Issue 8.1

Al

By Raymond Abbott

I got a call today from a boyhood friend named Tom, and he mentioned in passing the death of another school chum’s mother.  Our friend’s name was David, and his mother had caught a virus and, at age eighty, had died in a matter of days.  My mind immediately went to thoughts of Al, who used to spend a lot of time at this woman’s house when her husband was away.  The husband worked for the gas and electric company.  I remember the woman as being quite attractive and young-looking.  She was a nurse, but I guess she and her husband worked different hours.

Not every day, but often, Al’s car could be seen parked in front of her house.  The problem with this was that the house was directly across the street from our elementary school, and that meant David, who was about eleven years old, was well aware of the car parked at his house for several hours.  Of course the rest of us saw it too, students, teachers and staff at the school.  At the time I figured this all must have made David a little uncomfortable, though I never brought the subject up.

At the time, I thought Al seemed old; he must have been in his late forties, which from my perspective now, is young.  He was rather tall and slim, and had white hair, and his looks seemed average, neither handsome nor homely.  But he definitely had something women wanted.

I had heard Shirley Tucker say Al must have a whopper of a penis on him to attract the women the way he did, married women, too, almost all of them.  Shirley was the wife of the luncheonette’s owner, where I worked in high school.  I bussed, washed dishes, took orders, and made change; the place was just big enough to have one counter, that was it.  In those days long ago, making change required more out of you—you actually had to figure it out, unlike the electronic registers today that tell you exactly what to hand the customer.  But that’s a lost skill now, at least among the youth.

Al worked at the restaurant some, too.  He was married himself, and had four or five grown children, daughters mostly.  And his wife stayed with him all of his life, in spite of his renown as a philanderer.  Shirley was not one of the women in town seduced by Al’s charms.  It so happened that she died young with a brain tumor.  But Shirley had absolutely no use for Al.

In the beginning, Al worked at the luncheonette only evenings, after his full-time day job selling insurance.  For some reason, he was fired from the day job, and then went to work for Freddie pretty much full-time.  Must be something about insurance men and sex, because I knew another philandering insurance man when I was a kid.  His name was Pete, and he was an Italian fellow, a spiffy dresser and a big talker.  He screwed about anything that walked, and even bragged about it to the teenage kids around and about.

One story I heard about Pete was that once he was in bed with a client of his, and she fell asleep after they made love, so Pete left.  The woman’s husband came home unexpectedly early and found her in bed alone.  He tapped her on the shoulder to ask if she was ill, whereupon she answered in a sleepy voice,

“Oh no, not again, Pete!”  I don’t know how she explained those words to her husband, or how Pete got out of that jam.  In fact, I don’t know how either Pete or Al managed to avoid a bullet to the brain from a distraught husband, but neither died violently.  Matter of fact, I believe Pete is now retired and living in Florida.  Al is long gone.

Shirley Tucker, for her part, had good reason to loathe Al, because Al was “doing” Shirley’s brother’s wife regularly, and everybody in town seemed to know it.  I certainly had heard the story.  At sixteen, I was working several evenings, plus Saturdays in the restaurant.  Sometimes I was on with Shirley, and Al would be there for the same shift with us.  Shirley would say to me,

“Look at that dreamy-eyed bastard.  He’s in a world of his own.”  And he often was.  Men liked to say of Al that he was in love constantly.  To get him to wait on you if you were a man and there was a woman in the place was next to impossible.

How it was that Shirley’s brother Robert didn’t hear of Al’s exploits, well, I just don’t know.  But somehow he didn’t.  Indeed, Robert was friendly and cheerful with Al in the restaurant, and of course, Al reciprocated.  I guess you could say Al was especially responsive to men whose wives he was poking.  There is really no other explanation.  It was as if Al and Robert were great buddies and might even go gunning together in New Brunswick (where my father also liked to hunt deer).

One evening Al was at the end of the counter where his conversation couldn’t be overheard, exuding charm over a woman who was buying some over-the-counter medicine.  Shirley said to me, knowing that I knew everything,

“I said to Freddie that I ought to tell my brother what’s going on.  He’s being made a fool of.  But Freddie says I should mind my own business.  I guess I should.  But it galls me something terrible!”

About the only woman Al didn’t almost break a leg to wait on was a certain young woman of about twenty who would come in with her boyfriend.  She appeared to be slow-witted, and suffered from riotous acne on her face.  Her companion was a loud, stupid-acting fellow, and he always insisted on being waited on by Shirley, if she was there.  They would order a plate lunch, or maybe just a hamburger.  When they finished he would inevitably say to Shirley,

“Shirl, I need a package of Trojans.  Wets, please.”  And he practically hollered this out.  So Shirley would go and get him his skins, as we called them, and plop them ceremoniously in front of him on the counter next to his dinner plate.  All the while, the young acne-infected woman next to him would giggle.

“That guy gets me,” Shirley would say later, with a shake of her head.  “He does that all the time, you know.  Orders his rubbers after he eats, and in front of a full counter.  He must get some kind of kick out of it.  Why doesn’t he go around the side and order them the way other people do, for God’s sake?  He could order them from the dreamer, from Lover Boy.”  She meant Al.  She spoke with plenty of anger as she lighted up a smoke.

I often wondered what Shirley would do if Al hit on her.  She was an attractive woman herself, tall and well-built, solid and muscular, with nice legs.  She was probably in her late thirties.  She had dark hair and a rather attractive face, save for the buck teeth that gave her a slight horsey look.  But I didn’t feel comfortable asking how she might handle Al, even in jest.  The thought did enter my mind, but I feared that she might blow up at me, even if I asked it in a kidding way.  We weren’t that familiar, although sometimes she talked frankly to me speculating about Al’s male endowment, which made me feel rather grown up.

Al drove a Plymouth that was an offbeat shade of green, and was easy to pick out from other vehicles.  But if that was not enough to get him noticed, he had a small numbered plate.  I think it was Massachusetts plate number 36.  In those years, and maybe today, too, a small number indicated political connections.  I can’t imagine Al knew anybody high up in state government, although he might have.  More likely, however, it was his wife who was somewhat active (not in the way Al was, of course), and may have known the ropes enough to request such a plate.

Now you would think that Al, with all his shenanigans, would not want to use such a conspicuous vehicle.  It was almost as if he wanted the entire town to know what he was up to.  His car was routinely seen in out-of-the-way places in our town.  The abandoned railroad tracks, for example and the old mill pond region.  They were places you could go to neck and make out and do all that follows.  I don’t know if Al knew he was being observed, but he was.

How he could get these young women to go with him (and they were frequently much younger than he was), was a mystery, unless you believe Shirley’s theory that he had oversize equipment on him.  Or, more likely, perhaps it was his winning charm, along with expert technique.  I do not know, but I do know this much.  There was never any coercion on the part of Al.  The women went willingly enough.  He wasn’t, as I said, a bad looking guy, slim and boyish, and he had a sparkling smile (the teeth of which may not have been his own).  Nevertheless, the trysts with many women happened, and it happened a lot.

It is difficult to describe Al’s personality, because he was obviously uncomfortable around men, and spoke to them infrequently.  Only when words were needed, in the work situation, mostly.  Ah, but let there be a halfway attractive woman on the premises, and he blossomed like a flower in spring.  Suddenly all smiles, animated as can be, and gabby as a schoolgirl.  He lit up in the presence of women, and he usually took them around the end of the lunch counter where they could talk and not be overheard.  He definitely liked women, no question about it.

All we would hear were his frequent bursts of laughter, something we never heard otherwise.  I don’t recall him laughing at anything while in the company of men.  He might tolerate a funny joke and offer a weak smile at the punch line, but he would never offer to tell a joke to a gang of men.

I don’t know exactly when it was that I became aware that Al was paying special attention to Eddie Dansik’s wife, Ellen.  She was only about twenty, not bad looking, slim and bubbly, with wild-looking frizzy dirty blond hair, and she liked to laugh.  Eddie Jr. was in his mid-twenties, a car mechanic who worked in the garage across the street.  He was a hard worker, not awfully smart academically.  But he had gone to trade school and could fix your car well enough.

I guess Al used his charm with Eddie’s young wife, and soon word got around that she and Al were going out on the sly.  I know I saw the two of them often chatting for long periods of time at the end of the counter, for so long a time, in fact, it was noticed by Freddie.  And he didn’t notice much.  Sometimes the situation got so excessive that Freddie would holler, “Al, we got customers,” which always annoyed Al in a big way as he returned to his work station and immediately banged dishes around, glum and sullen, for an hour or two.

For Al to be “doing” Ellen, while still fooling around with Shirley’s brother’s wife, was not his usual custom.  This put him at greater risk for trouble, but maybe he didn’t care, or was willing to take the chance.  I sometimes wonder if Shirley didn’t have a part in what actually happened, a part in alerting Eddie Sr. as to what was going on.  It could have happened that way, but I have no evidence that it did.  Shirley would have happily played such a role, given the opportunity.  No doubt about that.

However it happened, Eddie Sr. soon learned of Al’s more-than-passing- interest in his son’s new wife.  Eddie Sr. was normally a good-natured man.  Always wearing a smile on his face, he was fun to be around, and a bit of a jokester.  I liked him a lot.  He was a wiry little man, but solid in build.  He too was an auto mechanic, but unlike Al, Eddie Sr. was a much more physical man.  Indeed, I believe in his past he had done some amateur lightweight boxing.  He was short like my father, by the way, but where my father was fair, Eddie was dark, swarthy.  My guess is that he was Italian.

I remember him once telling me, in an admiring way, how he had witnessed my dad clean out a barroom in a fight.  I liked hearing that as a boy, even though I knew by age sixteen that my father spent altogether too much time in saloons for his own good.  And ours.

Eddie Sr. came into Freddie’s with less frequency than did his son.  Al had to be there some of the time both Eddies were there, but I never heard angry words between any of them.  But that didn’t mean Eddie Sr. didn’t have plans for Al, for he surely did.

Somehow, Eddie Sr. learned where it was that Al liked to take his women, to the old railroad bed.  This was, in fact, general knowledge to most of us.  It was at this remote place that Eddie found Al and Ellen together, or maybe it was that he was lying in wait for them there, sitting in the shadows where he could not be seen.  I can only imagine the words that were spoken that night.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing out here with my son’s wife?” And from a frightened Al,

“We’re just talking, Eddie.  Really, we are.”

Meanwhile, Al would be hastily trying to pull up his trousers, and Ellen covering herself as well.  And with just that little amount of conversation, Eddie Sr. hauled Al from that vehicle and gave him a thorough thrashing.  Al’s face for a long time after that featured colorful bruises.  He could not avoid going to work and being confronted with questions as to how he got hurt.  Most of those who asked the questions already knew the answer.  But they asked just the same, and often.  I never heard Al answer any of the queries.  He just walked away.

It was rumored, and I could never substantiate it, that Al also suffered injuries to the area of his genitals.  Nothing permanent, or so the story went, but mighty painful, just the same.  It was the kind of injury one might get from a heavy work boot-clad foot being thrust in just the right groin location.

Curious thing about all of this.  I don’t believe Eddie Jr. every heard about any of this, or if he did, he never let on.  I do know that I never again saw Ellen set foot in the restaurant, at least not while I was there.

As for Al, you can be sure that he never went near that young woman again.  Beyond that, little else about Al can be determined, except that in his role as a server in the luncheonette, he could not escape having to wait on both Eddies.  Often, there was no other choice.  He avoided doing this whenever he could by disappearing into the back room so that someone else had to wait on them.

Eddie Sr., for his part, acted nonchalantly, as if nothing at all had ever passed between them.  But when Al had to take his money for the meal and give him change, I could detect a hardening grimace in the muscles around Eddie’s mouth.  He would take the change given him and stuff it in his pants pocket and leave without a word to anyone.

I don’t know if Freddie the owner knew the entire story, but I suppose he must have, because his wife Shirley certainly knew every dot and tittle of it.  I watched her disappear a time or two when she and Al were on duty alone and Eddie Sr. was about to pay his check.  She would immediately go into the unisex rest room, and in so doing Al would have to deal with Eddie Sr. alone, uncomfortable though it might have been for him.

I never saw Shirley smile wickedly as she made her hasty exit, but I like to believe in that back room alone where she couldn’t be seen or heard, she broke out in almost uncontrollable laughter.

 

——————–

Raymond Abbott is from New England but has lived in Louisville, Kentucky for many years. His stories and essays have appeared in the Journal of Kentucky Studies, the North American Review, Creative Non Fiction, Georgetown Review and a few other magazines. Some years ago he published in New York a contemporary American Indian novel entitled, That Day in Gordon. Gordon is now out of print. Abbott once lived on a South Dakota reservation.

The Ring Jar

By Max Bakke

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about singles.

Not Cameron Crowe’s “Singles.” Or base hits, tennis, seven-inch records, or shots of whiskey and espresso. I’ve been thinking about the $1 bill, those scraps of mostly green paper that take up space in your pocket or wallet until an acceptable vending machine, parking meter or g-string can be found.

I’ve been thinking about these singles because I’ve started saving them in a jar next to the sink in my kitchen. Someday, the money in that jar is going to buy an engagement ring for my girlfriend, and so I’m also thinking a lot about what it means to be single, too.

I’ve read that you should save singles because you’ll never miss them. Those two or three bucks at the end of the day will just burn a hole in your pockets, people say, and you might as well put them to good use by stowing them away for something bigger. But they’ve come in handy when I’ve needed coffee a bag of potato chips, or to play those great Internet jukeboxes.

It’s going to take a while to buy an engagement ring one dollar at a time, but that’s probably a good thing. That kind of unhurried pace gives you a lot of time to think about what you want, and what’s left to do, before you stop being a “single person” and become someone’s “fiancé” or “husband.”

It’s not that I’m afraid to lose my freedom, or want to continue to sow my wild oats. I’m set. I always want to know what my girlfriend thinks. About everything. She’s eternally patient with me; and I’ve figured out that hanging out with her every night is better than hanging out with anyone else anywhere else.

When I say there are there’s a lot to do, I’m talking about figuring out how to find the courage to tackle issues head on rather than avoid them, and take better care of myself, physically and emotionally.

As a single guy, I’ve always lived in fear, of everything, really—fear that I’d be cheated on, fear that I’d be hurt, fear that I’d be left, fear of being exposed as someone fearful. It’s like walking around all day waiting for a sucker punch that never comes.

But why? It could be posttraumatic stress from being emotionally water boarded in previous relationships. Whatever the reasons, the paranoia and mistrust are so strong that like clockwork, every time I start to feel comfortable, and dare I say, happy, there’s always a little voice that whispers in my head: “Don’t get used to this—it’s not going to last.”

You can waste a lot of time waiting for that punch; the waiting can take various forms. I’ve avoided certain restaurants or coffee shops, just to avoid an ex. I’ve avoided music that makes me feel a certain way. I’ve tried to will my phone to text back just so I can fill the pause in the conversation with something other than my own panic. I’ve read enough into simple Google chat conversations to convince myself to prepare for the worst.

When you’re single you can be selfish. You can spend days binge-watching Orange is the New Black, wandering Skyrim, listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town on repeat or, if you’re like me, worrying. It’s easy hide from problems, and delay the decisions that nag you forever when you’re single.

But in a relationship, that’s not an option. I’ve realized that worrying about the worst that can happen is a surefire way to trigger something that will bring it on sooner. And all that worrying is exhausting.

So when I drop those dollars into the jar, it’s a daily reminder of all that things that I need to give up so that, when that day comes, when I finally pony up all that cash for that ring, and see her (I hope!) smile when I show it to her.

I’ll be able to enjoy it.

And what will happen if, God forbid, this relationship doesn’t work out? At least I’ll have that jar, as a reminder not that I was right all along, but that it’s indeed possible to give it all up. And all those dollar bills will probably get me a sweet new home stereo.

 

——————–

Max Bakke is a writer and freelance journalist specializing in pop culture, lifestyle and above all else, himself. He lives in New Haven, CT, with an ever-expanding record collection.

