with their arms open to him.
And there are trout. Lots of trout.

 

image by Rhododendrites, 2016, Old Police Headquarters in San Diego’s Seaport Village/Marina district, California. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

War and the Compassion of Cows

War and the Compassion of Cows

R. Newell Searle

In general, a dairyman and his cows know each other intimately. He identifies each one by her name, appearance, personality and habits. Cows are sensitive and recognize their owner’s voice, look and touch. They won’t easily let down their milk to a stranger because a dairyman is married to his herd. That kind of marriage didn’t suit 18-year-old Henry Gershon in 1942.

When the war came, he was happy to leave his father’s drafty dairy barn and enlist in the 101st Airborne. The heady months of paratrooper training in Kentucky and England remained a romantic memory of uniforms and badges; demanding drills and unsupervised pleasures. Completing jump school put him in the ranks of elite—a proud parachutist with corporal’s stripes. When his unit based in England, he dank in the pubs, dated the ‘birds’ and took in the sights! He was, as the Brits griped, over-paid, over-sexed and over there. No matter. He believed he was about to do something more important than pulling tits and shoveling shit. It was a fool’s prelude to horror.

That was 50 years ago! Why couldn’t he forget the war? Why couldn’t he wash it out of his mind and memories? When he jumped into France he landed in an eternity of mud, fatigue, misery, destruction and death. He still shuddered at the memories of fighting across pastures littered with the bloated carcasses of cows among the corpses of dead GIs and Germans. Dead GIs and Germans—he expected that—but why did cows have to die? Many times, he looked carefully to be certain his target was a soldier and not a cow. During this fitful year of combat, he expected a bullet to find him but it didn’t. Instead, bullets killed the men on his right and on his left.

In the decades after the war, he held at bay the horrific memories of his decimated company slogging from one brutal fight to another. His youthful delusion of heroic action darkened to a grim determination to stay alive. If he survived, he wanted to marry and settle down with his own herd of Guernsey’s. Nothing seemed as peaceful as a dairy. All he had to do was survive.

When the peace came at last, he returned home and used his savings and veteran’s points to buy a herd. Then he married Shirley, his high school sweetheart, and they raised two daughters and a son. For half a century, Shirley’s bubbling laughter, the children and the grandchildren kept him from talking about the war. Then Shirley died and he had nothing to keep the dark memories from returning at night and staying all day. Without Shirley, he had only the cows for companions. He talked to them, confided in them and apologized to them for the boys who didn’t return home. The cows didn’t speak but they listened without comment.

“I’m sorry Dickey. I’m sorry I got you killed,” he whispered as he attached the suction cups to the cow’s teats. “My fault … all my fault,” he muttered. “I should of known …” As he moved from cow to cow, he called each of the dead squad members by name and apologized for their deaths. “Danny, your chest! Oh my God, your chest …” he said, except it was a lumpy sack of oats that resembled a corpse. He avoided looking at window panes because he sometimes saw their pallid features, like portraits, each as boyish as they were in 1944. We thought we were immortal. But we weren’t. Now they’re dead and I’m not. The cows’ tails swished away the flies but not his memories.

Daily, he hoped for consolation and forgiveness but the cows offered no solace or comfort or release. Little by little, the war and dairy became inextricably entwined until he dreaded rising in predawn darkness to milk the herd. The memories were the worst in the morning twilight when Germans attacked out of the darkness and nothing was as it seemed.

The sounds of zipping coveralls and buckling goulashes took him back to the night of June 5th, 1944, when he jumped into hell. Lately, his small milking galley seemed as confined as the C-47 transport that took him over France. He snapped on the radio because the polka music banished his thoughts and calmed the cows. Then he let in the herd and each cow went to her stanchion. One by one, he hooked the suction cups to the udders and turned on the milking machine. Its compressor hummed but the vacuum pump pulsed and, in its two-count beat, he heard the jumpmaster’s order: “Stand-up, hook-up—stand-up, hook-up” as the troopers leapt from the plane and floated downward through the fog of war to a life or death landing in the drop zone.

The 101st Airborne suffered heavy casualties from German snipers and machine-gunners among the dense French hedgerows or bocage. The company’s ranks thinned quickly and captains replaced colonels, lieutenants became captains and sergeants were promoted to lieutenants. As green as he was, they jumped him from corporal to staff sergeant in charge of a platoon. At 20, his responsibilities weighed more than a loft full of hay. He thought he was too young for the rank but the other boys were younger and someone had to do it. Men died fast in Carentan, Bastogne and Floy. They died but he didn’t.

Danger and misery welded them together but bullets and mortars ripped them apart. In the woods near Bastogne, they huddled in foxholes without winter coats and shivered as snow drifted around them. Then he got orders to attack a German outpost. He sent four men to flank their machine guns while he and the rest rushed straight in. All the flankers died silencing the guns and three more comrades went down in the frontal assault. He knew men died in wars. That’s what war was. It wasn’t heroic. Just death and misery.

Just before Shirley died, he received an invitation to the 50th reunion of his Airborne unit. For years, she urged him to attend the once-every-five-year reunions but he resisted. No, he couldn’t do it. He feared a meeting with his old comrades would remind him of the boys who died carrying out his orders. Now, as memories of the war closed in, its chaos and terrors lurked in the guise of familiar things. He saw danger where the paddock fence was weakest. I’ve got to reinforce the line. Can’t let them break through and flank me. Digging a post hole brought back to the mucky smell of foxholes. On another day, he heard the rumble of a diesel engine. My God a panzer tank headed this way! He took cover before he realized it was his neighbor plowing an adjacent field. The worst was the day he ran toward squeals behind the barn, yelling “Medic! Medic!” and came upon two hogs fighting over an ear of corn.

He could never erase the faces of the young men who died following his orders. At the age of 20, he couldn’t know what lay ahead. Now, at 70, he knew and still feared the recurrent terror of killing and the anguish without surcease. So, he talked to the cows, apologized to them and said he was sorry that one trooper or another would never get home. He apologized for all the Thanksgiving dinners they would never eat, the girls they would never marry, the children and grandchildren who would never carry a bit of them into the future. His squad had come from all over—Michigan, Nevada, Alabama, Connecticut and other states and they died all over. Those who didn’t make it home slept in France, Belgium and Germany. Far away. Forgotten.

His war ended on the day he rose in the dark and the house felt cold although it was June. He dressed with care, zipping his coveralls over his clothes and buckling the galoshes over his boots. Then he went to the barn and put the things he would need later on a bale of hay. As usual, he set out feed and let the cows into the barn. Mocha, the herd’s leader, found her stanchion and stood patiently waiting for him to close it around her neck. They seemed nervous this morning. He didn’t turn on the radio or talk to them as he hooked the cups to their udders. The machine pulsed its one-two rhythm and the milk flowed warm and white from the udders to stainless steel cans. When he finished the milking, he unhooked the cups and opened the stanchions so the cows could go to the paddock.

Mocha didn’t move but stood in her stanchion and looked at him as he removed the goulashes and coveralls. Henry stood before them in his Army uniform with the eagle patch and chevrons on its shoulder and the paratrooper’s badge and bronze star on his chest. The sergeant went to the bale and pulled a .45 pistol from its canvas holster Then he opened a bottle, swigged some whiskey and saluted the herd with “Cheers.” Surely, a drink would make his war end more easily. Henry jacked a bullet into the pistol’s chamber, gripped it in both hands and tipped the muzzle under his chin.

Mocha craned her brown neck and looked back at him with dark, moist eyes. Then all the cows turned to watch him. He looked at Mocha, knowing cows could pick up on emotions and sense when things weren’t right. They always differently when he and Shirley were angry at each other. Was it possible Mocha and the others sensed he was up to something?

Why haven’t they left the barn? What are they thinking? What do they know? Their somber eyes carried no hint of judgment or anger or recrimination. Only a question—why? Shirley had large, dark eyes like theirs and often asked that silent question. The cows stood, ears out, square muzzles down, their lower jaws chewing with a sideways rotation. They waited for what he might do next.

In a flash of clarity, he realized no one would find his body until the creamery truck arrived, four days hence. Who was going to milk the cows between now and then? If they weren’t milked twice daily, their udders would swell painfully and they would come down with mastitis. He remembered all the dead cows she saw needlessly killed on the battlefields of France. I can’t leave them this way.

The cows watched with wet eyes. Looking from one to another, he saw the same patient expression his men gave him while awaiting his orders. Whatever you say … We signed up to live or die. And we did that. That war wasn’t about me. It was about us. So, what is this about?

Henry lowered the .45 and slipped on the safety. I gave the orders but my men died for each other. Who am I dying for? Myself? He dropped the pistol onto the bale and Mocha tossed her head. Maybe she understood. He felt she did. It was important to be understood.
Then, still chewing, Mocha turned toward the barn door and the others followed her outside to the paddock.

He watched them go and slumped against the door jamb as the sun cleared the horizon. Morning light flowed across the rolling fields of new corn. A breeze carried the promise of warmth and lifted the scents of dewy alfalfa. Crows waged their ancient war against an owl perched in the windbreak. He picked up the stainless-steel cans and poured the fresh milk into the holding tank. For the first time since Shirley died, the sounds of war ceased pounding in his head. He felt clean, cleaner than from any shower or bath; the feeling of purity. Whiskey bottle in hand, he stood in the doorway and poured it on the ground. The herd stood in the paddock’s corner, their heads together, and gazed at him.

“Thank you,” he said, swelling with gratitude for their compassion. I’ll go to the reunion. The war is over.

image by Bleron Çaka,  2011, Boge-Rugove, Kosovo (Wikimedia Commons)

Pickup

Pickup

Hannah Ford

He’s been driving trail shuttle for nine years, ever since his wife took her kitchen appliances and smoking habit and left. Their dog had howled after her for a week or so, then he’d forgotten about her, curling up on her rocking chair like it’d always been vacant.

His sons check in once in a while, but it’s mostly just him and the dog now. It’s not a bad life, maintaining the trail during the day, picking up hikers when need be, getting home in time to watch the sun set over Lake Jocassee.

The couple called three days ago, having found his number on the Trail Angels website. The boy asked about getting picked up at the end of the hike. I mapped it out, the boy said, and we should get to the end seven days after starting. But Trip has been around the Foothills for a while and so he says no to that plan, because nobody finishes when they think they will, and many don’t even finish.

