Heather Nemeth first discovered her love for writing when she read a single book by Holly Black at the age of sixteen. At 25 years old and from Ocala, Florida, she now resides in Mayport, FL as part of the world’s finest Navy. With encouragement from her husband and best friend, Beka, she began going to school in her pursuit for a BA in Creative Writing for Entertainment at Full Sail University. In her free time, she loves to discuss writing and new world industries with her husband, Tyler.
It was another quiet morning on the road, or so it was for everyone else. The snow was coming down softly as I trudged through the snow. The cold had started to bite through my jeans but I didn’t care. It was a horrible morning and quite possibly the worst way to start the new year. I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I thought of my treacherous husband. The chilling wind kissed my face and I breathed deeply. I wanted to feel numb. I happened across a bridge going across a small frozen river. I stopped and wondered about the dangerous waters beneath the twinkling ice.
A deep male voice sounded behind me and pulled me from my suicidal thoughts. His eyes sparkled blue and he had such a strong stubble-covered jaw. I felt my knees quiver.
“Do you need a ride?”
I shook my head no but I did want to get out of the shivering cold. I could feel the comforting heat of his blue Nissan Titan caress my face and he raised his brow.
“Are you sure?”
He smiled and it was truly dazzling. I threw my indecision out the window.
“Yes, please.” I said as I opened the heavy door. “Thank you so much for the ride.”
“It’s my pleasure. Do you have a heading?” He rolled up the window as the heat engulfed me.
I didn’t want to go back to that womanizer and just short of the closest bar, I didn’t have a place to go. I felt more tears come down my face.
“Hey now, it’s going to be okay.” he cooed as he put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“I have nowhere to go. I caught my husband cheating on me.” I said as I wiped my tears with the sleeve of my green jacket.
I looked at him expecting him to tell me to get out and find my own way home but he just smiled softly and moved to hold my hand. I felt small and womanly in that hand, blood rushed to my cheeks.
“Would you mind if I took you to get coffee?”
I giggled and shook my head. He revved the engine and pulled out carefully onto the road. We sat in silence for almost an hour with a few sneak peaks at his face before we pulled up to a Caribou. I smiled.
“Have you ever been here before?” He asked as he swept his golden hair to the left.
“It’s actually my favorite coffee shop.” I replied as I moved to open the door. He caught my arm.
“Please, allow me.”
I felt my smile grow wider as I watched him step out of the truck and hurry to my side to open the door for me. How sweet of him.
“Thank you.” I said as I slid out of the seat. I think of myself as an average height for a woman but this man stood almost a foot taller. I looked into his eyes and he didn’t bother to take his hands from the truck, trapping me.
“My name is Jay Culhane.” He said as he stepped closer.
“Anna Rivera.” I replied. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
He held out his hand and I took it. He closed the truck and lead me to the heavenly, warm smell of coffee and comfort. He ordered a black coffee with two sugars but when I ordered he laughed.
“Yes, it has magic that turns everything negative into something amazing.” I elbowed him for making fun.
“Well I hope I could do that for you too.”
I felt a blush run hot and heavy across my cheeks so I turned away and walked to a table while he waited for the drinks. My, he was fascinating. His jacket hid his upper body but those wrangler blue-jeans hugged his legs and draped over the brown leather cowboy boots. He looked delectable. I shook my head.
You are a married woman! My inner voice scolded me but I smiled.
I may be married but it’s also a new year. It’s never too late for a change, a resolution.
Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Ester (A Mother)
The years following World War II were a time of beginnings. Peace was beginning, families were beginning, and America was beginning to take a new shape. It was expected that people would try new things and go new places. But among the ancient mountains, known as the Appalachians, things did not take on change like the rest of the country. Few roads were built through the mountainous hardwood forest of this rugged area. Life held on to those things that could provide the most relief from an isolated existence. In the areas where coal was found, men mined it, lived by it, grew old and died by it. Their women raised their children and provided the men with what they could as the trains and trucks carried the product of their labors and most of the money out beyond the mountains to the growing cities of the Northeast.
Some of that coal began its journey near the little town of Matoka, West Virginia. Located along the train tracks that carried much of the traffic, Matoka was the home of a family of merchants that owned and ran the town's only feed store and a small movie theater. Of that family was Ester Williams and her two older sisters. There had been an older brother but he had gone down in a bomber during the war. Ester's father was also deceased but her mother still lived and managed the two small businesses. They were an industrious family that knew the value of money. Ester, however, was the least business oriented among the family. Instead, she was more interested in music and loved to play the piano and sing, leaving the matters of business to the rest of the family. Her family supported her in this and considered her to be more or less their contribution to the arts. Consequently, she became quite good. In the tough environment of the coal fields such an individual could hold a place that was, while rather different, respected and sometimes admired. The struggle of mining life sometimes required a softening of the hard edges that necessarily developed. Music could do that.
Ester was unusual in more ways than just her avocation. She was a twice married single mother. Many years earlier, she had eloped with her high school sweetheart, a handsome but penniless boy named Ben.
During the heights of the great depression Ester and Ben returned to Matoka after marrying. Neither had any way to earn a living. Ester’s family had enough to help them out some but Ben came from a poor family who didn’t have enough to even pay off their debts at the coal company store. Plus Ben hated coal mining and could not hold a mining job. Mining was tough.
It wasn't long before Ben, whose character strengths did not match his good looks, succumbed to depression, borrowed a gun, and shot himself.
He was buried following a small funeral with only his mother and father and the Williams family in attendance, his prior popularity having vanished among the staunch conservative community. Ester’s family paid for the funeral and burial. The expenses were never discussed between the two families nor did they stay in contact. It was like nature had annulled the marriage between Ester and Ben. Ester returned to her music and the rest of the family continued their trade while Ben’s little family, now childless, returned to their life in the coal camp. The great depression was no respecter of persons--life was luck and it must go on.
Sitting on the front porch of the family home in an old rocker, Ester recalls the days of her marriage to Ben and wonders if they played a part in her leaving Buddy, her second husband and the father of her two year old son. Determined to let the past be the past, she quickly tries to dismiss this thought. But Buddy is her son’s father and that is different. It will never be the past.
She can’t help but remember the day that she left Mathews, Virginia for good, Or the letter and phone calls from Buddy begging her to come back. She felt sorry for him but told him that it was over. Did she do the right thing? Like a film in her mother's movie house, it plays in her mind, different parts and times flashing forth like a Picasso.
A naked baby boy barely able to walk, struggles toward the ocean waves, falls face first into the sand, giggles, and rights himself. The brilliant blue and white mixes with the wind and sounds of surf to flood his senses. As he nears the froth of the receding surf Ester suddenly runs to the water's edge and grabs him. Ester is a stoutly built woman wearing a modest bathing suit of the post World War II era and the child is Charles, her son. Telling herself that she had better keep a close eye on him, she looks to the sky and determines that the sun will soon be too hot. Holding Charles, Ester bends down and picks up the little shovel and bucket and carries them to the grassy top of the sand dune where a little red wagon sits. Putting them and her belongings in the wagon, she pulls on a smock, puts cover on her boy, and pulls the wagon along a sandy street that runs through the seaside fishing and farming community of Mathews, Virginia.
Ester and Buddy, a fisherman jack of all trades met after the war at a USO social in Bluefield, West Virginia where Buddy was awaiting military discharge. Ester had wanted a child beyond all else. And Buddy in his Merchant Marine uniform seemed like a God send to a young unmarried woman from a small town. Both were in their thirties and looking for a place to enjoy the expected peace and prosperity that would come. Times were giddy and, though they were from different backgrounds, they married quickly and headed to the Virginia shore where Buddy was from. However the good times never really had a chance because Buddy was prone to drink and many times the money that was needed to make ends meet was spent in the local fishermen’s bars. Plus the crab boat that Ester’s family bought them for a wedding present was hardly broken in before Buddy got drunk and sold it for far less than it was worth. Even though she was granted her wish and became pregnant, that sale broke Ester’s will to keep the marriage going. She left Buddy and went back to Matoka to have Charles.
Buddy, a father removed, kept phoning and pleading for her to come back until, against the advice of her family, she carried Charles back to Mathews and tried once again to make a life for them. But Buddy seemed little different than before except that his drinking was more confined to the local area and seldom did he stay out more than one night.
Buddy had been medically discharged from the Merchant Marines because he had fallen from a mast and burst his skull. A metal plate was inserted to replace part of the bone and it was said that this contributed to his behavior. His family tried to make allowances for him but they were just able to make ends meet themselves. But he was one of their own so most of them tried to keep Ester on board for his sake. This proved to be hardly enough for Ester. She had made sacrifices in order to return to Mathews. She had liked watching her baby, studying music, and playing her mother’s piano. In Mathews they could barely afford the rent for the little shack that they lived in, let alone a piano. Or even a good record player. But she had wanted to prove to her parents that they could make it so she tried to endure. It was not long though until she decided that their life could not go on like that. They were on borrowed time. This cast a feeling of melancholia over their relationship and the resulting resentment prevented both of them from honestly trying to come to grips with the situation. Frequently they would exchange guilty looks and quietly drift farther apart, each seeing their own vision of a doomed relationship.
Walking along the rutted beach road, pulling the wagon and Charles behind, Ester thinks about what will be waiting for them when they get home. When they left for the beach they saw Buddy by the station house talking with a large black man in fishing boots. The station house is a favorite place for those who like to pass a bottle around while discussing fishing or the hog prices over at the farmers auction. As Ester nears the place where the beach road joins the regular street she hears laughter coming from the direction of the station house and decides to bypass it, hoping to avoid seeing Buddy drunk.
Evening is quiet and Ester remains anxious when Buddy fails to come home for dinner. She and Charles listen to the radio until it is his bedtime and Ester tucks him in.
Suddenly a loud crashing sound comes from the front stoop.
“God Damn it Ester, how many times have I told you to keep the fucking toys out of the doorway!”
Ester hurries to the entrance and helps Buddy regain his feet. He had tripped over the wagon, knocking out one of the door panels.
“My God Buddy, the doorway is plainly clear enough for anyone who can walk straight. You smell like a brewery, serves you right. I suppose you drank up the money we were going to pay the rent with.”
“Fuck the rent we’re going to move anyway," replies Buddy as he lurches across the room and flops down in his favorite piece of furniture, a huge pink arm chair.
Ester’s eyes fill with tears.
“Just where to. We don’t have any money and the last time I checked there are no places around here that are rent free. It’s just another one of your moves because you drank up the money. I told you Buddy I can’t keep moving. It’s not good for Charles and it’s not good for us. We need a place we can count on.”
“Hell Ester, don’t start that got to get ahead bull shit again. We can take that little garden cottage behind John’s. He says that I can work on his boat to make it up plus a little extra money besides.”
John is Buddy’s older brother. He fishes for anything that he can sell off his truck over in Gloucester, mostly crab. He needs help setting and retrieving crab pots--it is hard work bringing them up and setting them from the back of his small boat. And Ester knows that Buddy can’t do it.
“You can’t stick to that. You’ve tried it and Lord knows you can’t. Besides that cottage doesn’t even have a bathroom. I told you when I came back here that I would not live like that and you promised that we could have our own place. You said it would be different. They don’t even like me. They think I’m stuck up. Buddy listen to me--I won’t do it!"
Ester is crying.
Buddy stands up, pointing his finger.
“You are stuck up and you’ll God damned do what I tell you to do!"
Ester, rushes over to Buddy and grabs him.
“Please, Buddy, please don’t do this. I won’t do it...I can’t do it...I’ll leave you, I’ll take Charles and I’ll leave. And this time I won‘t come back. Can’t you see that?”
There it is, the unspoken thought that inhabits their lives, finally said out loud.
Buddy looks down at her as she clings to him and for a moment they hold each other’s gaze. As if to terminate any tie that holds them together, Buddy pushes her away.
“Go on and leave then! You never belonged here anyway...too high and mighty for the likes of me...go on, leave, I’m tired of never being able to please you! Take the kid with you...going to turn out to be nothing but a momma’s boy anyhow... you wanted a kid...now you got one. Call it my contribution, go on, leave.”
Ester stumbles backwards and falls over a foot stool, landing with a loud thud as her bottom hits the floor. Lowering her head into her hands, her soft sobs are broken by the sound of another louder cry. In the bedroom door stands Charles, his big teary eyes searching first the face of his father and then that of his mother's.
Ester quickly stands and takes Charles back into the bedroom while Buddy, looking bewildered and lost, slowly walks out the front door. Looking at the light coming through the broken door panel, Buddy mutters, “Oh what’s the use," shoves his hands in his pockets, and makes his way toward the station house.
Ester knows that the greyhound bus to Richmond will pass through shortly. She also knows that this has been a long time coming so it may as well be now. She will take Charles and return to her family with the money she received from them earlier and hid away. It was enough to get them on the bus to Richmond. Enough will be leftover to go by train from there into West Virginia. She doesn't know the train schedule but she knows that the major coalfields of Southern West Virginia call for much rail traffic. And that includes some passenger trains that bring the big coal company executives, their families, and the coal business in and out of the region. Along with the rich in their sleepers, there will be room for the poor in coach. They might have to spend a night in the station but that is nothing she and Charles have not done before.
There is not much to pack---a small cardboard suitcase and a small bag of toys along with a jar of peanut butter and half a loaf of bread. Ester places the food and toys, along with Charles, in the little red wagon and pulls them behind her as she carries the suitcase.
The bus stop is about a mile away and it takes her about 30 minutes to walk the distance to the shelter and bench beside the highway. She doesn't have long to wait before she sees large headlights in the distance. It has to be the bus. Nothing else that big runs through here. Stepping near the edge of the road and waving, Ester watches the bus slow and pull over.
The driver gets out and looks over at Charles setting in the wagon.
“Heading toward Richmond,” he asks, “just you and the kid?"
“Yes," replys Ester, “we have a train to catch."
“You're not going all the way into downtown Richmond,” the driver asks, “want me to drop you at the train station?"
“Yes, please. That would save us some trouble making the connection and it would be much appreciated.” Ester is glad that the driver is willing to do this. She can't spare cab fare.
“No problem at all," the driver says as he stows the suitcase under the bus and looks at the red wagon.
“Sorry I can’t take the wagon without charging you extra. The company is very strict about that. Want me to load it as well?”
“Just leave it," replies Ester.
She feels a moment of sorrow but immediately pushes it away. The wagon had served them well and Charles had few toys, she will have to get him another one. Or maybe something a little more complicated like one of those toy cars that you can pedal.
Lifting Charles and their few belongings from the wagon, Ester pushes the wagon to the side of the shelter and hopes that someone will make use of it. She pays the driver and learns that Charles can ride free as long as he is carried aboard.
Finding a seat not too far from the front of the bus and getting situated, Ester hears the swooshing sound as the driver closes the door and pulls back on the highway. A family of three is once again only two, starting a journey that is as unclear as the dark countryside beyond their window. Holding Charles in her lap as he falls asleep, Ester wonders what she can do once they reach Matoka. Her family will of course take them in but they will also expect her to find something to do with herself. Ester thinks of her music and how she might use that to make a life. Maybe she can teach.
At the station house Buddy sees the bus in the distance slow down and stop for a few minutes before continuing on. Maybe someday he can take his family on that bus to Richmond and they can have a real holiday---eat in a good restaurant, and stay in a nice hotel. Ester has complained and threatened before. One time she even left him, but she had come back fast enough. He knows it is hard for her but she will just have to give him a chance to prove to her that he can handle it. Just a little more time is needed. A man has to sometimes do things that people don't understand. That takes time. What things those are, Buddy can't quite figure. He loses his train of thought and doesn't remember where he started. Looking around and suddenly realizing that he is the only one left on the platform, Buddy gingerly slides from atop a large barrel and stumbles toward home hoping Ester will be in bed. He doesn't feel like arguing tonight. It will all get straightened out tomorrow.
As Buddy nears home he sees that the lights are on and tries to ready himself for more complaints. Noticing the broken door but not remembering how it got that way, he goes inside. It is all too quiet. Why has Ester not turned off the lights before going to bed? Only the bedroom is dark. He goes into the bedroom and switches on the light to find the bed and the old makeshift crib empty. The drawer where Ester keeps her clothes is open and empty. And the shelf where she keeps the few things for Charles is bare. A knot slowly begins to form in the pit of Buddy’s stomach and he begins to feel sick---a wild kind of scared sick. He looks all around, panic in his eyes. He even runs outside and looks under the house to see if they might be hiding there. Coming back inside, he notices that the wagon is gone. Maybe they are just walking around somewhere but why would they do that. The unusual stop of the Greyhound bus suddenly dawns upon him. In a full panic, he half runs, half walks to the bus stop to find no one there. Nothing.
As Buddy is bending over to catch his breath he sees a flicker of light in the shadow of the shelter and draws closer to see what it was. At first only the handle bar lying in the dust is visible. But the whole thing becomes visible as Buddy further examines the object. It is a child’s red wagon. The realization that while he was getting drunker he had watched Ester and Charles leave him hits him hard. Moaning from deep inside, he slowly sinks to the bench, curls like a fetus, and cries until he is unconscious.
Slowly rocking back and forth, again aware of the quiet Matoka street that she overlooked, Ester closed her review of the past and looked to her child playing along the porch nearby. She had done the right thing and she would prove it. With a resolve as hardy as her love of music, she set her jaw and swore to herself that, even if it killed her, she would make a life for herself and her son.
Ester Williams Hayes enrolled in a nearby teachers college and studied music. Through many years of moving around to substitute teach during the school year, while completing her teaching certificate during the summer months, Ester raised Charles as a single mother and lead many a school band as its conductor.
It was not easy. Away trips for state High School band competitions had Charles, still very young, donning his small band uniform and marching in the ranks, pretending to be the smallest music maker. There was no money to do it any other way and Charles played his part well enough that no concerns were raised. The travel and mix of older people stretched him in ways that were not so obvious at first. Later they led to a more liberal leaning in his nature. A fact that sometimes puzzled the more conservative Ester.