Yesterday’s Thief

By DA Cairns

It was exactly like walking in to an air conditioned room on a stinking hot day. A faint lemongrass fragrance casually floated in the air bringing the kind of peaceful comfort which only comes when one feels safe, fortified and impervious. A sense of well being which is tangible, soft like your favourite pillow. I was home at last. I was finally back where I belonged. Sadly, the euphoria of my triumphant homecoming was not matched by any signs of sincere and enthusiastic welcome. I may, in fact, have exaggerated or imagined those feelings.

I walked into Parry’s and ordered a chocolate milkshake for old time’s sake. I wasn’t gong to drink it all though because I had developed a slight intolerance to lactose which would wipe out the pleasure of the rich sweet flavored milk faster than I could expel an appreciative belch. The old guy who served me was as familiar as the retro signage on the shopfront which proudly declared that Parry’s was a milk bar. The hard seat beneath me was as rigid as the day it arrived from the factory. Everything about this place reeked of resistance. Resistance to change. Resistance to the inevitable and relentless forward march of time. It was as though Parry’s neither feared the future, or believed in it.

My walk home from school had always been via Parry’s for a milkshake and a side order of skylarking. That was before we discovered Sned’s pinball arcade and swapped milkshakes for cold cans of Coke from the temperamental vending machine inside that dingy upstairs fun parlour. The torrent of memories nearly drowned me as I sipped my milkshake. The battles I had fought against the Pinball Champ. Would I have lasted at school as long as I did without these old haunts, and my friends? I missed them now. They weren’t here. They hadn’t come home. Why had I? What was I doing here?

I heard the quiet and was surprised by it, and by the realization that I had only just noticed it. There were others in Parry’s. A group of teenage girls in short skirts and tight, half unbuttoned blouses were talking softly, almost whispering. A heavily tattooed man sat staring at his mobile phone as though engaged in telepathic communication with it. A woman, surrounded by shopping bags and wearing a mask of tired indifference sipped a coffee. I remembered there used to be a jukebox in the corner of Parry’s so I turned and was reassured to see it sitting, hunched in the corner like a broken relic. It too was silent.

‘Hi!’

Startled, I looked up and saw a pretty face which instinctively made me smile. I recalled working on the art of the non threatening smile when I realized that staring usually made the objects of my visual affection uncomfortable. The distance between an interested glance and a leer was not as far as I had once thought it was. When an attractive woman caught my eye and she busted me ogling her, I wanted to convey warm and innocent admiration, not lust. I figured a smile was the best way to do that. The jury was still out on the effectiveness of this approach.

‘Hi to you,’ I replied.

‘May I sit down?’

She spoke quietly as though fearful of being overheard. I simply maintained my smile and gestured for her to sit. I confess to being unnerved by her conspiratorial tone as she spoke.

‘Are you visiting Caringbah?’

I had travelled a lot since my high school days in the Shire. I’d spent time in the Phillipines, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia, and I lived in Hawaii for a year. In each of those places, I stood out like a shag on a rock as someone who was obviously from somewhere else. I had been asked this question many times but I found it strange in this context. Why would this woman assume I was a visitor of some sort? Caringbah was not a tourist hotspot. In fact, it was barely on the map. Known to locals but offering nothing at all to attract sightseers other than the Camelia Gardens, it was merely a suburb outsiders might pass through on their way to the beaches at Cronulla.

‘Sort of.’

The woman’s smile faded as though I had offended her with my deliberately guarded response. I was beginning to wonder if I wanted the conversation to continue. A creeping disquiet was intruding.

‘I haven’t seen you here before. That’s all.’

That’s all, what? Perhaps I had met the local busybody. The one who made everyone else’s business her own, but stickybeaks were usually partially fossilized retirees with nothing better to do with their time. I decided I didn’t want to talk to her anymore.

‘Excuse me,’ I said as I stood, ‘I have a meeting.’

‘Where?’

The woman followed me out of Parry’s and onto the Kingsway. ‘Can I help you?’ I asked, hoping to convey my displeasure.

She came closer and I recoiled instinctively. ‘You should keep your voice down,’ she said. ‘And if I were you, I’d forget about that meeting of yours and just go back to wherever you came from.’

‘I grew up here. I went to Caringbah High and lived in Ultimo Street. I’m from here but thanks for the advice.’ I concentrated on removing any residual trace of friendly tolerance from my voice. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me.’ I turned away from her and hoped like hell that she would give up on me.

After crossing the road, I turned left and walked past the Westpac bank where I had made my first ever withdrawal of cash from an ATM. Back then they were a marvel. An exciting novelty. Now they were mundane, courtesy of their ubiquity. The book store next to the bank was decorated with overflowing boxes on trestles which offered a diverse selection of cut price books which presumably no one wanted. There were customers inside the store but no sound emanated from within. I glanced back across the road. The nosy woman was watching me, no doubt now aware that I had lied about having to rush off to a meeting. That mattered to me. I shook my head, disappointed with myself.

Rifling through the collection of books, I found a copy of A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, and  subsequently hurried inside to purchase it. When I handed it over to the assistant, he stared at the book as though he didn’t know what it was. In the awkward and pregnant silence that followed, he laid his palm on the cover and gently stroked it. Without looking at me, he said, ‘This book is not for sale.’

‘Pardon me,’ I said, not sure if I had heard him correctly.

In that same low disconcerting tone that the busybody at Parry’s had used, the man repeated himself.

‘It was out the front in a box with other discounted books,‘ I protested. ‘It’s got a price on it and I want to buy it.’

The man slowly removed the book from the counter and placed it underneath the register. He finally looked at me, and I was temporarily lost for words as I tried to read his expression. It was he, not I, who spoke next.

‘Sorry.’

I continued to stare at him in mute incredulity.

‘Are you visiting Caringbah?’

I left immediately and once outside, I thoroughly examined the shopping strip. Twenty years had passed since I last stood on the Kingsway. Most of the shops were the same. St. George Bank. Soul Pattinson chemist. Kodak. Thanhs Bakery. The Post Office. The footpaths had not been repaired or upgraded. No new trees had been planted nor any obviously removed. The street furniture was as I remembered it. Physically, Caringbah had not changed but clearly there was something funny about the place. Something not quite right. Dissonance ballooned.

At the takeaway place, I was suddenly hungry so I ordered a hamburger with the lot. I assumed the management had changed as I didn’t recognize any of the staff, and although I recalled that these burgers were never as good as those from Lady Hill takeway, I needed to eat.

‘We don’t make hamburgers with the lot,’ said the sour-faced fishwife behind the counter.

I looked up at the menu board. ‘According to that,’ I said, as I pointed, ‘You do.’

The woman glared at me as though I was accusing her of lying. I actually was. Stubbornly, I repeated my order, ‘A hamburger with the lot please.’

She was in the process of shaking her head to deny my request for a second time when a man with a bushy moustache and a grease stained apron stretched over his pot belly, joined us. If his smile was intended to be conciliatory, it didn’t come across that way. He asked if he could help so I repeated my order and explained the discrepancy between the menu and the conviction displayed by the fishwife. My sarcasm missed its mark.

‘Are you visiting Caringbah?’

‘Why does everybody keep asking me that?’

The man raised his hands palms facing me and said, ‘You should keep your voice down, and unless you want to change your order, I suggest you leave.’

Had I realized the danger I was in, the perilous mire into which I was sinking, I would have fled. I had been in threatening situations before: traversed unsafe territory like dark alleys in Bangkok, and lonely forest tracks in Northern Luzon. I had taken risks which now, with the benefit of wisdom which only comes from time, I would avoid like the plague. But my back was up. An image of my dog, Taz, popped into my mind. His fur raised along his back like a fin as he battled our other dog for the right to the remaining food in his bowl. A primal defensive instinct had been aroused in me, as in him, and rather than being frightened, I felt enraged.

Mustering control, I acceded to the man’s request and lowered my voice. ‘What sort of hamburgers do you make here?’

‘We don’t make any sort of hamburgers for visitors,’ said the sour faced woman.

‘All right, what’s going on here?’ My foot stamped the floor without my permission and with similar willfulness my hands found their way to my hips. ‘I can’t buy a book I want. I can’t get a hamburger and everyone keeps asking me if I’m a visitor. Don’t you get many strangers around here?’

The impassive expressions on their faces indicated they weren’t going to oblige my desperate curiosity with answers, so I left. As I stood on the footpath staring at nothing, trying to make sense of what was happening, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was then I became aware that everyone in the takeaway store was ogling me. I ignored the tapping but it persisted.

‘We don’t see many strangers around here,’ said the tapper. ‘It makes us wonder if you are a visitor.’

‘Visitor. Stranger. Traveller. What’s the difference? What’s the big deal?’

The question was apparently nonsense to my interlocutor. Then it dawned on me. Ridiculous as it sounded, I had to ask. ‘Do you mean a capital V visitor? Like from outer space?’

Non-plussed, he remained standing by my side until another man sidled up, and very quietly suggested that the former shut up before he got everyone into trouble. There was no attempt on the second man’s part to exclude me from this warning. The two of them turned from me and walked back into the takeaway joint. Certain as I was that it would be a waste of time to ask, I nevertheless posed the question.

‘Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on? Why do you want to know if I’m a visitor, and what do you mean by visitor?’

My demand for information was greeted by a synchronized turning of human backs and brutal silence. Thus rejected, I walked south along the Kingsway until I reached the newsagent where I entered and selected a bottle of water from the fridge. Although pleasantly surprised when the lady behind the counter accepted my money and politely thanked me for my custom, I was still agitated by the events of the last hour of my life. I had almost been compelled to return here against my will, driven by some no doubt misplaced nostalgic drive to make this trip to Caringbah. After all, I had stolen magazines from this newsagent by concealing them inside newspapers.  I had a strong connection to this place but no solid plans for this homecoming, nor any satisfactory reasons why it was necessary. There was nothing definite in my mind about what should or should not happen, about what I would do or where exactly I would go. Although I was hoping to see some old familiar faces wandering the streets, going about their business, that didn’t strike me as crucial. I was frustrating myself. I expected it to feel good and it had felt great until that conversation in Parry’s. I replayed the sequence in my mind. Fast forwarding and rewinding, pausing, struggling to piece it all together. There was obviously something about my appearance that marked me as an alien, but how could that be when I looked basically the same as everyone else. Maybe I smelled different.

A reasonably comfortable looking bench presented it itself so I sat down and continued my musings. With my head back and mouth open, I was pouring cool water down my throat when someone joined me.

‘Are you visiting Caringbah?’

I swallowed and then waited. My new friend’s inquisitive eyes were burning a hole in my cheek by the time I answered.

‘I’ll tell you if you tell me why you want to know.’

He glanced over his shoulder, then up and down the length of the Kingsway. His furtive actions reminded me of a rat sneaking out to feed in the family kitchen after the lights had gone out. At any moment someone could return and then it would have to scurry back to the darkness of the hole in the wall from whence it had cautiously ventured.

‘We don’t get many visitors here.’

‘No kidding.’

‘The thing is…’ he broke off to do more surveillance but I was growing impatient.

‘Stop doing that,’ I said. ‘And if you have something to say, then for God’s sake, say it will you!’

‘We’re all sort of waiting for someone to come and…’

‘I told you to stop doing that,’ I said. ‘It’s annoying. Waiting for someone to come and what?’

He leaned so close to me I could feel his breath whistling in my ear. ‘We’re waiting for someone to come and let us out.’

‘What?’

‘Some of us have been talking and we think we are stuck here.’

I didn’t know what to say. Plainly, I had encountered the town loon. Some poor unfortunate schizophrenic who was off his medication and generously sharing his paranoid delusions with anyone who would listen, and probably to everyone else within earshot as well. I sipped my water. Once. Twice. Stalling. Hoping he would get bored and go away.

‘And another thing,’ he continued, in exactly the same hushed fearful tone that appeared to function as a defacto local dialect. ‘We can’t seem to get to tomorrow, and somebody stole yesterday.’

I looked at my watch. Studied it. I didn’t like watches but a girl I met in Malaysia had given it to me. At the time I thought she was proposing but I was mistaken, and forced to humbly accept the watch as a token of her appreciation and friendship. This sudden and unnatural fixation upon my watch failed to deter my new friend. Maybe if I was nice to him, and played along with his nonsensical little fantasy about the thief of yesterday, he would leave me alone and give me a token of his affection. I wondered what one earth he might be able to offer me apart from his departure.

‘Is it working?’

‘Huh?’

‘Is your watch working? Is it keeping time?’

‘Damn,’ I said, as I stared in disbelief at the frozen seconds hand. The time read three past two in the afternoon. I couldn’t remember exactly when I had arrived in Caringbah, but that was pretty close.

‘I think you’ve probably been here too long already,’ said the man.

I detected sadness in his voice and for a moment I couldn’t breathe as a vice tightened around my chest. When it passed, I exhaled violently as though I had been trying to break a breath holding record. Trying to breathe normally proved futile and panic was rising.

‘It doesn’t hurt. Don’t worry. Stay calm. There’s no point getting all worked up.’

It was more comforting than I would have imagined possible but his large hand on my shoulder mollified my anxiety. I drank some water and turned to look at him.

We sat in silence as I continued to recover my senses. My surroundings meandered back into focus, and someone loosed the jaws of the vice which had imprisoned me with terror. I observed the cars parked along the street and how dirty they appeared. I hadn’t noticed that earlier. As I waited and watched, no one returned to their vehicles and no new cars arrived searching for parking. In fact, nothing was moving. There were no cars passing nor any pedestrians. I couldn’t understand how I had missed all of this detail before, or had it only just started.

‘I can’t remember,’ he answered. ‘No one here in Caringbah remembers anything. It’s like I said. Somebody stole all our yesterdays.’

‘That’s not possible.’

‘Possible or not possible, it is the way it is,’ said the man.

‘Why aren’t you whispering anymore? A minute ago, you acted as though you could be jumped at any moment by some secret police force.’

His laugh was disturbing. Humourless and cold. ‘We spend a lot of time discussing the problem of visitors,’ he conceded when he finally pulled himself together. ‘Some say we should embrace them. Welcome them to our community and help them to adjust to our unusual situation. Others want to ignore visitors completely, while another group wants to warn them and try to save them before it’s too late.’

Everything he said gelled with my experiences in Caringbah. I had met representatives of each of those groups. My current companion was clearly in the welcoming group. With time apparently on strike, I relaxed a little and allowed the full story, or as much of it as could be told, to be unfurled for my education.

‘The problem is,’ he continued, ‘is that we never know who will stay or who will go. There’s no way for us to tell whether we should be accepting visitors, shunning them, or threatening them in order to scare them off. Some stay and some go but we have no control over that. It’s got nothing to do with us and we can’t tell if what we do makes any difference.’ He shook his head. ‘You can see the problem right?’

‘My watch has stopped,’ I said. ‘So does that mean that I am staying. That I’m stuck.’

‘I just told you I don’t know. I can’t tell. None of us can tell.’

‘So I have to just to wait and see. When will I know if I’m to become a permanent Kingsway shopping strip fixture, or not?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What do you mean you don’t know? Where are you going?’

‘I need to stretch my legs.’

He shook out each leg as though trying to dislodge small parasitic creatures, then straightened his back and rolled his head around slowly.

‘So you don’t know when you became a permanent resident?’

‘Walk with me,’ he said, dismissing my question like he hadn’t even heard it. He ambled away southbound along the Kingsway’s footpath, and after a moment of deliberation, I followed him. ‘Why did you come here?’

‘I’m from here. I grew up here.’

‘Sentimental suction.’

I smiled, which struck me as bizarre and inappropriate given my circumstances. ‘Something like that. I’ve been wandering around for a long time, drifting restlessly, purposelessly.  Looking for something without knowing what. Never being able to settle. The last place I felt like I really belonged was here but it isn’t at all what I remembered, what I expected. I mean it felt nice at the start but the romance faded faster than the stench of cheap perfume. Caringbah looks the same but it feels very different. I guess trying to recapture the past is a wild goose chase.’

‘Not to mention the fact that you’ve stumbled into a…’

We stopped walking simultaneously. Countless eyes assaulted us. The quiet intensified. The air felt as thick as soup, like a terrible thunderstorm was about to crash upon us. The man placed his hand gently on my shoulder, prompting me to keep walking. I could feel blood draining from my face, taking consciousness with it, peeling away my life, layer by layer. A frightening lightness enveloped me and I staggered. The concrete rushed to greet my face in a game of chicken I had not agreed to play. I was powerless to turn way, too weak to stop, to protect myself.

