Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
Former Warriors Speak Their Mind
It was a beautiful day in early autumn when Justin Stone was driving an armored transport truck to deliver millions of dollars to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. His buddy sat in the passenger seat as they drove on the Jersey Turnpike toward the financial capital of the world in Lower Manhattan.
As they listened to the Howard Stern Show, they could scarcely believe what they were hearing. The World Trade Tower had been hit by a plane and was in the process of collapsing. Then, to their utter amazement and horror, the second tower was hit by another plane.
It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, a day that would live in infamy, as did December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Within minutes they could view the collapsing buildings.
Thick clouds of smoke poured into the sky, visible from miles away in New Jersey, said Justin. He turned the truck around and headed back to the Philadelphia Reserve Bank, where they’d come from.
No question about it. Whatever enemy had tried to destroy his country, Justin Stone was going to fight back. The military was in his blood. His dad had served in Vietnam and Justin had already completed a 10-year tour of duty in the Army.
When he got home to Levittown, where he lives with wife Dana and their two sons, Derrick, then 6, and Dustin, 3, he got ready to be called up by the National Guard. As a member of the Guard, he had worked with them one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.
Soon he got the call. “Operation Enduring Freedom” – the idealistic name for the American involvement in Afghanistan – began Oct. 7, 2001. Sixteen years ago.
Justin said his last tearful goodbyes to his young family at Fort Dix, NJ, and began the long flight to Afghanistan.
Derrick Lilley joined the Marines as a teenager in 1998. “I wanted to get away from a life of partying and drinking.” With no purpose in life, Derrick counted on the structure and discipline of the Marines to straighten him out, he said.
His plan worked. He served in Iraq starting in 1999, the first of three tours of duty. The Telford native remembers flying over “a lot of desert and open flat plains.”
“I saw too much,” said the then 33-year-old Derrick, a lance corporal, who was a single man when he saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I didn’t sleep much during the wars and I don’t sleep much now,” said the blue-eyed and cheerful former Marine.
Justin Stone and Derrick Lilley met for the first time while doing construction work after serving in the military. Back then, in 2013, they worked on a new water main near the library in Willow Grove. Justine drove a backhoe and Derrick operated a dump truck.
Their precision work requires great skill and concentration while they work with a team of six to upgrade the water infrastructure.
But the chilling, nonstop after-effects of their war years remained with them, even as they toiled in the hot sun, 9 years after they left the military in 2004.
Justin, then 39, suffers from migraines. “I’ll watch something in the news at night that reminds me of somewhere I was at and then I have nightmares.” He takes four tablets of Excedrin. Extra-strength.
Derrick also has nightmares. “Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night scared as hell,” he said. “I even get them in the daytime.”
His persistent dreams include hearing piercing blasts of gunfire going off and the high-pitched screams of sirens. “It’s not fun,” he said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was unnamed and unrecognized until one Dr. Matthew Friedman categorized it after the war in Vietnam.
The doctor described it as a severe anxiety disorder that can occur after a traumatic event such as combat or military exposure, sexual or physical assault, or a natural disaster. Symptoms include anger, fear, nightmares, hopelessness, shame and despair, according to the US Veterans National Center for PTSD.
Neither man wishes to seek professional counseling. Derrick Lilley comforts himself by drinking. Like Justin, he only talks about his combat experiences with other veterans who have witnessed war.
“I have buddies going to the VA every week who are on medicines,” said Derrick. “I don’t want to deal with all the medicines because I've seen my buddies go through all the problems with medicine and side effects,” he said.
Justin finds it helpful to talk to his father, who served in Vietnam in the Marines, and other former soldiers. “No one understands,” said Justin, “unless they’ve seen combat.”
Both men credit their wives with being their staunchest emotional supports.
Justin met his wife while serving in the army base of Kitzgen, Germany. Dana, also in the Army, was secretary to a major. Pretty much love at first sight, said Justin, they were married in Germany by a justice of the peace.
Neither one is religious, though, ironically, Justin’s late grandfather was a Baptist minister and Dana's mom is active in the Lutheran church and sings in the choir.
Through the miracle of the Internet, he and his family communicated frequently while he was in Afghanistan. Justin learned his younger son, Dustin, joined the wrestling team. The Stone family are all wrestlers, including Justin’s dad who wrestled in high school.
Justin coaches wrestling today. Amazingly, several other wrestling coaches served in Afghanistan. Might there be a connection, he wonders, between wrestlers and warriors?
In ancient Greece, wrestling was highly prized. The sport was glorified in The Iliad, the eighth century B.C. story of The Trojan War as told by Homer.
Wrestling could be brutal, as described in the mythical battle in which Hercules crushes the vicious giant Antaeus in a bear hug.
Lance Corporal Derrick Lilley was a single man when he came home from Afghanistan in 2004. He was doing landscaping for a 4-H building when the facilities manager asked him if he was interested in dating her daughter, Vicki, who now works as a financial marketing consultant.