Charles’ father was no longer in the picture, but when Charles graduated high school Ester loaned him her car to go back to the Chesapeake Bay area and look for him. Finding only his father’s brother, Charles learned that Buddy had faded from even his own family’s picture. The last anybody knew about him was that he was in an old soldier's home somewhere. It seemed that not much had changed through those years. Fishing and hard work left little time to keep up with those beyond the immediate family.
Charles returned to West Virginia and, as Ester grew older, went forth carrying those obscure parts of his father that would bedevil him and Ester throughout life. They were the products of the hard rocks of Appalachia. Where coal was king.
A Bad Lot
Watching his laying hens chase the cracked corn, Luke Oleman worries that his decision to skip college and a draft deferment to stay home with his family and help manage their Dairy business had been the wrong one. Having graduated with the high school class of 1965 a few months earlier, he couldn’t see then how the Army would be interested in a Virginia farm boy who hated any kind of killing. But lately he was learning that temperament made little difference to the local draft board when it came to filling their quotas. Some of the older boys that he knew had been called up recently. Tossing the last of the feed, he kneels to pet his old border collie, Beau. Enjoying his love for his dog and animals in general, Luke remembers how a couple of their dairy cows had gotten nailed by a marauding bull when he was in grade school. And how he had stood up to his dad when his dad had wanted to slaughter the calves to save the milk. His dad had finally given in and let Luke raise the calves with their mothers separate from the rest of the herd. A year later he and the calves had won best of a new breed at the fair. And the State University had paid big bucks to have them in a new program at their Agricultural College.
Noticing the mailman pull up and stick something in their box, Luke smoothes Beau’s coat, stands, and goes to the mailbox with a foreboding that seems to dog him more every day. After knocking the beginnings of a wasp nest from underneath it, he opens the flap and withdraws a white envelope with a blue Department of Defense Seal printed on it. Standing in the diminishing dust from the mail truck with his stomach sinking, Luke stares at the letter that he knows is his draft notice. Slowly opening it, he tries to brace himself by thinking that Nancy will still be in college during his service. Just get it out of the way for their life later he tells himself. Reading the dreaded word “Greetings”, Luke confirms that it is his induction notice. Unable to casually continue his chores, he lowers the letter and looks down at Beau. Sensing that all is not right, Beau cocks his head slightly, lifts a paw, and whines softly.
Nancy Childers had been looking forward to her weekend visit home and the chance to spend a little time with Luke. Since starting college she had missed the boy that she had loved as far back as she could remember. Now, since getting his phone call and the news of his draft notice, there was a sadness about the coming weekend that she couldn’t quite shake. Telling herself the same things that Luke was saying---that it’s only for two years and she’ll still be in college all that time--she snaps her bag and goes to catch her ride with another student going her way for the weekend. Nancy has never really been away from home before and it will still be nice to get back to old familiar ground for a little while. The little town of Smithville doesn’t have that much going for it but it is where she and Luke had spent their lives living on adjacent farms in the outlying area. And it was their home.
Waiting for her ride, she recalls how they had fished and picnicked together through the years and how they had come to love the quietness and solitude that they shared roaming the rolling landscape around their farms. How the dying patches of snow, like little white islands in a sea of green, provided their avenues for hiking and loving over the land. Maybe Luke was right, two years could fly by and so far lots of draftees were getting stations other than Vietnam. But Nancy was no wonderland Alice. She knew that lots were not.
Luke, riding a big roan gelding and Nancy, mounted on a smaller chestnut mare, let their mounts amble and graze along the creek that runs for miles to empty into the much larger Shenandoah. Quietly they try to enjoy this last ride before Luke leaves for the war. Despite all their hopes, it had been short schrift for Luke once he finished boot camp. A draftee and no years of training to bring him up to par for specialized jobs, he was slapped with the infantry and posted to the central highlands of Vietnam to help fill the void that the increasing demands of the war were placing on America.
Coming to their favorite swimming hole, a clear pool of still water with reflections of the large sycamore trees that shelter its banks, they let the horses drink, dismount, and tie them off to some smaller trees coming up in the nearby meadow.
Just inside the lee of the sycamores there is a small raised grassy plateau that overlooks the creek and provides a look out through the trees to the meadow and land beyond. With only blankets under their arms, Luke and Nancy leave the horses and silently make their way to their grassy love spot. There, without words but with an understanding that years of togetherness has brought them, they lie together.
Under the sycamores young moist bodies dappled by the soft filtered sunlight lounge side by side, touching along their length as if one, staring through the treetops to the patches of blue beyond. Lovely and placid they are in their repose until a sudden mutual hunger, fueled by memories and uncertain futures, brings their eyes back to one another.
“I love you,” Luke says, as he watches a tear fall from Nancy’s lash. “I can not remember a time when I didn’t. You are my all and all to no end.”
No longer immersed in the tranquil moments of after love, Nancy begins to cry openly as she swings her leg over Luke and takes him in.
“Oh my God Luke, I love you. You are my soul, my future. Please come back to me. I’m empty without you. Don’t get killed, please God don’t get killed.”
Breathing fast, and bursting with his own emotions, Luke lets it out as well.
“I’ll be back dear love, I’ll be back, through heaven and hell I’ll be back. Wait for me, I promise I’ll be back.”
Both weeping, their love tuned to a crescendo of passion and catharsis, Luke and Nancy truly escape the ordinary of their young lives.
Out in the meadow the roan and the chestnut lift their heads from the grass and look toward the trees as the duet of a piercing cry reaches their ears.
Amid the defoliated landscape of shattered tree trunks and shell craters, Luke and an older kid from the Mississippi Delta, known as Big Daddy, bear one of the dead to the medical evacuation helicopter touching down in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam. Rocking slightly upon impact, the chopper sends a splash of blood over the edge of the deck onto the two as they load a lumpy black body bag on the slippery deck. Covered with mud and blood, the pair quickly shove the body in past the crew chief to the other waiting crewman.
Running low as the chopper lifts off, they are clear of the rotor blades when Luke suddenly stops and heaves up a stream of vomit. Big Daddy looks on as Luke, doubled over and trying to regain his stance, instead, vomits again.
Sniffing the heavy smell of puke, cordite and smoke as if they opine his thoughts, Big Daddy says, “That’s right, get that blood gut outside ya where it belongs. I went through it first time too….God damn them that do this war and never see it…never smell it....never taste it stuck in their craw like a rotten chicken gizzard……God damn them all!”
Giving Luke a modicum of privacy for his sickness, Big Daddy looks to the sky and shakes his head.
Finally catching his breath, Luke straightens up and seems to see his stretcher mate for the first time.
“You been through this before? I didn’t think anything could be this bad. Else I would've gone to Canada.”
Big Daddy chuckles and lays his hand on Luke’s shoulder.
“Sure you would’ve, sure you would’ve. Just liken a frog woulda growed wings if he’d knowed he would bump his ass so much. People like me an’ you can’t go to Canada. We’re home boys. Now come on, let’s get the rest of these bagged boys back to their homes.”
Luke hadn’t had much experience with people like Big Daddy, but they grew tight. And when they shook hands and locked eyes for the last time as Big Daddy was getting on the chopper to leave the war and go home, much had passed between them.
Setting in the door of the chopper with his feet dangling above the skids as it revs up, Big Daddy slaps the top of Luke’s helmet and screams above the rotor noise, “Luke, you my man, you be ok now, no sweat, but you and me and all these other poor son a bitches around here, we ain’t never gonna be the same. Of all things remember that….farm boy.”
Watching his smiling friend waving from the door of the rising helicopter, Luke feels a big sorrow yet a certain jubilation that Big Daddy is making it out. And he knows that his last words are true. He will make it too…..and he will never be the same. Standing there, watching the chopper shrink to a dot on the horizon, Luke calls back a time that seems to come from another world. He remembers Nancy and their last ride together.
Newly discharged from the armed forces of the United States and still in uniform, Luke makes his way through the crowded Richmond International Airport, a choking feeling in his throat and unease in his step. The funny dress and long hair all about is a bit unsettling to the rigid standards he had adapted to during his army tour. And some of the looks he gets are down right hostile. But the worst is the way the people seem to be going about a business that somehow excites them, gives a purpose to their steps. What is it that moves them in such a way, makes them laugh and mingle together. Luke now knows in the main what Big Daddy meant about not being the same. Here, back in the world, it spooks him as he pretends a purpose--making his way to the baggage claim to get his duffle bag.
Standing near the baggage carrousel eyeing the passengers as they retrieve their luggage, Nancy, dressed in wild colors and bellbottoms, waits for Luke who doesn’t know that she is there. She has driven all the way from her Northern Virginia school to surprise him and welcome him home..
Looking at the stream of people coming to the baggage area Nancy spots the uniform first and then the tall young man that she loves. All other earthly thoughts and feelings disappear as she runs toward him. A flash of brilliant hippie color, Nancy cries out her welcome as she draws near.
“Luke! Welcome home my darling love!”
Seeing only a pretty young woman wearing wild colors and beads, Luke at first doesn’t recognize Nancy and shies from her approach.
Startled almost to disappointment and feeling a little hurt by his cool reception, Nancy stops shy of her lover and searches his face for signs of something wrong.
“Are you alright, baby? You look scared.”
“I didn’t recognize you,” Luke replies. “It’s just this crowded airport and all the people. Makes me nervous.”
“Well grab your bag and let’s get out of here. We’re going home in my new car.”
Not really knowing the import of a new car compared to an old car, Luke shoulders his bag and listens to Nancy’s excited chatter about school and the life that lies ahead of them. And as they make their way to the parking lot, the unease that has dogged him since his return to the world sits on his shoulder, telling him in one ear that there is something wrong with him, while he tries to hear what Nancy is saying with the other.
“Can you feel it in your legs?” Luke says. “The horses are getting old.”
Seeing Luke more like his old self, Nancy smiles and tells herself it’s going to be OK.
“Maybe a little,” she says. “I’m not the horse person that you are. But no doubt they are older.”
For some reason Luke considers her reply inadequate and feels a bit slighted.
“Well, you don’t need to be a horse person to feel a difference in your old mount.”
Noticing his curtness, Nancy lets it pass and changes the subject.
“Do you think our spot by the creek will be overgrown?”
“Don’t think so,” Luke replies. “That’s the nice thing about sycamores. They have a natural moderating effect on their surrounding soil when it comes to overgrowth. But never mind, there is no such thing as overgrown where I been. The more there is, the better.”
A tinge of selfishness in Luke that had never been there before brings Nancy to only smile and nod. Maybe she can feel the difference in him. But again, she tries to ignore it.
About a hundred yards from the little raised spot among the creek sycamores Luke heels his big roan into a full gallop and yells to Nancy, “Come on babe, follow me and let the wind color your cheeks for pretty pleasure.”
Having no real choice since she is only a sometimes rider and since the chestnut pairs with the big roan on instinct, Nancy barely hangs on to the saddle horn as both horses gallop to their old hitching spots.
After tying up the horses Luke takes Nancy’s hand and pulls her inside the trees and up the small overlook.
Pulling her down roughly, Luke fumbles with the buttons to her blouse with one hand while trying to take her pants off with the other.
Feeling overlooked like never before, Nancy tries to get Luke to take a little time.
“Luke please, slow down. At least let me take my boots off first. I can take the rest off as well.”
“Oh darling,” Luke replies, “ if you only knew how many times I dreamed of this.”
“Me too Luke,” Nancy replies as she removes her clothes and smoothes the blankets. Lying back on the blankets, Nancy becomes a little anxious to find Luke still dressed and just staring at her nakedness.
“Aren’t you going to get undressed?”
“No need,” Luke says, as he pulls his pants down and forcibly mounts her.
To her horror, when Nancy tries to stop him, she is simply overpowered and used in a rush.
Handing Luke the reins to the chestnut after the long silent ride back to the barn, Nancy avoids his eyes and turns away. Going to her car with tears flowing down her cheeks, she gets in, starts it up and drives off. Looking ahead to the road and resisting any urge to look up to the review mirror, Nancy feels crushed and humiliated. Even now she is telling herself that this could not have happened.
Not watching her go, Luke stables the horses and heads to the dairy barn. An older and grayer Beau sits at the barn door. When Luke reaches down to pet him the old dog whines and moves away.
Eighth graders, all eager to get out of the classroom for the day, fidget and squirm as Nancy, their science teacher, tells them not to forget to study the small critters that live near their homes. As the final bell sounds, the commotion signals the end of another workday for Nancy. Feeling tired but with a sense of accomplishment, she is ready for the weekend break.
Putting away her books and charts, Nancy notices a figure at her door out of the corner of her eye. Turning in that direction, she is surprised to find a much thinner Luke standing in the doorway.
“Luke?…………What are you doing here?”
Trying to come up with the right words, Luke lowers his eyes for a moment then looks up.
“I’m sorry, Nancy. I made a terrible mistake, did an awful thing. Can you ever forgive me?”
Thoroughly surprised by this encounter, Nancy pretends to attend to her books while she too looks for an answer. Finally Nancy faces him and says, “Yes, you did Luke. And I don’t know. I know that you had a bad lot compared to most of the rest of us. But to become so hardened, what have you got to show for your sorry?”
Though glad to see that Nancy still has her spirit and confidence, Luke has to admit, “Not much, I’m afraid. Just a strong desire for us to be the way we used to be……………before I thought the war gave me privileges that were wrong. I had everything wrong but……. little by little, I think I can get it right…………..if you will help me. Can you find it in your heart to do that Nancy? We go back a long ways. ”
Walking across the room to study Luke’s eyes, Nancy ponders her reply and after a long silence takes Luke’s hand.
“Maybe Luke. Just maybe. After all, I am a teacher. Come on let’s go get some coffee and talk about it.”
Walking down the corridor and out the doors of the school, Luke Oleman and Nancy Childers emerge into the bright afternoon sunlight, like old souls from a shadowed cavern, young hearts that will smile, beat on, and accept the challenge of coming home again.
Standing there with her books, smiling to herself as she turned her face to the autumn sun, she looked like a photo queen hugging catalogues of pricey wear. But when she looked aside and caught my gaze, her lips uncurled and her eyes caught mine. Beyond a need, or one that mattered not, she held on. While people brushed by to and fro, all attuned to the crosswalk glow, I held on too.
Blessed by Starbucks all about, we fell aside the crossing push to sip a cup and let it be. As cups with frothy tops passed by, their holders watching other palms, she told me that she taught, and asked about me. I told her that it was another world, I did shows for culinary flair, pleasant couples, no needs at hand, smiled and watched me play.
It was fun being with her, the scent of ivory towers brought back a time afore, and her nice looks with a mind to match, made an edge of interest something more. My wayward ways she did not seem to mind, the reach of her eyes told me that. When it was time to go, I ask for her number as we dusted about, two colors of one ilk. But she made it easy as if there was no other way, and handed me her card. She said that the number was on the back.
I called so many times but it was all for naught. Only muzak voices that asked for a note had anything to say. The disappointment was sharp at first, but slowly slid to dull, like those that had passed that way before. Time moved on to a steady click, and I just let it go.
After needy clinks of china, and mindless chatter with bellies full enough to watch, I did OK. And a fan that sometimes hung on for more to do, passed my time a little bit. But a lot I roamed the walk, that crossed the avenue. Balmy autumn, shades of orange and green, turned to windswept grey and shadows darker still. She was gone.
One night I dropped a line when I looked out and saw her smiling on. An elegant gent was at her table too. I did my show by rote, and kept my eyes where they belonged.
While walking home alone, feeling anger that she had put me on a stage, I crossed the avenue, to find a taxi parked along the curb. As I neared, the dark glass slid down to show her face, just as it had been that day we met. She said that her father had to go, would I show her where I lived?
When she left she said that she would be in touch, not to call. So deep in, with little choice, I almost smacked her face. Don’t be a spoil sport she implied, my other fans would tide me by. It was late and even if no father was, things would have to be. I took her words to heart, and it hurt to see that it was not so much.
Only fans, him and her, and me.
Like the center stage of a sprung gallows, my insides quickly seem less when I discover my former wife’s obituary on the internet. Despite all this time apart I am snapped back to that time we knew together. Wholly unprepared for this discovery, I quickly learn just how deep some things can run. Things that lie mostly dormant yet are a part of the main, always there just waiting for the right synapse. I thought that I had a much better handle on my past and what it makes of me. Thought that I would not be so taken unawares in my years. Memories of her flood my mind. And a lump in my throat tells me that it is not just in my head. Suddenly, out of the past, I am touched.
Young and new, Southern Appalachian boy and Northern New Jersey girl, a mutual bloom along a common route, we were.
Plates of drippy spaghetti held beneath our chins while our eyes smiled across the room at one another, Julie and I were oblivious to the others scattered around the austere off-campus apartment. I knew that she wanted me. She had told others. And she knew that I was looking for a steady girl. All my friends knew that. In the small underground social groups of that time word of such things got out no less than in society at large. Perhaps even more so. That was one way that I knew that Julie was not promiscuous as many other hippies were. Another was from my own interactions with her on a more intimate level. We were alike that way. Still I wanted to bring our relationship to the bed but Julie didn’t want to go that far that fast. Our impasse was well known among our immediate early 70’s counterculture. The others, most well into their own relationships, simply were socially aware. Situations like mine and Julie’s were things to keep track of. It made for a smoother trip through those times.
Like two rare birds, Julie the colorful art student, and me a drab military veteran back in school, we flashed our young wares. It seemed only natural that evening, among the community, spaghetti, and warmth, that I should try to make it with her again. And it seemed that Julie wanted that as well.
Moving to her side along the arm of the large chair where she sat, I searched her face and said, “Is it true that you really like me?”