Dragging myself from the blackness which had swallowed me, I cautiously climbed to my feet. I was standing beside my car, in the carpark behind the Go-Lo discount store. I was thirsty but intuition advised me to get in my car and drive to buy a drink elsewhere. Driving west along President Ave, I took deep breaths to calm my nerves. I was trembling as I observed a sign coming up fast on my left. It announced that I was entering Miranda and when I passed it, I could no longer remember a single thing about my visit to Caringbah. I had fallen prey to yesterday’s thief.

 

——————–

D.A. Cairns is married with two teenagers and lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He is the author of three novels, and has had around 40 short stories published.

The Ghost of My Ancestors

By Maryam Chahine

Go back to your country! You don’t belong here.”

The threat sliced the stillness. Yet I never lifted my head to see who had wielded such a noisy knife, for I knew all too well who it was already, a woman who couldn’t care less for crisp mornings such as this. Minding my own business as usual, but this woman minded that I was Muslim. I don’t know that I could have minded my business any farther than my backyard. The scene composed of me and my next door neighbor, hanging her confrontation and heavy gun over the fence between us.

Quiet, reserved and harmonious describe me. I was anything but that at that very moment. I gave my pants a decided couple of slaps to shed the dirt and weeds from them.

I stood up to my five feet and four inches – all of it – but not quite enough for my neighbor who was a good six inches taller. To make up for what I lacked in height, I placed my hand on my hip at a decided angle in her direction. The curl of her lip told me she was not impressed. Neither was I impressed by her long gun pointing at me which I knew to be unloaded. She had a consistent habit of pointing it at anyone she wasn’t getting along with at the moment: her husband, her elderly father, her mangy dog and assortment of neighbors. I must have unknowingly got on her bad side recently.

But I wasn’t having any of it.

“You’d best take your gun and yourself off my fence.” My voice firm but not loud. Not firm enough it seemed.

“Yeah! Is that right? You’d best take yourself off this land. As I said before, you don’t belong here.”

It didn’t take much to get me labeled as invader except wheat colored skin, almond eyes and the quiet colored scarves I wore on my head. But I had never done any invading since I and my ancestors were Native American. Had I sung this fact from the mountain tops, it would have swung without an echo through the valley below in the consciousness of my neighbor. That didn’t stop me from telling her like it was though.

“I have more right to this land than you do. My grandparents were on this land first and died on it, too.”

“You’re a liar. You came out of Afghanistan or some cave in the ground.” Her voice curled around each word slowly.

Rolling my eyes tiredly, I titled my head to the side in a gesture peculiar to me and indicative of supreme exasperation. Might as well leave her to tire herself and her gun on that fence. I was just too tired…it had been a long day of bad plumbing, painting walls, and restoring other things in a house I had recently inherited from my great grandparents.

If I had thought the house insurmountable it was nothing compared to what was roaming through the property. Probably the house came into my hands because I was the only one brave enough to sleep in it. It was no family secret that our ancestors weren’t too happy about giving up their home to their descendants. They had a way of making it known that they were still the owners. They showed up at unexpected times.

My neighbor, still clutching her gun, still annoying me more than ever, had no clue when from behind me stepped what must have been one of my ancestors. He could have easily been an Indian chief.

It took a while for me to fathom his height for my eyes kept traveling up his frame. When it stopped, it was met by a long neck and an even longer face. War paint only served to make his expression more grim and thin lips told me that he didn’t do much talking. His lithe and sturdy frame made me expect terrifying and swift movements of hands and legs, yet it seemed that he was using all his strength to stand as an immovable pillar. The only thing of breath about him was the gentle swaying of a feather in his head dress.

It took a while for this to register with my neighbor. In fact, I’m not sure that she saw him at all at first. As he stood there, I saw him grow stronger in presence, not as shadowy as before. When her gun faltered for a bit, I knew that my neighbor also saw him. She looked confused at first and still the gun came down lower.

Swiftly and out of the corner of my eye I saw an arrow fit into a bow. Probably this meant he wasn’t in a good mood.

“What…what kind of trick is this?” Her gun came up a bit and turned towards him.

My ancestor gave a primal cry; guttural and instinctive, born of past pain, past remembrances. It was not one cry however but many in unison. What could this mean?

The answer suggested itself in the rear. There they stood, more shadowy figures sweeping grass with their tall and unnatural forms. An army of souls detached long ago.

Their cries were loud and mournful. I was surprised that not the entire neighborhood had converged to see what tragedy was being enacted. It must have been at least a hundred arrows that were now pointing towards my neighbor, and yet still she held the gun, a gun that did not shake or quiver in fear. For a moment I admired her strength. Then I saw that whatever fear was missing from her hands was surely being made up in the expression on her face. Mute unbelief mixed in with something else. Not that I could blame her.

Where was I as this ghostly army with taut arms and fierce bows awaited whatever was their plan? I had stepped away, but even as I did so their shadows grew purposely on the grass. Suddenly, their bows switched direction from my neighbor to the sky.

I couldn’t help but stumble back farther as their bows threatening the sky made good on their threats and pierced through the air. Surely, it couldn’t be real arrows? My neighbor had dropped her gun long ago. For the first time, there was some strange bond between us. We shared a mutual disbelief in what was occurring.

The arrows acted stranger than we could have imagined. Instead of falling back to earth as expected, they exploded in the sky like excited and frantic birds.  The sky divested itself of its blue and white colors to take on black and red hues. I saw men and women with the same features as myself running in terror, some women clutching babes to their chests. Many fell, mowed down by rearing horses and bullets. Then another scene – men, women and children bowed under the burden of being homeless in their native land, snaking their way through long grass, stumbling and falling to disappear. Rivers of blood and burned huts.

Then there was nothing. The scene evaporated and the sky again put on its blue and white clothes.

I watched as my ancestor slowly lowered his bow, and it seemed to take him forever to tuck it under his arm at his side. His ghostly army followed suit. For all that while, they had held their arms and hands in the same positions even after the arrows had left their bows. One by one his army resumed their places in the invisible world of forms until he was the only one left. Tall and mighty but somewhat desolate, too.

He contemplated something on the ground. Perhaps he was considering mistakes he could never make up. He looked long and hard at my neighbor, and she gave him stare for stare. In the passage, it seemed that he spoke to her and she to him, but I couldn’t comprehend the language of their silence.

When he turned away to look at me, I felt in his movements the grinding of gears. In his look, I saw all that had been and would continue to be. Time did not teach all things, and humans would remain the same. On the stage of life, they would act out the same scenes over and again. History is cyclical.

“Marty…I seen ghosts.”

Her husband scratched his chin, examining the gun on the ground, and wondering what could have made his strong willed wife do such a thing. There was something definitely wrong here. He picked the gun up hesitantly. As if he didn’t expect to stand back up with it still in his hand. But she didn’t make a move to take it. To Marty, this was more surprising than ghosts.

“Marty….I seen ghosts, I said.” Her voice less shaky.

Perhaps his wife was returning back to normal he thought, but still she didn’t grab for the gun. Marty didn’t believe in ghosts but might as well play along since he was enjoying his wife’s new mood. With his arm around her shoulders, which was something he was not often allowed to do, he shook his head sympathetically as she recounted all.

“You believe me, don’t you Marty?” She asked at the end of her narrative.

Marty nodded his head hoping his wife would believe the answer was a yes. He could lie except verbally.

“She ain’t from Afghanistan.” She hooked a thumb in my direction. I rolled my eyes as Marty turned back to give me a sympathetic look.

“I told you she weren’t,” he told his wife.

“She’s one of them Indians. Maybe she ain’t a terrorist like I thought. Since she’s Indian, I suppose that makes her American like you and me.”

“I suppose so….,” her husband answered.

“Marty, our ancestors done bad things…,” I watched as Marty went inside their home and my neighbor lingered for a while on the front porch looking up at the sky as if trying to memorize something up there.

The next morning was just as brand new as ever. I inhaled the crisp morning air as I stood in my yard with a shovel stuck in the ground. A mound of rich, reddish dirt stood beside me.

Placing one foot on the shovel and leaning into it, I started counting down in my head. Waiting for it to happen. And then there she was. On the fence again with her metal companion of a gun.

 

——————–

Maryam Chahine is an American Muslim woman living in Jordan where she works as an instructional designer for a publishing company. Her racial background includes Black, Palestinian, and Native American (Cherokee) roots. Her family’s frequent on the move lifestyle took her to diverse places including Florida, UAE and Oregon where she spent most of her life. Her work has appeared in Futures Trading, Free Verse, A Hudson View, Damazine, Projected Letters, ken*again, and others.

Moonliner

By Chris Crabtree

Something big was going down today, something that had been in the works for weeks. Mil could feel it. He scanned the sky for the Moonliner. That rocket was the key to his plans, and it taunted him when he was late. He gunned it. Coffee splashed from his mug, scalding his crotch. The pained jangling of his keys would have to do the cursing for him while he slurped air through the molten java in his mouth. His back wheels hit the speed bump and it happened again—one splash of coffee for each testicle. He didn’t remember the bump being so big, but then he couldn’t remember ever being so late for work either. He grabbed a wad of tissues from the box on the floor next to all his unpaid parking tickets and stuffed it between his legs. It felt hot and lumpy, like he’d sat on a pile of nuclear camel shit.

He scanned the rooftops for the Moonliner. That beacon of 1950s styling—iconic of TWA under Howard Hughes—had guided him to this town, to this job. It was perched high on the corner of the defunct airline’s headquarters, where it swayed in the incessant Kansas City wind. He took a wide swing to the right to line up for a straight shot into the corner parking space directly beneath it, but his morning chattered to an antilock halt.

“What is this?” he yelled.

It was another car in his spot—his handicapped spot.

Not today. Not when… A gust of wind rocked his car, whistling through leaky windows. He hugged the steering wheel and careened his neck to the rooftop. The Moonliner mocked him from the sky. He jumped out of his car and onto the interloper’s bumper. “Mo-ther-fu-ckers!” he said, one syllable per bounce.

“It’s mothers-fucker,” a woman’s voice yelled back, startling him. She had dark hair cut in a flapper bob. Her lips shone in a shade of crimson only punk-rock girls knew the secret of creating. Her eyes were outlined by long black lashes thrusting themselves from the edges—Venus flytraps for the souls of men, and she was blasting down the ramp toward him in a wheelchair with the wind at her back.

“What?”

“Mothers-fucker,” she said. “Like sons-in-law.”

“Is this your car?”

“Yes, and I’d appreciate it if you’d get your ass-face off it. What’s wrong with you? What kind of person does this to a handicapped person?” She charged at him, furiously wheeling herself forward. She looked mad enough to climb out of her chair, rip the bumper off her car with her bare hands, and beat him with it.

“I don’t want to argue with you,” Mil said, glancing nervously at the Moonliner some fifty feet above them. It groaned with another gust of wind. Not good. “I’m late for work and you’re parked in my spot.” It was as close to the truth as she needed to get. “Is there some way I can help you on your way?”

She looked him up and down. Furrows etched themselves into her forehead. He lost her eyes in the shadows of her squinting brows. “You can start by getting off my car,” she said.

Anything she wanted—so long as it was quick. He jumped off the bumper and ran toward her. “What can I do?”

“Give me a minute. Can’t you see me shaking? I’m very frail. I don’t like getting into fights with strangers.”

“Fight a lot with your friends?” Mil teased.

“I don’t like to lose.” She smiled just a little when she said it, then suddenly her chair lurched forward, propelled by another burst of wind.

The Moonliner yowled like a lonely cat on a moonlit night. Something popped and then there was a resounding clang. Mil knew what was happening: the force of the wind had made one of its three legs lift off the platform where it was perched directly above them.

Again the wind shoved her. She grabbed her wheels and yanked them back as if they were a team of unruly horses.

Sensing his chance to gain the advantage, Mil darted behind her and grabbed the handles on the back of her chariot. Immediately, he started pushing her toward her car. “It’s been lovely talking with you, but I really need your parking space.”

“Park somewhere else,” she said, squeezing the rims of her wheels, stopping them. “You don’t even belong here.”

“And neither do you!” He kicked the back of her seat, hoping to push her toward her car.

“Ouch! I felt that!” She pulled on the brake levers now, determined not to move.

“Dammit, woman!” Mil looked up to the Moonliner and pleaded with it. “What have I done to deserve this?”

“You’ve been a jerk-face?”

“It’s face-jerk!” he said, jerking wildly at the handles of her chair. It was no use. She was too strong. Then he found the keys to victory. “Is this your purse?”

“Oh, no you don’t. You are not going into my purse!”

“Don’t have to. Your keys are hanging on that cute little hook thingy.” He bent down to grab them.

Now that she didn’t have to fight for control of her chair, she spun around, knocking him down, then proceeded to work the wheels back and forth, bitch-slapping him with the footrests. She was too fast to lay a hand on. Out of sheer frustration, he lay back in the grass and kicked her hard in the shins, toppling her onto her back.

He was hurting. She was hurting. They shared a tacit time-out, listening to the Moonliner laughing at them. Groan and clank, it went. Groan and clank.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“How do you define OK? I’m a fucking paraplegic!”

He rolled up onto one elbow. She was kind of cute, sprawled out in the grass like she was. “That’s not my fault,” he said.

“I’m a fucking paraplegic who just got shit-kicked by a macho dildo.”

“Dildo?”

“That’s all a guy like you is good for.”

Mil got up to see if he could attend to the woman. He felt guilty about kicking her like that. She’d probably sue him. Between that and being so late, he was sure to get fired, which was probably for the best. It would give him a reason to file for bankruptcy—the first step on the road to riches, he’d always believed. “Give me your hand,” he said.

“I don’t want any help from you.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, watching her pull herself along the ground with her arms. “I didn’t mean for it to come to this.”

“Fuck off, dildo.”

He dared not laugh, but it was just a little funny the way the strong wind kept blowing her hair into her eyes, making it impossible for her to put her chair upright again. “No,” he said. “I made this mess and I’m going to clean it up.” He bent down to help her.

“Stay away from me! I don’t need you—or anyone to help me!”

Mil didn’t say a word. He just hit the “unlock” button on her key fob and tossed her wheelchair into the backseat of her car. “Now,” he said, towering over her, “may I please help you to your car? I promise, you won’t ever have to see me again—at least until you sue me.”

Her eyes were seething at him. She really didn’t like to lose. He didn’t either, but hated to win by brute force. There just wasn’t enough time to fake losing in a believable way. He held out his arms, offering to pick her up off the sidewalk. She nodded her acceptance—or defeat—and he stuffed her behind the wheel of her car.

She buckled her seat belt and then reached for the ignition. “Can I have my keys back?” she said through the open window.

He gave them to her with a smile. “Drive safely!”

She scowled. “Go to hell.”

“I’m halfway there.” A blast of wind knocked him off-balance. He grabbed her side-view mirror just in time to keep from being bowled off his feet. Seeing her opportunity to be rid of him, she leaned out the window and shoved him. He fell hard on his tailbone, staring straight up at the rocket. It moaned and then a weakened bolt snapped. Oh, shit!

He was too late.

The woman readjusted her mirror. “By the way,” she said, “it’s drive safe, you…MOTHERFU—”

The twenty-two-foot-long Moonliner dove and mounted the woman’s car like a space-faring penis banging a hatchback. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Its last flight was meant for Mil’s car. If only he hadn’t been late for work…

No—that stupid woman!

He sprung up and peered into the mangled opening that used to be a window. He listened for signs of life, but his ears were still ringing from the impact. There she was—some of her anyway. He snaked his arm in and felt her neck. She had a pulse. He yanked the door but it wouldn’t budge. He put one foot on the back door for more leverage. “Mo-thers-fu-cker!” Why he was saying it her way, he didn’t know, but it became his mantra while he jerked the handle back and forth until it broke off like a pop tab, grounding his ass again.

People were starting to come out of the building for an up-close view of what had happened.

Mil got up and stormed back to his car. This was all his fault. If she died…

“Hey!” someone yelled. “He’s leaving the scene! Stop that guy!” Mil knew that voice. It belonged to Schurvinuvich, an irritating waif of a man, who began trying rescue the woman.

“I’m getting a crowbar, Scurvy,” Mil said.