He picks the couple up at the trail’s end, where they’re standing next to their car and holding paper coffee cups, the girl leaning her head against the boy’s arm. The boy is skinny with a wide frame that he’ll eventually grow into. The girl is small, barely to his shoulder, her hair brushed neatly into a ponytail and her hiking boots stiff and new. She’s wearing makeup. Just looking at her, Trip knows she won’t make it. Continue reading Pickup

The Whirlpool

The Whirlpool

Kate Henderson

 

Dickie’s teeth click when he eats. I have known for years they are false, but I can remember when I was a little girl and thought they’d come loose with age. Only his chewing interrupts the questions. What are you going to do now? Why don’t you finish university? His eyes are earnest. They bulge from his head, his head bobs up and down. It is hard to pay attention to the words, so I shrug at what I think are appropriate intervals.

“I guess you just have itchy feet.” He sighs, shakes his head, scoops up another spoonful of ice cream.

The conversation takes on a more general tone. The kids he teaches at school. Other grandchildren. Unemployment is terrible. Why don’t the kids take trades? I listen, but not closely. I let my eyes wander to familiar objects in the room I know so well. I remember Christmas dinners, when the Virgin Mary smiling down from above the cutlery box seemed less peculiar, when the table, filled with family, seemed less long. My eyes come back to Dickie; he is still talking. He is greyer now, his hearing even worse than I recall. He is retired, and teaches a class in Introductory Engineering at the community college. He is concerned for his students who are reluctant to settle down and work for a union. Instead they collect unemployment. He calls it “the dole.”

GrandEm fidgets at the other end of the table. We call her GrandEm because her name is Emma, and she says she was too young for Grandma when we were born. Her breathing is audible.

“You were far too young, Anne,” she interrupts suddenly. Continue reading The Whirlpool

Trans-Canadian Train

Trans-Canadian Train

William Cass

I met a young woman many years ago during an August evening of soft light and liquid shadows. It was during a short stopover heading west on the Trans-Canadian train that ran across the country’s southern portion. I’d boarded in Montreal following a visit with my grandmother in Vermont after a summer travelling the hostel circuit through Europe. I was on my way back for a second year of teaching in a bush village in the upper corner of the southeastern Alaska panhandle. I was twenty-four years old.

Passengers were permitted to disembark for a few minutes while the train was changing tracks in that town above the Boundary Waters separating Ontario from Minnesota. I was stretching on the platform while new and current passengers waited for the train to be ready to board again. The young woman was among those new passengers and stood reading a large book with a satchel at her feet. I guessed I was a little older than her. She held the book with both hands just below her chest that rose and fell slowly with her even breathing. She wore a mauve blouse under a light cardigan sweater, jeans, and sandals. Her auburn hair fell to her shoulders in a mass of curls, and when she looked up to regard the track-changing progress, I could see that her eyes were pale blue. Against that hair and those eyes, her skin reminded me of bleached driftwood. In the muffled light, she was so lovely that I found myself holding my breath. Continue reading Trans-Canadian Train

James

James

Robert Boucheron

 

James Pettigrew was the bell ringer of St. Giles Episcopal Church for as long as anyone could remember. Longer, in fact. The oldest members of the congregation remembered him from early childhood.

Clinging to their parents’ hands, they had trooped through the narthex on Sunday morning, glanced to the side, and there he was in the shadows. He stood there silent, straight as a stick, hard to make out in his black suit and dark brown skin. They were afraid of him and curious. Was a bell ringer like anyone, or was he a special kind of person?

James rang the church bell in an alcove off the vestibule. A short, slight man, he pulled down the rope with all his might. Then he flew directly up, hoisted five feet in the air on the bell’s return swing.

“He looks like a monkey,” people said, though they never saw a monkey do any such thing. James’s antique manners and grave demeanor stifled ridicule. Nevertheless, the title of “sexton” seemed overly dignified for a black man. Continue reading James

Traveler #17

Traveler #17

Jim Cole

 

By the time he was 46 years old, he had orbited eight planets, and then, finally, they selected him to go live on one for a time.

The blue surface felt like moss. Even through zinc boots and socks insulated with an aluminum alloy that left a rash on the soles of his feet, the planet felt luscious. Stepping onto the surface was exhilarating, as if he were the first to ever touch another planet. And yet, the weight of 300 pounds of gear – those zinc boots, four oxygen tanks, a big helmet they called the pumpkin, a tent made of carbon fiber, a stove, a camera and tripod, a solar battery pack, a weapon slung over his shoulder that frankly he had not learned how to discharge – left no trace. After three steps, he stopped to turn around – a maneuver more cumbersome than his instructors on Earth had warned. He stumbled, started to tip over like a dead oak tree, caught his balance, took a deep breath, smiled at his good luck, and pulled the camera from the pouch on his chest. He was giddy about snapping a photograph to beam back to his home planet, but looking through the lens all he saw were the faintest z-shaped tread marks in the powder blue surface. Before he could turn on the flash and focus again, any hint of his presence was gone. Continue reading Traveler #17

Jalopy

Jalopy

Mitchell Grabois

 

1.
My father ran aground amidst a naked, barbaric race. The women’s cologne must be distilled from excrement, he and his mates thought. They held their breath. The men’s penises dragged on the glacial ice. My father wondered why he had ever set sail.

2.
With global warming, the glaciers recede like a pack of erections that have simultaneously changed their mind. The Mendenhall Glacier wonders: Viagra or Cialis? I need to assert myself. I need to get back to fucking the world with my cold rod. The world is too hot. Women are supposed to be hot, but not planets. I remember when I was young and stretched out beyond what I could see or be aware of. I did not know myself. All the worse for me.

Now I know myself better, but what I know, I don’t like. I’m retreating from the battle. I’m becoming more frayed and mud-spattered every year. President Obama visited me, and he had tears in his eyes. Then, to take his mind off my fate, he went and watched Eskimo children dance in colorful costumes, big smiles on their faces. They laughed with joy when he got up and joined them in their dance.

3.
I once had a friend who was a microwave oven. She heated up quickly, but had a cold heart. I went to high school with her. We kept in touch over the years.

She married a man because she believed that as he aged, he would grow more and more to resemble his father, whom she greatly admired. But as he aged, he became the antithesis of his father. It made her bitter. Her glass door became greasy. You could no longer see what was inside her.

I talked to her on the phone. I was thinking about all the appliances that I’ve owned that have broken down and I’ve discarded. Continue reading Jalopy

Tug Hill

Tug Hill

R. Edward Hengsterman

There’s a boy. He does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he sits cross-legged in space. His arrival is unusual, but I have no fear. So in silence, I wait, until the moment comes when I can’t wait any longer. Then I scream, dance, cry, and laugh – outlandish pantomimes to break his silence, but still he never speaks. This ritual goes on throughout the night.

Then I wake.

Three days ago a boyhood friend died. The news of his death, though not a complete surprise, disrupted my sleep. To be honest, I’m ill-equipped to handle any emotional problems beyond my own. So I keep to myself.

Eric hadn’t crossed my mind in years. In fact, I didn’t realize I’d had any lingering feelings other than a few withered childhood memories until a one-sided conversation with my mother reminded me of the true depths of my baggage.

“Eric’s dead,” she said, “Died at home. Guess I’ll see you at the funeral.” Click. Continue reading Tug Hill

Neighbors

Neighbors

Eric Smith

 

My family had been in the neighborhood five years when Robert Aronson started the Belly Button Country Club. Robert, the only adult in the neighborhood whom every kid called by his first name, lived next door to us with his wife, Nan, and their two kids, Charlie and Elly. Like streets in every suburb that bloomed after the war, ours was a bare vine at first, houses growing up and down its length like fast appearing fruit. The Davies house went up on other side of the Aronson’s, the Roses’ on the other side of them, the Haskin’s house sprung up across the street. All modest homes compared to those in an older part of town, a section between us and the bay, where stately structures stood veiled behind dense shrubs and spreading oaks. We, too, planted trees and shrubs and built fences along property lines on our block but our fences were always partial, with openings left between us and our neighbors. A dirt path went around our chain-link fence to the Aronson’s where Robert laid down planking to keep us out of the mud. The redwood fence between the Davies’ and the Aronson’s had a gate that was always open, shut only by the wind. Moving freely between home and the homes of friends, we all eventually ended up at Robert’s. Continue reading Neighbors

PASS/FAIL


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PASS/FAIL

Janice E. Rodríguez

When you’re a child, you’ll believe anything—that Santa Claus has a giant warehouse of wrapping paper so his gifts match the ones at your house, that parents are infallible, and even that school is a haven for clever students.

The mile between Rhonda’s home and school had grown longer as autumn progressed. The maples that stood like sentries along the grounds of the state hospital were bare now, and a fragrant detour into the crunchy windrows of leaves added five minutes to the daily journey. The less pleasant reason for dawdling appeared beyond the last maple—the swarming migration of students into squat, red-brick Lafayette Junior High.

Rhonda waited at the crosswalk, wishing the light would never change, knowing it would. She eyed the sign plastered to the lamppost, “Nixon, Now More than Ever,” and smoothed down a curled edge. The first bell rang; the light changed.

Time to run the gauntlet.

Continue reading PASS/FAIL

Between Detroit and Chi-town

2016-09-15 14.37.24.jpgBetween Detroit and Chi-town

Barbara Ruth

 

Dear Bob,

Happy birthday, son. I’m sure this email comes as a surprise.

I can’t really tell you much about where I am now Is it heaven? Hell? ‘m still trying to decide. I pay attention to the lives of my loved ones on earth, so when you’re happy, I’m in heaven.

I know you’ve been wondering about that story, my claim to fame. Why did Barb know about it and not you? How come you hadn’t heard that story every time a new person walked in the door who I could convince to sit down and listen? Why didn’t your mother mention it?

Barb only knows about it because she woke up when the phone rang. And that nosy girl stayed up to find out where I was going in the middle of the night.

Here’s the whole story: Ron the bartender called me around 10:00 at night. As you remember, Constantine was a very small town. Of course the bartender in the main bar on Main Street and the school’s only band director knew each other. We were the only Kells listed in the phone book. I knew if he called that late it was going to be important.