Not surprised by my candor since we already had more than a casual knowledge of each other, Julie smiled and nodded.
“I feel the same way about you,” I said. “But I want us to start with a commitment all the way. Can you do that?”
Her eyes suddenly a little anxious, Julie slowly looked down and said, “Yes.”
My one room apartment was only across the alley in the next building so we set our plates aside and, hand in hand, quietly left the gathering and went there. The creaky old steps provided the only sounds along the climb to my place atop the old off-campus house known as “The Ghetto.”
Without saying a word or even turning on the lights we committed together and never looked back.
Poor but fresh and continuing to blossom, we passed through our studies and graduation and began our travels along the same roads as most of the rest of the country--jobs, real living expenses to pay, and a crash course in after school life.
Much different from the freedom of academia, there were struggles and disappointments to begin with but we pulled together and found that, though times could be unpleasant, we were indeed young and stronger for the effort. We developed a rhythm to our ways, be they capital bound in Julie’s New York or excursions back to my Appalachians and the nurture of spirit that they could provide. Eventually times became less arduous and more relaxed. Perhaps it was then that our bond began to flex and grow less tight. Some of the principles of our former counterculture began to yield to the pressures of a money driven society. Avenues and uncommon roads took on a different light and seemed to beckon our growing confidence and changing priorities. We began to explore things that might have seemed too mainstream before. But not always together.
Because of her natural beauty Julie was frequently hit on by the customers of the Soho Arts Cooperative of lower Manhattan where she worked as a buyer. She would tell me of those encounters and laugh them off leaving me unconcerned about it. But the one that would do the damage she never mentioned until it was probably too late to gain a foothold in my priorities.
I had recently lucked out with a new and better paying job in the Behavior Sciences Department of Bellevue Hospital. And, being involved with the switch from the gofer class to the gofer for class, I neglected our relationship and perhaps set the stage for Julie’s excursion into nude modeling for one of the major shareholders of the arts cooperative. In other words, for one of her bosses. Since all the work was done in the cooperative studio and Julie was well paid for it she felt it unnecessary to tell me about it. That’s what she later said anyway. But when the paintings of her became so well known for the lovely model that appeared in them, it all came out. She became so sought after that she began doing it full time, making a lot more money than I did. Involved in my work, I simply chalked it up to the Southern boy, Yankee girl thing. Just different styles but likes in the heart. And I helped spend the money on higher living along the path to wherever we ex-hippies were going. Too much my thoughts were about not checking the teeth of a gift horse and not enough about there is no free lunch. Julie’s New York was lining our road with sugar plumbs while the beautiful colors and hardwood forests of my Appalachians received none of our once popular zen visits. We were happening…..and we were still young.
One late afternoon I needed Julie’s signature immediately on an investment document. Quickly, I made the short trip from Bellevue across Manhattan to the cooperative. From the Canal Street Subway exit I hustled a couple of blocks North on West Broadway only to find a sign in the cooperative front door saying, “Closed.” However when I tried the latch the door opened into a dark shop but there was light coming from the walled off back studio where her work usually took place. I was a little surprised to find that the shop was closed during her sitting or standing or whatever it was called but I had no time to ruminate about that if I was to meet the investment deadline. I hurried through the shop to the connecting door and, without thinking, pushed it open. There, my beautiful naked Julie was, her arms gripping the hind quarters of a bronze pony, while one of her bosses pummeled her from behind.
“Nooooooo!” I screamed. A primal cry like none other
From a park bench in Washington Square, I first noticed the large statue and where I was. It was very late. Though I had not eaten nor drunk anything, I didn’t know how I got there. It was much later still after I walked the many blocks up to what only hours before had been my midtown home. For a good while after that I was not all present. Just so much tissue going along by rote.
Julie and I never spoke much after that. It wasn’t long until I left for the somber blue evenings and smoky mornings of my mountains. Julie and her driver gave me a ride to LaGuardia and before I got out of the car at the drop point Julie laid a hand on my arm.
“I never would have made it without you, Richard. You know that don’t you?”
“Yes, I know that,” I replied, while getting out of the car. I was about to shut the car door when Julie suddenly slid across the seat, raised her beautiful eyes, and said, “Thank you for all your help.”
Feeling like a cracked and empty vessel headed for the scrap heap, I managed to reply without a hint of irony, “No problem, babe.”
As I turned and walked toward the terminal I heard her car door close. And then in my mind I heard that scream that haunts me still.
Landing at the Roanoke Regional Airport, I rented a car for the long drive to a property that I had bought while in New York. I needed the drive to defuse if it were possible. At needful times I had always been able to bet on the Appalachians for that. The scenery along the way was magnificent and I felt myself begin to ground a bit by the time I reached my new home.
A small but sturdy structure atop the Blue Ridge chain with a view across the valley to its parent Appalachians, my place would be plenty enough. It was nothing like where I was coming from when it came to material resources but I had provided it with all the ways necessary to keep up with my investments. And it was thoroughly stocked for new beginnings. A short hike away was my familiar Appalachian Trail and the spot where I had scattered my Mother’s ashes not so long ago. A place where silence was familiar, cherished. One day, from there, I would continue my journey down life’s highway. But right then it was a wonderful rest stop
I have come many a way since then and I have learned that most things will pass. I have new loved ones now and the peace that comes from that. But I can’t help but wonder if Julie had that blessing as well…….on that other high road. And I grieve, trying to hide it from my wife. She thinks all my nightmares are about the war. I don’t ever want to try to put into words that which is better left alone. That’s the thing about growing old as the scars of travel are sported more clearly. More baggage, good and bad. The scream is not good certainly, worse than any I have heard. But I loved Julie, and that is more the constant. Her trip is over and I have to believe it was a good and kind exit. Our travels often befool us in many ways but if mine ever take me by the place where this obituary says she is, I will leave a Rhododendron bloom to pay my respects.
Jasmine Chen is a classical pianist that practices Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi. She is addicted to Pokemon Go, but only because she was deprived of Pokemon games when she was young. She likes taking pictures of cloud formations, but only after it rains.
Christine Kim envies people with face dimples, because unfortunately she only has dimples on her back. She hates vinegar. Christine finds views from the top soothing, even though she is afraid of heights.
“Ellie! Please, talk to me.”
“No, just leave me alone.”
“Please, you’re acting so different lately. Why do you keep avoiding me? I really don’t understand.”
Ellie sighed. “Jay, I’m sick and tired of seeing you keep choosing your work over me. And you know what? I don’t want to deal with it anymore. If you keep prioritizing other things than me, I don’t think we should be together. Do you even care about our relationship?”
“How can you say that? Of course I care Ellie. You are my girlfriend.”
“If I am, then you have a weird way of showing it!” She dashed across the campus to her dorm. As she entered her room, tears started running down her face. “He better not end our relationship like this,” Ellie sniffled.
A few hours past, Ellie, feeling hungry, decided to grab a quick meal at the cafeteria. However, just as she put her hand on the doorknob, she hesitated. I have to pass by Jay’s room to get there. What if we meet? She wondered, Jay is probably not even there, maybe off doing his crazy job and whatnot. And who cares if I see him? He should be the one worrying. As Ellie walked along the dorm hall, she heard a voice in Jay’s room. She leaned closer to listen with curiosity.
“No, what I’m saying is that… Well, yes, the infiltration has… some of the targets… the smugglers may have… I’ll give the Controller the eyes only via… I’ve done the routine dry cleaning. Thank you, agent.”
Ellie furrowed her eyebrows. What on earth was he talking about? Before she could conclude, she heard Jay’s voice again.
“Yes. What do you want…. No, you can’t do that. Listen you’re a spy and I’m a spy. We have to work together...” Ellie couldn’t believe what she just heard. Jay is a spy! Suddenly, she heard footsteps coming towards the door. Heart racing, she dashed back to her dorm. When she got back, her cellphone rang. It was Jay.
“Uh, hello?” She answered.
“Hey Ellie. Do you think you could meet me at my dorm right now? It’s urgent.”
Ellie hesitated, “Uh, sure. I’ll be there in 5 minutes.” She hung up the phone and headed to his place.
The door was open and the room was dark when she got there. “Hello?” She called out. She took a few steps in. Then, out of nowhere, she felt someone blindfold her and tie her down to a chair.
Just when she was about to cry out for help, Ellie felt someone take off the blindfold. Ellie saw Jay standing in front of her, his hands behind his back. “Jay?” She tried to move but saw that she was clearly tied up well. “Jay,” she said, panic rising in her voice, “what’s going on? Why am I all tied up?”
“Ellie, I’m sorry, I really am. But I can’t have someone blow my cover.”
“What are you talking… Oh, my god. You really are a spy!” Ellie struggled against her bonds. “Why didn’t you tell me! I’m your girlfriend! How could you - ”
Ellie trailed off as Jay raised his right hand, exposing a black handgun. With a visibly pained expression, Jay cocked the gun. “I’m sorry Ellie. I have to, there’s no other way.”
“No! Please don’t shoot. Jay please. I promise I’ll do anything to keep it a secret!” Ellie sobbed.
“I hate to do this to you too, but just letting you go is going against my contract. I’m sorry Ellie. I’m truly sorry.” He squeezed the trigger. Ellie screamed.
A cold jet of water splashed onto her face, leaving her sputtering and utterly shocked. For a minute, Ellie stared dumbfoundedly at Jay, the water dripping down her face. Then, Jay broke into a smile and doubled over laughing.
Ellie exploded, “Jay! For God’s sake, why the heck did you do that to me! You scared me half to death!”
Jay explained. “Oh Ellie, I never intended to hurt you! Ha ha ha! It’s just a joke! A joke to make you think I was a spy!”
Ellie glared at him until he finally regained control of his composure.
“Geez Jay. That’s not funny.”
“I know. I know. Look, I was thinking all day to gain back your trust and our relationship. I just thought it would be nice if we reenacted our spy play we did for first grade play night. Because that’s the day we first made a conversation. I wanted to bring back ourselves to day one and try to start fresh and new.”
Ellie softened her face. “Aww, you still remember that time?”
“Of course I do. How can I possibly forget? That’s the day that got us to where we are now. And there’s one more thing. I’m really sorry for my attitude lately. I don’t want to make any excuses for it. You’ll always be my number one whenever and whatever I do.”
“Fine, I’ll gladly accept your apology.” She smiled as she rolled her eyes.
“Thank you Ellie. I know that I haven’t been great lately because, you know, balancing my hectic job and social life was tough. But I’ll try my best to make it up to you. I really will.”
“Okay. Reminiscing old memory is good but can you please let me go now?!”
“Oh, oops I forgot.” Jay chuckled as he went to untie her.
“Thanks.” She got up from her chair. “I guess I’ll see you around tomorrow then?”
“Sure. Later.” They shared a kiss.
When they parted, Ellie smiled and opened the door to leave. When she was out the door, she heard Jay mumble, “She will never know.” And the door clicked into place.
NT Franklin - I write after my real job hoping one day to have it be my real job. When I’m not reading or writing short stories, you might find me fishing or solving crossword puzzles.
Me and Bart Go to Camp
I saw Bart sprinting across the road. This had to be something good.
“My uncle’s coming!” Bart said trying to catch his breath.
“The one with the fancy sports car?” I asked.
“No, the other one. Black Sheep Bobby my mom calls him. She says all he wears is blue jeans and flannel shirts. He’s a rancher.”
“The one that goes into the woods and eats off the land like Daniel Boone?”
“Yes, Uncle Bobby is coming to take me to camp for the weekend.”
“Like Camp Neyati?” I asked. One summer, me and Bart went there for a week. I didn’t remember it being that exciting.
“Camp Neyati is a camp. Uncle Bobby says this is a ‘Man’s Camp.’ No girls. Like a log cabin in the woods or something. We’ll fish and stuff.” Bart was excited.
“Well, it sounds okay,” I said. It sounded better than okay but I didn’t have any uncles and my mom didn’t do outdoor stuff like that. Bart was lucky.
“You dummy. You can come too.”
“What? Really? I’ll have to ask my mom.”
“My mom already talked with her. She said I could be the one to tell you. Besides Uncle Bobby has everything we need and he drives a big pickup truck. He can haul stuff in the back, he can tow a boat and even put a canoe on top of it. It is big and green. It is four-wheel drive, but I’m not sure what that does.”
“When? What do I need to bring?”
“Friday afternoon. Just bring clothes and stuff. There’s a lake so we can go swimming,” Bart said.
“Why is it a “Man’s Camp? We’re boys. Is it okay?”
“I dunno. If Uncle Bobby says so, I guess it is okay. Maybe it’s because there are no girls.”
My mom was happy I was going to do ‘man stuff’ with Bart’s Uncle Bobby.
Friday finally came. We were waiting on Bart’s front porch when a pickup truck with a canoe pulled into the driveway.
“Bart! You’re growing every year,” cried Uncle Bobby as he hopped out. “I need to say ‘Howdy’ to your mom and then we’ll get going. We don’t want to be late.” He nodded at me as he went inside.
A few minutes later Uncle Bobby came out, smiled, and said “Pete and Repeat, you guys ready to go?”
We loaded our bags into the back of the truck and hopped in the front. Riding in a truck was so cool. I’d never done it before but decided then and there I might have to get one when I grow up.
The truck went bump when we pulled off the road onto a dirt path and we both were startled awake.
“I guess we fell asleep,” Bart said.
“Yup,” Uncle Bobby said. “We’re almost there.
The Man’s Camp was a log cabin on a lake. There were two bedrooms and a living room with a kitchen on one end. It had a fireplace and a porch with wood piled on it. Me and Bart figured it was near to heaven.
“See a bathroom in the camp?” Uncle Bobby asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “There isn’t one. This is a Man’s Camp. There’s an outhouse around back. Use it or the woods. Whatever you want.” We looked at each other in disbelief. We get to pee outside without getting in trouble.
“You boys feel like hot dogs over the campfire for supper?”
Boy did we. Best hot dogs ever. Right over the fire on a stick. Uncle Bobby whittled the end of the stick with a knife to a point.
When a hot dog dropped off my stick into the fire, I sneaked a glance at Uncle Bobby, hoping he wouldn’t be mad.
“Looks like you need a new dog, Uncle Bobby said, handing me one. He didn’t get mad about wasting food or about anything.
Eat all the ‘dogs you want, ‘cause that’s all there is for supper. Well, that and bottles of Coke.”
Like we wanted anything else. Bobby ate five. I think I ate four. And two Cokes each. This was living. Me and Bart were sure we could live there forever.
We sat around the campfire talking about baseball until the sky was full of stars. It was really dark when we walked the short distance from the fire to the camp.
“Time to turn in, boys. Big day tomorrow. I put flashlights on your bunks.”
“Anything dangerous in the woods?” I asked Uncle Bobby.
“Nothing more dangerous than us,” he replied. “Except maybe bears.”
“You two, don’t look so worried,” Uncle Bobby said. “I was on a bear hunt here 15 years ago. Came up empty. There hasn’t been a bear seen in these woods for over ten years.
I was relieved we made it inside in one piece. I’m glad there were flashlights because it was some kinda dark when the lantern went out. I think me and Bart were asleep in two minutes.
SCREECH! YOWL! SCREECH!
“Bart, BART! Wake up. Did you hear that? I think bears are coming.”
“Listen to that. Bears are coming,” I said.
“All I hear is Uncle Bobby snoring.”
“There it is again. You hear it this time?”
“Yeah, creepy. You think they are bears?” Bart asked.
A light started moving around and Uncle Bobby appeared in the doorway.
“You boys hear the ‘coons fighting outside? I hope they didn’t scare you.”
“Naw. We figured they were just ‘coons. Night,” Bart said.
Phew, now all was well and we were still tired.
I woke to a bit of smoke in the bedroom and the lovely smell of fried meat. Bacon. We never had bacon at home—too expensive. Bart sat up in bed and smiled at me.
We went into the main room of the camp to the sound of sizzling eggs on the stove. Uncle Bobby was at the stove flipping eggs with one hand and moving bacon around with the other. Like a magician.
Uncle Bobby grabbed the toast as it popped, buttered it, and loaded up plates. “Morning, boys. It was quiet after the coons settled down. You two sleep okay?” He asked as he set the plates down.
“Oh yeah," Bart said. "Slept great and worked up an appetite.”
The eggs weren’t chocolate milk on Wheaties, but not bad. We ate all the bacon that was cooked. Can’t let that got to waste.
“Gear up. Fishing calls.” Uncle Bobby said as he cleaned up the dishes. “Perch are everywhere and sunfish can get big near the shore by trees. You two take the canoe and wear your lifejackets.”
Me and Bart got to take the canoe out all by ourselves. We paddled around and fished pretty much in the middle of the lake. We caught five perch that morning. The biggest two were mine. Felt pretty good to catch a fish on a hook you baited.
“Wow!" Uncle Bobby said when we returned. "Look at those whoppers. Shore lunch it is.”
Uncle Bobby had a tiny fire going and cooked the fish over the fire. Fresh-caught fish with cheese and crackers washed down with Cokes. Never had a better lunch.
After lunch, we went back out on the lake. I was getting the hang of canoeing. The fishing was good along the shore where some trees were partway in the water.
“I need room up here,” Bart said. “Hold my paddle and bring the canoe forward toward the snag. I don’t want to lose the lure.” I took his paddle and then moved the canoe closer to the snag.
“Hold it steady.,” Bart reached over the side to free the lure from the fallen tree.”
The canoe started rocking and I grabbed the sides. Bart kept tugging. The rocking back and forth wasn’t doing my stomach any good at all.
“Got it! Saved the lure. Hand my paddle back now.”
I was trying to keep lunch down and didn’t respond. Bart turned around and looked over my shoulder.
“Where are the paddles?”
I was holding tight to the canoe and looking at my feet. “Ahh, I was holding onto both of them and you started rocking the canoe.” By then I'd recovered enough to twist around and see both paddles drifting toward camp.