The little man’s spaghetti-noodle arms flapped like they were about to snap under the strain.

“If you don’t get of my way, I swear I’m going to ram this thing as far up your twisted little ass as it’ll go, hook my jumper cables onto it, and then see if we can’t jump-start your first erection.”

Scurvy moved out of his way. “Someone should call 9-1-1. She’s going to need the Jaws of Life.”

Mil shook his head. “Shut up and get over here and help me.” With Scurvy’s help, he cranked on the crowbar until everything became a blurry tunnel. Just when a dark veil began descending over his eyes, the door cracked open, complaining like a cat getting a bath, but it was wide enough for him to squeeze through. He worked his way into the crevices between mutilated car and flesh and then gingerly worked the woman out from under rocket, dashboard, and steering wheel.

He stood tall, holding her in his arms—a hero’s pose, but he knew better. He’d put her in that seat. He might as well have drawn a target and guided that missile to her car. He frantically looked her over. She wasn’t bleeding. That was good. No impaled objects were sticking out of her, but she could still have broken bones, or worse: internal bleeding. At least he wouldn’t have to worry whether she’d walk again.

“You shouldn’t move her,” Scurvy said.

“He’s right,” said another onlooker. “You should put her down until the ambulance comes.”

“Did someone call an ambulance?” Mil asked. The crowd exchanged empty looks and shrugs. No one had. “Fuck it.” He took the woman and strapped her into the passenger seat of his car. She groaned and coughed. “Are you OK?” he asked her.

Her face narrowed into a squint, as if it were a napkin caught in a vacuum cleaner hose. “What…happened?”

“Dorothy just crashed her rocket into the Wicked Witch of the West’s parking space, and now I’m taking her to the hospital.” Mil started his engine.

“I’m not…Dorothy?”

Mil peeled off toward the hospital. “I meant that you’re the…never mind.”

“My purse,” she mumbled. “Did you bring it?”

She had to ask now? He was speeding through the parking lot and was already halfway to the speed bump. Her request made him feel eight years old again, forced into doing his mother’s bidding. He heard her in his head. “Turn off my curling iron, unplug the toaster, put sunscreen on my back.” He remembered the time as a kid when his mother had texted him to come home. Y?” he’d replied, not wanting to break away from his make-out session with Natasha Menlo. “Come home,” his mother had repeated. He’d done as he was told, thinking it must be something important. He’d found her watching TV with the crossword open in her lap. All she’d wanted was for him to bring her the remote control, which was sitting all of five feet away, next to his father’s chair.

He shivered at the memory. Part of him wanted to gun it over the disdainful lump in the road, but his mother’s training had seeped too deeply into his flesh. He kicked the brake pedal, stopping just inches from the speed bump.

“My…purse…” the woman coughed.

Mil bit the side of his mouth and nodded. His agitated hands massaged the steering wheel. “Of course.” Mil’s breath laced with adrenaline. “I mean, it’s not like I’m in the middle of doing anything important—like trying to save your life.” He slammed the stick hard into reverse and went back for her stupid purse. He turned around to see out the back window. From this close, she smelled like vanilla and bergamot. It was very distracting. Then he saw just the thing to sharpen his focus: Scurvy, standing next to what used to be the woman’s car, holding her purse. Mil took aim, imagining how satisfying it would be to plow into the little creep, but it wasn’t worth the jail time. He swerved at the last second and slid up next to him and snatched the bag out of his hand. “It would look nice with your beige pumps, wouldn’t it? Maybe if she lives through this, she’ll give it to you as a reward.”

He tried to hand the bag to her before setting off again, but she seemed to have passed out. “Miss…” he said. There was no answer. She didn’t move but she was breathing. “After all the planning…all that work…and the damn thing falls on her… So much for that fat check.” He drove on, hoping no one would ever discover his role in the last flight of the Moonliner.

Minutes passed. Eventually, the woman opened her eyes. She watched the city go by, squinting either from the sunlight or deep thought. She asked for her purse, and at the next red light, Mil complied. She pulled herself upright and started rifling through it.

“We’ll be at the emergency room in two minutes,” he said. “They have everything you need.”

“They don’t have one of these.”

“Don’t be silly. They have…” He sat stunned for what felt like a metric hour. No one had ever pulled a gun on him before. “No, I suppose they don’t.”

“And we’re not going to the hospital either.”

Mil’s head swam in confusion. Nothing made sense anymore. “Where are we going?” he asked.

A sideways grin spread across her face. “Ever have sex with a paraplegic woman?”

Mil fought to keep from laughing at the absurdity of the moment. “No, I guess I’ve never had the opportunity.” Maybe it was the adrenaline overdose he was experiencing after speeding to work; scalding his balls with coffee; getting into a knock-down, drag-out fight with a crippled woman; nearly dying in the crash landing of the Moonliner; rescuing her; and having a gun pointed at him—but something about her was really turning him on. He couldn’t believe it, but he wasn’t wholly opposed to a sexual encounter with… “I don’t know your name,” he said, setting her down on her articulating bed. She said her name was “Jan-eese.” He asked her to spell it and then told her his was Mil.

“Like Janice,” she said. “Now, take my pants off.”

“Aren’t we going to make out first?”

She glared at him. “I could shoot your dick off.” As if he needed reminding.

“It’s just a weird way to pronounce it.” He untied her shoes, making sure to keep her feet near his crotch—shielding his manhood.

“What about Mil? It’s kinda short. What’s it short for? Let’s hope your dick is longer.”

He tossed her pants on the floor. “Miles. My last name is Stone. I got tired of being everyone’s milestone.”

“So now you’re a millstone?”

He’d never thought of it that way, but moving the dead weight of her legs every time she asked him to fold her into a new position had him obsessing about it now.

He didn’t know why he should care, but asked her if it was good for her anyway when they were done.

“You’re not done,” she said.

He explained that it would be a little while before he could repeat himself, but she informed him that another round of sex was not what she had in mind. No, it was time to go for another drive, so he loaded her back into his car.

“Where are we going now?”

“We’re not going,” she said. “You’re going to die. I’m going to kill you.”

“What? Why? I thought we—”

She told him to drive to his place. She’d kill him there so she wouldn’t have to dispose of his body. It was all the better that he lived a few miles outside of town, where no one would hear the shots. He only had one chance to get away. When his neighbor’s decrepit old barn loomed in front of him, he picked a spot, stopped the car, and ran for it, hoping she wasn’t a very good shot. If he could get to his garage, he could get away in his other car.

He didn’t make it more than twenty feet before she jumped out of the car and shot him in the leg. He fell in the ditch next to a “horse and buggy Xing” sign.

She sauntered up next to him and squatted next to his head. “I hate it when mothers-fucker like you go around parking in handicapped spots,” she said. “I’m going to kill every last one of you.”

“But I—”

She pressed the gun to the temple of his head. A smile broke across her face. “You were OK…and you did try to save my life.” She pulled the gun away from his head and paused for a moment of reflection. Then she shot him in the other leg. “That’s better. Now we’ll call it even. Besides, I needed a new set of wheels anyway.” She left him yowling and writhing in pain as she drove away in his car.

* * *

Janice parked Mil’s car a few aisles from where the rocket lay atop her own. A tow truck was taking up station behind it. Police had taped off the area, making it hard to get closer. She laid low until the last of the police and onlookers left, before sneaking under the tape and wriggling her way into the wreckage. She reached for her handicapped hangtag to remove it from the rearview mirror before the tow truck removed her car from the premises. Its winch began lifting the back end. The hangtag was wedged in tight between all the broken glass and twisted metal. She jerked it side to side, furiously trying to work it free. The car lurched when the tow truck released its parking brake. A second later it began to move, with her still inside. One final desperate heave freed it. She kicked the door open and rolled onto the pavement. With a triumphant smile on her face, she strutted back to Mil’s car. She hung the handicapped tag on the rearview and then produced a tube of crimson lipstick from her purse. She leaned in to check her look in the mirror, never expecting to see him—much less him sitting in the backseat, holding her gun to her head.

Mil grinned with the shear pleasure of seeing the look of surprise in her dark, Venus-flytrap eyes. “Ever have sex with a paraplegic man?” he said.

 

——————–

Chris Crabtree is a singer/songwriter/musician who provided the soundtrack music for the award-winning documentary, Corporate FM. He wrote an album of songs that inspired him to write a book. His work has appeared in Licking River Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Children’s Hope International Quarterly and Helix.

Fallen Angels

By Arthur Davis

Hi, is that you?”

Chris Logan moved the receiver away from his ear. The voice echoing from the black plastic handset asked the question again, but this time it sounded faint, frail, and doubtful. He returned the device to his ear. “Carol?”

“My God, for a moment I thought I had gotten the wrong number.”

“No. It’s me.”

“It’s me too,” she said, finally relieved. “How have you been?”

“I was just going to ask you that,” Chris said, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the truth.  He wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear.

“It’s my call, so you have to answer first.”

There was no urgency in her voice although she sounded nothing like the Carol Saunders he knew and loved and lost. “I won the New York State lottery about two years ago, invested all that money in a high-tech firm whose stock quadrupled, margined that profit, and bought some tract land in Pennsylvania that a large mall operator is buying from me at a five hundred percent profit. And, oh yeah, I’ve developed a cure for the common cold.”

“Funny, is that all you accomplished while I was away?”

“Okay, I’m fine. Just a few years older I guess.”

“Two years and two months and a few days.”

“If you had given me another second I would have gotten it.”

“I know. You were always good at figures.”

“Well, anyway, I was good with yours,” Chris said, still studying the brief he had been working on. His client had embezzled funds from his company and the state of Connecticut wanted him in jail so badly it was as if he had looted a hospital of all its money instead of twelve thousand dollars from an international conglomerate to cover his gambling debts. Life could be very unforgiving, he thought remembering how frightened the man was when he first came into his office. He wanted to keep the arrest quiet but there was no way to keep it from the local newspapers. With his wife at his side, the man cried for almost the entire length of his initial consultation. “You sound like you’re calling from next door?”

“Actually, I am,” was all Carol could bring herself to say and was glad to have the confession over with. “At least a few blocks away.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m in town to see old friends.”

“And some old, less than friends?”

“You were never that.”

“Have you called Kim?”

“I intend to.”

“She’ll be delighted to speak to you,” he said, then added with some reluctance, “So where is Hal?”

“Home with the kids.”

Kids. “I didn’t know you had children.”

“Twins. Matthew and Jonathan. They’re adorable.”

Chris’ heart sank to a level of desperation he might have once considered impossible. This was something he didn’t want to hear right about now. He stacked up the partially completed brief on several volumes of Connecticut Criminal Practices, pushed them aside, and thoughtlessly fingered the pill vials he had collected on the corner of his desk like little orange, enemy toy soldiers. It was already well past noon. He had missed his morning volley of medication and was feeling weak and irritable. He failed to prepare himself breakfast at six like his nutritionist prescribed. “You have to keep up your energy,” she scolded on more than one occasion. He had been attentive for the first month or so since his diagnosis was confirmed. Recently he felt himself slipping, or simply not caring. It made little difference. Though hearing Carol’s voice suddenly made him feel guilty that he was acting irresponsibly. “Congratulations.”

“Hey, have you had lunch yet?”

He was surprised that she didn’t hear his stomach growling through the receiver. In a way, he wanted to refuse himself nourishment. The doctor said he would go through a phase of bitterness and resentment. That was supposed to come after the denial he had already experienced. He could hardly wait to complete the phases, or his life. “Are you calling from ‘The Burger House’?”

“Sheila, a friend of mine, maybe you don’t remember her, dropped me off while she went to meet her brother. It was a kind of spur-of-the-moment thing. When I saw where I was and ‘The Burger House,’ I, well, you know the rest. So, are you up for it?”

The only thing Chris had managed to concentrate on since he woke was taking a shower. Since the exploratory surgery, he found himself talking more showers. Sometimes as many as three a day. It wasn’t that he worked up such a sweat working a few hours a day from home. It was as if the more he bathed, the more chance there was that he could wash away the grotesque incision that cut across his body. The biting red gash was a symbol that would forever mark his remains as defective and soon to be in complete default of life.

While the idea of seeing Carol had a tender tug to it, Chris was not interested in explaining his circumstances. He had spent the last few months doing that to family and friends. And, if it weren’t for this case that practically fell into his lap through an ex-partner at his old law firm; he probably would have the time to take a dozen showers a day. He glanced up at the clock as though it made a difference. Carol was two blocks away at their old hangout, one of the last places in New York City with authentic and uneven sawdust floors, low beam ceilings, and the best garlic burgers and barbecue string fries on the planet.

“Are you buying?”

“I’ll leave the tip,” she said, exactly as she had when they had their first date and he started to pay for the bill and she wanted to share the cost of the meal.

He hastily took all his pills in one gulp, threw himself into a pair of jeans that were a lot looser than they were in December, a blue turtleneck, and construction boots and fell out of his apartment and down the stairs into a brisk March day. This wasn’t so bad, he thought, and then searched with his hand for the gash on his right side. What did his insides look like when the surgeon pried him open? They knew what they were looking for; it was just that they thought they had caught it in time. They hadn’t. There would be no wonderful life, a loving wife and twins for him. There may not be another Christmas, one of the more cynical surgeons cautioned, even if he did take the full battery of medications.

Chris moved cautiously through the lunchtime crowd along Broadway and 77th Street so as not to bump into anybody and cause his body more insults than it had already endured. The last time he saw Carol she was wearing a baggy pair of denim coveralls with a bright yellow jersey underneath. Her hair was pulled back revealing the strong side of an otherwise soft and gentle face. A wave of brunette hair cascaded over her shoulders.

According to Carol, she had spent the better part of three years loving him without being able to convince him to marry her. She didn’t want to be just friends forever. Bitter as that sounded, it even made sense to Chris. It was time to move on, at least according to her. It was only later that his sister Kim informed him that Carol had married a computer analyst, a vice president of an internet startup, named Hal. She also told Chris that from her one conversation with Carol, that she seemed happy.  He wished her luck, admitting to himself that she might have known this guy even before they had broken up. She married him so soon after she left New York.

He opened the door to ‘The Burger House’ and inhaled the firestorm of garlic that filled the air. Immediately he saw Carol was occupying their favorite booth. He had to smile at the coincidence.

She saw him and jumped up as though they were still lovers unable to endure another moment absent each other’s embrace. “You’ve gotten even more handsome,” she said, then stepped back. “And lost a few pounds in the process.”

“I’m just getting over the flu,” he said not knowing how hard to hold this married woman with two adorable twins, in his arms. They spotted each other kisses on the cheek and settled down opposite each other in the booth. “So, let’s see what you’ve got?”

She looked at him as though he had asked her to take off her clothes. “What I’ve got?”

“The twins? The proud mother? Pictures by the bushels?”

“God, you still don’t beat around the bush.”

“I want to see your pride and joy. I know it sounds unlikely, but your happiness still has some importance to me.” Chris could hear himself take that professional tone. The one he would use to interrogate his clients and their adversaries. He was all business and just friendly enough to get all the facts from his usually resistant flock of sociopaths.

“I only came out with a few dollars. Everything is back at Sheila’s.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound cold.”

“More side effects of the flu?”

“Yeah. Probably. Something like that.”

“Maybe something more than the flu?”

“Maybe.”

They ordered coffee. “You want to talk about whatever it is to an old friend who still feels your happiness has some importance to her?”

He couldn’t hide the truth of his future from his family. Most everybody was at the hospital and heard the bad news from the surgeon who performed the exploratory procedure while Chris was still in the recovery room. After the shock and hysterics subsided those closest to him understood, and stood by as the thirty-four year old man began to recede from life and all the opportunities open to those who would come to embrace their future. If there was anybody Chris felt had no reason to know, it was Carol Saunders. Maybe in the past she would have been the first who would rush to his side, but not now. This was different. Everything was different. It was better that she just go home to her family and let him and nature take its course. And he certainly didn’t want or need her pity. He had seen enough of that from several of his friends.

“Bad time. Bad place.”

Flipping her hair back over her shoulders she asked, “Do you remember when we first came here?”