“Kell, you’ve got to come over.” My first thought was some former student of mine had gotten himself too drunk to drive home and Ron couldn’t think of anyone else to call. I was figuring out some response to that when Ron continued,

“There’s someone here you’ve got to meet. Come as soon as you can. If you don’t, you’re going to kick yourself for the rest of your life. And bring your horn.”

I told your mother what Ron had said to me. “Are you going out, at this hour? You have school tomorrow.”

The only excuse I had was my curiosity. “You don’t want me kicking myself the rest of my life,” I told her. “It’ll make it awfully hard for you to sleep in the same bed with me.”

She sighed and went back to her book in what I decided was a friendly way. “I’ll try not to make any noise coming or going, even though Barb won’t be asleep yet.”

“She’s a night owl, like her father. She’ll probably try to convince you to take her along.”

“And then Bobby will have to come. I think I’d better leave before I’m taking my whole family into a bar at 10:30 at night. Although that would keep the faculty lounge buzzing.”

“Good night, Dick.”

Sure enough Barb was still awake, standing in the hall in her polka dot pajamas. “What time is it? Who called so late?” Nine years old and she had her mother’s inflections down pat.

“Everything’s fine. Don’t talk so loud, you’ll wake your brother. You should be sleeping too.” She was in her foot-stomping, eye-rolling phase then. She stayed in that one quite a while, so you might be able to picture her dramatic return to her bedroom.

This was when we lived on Canaris Street, not so far from Ron’s Bar. I figured if I was going I might as well take my clarinet, as requested. When I parked the car I looked at it and hesitated. “What the hell?” I tucked the case under my arm and made my way into the bar.

Ron saw me right away. “Kell!” he shouted. “Over here.” He waved me over to one of the few booths and joined me there. Three Black men in expensive overcoats looked up from their drinks. “This is the guy I was telling you about,” Ron continued, turning to them. “Dick Kell, our local band director.” He looked back at me. “Didn’t you used to play in a band?”

I hadn’t even ordered a drink yet but I felt like I’d knocked back half a dozen. Louis Armstrong sitting in a booth in a bar in Constantine Michigan! I didn’t know who the other two gentlemen were, but there was no mistaking THAT face.
Turns out they were his driver and a guy who played trombone. I was embarrassed I didn’t recognize the trombonist’s name. “My guys – band and road crew – we’re traveling in three cars,” Satchmo said. “The others went on ahead, but the three of us decided to rest a spell. We figured if the whole crew stopped in here it might be too much of a good thing.” We all laughed.

I admit I was no stranger to Ron’s establishment. And I had never seen one of the local Black guys in the bar. “You’re probably right,” I said. “There’s a limit to how much jazz Constantine can take on a weeknight.”

All three of them looked beat. Their laughter was filled with fatigue. Maybe they liked my joke, but I think they were just being polite. They were nice enough to ask me about my music, so I told Louis Armstrong I played a little swing in college, no big deal.

“I know the barkeep told you to bring your horn. Let’s see what you got,” Satchmo said. Before I could answer he continued, “My baby’s right here beside me.” He lifted a cornet case, beat up worse than the one you had. I guess his had seen a lot more miles. From it he lifted a beautiful horn, a Selmer-Challenger cornet. “Go ‘head. You can hold it.” He reached it out to me and I took Louis Armstrong’s cornet in my hands, thinking back to my swing band days, being on the road, admiring some other cat’s horn.

Ron brought me a much needed drink and I took out my clarinet and we played a little, right there in the bar. Ron kept saying “Look! That’s Louis Armstrong! That’s Dick Kell playing with Louis Armstrong.”

The odd thing was, none of the customers seemed all that impressed. They glanced at us, then looked back in their shot glasses for the answers to the questions of their lives.
We played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “String Of Pearls”. He let me pick the songs and we started in unison, then he harmonized, then improvized while I plugged on.
I tried a few adventurous turns and he took the melodic line, nodding encouragement. I was nervous he’d start scat singing and I’d forget what key we were in, but he didn’t and I didn’t either.

They’d played a club the night before in Detroit and had a recording date the next day in Chicago. “I love Chi-town,” Satchmo said. “Best ribs outside of N’awlins.”

Those guys were so polite. I think they would have closed the bar with me and Ron probably would have kicked out the other patrons and let us stay all night. But I felt sorry for the three of them, making chit chat with a high school band director in a one traffic light town, when all they wanted was to get some rest. There was no hotel in Constantine, at least not in 1955. I worried they’d ask me about a decent place they could stay the night, where there’d be no trouble. But they probably realized I wouldn’t know the answer to that question.

I told them the wife was probably waiting up for me.

Satchmo rolled those eyes of his. “Oh man, I know how that is. You best be getting on home.”

When I tiptoed into the house, Barb came running to the door. “What happened?” she asked, her own eyes wide.

“I just played with Louis Armstrong.”

“You did not. You just stayed out late on a school night and you’re trying to get away with it.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or shake her. “I’m the parent here, not you. Go on to bed now.” She gave a big sigh, just like her mother. I thought she went to her room, but she must have heard some of my conversation with Evie, who’d fallen asleep with her book on her lap, her glasses still on her nose.
She startled awake when I came in. “What happened?” she asked, like an echo. “What time is it anyway?”

“A little after midnight. What a night!” I started in, ready to relish the night again in the telling.

“What do you mean you played with him? You played music? You mean you went somewhere and played along with a record of Louis Armstrong?”

“I mean I went to Ron’s Bar and met the actual Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and he invited me to play music with him.”

“How many songs did you play?”

“Two. They each lasted a long time.”

She didn’t seem all that impressed. I guess she just wanted to get back to sleep. One of the highlights of my musical life and I didn’t have anyone to appreciate it.

Neither your mother nor your sister said anything about it at breakfast the next morning. You were four at the time. I didn’t think you’d give me the reaction I wanted. I expected to hear about it in the faculty lounge or around town. Surely Ron would be telling the story for years.

Maybe he did. He certainly told me about it every time I went into his bar. But I already knew. And nobody else seemed to care. I did tell a few cornet students over the years. You remember Junior Bixby? I told him.But I didn’t want to face more disinterest or disbelief so aside from those few I knew the story to myself.

I should have told you when you were ten or twenty or maybe fifty. I realize you would have liked to hear about it, and from me. Well, now you have.

 

Love you always and happy birthday,

Dad

Secrets of the Boardwalk

img_1445Secrets of the Boardwalk

Ron Singer
Last week, Amy, a close friend of ours, told Joan, my wife, that she was worried about Bob, her husband. On two consecutive days, he had uncharacteristically wandered off on his own. The first morning, out of the blue, he had announced his intention of taking the subway out to Coney Island “for a walk on the boardwalk.” Since they normally go to C.I. in tandem, and since she had to work that day (Office Manager for a law firm), she urged him to wait for the weekend. But he refused.

The next day, he went again. That evening, as they were having dinner, his nose red from the spring sunshine and the depleted ozone layer, he made a speech that she interpreted as a semi-confession. Or, as she put it, “His sunburnt nose kept getting longer.”

Joan, who has a practically phonographic memory, quoted Amy’s account of the semi-confession: ‘’’ “ ‘Boy, you wouldn’t believe the characters you run into on the boardwalk these days –junkies, winos, Three Card Monte sharps, restaurant touts who practically mug you. I even saw a couple of teen-aged prostitutes pretending to be fortunetellers! They had a card table, costumes, the works. Can you beat that?’ “ ‘’’
For Amy, the last part had been the kicker: “ ‘The way he described those girls, the look on his face… furtive… I smelled a very big rat!’ ”

Bob is a CPA who owns a small business specializing in the personal income taxes of civil servants, including teachers. (He does ours.) Anything but “furtive,” he normally sounds like an accountant: precise, laconic, on the dry side. Since he had been extremely busy for the two or three months leading up to the end of tax season a few weeks ago, it was easy to see why he had wanted to stretch his legs and suck in some sea air and sunshine. But, obviously, Amy didn’t see it that way.

“I think she’s right,” was Joan’s verdict.

“No opinion.”

* * *

Yesterday, putting their heads together, the women hatched a scheme to find out whether there was fire behind the smoke– a scheme that involved me! As Joan explained at breakfast this morning, “See if you can draw him into a man-to-man confessional, Jerry. Think of it as a chance to make positive use of those world-class social skills you’re always bragging about. You know, have a few drinks…tell him about the time…”

Uh, oh, I thought, here it comes! She was going to bring up the passionate kiss I had admitted to having shared with a sexy young colleague at an office party shortly before my retirement four years ago. Well, she did bring it up, but thankfully, without the pain and rancor that had greeted the original confession. I’ll say this for Joan: she wields a mean wit, but she’s not like that Marx sister, Carpo. (Or is it Carpa?) Even better, I was relieved that the old kiss was all she brought up.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

As soon as she had bustled off to her job (Assistant Principal at a charter school), I called Bob. Although the four of us occasionally went out for brunch together, and although he and I sometimes took walks, we never met for drinks. To keep him from smelling a rat of his own, I would do this my way.

“Beautiful day, eh, Bob?”

“Good morning, Jerry! Yes, indeed! Spring has finally sprung.”

“You must be glad tax season is over.”

“And how!”

“How about a walk in the Gardens today? I hear the cherry blossoms are out. You available?”

“Sounds good,” he said, “Actually, I promised Joe I’d look over an audit notice he got from the IRS. But there’s no hurry, I’m not even going to charge him.”

“That’s very generous of you. Hey, I have a better idea! Let’s take the train out to Brighton. We can have lunch at that Bukharin place with the big Plaster-of-Paris pierogi outside, then walk over to Coney Island on the boardwalk.”

“Actually, I was just there last week, Jerr. Twice, in fact.”
It was time to cut to the chase. “Aha! So you don’t want to go again. I can certainly understand why, after what happened to you with those two prost…”

“ ‘After what happened’ to me’? Nothing happened, Jerry! Amy told Joan about that?”

“Yep. She said something about a pair of ho’s tricked out as fortune-tellers.”

“Well, yes.” There was a brief pause. “But so what? Sure, let’s go for a walk on the boardwalk.”

“Great!”

By now, I wanted to end this conversation, which was making me feel like the guilty party. Maybe, Joan and Amy were right: uncovering the truth about Bob’s boardwalk adventures would require more finesse than I had realized.