“Hop out of the canoe," Bart said, "it’s a beautiful day for a swim.,”
And he was right. It was a beautiful day for a swim. Uncle Bobby had set up a chair to watch us cross the lake pushing a canoe while swimming. He just sat there smiling and shaking his head. We made it back to camp in time for supper.
“With the lunch fire out, we could cook this fish over a campfire. Whadda say? Let’s make the fire closer to the lake, just in case.”
I didn’t know in case of what, but he started the fire closer to the lake than the night before.
Uncle Bobby cooked the fish over the campfire. Boy, it went down fast. I guess all the swimming with the canoe made us hungry. Me and Bart were sure Uncle Bobby could cook anything over a fire and make it delicious. Now, I know me and Bart could live here forever. As long as Uncle Bobby was here, I guess. He never seems to run out of Cokes.
The campfire was burning nicely. “You know,” Bart said, "there’s lots of wood around here, we could gather some for the next fire.” So off we went. Uncle Bobby smiled as we made quite a big pile.
We sat down to admire our work when Uncle Bobby said, “shame to see all that wood go to waste on this nice summer night.”
Bart jumped up and threw some wood onto the fire. Then some more. All the while Uncle Bobby was smiling.
“We might have enough on the fire now,” I said.
“Nah,” said Bart. “There lots more wood to put on. Nothing better than a big fire.” Bart kept piling the wood on the fire.
I saw Uncle Bobby coming around the corner of the camp carrying a big bucket. He went down to the lake and filled it up and poured it out on the ground between the fire and the camp and along the sides of the slope by the fire. He kept pouring bucket after bucket.
I had to back away because the fire was getting too hot. We no longer had a campfire but a bonfire. Bart kept throwing on wood and Uncle Bobby kept pouring water.
The wind shifted and Bart looked like he saw a ghost. The ground was on fire most of the way to the lake. The water Uncle Bobby poured kept the fire from spreading to the camp or to the sides of the path to the lake. The ground was black and scorched between the fire and the lake. Good thing the fire had been moved closer to the lake.
“Looks like that’s about enough wood on the fire, Bart,” Uncle Bobby said. “Building too big of a fire is a rite of passage for all boys. Now you see what can happen. I guess we’re out here for a while; we need to make sure the fire doesn’t spread. Maybe this is something you won’t tell your moms about.”
Me and Bart agreed. The fire settled back down and so did we. It was a beautiful night by the fire and the stars were bright. It was a good day but it was time to hit the sack.
Breakfast was eggs again. I’m starting to like eggs the way Uncle Bobby cooks them. Runny yellow and hard whites. All I ever had was scrambled. Uncle Bobby had bacon done already and added pancakes to breakfast.
“Last morning here, boys. Better hit the lake and catch some fish for lunch.”
We didn’t need to be reminded this was our last day or to go fishing.
Life jackets on, we dragged the canoe to the water and shoved off. It was going to be a big lunch as we started catching sunfish right off. Big ones too. Bart liked to leave them in the bottom of the canoe but mine were on a stringer hanging over the side. We were both watching the flopping when we heard “BOOM.”
“You hear that?” Bart asked when I looked at him.
“What was it?”
“I dunno. Sonic boom or something,” Bart said.
“There it is again,” I said.
Then we heard about five booms in a row coming from near a camp on the other side of the lake.
“We should paddle over and check it out,” Bart said.
“Gee, I dunno.”
“Come on, let’s go. It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t think so.”
Didn’t matter because we were heading that way because Bart was paddling like mad to it. Men in one of the three boats looks up and sees us heading towards them. They crank the outboard motor and head right at us.
“If they swamp us, we can swim back, we did yesterday,” Bart said.
“Yeah, but paddling back would be okay too. We could head back to our camp,” I answered.
The boat was almost on top of us when it stopped. Now I was worried.
“You boys, want some fish? We got lots,” the man in the boat asked.
“Thanks for the offer, but we won’t be able to eat all we have right now,” Bart said.
“Suit yourself,” the man said. He revved up the motor and sped away.
“He was acting funny,” I told Bart.
“I think he was drunk,” Bart said.
“Yeah, maybe. Hey, Uncle Bobby is on the shore waving to us. Looks like he wants us to come in. Maybe he’s hungry for lunch.”
“Okay, I guess we better go in,” Bart said.
When we got back to camp, Uncle Bobby said we should relax and have an early lunch.
“I told you he was hungry,” I said to Bart.
“Just sit still and everything will be okay,” Uncle Bobby said. “I think we are going to have company.”
“Yes, we met some men in a boat,” Bart said.
“No, not them. But I think it might be about them,” Uncle Bobby answered. I saw a Warden’s truck driving by about ten minutes ago. Wardens are the good guys in the woods.”
“Like us?” I asked.
“Yes. But they have to deal with bad people sometimes.”
A man in a green uniform got out of a truck and started walking down to our cooking fire.
“Good day, Warden. What can we do for you?” Uncle Bobby asked the man in uniform.
“Just stopping by to ask about the fishing.”
“The boys have done really well as you can see. We’re about to start a shore lunch.” Uncle Bobby said. “Gonna cook these sunfish over the open flame. Skin on. Keeps the meat moist and sweet. Care to join us?” Uncle Bobby asked.
“Another time, I’d like that. I have to go to work. Been reports of explosions on the water to gather fish.”
“We heard something, but these boys have been using Daredevils. They came in about a half hour ago. You might want to ask at the camp on the other end of the lake.”
“Thanks for your help,” the warden said as he left.
Me and Bart looked at each other, neither of us wanting to get out of our chair.
“It’s not legal to throw dynamite or big fire crackers onto the water–the fish get shocked and float to the surface,” Uncle Bobby said.
“Why don’t they fish like they’re supposed to?” I asked.
“Some people go through life cheating.”
The fish we caught legal were good again and so was the Coke.
After Uncle Bobby loaded the canoe on the truck, we spent the afternoon exploring the woods around camp.
We were worried about supper with no fish, but Uncle Bobby had cans of something called Spam. He said it was a Hawaiian delicacy. The slices were perfectly shaped and boy, was it good.
After an early supper, me and Bart went into the woods to pee outside one last time. We giggled until we saw a skunk come around the outhouse.
“Don’t move,” Bart whispered. “Maybe he won’t see us.”
I was frozen in place. “If I get sprayed by a skunk, my mom will kill me,” I told Bart.
The skunk ignored us as it waddled around and then headed off into the woods.
“On the count of three,” Bart whispered. “One, two, threeeee.”
We came flying around the corner of the camp to see Uncle Bobby smiling. Before we could speak, he said, “Met the camp skunk, did ya boys?”
“You knew there was a skunk here?!” Bart asked.
“Sure, he lives here. We’re guests. Remember that.”
“Boys, before we leave, go change your underwear. I know you didn’t. This way your moms will be fooled. If you don’t, they may never let me take you here again. After that skunk, I’m sure you need to change them anyway.”
“And maybe this afternoon is another thing you won’t tell your moms about,” Uncle Bobby added.
Me and Bart carried our stuff out to the truck and said goodbye to the camp.
“Your Uncle Bobby is real smart,” I told Bart. “He knows how to do lots of things and get away with stuff.”
“Yeah, he’s really cool.” My mom says he never grew up. My dad said he changed after being in Viet Nam.”
Me and Bart climbed into the truck and Uncle Bobby drove off. We must have dozed off again because we were already back at Bart’s house. I said ‘thanks for the wonderful weekend’ and ‘bye’ to Uncle Bobby and Bart and went across the road where my mom was waiting in the driveway.
I told her it was the best weekend ever. And there is always tomorrow.
Me and Bart and the Swimming Hole
School was out for summer. Finally. And it was hot. Good, hot, sweaty weather. Perfect swimming weather. I had permission from my mom to go swimming. Bart never had to ask, but I had to. I didn’t ask permission in front of Bart. It could get embarrassing for me when I did. But I had permission to go to the swimming hole.
I pushed my bike across the road to Bart’s house. “We haven’t gone swimming yet. We should go,” I told Bart.
“Sounds like a plan,” Bart said.
Sandwiches in pockets and towels around our necks, we mounted our bikes and headed to the river. We called the easy access area of the river the swimming hole. We liked it because not very many people swam there what with the new town pool. The water was clear, but kinda brown. Mom said it was from the tree roots. Seemed fine to me and Bart.
We ditched our bikes on top of the hill overlooking the river and ate our sandwiches while leaning against a tree. What a life!
“That was dumb,” I said. “Now we have to wait a half hour to go swimming after eating.”
“Not me,” Bart said. “That rule is for girls.”
I protested a little, but I wanted to go swimming, and besides, who would know? It was just us two there anyway.
Bart loved the rope swing that launched him into the river. The rope was at least three inches in diameter with a big knot at the end. It’d been there longer than I could remember. It was Bart’s favorite part of the swimming hole. Mine too. When I was swinging on it, I thought I was 100 feet over the water. Bart said it was only 15 feet.
I never swung out as far as Bart did, but I still used the swing. It was a good day. After an hour of swimming, we climbed out and up to where our bikes and clothes were. The view was great from high on the hill overlooking the river.
We sat there watching the slow moving river, when suddenly we looked at each other at the same time. Voices. Someone was coming.
“Let’s spy on them,” Bart whispered.
“What if they are girls?”
And who appears at the swimming hole but Fred Wick and Billy Ferber. The two biggest bullies in junior high. They were bullies way back in grade school. Kicked me off tetherball anytime I was playing. In junior high, they were bigger than anyone else because they stayed back a year. Bart stood up for me once in the school bathroom and paid for it with a knee to the thigh. He was sore for a day and had a bruise for a week. I got a massive wedgie. Not my first. It bothered Bart more than me when they picked on me.
They left their bikes a little back from the river and nearly below us. Both Fred’s and Billy’s tee shirts had the sleeves cut off. Billy’s belt looked like a chain.
“My mom won’t let me cut off the sleeves of my shirt,” I said. “She said nice boys don’t do that.”
The bullies left their clothes by their bikes and headed down to the river.
“We gotta do something,” Bart whispered.
“I don’t know…” I said. “Look! They’re skinny dipping.”
“Shush. They’ll hear us. I have an idea. We’ll just wait a bit right here.”
After a bit, Bart said, “Let’s go.”
We dressed and pushed our bikes down the path.
Bart quietly gathered up all their clothes, all the while grinning.
“But they need their clothes,” I said.
“I know. That’s why we’re going to take them. We’ll leave the towels so they will have to wear them like dresses.”
We could hear their voices from the river as we pushed our bikes to get going. And off we went with their shoes, shirts, pants and socks in our bike baskets.
We laughed our fool heads off once we were out hearing range. Pretty good payback for wedgies. This was the best day ever.
“Now what do we do with their clothes?” I asked. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t.”
Bart was always so sure. Almost always right, too.
“There’s a Salvation Army donation box in the grocery store parking lot. We’ll dump them in there. It’ll be perfect. You’ll see.”
It was a short ride to the donation box. I don’t remember ever bicycling faster. Bart dumped the clothes in the box while I watched. He was right; it was perfect.
“We’re not done,” Bart said. “Follow me.”
And we started to retrace our route.
“We can’t go back, they’ll pound us.”
“Not all the way back, but we have to see them coming out of the access road. It’s the only way in or out. It’ll be cool, you’ll see.”
As we pedaled, who did we see but Annie Howard and Ellen Morrison walking on the sidewalk. They were the two most popular girls in school. Blonde straight hair, blue eyes, dimples. They looked like twins. They were also the two prettiest girls in school. I was terrified of them. I thought I was going to die when Bart stopped his bike in front of them. This wasn’t good.
Bart was fearless talking to them. As usual, I didn’t say much, just straddled my bike trying not to look dumb. Suddenly, movement caught my eye. It was the bullies riding bikes wearing only towels around their waists. This was going to be bad.
The two got closer and closer, looking madder and madder. They were fifteen feet from us and slowing down. I was sure I was going to die.
They must have been distracted by the girls because Fred didn’t notice the corner of his towel hanging down and getting caught in his bike chain. He went down in a heap. Billy crashed into him and fell on top of Fred and his bike. They snarled and cursed at each other while the four of us stared; the whole situation was rather funny.
Then Billy stood up. His towel was caught was in the bike and stayed caught. Billy was so intent on yelling “IDIOT” at Fred over and over, he wasn’t the first one to notice his towel was covering his bike. He had tan lines visible right to the point where his cutoffs usually were. Both girls giggled at his naked butt.
Fred tried to get up, but his towel was stuck in his chain, too. Tan lines proudly showing. Now there were two naked butts, right on River Road.
The things they said to each other! Not nice at all. I’d be grounded for a week if I said just one of the words they used. The more they yelled and swore at each other, the more the girls giggled, and the more me and Bart tried not to laugh. The white butts shook their fists at me and Bart.
“You guys need some help?” Bart asked. “Maybe some suntan lotion or something?”
Annie and Ellen started laughing. I started laughing because they were laughing. Fred and Billy weren’t laughing. It was still funny.
“Maybe you should move your naked butts to the sidewalk where it would be safer if car comes along,” Bart added.
At that, the two girls started laughing hysterically. I laughed so hard I thought I was going to cry. By then, Fred and Billy were one jumbled mess of bicycles, legs, and arms trying to get the towels free.
Then the girls continued their walk while the two in the road squatted back to us still trying to free their towels. Bart looked at me with a slight smile. Yes, it was time for us to move on as well. The girls were still giggling when we passed them and Bart waved. I kept my head down.
The bullies wouldn’t live this down easily. Me and Bart were the only ones who knew what happened to their clothes, and we weren’t talking. It was a good day and who knows, there is always tomorrow.
Fanni Sütő is a writer in her mid-twenties. She writes in Hungarian and English; poems, flash fiction and countless unfinished novels. She tries to find the magical in the everyday and likes to spy on the secret life of cities and their inhabitants.
I stole my mother’s life. It was a moonless night, darkness embraced the castle and the world waited with the stillness of a nocturnal bird stalking its prey. Her labour was not going well. The smell of life and death mingled around the bed, sweetened by the tinctures the midwife boiled to aid my mother.
When I finally arrived and my mother held me in her arms, her eyes grew wide with disbelief. She was brave; she didn’t scream. Her soul escaped silently, with a faint sigh. Agnes, the midwife smuggled me out of the castle, wrapped in the silk of darkness. She could still hear my father’s cry when he found his wife dead and his child missing. He ordered the whole city to be draped in murk-black for a whole year and no loud word could be spoken after twilight. My birth brought silence into the night.
Agnes couldn’t tell my father I was alive because it would have broken his heart again. I was not the princess he wanted. I was a twist of nature, an abomination. In the place of what should have been pink baby skin I had the feathers of a raven, my eyes were black beads. At least I didn’t have a beak. Agnes called me her sweet bird-girl and she loved me as a child of her own. Yet, the first feeling I remember was guilt and self-hatred.
I could always count on Agnes to smother my fears with lullabies or to chase away my hunger with the blood of berries.
She taught me everything she knew. She made me love nature as my second mother and the trees whispered their secrets in my ears. I understood which plants gave you strength and which ones took your life away. In my darkest days, I held poisonous leaves on my palm, leaves I knew could kill me in an instant. I stared death in the eyes and waited for him to reach out for me. He never did. I always ended up throwing the leaves away. It was just a test. It’s easier to die than to live and I wanted to prove that I was not a coward.
I also learnt to play chess, a game of cruel logic and strategy. I became a great commander of my small ivory army and very soon I always defeated Agnes who laughed and caressed my feathery head.
“You will be a great queen one day,” she said. I hated her optimism.
Agnes was the only living and breathing human I knew but my world wasn’t empty. Every day I was walking with Petrarch and his Laura in the forest, feeding my loveless heart the emotions it never knew. I read Boccaccio’s stories and laughed in the face of the plague. I descended to the deepest circles of darkness with Dante. I dreaded going to Hell. There was no place for monsters in Paradise. I knew my fate was sealed. I would burn in Inferno. I cried every day, mourning my afterlife. I never stopped reading though. I devoured the horrors with a perverted pleasure.
My life was simple and uneventful until my thirteenth birthday. On the night of midsummer I felt a strange magic stirring in the forest. I wanted to run out and see the fairies from the tales of Agnes but the air was heavy with summer smells and the call of sleep proved too strong. As soon as my head touched the pillow, I sunk into the strangest of dreams.
I was flying in a forest. It was broad daylight but the trees grew so densely that only a few fingers of sunlight reached through. The forest hummed with life, insects crawled around in the undergrowth, birds sang the gospel of summer heat. Everything was green and alive. I felt free for the first time in my life.
In the waking I couldn’t fly. I had feathers but my human body was too heavy. In this dream I was a bird, a majestic raven and I could go wherever I wished. Suddenly, I heard a sound I have never heard before. It was a laughter, the honest laughter of a boy. I had seen boys before, from a safe distance, hiding in the crown of trees. I flew in the direction of the sound and found a group of boys sitting on a clearing, looking at a rabbit they had caught. I felt sorry for the rabbit, as it lay at their feet, its blood trickling at the ground.
There were four boys but I had eyes only for the laughing one. He was standing up, his hair brown and shiny like the fur of a bear and his nose big and bent, reminding me of the beak of my favourite birds. I knew he was not handsome. I saw beautiful people in the illustration of my books and compared to them he was ugly. In my eyes however, he seemed to be the most wonderful creature alive. They spoke a language I didn’t understand, a language of strange flowing syllables, melodious and masculine at the same time. Maybe they were fairies. I watched them until I woke up with the first ray of sun. That morning everything seemed different; the world was full of meaning. I had a purpose. I wanted to find that boy and for his sake I wanted to become human.
I lost my first feather the next day. I was scratching my head and a feather fell off. I grabbed it, ran up to Agnes and cried in her lap for an hour. I didn’t tell her but I convinced myself that I was going to die as a punishment for my dream and desires. I saw trees dropping their leaves and becoming bald, lifeless skeletons. I was afraid of winter.