Chris did. He had been so in love with this girl he could hardly contain himself. How could he have ever let her slip away? He was a fool. He knew that the day she told him she was leaving. He could have stopped her. He knew she wanted him to. What kept him from picking up the phone that day was as much a mystery to him today as it was to him two years and two months ago. “I remember you had so many onions on your burger you smelled for a week.”

“I remember you put so much ketchup on your cheeseburger, it dripped onto your pants. They were blue?”

“They still are,” he said thinking how the color matched his spirits. “Well, this is a surprise. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to pick up the phone but had no idea where you were and didn’t want to ask Kim.”

Carol had no idea where she was or where she had been or why she let herself talk herself into leaving this man. He was handsome, kind, very bright, a gentle and unusually affectionate lover. He had a range of subjects in which he was interested and a wicked sense of humor that kept her and her family glued to his every word. What could she have been thinking? “There were times I had no idea where I was.”

He reached out and took her hand in his. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said, tentatively pulling away. “I just wanted to see you.”

Something had brought her here and it was more than curiosity. Something was bothering her. In some ways, Chris knew her better than Carol knew herself. “And here I am in all my staggering amazingness.”

“Except for how tired you look, you haven’t really changed at all.”

Except for the thirteen-inch scar running from my lower back to the center of my chest, I’m just perfect. Couldn’t be any better. Was she really seeing someone else before they broke up? He couldn’t purge himself of the suspicion, any more than he could of his need to see her. “I’m the very model of health and good fortune and suddenly so hungry I could bite my own hand off.”

“Okay. You’re on,” she said grabbing a menu.

After some deliberation and banter about diets and favorite burger combinations and how thankfully the place had remained creakingly true to the neighborhood, they ordered the same dishes they had on their first date. Chris lifted his glass of water. “To old friends. May they always call you when you least expect it.” And when you need it most, he added.

“To old friends who can forgive and forget.”

“The hell with them,” Chris groaned. “To us.”

Carol’s laughter filled the front of the small cafe. The sun radiated off her glowing cheeks. Chris was suddenly taken with how really beautiful and sexual a woman she was. And how terribly he missed her.

“Right. To hell with all of them. Every last one,” she agreed.

“Except for Hal.”

Carol caught herself hesitating. “Yes, except for Hal.”

Sadness and a resolve of disappointment framed her voice. After interrogating a decade of witnesses and victims, either you developed a second set of ears or you won very few cases. Chris set down his glass. “What’s going on with you and Hal?”

“Nothing. Everything is fine.”

“Once more now, and this time pretend I am not your friend and ex-lover and the man who wishes he had called you long before you called him but your priest, your rabbi, your very best friend from junior high school with whom you pledged to reveal every secret your heart held to the day you died.”

“Well, how can I refuse all that?”

You can’t, his heart murmured.

Carol set down her glass, coincidentally right next to his. The veins on the back of his arm stood out like coils of rope. Strong, reliable, and sexual. She loved to touch them and feel the blood rushing into the hands that so often touched her with a tenderness and love she had never experienced. She wanted to get up and sit beside him and be held in those arms she had come to so many times in the past. His expression of concern didn’t mask the love in his eyes. She had seen it the moment she looked up at him when he came into the restaurant.

Chris wanted her to confess that there was no Hal or children in her life and that she had made it all up to cover her fear of being sucked back into the intensity of the love she fled from. He wanted her to wash away the sins of two years and hold him tightly for fear that she might plunge into an infernal abyss if she should let go.

Two heaping burgers were delivered replete with a mound of thinly cut barbecued fries, slices of onion, a tub of cole slaw, and one filled with medium-hot barbecue sauce. “You know we’re going to get sick if we eat this all in one sitting,” she said, her hands already hovering anxiously over her plate.

Chris knew he could eat whatever he wanted and not gain weight. How great he once thought, and then realized the origin of this magic immunity. “Who cares? You’re going to die anyway. Better off being pleasantly porky than stiflingly thin,” he said and groaned with the delight of his first bite. “My God, where have you been,” he said endearingly to the swollen, gravy-drooling concoction.

“Right here,” Carol said without looking up.

He stopped chewing and said “What?” between a generous mouthful of the onion and freshly ground sirloin.

“Right here,” she repeated, but this time matching his confusion with the truth.

He finished the mouthful and wiped the sauce from his cheeks.

The burger on Carol’s plate stared back up at her like a disloyal subject who was about to betray her innermost secrets. A subject that she was secretly praying would allow her to expose those inaccessible truths to the man she never stopped loving. She toyed with the pickles. She never liked pickles, almost as much as Chris was suspicious of olives.  Somewhere in the recesses of her psyche, she wondered if there wasn’t a traumatic incident associated with the total rejection of the pickle family. Then again, like Winston Churchill said, maybe a “cigar” was just a “cigar” and there was nothing more to her dislike than dislike.

“Yes, well, the fact here, now, is that I’m not married.”

Chris had been suspecting little else since she phoned. It was the only present he had wanted from her. “How long have you been divorced?”

“Well, that’s not entirely the issue either.”

“Then you’re still married?”

“Not exactly.”

“…not exactly?”

“We’re separated. Probably permanently.”

“And?”

Carol couldn’t lift her gaze to his.

“And, are you telling me you were never married?

“Yes. Never. And now I realize that was probably for the best.”

That was a shot out of nowhere. Something he had not been anticipating. Nothing—and he was a curious and conscientiously suspicious man—could have prepared him for that singular admission. “Could you start from the beginning? I mean, for those of us who have just landed from the planet Completely Confused and have no frame of reference to deal with what you’ve just said?”

“I lied to you. I wanted to get out of where I was with you and knew I couldn’t do it alone. I made up a man to give leaving you, and staying where I was, some credibility. I even lied to Kim. There was no one when I walked out, then a few weeks later I met Hal and found a great job with a magazine in San Diego.”

“And had twins. Adorable ones at that.”

“Yes. And had twins. Really, very, adorable ones at that,” she said, wishing they were neatly tucked in her arms right now so Chris could see the joy they were.

And, still no pictures. Whoever heard of a mother without a wallet stuffed with stacks of pictures or a cell crammed with albums of their babies every first gurgle and giggle? “San Diego is a beautiful town.”

“It is.”

“Great weather. Great views. Great food and people. Great place to hide.”

“A perfect place to hide.”

“If it was so perfect, why did you come three thousand miles for a burger?”

How quickly he brought the conversation around to the essence of the issue. To all issues.  Chris had a rare ability to focus and drive to the heart of issues, to the kernel of an argument, to the essence of right and wrong with blazing, bone-rattling, speed. It had taken her the better part of two years to get to this point and he reached it in two mouthfuls. “I missed you.”

How long had he waited to hear those words, fantasized about how they would sound.  “I know I’m devastatingly handsome and charming and witty and brilliant and did I mention handsome and well, you know the rest but, you know, I sense there’s’ more to this story than my insincere modesty.”

She was feeling cornered, and not quite as prepared as she had hoped. “You underestimate yourself. And maybe overestimate me.”

“Are you sick? Is that why you’ve come back? Because if you are, I would be devastated to find it out from somebody other than you.”

“Sick?” She considered the irony, as well as the napkin in her lap. It demanded her attention, offered a welcome respite from the truth.

“Are you ill? Are you more than just ill? You would tell me wouldn’t you?”

There was something about how he was putting the words in her mouth that rattled her badly. “You’re getting cold,” she said.

He leaned forward. “Please, honey, whatever you do, don’t chicken out now. Just say what’s in your heart and let the rest take care of itself.” Chris was silently praying that he was as cold as cold could be with his query. He also knew that the more he pressed one button, the truth would appear on the unsteady surface of another. He learned that much wrenching out from reluctant witnesses during his early years as an assistant DA in Manhattan. He just knew there was more to her visit than her breakup. And he was going to do all he could not to discuss himself, or how, beyond the fact that he had the natural metabolism of a hyperactive ten-year-old boy, he was never going to get fat in his life.

But this wasn’t quite what she anticipated. Chris was more compelling than ever. It was just too difficult to resist his earnestness. “I think I’ve said enough. For now.”

“I agree, and eaten more than your fair share of the fries.”

“You’ve had your fist in the plate so often I can hardly get one myself.”

“Lies. Slander. Character assassination.”

“The only thing that’s getting assassinated are the fries, and not by me.”

“Still, is that any reason not to tell me why you’re here?”

Carol grabbed a handful of fries, dragged them through a pool of ketchup, and announced, “Well, I’m not sick, if that’s where you’re going with the interrogation?” She calmly wiped the residue from the sides of her mouth and looked up, and waited.

“But,” he began, focusing on the core issue of life as only a man with a limited number of days remaining on the earth could.

“But, after two years there is just no husband.”

“Two years is a long time. Who left who?”

“You don’t know how much I wanted to call you. I wanted to come crying to you and fall into your arms. I was also embarrassed by the lies. Especially the ones I told to Kim. So, instead, I quit my job, packed up, moved out, and came back east. A new start.”

“And you’re living…?”

“Just signed a lease on a large lovely rental on the top floor of a high-rise not three blocks from here. For all three of us.”

Chris got up, came around, and slid up against Carol. “The way it works is you ply me full of French fries and, if you’re really clever, chocolate chip cookies. Then, and only then, I’ll make everything better, and do almost anything else for you except bark at the moon.”

“What will it take to get you to bark at the moon?”

“You only have to ask, honey, you only have to ask,” he said taking her in her arms as she began to weep for the both of them.

The waitress came over but Chris waved her off, then once again until she got the message. Carol pumped out a torrent of tears followed by apologies for calling him out of the blue and falling into his lap like a dead cat. “I like dead cats,” he said. “If I had my way all cats would be dead. Dead is a good thing for cats. There’s nothing wrong with a dead cat that another dead cat couldn’t solve. And, I say that, as the Dead Cat critic for The New York Times.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say and you don’t mean it.”

“You mean the Dead Cat critic for The New York Times part, or is it important that I mean everything I say?”

“I don’t know,” she whimpered. “You think too fast for me.”  Dead Cat critic for The New York Times. Who thinks like that?

“Well, right now there’s one cold burger over there that needs a little warmth and your lovely lips.”

She looked up at him. “You really think I have lovely lips.”

Chris didn’t know what to say. But he did know what he wanted to do. He just wasn’t certain it was the right thing to do. He wanted to go the last few inches until his lips pressed against hers. He wanted to take her in his arms like the desperate old lovers they were and promise her the world, or at least the world for as long as he was a part of it. That’s what he knew she wanted too. That’s what he knew she was hoping to come back to. That’s all he had been thinking about since he heard her voice on the phone. He kissed her gently and withdrew. “I think you have beautiful lips, you know, for an evangelical cat defender.”

She sat up and pounded him in the chest much to the consternation of their waitress who was watching how tenderly this stranger had been caring for the weeping girl. “You’re an evil, horrible man.”

“Who just happens to be in love with you.”

She brushed back her damp hair and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Whom I shouldn’t have called.”

“For fear he would reject you?”

“No, and you know you could have been seeing someone else. Did you ever think of that smarty pants?”

“That piece of information you could have been gotten from a phone call to my blabbermouth sister.”

“I have children. I see the world through different eyes now. Sorry.”

“Hard to believe you’re a mother. Just how you look.”

“Trust me; I don’t look like this at three in the morning with twin boys.”

“And your non-husband just walked away from you and his kids? Just like that? No strings attached? You aren’t suing him and he isn’t suing you for support or visitation? Maintenance? Nothing?”

“No. He couldn’t care,” she said. “No need to play lawyer.”

Chris was struggling with the obvious. Parents don’t usually walk away from their kids. They fight for them.  They lie and deceive for them.  They use them as tools of vengence and retaliation. There had to be more to her story. What was more important was that she was in the city and had no plans to leave, but to restart her life ten minutes from where he lived.  He could speculate about her children and the rest of the truth later.

The waitress finally got up enough courage to come over to the table and ask if everything was all right. She cleared the two partially eaten burgers, refreshed their coffees, and moved away.

“Now, what’s your story? You don’t sound like the man I left. You look different.”

“Things change. People change. And, before you said I hadn’t changed at all.”

“That was when we sat down. I’m getting something else here.”

“Kim call you out here?”

“Why would she do a thing like that?”

“OK.”

“Ok, what?”

“OK, nothing.”

“Liar. Why would Kim call me?”

“I could get disbarred for lying about meaningful facts.”

“More likely you could get strangled right here, even if you were the world famous, and clearly insane, Dead Cat critic for The New York Times.”

He was staring at her lips, his memory flooding his recall with images he hadn’t allowed himself to admit to, or enjoy in a long, long time.

“Please.”

“Please.”

“Yes, please. I need you to tell me everything. And you need to tell me too, Chris.”

“I learned about it two months ago. I didn’t rush up and down the east coast getting second and third opinions, but there’s no doubt about my diagnosis, or really prognosis.”

Carol began to tremble, the blood washed from her face. Unable to gasp, she let out a whisper of a cough. “Is, is there anything  …?”

“I’ve had every nasty invasive test in the book. Each one confirmed the one before it. The only relief I’ve had since learning about it came from listening to you. You’ve totally taken my mind off my own future, or lack of it.”

She clasped his hands between hers. “Oh my God, Chris.”

“Two lost loves return to find their love renewed and their fate sealed. I’m sure Shakespeare wrote a minor play about us. Either Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe, or probably Tim Burton.”

Chris toyed with the salt shaker, while Carol couldn’t keep her eyes from a spot of catsup next to her placemat that had the silhouette of Abraham Lincoln. Even Kim’s warning call couldn’t have prepared her for the explosion of fear and desperation that tore at her insides. “Could we get out of here?”

“I’ll have us home in ten minutes.”

“Or two hundred and seventy-nine steps,” she countered reminding him that he once paced off the distance back to his building just to win a bet with her. He won, of course, but as a prize, he decided to remove her panties with only his teeth instead of collecting the full two bits in hard currency. They walked arm in arm back to his apartment without speaking. It seemed they had already said all there was to say. The only thing left to decide was how each would spend the rest of their lives. “It hasn’t changed a bit,” she said standing in the doorway to his rambling Upper West Side apartment.

“That’s not true. I’ve done three loads of laundry since you abandoned me,” he said closing the door behind her.

“And probably used too much soap, as I remember,” she said noticing his tray of pills on the kitchen counter.

“Not to be concerned. They’re candy pills.”

“There’s what I came back for,” she said walking out onto his terrace. “God, what a view. Straight down Broadway, and those lights. From two miles away, they dance like stars in the night sky. I remember how we laid out here on your makeshift hammock and watched the sun go down and come up.”

He followed her outside. “And you got a mosquito bite on your you-know-what.”

“And how tenderly you applied ointment to my you-know-what after kissing me all over down there.”

“Well, I had to inspect and cleanse the area before applying the medication. I did what any thorough, concerned, Good Samaritan would have done in such an emergency.”

“You did what any dissolute deviant would have done.”

“Do you think mosquitoes come out in March?”

“I don’t know, but one can only hope,” she said, then looked down over the railing to the street below. “You can almost touch them.”

“I’m sure they would be touched by your sentiment.”

“That’s so touching.”

“I think you’re touched.”

“How are your parents? Everybody?”

“Shocked. Disbelieving, at least they were for the first few weeks. Now my cell is flooded with texts and emails. Everybody wants to help. To know what they can do.” Chris went back inside to straighten up the clutter that had accumulated in recent weeks.

“And your parents?”

“They’re just happy to have me back, and access to their grandchildren.” Carol had a small but very tight family dispersed over northern New Jersey. She had two married sisters and a stepfather who would lay his life down for his family, especially his three girls.

“You want something?”

“A half a century for us would do nicely,” Carol said, shaking her head, crestfallen. Tears returned, this time with a passion.

He went into the kitchen, scooped up his midday packet of pills, and washed them down with a glass of orange juice. He felt the gulp of ice-cold juice move down his throat and enter his stomach. Soon the acids and contents would dissolve the pills, which would spread throughout his system, and do what? What was the point of it all? The doctors said it would make his next four or five months easier and more comfortable. But easier and more comfortable than what?

Kim would be delighted to have Carol back too. There was a bond between those two since he introduced Carol to his family. His doting older sister was a successful photojournalist and thoroughly admired the computer-generated illustrations Carol created for some of the major women’s magazines. In the year before Carol left, the two of them had become more like sisters. Chris was delighted with their deep friendship and considered himself fortunate to have two such loving women in his life.