* * *

Since we live only a few blocks apart, we agreed to meet at a nearby subway entrance in half an hour. Twenty-nine minutes later, I arrived at the station to find him already waiting. Hurrying down the stairs, we caught a B.B.-bound train. Since the MTA was doing their usual massive infrastructure repairs, we sped past some half-renovated stations without stopping, which made the long trip somewhat shorter. Isn’t it always like that when you’re not in a hurry?

This line goes back and forth between underground and elevated. When it is elevated, it runs above neighborhoods of great variety, ranging from tree-lined streets with big, fancy, stand-alone homes, to commercial districts featuring discount this-and-that stores, to industrial parks full of rooftop graffiti and deserted-looking factories. In some places, every sign is in Chinese. Brooklyn is an exhilarating place to travel through –fast. Since neither of us had brought along a book, we shared Bob’s paper, which we then left on the train, so (as he put it) “some lucky stranger will save $2.50.”

A few minutes before noon, we reached Brighton Avenue and climbed down the long flight of stairs to 6th Street. I love going to B.B. I have never visited Odessa, but I imagine it could be the model for this bustling, vaguely nefarious commercial artery. It’s always a pleasure to be back in old New York, for here you can still find real commercial enterprises –good, cheap restaurants, greengrocers, naughty nightclubs, cavernous ethnic food stores, and exotic clothing emporia. God protect B.B. from gentrification!

Bob and I walked the four short blocks south to 2nd Street, and turned left toward the big pierogi. But when we got there, to our disappointment, we were assaulted through the window by what sounded like the soundtrack from a Central-Asian soft-core porn video. We could also see that all five tables were occupied.

“Let’s take the walk first,” I suggested. “We can grab a hot dog at Nathan’s.”

“Sounds good. Get a little exercise before our unhealthy lunch.”

Even on the side street, we could feel a stiff, chilly wind blowing in from the ocean. Although we were both sensibly dressed, I worried we would freeze our butts off. At the boardwalk, we turned right, toward C.I. Pushing against the crosswinds, we must have made a funny couple. Bob is about six-two, and stoops, trudging along with his hands clasped behind his back. Several inches shorter, I’m “squat” (i.e. big gut), and I take quick little steps, like a kid learning to roller skate. Joan says I look as if I’m running away from something. My shadow? My past?

I had last visited B.B. (with her) about two years ago, just before the city suffered the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. As Bob and I hurried along now, some of the differences I noticed may have been Sandy-related. The ocean side of the boardwalk was dotted with new, one-story, very solid-looking buildings on stout concrete poles. Although there were no signs or other indications of their purpose, I would have guessed they were hurricane-proof restrooms, the proverbial brick shit houses, except that there were other buildings marked as restrooms, on the landward side.
Down on the beach, in addition to a few walkers and joggers, there was a large gathering of seagulls, forming an amoeba in the sand. They looked as if they had flopped down from the sky.

“Birds of a feather flop together,” I quipped. “What are they doing there?”

“Enjoying the sunshine,” Bob opined. “ Just like us, Jerr.”

Since it was a weekday, and so early in the season, traffic on the boardwalk was thin. Thin, in two senses, in number and, I could have sworn, girth: there seemed to be fewer jumbo Russians and others than in summer. Nor was there as good a selection of the hilariously garish outfits I always enjoy at B.B. But there were still a few doozies, such as a middle-aged peroxide blonde wearing a blue fake-fur vest over a paisley kaftan.

The demographic that day seemed deceptively like the peaceable kingdom. On a basketball court in a playground on the landward side (BB at B.B.), I saw a pale, fat boy who, although hatless, looked Jewish. He was gesticulating, and I heard him shout, “Paco! Paco! Pass it to Mohammed! Shoot, Mohamed! Shoot!”

Mohamed, a gawky boy wearing big black-rimmed glasses, launched a clunker off the side of the backboard. These boys belonged to the Bricklayers’ Union. At sixty-seven, I could still have schooled them in the art of the jump shot.

About halfway to Coney Island, spotting an empty bench facing the ocean, we decided to ignore the wind and rest for a few moments. By this point, I must say, I was disappointed that we had not encountered the fortunetellers. I pictured two young cuties seated at a card table, wearing turbans and leather hot pants. As if we were oxygen-deprived, Bob and I sucked in the sea air.

Then, suddenly, there they were, bookending us on our bench, squeezing us together! Showtime! They must have been eighteen or nineteen. One was a faux-redhead, the other a faux-blonde. They were heavily made up, siliconized, and wearing enough perfume to Ralph Laurenify “the multitudinous seas” –i.e. I could no longer smell the salty air. They were dressed like models posing as professional athletes: spandex running-suits in shocking pastels, and day-glow, multi-colored running shoes. Instead of turbans, they sported bright orange baseball caps, worn backwards.

“Hello there, Mr. Bob, baby!” said the blonde, who had plopped down on his end. Her accent combined Russian with Brooklyn-ese. Phonetically, the greeting sounded like, “Alloo there, Meezterr Pob, pay-bee.” You get the idea.

“And, also, hello to you, also, Meezter Zexie,” said the redhead, a contralto, flashing a high-wattage smile and poking me with an elbow.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?” asked the blonde. Not waiting for him to reply, she added, “How about going under the boardwalk again, Bobby? I think you loved that big kiss I gave you last week, didn’t you, you naughty boy! Or this time, maybe something a beet more … serious?”

“Perhaps, you would also like, also, to go under the boardwalk, with me, Mr. Bob’s Nice Friend,” suggested the redhead. “A wonderful soul kiss for only ten dollars, if you’re too scary to do anything else.” She winked at me.

“Or too chip! ” added the blonde. They laughed uproariously.

“ ‘Oh, when the sub goess dowwwn…,’ ” they sang, in unison, dissolving in more laughter.

Bob blushed vermilion. “Not today, girls. I’m still dizzy from last time,” he said, in a weak attempt at levity. Wearing what can only be called a shit-eating half grin, he turned and winked at me.
 Well, that cat had finally sprung from the bag! Joan had been right, after all –sort of. Poor Bob! All he had done was buy a kiss, just like we boys used to do at those carnival booths in the innocent old days. Except, back then, it had cost a nickel.

To make the rest of this long story short, I extricated us from the girls by tossing them a few compliments and ten bucks apiece, “for lunch money.” We left them on the bench, shouting lewd suggestions and blowing kisses as we hurried off. By the time I looked back, they were both texting away furiously.

The rest of the “outing” went pretty much as could be expected. We ate under an umbrella at Nathan’s (the smaller one, on the boardwalk), trying to warm our hands with hot coffee, which we did not drink for fear of being unable to sleep that night. (They didn’t have decaf.) I enjoyed my hot dog, but Bob did not look as if he enjoyed his, at all. ***
Thus concludes the day’s adventures of Bob and Jerry, two typical middle-aged men. All that remains to be said is that, on the way home, I easily persuaded him to confess his peccadillo to Amy. You may be able to guess how I did it. After swearing him to secrecy, I told him about the hottie I was seeing in the Bronx.

For fairness’ sake, the end of this story will be told from the wives’ point of view. The next day, Amy and Joan are in their respective offices, talking on their cell phones. As Amy recounts Bob’s spluttered confession, employing elaborate, hilarious mimicry, the women almost die of laughter. When she finishes, there is a pause. Neither of them wants to get back to work. This is too much fun!

“You know, Joan,” Amy remarks, “your Jerry is so clever and persuasive … cute, too. Quite a guy! In fact, I’d be surprised if he never…”

Joan clears her throat. “Now, now, that’s not nice, dear! Let’s not go there.”

And, closing their phones, they leave it at that.

The Chronicle

The Chronicle

Chris Macalino

 

I’m going to start with the grape… This note took a while because I was afraid that I’d be wrong about The Chronicle. I knew the produce this year would yield the sweetest fruit and so I tested this theory. The nearest fruit I had available was at home and yes, they were just right. When I took that piece from my kitchen fruit bowl, I whispered in excitement, “It’s possible…”

Maybe I just felt drawn to the possibility of The Chronicle, knowing something not everybody would, a newsworthy story just popping up. So I brushed off what hesitation kept holding me back and jumped at the chance to learn something: The only thing to fear was agoraphobia. This realization motivated me to liquid courage.

The next grapes I caught were at my nephews Christening, it was summer in The Children’s Museum at The Forks. I worked up a thirst and the fruit took me; they were marvelous. I became certain that The Chronicle was a miracle with size and grandeur. I nearly hogged all the berries! Thinking back, it really wasn’t even summer, it was actually before or after beach season. It sure felt like summer because they were so damn’ good.  I got a little intoxicated by their flavor.

My cousins and uncle were there too, we found our way at about two minutes beyond the parking lot. The location held a discovery, an out of sight nursery of fruit trees. I guess a chapter of growers had a roll to show everyone an orchard of a new friendly variety. I promised myself that when these trees began to bear fruit, I’d let them be and then there will be enough for an entire party.

 

(A great art critic can literally predict how a painting would taste, simply by the colors of the materials used on a panel surface. This dates back to the alchemical presence of organic and mineral parts for making paints. Egg-yolk was always used for yellow and egg-whites were saved for other colors. Egg-shells made amazing blues and flowers were quite remarkable for hot and warm colors like orange or redZests, saps, nectars, and mosses were also used for bases when creating a whole palette.)

The color of grapes varies with its exposure to the sun; similar to apples, peaches, and pears. One cheek of the fruit may appear darker or lighter compared to another side of the fruit. The skin of the grape is also very different from its flesh / the inside of the fruit / some refer to these very sweet parts as “treasure”.

The different parts of a berry (which includes the skin, the treasures, and seeds) are made to take in the elements: We have’ natural sources like water moisture, rain, and wind. We also have the periodic elements from beneath the soil which tend to rise-up chemically and affect the berries. Then there is The Sun and its rays, shining down these grapes for our vintage… The best wine just feels brilliant, to think they’ll be remembering all of this year each and every time we have this kind of Chronicle. It might last an eternity.

 

Some of us are new beginners in The Chronicle – the slang term for a new beginner is newbie. Speaking of winemaking, I like to think of that as related to “new berries”.

I can’t tell the name of the first wine that I had for 2015 but I remember it was white. There was a new section at the grocery store, the addition of a Liquor Mart. The clerk had mentioned the reds would arrive during November. So I went to the next Liquor Mart just to see if there was more I could learn. She was right! All the 2015s were white.