I lived so close to the thought of death that it didn’t really scare me until that moment I found something to live for. Agnes tried to cheer me up with mirages conjured in the corner of my room or with jewels she made from acorns and pebbles. I was inconsolable. I sneaked out of the house in the dead of night and rambled in the woods. The creatures of the night were scared of me first but after a while they came to recognise me as one of their own. I was losing feathers in an alarming pace. Agnes gave up trying to comfort me; she just walked in my shadow and collected the pieces I lost.
By the winter solstice I had only one feather left. I was standing naked in the middle of my room, in front of a huge, foggy mirror and I was scrutinising my body. It was smooth and perfect, it felt like the skin of a stranger. A tear drop rolled down my cheek: why was it upon dying that I had become normal? I took the last feather between my fingers. It was a lonely black streak above my heart. I tucked at it. The last thing I saw from under my closing eyelashes was the feather slowly floating to the floor.
I woke up in my bed with Agnes’s face beaming above me like the full moon.
“Death is not much different from living,” I muttered.
“You are not dead, Miss Beatrice, you are an adult.”
“It feels horrible,” I said looking up at the ceiling which seemed to be whirling above me.
“You will get better when I tell you some good news. The king is holding a ball in the castle and we are going there tonight.”
“Are you mad, Agnes?” I sat up but I fell back immediately, I was too weak still. “The king would kill me if he knew...”
“He will not know. In the eye of the world you are a lovely young lady now. Soon you are going to be a princess and maybe even a queen one day, if you find the man of your dreams.” She gave me a pointed look like she had known the deepest secret of my soul.
Agnes prepared me a bath of milk and hawthorn leaves. She combed my hair with a coral comb and clad me in a dress made of deep green velvet. Hadn’t I seen the shiny threads holding the fabric together, I would have suspected it to be made from enchanted moss. She hung a row of pearls in my neck and pierced my ear with a golden needle. The drops of blood froze in their fall, turning into the loveliest ruby earrings.
“If anybody asks who you are, say you are the orphan of the Marquis de Carabas and your castle stands in the forest.”
“But that is not true.”
“It may not be now, but it will become true if you say it to the right people at the right moment.”
I didn’t like it but I just bowed my head. Agnes always knew what she was doing.
The king’s castle was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. Sweet melodies of mandolins swam in the air, golden dresses sparkled and ladies laughed happy and bubbling like sparkling wine.
The king was the shadow of a great man, his hair white and his hands trembling. When he saw me, something flashed in his eyes and he made his way to me through the crowd.
“And who might you be, lovely young lady?” he asked, kissing my hand. His voice was kind but sad, like the music of a discordant harp.
“I am an orphan my Liege, my dear father the Marquis of Carabas passed away some years ago. I was raised by my nurse in a castle in the middle of the forest.”
“You remind me of a woman who was dear to my heart,” he said and caressed my face. His touch was dry and lingered on my skin too long. I stepped back, bowed my head and hurried away to refill my cup. Only when I poured myself some wine and spilled it on the white table cloth did I realise that my hands were shaking. The spot looked like blood. Liars go to hell; I remembered and wished I had stayed home reading Dante.
I came home from the ball before midnight and fell into a dark, dreamless sleep. I woke up to what sounded like thunder but was in fact iron-gloved hands knocking on the door. I ran down a long stair-case which I never saw before and found Agnes talking to a knight in front of our castle. I gasped as I looked at the building which used to be our tiny cottage. It was no an elegant stone building with turrets and ivy hugging the walls. Agnes gave me a strict look and I shut my mouth into a polite smile.
“The knight came to announce that His Royal Highness is on his way to visit us. He should arrive in fifteen minutes. It gives us a little time to prepare you for the occasion.” She bowed deep before the knight and shut the door in his face.
“Listen, this is going to be important. You have your things ready in a trunk and you are wearing your best dress...”
I looked down at my nightgown but then Agnes clapped and it turned into a white muslin dress faintly smelling of lilies.
“Your future is back to its rightful pass, my role is done here.”
“What are you talking about? You scare me...”
“You should never be scared. You have a fearless heart and a sharp mind; the world should kneel at your feet. Take this,” she placed a beautifully carved casket in my hand, “but use it wisely and keep silent. People are terrified of things unknown. Try to hinder the day when all the remains of your innocence is gone, for on that day...”
She couldn't finish her sentence because there was another knock on the door. “Take the box upstairs and get ready. I will greet the guests."
I went into my room, gave a last look to my luggage and with a sigh I wished farewell to the scene of my childhood. When I stepped out of the room, I heard shouts and a muffled scream. I ran down into the kitchen to see Agnes in a pool of crimson blood.
“What have you done?" I shouted and kneeled next to my nurse.
“Rise, rise dear child! Don't shed any tears for this woman. I have slain the witch who stole you from me when you were a babe-in-arms. You are my long lost princess Beatrice!” He tried to embrace me but I pulled away and wrapped myself into silence the rest of the day. I saw the knights carrying huge boxes full of jewels and beautiful dresses but I didn’t understand what their purpose was. The king followed my gaze and frowned.
“Do not worry about those, my dear, they are just foolish offerings of a misplaced intention. But they will be yours either way.”
Without Agnes I felt empty and lost like a bird without a nest. The only thing which kept me going was the dream about the boy and the hope that I would find him one day.
As time dripped by, the memories of the past slowly drained away from me, taking the thoughts of magic and Agnes with them. In the whirlwind of royal visits, balls and other duties, my childhood faded away into a din watercolour. I became a real lady of the court, listening to the sonnets of flame-eyed poets and giving my tokens to knights who would fight and sometimes die for me.
I took a lover on a lethal summer. The air was too hot and the fruits rotted away untouched on the trees. He was a handsome man and his touch felt like silk but he couldn't fill the emptiness raging inside me. He was a nobody, a man of no rank and property. The relationship was doomed from the beginning. So when he proposed to me one night, I was so confused that I got overwhelmed by the horrible conviction that I had to kill him.
I gave him a long kiss and dropped my cushion on his face. I held it there until his body became still and relaxed. When I removed the pillow, he wore a horrible but beautiful expression which reminded me of fallen angels. I sat next to him and caressed his hair, trying to figure out what to do. For the first time in long years I remembered the little casket and the remains of my innocence, I looked for it everywhere and found it eventually in a dusty, long forgotten corner.
I took a feather out of the casket placed it on the forehead of my last lover and wished him to disappear. Dizziness came over me and when I steadied myself again, I saw that the body was gone. I found a golden ring in its place. I fell next to it and slept until the next twilight. When I woke up, I found myself strangely detached and light. I looked down at my hands, just to find black wings in their place. I should have been scared but it all felt so natural that I didn’t have any other thoughts on my mind than freedom.
I threw myself out of the window and rode on the back of the wind for three days and three nights till I arrived to a forest which seemed strangely familiar. As I descended, I noticed a hunting party led by a young man with wavy brown hair and a beaky nose. He held out his hand in invitation and I landed on his palm. A bemused smile played on his lips. He caressed my head then his long fingers pulled at my leg. I dragged along the golden ring and I didn’t even notice. He burst into laughter.
“This bird gave me a ring, it wants to be my wife,” he said and pulled the ring on his finger. “Find me,” I said but I was not sure if it came out as words or just a croak.
I wasted many magic feathers on stalking his moves. He was a king of a half-pagan land, some feared him, some respected him. Very few loved him. He was a great admirer of women and my heart cried out in jealousy. He wished to marry some but I threw handfuls of feathers on the fire and prayed to all the gods I knew to keep him for me. And they did. Some of the women died, some of them found their way back into the arms of past suitors. My patience paid off. One day envoys arrived from his court and asked me to visit. My father, who was no more than a skeleton with power, sent treasure chest upon treasure chest with me, wanting to buy me a secure place after he was gone. I could never be sure if it was my charms or my father’s presents that softened my beloved’s heart but by the end of that month I was the fiancée of Matthias, a great king and head of the Black Army.
“It is as though I had seen you before,” he said and kissed my hand. He pulled a familar golden ring on my finger.
On the eve of our wedding, I lay in wait, silently reciting some verses of Paradise to keep myself awake. When the castle finally sunk into silence and only sound was the buzzing of mosquitoes, I made my way to the courtyard. I felt so excited that I wanted to scream and dance. I had a surprise for my beloved. I knew he had a sweet tooth and an eye for beauty so I was going to prepare something which would delight all his senses. I placed one of my raven feathers on my palm and willed it to burn. It went up in a dark flame and left a heap of dust in my hand. I blew the ashes in the air, imagining the garden of Eden and thinking of the sweetness of love. Nothing happened.
I was starting to question my own power when a sugar flower appeared in front of my feet and it was followed by many more. In a matter of a few blinks a whole grove of brittle emerged from nothing. In the middle of all stood a tree of my own height, laden with sweet and crunchy apples. I caressed one fruit and felt sweetness and magic stirring inside. I hurried back to bed and plunged into sleep.
I woke up to the cries of trumpets and the applause of drums. I wanted to run downstairs and see how my gift pleases my betrothed. But I had to be patient and endure the machinations of my ladies in waiting, as they dressed me in my bridal gown and braided my hair into elaborate tendrils. By the time I descended the guests had crowded the garden and a good many of them were marvelling at my grove of brittle.
“It looks like magic,” Matthias said to a man with a huge moustache. His voice was polite but I could hear suspicion and fear underneath. My heart sank.
“Beatrice, what do you say to this garden of delight?”Matthias asked when he saw me. His mouth was smiling but his eyes remained cold.
“It is my present to you. My cooks worked in secret all night long. I hope it is to your liking.”
He seemed to ease up a bit and when he picked one of the flowers, he offered some petals to me.
“It is delicious,” he said and after kissing my forehead, continued talking about taxes and costumes.
Our marriage was hell and heaven, like most marriages on earth. He was a great man and I was a woman of strong will, who would not bend at the storm of his anger. Many said the sweetness of a child would soften our ridges but my womb remained fruitless. We would have needed a baby’s laughter to keep us together and the country desperately needed an heir, a star of hope in the gathering darkness. The Turkish Empire was sharpening its claws on our frontiers and I burnt many murky feathers to help the Black Army win. In the afternoons when Matthias and I measured our strengths in endless chess games, I wondered if it was worth it, if my life could have been different. When I tricked him and managed to kill his king, I was sure I made the right choices and I found my own Paradise on earth. When he triumphed, laughing in my face as he swept away my pawns, I thought I only paved my way to Hell.
It doesn’t matter now, he is long dead and he took a part of me to the grave. The country is crumbling and some people blame me for it. I am alive, he is dead, it is natural their anger rains on me.
I open my dusty casket I have kept for such a long time, hiding it from the servants and even from my husband. A lonely, black feather is waiting for me at the bottom. I’m taking it out, resting its cold velvet against my palm. As the last memory of my innocence goes up in flames, I ready my soul for the long journey to find my place between Heaven and Hell.
Roy Dufrain is a reformed college dropout, chronic hitchhiker, dive-bar pool shark, and newspaperman; and an un-reformed living-room musician, San Francisco Giants fan, and novelist-in-progress. He now holds a bachelor’s degree from Sonoma State University, and is a recent graduate of the Novel Writing Certificate program at Stanford University. He lives in the hills of Northern California, where he makes a living as editor and publisher of a travel magazine for visitors to the Mendocino Coast.
If Not Words
I think of 1978 as my Kerouac period. Before that was my blustery Hemingway period, and afterward my disastrous Hunter S. Thompson period. But 78 was Kerouac, and in the spring I drifted out of college and began to dream of going on the road.
Of course, I needed a Neal Cassady—a running buddy like the mad ones that Kerouac famously shambled after, the ones who are “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
That was what I needed. What I had was Pat Kelly.
I first met Pat in Lupoyoma City, a small poor town next to a big green lake three hours north of San Francisco. He was the new kid in eighth grade, from Texas by way of San Jose, with a junkie father locked up in San Quentin and his fortyfiveish mother shuttling drinks at the Weeping Willow Resort & Trailer Court. I won’t go into it here but, at the time, I was in a murky state of social exile myself due to a local scandal involving my family. What drew me to Pat was our shared status as temporary outsiders, and the fact that he was completely unimpressed by Lupoyoma gossip. That just wasn’t how he measured the world.
I met him because our American History teacher sentenced him to three swats for “cracking wise.” The teacher had a thick wooden paddle drilled with holes to reduce wind resistance. Pat rose from his backrow desk and said, “Now, how much history do you think I can learn from three swats?” He was taller and older than the rest of us. Straight blondish hair, parted down the middle and tucked behind jughandle ears. Tanktop shirt and wide bellbottoms over black motorcycle boots, and his wallet on a silvery chain secured to a belt loop. He took long gangly strides to the front of the classroom, with his chin up and his shoulders back.
The teacher glowered. “Make it five then.”
Pat faced the class and grabbed his ankles. The teacher swung for the fences. Pat overacted a mockish “Ow!” with every blow, and the teacher tacked on another two swats—to zero effect on Pat’s demeanor. I had a front row desk, and after the final swing Pat straightened up and flashed his wide floppy grin right at me, then earnestly advised the teacher to watch the Jack LaLanne show. I laughed. Then the whole class laughed. The teacher pointed at the door and ordered both of us to the principal’s office. On the way out Pat paused at the threshold, looked back across the room and said, “Seven a.m., Channel 3,” with a big wink, and turned out the door. He had something I hadn’t seen before—an attitude or quality I admired, even coveted, but couldn’t name at first.
In those days I collected baseball cards and words—words I read or heard and wanted to remember or accrue to my character. I had the young idea that words had a way of adding up to a man, and I wanted to choose the right ones. Words that said, listen, and rang the air like silverstruck crystal. I wrote down their definitions in a reporter’s notebook that was spiral bound and narrow, with pages that flipped rather than turned. My father was the editor of the town newspaper and I’d stolen the notebook from his dour, disciplined office. I kept it under my bed in a Keds shoebox with the baseball cards.
Exultation was the word I collected for Pat. Triumphant joy. He measured his world in degrees of exultation though he’d likely never seen the word. It was a way of being in the world that I wanted to understand and claim for myself. Late on a school night, with the rest of the house quiet and dark, I sat crosslegged on my bed with the paperback dictionary splayed open in a circle of lamplight and copied the definition into the reporter’s notebook.
We ran together all that school year, in creeks and alleys and neglected vacant lots, in parks and ballfields and quarter arcades. Cut classes to fish by the sunny lake, trespassed in empty dilapidated houses and burglarized the Little League snackshack. Partners in boyish crime.
Once, we kind of stole a car. Just a daytime joyride around the pockmarked backstreets of Lupoyoma in a big Chevy station wagon that belonged to some girl’s mom. That girl would do anything for Pat. If she didn’t, another girl would. But the mom did not feel the same, and neither did the city police. Their entire fleet of vehicles—all three—converged on the station wagon at a four-way intersection. Black and white Fords and spinning red lights to our left, right, and rear. The street in front of us was clear—Pat could’ve gunned it and started a chase, but he calmly pulled over, put the car in park and turned off the engine.
“Oh shit, we’re going to jail, my dad’s gonna kill me,” I said.
Pat grinned and shrugged, “Win some, lose some, partner.”
Between us on the green vinyl bench seat, the girl was sobbing. Pat put his arm around her, gently tilted her head and kissed the top of it.“Don’t worry darlin,” he said, in that Texifornia drawl. Then he opened the car door and stepped out like a fifteen-year-old man.
The girl and I were immediately cast by the presiding adults as good kids under a bad influence, and we were ordered out of the way as officers handcuffed Pat and marched him toward one of the police cars—chin up and shoulders back.
I heard around town that he was sent to the notorious Bottlerock Ranch, the closest thing to reform school in Lupoyoma County. I didn’t see him until a year later, the day we became cousins. Well, my cousin married his cousin, and Pat figured that made me and him cousins too. I still don’t know if that’s correct, but such technicalities were not Pat’s concern. From that day on, whenever I ran into him, whenever he spotted me in a crowd—at family weddings or funerals, July picnics, or drunken teen parties—he’d always wave his arms and holler out, “Cousin! How the hell are ya!” He never lost that thing I was trying to pin words on, even with the cops always on his case and rarely more than ten bucks and a wink to his name.
I graduated from Lupoyoma High in 75, but Pat already had his G.E.D. and loved to remind me that he earned it at continuation high solely by reading through their collection of Louis Lamour. When I told him I was going away to college, he pshawed and said, “Cousin, you’re doin it the hard way.”
Emmalita Romero was somehow immune to Pat Kelly’s charms. In 1978, she and I were scholarship kids, chasing upward mobility at the small, ivy-aspiring University of the Pacific in Stockton. We had met in Economics 101, which Emmalita eventually aced and I did not complete. We lived off-campus in a rickety one bedroom apartment on a dead-end street—and in sin, as her father regularly assured us. One February twilight Pat showed up like a long-lost one-man surprise party. Screeched and skidded to the curb in a dusty copper Lincoln borrowed from his mom’s latest boyfriend. Early sixties Continental, low to the ground and half a block long, with suicide doors. He honked “shave and a haircut—two bits,” leapt out of the car, raced around to the passenger side and made a great show of mock chivalry holding the door for a bleachblonde teenager who emerged waving a fifth of gold tequila above her head. Emmalita and I stood on the brick front steps, both shaking our heads, only one of us smiling. Pat turned to me, opened his arms wide and cried out, “Cousin! How the hell are ya!”
Emmalita muttered something in Spanish and rolled her eyes in my direction.
I gave her a palms-up shrug.
We all got tremendously drunk shooting tequila at the second-hand kitchen table with the blue paint peeling off and the raw wood starting to show. Pat and I took turns telling tales of our juvenile exploits as if they were Homeric epics. Needling each other and arguing over details until we ended up out front on the community lawn in a clumsy, laughable wrestling match.