He stared at Carol standing out on the terrace. Two years ago, she would have been wearing his baggy shorts and shirts and one of his ratty baseball caps. She looked adorable in his clothing.

“Can we have a date tonight?” he asked.

She turned towards him and, through the wall of glass that separated his living room from the terrace, nodded, tears again streaming down her face. She came inside. “I have to go back to my hotel and take care of some personal stuff.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No. I think I’d rather be alone for a while,” she said coming over to him and resting her head on his chest. “This feels so good.”

“That’s why I got it. I knew you would come into my life some day and need a place to rest your little head.”

“You’re just as silly as when I left.”

“I don’t want to talk about when you left. Please.”

She kissed him. “I’ll come back around six and we’ll go out.”

“Or have a picnic on the terrace?”

“I’d love it.”

Carol fell into the elevator and began to weep hysterically. She didn’t press any of the floor buttons and only realized she hadn’t when the elevator started to drop by its own accord. By the time it fell the eleven floors to the lobby she had wretched herself inside out and used up the remains of a packet of tissues. She made it to the street and looked up at the ridge of his terrace hanging overhead. God how she missed him. She loved him that much.

She had wasted two years of their lives and wasn’t by his side when he found out that he was dying. She cursed herself for that every step of the way back to her hotel. By the time she got back, all she could do was fall into bed and start crying again.

She fell asleep and woke up and cried and fell back to sleep. Her body, enervated, drained, and saturated with sadness. The experience of calling him and meeting him and going through their exchange was so exhausting she could barely roll over and reach for the phone when it rang.

“Yes. Kim. No, I’m okay. Yes,” she said, “I just came from there,” she said and asked Kim to wait.

She set down the receiver and heaved a wrenching, uncontrollable sob. When she finished, and it must have been many minutes later, Kim was still on the line.

“You were so great together. I wish you two had married.”

“We will be for every minute of the rest of his life.” She said without offering any more details about Hal’s response after he found out that he wasn’t the father of the twins, and surmised who was and wanted no part of her, or their future. She had explained it all to Kim when she got the call that sent her packing back to the city. There was little left to discuss about Hal and how wrong she had been about not reaching out to Chris when she first learned she was pregnant.

She thanked Kim for calling her in California and assured her that she would call her tomorrow, showered, and cried herself through the rest of the afternoon.

The first thing she would do tomorrow was buy Chris a cat. The two of them could then drive each other crazy. The second thing she would do is figure out how and when to introduce Matthew and Jonathan to their father.

 

——————–

Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business, on New York TV News Channel 1, taught at the New School University, testified before United States Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform and appeared as an expert witness on best practices before The New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. He has written 11 novels and over 130 short stories.  Over 40 stories have been published online and in print.

I Walk Alone

By Thais Derich

A week past my due date with my second child, I’m slowly climbing the front steps of my San Francisco apartment. My eyes hardly move from my feet. The rhythm of my squeezing belly paces my steps. I remember how greatly I was misinformed before the birth of my first child, three years ago. Women have been giving birth forever, I thought; how hard could it be? My heart pounds. The brick steps up to my red front door seem never ending. I’ll go to a birth class and study birth books; spontaneously begin labor; go to the hospital; and then, the baby will just come out. I stop and grip the railing. But things weren’t fine. I begin slowly climbing again. This time, I’m going to trust my own body.

Three years ago, in the midst of labor with Nate when a cesarean was proposed to me, I never knew that I could have declined and just kept pushing. I thought cesareans were reserved for emergencies. It wasn’t until my postnatal appointment when I asked how I could have avoided the cesarean that the feeling of betrayal set in. My provider told me that I just could have pushed longer. I would have pushed longer. I swear. If I had been given that choice, I would have. The hardest part about birth is trusting that I know my body better than any other authority. Now, after months of preparation, I have a second chance to get it right.

The weight of my off-balance pregnant body and the accumulated fatigue of days without enough sleep sweep over me. I resist the urge to use my hands to help my legs up the stairs. They shake. Poor legs. When I reach the top, I’m breathing as if I have just run a marathon. Why am I still living in a place with so many stairs? All I can think about is collapsing on my bed, the way the Olympic athletes fall on their backs right on the racetrack after they cross the finish. But my marathon is just beginning. Finally, I enter our apartment. The water runs for Nate’s nightly tub. I peek into the bathroom.

“Maybe you should go for a walk or something to keep it going,” Zack says.

Let’s not end up with a stalled labor like last time, he’s saying.

“Later,” I tell him.

I turn my back and walk to the bedroom. I have to sleep, if only for five minutes. Am I already sabotaging my hopes for a better birth by resting? No, that’s what my body is telling me to do. Sleep.

I slowly lean back in bed. Zack comes in and rubs his thumb in circles on the nervy pressure point just above my ankle. It’s supposed to stimulate labor. I groan. Nate runs around the corner, wet. He leaves his little three-year old footprints on the wood floors.

The contractions are so gentle that they might slip away with the fading daylight. Zack scoops Nate up with one arm and swishes a towel around on the floor with the other. My heavy eyes blink slowly a few times. The big building behind our house blocks the low sun.

After an hour the soft squeeze of my belly wakes me up. It’s still there and stronger even. Energized, I force myself to rise. I’m ready for that walk.

I stand at the top of the carpeted stairs that lead down to the front door. Zack cradles Nate in his arms and struggles to untwist his penguin pajama feet.

This is it.

“Wait! Take your cell phone,” Zack says.

My keys jingle as they hit the counter, then the entire contents of my purse hits the granite like he’s shaking out a lost sock from a pillowcase. He holds up the phone like a trophy and tosses it to me. I catch it between my legs. I close the door with a gentle click behind me.

I’m on Fulton Street now. The cars speed by.

The noise is more like jet engines than normal traffic. Cars stream by me one after another.

I have got to get off this street.

My stomach cramps up and I stop walking and breathe deep, long breaths. I turn right into the USF campus. The sunset melts in front of me. My legs waddle so wide, I could have a horse’s back between them.

The campus is empty except for a small group of people following a young tour guide. They stop at every building to look up as she talks. I cross the large green lawn. At the edge of the lawn, I teeter back and forth between the tall grass and the flat pathway. I rest and wait out a contraction. They’re strong now. I make it to the foot of the USF stairs.

Two weeks ago, Zack and I climbed these steps; they are the same stairs that we climbed together on our wedding day. The view from the top looks straight at the tower of St. Ignatius church. We posed for our wedding pictures, kissed, and enjoyed a quiet moment together here. I want to climb those stairs with Zack again and recapture a simpler time. I take two big steps up. The promise of the view of the St. Ignatius tower urges me onward. The orange and lemon sky unobstructed by buildings like the top of a pint of sorbet awaits me. The railing splits into two curving staircases flanking a beautiful rose garden.

And then, I can’t feel my legs. They buckle under with the next contraction. I start to fall. My shirt brushes the petals of a rose. With my hands outstretched, I catch myself on the railing. I’m not going up these steps. I need to get back home.

But when my feet touch the flat sidewalk again, walking feels good. I head further on towards the setting sun.

Almost to my favorite ocean vista point at the edge of the university parking lot, I bend over. My deep breaths manage the rolling waves of contractions. The trek to this vista point makes my already long walk longer. But, I’m too close now to turn back. The expansive view of the Pacific Ocean is steps away. A little further and I will witness the earth rotate away from the sun. Now, at the edge of the empty lot, I stop to look. The city opens up and the colors bleed into the blue water. I breathe. The faint smell of the roses still lingers on my shirt from the stairs. The warm ocean breeze pumps me with energy and gently blows my hair.

As the color starts to dull, the first star of the night appears.

“Time to go home,” I say softly.

Determined to take the most direct route back home this time, I waddle across the crosswalk. I can barely walk now. No cars are coming. I resist the urge to drop to my knees and surrender to labor right there on the other side.

I take the cell phone out of my pocket, but what can it do for me? Nate is probably sleeping, and I don’t want Zack to wake him to come get me. I put it back in my pocket. The white campus security car drives by. Should I flag him for a ride? No, I have to make it home. I have to do it myself.

I hobble to the pedestrian entrance of USF. The shortcut home runs through the deserted campus. If I take the longer route, down Fulton there will be people around, but it will be longer. I can’t do longer.

I turn into the campus. The same tour group walks toward me, and I stop and pretend to look at a poster as I wait for my contraction to stop. I don’t want help. I look normal on the outside. The group passes me and I am alone again. I shuffle my feet forward.

The sky is completely dark now and I am really alone. Should I call Zack now? But then I look around and realize that I am not on a road. I’m in the middle of the pedestrian-only campus. Zack couldn’t pick me up in the car. I smile at the stubbornness of the universe to get its message of solitude across to me. One step at a time, I go back toward the house. Zack will be doing the dinner dishes. Music will be softly filling the empty spaces of the house. Nate will be asleep unknowing that he will be a big brother in the morning. I’ll call the midwife.

I am prepared now. I am ready.

 

——————–

Thais lives in Mill Valley, CA with her two active boys and husband. This spring, she was a cast member/writer for the live national production, Listen To Your Mother, and has written a memoir about her birth experiences and maternity care reform in the U.S. This piece, I Walk Alone, was a finalist for the Creative Nonfiction Magazine’s Babies Anthology. Visit her website www.ThaisDerich.com to read her other published work.

Heart Trouble

By Jacqueline Doyle

Jerry Borden’s heart had been hurting for over a week, but he’d thought the condition was psychological, not physical. Now, driving on a remote highway in Washington State, he considered for the first time that he should have called his doctor. His heart seemed to be clenching tighter and tighter, and while there might be good reasons to suffer emotional pain, this felt alarmingly real. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d overlooked the literal in favor of the metaphorical.

“In the midst of” kept running through his mind, like lyrics of a song he couldn’t shake, but he didn’t recognize the source. The sky was alternately overcast with gray clouds and brilliantly blue. Dense green forests of pine trees extended in all directions. When he’d accepted the invitation to speak at the conference he’d thought vaguely of Seattle, coffee shops. He hadn’t expected it to be quite so remote. He hadn’t expected to feel so alone.

“To die in the midst of all this beauty.” Is that what he was thinking? If he was going to suffer a heart attack, he’d happened on a heart-stoppingly beautiful place. And probably he would die, wouldn’t he, with no hospitals nearby, no police, hardly a car on the road. How long would it take before someone discovered him? Did some victims of heart attacks suffer slow deaths?  But he was only a couple of hours outside of Seattle. Probably the area wasn’t as remote as he thought. He had a cell phone in his briefcase, and with any luck it would have reception.

He was sweating slightly. The pain had eased up a bit. Maybe it didn’t mean anything at all. He’d become prone to anxiety and nervous hypochondria in his late fifties. Maybe he always had been, and Ellen had soothed his fears when they were younger, talked him out of it. Later she’d been less patient, rolling her eyes when he fretted over his symptoms. Her skepticism had been steadying.

He knew he had wronged her. You didn’t just walk out on a marriage of twenty-five years. His own heart was broken not because he missed Ellen, though he did. Or because Brandi Sue had begun to tire of him, though she had. It was because his daughters would no longer speak to him. “How could you do this to Mom?” Anna had shouted. “What kind of narcissistic monster are you?” Cilly had hung up the first time he called and hadn’t answered after that. She hadn’t returned any of his messages.

Priscilla, his Cilly, whom he’d rocked in his arms as an infant, and nursed through so many heartbreaks of her own. How was it possible that he’d lost her affection in one fell swoop, would no longer feel her arms around his neck, her peck on his cheek, hear her excited chatter? “Daddy, I’ve got to tell you something.” His eyes welled and he brushed away the moisture. Cilly would mourn him. He was sure of that.

He was startled as a roadside sign flashed by: Graves Excavation.

“In the midst of.” It was part of a church service, wasn’t it? Or a poem? In the midst of life we are in death? Once he’d been able to recite whole poems from memory, but his memory had become halting and vague in recent years, as if large patches had disappeared. He remembered Cilly’s birth but not Anna’s. A dance recital, Cilly maybe six, her face serious with concentration, her chubby arms raised like parentheses over her head. He could hardly remember the early years with Ellen, though he remembered the class where they first met, both undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin. He’d wanted to impress her with his erudition and had recited “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from beginning to end. Not really a courtship poem, but Ellen had been drawn to him nonetheless. Now he wondered if there had always been something ludicrous about him—the young, earnest boy who took himself so seriously, and now the balding, older man still intent on impressing a young woman. “I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.” Would even his death lack gravitas?

Jerry swerved to the right when a diner suddenly appeared, pulling into the gravel parking lot with his tires screeching. He turned off the ignition and sat for a few minutes, aware of the shortness of his breath, the fluttering of his heart. It was a relief just to know that there were other human beings nearby. His cell phone had three bars. Should he call someone? He tried Cilly’s number, but hung up when he got voice mail. If something was really wrong, they’d help him at the diner.

The low hum of activity inside revived his spirits. A middle-aged, bleached blonde waitress stood at the counter, coffee pot in hand, chatting with a customer, probably the driver of the semi parked at the far end of the lot. He wore a blue Seattle Mariners cap tilted back on his head, and had a tall red thermos next to his plate. The two of them laughed together as if they knew each other well. A few customers were scattered in booths—local tradesmen, they looked like, except the family with the child in the high chair. Dressed in outdoor gear from REI, they had a map open on the table, maybe were headed toward Fort Worden like he was, or Olympic National Park.

“Coffee?” The waitress stood by his table, still holding the pot.

“Got any decaf?”

“One decaf coming up.”

Jerry noted the roll of her wide hips under her shiny polyester uniform as she walked away. Fleshier than he generally liked, but she looked so comfortable. What would it be like to come home to such an undemanding woman every night, to curl up on the sofa with his head in her ample lap? “There, there,” she might say, massaging his scalp. He felt the stirrings of an erection and shifted in his seat.

Maybe she went home after her shift, plopped down on the couch, and ordered her husband to massage her feet. Maybe her husband did all the cooking and grocery shopping too. Ellen had always accused him of shirking his duties at home. “You think it’s a breeze, raising two daughters and taking care of you on top of it?” It wasn’t that he thought it was a breeze. He just couldn’t focus on what needed to be done. Brandi Sue didn’t make those demands, or complaints. She was useless in the kitchen, and wanted him to take her out to dinner every night.

She was a former student, not a current one, and not so very young—thirty-four, which made her older than Cilly and Anna at least. He’d run into her at the Shell station near the university one afternoon. “Professor Borden? Is that you? You probably don’t remember me.” He couldn’t quite place her: a rangy brunette with windswept hair and hazel eyes a bit too close together for beauty. They’d gone out for coffee and she’d told him about her divorce and her jobs, first as a flight attendant, now in a travel agency. “I get discounts, you know. I just love to travel.” Jerry nodded, though he hadn’t traveled for years. He worked on his articles during summer vacations, went off to three or four-day conferences once or twice a year, but didn’t like to be away from home for more than a week. “Reading was a kind of travel for me, back in college,” Brandi Sue told him. “You were the best lecturer in the department.” He felt rejuvenated by her high spirits and open admiration. They met again, to talk about a European author tour she’d recommended, and went to her place afterward.

It almost felt harmless, dropping by Brandi Sue’s once or twice a week, but Ellen had become suspicious of his new attention to his appearance. “Another new tie?” she’d asked, as he adjusted a checkered silk tie in front of the mirror. “Dressing to impress?” He didn’t know why he’d confessed it all to her. He hadn’t planned to leave Ellen. When she kicked him out he moved into Brandi Sue’s scantily furnished one-bedroom apartment, on the second story of an aging complex on the edge of the city. The apartment was dark, with torn travel posters on the walls, and a grimy picture window overlooking a kidney-shaped aqua pool that no one seemed to use. Brandi Sue wanted him to go on a Mediterranean cruise with her. And then on an African safari. “People take pictures, they don’t shoot animals, silly. It’s not like ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ or anything.” She shook her head in mock dismay at his reluctance to embark on an adventure, but Jerry could see that her dismay was real enough. He talked about buying a condo for the two of them, hoping to appeal to her domestic side, but she didn’t seem very interested. “Home is where the heart is,” the old saying went, and Jerry had no idea where that was any more.