My University training came in handy that day… I was dreaming of cellars, body mechanics, and how a lot of adolescents would spend their time learning subjects in these kinds of places. They would bend their knees with enough balance to sustain minutes, holding a stance to read the right wine. I imagined Picasso must have started his career in cellars, then when he completed training, became the best in the world. I’d like a bottle from that period.

This Christmas, I found the first red wine I could afford. It’s from Australia with the name of a marsupial on the label. The clerk said I had to wait three years for the 2015s to come in… That was the good news, it’s true that it will be awhile. (3+ years is just enough time to heal.) It almost feels like everyone who might know about The Chronicle is like a friend or a drinking buddy from another galaxy far from my perch at The Inn.

An article on the topic did post statistics that most of the vintage would be consumed in the year it’s produced: This proves one year is preceded and followed by many years of skill and soul searching.

 

I wouldn’t call it a perversion but I believe that all bottles should literally have a ship inside of them. One could drink the bottle then keep it as a work of art! They could do all sorts of fantastic things with bottles and modern technology like make them bigger and fancier. This ship-in-a-bottle-wine could be made entirely out of glass… shipbuilders could retire at vineyards. Truly, I believe physics makes anything possible like sharing as an option.

I once thought that opening an old bottle and pouring it down the ground through a filter was a neat way to free a genie. Enjoying a drink was supposed to be a wish come true but all I’ve ever wished was to be is a great artist* There are different kinds of artists and I just want to be one of them. I’ve tried everything from helping to working and teaching but alas, it never continues for very long. Something always cripples my brain or breaks my heart. As I write this, part of me worries about being a “Fish” like the inspiration for Moby Dick or Old Man and the Sea.

I’m scared to think that people around would learn about my drinking and perversely novelize me as some kind of vampire. The great writers stopped doing that ever since Romanticism and Herman Melville’s period and also Ernest Hemingway’s adventures. I suppose Jung said it best – that fear comes from a psychological instinct -where wine has a cognitive irrational association with blood – and the oxymoron of wine as blood gets mythologized into vampirism – then subversively through the universal insight of The Surrealists we get to their point of wine good, “Ahoy!” We’re saved for it takes a good man to feel drunk off wine.

 

I’m just an uncle which means I’m not responsible for anyone but myself… and of course I know this is not true in light of individuality. Even in my failure, I still know there is a responsibility large enough for me to care about, to keep up with, and fulfill any promise of talent in my family.

I’m partly-responsible for my nieces, nephews, godchildren and those I take under my wing. I’m supposed to be the guy who teaches them how to control their drinking, and be careful of over-eating, or at least figure out a way to explain why life is a dream! I always have to be around to tell them that their problems can be solved. “Whatever vices they have must be lead to virtue.” Kind of like sex: It’s a biological need to make love but it’s also a matter of ecology to refrain from being The One.

There has to be somebody out there who could do the math… (One row field at the country vineyard could amount to one bottle. Then all those grapes are used to make wine, and after a period of time, wine is mixed in with other wines to produce a vintage. Soon, it will be bottled up and ready for logistics.) There’s still an opportunity to go to those fields and sunbathe, feel the ecstasy of being free then years later remember the brightness of those summer days. Count the rows their length and width with height, show yourself the theorem for The Chronicle. It’s an event for the ages, there’s a party and everyone is invited! It’s re-materialization as in “Remat” which is the belief that heaven can be described: like how particles or light waves and magnetic fields can make electrons into photons that can form into beings who are similar to our shape… It’s closing time?

 

 

On the Crossing of Streets

On the Crossing of Streets

Katarina Boudreaux

“Now you know that’s no way to be” Minnie says.

A.J. closes his eyes.

“Why can’t you just get a job?” Minnie continues. “We aren’t made of money.”

A.J.’s eyes stay closed. For a moment, he feels he is a saint, but only for a moment.

“Now come on, baby,” he starts, but Minnie is already in full tirade mode.

A.J. stays at the kitchen table for another few minutes, half listening, half thinking about some tropical paradise, then he gets up and walks toward the front door.

Minnie follows him “…and now you’re just gonna sit out there and talk to those good for nothing’s you call friends, and I’m supposed to be cooking your food that I get with two quarters and a piece of tin foil…”

A.J. closes the door behind him and arches his back. He doesn’t blame Minnie. She’s a good woman just trying to get a little more out of him then what he’s giving.

“Nothing wrong with wanting” he says to the empty street, then sits down in his fold-up chair. “Nothing wrong with it at all.”

A.J. knows about wanting, and there was a time A.J. would have done anything for Minnie. He remembers how it was, and how hard he had worked for those years. He had worked on the waterfront; back-breaking labor, men pushing men just to see how hard a man could be pushed.

A.J. had decided it didn’t suit him and spits to the left of the porch rail: not the work, not the powerful men, not the money.

“Damn” he says out loud. Usually his outdoor chair is a place of comfort, like his own personal Balm in Gilead. But out here by himself, he feels an ache inside. It’s something painful, like a fist holding his heart too tight.

“Now it comes” he says to the birds, and decides he is having a heart attack.

He gets up from the lawn chair, but then Smokey comes out his front door guffawing about how bright it is this time of day, and A.J. sits back down.

“Hell, thought I was having a heart attack before you appeared. I’m thinking now I was just having a panic attack” A.J. says good-naturedly. “I thought you might be dead in that house of yours.”

Smokey grabs a lawn chair from his porch, opens the gate, and walks the four or five steps to A.J.’s place.

“Nah. Just stretching out the day. Stretching it on out” Smokey says and reaches in his front shirt pocket for a cigar and lights it.

A.J. and Smokey sit in silence and watch more four-wheeled and some two-wheeled people roll by.

“I wonder if Sloppy Joe is going to make it out this morning” Smokey says.

Sloppy Joe had been drinking a bit more each day, and A.J. knows the signs. His own father had pickled himself from the inside out with the liquor, and although Sloppy Joe is a friend, A.J. doesn’t know how to tell him to cut back.

“Well, we’ll see; nothing to do but just wait and see” A.J. says.

“We could have an intervention” Smokey says.

“We could” A.J. says and settles more comfortably in his chair and changes the subject to dominoes.

After the sun is really up and moving across the sky, A.J. feels his stomach begin a rumble dance. The conversation has died down to guffaws and snorts, so A.J. cracks the front door and calls to Minnie. “Do you have some lunch, Minnie? Smokey’s out here, so maybe some lunch for him too?”

A.J. knows Minnie has lunch; she always has lunch. Sure enough, Minnie throws the window open and passes a plate through it. She doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t have to; A.J. knows what she’s said a thousand times for a thousand days, and he also knows she’ll say it a thousand more times before it’s all over.

“Now that’s nice of you, Minnie” Smokey says in appreciation and sniffs the two nice po-boys on the plate. “Overstuffed, and just the way they should be.”

Minnie has already shut the window, but A.J. calls out “earning your wings here, honey” then focuses on the plate.

After the first few bites, he looks over at Sloppy Joe’s. “Should be up and out by now” he says to Smokey.

“”Reckon so” Smokey says.

They chew in silence, both now looking at Sloppy Joe’s across the street.

“She didn’t give us napkins” Smokey says.

“Don’t have any” A.J. says and decides that Sloppy Joe’s house doesn’t look so bad. It’s worn like the rest of the homes in A.J.’s neighborhood, but you can still see the fineness in how the house was built. The yard is overrun, and the car has one wheel off, and if there was a dog it’s long gone by now, or else a skeleton still chained to the tree.

“I can’t remember the last time Sloppy took that car out” Smokey says.

A.J. nods and chews his bite of po-boy. “That wheel has been off for a few years now.”

They eat in silence a few more minutes. “Well, I guess we could cross the street” Smokey says. “Take a look.”

“What you’re talking is nonsense to me” A.J. says stiffly. Since the big happening, A.J. hadn’t walked further than the street corner one way, and two blocks the other way. And he hand’t wanted to walk the two blocks.

Minnie had made him go and get milk.

“It’s not nonsense. That all happened what — twenty, thirty years ago?” Smokey relights his cigar and sits further back in his lawn chair.

A.J. doesn’t answer. He knows that Smokey knows it’s exactly twenty-six years ago since the big happening. He had come home from the waterfront and his son was dead in his front yard, and Minnie was sitting on the curb crying.

Sometimes he still hears Minnie say “Bubba T. ran my boy over, ran him down” like she is trying to convince herself that it happened.

Sirens still bother him, and though Bubba T. had tried for years to talk to him, and A.J. knew Minnie had forgiven him long ago, A.J. had not, would not, speak to him or around him.

Bubba T.”s wheel had blown out right when Minnie was waving to him, and she had their little boy right beside her waiting to cross the street. Bubba T had lost control for an instant, and A.J.’s little boy was hit by the side view mirror. Killed on impact the medical professionals had told him, and Minnie had just cried and cried there in the street.

“I’m not crossing the street” A.J. mumbles and reaches behind him and knocks on the window. “Po-boys were great, Minnie honey. Can you pick up the plates so the flies don’t get on them?”

Minnie surprises A.J. by coming out the front door. She stands in front of him on the porch. A.J. hands her his plate, and Smokey starts to say something but she holds up her free hand and points to Sloppy Joe’s.

“Where’s he at? I see two po-boys gone, and the normal number I make, well that’s three. So I’m asking” she says.

“He forgot to come out” A.J. says right over Smokey saying “we were just talking about how maybe we should go on and cross the street and be neighborly and check in on him.”

Minnie looks at A.J., then at Smokey. “Thinking about it?”

“We are considering it” Smokey says politely.

“You two are sitting here being fed like house cats and your friend may not even be breathing, that’s what” Minnie says and picks up Smokey’s plate. “I’m going to have to clean these plates then go check on a fool of a man…”

Minnie moves off the porch and through the front door and slams the door behind her with her foot. A.J. knows it’s her foot, and has often wondered how she stays balanced when she throws it out to close the door.

“Pay her no mind. She’s on a tear today” A.J. says and reaches for the cooler.

Smokey grabs A.J.’s hand. “I’m thinking we should pay her mind. She just gave us a beat down right here on our own porch. Well your porch, but close enough to mine to be mine.”