“Boys.” Emmalita said, categorically.
The blonde turned out to be Pi-Delta-something. Pat had sugartalked her right off the steps of the sorority house, and at some point he slipped her out the back door and was balling her from behind, right on the little porch, bent over the wooden railing with a panoramic view of the parking lot—the February cold be damned.
It was Emmalita who opened the door and discovered them. She yanked it shut in a hurry. “What the hell!” she said. “He’s fucking her on the back porch!”
I tried to smile. “We did it there once, remember?” I slid my arms around her waist.
“It’s our porch!” she said, slamming me in the chest with both hands.
Emmalita stomped off to bed, the Pi-Delta blonde passed out on the couch, and Pat and I stayed up and finished off the tequila. The blurry dawn caught us still at the kitchen table, commiserating and confessing. Or was that just me? I vaguely remember reading outloud from On the Road and resolutely proclaiming, “I’m sick of teachers you have to call Doctor. They act like they can write a prescription for your whole fucking future. Here, kid, take two Aristotles and call me in the morning.”
“Ya worry too much,” Pat said. “Always did. Come look me up in Santa Barb this summer. Gonna get me a landscaping job, probably get you one too. Gonna build rock walls for rich ladies whose husbands ain’t home.” He shot me a big wink and laughed.
“Yeah, right,” I said. But the possibility took up residence in my mind and hibernated there the rest of the winter.
When spring came around I received a postcard advertising a bar and restaurant called The Palms, in the town of Carpinteria, just down the coast from Santa Barbara. On the front there was a blue-sky picture of a whitewashed building rimmed with green cornices and fronted by a row of towering palm trees. “The Palms” was painted in voluptuous green script arcing high across the white bricks. On the back, the address of the place, the canceled stamp, and in Pat’s half-schooled printing, “The weather is here, wish you were beautiful! Ha!”
I didn’t show the postcard to Emmalita. I tucked it between the pages of my brokenspine paperback of On The Road and reshelved the book in our “library” made of salvaged boards and stolen milk crates. According to legend, Neal Cassady sent an eighteen-page, sixteen-thousand-word letter to Kerouac which transformed his writing forever. What I got was a nine-word postcard with no return address.
Still, I considered it an invitation—and a map of sorts.
It was late April and late Thursday night, and I had everything except my toothbrush in the new backpack. Two changes of clothes, three harmonicas, two Kerouacs, one Kesey, my old paperback dictionary, two hundred bucks rolled up in a sock, the postcard from Pat, and my reporter’s notebook with room for a few more words. I promised myself they would be words of change and becoming, not the cautious preparation of academia. I leaned the backpack against the wall next to the front door—bright orange nylon, shiny aluminum frame, army surplus mummy bag lashed on, and I told Emmalita, “I want to be on that onramp with my thumb out no later than seven in the morning to catch those business guys headed for San Francisco.”
She’d been in the bathroom almost an hour showering and getting ready for bed. She came into the living room wearing the white full slip that always knocked me out. Nothing underneath. Long black hair dripping wet. “Baby, it’s a twenty minute walk to the freeway,” she said, “even more with that heavy thing on your back. You can sleep in and I’ll drive you in the vee-dub before I go to class.” She slinked across the carpet and her smile was dressed in red lipstick. She pushed me back on the sofa, pulled off my t-shirt and shorts and straddled me in the white slip. She shushed me when I opened my mouth to speak—and that was probably a good thing because I might have said I love you.
Emmalita didn’t indulge in that kind of talk. Traditional monogamous relationships were obsolete. She was a liberated Chicana who read Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, and had marched with César Chávez. She dismissed Kerouac as one of the last great chauvinist pigs, but she listened when I read aloud on long car rides and in our bed on hot Stockton nights unfit for sleep or love. “You get so excited over these words,” she would say, like a new mother saying, “Aw, so cute.” But I would ignore that and talk about the blue echoes of Coltrane’s saxophone in the syncopated rhythms of Kerouac’s prose, and the way it spoke to me that he rejected button-down society to search for his own meaning across the map of America.
When I’d called my father to say that I was dropping out of school to go on the road, he’d offered me a job at the newspaper. But when I told Emmalita, she understood. (Of course, I kept Pat Kelly’s name out of it.) We were sitting on the red brick stairs by the front door in the early evening, the bricks still warm from the afternoon heat. We brought out bottles of beer and watched the sun slide into the low skyline across the valley. I showed her the new summer catalog from the university, with the fake snapshots of students at internships, posing with stethoscopes, clipboards and briefcases like children playing dressup. I pointed and jabbed at the pictures and said, “That’s not me. That’s not me. That’s not me either. I’m not in there.”
Emmalita nodded and took a long sip of beer. She didn’t try to talk me out of it or lecture me like a parent. “Go,” she said, still looking out across the rooftops. “I could never forgive myself if you don’t. And after graduation I’ll be leaving to law school who knows where.” She picked at the bottle’s label with a fingernail. “We’re young. We each have our own dreams.”
We didn’t want to live our parents’ lives, tangled forever in regret and resentment. We agreed they were childish and it was a satisfying irony that we were so adult in our acceptance of individual freedom. She even promised to store my records and books—including my stack of rare blues albums and the first edition Hemingway I’d found at a yard sale.
The day I left, I woke up in the near-dark, alone in bed, with the the feeling that I was already late. I found Emmalita at the kitchen stove frying chorizo and eggs, still in the white slip. She looked at me sweetly over her shoulder. “Your favorite,” she said.
“We don’t have time for breakfast,” I said, but she just turned back to the pan and stirred with the flat wooden spoon. The smell of chorizo rose in steam.
“You know he never found it,” she said. “He drank himself to death. All that going and going and he never found the meaning of anything.”
I sat down at the kitchen table and studied her. So beautiful and smart and surehearted, so luminous of purpose. That was the word I’d written in the notebook, watching her the first day of Econ 101, already pestering the professor with feminist critiques. Luminous. Shedding light. Now I memorized the hair rolling down her back in black waves, her shoulders warmed to gold by the light of the one bare bulb in the ceiling, her shape moving under the slip like a liquid silhouette, the reflection of the lightbulb trembling in her eyes.
I still had to go.
It was eight-forty by the time we got to the freeway, and a rare spring fog had crawled in off the delta. The commuters were long gone and two bums had already taken positions up the onramp. Emmalita pulled over and left the engine running. She gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead while I maneuvered my pack out of the back seat. I walked around to her window. She rolled it down and turned her face to me. Her eyes were wet. I looked down at the ground and said, “Thanks for the ride.”
She said, “Will you even miss me?”
“Of course,” I said, and bent down to kiss her.
She reached out the window and slapped me so hard I saw floating spots.
“Estúpido cabrón!” she said. “You will miss me. You will come back, and I won’t be here. And if you don’t come back I will scratch all your records and burn your Old Man and The Sea. Pendejo!”
Her rear tires spit gravel as she sped away.
I trudged up the onramp past the two bums so as not to steal first position, which I knew would violate hitchhiker etiquette. At the time I knew that and little else about citizenship of the road. My older stepsister had started me young with daytrips thumbing around Lupoyoma County, but I had never ventured an overnight trip before. Now I would trace one small piece of Kerouac’s map—if I could make it out of Stockton.
The fog was tentacled, the cold insidious. The bum in second position hunkered down on a bedroll in a tattered fatigue jacket. I stood and blew into my cupped hands. The first-position bum watched with gristled detachment. I use the word “bum” because “homeless” wasn’t established as the preferred euphemism in 1978. Drifter sounds too nefarious, hobo too clichéd, wanderer too soft-focus. And these appeared to be respectable bums—not recreational or philosophically ambitious, not the dharma bums or wino savants of Kerouac, but respectable nonetheless. When I walked past, each of them offered a chin nod to acknowledge my good manners.
A car or sometimes two at a time came up the onramp every few minutes. It was not a steady stream. I stood shivering with my head bowed, shifting pebbles with the toe of my boot. Then a car would appear and the two bums and I would present ourselves, one-two-three, in rapid sequence. The bum in the first position wore a blue knit cap and was stooped and gray-stubbled. He held up his right hand as if measuring an inch between his thumb and forefinger to show that he only needed to go a mile or two. The bum on the bedroll was younger. He stood up and let his arm hang down with his hand below his hip, his thumb angled out but cooly indifferent. Then me, standing lock-kneed with my arm perpendicular to the road and my eager thumb almost quivering. I made eye contact with every driver, recalling my high school counselor’s interview advice.
A truck stopped and picked up the gray-stubbled bum. He nodded through the window as he rode past. The other bum picked up his bedroll and walked down to the old bum’s spot. He sat down, then looked up and waved me toward him. When I got there he said, “Where ya headed?”
“Santa Barb,” I said, trying to sound suitably traveled, “actually Carpinteria.”
“Headed down the coast myself,” he said, and took some time to look me over. I became hotly aware of my new orange pack, my brightly washed overalls and clean farm bureau workboots, my peachfuzz face and the girlish dark hair flowing down to my shoulders. Bangles. Yes, I wore bangles.
The bum said, “Wanna go together?”
I must have looked confused.
“Sometimes it’s better with two guys.”
“People think it’s easier to be crazy alone.”
He put out his hand. “Name’s Terry.”
He wore a red bandana headband over unruly curls of rusty brown hair, and his unfinished beard reminded me of my grandmother’s windowsill cactus. He had dark squinting eyes and a handshake that read like a swim at your own risk sign. He said he’d been on the road for years. He’d never been outside North Carolina before the army, but he’d come back from Vietnam with a spiteful heroin habit to kick and a desire to see the country. “See what I was killing for,” he said.
Here was a piece of the America I thought I was looking for, the sad and true but unbroken America you couldn’t find in a dorm room or a library stall. Or in a rickety apartment playing house with a future lawyer. Or the dusty office of a podunk newspaper. I now felt that I was officially on the road although I hadn’t managed a single ride. I could see myself on a barstool at The Palms, regaling Pat Kelly with exaggerated tales of my tremendous adventures with Terry the All-American bum.
The sun burned through the fog, then started in on us. Terry had a pair of aviator sunglasses that might’ve been stolen off Douglas MacArthur himself. Dark green lenses and gold wire frames with the looping ear stem. We finally got a ride from a freckled high school kid in a 65 Ford Econoline van. Terry sat shotgun with one elbow out the window, with his windblown hair and red bandana, and the reflections of the highway speeding across those sunglasses. I climbed in the back and sat on a lumpy mattress covered with a ratty brown bedspread. We rumbled west across the great San Joaquin Valley, straight at the sun.
I dipped into the money sock, handed the kid a ten, and Terry convinced him to let us sleep in the van, parked on the street outside his parents’ house in a monochromatic subdivision. But the parents got wise and we were rousted out around dawn, the panicky dad pounding on the side doors until we emerged, then threatening us down the street with a golf club. Nine-iron I think.
We crossed the southern arm of the grayspackled San Francisco Bay that afternoon on a long low bridge like a highway upon the water. Terry had a Vietnam buddy who owned a bar in San Carlos. It was a surly looking place surrounded by chopped and raked Harley Davidsons. Terry marched through the swinging door like no big deal and I fell in warily behind him. Every head in the bar swiveled to stare us down. Terry’s buddy was a stone outcrop of a man called Sergeant Oliver. Dark straight hair down to his belt, wild thick beard and a big bearish laugh. “You better stick to yourselves,” he said. “My regulars don’t take to outsiders, and I got no time to save your ass. Again.” He laughed and confined us to the storeroom with a deck of cards and a bottle of house bourbon. But, by his own admission, Terry was not a reliable follower of orders. And I was following him. We slipped out when Sergeant Oliver was busy, and Terry made fast friends of the whole crowd by sharing the bourbon and losing at pool. I played harmonica along with Free Bird on the jukebox, and after we helped close up the place Sergeant Oliver locked us in and we slept like ragged children curled up in the red leather tuck-n-roll booths.
The next day we got sidetracked and stranded in the farming town of Watsonville, where it rained like hell was water. But Terry somehow knew where to hop the fence at the city yard, and we clambered over and sought shelter in huge sections of concrete culvert. There were dozens of these cylinders big as railroad boxcars, laid out in tidy rows waiting for some major construction project. I followed Terry and we ducked into one. Inside it was all cozy echoes, outside nothing but the hiss and patter of rain… until we heard the low snarl of the watchdog. Then it was a cartoon scramble back over the fence and a half-mile jog to an all-night laundromat, where we spent the shivering night soaked through and nodding in yellow plastic chairs shaped like your butt.
I relished every minute of these complications and travails, and I harbored the furtive belief that some holy chemistry of fate was involved in appointing Terry the All American bum as the patron saint of my road.
In Big Sur, now four days gone from Stockton, we chanced on a woodsy encampment beside the highway, where nearly thirty fellow travelers were set up. This confluence of meandering souls seemed to call for a suitable commemoration. A tiny shack of a store stood across the highway, someone’s weatherbeat hat was passed around camp like a collection plate, and the fire, whiskey and talk burned late into the night. I pulled out a harp and jammed blues with a sunburnt old picker from Show Low, Arizona. Terry met a frizzy haired hippie woman headed up to Mendocino to make pottery, and I believe he spent some time in her sleeping bag. I scribbled the definition of confluence in my notebook. Where two or more streams or paths become one.
I don’t remember lying down to sleep. I do remember waking up, alone, the contents of my pack dumped on the ground, the money sock stretched out, empty. There’s enough regret and disillusion already built into a hangover without robbery in the bargain. I never saw Terry again. But I found the aviator sunglasses in a pocket of my backpack—a weak apology I concluded, and tucked them away in the pouch of my overalls. Blood-eyed and down to seventeen dollars, I nursed my pride in the woods of Big Sur all day, then slept troubled under a three-quarter moon.
There was a phone booth next to the little store, and in the morning I sat crosslegged on the nearby lawn and eavesdropped on a few weary and desperate phone calls. Maybe Emmalita would wire me some money back in Monterey. It would mean surrender, but I could catch a Greyhound and drowse in her arms that very evening. I rehearsed the entire call in my head, playing both parts, her finger-wagging satisfaction and my redface shame.
I thought of the postcard from Pat Kelly with the sunlight flashing off the bricks of The Palms. I’d told Terry I had family in Carpinteria who were expecting me. But Pat was not expecting me. I hadn’t seen him but once in the past year. I had nothing to go on but that sunny photo and my own restlessness.
I thought of my father. “A pipe dream,” he had said. He’d offered me advice as well as a job. “Son, you won’t learn how to write on the side of the goddamn road.”
“I might learn what to write,” I said.
But my father was an editor, not a writer. Words were either essential or expendable, and always in relation to a specific and utilitarian purpose—science, commerce, the news. In his mind, fiction was a toy made of words. He’d scoffed and shook his head. “Might as well stick that thumb up your ass.”
But now I got up off the ground and pulled out the MacArthur sunglasses and put them on like a coat of armor. I strapped on the dusty orange backpack, walked over to the southbound lane and stuck my thumb out for the next car. My hand low against my hip.
Two days further down the coast, I had a ride that would have taken me all the way to Carpinteria, but I got out five miles short in the tiny town of Summerland—because Kerouac had once spent the night on the beach there. I hunted up a liquor store and spent my last folding money on a half-pint of Southern Comfort and a family-size can of pork and beans.
I walked to the beach in the Summerland twilight. I made a driftwood fire, ate the beans out of the can with my pocket knife, and sipped the sweet liquor like sacrament. There is a certain bliss contained in the moment when one owns a full belly and a full bottle at the same time, even if one also owns an empty wallet. I was bleary and beat and alone without a dollar to dream on, and yet I had the tremendous sense that all was right. In that hour, on that beach, on the map of my heart, I crossed paths with Kerouac.
I thought of that word, tremendous, because it appears so often in On the Road, and in so many contexts that you begin to think he was spraying it around as decoration, unconscious of its specific meaning. I got out the paperback dictionary and read the definition by the firelight: “very great in amount, scale, or intensity.” The root was the Latin word for tremble, and it made me think that Kerouac knew exactly what he was doing, consciously or not. He wanted to suffuse his prose with that deep underlying sensitivity. To bequeath his own shudder at the amount, scale and intensity of America, the world and life. He wanted us to ingest that feeling, swallow it, absorb it and sweat it out the way he had, if only for one night on one beach.
I copied the definition of tremendous onto the final page of the notebook. I sucked Southern Comfort and spoke stumbling poetry to the darkening sky—for the writing gods and for Kerouac, for the full moon, for hope, for words. I stripped to my paisley boxers and danced a silly jig around the fire, and I raised my bottle in a toast to Pat Kelly. Months before, in that drunken dawn at the kitchen table, I was reading from On the Road and he stopped me when I said, “they danced down the streets like dingledodies.”
He laughed and shook his head and pounded the table. He said, “Cousin, what in the blue fuck is a dingledodie?”
I tried to explain that Kerouac invented the word. I said, “you have to get the meaning from the story and the rhythm and the way the word sounds in your heart.”
There was a pause during which Pat carefully refilled my shot glass with tequila. Then he stood up and stretched his upper body across the table so he was leaning on his elbows and his face was close and out of focus. He said, “What I want to know is, do you say more with all these words, or just talk more?”
I toasted him now from the sands of Summerland—and I toasted my father and Emmalita and Kerouac and Terry the All American bum. Because words do make men. And women and toys and news and futures and lovers and wars, every question, every answer, the whole damn thing including the part we name our soul—the part that’s invisible to our physical senses yet we feel it tremble at life. In the end what is the trembling made of, if not words?
I found my overalls rumpled on the sand. I slipped the postcard out of my pocket and looked at it with the firelight bouncing off the glossy photo. I turned it over and laughed at the joke one more time, then I tossed it into the flames and watched it catch fire. I pulled Terry’s sunglasses out and threw them in as well. I ran to the backpack and grabbed the reporter’s notebook. Page after page, word after word, I tore out and crumpled, and I offered them all to the giddy flames.