He scanned the menu, briefly considering the Heart Healthy option with egg beaters substituted for eggs, but decided against it. If he was having a heart attack, it was too late anyway.

The waitress came back and took out a pencil and pad.

“I’ll have the #2. Eggs over easy, hash browns, wheat toast, and bacon. Make the bacon crisp. And an orange juice.”

“Small or large?”

“Large.”

She smiled at him and he smiled back, grateful for her attention. He imagined her calming his worries. “You’re anxious, sweetheart,” she’d say to him. “It’s not your heart. You just have too much on your plate.”

The decaf was stronger than he was used to—robust might be the word—and left an acid aftertaste. He wrapped his hands around the hot cup, inhaling the coffee smell. When the food arrived, he realized he was ravenous.

“Where are you headed?” the waitress asked him. She seemed genuinely interested, and in no hurry. He liked that.

“Port Townsend. Actually the conference center at Fort Worden.”

“Coming from Sea-Tac?”

“You mean the airport? Yeah, I just flew in this morning.”

“Most folks take the ferry across.”

“I know. I was in the mood for a road trip though. It’s real pretty country around here.”

“That’s what they say,” the waitress answered. “Can I get you anything else? Ketchup?”

“No thanks.” Jerry hadn’t known about the ferry, and wished now that he’d taken it. He didn’t know why he had such difficulty admitting to ignorance. Or that he’d made a mistake. Did it make him feel less of a man? Ellen would have made him feel foolish if she’d been there. Ellen would have known about the ferry. There had been a map with the conference materials, and the route hadn’t looked difficult. He’d set off without bothering to read the directions. He’d take the ferry back, then.

The breakfast was perfect. He thought it might be the best breakfast he’d ever eaten, at least in a long time. He dipped his wheat toast into the egg yolks oozing onto the plate, savored each forkful of egg and crispy hash browns, picking up the bacon with his fingers between bites. Four pieces. Generous. The orange juice tasted like it was freshly squeezed. No wonder the waitress had put on some extra pounds. He’d like to know her name. Maybe she’d write it on the bill.

Downing the rest of the orange juice in a long gulp, Jerry stood up and edged out of the booth to ask for the check. His hand flew up to his chest when he felt a sudden, searing pain. His knees buckled. “This is it,” he thought, as he slumped to the floor, throwing an arm out to cushion his head from the fall.

The hum of noise in the diner ceased.

“Call 9-1-1.” It was a woman’s voice, and sounded far away. “Someone call 9-1-1.”

The linoleum tile floor was cold under his body. His face was hot. He could see feet rushing toward him, and for a moment he gazed at the concerned faces looking down at him from what seemed a great height. It was easier to close his eyes, so he did. Someone, the waitress, squatted beside him, unbuttoning his shirt. “It’s going to be all right,” she was saying in a soothing voice. “Help is coming.”

“I think I’m in love with you,” he told her. Mouthing the words was an effort. “I think…” He realized he didn’t know her name.

“Don’t be absurd.” It was Ellen’s voice, but he knew she wasn’t there.

After a long while, he heard heavy footsteps and opened his eyes to six sturdy black boots. One of the paramedics strapped a blood pressure sleeve onto his upper arm while another sat in the booth asking questions and recording his answers on a clipboard. Was he experiencing pain? Had he been experiencing pain earlier today? Did he have a history of hypertension? Jerry answered in low monosyllables, gasping with each breath.

Was this it? Was he going to die here, so far from home, among strangers?

“We’re going to take you to the E.R.,” one of them said. “Just to check this out.” Jerry felt himself hoisted onto a stretcher. The diner passed in a blur, the air around him went from warm to cold as they bumped through the outer doors. Red lights flashed outside and a radio crackled. Someone passed his coat and briefcase through the rear doors as they settled him inside the ambulance.

His talk wasn’t until tomorrow. Today was just the reception, but he thought maybe he should call. Then thought, how utterly trivial and irrelevant the conference is. I should call Ellen, Cilly, Anna. Had Cilly noticed his missed call? Would any of them speak to him? Would they come to the hospital if he needed bypass surgery?

The paramedic with the beard had pulled up Jerry’s shirt and was rubbing icy goo onto his torso, attaching rubber suction cups and wires. “This is routine,” he said, and he talked some more, but Jerry couldn’t focus. He closed his eyes and didn’t open them until a blast of chilly air signaled the opening of the ambulance doors at the hospital. He had a confused sense of fluorescent lights and pale green walls as he was wheeled rapidly through a corridor. He heard snatches of conversation but couldn’t quite catch the words. Would any of the hospital attendants care if he died right now? They must be used to it. Jerry’s breathing was still halting, he felt an acid taste at the back of his throat, but his chest pain had abated. Maybe that was what happened when the heart stopped working. Ellen would be asking questions, if she were there. His body was limp as a nurse helped him out of his clothes and into a worn hospital gown. She fiddled with the suction cups and put another blood pressure sleeve on his left arm. “Am I okay?” he asked. “I can’t catch my breath.” The nurse didn’t seem to hear him. She shook out a light blanket, tucking it under his feet. “Someone will be with you soon,” she said. A monitor beeped quietly next to the gurney. Jerry dozed, wondering in the last split second before unconsciousness whether he would ever wake again.

“Mr. Borden?” A young man in green scrubs perched on a stool next to him, stretching out his long legs. “Mr. Borden? I’m Doctor Burrows. Can you tell me what happened?”

Jerry cleared his throat. “I’ve been having this pain in my chest.” He rubbed the left side of his chest. “And then it was so bad that I keeled over, I guess.”

“Are you on any drugs for hypertension? Any other medications?”

Jerry struggled to sit up. “Lisinopril. Nothing else, but my doctor’s been watching my cholesterol. The Lisinopril’s in my briefcase.”

“We can look at that later. Your bp was pretty low when you came in, but it’s getting closer to normal now. We worry about heart problems in an incident like this, so we’re going to do a chest x-ray, just in case, but your EKG looks fine.” The doctor held up an accordian sheet traced with vertical lines. When had they done an EKG? Maybe when he first came in. He was weary, trying to remember. The doctor looked very young, but he seemed to know what he was talking about.

“This could be a symptom of stress, or of severe acid indigestion. Apparently you had a big meal? Coffee? Orange juice? ”

Jerry nodded. “It was decaf.”

“How about stress?”

Jerry nodded. There’d been plenty of that lately, though he had no one to blame but himself.

“Too much stress can produce symptoms that mimic the early stages of cardiac arrest. Chest pain. Rapid heart beat. Nervousness. Cold or sweaty hands. We’re going to keep you here for a while for observation after the x-ray, but I think we can rule out your heart. You should see your personal physician as soon as possible for follow-up. In the next day or two, if possible. Do you have any questions?”

“How long will I be here?”

“Another hour or two should be enough, if there aren’t any new symptoms.”

“Can I make some phone calls?”

“Go right ahead.”

He thought about it after the x-ray, and decided to put off the phone calls. He’d find a local motel later and call from there. Maybe leave a message with the conference administrator canceling his talk. He was exhausted. It was a writers’ conference, not an academic conference. They didn’t really need a lecture on Pound’s role in Eliot’s revisions of “The Waste Land.” Maybe no one did. What was the point of all that scholarship, the minor controversies and backbiting, the climb up the career ladder? He’d built up a modest reputation, but who cared really?

He left a hurried message later from the motel, grateful that he’d gotten an answering machine at the conference center, and not a real person. Although he’d been looking forward to the talk, a new sort of audience for his scholarship, now he felt freed from an obligation that no longer seemed important. The heater in the wood-paneled motel room glowed orange but the heat didn’t seem to reach the bed, where he sat with his back against the cold headboard, legs extended on the brown-flowered bedspread. The room smelled of mildew and Pine-Sol. He scrolled through the list of contacts on his cell phone, lingering at his wife’s and daughters’ names, and then decided to go next door for pizza. When he got back he took a hot shower, and then looked at his phone again.

He tried Cilly. When his call was transferred to voice mail, he walked around the room, switched the TV on and then off, opened the mini-refrigerator, which was empty, and peeked through the curtains at the parking lot, which had three cars in it. Under the rustic sign “Kountry Krossing Motel,” a neon sign reading “acancy” flickered. He decided to text Cilly. He never texted, and his fingers were clumsy. “Just out of hospital. Wd like to talk.” He switched on the TV and watched the local news at low volume.

He was in bed with the lights out when his phone rang.

“Daddy, it’s Cilly. Where are you?”

“I’m not sure exactly. Somewhere south of Seattle.”

“Seattle? What are you doing there?”

“I was supposed to speak at a conference, but I’m not going to.”

“Are you all right? Why were you in the hospital?”

“They thought it was my heart, but I’m all right, I guess. I’ll have to see Doctor Minter for a checkup.”

Cilly started to cry. “Are you really okay? When are you coming home?”

“Tomorrow. I’ll be there tomorrow.”

“Is that woman picking you up?”

“No.” Jerry hadn’t even thought about Brandi Sue. It hadn’t occurred to him to call her. She’d be fine without him. Better off, probably. He couldn’t imagine himself baking in the sun on a Mediterranean cruise, or dying in Africa with Brandi Sue at his bedside.

“Do you want me to come to the airport?”

“I’d like that. I’ll give you a call tomorrow when I know my flight time and where I’m coming in. Probably SFO. I can’t wait to get home. I’ve missed all of you so much.”

Tears were rolling down his face when he hung up. He needed to talk to Ellen. He’d made a big mistake. He saw that now. He wanted his family around him, needed his family. He’d been stupid, foolish. Maybe Ellen would laugh about his dramatic trip to the E.R. for indigestion and stress. He deserved her ridicule. And her anger. He hoped she would forgive him.

Driving by the diner the next morning it occurred to him that he’d never paid for his breakfast. When he’d picked up his rental car the previous evening, he’d been in a rush, hoping no one would see him and ask embarrassing questions. But he didn’t want to stiff them for the bill, especially not the blonde waitress.

She was on the phone when he pushed open the door. She was heavier than he remembered. Her beige polyester uniform strained across her breasts. Today her platinum hair was pulled back in a ponytail that showed her dark roots. She gave him a warm nod of recognition as she half turned her head away to speak into the phone. “I know. Murray’s a real shit and I should know better. If it weren’t for the kids … Got to go now. Got a customer. It’s that nice old guy who had the heart attack yesterday. You know, the one I told you about?”

Jerry was momentarily annoyed. He wasn’t that much older than her, was he?

“How are you?” she asked. “You had us all worried there.”

“I’m okay. Can’t complain. I never paid my bill.”

“Oh that.” She laughed and waved her hand.

“No, really.”

“What was that—a #2, small OJ, and a decaf? That’s $6.99.”

He handed her a ten. “Keep the change.”

“You sure you’re okay? Want some breakfast?”

“No, thanks. I’m okay.”

He didn’t know what he’d found so attractive about her. She was just ordinary. An ordinary human being with problems like anyone else. Him. Ellen. Cilly and Anna. Brandi Sue. She might have saved him from death. But she wasn’t going to rescue him from the complications of life. Whatever mess he’d gotten himself into, he’d have to get himself out of.

Outside he inhaled the smell of the pine trees, chest expanding, as his heart opened to the limitless blue of the sky, the endless expanse of green forest on all sides. He climbed back into the car and headed north to the airport. Soon he’d be 37,000 feet above this tiny spot in the universe, heading home. It had been a bumpy flight on the way up, and they’d landed on the tarmac in Seattle with a shuddering thud. It would probably be rough going back too.

 

——————–

Jacqueline Doyle’s work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Confrontation, Jabberwock Review, Southern Indiana Review, and South Loop Review. A recent Pushcart nominee, she also has a “Notable Essay” listed in Best American Essays 2013. She lives with her husband and son in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

Damn Yankee

By Ann Anderson Evans

As well as reporting on the cotton business, The Cotton Trade Journal, Mr. Francis Hickman, Proprietor and Publisher, sponsored the annual pageant that crowned the “Cotton Queen.” As a representative of that journal, my father met each year’s Queen when she visited New York and told us about her over dinner. I pictured a series of wasp-waisted southern belles beaming under a rhinestone tiara. Mr. Hickman lived on a grand estate in Germantown, just outside of early-Elvis Memphis, and in the summer of 1959, when I was a senior in high school, he invited the whole family to visit.

I’d spent summers at camp in Maine, but knew little of America outside of New England. I was excited as we piled into the Nash Rambler and drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains into the land of the Mississippi River, Tennessee Walking Horses, grits and ham breakfasts, and sharecroppers (Mornin’, Mistuh Hickman).

Mr. Hickman was a congenial, aging bachelor who enjoyed entertaining. The impressive skills of his cook were reflected in his girth. He invited my father’s opposite number in Memphis to dinner one night, and the conversation turned to swimming pools because I’m a swimmer. The man said there were Nigra pools and White pools. I was used to the term “Negroes.” Even Martin Luther King used that word. The word “Nigra” seemed far enough away from the N-word to be used in polite company, though what did I know. “We don’t swim with the Nigras because they all have syphilis,” the man said. I didn’t know what syphilis was, but it didn’t sound good.

When we went into the city, I was shocked at the separate drinking fountains and movie entrances. Coming from a cabal of civil rights activists in my high school in Montclair, New Jersey (which meant that we actually spoke to Jews and Black people), I had read of such things, but seeing them in front of me was appalling. I was indignant when I learned that in southern branches of my own church, Christian Science, Negroes sat at the back. That was one reason why I left it the next year.

Over a bridge game I got my first Yankee Lecture, delivered in the dulcet tones of a well-brought-up Southern lady friend of Mr. Hickman’s. “You Yankees don’t understand us down here. You think we’re all ignorant, vicious racists. You make fun of our accent and all, but we are good people. We’ve lived together with the Nigras for hundreds of years, and we understand each other. Besides, I have it on good authority that racism is much worse in the North than it is in the South.”

Yes, we made fun of the Southern accent. And I had to acknowledge that in Montclair the schools were segregated up to the high school, where most Black students were tracked into different classes than people like me. The neighborhoods were segregated, and no Black person would have ventured onto the streets of Upper Montclair for shopping or entertainment. And, of course, as Martin Luther King said, there was no more segregated time than Sunday morning. In the Montclair branch of the Christian Science church there were no Negroes at all. Maybe Mr. Hickman’s friend had a point. I could learn something from these soft-spoken people. Maybe I could practice more humility.

I took some of my high dudgeon back to New Jersey. Greenwich Village, where I lived in the mid-60s, was a hotbed of civil rights activity. The loss of Martin Luther King brought me to tears, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X opened my eyes and my heart.

From 1965 until 1976 I lived in Athens, Greece, far from racial strife, since there weren’t any Black people in Athens.

I married an Australian journalist, had two children, returned to Montclair, and divorced him. In 1982, I met Tom from Nashville, North Carolina. He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American boy, a song-and-dance man who had left the South for Broadway and had no desire to go back. His raving conservative sister Chee called him a “bleeding heart New York liberal.”

Settling into a post-Broadway career as a computer programmer, he was a fount of buoyant optimism. His mother, Mary Laura, was living in New York City back then, making a modest living babysitting for the children of tourists staying at fancy hotels. When we announced our vague goal of marriage, she confided to me that he had once suffered what she called a “nervous breakdown.” In hindsight, I recognize her caveat emptor. But I’d known other people who had suffered “nervous breakdowns” and had recovered nicely, so I didn’t worry about it. If I had known then what I know now, I would have wondered if his unrelenting buoyancy was depression’s sibling, mania, especially since his father had been manic-depressive.

Mary Laura was a tiny woman, and after someone on a bike knocked her down on 8th Avenue and 46th Street in the process of stealing her purse, she moved back to Nashville, saying she wouldn’t host us there until we were married. No premarital hanky-panky between HER bedsheets!

In 1984, a few months after our wedding, we took the kids and visited Mary Laura, in Nashville. Tom was looking forward to seeing his hometown again, especially as it held warm memories of his beloved grandmother, who had encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a Broadway star.