A.J. snatches his hand from Smokey. “Are you holding my hand on my own front porch Smokey?”

“Seems like I’ll have to hold it for you to cross the street” Smokey retorts and takes a long pull on his cigar.

“Damn cigar. Why do you have to smoke that on my porch?” A.J. fans the air about his head. It’s suddenly thick and clammy and he feels like a smoked cigar, all spent out and smelly.

“You never said not to” Smokey says.

They sit in an uneasy silence for a moment, then Smokey says “I’m gonna have to hold both your hands or what?”

A.J. doesn’t say anything because he is thinking about Sloppy Joe. He does about twenty years of thinking, and then he says “I’m not going to cross…”

The door flies open and Minnie yells “CROSS THE DAMN STREET, A.J., OR GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS HOUSE.” Minnie stomps her foot, then slams the door shut behind her and…locks it.

A.J. is stunned. He looks at the door, then looks at Smokey.

Smokey clears his throat. “I don’t think she’s going to open it.”

A.J. swivels to face Smokey. “I’m not a violent man, but I’m thinking you need to be leaving or I’m going to do some violence right here on my porch. There’s no reason to disrespect a man on his own porch.”

“All right” Smokey replies, then clears his throat. “I’ll leave with you. It’s about napping time, so best get this thing done if it’s going to be done.”

A.J. sees his boy’s face in his mind, and it is shaped like Minnie’s, but has his eyes. A.J. can’t move. “My boy…” he starts then stops.

“Has been dead a long time now, A.J.” Smokey says and looks across the street. “We’ve got someone else to care about now. Time to cross this street.”

Smokey puts his feet side by side and hoists himself up from the lawn chair. “We’re friends, A.J.”

A.J. nods and his mind goes into a time warp. He sees Sloppy coming across the street to tell them Beth left him; sees Sloppy helping him clean up after the last hurricane, drunk as he was; sees Sloppy bringing Minnie some old weeds he calls flowers to thank her for lunch.

A.J. tries to picture his boy; but he can’t get past the face shape and the eyes.

“I guess it’s time to go across the street” A.J. whispers. He licks his lips and stands up with intent.

The first three steps are just off the porch. When they come to the street edge, he looks back at his house, and he sees the curtains move in the front window. He knows Minnie is watching and waiting.

A.J. suddenly remembers how cool the water was when he dove off the big rock one summer long, long ago in Sister Lake. He was airborne and free and then he was in the water, his eyes wide, then he was back up to the surface and he was covered in sunshine.

His foot hits the street pavement and it is like Minnie’s eyes propel him on. Smokey is beside him, hanging back a little, maybe in case he starts to fall, or starts to run, or starts to cry.

“I don’t need a nursemaid, Smokey, I’m not a little girl” A.J. says gruffly and crosses the center line.

Two, three, four more steps and he is over the curb. He stops in front of Sloppy Joe’s house and the world is a loud buzz.

Smokey is saying something, and he turns to open Sloppy’s gate. A.J. follows though he isn’t hearing, isn’t listening, isn’t breathing.

His mind keeps saying that he has crossed the street in broad daylight on a Monday afternoon.

They are up to the front door, and Smokey knocks. The door swings open, unlocked, and A.J. hears Smokey say something like “only a damn fool would sleep with his door unlocked in this neighborhood.”

Smokey steps into the front room. A.J. takes a deep breath and follows.

Bottles are knee-high, and Smokey starts wading toward the back room. All the houses in the neighborhood are shotguns, and A.J. vaguely remembers being in Sloppy Joe’s house when another family lived in it, another family with a little boy the same age as A.J. Jr.

A.J. sinks to his knees in the bottles and something breaks inside his chest. There’s a hardness, then a lightness, and he feels the world spin a little, turn dark then white, until he finally opens his eyes.

Something is under his right knee.

“Sloppy?” A.J. croaks.

Standing up, A.J. looks at Sloppy’s left shoe and then realizes Smokey is right behind him. Smokey kneels down, digs for Sloppy’s head, and then hoists the whole body over so he is face up.

“Hell, what could make a man bury himself in bottles, vomit, and piss on himself?” Smokey asks and puts his hand over Sloppy Joe’s nose.

“Some things” A.J. replies and touches Smokey’s wrist.

Smokey puts a hand on A.J.’s shoulder. “Is your phone working? He’s breathing, but I think we need an ambulance out here.”

A.J. nods, and waves Smokey to the door.

Smokey moves to it, then turns and asks “you’re staying with Sloppy?”

A.J. nods again, and moves to put a plastic bottle under Sloppy’s head.

“Damn fool’s lucky he didn’t drown himself in his own vomit” Smokey says and walks through the front door and runs across the street.

A.J. can see Minnie in their front yard. Her hands are at her side and she is crying. He knows she is crying; he doesn’t have to be close enough to see it.

Smokey puts his hand on her shoulder and turns her, and A.J. watches as they go into his house.

“Sloppy man. We’re going to be fine now” A.J. whispers. “I crossed this street and if you quit breathing it won’t be worth anything. And I won’t pay for your funeral either, so I’d breathe if I were you. Pauper’s graves aren’t nice.”

Sloppy doesn’t answer, but A.J. doesn’t need him to.

A.J. looks down at his pants. Dry.

Rabid Redemption

Rabid Redemption

Linda Boroff

 

Sometime during Charlene’s thirteenth summer, she became convinced that she had contracted rabies and had only two weeks to live. Thirteen is an addled age anyway, a sort of staging ground for adult neuroses; Charlene had read that her brain was sprouting synapses at a blazing rate, and all this additional circuitry not only spawned weird anxieties, it stored them away in spacious new quarters for quick access and long shelf life.

Looking back, Charlene could easily see the traits that would someday make her more Emma Bovary than Jo March; more Lily Bart than Emma Woodhouse. But even at thirteen, worrying oneself into a frenzy over rabies when one had not even been bitten crossed the line from eccentric into full-blown neurotic. Charlene knew that her fear was ridiculous and told herself so by the hour. Yet, the fear persisted, its teeth deep and locked on, shaking the girl like a rabid wolverine.

She attributed some of her hypochondria to being an early and undiscriminating reader. As a small child visiting the neighborhood library, she had not turned left and descended into the children’s section, with its perky decorations and gentle, rhyming tales. She went straight up the stairs and took her seat amidst brutal adult reality.

At age nine, browsing the science section, she had come upon The Merck Manual, that handy, authoritative guide to afflictions major and minor. The Merck had no bedside manner, minced no words, softened nothing, and comforted never. Charlene’s mouth dried as she read the lists of diseases and symptoms: she had leprosy, she realized, in addition to glaucoma, trichinosis, acromegaly and, just possibly, sleeping sickness. She was riddled with tumors, all inoperable. Turning to the mental illness section, she identified her manic depressive psychosis, incipient schizophrenia and progressive megalomania.

Charlene’s two uncles, younger brothers of her father, attended medical school at the University of Minnesota. They would drop by sometimes to grab a lunch, stethoscopes swinging like whips from their necks, throwing around words like dextrinosis and saccharomycetaceae and Paget von Schrötter syndrome. At the arrival of these two family princelings, a cold chill would lift the hairs on the back of Charlene’s neck. What if they noticed her lesions? Her lassitude and malaise? She tried to breathe normally around them, but it still sounded like rales and stridor.

Usually, with time, the mundane issues of school and social life would distract her, and her fears would eventually fade or be replaced by others. In later years, though, she could see that she was only banking them up like glowing coals; they lay dormant but alive, awaiting their summons to erupt again.

Summer of Hydrophobia

For a hypochondriac, rabies just may be the perfect storm: rare but incurable, agonizing beyond belief, and capable of hiding in plain view. When it came to sheer horror, rabies rang the bell, thanks to the evolutionary genius of the rabies virus.

The disease (Charlene read, barely breathing) was usually spread by the bite of a mobile creature. The virus acts on the victim’s brain in such a way as to bring about, in dogs, for example—still overwhelmingly the commonest host—an irresistible urge to bite. As a child, she had sat weeping beside her friends in the theater at the fate of Old Yeller; the finest dog that had ever lived, transformed by rabies into a snarling death’s head, raging to destroy the boy who loved him. This evil metamorphosis was the work of the most cunning virus that had ever set its perfidious endoplasmic reticulum on planet earth.

Rabies, as Charlene learned, was actually a trio of deadly sisters who went by the elegant stage names Lyssavirus, Ephemerovirus and Vesiculovirus. With their non-segmented, negative-stranded RNA genomes, the sisters turned heads and dominated the red carpet at any danse macabre. Despite their age—thousands of years—they were eternally fresh and deadly, reliably contagious, forever renewing themselves.

On this particular summer, having made it through eighth grade, Charlene had joined her mother and younger sister for a summer visit to the mother’s own sister, who lived on Long Island.

The visit started benignly enough. Aunt Elinor had two daughters; the older daughter, who was the same age as Charlene, had recently adopted an amiable German Shepherd named Wolf, whom she had acquired from some unknown source. Strays were fairly common in what was then a semi-rural neighborhood.

Charlene, nearly five-feet-ten and as skinny as Olive Oyl, her detested nickname, loved dogs with the fierce, desperate love of the outcast, the misunderstood. And so It fell upon poor Wolf to provoke her worst ever episode of hypochondria.

It began with a teensy, nagging doubt. Did that hangnail on her thumb qualify as an open wound? It had bled, she recalled. She stared at the tender scab until her teeth began to chatter. And how about that blister she had just popped on her other hand? Another invitation to the Viral Sisters? She and Wolf had played catch with his saliva-drenched tennis ball; they had rolled about on the floor wrestling. They had shared snacks. Had the dog been vaccinated? Charlene tried to assure herself that he must have been, but her cousin seemed to be ignoring her tentative queries. She knew Charlene well, that particular cousin, and she was something of a sadist, not above tweaking Charlene’s anxiety just a little bit, with a teasing sidelong glance. “I would miss you if you died,” the cousin said with a sigh, and looked at Charlene with her pale blue eyes of infinite sadness.

“Please don’t die, okay?”

So Charlene tried to ignore the growing drumbeat: anyway, she knew that rabies had been nearly eradicated in the U.S. Practically. Nearly. Almost. So it was not impossible, but merely unlikely that she was infected. “Unlikely” sounded too much like a roll of the dice to offer much comfort. Lying alone in bed, Charlene’s efforts to reassure herself collapsed before the onslaught of full-fledged panic.