I slept straight through to the late morning sun like a man sated by exhaustion. I got up and walked into the ocean. All the sweat and dirt and doubt of the road rafted away on the foam. I finally caught a ride into Carpinteria that afternoon, Friday, a full week after I tromped up that first onramp in the fog of Stockton.
I found The Palms, and I found Pat there in a cramped little bar off the restaurant. Maybe six stools at the counter and a few tables in the corner, every spot filled with drinking, shouting, haranguing men. It was a workingman’s bar. They were carpenters, painters, bricklayers and plumbers, and there was not a suit among them or a doubtful word. Down the bar there was some kind of contest taking place and a huddle of men chanted and slammed their fists on the bar in unison. Of course Pat was in the middle of the commotion. I fished the last coins out of my pocket, ordered a draft and watched him in the barback mirror.
He’d changed somehow. He was shirtless, that wasn’t new. And he sat at the bar like a rooster, still chin up and shoulders back. But the hat was new—a dented straw cowboy hat the color of September hills, the brim rolled up a little on the sides, dirt blonde pony tail hanging out in the back. And the mustache was new—a trimmed biker-style fu manchu that added a thousand miles to his face. But he hadn’t changed that much. The matronly woman who brought my beer told me he was eating raw cayenne peppers on a bet, with two more to go before winning the pile of money laid out in front of him. “Boys.” she said, and shook her head.
Pat drained his mug in one swig and wiped his mouth with the back of a sun-dark arm. He looked down at the waxy red peppers in the clear glass snack bowl. He drew a deep breath and raised his right hand to the edge of the bowl. Then he spotted me in the mirror.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” he hollered out, and he turned on his stool with a holy goof grin and stood up and cried out to the whole bar, “It’s my little cousin!” He made it sound like an extra goddamn payday, and some of the men belly-laughed and cheered and lifted their drinks. He held up a finger that said just a second, turned back to the bar, and picked up both of the remaining peppers. He held them up for all to see and the crowd roared approval. Then he dropped the red peppers daintily into his upturned mouth.
His shoulders tensed. He worked his jaw. His forehead beaded sweat. His eyes bulged and watered and his open hand pounded the bar. He chewed and swallowed and gagged so his cheeks filled up like Dizzy Gillespie trumpeting high C. He gulped down someone else’s beer and then bowed his head in concentration—or possibly a sinner’s prayer. The crowd hushed. He raised his head, swept up all the money with one hand, punched at heaven and hollered, “Bartender! Drinks all around!” A tremendous cheer erupted like the end of a long bloody war.
I shouted and roared and drank deeply. I exulted.
Fawzia studied Social Anthropology, drawn to the 'poetics and the politics of writing culture' (someone else said that). She is now unsure about the politics but still likes to play with the poetics, reveling in how the rendering of experience turns it into something else. While wary of the full stop, she has a particular fondness of the question mark.
On the night our house burnt down
On the night that our house burnt down, I asked my mother if she could give me a necklace. What kind of necklace, she wanted to know. She was great like that. Just responding to questions in a calm and concerned manner, never commenting on their inappropriate or obscure timing, just wanting the details. She always wanted the details. Do you take 2%, fat free or full fat milk? Colombian, Costa Rican or that unpronounceable Ethiopian coffee? Demerara, brown or white sugar? Actually we don’t have demerara, I just like saying the word.
I want a vintage necklace.
I’m sure your sister can get you one of those. She loves those exorbitantly overpriced flea markets.
I don’t want an exorbitantly overpriced flea market necklace that was made to look like it was personally bequeathed to me from one of the Brontës but was actually made by some children in a factory in China. I want a necklace that comes from you, from us, from the family. I want a necklace that was given to you by your Grandmother and which had been given to her - during a clandestine meeting in some deep green and mysterious garden - by her inappropriate suitor who didn’t come from a respectable family but who was the man she really should have married because she was awfully in love with him and because the man she did marry wore sandals with socks and always suffered from sunburn even in the winter. I want it to be a kind of magical family heirloom that offers protection so that I am forced to check for it before I leave the house, like I’m looking for my keys or something else that’s vital like a fruit and nut bar for the inside pocket of my handbag.
My mother is silent. I can see the reflection of the flames flickering in her eyes. She looks really good in the glow of the fire. I think it’s because she’s been running and her cheeks are all flushed and her scarf has come loose in the kind of bohemian chic I’m a Parisian lady and my clothes sweep over me sort of way. I want to tell her she looks good. Something like orange is a great colour on you mum or in this candle light you don’t have any wrinkles at all, only that would be inappropriate. Because it’s not candle light. It’s the flame of all our possessions, going up in smoke because someone tried to bake a frozen pizza in a cardboard box. I think it’s important to mention at this point that it was a chicken tikka pizza. Which I would never eat. Not only because I think chicken tikka is an abomination (do you want a curry or do you want a pizza? Make up your fucking mind) but because I am a mostly vegetarian.
My brother says that’s not the point. He says I put the pizza in the oven with the box and I burnt down the house. But it was not my pizza and I don’t even eat frozen pizza because it tastes like cardboard even when people do remove the cardboard and I think that’s the point and I think if I ever have enough money to see a therapist again I will tell them that is the point.
My mother is still silent.
Mum? The necklace? It’s really important.
Okay. But I don’t have one. I have a broach in the shape of a fish from your Great Aunt Elspeth but I’m guessing it’s melted by now. Plus you don’t like fish. Except tuna mayonnaise fish. And no one even knows what they look like because they come from a can.
My mother is super calm. She even has this slightly crazed little smile on her face. At first I thought maybe she was smiling because we had some kind of wicked insurance scheme and could buy everything back again, only better, but then I remembered that my dad doesn’t believe in insurance and then I remembered that my mum’s just a tiny bit nuts.
Like in a good way. In a nuts are nutritious kind of way.
Aren’t you going to ask me why I want a necklace?
She takes a few steps back from where we are standing. It’s getting a bit too hot. Not surprising really, as the firefighters still have their work cut out for them. It’s a big house. With lots of rubbish in it. I bet the fire just loved engulfing all our crap. All those boxes of sci-fi books, all those IKEA pieces we never actually assembled because we all can’t follow instructions, all those towels my parents keep in the linen cupboard for the fancy guests, all those files and files of papers my mother has in her office which cover the details of all her children like we’re under some investigation or something and our first grade reports might be of use in discovering why we ran away to join that cult. All that crap. But not a single magical family heirloom necklace.
So why a necklace dear?
She has the tired voice. The I’m going to play along with your eccentricities because I am your mother and I promised to love you regardless of the fact that I find you a little strange and therefore I will ask you the question you want me to ask you not because I am remotely interested but because have I mentioned that I love you regardless of you being strange? voice. My favourite.
I try to explain to her the eureka moment which revealed to me the importance of the necklace. I was in my room, reading a summary of a book a friend had lent me about neoliberalism and which I didn’t really like or understand but felt I had to pretend to like and understand so was reading the summary so that I could say something clever like don’t you think he could have expanded upon the ways in which Marx's concept of primitive accumulation is highly pertinent to the neo-liberal era of capitalism? Only I never got that far, because my brother screamed out from the other side of the house (the nice side, with the high ceilings) ‘we have to evacuate the house, it’s on fire!’
Funny that, I thought I smelt something a bit smoky.
Then my mother’s voice, I’m just about to put the chicken in dear, what’s that?
THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE, GET YOUR PASSPORT, I’M GOING TO GET BABA. ZINNY – GET THE CAT, I’VE GOT ROUGH AND READY.
I should probably mention at this point that Rough and Ready are the names of my dogs. And I didn’t name them. Because even though I put pizza in a cardboard box inside the oven I’m not a complete moron.
Mum again. Oh okay, is that Mo? I didn’t know you were home. I didn’t hear you. Should I put the chicken in the fridge then?
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE CHICKEN MUM. THERE’S A FUCKING FIRE SPREADING FROM BABA’S SIDE OF THE HOUSE. WE HAVE TO GET OUT. CAN’T YOU SMELL THE SMOKE?
Yes, but I thought it was the neighbours.
I knew it was serious because my brother never swears at mum. I also knew it was serious because I could not only smell, but see the smoke.
My brother raced past my room and reminded me about the passport (And the cat. Who was calmly snuggled up sleeping on my bed. Typical). Then he said ‘and anything else that you think is important.’
Anything else that you think is important. Crikey.
I did a rapid scan of my room. Framed photographs with my best friend from high school. Nah, not sure I like her anymore. Collection of favourite books. Too many plus could just re-order from Amazon. Clothes. How shallow would it be if I emerged with my favourite skirt? I’ve got to have more personality than that… Erm. An old journal? That can happily burn. My laptop? Too heavy plus everything is backed up on Dropbox. Jewellery? Everything I own is plastic and half of it was bought at discount from the pharmacy.
That’s when it hit me. I need to inherit a necklace. With just the right amount of sentiment and history to infuse it with supernatural powers. So that I can take on the world in the spirit of Great Grandmother Beatrice or Great Aunt Molly or something like that (I’ll get their name right once I get their necklace, promise).
Mum, do you remember that movie with Leonardo DiCaprio about people who perform corporate espionage using an experimental military technology to infiltrate the subconscious of their targets and extract information while experiencing shared dreaming?
No. I like Leonardo DiCaprio. He was very good in Catch me if you Can. I don’t find him very good looking though. Weak chin.
Yeah but you never saw the film?
Yes I saw Catch me if you Can. It’s very good, you should really watch it.
Yeah I know but I’m talking about Inception. In the movie, they have these things called totems which they use to identify what is reality and what is in another persons’ dream. And the totems, they like, generally have symbolic importance to someone, like maybe they belonged to someone you loved once and have a memory that means something to you. So, if you were one of these people from Inception and your house was burning down because someone accidentally cooked the pizza in the oven with the box, well the first thing you’d take when you leave the house would be your totem. You know, because it’s got these special powers. And it’s yours.
So you want a necklace to be your totem?
A family heirloom necklace Mum!
But this is real sweetie. Not someone’s dream.
I know. But sometimes you can’t tell.
Emma Hines is a 17-year-old high school student who loves to write, in between homework, reading, and playing with her dachshund. She hopes to someday see her novels on shelves around the world.
Only 13 more days to go.
“This is your daily reminder that self-euthanizers, such as Suicide Cream, Heart Failure Injections, or Brain Death Pills, are prohibited! Anyone found possessing self-euthanizers will have their death day pushed back, so make good choices, and may your death day come quickly!”
There had been a time, I think, when people would do anything to stay alive. In human history, life expectancy grew from a mere twenty or thirty years to a hundred to two, as people became more and more fearful of the afterlife. Longevity Pills were consumed like candy, artificial organs used up like tissues. Population skyrocketed until there was no more room left, until houses were stacked on top of each other into the stratosphere and the amount of air you could consume in a day was fixed. The government began sterilizing people though the water they drank and the food they ate to prevent the continents from collapsing under the weight of so many people, until the last baby born on Earth was mutilated and dead. And still, people refused to die.
And then, one day, it all flipped around.
The idea that someone wanted- really, deeply desired with all their hearts- to die had been a foreign concept back in those days. It had been a sign of sickness, of something wrong within the mind of the afflicted, something to be cured. They had to be rescued from themselves before they could be allowed to complete the natural cycle of things: people are born, people live, and people die. To the people who stayed alive a hundred more years than they should have, the people filled with metal and synthetics that animated their meat sack for them, nothing was worse than death.
Some people knew better, and ended it before The Pain began.
Religious people said it was some form of a god punishing humans for going against the natural order of things, but scientists would tell you that The Pain was the universe’s way of balancing itself out. The Law of Conservation of Matter stated that matter could not be created nor destroyed, which mean that, for something to be created, something else had to be destroyed. The four hundred trillion people on Earth who refused to die weren’t letting their matter be recycled into new stars and universes, into animals and plants and water and earth and air. The Pain was the universe trying to rip us in half so it could make something new out of the old thing we refused to let go of.
At that point in time, everyone alive had lived much longer than they should have, so everyone felt The Pain. It was ridiculous, excruciating pain that came from everywhere at once, every molecule of your overused meat sack screaming for you to let it go back to where it came from. Everything in you was pulling in a different direction. Your heart was breaking and your skin was melting and all the synapses in your brain were firing. Your blood vessels burst and your skull collapsed and you died while the technology you’d implanted in yourself revived you, over and over again, like Prometheus chained to the rock, his liver eaten each day and regrown each night.
Death’s ugly face looked like a cherished old friend compared to The Pain.
Suddenly, people dug out the dictionary and looked up the word suicide. The Pain wasn’t strong enough to kill us, and neither was disease nor famine, but perhaps our own strength would do. Hope flared within all of us, and we each prepared our own way. Tall buildings became the most popular tourist attraction. Oceans and other deep bodies of water were visited with heavy stones and rope in tow. I myself had poured a shot glass of bleach, sat down in the chair I’d rested in for three hundred years, and prepared to meet what I’d been avoiding for so long.
Death is like a doorway, and four hundred trillion people couldn’t fit through it all at once. 300,000 people could die per day, no more.
And so death days began. Money and power mattered no more; in the end, it was a lottery system, and whoever got chosen first would die first.
The math said that it would take 1.3333333333332 x 109 days for everyone to die, which, divided by 365 days per year, is 3,652,968 years.
I had been waiting 379 years for my death day, making my total age somewhere near 700. Compared to the wait others were faced with, 379 years was relatively short. But it hadn’t felt like it.
After 379 years of The Pain, I was certain I was losing my mind. People handled life without death in different ways: some sat in their house, didn’t move, didn’t blink, and waited. Starvation couldn’t kill us, nor dehydration nor obesity nor lethargy. Even brain damage wouldn’t induce a coma, so they lived in a makeshift one of their own, staring at the wall or the TV or out a window, and waited. Some lived life as normal as they could and only showed signs of the crippling pain in the deadness of their eyes and the occasional blood they’d cough up and wipe from their chins discreetly.
I had done the latter until my wife’s death day had come. She’d kept me sane through The Pain, through thinking about how long I had to go before I could finally just die. And now she was free of The Pain, and I missed her and hated her for leaving me alone to suffer. I stopped going out, stopped pretending that I was anything more than a corpse who couldn’t decay, and sat and watched the little goldfish I’d had for my entire life swim around in her glass bowl.
The original death capacity for humans had been 150,000 per day, until it occurred to someone that the deaths of animals and plants were taking up deaths that could have been ours. So we forced upon them the same technology we’d put into ourselves, and made them live so we could leave. What would they do when The Pain came to them and humans were long gone?
That morning, I’d gotten up from my chair, the chair I’d sat down in to knock back my shot of bleach, and put on some presentable clothes. The walk to the light-train station hadn’t been very long, and soon I was amongst hundreds of other people bustling around, going about whatever lives humans could have while they were waiting to die. The tiled floor, walls, and curved ceiling glowed a soothing blue, signaling the arrival of the light-train that was coming in from New Hong Kong.
The woman who given the anti-suicide reminder said, “Arrival in five seconds, four, three-”
I jumped onto the tracks.
People hated those who used unauthorized self-euthanizers more than they hated themselves. It was thievery, torture: if someone died, that meant that someone else couldn’t, that someone else had to live with The Pain for another day.
But if I’m dead, it won’t matter.
The tiles glowed an angry red, and an alarm began to blare. The light-train, going so fast I could hardly see it, stopped instantly. I hadn’t even known they had the technology to do that, to stop a train going light speed five centimeters from my breast. Someone grabbed me and hauled me up and off of the tracks roughly, and I was slammed onto the ground.
“That’s my death day you could have stolen!” I heard someone scream. Law enforcement was coming for me, their uniforms white like those of a nurse in the hospital.
What I had done finally began to sink in.
Before I could lurch to my feet they were on me, pinning my arms and legs. A beautiful woman holding a clipboard looked down at me, and for a second, she had the face of my dead wife.
“Come with us,” she said. “Struggling will not benefit you.” I was hauled into a standing position and had my hands bound behind my back, the force field cuffs burning little hairs off of my wrists. People in white began to drag me away from the beautiful woman, who I knew was the one in charge of my sentence.
“Wait!” I screamed. “Wait, wait, please! Please, just tell me, just tell me how many years my death day is going to be pushed back!”
The people in white stopped dragging me, and I met the eyes of the woman as she said,
“The penalty for possession of self-euthanizers is to be moved to the very, very bottom of the waiting list.”
Geoffrey Craig’s fiction, poetry and drama have appeared in numerous literary journals, including the New Plains Review, Calliope, Foliate Oak, Spring – the Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society, The MacGuffin, The Louisville Review, River Poets Journal and Scarlet Leaf Review. He has received two Pushcart Prize nominations.
In January 2016, Prolific Press published his novel, Scudder’s Gorge. Previously, Wilderness House Literary Review had serialized both his verse novel, The Brave Maiden, and his novella, Snow.
Four of his full-length plays (one co-authored) and ten of his one-acts have been produced. He has directed productions of eight of his plays.
Geoffrey has a BA (Colgate), an MBA (Harvard) and an MA in history (Santa Clara). He served in the Peace Corps in Peru and had a successful career in banking before turning to writing.
When Fat Martha told me the blue coats was coming, I decided to run. Missus says Yankees are devils. Guess they got horns and forked tails. Rufus said the Yankees gonna’ free us ‘n give us land. They might give the men-folk land, but they’re gonna’ give babies to us women.
Massa’ bought me when I was fourteen. At the auction house, he touched my hair ‘n face ‘n body 'n then smiled. Been here over ten years ‘n Fat Martha n’ Rufus the only slaves I care to talk with. The other slaves were nasty ‘cause Massa’ favored me. I took corn bread when I ran. It’ll take me a whole week to get North. I’ll follow the North star. Walk nights ‘n sleep in the woods by day.