Nashville is a strip of houses along Route 64 in the flat, eastern part of the state. The railroad track which once carried Franklin Delano Roosevelt down to Hot Springs, Georgia runs through it. Mary Laura remembered seeing Roosevelt waving from the train. She was super proud that an ancestor had once been the sheriff of Nash County. After a dispute over the maintenance of the family burial plot, she was no longer on speaking terms with her brother, who owned a pig farm just outside of Nashville. There was a whiff of William Faulkner about the place, but the barbecue and cornbread were outstanding, and we relaxed.

It turned unbearably hot and I yearned for some water to jump into, so we went to the public pool. My daughter and I changed into our bathing suits in the ladies’ dressing room and met the guys poolside. There were dozens of people there, kids cannonballing, parents holding their toddlers while they splashed around—high-decibel mayhem. We were the only White people. It was unsettling, but we had our swim and went back home.

I asked Tom’s mother where all the White people were. “They’re all at the country club.” She said it so shamelessly.

I enjoyed chatting with Aunt Annabelle, who was in her 90s. She was as homey and pleasant as marmalade. I wanted to learn what it had been like to live through the last century. She would have been born in the 1890s, when memories of the Civil War were fresh. She’d lived through the Jim Crow era and the period of mandated school desegregation. When I told her about the pool, she said, “Times have changed since I was a girl, but now I have nothing against the Nigras. I like them. As long as they know their place.” I wasn’t going to interrogate Aunt Annabelle. I was in her house, her town, and I wanted to learn the truth of how she was thinking. If I argued and stamped my foot, she’d clam up and I’d never know.

On the way back home, we visited Tom’s cousins in Virginia, where I got the Yankee Lecture again from his cousin’s wife. “You Yankees don’t understand our ways down here. You’re more cold and businesslike. We care about people down here. We care about family, not about money and time. We’re not cold like the Yankees; we’re a warm people. We take care of each other.” There was a Ronald Reagan fillip to the Lecture which had been added since I last heard it in 1959. “Ann, I’m supposing you’re a Democrat, but we’re mostly Republicans down here because we don’t want the government telling us what to do. We feel we know best how to educate our children, and we generally just take care of each other. We don’t need anybody to tell us how to do that.” If she had let me get a word in edgewise, I would have told her I had a job and two children to raise and wasn’t deep into politics. Besides, for a reason I no longer can understand, I voted for Ronald Reagan.

It was true that I did not like to spend half an hour gathering gossip from the telephone repairman before he repaired the telephone. Maybe I should try being a little less efficient and a little more interested in the people around me. Besides, the Gone With the Wind burden still lay on me a hundred years later. I was still atoning for General Sherman.

 

About a year after our Nashville visit, Tom’s eternal optimism led him into a job at UPS. The pace was furious and he made some programming errors just prior to the Christmas rush which affected the handling of thousands of shipments. Either because of the stress and humiliation, or because it was otherwise fated to happen, he slipped into a dangerous depression and was fired. On some days he couldn’t get out of bed, and wouldn’t have showered at all if I hadn’t insisted. He tried to commit suicide, but “the rope broke.”

Now I had a job, two kids, and a desperately ill husband. To keep the family afloat, I had to work a lot of overtime and often didn’t get home until my kids were asleep.

Mary Laura got angry if Tom’s weekly phone calls lasted less than 45 minutes. It was so hard for him to be cheery for 45 whole minutes. I wrote to her and to his cousins about his illness and his suicide attempt. They did not answer me. Caveat emptor. I didn’t write to Chee. She thought he was lazy, a disgrace to the family, and “a poor excuse of a man.” So this was how Southerners “took care of each other.”

It took about a year, but Tom got better. A college buddy, Ross, and his wife Cindy came to spend a week with us while they soaked up some theatre and some New York energy and excitement. They lived just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and their house gift was a University of Alabama T-shirt—the most comfortable T-shirt I have ever owned. I still wear it, spotted and a bit worn, 27 years later.

I wanted our farewell dinner with Ross and Cindy to be special, so we had leg of lamb with all the fixings and chocolate cake for dessert. My children had homework to do and left the table, and the four of us were relaxing over coffee when Cindy mentioned that they were sending their daughter to a private school. My ears perked up. I had read about Southerners avoiding desegregation laws by sending their children to private schools. After Memphis, I knew that what I read in the newspaper was probably true, but again it was jarring to be brought face-to-face with it.

I wanted to hear more. “She’s in a public school now?”

“Yes, but when she leaves the neighborhood school and goes to the high school, things change, and we’re going to send her elsewhere. The high schools are just awful. They have these teachers who can barely speak the English language, and they sure don’t know anything about Shakespeare.”

I knew what teachers she was referring to, and the Yankee in me galloped into view. I addressed what was between her lines. “Not so long ago it was illegal for Black people to even be literate. I think it’s pretty amazing that they’re high school teachers now.”

She looked startled, then bristled. “Do you know that there is a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey?”

I wanted to laugh at her flaccid attack. I had heard it before, and had taken it to heart, but now had lived long enough to see it for what it was, a defense of the indefensible. “No. I didn’t know. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the North, but at least we have changed our laws, and we’re trying to change our habits.”

Her look made me think maybe I had ruined Tom’s relationship with Ross forever, but this woman of the South controlled her outrage while at her hostess’s dinner table and asked me, “Well, what would you do if it were your daughter?”

I became what they expected me to be, a rude, cold Yankee. “I would do what Black mothers have done from time immemorial. I would scare up a pencil somewhere, send her to school, and tell her to do her best.”

Somebody intervened with a joke or a loving hand because she didn’t throw her hot coffee at me, but our farewells were chilly the next day.

I had the feeling that, as of 1986, the Civil War wasn’t yet over.

 

——————–

Ann Anderson Evans is a writer, linguist, and professor. She is the author of Daring to Date Again, a memoir to be published by SheWrites Press in November, 2014.  A wife (for the third time), mother, and grandmother, she has lived in Spain, Israel, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Greece. She speaks six languages.  Her website and blog are at www.annandersonevans.com.

The Sandman

By Cooper Feste

There is a wind that blows from Mexico past the Rio Grande and up into El Paso that crawls up the spine of the Guadalupe Mountain. On the edge of the desert where sand turns to mountain rock the wind blows like a death drum and that’s where my son and I began the summer day.

The desert sun soothed the pores of my face and my son asked me what we’re doin’ up here on this mountain.

“We’re gonna go to the top to look over the desert, maybe. See what’s out there.”

“I think it’s just sand.”

“The desert’s a vast, endless thing son. Like an ocean.”

“What you think we’ll see?”

“Something ancient maybe. Like a devil.”

He laughed a little, then worried.

“I don’t wanna see no devil, pa.”

“We won’t see no devil ‘less he wanna see us.”

“Why would the devil wanna see us?”

“I don’t know. ” Boyd Jr. didn’t reply, only looked the mountain up and down and then out at the desert and the sun rising across it’s endline. I could feel the iron heat up in its holster. My revolver always grew hotter in the dessert. Maybe it’s something in the air.

It’s me, Boyd. I heat up yer gun, Boyd!

“Let’s go son. We gotta ways to go.”

We started up the trail and my boots were worn warm against the scorching sand. The path we walked was sparsely grazed by cactus and low, brown brush. I took step by step. Left, right, left, right. The soul of the desert was over us two, hanging low against our brows, feeding us. It talked in my head. It yelled at me things. It’s a cursed desert man and it just may be worse than a gambling man, a meth man. Ain’t nothing more powerful than ancient evils. Not even God could cool the dessert day or make the sand’s whole.

You think you could grow a flower in my sands, Boyd?

No, but you could birth a monster.

Now, Boyd! That’s just mean! Ain’t no monsters here, just honest folk, breathing, sometime a-shootin’ folk.

I’m a fucking monster! Every creature walking in those sands are fucking monsters! Yer a fucking monster! You made me a monster, son of a bitch!

You sure you weren’t born a monster, Boyd? You sure you weren’t a monster from the start? You sure you weren’t born with a flask in your pocket and a gun in your holster? You sure you weren’t born a killer, Boyd?

I ain’t a killer.

Would you kill me?

I would blow yer face off and kick it down this mountain, if i could.

“Then shoot, Boyd!” a black suited man appeared from the air in a gust of sand. He wore a flat brimmed hat formed of burnt sand, dessert ash. His smile was black, too. So were his boots.

“What you stop for dad?” asked Boyd Jr. Can you see this creature? Can you son?

“Go ahead, shoot my face off!”

“I can’t. You’re not human. Yer a fuckin’ beast! A goddamned animal.”

“What dad?”

“I am The Sandman, and you best mind that bit.” He looked at Boyd Jr and laughed, went to his knees and grasped some sand and let it run through his callused fingers. “Better watch out for the setting sun, Boyd. Better not let her set.” He disappeared back into sand and wind and I stepped forward.

“Let’s go son. We don’t want the dark to come.”

“Alright, dad.” He looks scared. I look scared and that’s why he’s scared. I am scared, real scared.

We keep walking. The sun hangs low and benevolent. It’s been staring day after day, watching the world turn. What does it see? What does it see that keeps it coming back day after day? Is it watching me now, walking this mountain with my son, watching the desert consume me?

We keep walking, up onto a level flat piece of rock about half the way up the mountain. We sit for a break and Boyd Jr. pulls a sandwich he made from his backpack and starts to eat it. His hair parts down the middle and his eyes are glowing. I ain’t seen my sweet boy in a month. He brushes crumbs from his button up, short sleeve brown T-shirt and they roll down his wrangler jeans. The boots he’s wearing I made at my leather shop. They have his name engraved on the heel and he’s smiling, now, his teeth so small and white. I wonder what he sees in the desert. It ain’t no devil.

He sees something that ain’t there, Boyd. He won’t find it! Not in the desert or on this mountain. Maybe he’ll find it when the sun sets and the night crawls in. Maybe when his throats cut he’ll find it.

Get the fuck out of my head! These thoughts are mine! My fucking thoughts!

Ain’t nothing yours, Boyd. Yer all mine. All mine.

I can’t reply. It’s true. The desert has me in a hold.

“Let’s get back to walking son. I wanna feel the breeze again.”

“Yes, pa,” he paused. “You think we’ll find your devil when we get to the top?”

“I think so.”

The wind carried us onward up the mountain with no break. We must reach peak before sunset and I can’t say why, we just must. Slowly the breeze blew, but surely it did. Surely the breeze blew us onward.

“Can we take a swim at the spring when we reach it?”

“We don’t have time.”

“Can we not just stop for a second? It’s so hot, pa.” Boyd Jr’s voice was a whimper like a broken pups. I told him we would stop and took a swig from my whiskey flask when he turned. I need something to keep me sane, I know this desert won’t, can’t.

We came upon the spring as the evening sun burnt red against the sand clouds and El-Paso sweated beneath its shine. I saw a black shape above it all between the clouds and the sun and it could be a shade or a simple spot of no-light but i knew it was The Sandman and he was watching and it was clear when the shadow grew a smiling face with crow’s feet and a blonde mustache above it’s stoic upper lip. When will this fucker leave me be?

You know I can’t leave you be, Boyd. You owe me a debt. And this debt can’t be paid with no gold, no copper, no silver. This debts crimson, Boyd.

Yer a son of a bitch, you know that.

I know that well! Swim with your son now, Boyd. It’s hot out here, catch some cool while you can!

Boyd Jr was in his trousers when I turned and he smiled at me before he dove in. He splashed around, threw his hairback and shot water from his mouth like a geiser.

“Come in pa it feels great!” he called. I put a smile on and dove after him. He was right, it felt great. As the cold water chilled me, splashed on my chin and cheeks, I remembered the day I taught him how to swim. He’d say daddy watch this, and dive right in. I’d have to swim to the bottom of the pool and pull him up as he’d laugh and then start swimming on his own. He’s been a natural swimmer since he first stepped in water. My old wife used to joke that he wasn’t ours but a merman we picked up from the banks of the Rio Grande and he’d be proud of that and smile when we told the story at Thanksgiving with her parents and her sisters and brothers. She’s dead now, though. So are her parents and her sisters and her brothers. All dead.

“Watch this flip! Suzy taught me this!” he did a flip beneath the surface, tucked and rolled, and came back up smiling.

“Nice flip Jr.” I steadied myself. I thought I may collapse. The boy’s all I goddamn got. I watched the sun sink halfway beneath the horizon and told Jr. we gotta get goin’. We’re almost up the mountain, son. We’re almost there.

The track curved upward in a sharp twist of scattered cactus and bull brush and I could see the summit from where I stood, kicking my black boots in stepping motion, slugging along. It was serene, or the only amount of serenity a man like me is allowed, the mountaintop, like heaven’s cloud, red sunspotted and living. It seemed to pulse with the beat of the sun. It was grand, yes, beautiful an angelic but if I had learned one thing as the gambling, desert man I am, it’s always the prettiest sunshine that scorches the skin. It’s always the whitest snow that’s the coldest.

“Pa, it’s the top! It’s so pretty, pa!”

“Yes, boy, it is pretty alright.”

“What you think’s up there? More rock, or what?”

“Just more rock, I think. Some sights to see, though. Some damn fine sights up there. Maybe you can see the old house.” A shadow moved at the summit, a shade of the waning sun. Just a sliver stood up now on the horizon and the day was almost at it’s end; the breeze was blowing a new song that would change the next day and the next, too, til’ the souls of the mountain lay in wake of humanity. The mountain will outlast humanity, I think. So will the desert, too.

And me, Boyd! I will outlast them all! It’s always sad when the father outlasts the son, don’t you think, Boyd? Boyd?

“You prissy steppin’, sick smilin’ motherfucker! I will gut yer fuckin’ eyes out! I’ll throw em down the mountain, I’ll piss on yer desert grave and we will outlast the fucking lot of ya! The fucking desert, the fucking mountain, the fucking sun!”

“Pa, what are you-” It’s too late, son, I thought, stampeding, kicking dust like a mad man kicks his mother and laughs and I storm up to the summit and there he’s standing, ten paces from me, his hand on his sand strung holster and my revolver pointing  to the ground in my hand.

The Sandman’s a laughing lunatic so ancient and powerful and I am going to kill him dead.

You gonna shoot me, Boyd? You gonna bury me in my blood and britches? The Sandman says.

“Pa, who are you talking to?” Boyd Jr. is running up to the summit, I can hear his voice just below.

“Good ole All Ancient All Knowing Sandman, I’m gonna put a bullet through your skull, and leave this debt behind.”

The debt must be paid.

“I won’t pay it.”

The debt must be paid! Boyd? Boyd? You must pay the debt, Boyd! I don’t want to kill you now, Boyd. I don’t wanna bury you red dead but you must pay your debt. How would the world spin if everyone just didn’t pay back what they were given out of simple, good character? You’d be a dead man, Boyd! Your head would be cracked, yer son would be skinned like a ferret and the world, Boyd, the world would be nothing but noise! No silence, noise and noise and chaos and the age of the cowboy would return on it’s black horse back and shoot us all down!

I watched his face spin from laughter to pain to pure ecstacy as he spoke. What does this beast want? Does he even know?

“Let me pay my debt… in some other way… any other way!”

You gon’ take your life, Boyd?

“I’ll take my life.”

“Pa, what are you saying? Pa, what are you talking about, who are you talking to?” Boyd Jr. spoke through sobs. He grabbed at my shirt’s cuffs and tried to pull down my gun hand.

“Run home now, son. Run down the mountain and run back home. Don’t you look back.”

“Pa! Pa!”

I put the gun to my head and pulled the hammer. It was crimson in the dying sun’s shine. It was like a woman in a red dress and red lipstick, high stepping to the widening smiles of watching men.

I turned to my hip and put a bullet in Boyd Jr.’s head. The Sandman jumped up and down, giggling, raving, reaving in the moment.

I cradled his head and his little split, bloody hairs and he was smiling, now. The tears were gone, now. He won’t cry now.

You sly bastard, Boyd! You sly motherfucker! What a show, what a show, Boyd!

I let his head rest against mine as the final showings of the day’s sunlight faded and the desert breeze died out. I saw the desert below, wide and red and dead. I looked up into the cloud and thought it better he rest up here than down in the desert of fire and sand.

 

——————–

Cooper Feste is a man from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. He spends his time reading, writing and pretending he’s a pirate or gunslinger. From deep in the heart of Texas, Mr. Feste brings forth a western with a hint of psychological horror.