Confessing her fear to an adult would be a double whammy: not only would she not get the vaccine, but her distorted mental architecture would be exposed to all the world. Caught between these two dreaded outcomes, Charlene trembled through her dwindling time on earth.

As the incubation period and her lifespan shrank by the desperate hour, she still could not muster the nerve to tell anybody. She knew that the adults, with indulgent grins, would first try to reassure her. Charlene’s mother would use the opportunity to flog everyone with her daughter’s high reading level. She would explain to Charlene that she could not possibly have rabies and needn’t worry over such things for one more minute. Charlene would note the hint of warning in her voice that she had better not embarrass her mother any further in this preposterous way. Her mother and aunt together would dismiss Charlene’s anxiety—sealing her fate. Charlene pictured them at her bedside as she lay in restraints foaming and convulsing. “She tried to tell us,” they would wail. “We didn’t believe her.”

Somebody must have coaxed the fear into the open at last, and word quickly spread: Crazy Charlene was worried that Wolf was rabid. She quickly became a figure of welcome fun in a visit that had begun to grow dull.

That evening, Charlene’s cousin approached her, holding out a tepid glass of milk. “Here,” she said, with faux sweetness, “this will make you feel better.” Charlene grabbed the milk with rabid fury and hurled it across her cousin’s new canopy bed. The canopy was decorated with lilacs and green tendrils above a border of cotton lace; its beauty and feminine elegance were the wonder of the family. The ensuing fracas brought the two mothers running to see milk pooling in the center of the canopy and dripping from the posters onto the mattress. Charlene’s cousin widened her eyes to the absolute limit of innocence, insisting disingenuously that she had “only been trying to comfort” her frightened guest. Charlene the perpetrator, wounded and impotent, called her very own cousin a liar and a sadist.

Charlene’s mother set her chin and narrowed her eyes. Hopeless, Charlene realized that she alone was responsible for ruining the visit and abusing her family’s hospitality. That very night, she was packed up and shuttled off to the home of another relative, there to wait out her span on earth. “I forgive you, I hope you get well soon,” her cousin had whispered in her ear, as Charlene departed.

Sometime after the dreaded Day 14 had come and gone uneventfully, and back now in her own bedroom, Charlene awakened and looked around at the scuffed linoleum floors and faded blue walls. Her father’s chronically unstable business had left nothing in the budget for updating the decor of Charlene’s early childhood, so the wall still sported a series of painted wooden hangings: a footsore Cinderella racing home from the ball; her coach morphing back into a pumpkin—what if Cinderella got sealed inside, Charlene had always wondered—and the footmen sprouting disturbing mouse tails that bulged from their livery. Dr. Seuss characters capered mockingly across her curtains.

But the utter mental clarity that Charlene felt that morning told her, and for certain, that she was not rabid. In her relief, she grasped, vaguely, that such good fortune carried with it a sort of mandate that she rise and encounter the world that awaited her—today, and on Day Twenty, and even perhaps on Day Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Five. Whatever befell her in life, it would almost certainly not be rabies, which was, after all, only a guarantee that it would be something.

Prince

IMG_2894

PRINCE
By Brent Allen

His dad said it seemed warm, but it was spring and this would be a cool day in the fall. So James wore the jacket grandma O’Malley got him for Christmas, and his father wore the matching one she had bought for him. Grandma thought it was cute, but James thought it was dumb and his dad agreed, but they couldn’t tell grandma what they thought.

James held his father’s hand and thought about asking his dad to carry him, but he was too big now. That was what little kids did. He was still a kid, duh, but not a little kid.

Prince walked off the path sometimes, but he was older now and stayed closer to them than he had in the past. He loved the woods. James knew because Prince’s tail wagged like he was swatting flies.

James was huffing when they got to the clearing and the lake opened wide and far. His father let go of James’ hand and scrambled down the incline to the side of the lake. He put down the tackle and folding chairs, touched the water with his shoe, and turned back to James and opened his arms.

“I can do it,” James said.

“OK,” his father said, but James knew he was watching closely as he slid down the slope. He stopped at his father’s feet and let his father pull him up so he could brush off his pants. When his father told him they were clean enough and they were old jeans anyway, James stepped to the edge of the lake and touched the surface with his shoe.
“Maybe we could get a boat,” James said.
His father looked at Prince, and James said, “Oh.”
He didn’t do too well,” his father said.
“Remember how we lost some of the worms?”
“He almost tipped us over.”
James bent down and put his nose against Prince’s muzzle. His dog was panting after the climb down the slope.
“No boat,” James said. “It’s OK, Prince. We don’t need a boat.” When Prince tried to lick him, James fell backward and wiped his face with his sleeve.
“They’ll be biting today,” his father said. His father could always tell.
“I hope I get one this big,” James said, and he spread his arms wide.
“No whales in this lake,” his father said.
James laughed and wiped away Prince’s slobber some more.
He and his father prepared their hooks and his father reminded James how to toss the line. James held the button down and released it with a perfect, arcing, toss and his father said “Whoa, James, I can’t beat that,” and James was happy.

They talked about school and Miss Delacroix and how James liked being in her class. His father understood why James was pleased with his teacher and they laughed about that because James was old enough to understand when a woman was pretty. Miss Delacroix was very pretty.

Prince walked around them for a while, keeping close, sniffing the water and the bait, but he curled up next to the tackle boxes and fell asleep before they caught their first fish.

Prince was still sleeping when James felt the first nibble. His father had not noticed, and James jerked the line. It was too quick — he should have waited for more nibbles — but he set his hook.

“Nice job, son,” his father said. “That’s the way to do it. Reel it in slowly.”

“I know, dad,” James said. “Slowly. Slowly.” He wound the spool with the handle. “I think it’s big,” he said.

Prince had finally woken up and he watched James. For a second, James thought the fish had slipped the hook, but he felt it tug again and he reeled it in very slowly. His father got a nibble, too, but he lost the fish and reeled in his line. He slipped a nightcrawler on the hook and waited for James before he tossed the line.

“Got it under control?” his father said.

James nodded. “It’s close, but I don’t think it’s that big.”

His father tossed his line and let the bobber float while he watched James.

“I can see it,” James said. He reeled faster until the fish was out of water. It was a blue gill, and it was pretty big. Prince was interested and watched intently with his tail in a fierce wag.

“Let me take it off the hook,” his father said.

“I think I can do it.”

His father looked at him askew and nodded. It was a big moment. James held the fish tightly and slipped it off the hook without getting poked by the fins or the hook.

“You’re a regular pro, now,” his father said.

“James, one; Dad, zero,” James said, and they both laughed and Prince plopped down next to the tackle boxes and fell asleep again. James let his father slap the fish against a rock and gut it with the knife that had belonged to James’ grandfather.

“Someday, this will be yours,” his father said. James hoped it would be soon.

It was an hour before twilight before they were tired of fishing and talking. James had three to his father’s two and his father had promised a sundae on the way home for James’ victory. His father had caught a large bass and tried to change the rules to win by total weight, but James would not allow it, and his father conceded that it was number and not weight and he would have to correct that next time they came unless James caught a really big fish. They took four of the fish home to eat and Prince slept the whole way home.

II

It was the kind of hot that only the heart of summer can bring. James’ mother refused to cook inside, so his father grilled hamburgers in the back yard and drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon from a bottle. James’ mother held his baby sister Jessica and shuttled patties and cheese and buns to his father, who wore a big, dirty, apron that said “Please kiss the Grillmaster.”

Prince sauntered across the yard. He was older now and he coughed a lot and his dad said he would have to go to the vet soon if he didn’t get better. James watched as Prince toppled on his left side and James yelled “Dad!”

His father dropped a hamburger and the spatula on the grass and ran over to Prince and tried to get him up. James saw Prince cough up white froth tinged with red. The old dog whimpered. He had never done that before, and James was scared.

“Mary,” his father said. He motioned with his hands and James did not understand. But his mother returned with a bowl of water and his father took it and put it in front of Prince. When he did not move, James’ father poured some of the water on his teeth and Prince lapped at it a little. James’ father tried to help Prince up, but Prince whimpered again and started coughing.

“Oh, God, Mary,” his father said. “I’ve got to take him.”

“David —“

“Look at him.”

His father knelt down and picked Prince up. Prince whimpered at first, but he stopped by the time they got to the car and James’ mother opened the back door and James’ father put Prince on the seat. Jessica sucked on her bottle and watched. James got in the back seat with Prince and closed the door.

“Not today, buddy,” his father said. “You stay home with your mom and sister.”

“I want to go,” James said.

“No,” his father said.

“You don’t want me to see him…” James said. He could not bring himself to say “die.”

His father rested his head against the steering wheel.

“I don’t want you to see me,” he said.

Prince was leaking slobber on the back seat, but the red was gone. James did not move.

“He’s my dog,” James said. “I’m old enough.” James saw his mother looking at his father, and his father nodded and kissed her.

“I guess you are,” his father said, but his voice was weak and not like his father at all.

They were silent on the ride to the vet. Prince raised his head to sniff the wind, but he got too tired to keep it up. When the car hit a bump on the road, Prince whimpered, and then he fell asleep.

James’ dad pulled up in front of the vet’s office. It was an old white home with an addition where the vet operated on dogs. It needed a paint job and on the side by the surgery, flakes of dirty white paint littered the lawn.

“James, you go get us signed in.”

James kicked open the door and ran to the office. Kathy, his favorite attendant, was there and he spewed out a rush of words that made her face go sad.

“The doctor’s with someone, sweetie, but I’ll get him,” Kathy said. “Don’t you worry.”

James’ father arrived at the door and Kathy came from behind the desk and hugged James and went to get the doctor. His father was still holding Prince when Dr. Bob opened the door of the consultation room and motioned for James father to follow him to the surgery. An old woman with a cat in a cage watched them leave.

James’ father placed Prince on the floor because he couldn’t lift him on the observation table. He leaned against the wall and the doctor said it was OK, and that he should take a minute to catch his breath.

“We’ll just take a look right here,” he said.

James’ father nodded as his breathing slowed. He wiped sweat from his forehead and the top of his head. Dr. Bob looked in Prince’s eyes and his mouth and he tapped Prince’s swollen stomach. When he was done, he stood up and looked at James and his father said, “Go ahead.”