Stole a warm coat to keep me warm.
No one stopped me. Overseers disappeared weeks ago. I left at dark. Stuck to the big road. Nobody around although I seen fires in the distance. Dog barked as I passed a house. I run ‘til I couldn’t hear the dog no more. Little later, I heard hooves beating. I hurried into the tall grass and lay down. Group of riders in uniform trotted past. The moon lit up the road so I could see good. I went back to the woods at first light ‘n found a sandy place to sleep. Sometime later I woke, don’t know why, maybe Jesus looking out for me. Not ten yards away, a big, ole’ rattler was coiled ‘n giving me the evil eye. I wanted to scream but instead pulled myself back inch by inch.
Next two nights, didn’t see a soul. Corn cakes running low so I hope to be up North soon. I decided that morning to walk a little extra which was a mistake near cost me my life. The sun was up when I heard horses coming on fast. I start for the woods, praying they got better things to do than mess with a runaway. “Hey there, wench, you get over here,” boomed out a Southern voice. I kept running. A shot rang out ‘n a bullet whistled over my head. I was almost to the woods when I heard a second shot ‘n a horse plunging across the field. Then Jesus takes a hand again. A different voice hollered. I looked back. The Confederate that was after me was riding back to the patrol. Guess they had better things to do after all. I was shaking bad.
My luck then took a turn for the worse. I had laid down in a clearing by the edge of the woods. A stream ran along one side. I got up with the sun still high ‘n went to do my business. Washing in the stream, my back must a’ been visible from the road. Suddenly, a rough hand clasps over my mouth.
“Keep yer black mouth shut if you want to stay among the living.”
The soldier drags me to the road where four more blue coats was waiting.
“Look at this.”
The blue coats danced ‘round me, laughing ‘n teasing.
“Ain’t you the pretty one?” “Lift that dress,”
“Give us a peek.”
One of em’ starts kissing me. I struggled without thinking. He throws me to the ground, got on top ‘n starts fumbling with his trousers. I prayed they’d leave me alive when they finished. Never knew why no one heard the horses. Suddenly the soldier is pulled off me ‘n a blue coat lifts me to my feet. Another blue coat’s pointing a rifle at the bastard what tried to do me. A man on a big horse looks down at me.
“You all right, miss?”
I nods but can’t say nothing. I notices two stars on each o’ his shoulders.
Darned if I know what them stars were for. Men on horses were standing all ‘round him pointing their rifles ever which way. More soldiers riding up. “Put these stragglers under arrest, Captain,” Two-Stars says to the man who lifted me up. “The girl can ride behind you. See that she gets a meal in camp. I don’t know what we’re going to do with all these Negroes following us, but I’ll come up with something.”
“Yes sir, General Sherman.”
Pranab Ghosh is a journalist, blogger and poet. His poems have been published in Tuck Magazine, Dissident Voice, Leaves of Ink, Hans India, Literature Studio Review and Scarlet Leaf Review, among others. He also writes short stories. He has co-authored a book of poems, Air & Age. He has also translated a book of Bengali short stories into English. The name of the book is Bougainvillea And Other Stories. He, at present, lives in Kolkata, India.
In another 48 hours he would be gone. And with him the money trail. He had planned it all almost four years ago. It would be a perfect crime. He was on the verge of realizing it. The planning, the groundwork, the execution and the cover-up – he had thought out everything in great detail. He had planned it to perfection. He had executed it with a surgical precision that would put the best brains in business to shame. And he was not a hardened criminal. He had never committed a crime before. This would be his first and last crime. He would never have to look behind! Or so he thought.
The plastic surgeon has done a marvelous job. And why wouldn’t he? Isn’t he the very best in the town? He has played with his face – has recreated it as a clay artist would remodel a mound of clay to make a new figure. And indeed he was a new figure, a figure admired and envied, liked and disliked by his comrades-in-arm. He had given them the idea. Made them work as per his instructions. And he would take the lion’s share of the booty that he would rustle up.
It’s another 48 hours now. And his life would change for good. From a manager in a multi-national bank he would become a respected investor settled in Sweden, where he would be known as Peter Sampras, a man who has inherited his aunt’s property. The Duchess of Norfolk – Norfolk, a place somewhere in Scotland – had left him a fortune upon her death. Could he not be the Duchess’ only nephew? Could not his aunt be the Duchess of a never-known place in Scotland? Who is going to question? Who would crosscheck? And if there be any question raised ever, would he not be ready with a fitting reply? His imagination, his friends used to say in school, even put a Lewis Carroll to shame. Isn’t Norfolk his wonderland?
He got the idea from a Hollywood flick. Just an idea. He had given it flesh and blood. He had breathed life into it. His comrades just loved it. Wasn’t he the best of the masterminds they have ever worked with?
He used to manage high net worth clients’ portfolios as an investment manager. And wasn’t his bank’s credibility beyond any doubt? They had faith in the bank. They had faith in him as well. And he had the ability to talk everyone to submission. His voice was deep and it came from the depth of his naval. He had the face of a Greek God. His built was that of a Gregory Peck and his manners were regal. His clients loved him. Ladies especially. And three of those ladies, the widows of Ramesh Goenka, Ram Madhav Lohia and Yogeshwar Yadav, country’s top businessmen, were his biggest clients. These three businessmen, to his greatest fortune, had died during the last three years,. These three ladies together had invested close to a billion US dollar with his bank. And why wouldn’t they? Did he not mesmerize them in such a way, as a magician would his audience that they never even thought of an alternate advisor? He was their Buffett.
And he invested their money in two little known companies operating from Mauritius. Little known they might have been but they had strong fundamentals and promised excellent return on investment (ROI). All the papers that he produced were impeccable. The return twice than that of the ongoing market rate. And the companies delivered. They had invested with his bank three years ago. And for these three years the Mauritius-based companies have been beating market trends and have been returning an ROI that made the ladies swoon on him. They had brought in more customers. All high net worth individuals. And the Bank did not intervene in his work, because everything just looked so fine – as marvelous as the Taj on the banks of Yamuna. His corpus had grown to an astonishing $3-billion and all within a span of three years. His employers were really happy with him. He was their best asset manager who had brought in more investments than the rest of the team put together. He was having a ball!
He is looking at the mirror now. Every time he looks into it he gets a shock. He is slowly getting accustomed to his new look. He has a high cheekbone now and dimples that were not there before, on his both cheeks. He has grown a moustache. Earlier he used to be clean-shaven. He had curly black hair. Now he is bald. Never will a hair grow on his head ever, the plastic surgeon had assured. And he knows that he had told him the truth. Thirty days have gone and not a hint of hair. He is a happy man. The colour of his eyeballs is butcher blue now. Earlier it used to be black. Had his mother been alive, even she wouldn’t have recognized him. The surgeon was a real good hand. He is rejoicing at the surgeon’s success.
In another 48 hours his dream would come true. He would be far away from the clutches of law. Far, far away. It’s about time he wound up the net. A corpus of $3-billion wasn’t at all bad. He will have to part with $1.5 billion – that has been the deal, a 50:50 ratio between him and his comrades-in-arm. But what he would be left with is good enough to feed his sons and grandsons. He is dreaming of having a family of his own, complete with a son and a daughter. And hasn’t he the intellect to build on the booty that he would get? In five years’ time he would double the corpus, he had promised himself.
Even after he disappears his clients would be getting returns on their investments – say for another six months. And then it would be all gone. Gone with the wind. They will never see the Greek God again. His baritone will be lost forever, as will be the two-Mauritius-based companies. Not a trace will be left behind. The companies will just disappear and so would all the money. Not a penny left, with no trail of the money too. It would be a clean operation. He lauded himself.
They stumbled upon the body while digging up a land to lay the foundation of a multistoried apartment. The land was very close to the house of Rohit’s inlaws. Two days ago, on a Monday, Rohit came to meet his wife at her brother’s place. Ritu, Rohit’s wife, suspected Rohit of carrying on with a clandestine relationship with Seema, one of Rohit’s acquaintances. Ritu hardly knew Seema. She had met her once in a New Year picnic, organized by Rohit’s rowing club. Rohit and Ritu and other club members had posed for a group photo after the bon fire was lit at the end of the picnic. Seema was also there in the photograph. Ritu had a copy of the photo.
Ritu, a few days ago, had found a letter in Rohit’s drawer. It was written by Seema. She wrote about her accompanying him to someplace else, where they could live on without getting detected. Ritu wasn’t spying on Rohit. She had just wanted to tidy the drawer. But there she stood now. Letter in hand. She was in two minds initially. At first, she didn’t want to read the letter. She kept it back where it was. But the sender’s name made her curious. What on earth had Seema to tell Rohit? Moreover, Rohit didn’t mention the letter to her at all. They generally shared each other’s stories. But Seema was completely absent from their conversation. And there she was with a letter written by Seema in hand. Curiosity had got better of Ritu. She opened the letter and read it. Where on earth would the two go and why? Was Rohit unhappy with her? Ritu’s mind raced. But she hadn’t any convincing answer to any of her queries. She decided to face Rohit.
It was a Saturday. Rohit had come home early. At around 5.30 pm. It’s usual, given it was a Saturday. His office closes at 1 o’clock. At 1.30 pm he reaches his club, a 30-minutes drive from his office. There he drinks a jug of beer, plays cards and leaves the place at around 4.30 pm. It takes around an hour for Rohit to drive back home from his club. It’s a rowing club but Rohit doesn’t row any longer. It’s four years now that he has stopped rowing. He is 38 now. He has developed asthma. He was a chain smoker. Doctors suggested he gave up rowing and smoking. He did. But he hasn’t severed ties with the club. He visits it every Saturday. Seema had also been a member of the club. She, however, was an active member. She had, all along been a champion rower. Ritu, however, did not know this.
Rohit had just kept the keys of his car in place. Ritu appeared from their bedroom. She blocked Rohit’s way as he was about to come out of their apartment’s second living room that doubled as his study. “Rohit”, there was fire in her voice. “Where do you intend to go with Seema?” she demanded. Rohit was stung. How on earth could she …? Rohit hadn’t any clue. “What Seema? What are you talking about?” Rohit mumbled. Ritu pushed Rohit aside. Went to the table – flung the drawer open and fished out the letter. Rohit had no answer. Ritu left that evening.
Rohit tried to call her up on Sunday. She didn’t take his call. She was at her brother’s place. Rohit visited Rakesh’s place on Monday evening. It was 8.30 pm. Rakesh, Ritu’s brother, had just returned from his office. He was self-employed. He had a small business and earned enough to keep his family of four going. He, his wife and two teenaged daughters. He wouldn’t mind Ritu staying with them. Money wasn’t any problem. Rohit knew that. He, infact, had always envied Rakesh for his up-scale life. He must be doing very well in his business, Rohit used to think. It’s not that Rohit was poor. His bank job paid him enough to make his both ends meet. But he wasn’t happy. He had always wanted to live life king-size.
Rohit had pressed the doorbell. It was 8.30 pm. Ritu opened the door. Rohit was surprised. Rakesh must not have come back, he thought, because it was always Rakesh who answered the doorbell if he was around. But, this time he was wrong. “Who is it?” Rakesh’s voice billowed from the drawing room. “Rohit”, was Ritu’s curt reply, as she turned and made her way toward the drawing room, leaving the door open. Rohit left the door open and followed Ritu.
“What’s all these, brother?” Rakesh demanded. Rohit had come prepared. He admitted to his having an affair with Seema. He even said that they, he and Seema, could settle for a new life only if Ritu permitted them to do so. Rakesh exploded. He had no idea that the affair had gone that far. “What do you mean, Rohit?” His eyes were glowing with anger. “How dare you cheat on my sister? How long has this been going on?” He was yelling at the top of his voice. Rohit was not to be put off. He matched Rakesh’s voice and screamed, “Your sister is responsible for all this! We had been leading a vegetable love life for almost three years now. She is hardly even a company. I needed someone and Seema … . You know what I mean”. Rakesh wanted to hit Rohit. He flew at him but Ritu intervened. But Rakesh had lost control. “I’ll beat the shit out of you, Rohit,” he screamed as he was pushing Rohit towards the door. “Leave immediately,” Rakesh demanded. “And mind you, I’ll see an end of you. You will pay with your life for the dishonour you have done to my family.”
It was 9 pm then. And that was the last Rohit was seen. It’s Thursday. Two days have passed since Rohit visited his inlaws. But there was no trace of Rohit. No one knew where he was. He had not returned home for two days now. Neither had he gone to his office. Rohit’s father was alarmed. He informed the police.
Police started investigation. One of Rohit’s colleagues with whom he was last seen after office on Monday informed the police about Rohit’s plans to visit his in-laws that evening. Police was at the in-laws’ doorstep. Ritu and Rakesh had nothing to hide. They told everything, barring the death threat. They told about Seema as well.
It’s 35 days now that Rohit had gone missing. Upon enquiry, police found out the details of the altercation Rohit had with Rakesh and the death threat that Rakesh issued. Ritu’s next-door neighbour had told police everything. Rakesh was interrogated. Ritu wasn’t spared either. Police, however, failed to find out Seema. She somehow had disappeared. Ritu had given police the group photo featuring Seema. Police had alerted all police stations but Seema as if had evaporated. Ritu, in the process, had also become a suspect.
On the 36th day, the construction workers digging up the land, near Rakesh’s house stumbled upon a body. The face was badly mutilated and the body decomposing. The body had only a brief on it. A blue innerwear. Rohit’s father was informed. He couldn’t say anything at first but upon scrutiny said that the blue innerwear, almost new, was undoubtedly Rohit’s. He had chanced to see it when Rohit had bought it more than a month ago. Even Ritu identified the innerwear as the one belonging to Rohit. It was Rohit’s body. Police was certain now. After all the formalities Rohit’s body was handed over to his father. Police arrested Rakesh and Ritu. The charge was that of murdering Rohit. Rohit was cremated the following Sunday.
The police have been grilling Rakesh for two days now. “It’s you who had threatened Rohit with dire consequences. It’s you who have killed Rohit. You have killed Rohit. You… You did it to avenge your family’s honour. You killed Rohit. You…,” the investigating officer wouldn’t have anything less than Rakesh’s confession. Rakesh was crumbling. He admitted that there had been a fierce altercation. He admitted that he had threatened to kill Rohit. But he wouldn’t admit that he had murdered Rohit. He hadn’t. He hadn’t murdered Rohit. He had been consistent in his denial. For the past two days he had been only saying this to the officer.
The investigating officer was in two minds now. He was even willing to believe Rakesh. But if he hadn’t murdered Rohit who has? And why? The officer revisited all the relevant documents. Read them. Re-read them. Poured over every minute detail. Every small point, lest he missed anything vital.
He contacted all his “sources” – five in all – to whom he had given Seema’s photograph - the group photo in which Seema featured. He re-contacted them one by one. He drew a blank with the first four, and was disappointed. Seema, it seems, have evaporated like a spirit. No trace could be found of her. News from the police stations was also not encouraging. And these four ‘special’ sources have let him down. He called up the fifth and the last one. He had little hope in him. But what was he saying? He had spotted someone who looked like Seema in the other part of the town. She was spotted in a popular café, with a bald man in tow. She had been seen there for three consecutive days now.
The ‘source’ had run a check on the man as well. There was something unnatural about him. He was a bald man with butcher blue eyes, high cheekbone and a short moustache. These were all fine. But what had struck the source was his activity. He seems to be doing nothing. He had taken up a house on rent about 20 days ago. He called himself Peter Sampras – his landlord confirmed. He doesn’t go anywhere. No office, no clubs, no friends – nothing. Only this woman visits him everyday and the two spend an hour or two at the local café. Every evening the two could be spotted in the café.
The officer set himself on the job. He had monitored the two for three days now, and was fast losing hope. But on the fourth day he hit upon a novel idea. He brought Ritu along with him. They were sitting in a private car just outside the café. It was around 5.30 pm. Seema and the bald man was inside the café as usual. The bald man meant nothing to Ritu. The officer felt helpless. But decided to sit the evening out in the car – at least as long as the two were inside the café.
At 5.45 pm Seema and Peter walked out of the café. They were walking towards Peter’s home. They were walking in the opposite direction of the car in which Ritu and the officer were. Ritu turned back. She was watching them both walk away from her. Suddenly she clutched the officer’s sleeves. The bald man had exactly the same gait as that of Rohit’s. It was as if, a bald Rohit was walking away from Ritu. The officer looked straight at Ritu. “It’s him! It’s him officer!” Ritu could hardly breathe.
Peter was put on a round-the-clock observation. He was monitored as if he were a terrorist who had planned to bomb the city.
On the eighth day the ‘sniffers’ on the observation post informed the officer that Peter had left his home with a backpack and was headed towards the airport. The police carried out a hasty check on the passengers’ lists and it was found that a Peter Sampras had booked a flight to Mauritius.
The officer rushed to the airport. He dashed towards the counter of the airline that was flying Sampras to Mauritius. And there he was, slowly walking towards the counter to collect his boarding pass. The officer thought on his feet. He tiptoed up just behind Peter and softly called “Rohit”. Peter turned around. The officer’s hunch had come true. Peter was Rohit! He detained Peter.
Peter was taken to the police station. The officer knew how to bring out information from even as clever a player as Rohit. Peter confessed. He told everything. How he duped his clients, without them knowing it. How he plotted Rohit’s ‘murder’. How he ‘sourced’ a body. How he mutilated its face; stripped it and put his new innerwear on it and buried the dead body deep inside the ground near Rakesh’s home. He told everything. He told exactly how Rohit became Peter. He told how he had indeed played the game and had almost won the match. Almost. He is in custody now. Rakesh is a freeman again. Ritu is staying with Rakesh. Rohit’s dangerous game is now over.