“There’s nothing I can do but put old Prince out of his pain,”

Dr. Bob said. “He’s had an incident.” He looked at James again and James’ father nodded his head.

“I’m surprised he made it this far,” Dr. Bob said.

“How long?” James’ father said.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” Dr. Bob said. “It’s time, David. It’s been coming and it’s here.”

“Let’s do it, then,” James’ father said. His voice that did not sound like him at all.

“Do you want James with you?”

“Yes,” his father said.

That’s when James cried. It was so stupid, but he stopped when the doctor came with the big needle and his father lay down next to Prince and stroked his head and told him it was all going to be all right. He was still wearing the apron that said “Please kiss the Grillmaster.” Dr. Bob sat down on the other side of Price and held his back leg and rubbed with his thumb until he found what he wanted. He put the needle in Prince, but Prince did not whimper.

“It will be quick,” Dr. Bob said. “A minute or so. He won’t feel a thing. He’ll go to sleep.”

“It’s all right, big guy,” James’ father said. James watched as Dr. Bob pressed his thumb to the back of the needle and pushed the contents into Prince’s leg until the needle was empty. Prince’s head moved slightly, and he rolled his eyes around and James was sure Prince was looking at him when his eyes stopped moving. James looked at his father, and sweat was running down his face, but when he looked at his dad again, the water came from his left eye and rolled down his cheek.

On the way out of the office, James held his father’s hand for the last time.

III

It was the kind of cold fall day that would be warm in the spring. James followed his father through the woods and they talked about Miss Delacroix and her upcoming marriage to Mr. Courtlen, a sixth-grade teacher. He had proposed in her class and James had been there and thought it all very stupid and even sad in a way he did not understand.

He did not tell his dad; there were some things he had to figure out on his own.

His dad let him scramble down the slope to the lake without offering to help. James brushed his pants off while his father bent down and touched the water’s edge. The lake was strangely placid for this time of the year and the waves were little ripples dying on the shore.

“We could get a boat,” his father said.

James touched the surface of the water, and then he and his father looked back into the woods for what seemed a long time, but it wasn’t. They prepared their lines and watched as the bobbers made little ripples on the water’s surface.

“Maybe next time, dad,” James said.

“Yeah,” his father said. “Maybe next time.”

Sa Belle-Soeur

IMG_2907Sa Belle-Soeur

Sivan Slapak

 

“Est-ce que mon beau-frère est venu?” Justine asks. She’s one of the oldest at the senior’s residence. They are twenty ladies, at various levels of dementia. For today’s Christmas party, they’ve had their hair and makeup done, by the matronly Russian cosmetician who’s booked for such occasions. When she’s done primping them, the aides gently herd the ladies to the sitting room to listen to the volunteer guitarists, who stumble through electric versions of holiday classics. The room of freshly-coiffed grey heads nod, waiting in anticipation. Then drift. And then return with a pleased jolt to notice the morning’s festive atmosphere, to be told again that it’s Christmas and that there will soon be visitors.

Oh yes, people are coming, they remember. Deep and blurry affection rises up as relatives arrive, colouring the residents’ cheeks when grandchildren they don’t quite recall lean over to kiss them.

Justine never married. A slight woman who favours wool cardigans and pleated skirts, she retains the air of shy compliance cultivated by the nuns of her schooldays. She still wears a wispy pageboy, and recently took to petting a stuffed toy cat, Nitouche, that she carries in the bag of her walker.

Jean-Pierre, her brother-in-law, is her last remaining family member, and doesn’t visit often. When he does, the aides on duty point subtly, knowingly. Demure Justine became much more animated in his presence, almost coquettish.

With the Christian staff on holiday for the week, the Muslim workers jump in to organize the party. “Eid Sa’id!” They wink rakishly at each other under elf hats atop hijabs, rolling out the Christmas bûche and mistletoe for their mainly French-Canadian Catholic residents.

“Why is her dry cleaning bill so high?” Jean-Pierre approaches Fatma, head of the floor, waving Justine’s account record at her. “She always wears the same thing when I visit. The same thing every day.”

“That’s absolutely not true.” Fatma doesn’t add that he only comes a few times a year, so how could he know what she wears? “She cares very much about her appearance.” She gestures over to Justine, sitting daintily in a tan-coloured suit.

“She doesn’t know what she’s wearing. She has Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t remember a thing!”

Fatma tsks, turns away. How to explain to this man that losing one’s memory doesn’t mean losing one’s sense of pride, of self. Not yet. The habits one gathers throughout a lifetime, of brushing one’s hair to a certain side, or a preferred colour. These things that together make up a personality. Or the desire to look pretty for one’s guests. And that Justine asked for her string of pearls when she was told Jean-Pierre would be visiting.

Justine and Jean-Pierre sit, shoulders touching, on the plastic-covered couch. Christmas rock now blares on the stereo, filling up the silence of the crowded room. Jean-Pierre in his loose jeans, Justine with legs crossed at the ankle like a schoolgirl. She smiles timidly and laughs when he leans in and makes a comment about the music. They’re surrounded by the other residents, their walkers and awkward family members. Jean-Pierre looks around, squeamish.

He pats Justine’s hand and she turns her head to him, their faces matching in paleness. Paper-thin translucent skin. He can see the pink rim of her eyelids behind her square glasses—the same style she’s worn since she was a teenager, when he’d met her as Agathe’s little sister. He squeezes her palm. Ma belle-soeur.

Fatma announces, at a senior-friendly decibel: “We want to thank our guests for coming today, and for bringing delicious food for our Christmas buffet! Everyone’s invited to partake!”

The aides begin to lead the ladies to the folding tables they’ve set with green plastic and red plates, poinsettias as centerpieces.

Justine takes a seat and glances around anxiously as the other ladies are maneuvered into chairs surrounding hers.

“Where is Jean-Pierre, my brother-in-law?”

Fatma sees him in the hallway, standing stiffly and gazing at the pictures of Christmas scenes the residents made in art class, cotton balls glued carefully to construction paper. Displayed on the bulletin board as though this is preschool, and not the railway station between home and death.

“He’s waiting till you finish eating, and then will rejoin you.”

Justine smiles in relief, raises her fork to pick at her salad.

Jean-Pierre takes in the room of seniors, wordlessly doddering over their Christmas lunch, while the guests hover over them. He can’t stand being here for another minute. He grabs his coat and quickly leaves, marching out into the chilly snowless afternoon.

Fatma doesn’t notice him go. She’s made bastillah, a Moroccan chicken dish, and is doling it out for the guests, who praise the fine pastry shell she decorated with cinnamon and almonds. She’s also brought her gold-embossed tea glasses, and fresh nana from home. It’s not my holiday, but this is my party too.

“Justine, would you like some tea?” She holds a smoky pink glass out to her.

“Non, merci. Ou est mon beau frère?” Justine asked, prying herself up from the table and leaning on her walker.

“I’ll go find him.”

Fatma hands the teapot to Hind and goes down the narrow hallway, peering into every room.

“Monsieur Fiquet? Jean-Pierre?” Perhaps he’s resting on the second floor, in Justine’s room?

Upstairs she finds Adel at a table with Madeleine, who’d become agitated and was led away from the party.

“No, I don’t want lunch. My husband is home waiting for me, and I need to eat with him. I don’t want to ruin my appetite, you know.”

“But just a bite, Madame Bonhomme.”

“No, he’ll be upset if we don’t eat together.” Madeleine gets up and stomps to her room.

Adel and Fatma exchange looks. Madeleine’s husband died three years earlier, a fact she often forgets.

“Adel,” Fatma switches to Arabic. “Where’s Jean-Pierre?”

“I saw him take his coat about twenty minutes ago. He left.”

Fatma’s eyes widen in dismay. She knows what Jean-Pierre would say if she called to confront him: ‘She won’t remember anyway, that I was there, or that I left.’

She feels his leaving settles something she’d suspected. He may be over ninety, but he still wears his clothes with casual finesse. Laugh lines etch his face in a way that affirmed his good looks from long ago, a knowledge he still carries. A man who was never careful with women’s emotions, she’s sure of it.

Justine sits on the plastic-draped couch again, her cardigan lank and her feet crossed. Her small face perks to attention every time someone enters the room.

“Who doesn’t know that expression?” Fatma thinks, putting a hand on her heart. I’ve known it, the hope and dread. I hate that man, she thinks, only vaguely acknowledging who she means.
“Est-ce que mon beau frère est revenu?” Justine asked Hind, who’s circling with homemade shortbread cookies, two per resident. Justine has pulled out Nitouche and perched him on her lap, strokes his ears lightly.

“Not yet. I’m sure he’ll come soon.”

Fatma remains in the kitchen, tsking, hoping Justine will soon forget he’d been there.

Jean-Pierre strides outside. It’s frigid but not slippery, thank goodness. Little Justine, now at that place. He’d married Agathe and loved her, enough anyway. Together for almost fifty years. They never had children, but the house was full of family.

Justine, la petite. He doesn’t know why she never married. Her primness, perhaps. Maybe she should have taken the veil after all, like they all used to joke.

But that one Christmas Eve, when he’d had too much wine at dinner and come into the kitchen to see her washing dishes at the sink. He’d wrapped his arms around her from the back, kissed her neck and then dropped his empty glass into the soapy water. He left the kitchen and never mentioned it again, nor did she. Warmed by the wine it was a passing urge, seemed the right response to the sight of her delicate nape, her hair bobbed neatly in the middle. Like Agathe’s.

And now Agathe is gone and Justine is tucked away, her mind fading fast. Perhaps a blessing. His own senility is seeping in like fog, but he still has enough lucidity to see what a ruin lies ahead for him too. The shuffling seniors, the forced revelry, the ammonia-scented floors.

No, he would rather preserve that recollection as long as he can. When he’d strayed into the kitchen looking for his wife, and found her apron tied around her sister’s slender back. The sweet longing, the heated adoration of those sealed seconds.

With the fear that his own memory is crumbling quickly into rubble, he doesn’t want to impose sad new images on this fragile wistfulness, doesn’t yet want to say goodbye to that lovely young girl. His belle-soeur.

Justine lifts her hand to smooth her hair, touch her pearls. Jean-Pierre is coming to the Christmas party today. She turns her head to the side, hiding a trembling smile.