Derrick jumped at the opportunity. But his car would not cooperate. The battery was dead and he was forced to cancel their first two dates. Vicki wondered if he would stand her up a third time. Fortunately, his car, with a new battery, started up and so did their relationship.
“I drove to her apartment in Harleysville,” he remembered. Vicki's son was at her parents' house. "We had dinner – hoagies – and watched a movie. We hung out until 10 or 11 pm.
“I came over the next day. Then I started staying over and never left.”
They were married a year later and in rapid succession had two daughters: Greyson, 2, and Colby, 1, who join their half-brother Aiden, 10.
“We have everything in common. We joke around and laugh a lot. She’s been at my side all this time,” he said.
What did the warriors dream about doing when they would finally get home?
If Justin dreamed of going swimming and fishing in the Delaware River while stationed in Afghanistan, Derrick had his own set of daydreams. “I’d dream about eating pizza and drinking.” Drinking was strictly forbidden in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
The first thing Derrick did upon returning to the States in 2004, was drive from the Philadelphia International Airport straight into Philly to order a beer and pizza.
Not surprisingly, Justin did the same thing when he got home from Afghanistan. Good ole Sports Pizza awaited him in Levittown.
The men in the construction crew are all good buddies. Munching on doughnuts from nearby Weinrich Bakery, they join in the discussion about the war years.
“Did you get a good reception when you got home?” asked Brad Yurick of Norristown, whose cheek puffs out with a wad of tobacco like former Phillies’ left fielder Raul Ibanez.
Justin, who’s 5-foot-9 and sports a trim beard, responded with a hearty yes. “When I go to a bar everyone wants to buy me a drink,” he said. “It’s hard to take it all in because I just think of it as doing my job. It didn’t dawn on me that what we were doing was pretty big.
“I felt like a rock star,” he laughed.
No one had any idea what war was really like.
“I really enjoyed serving in the military,” Justin reminiscences.
And then there was Afghanistan.
When Justin first flew over the landlocked country where he would serve for 18 months, he saw the brown mountainous terrain and flat colorless deserts. "There was very little green," he remembered about the land that had been occupied by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, Russian tsars, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and currently a coalition force of NATO troops and the United States of America.
Just as Vietnam was a gargantuan challenge because of the intense heat, so was Afghanistan. Said Justin: “It’s 130 degrees during the day and then it drops to 50 or 30 in the night. You sweat all day long and freeze at night.”
In the morning, the soldiers would strap on 80 to 100 pounds of equipment. Their physical endurance was tested to the limit.
Justin’s close buddy, Chris Geiger, 38, of Allentown, PA, became a casualty of the blistering heat. With his voice breaking, Justin talked about Geiger perishing from what turned out to be a heart attack from the suffocating heat. Justin pulls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo, made by a friend of his, to honor Chris Geiger. See photo.
The dead are shipped home from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. “They actually have a good way of doing it,” said Justin. "They escort the coffin to the C-17 or C-130 airplane which will arrive at Dover Air Force Base."
In “chow hall,” Justin sat with the renowned Pat Tillman, the National Football League linebacker who quit a promising career to enlist in the Army. He served several tours of duty in Afghanistan before he was killed in 2003 at age 38 by friendly fire.
The food overseas was fairly good, said Justin.
Justin’s wife Dana would send frequent “care packages,” as did his grandmother.
“You look out for all your enlisted people,” said Justin, whose rank as Staff Sergeant made him a leader.
“If you take care of your men, they’ll take care of you. They’re like your own kids,” he said.
Dana’s packages – which were shared by everyone - included “newspapers from home, socks, shampoo, and baby wipes because you couldn’t always get a shower.” They also included candy.
“Jolly Ranchers were really big favorites,” he said. His grandmother would send chocolate oatmeal cookies, which were also a big hit with the guys.
Dana also sent care packages for the Afghanis. Included were winter coats, toys for the children, and all sorts of balls - footballs, baseballs, and soccer balls.
“The big thing was soccer balls. They loved them. In some of the villages, you made really good friends.
“It was sad leaving them behind,” he said.
Dana always found time to help out the Afghan people. “The average income of the Afghani,” said Justin, “is only $80 a year.”
A dancer her whole life, Dana owns her own dance studio in Bristol Township.
Justin kept physically fit overseas. He spent three to four hours every day working out in the gym. He would daydream about coming home and holding his wife and sons, now 18 and 15, in his arms.
But he was far from home and far from safe.
“The enemy shot mortars into our camp once or twice a week,” he said, referring to the primitive Soviet-made pieces of artillery.
When he first got to Afghanistan, he couldn’t sleep for the first three days. He and the other new soldiers acclimated to the frighteningly loud explosives. “I got so I was able to sleep through anything,” he said.
His emotions were "all over the place. It was a roller coaster of emotions every day," he said.
Toward the end of his 18-month stay in Afghanistan, the unthinkable happened. Because the United States was fighting two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – there wasn’t enough ammunition to go around.
“We were told to ration our ammunition. How can you do this when you’re fighting?” he said. "How could I do this to guys who looked up to me?"
He is still incredulous.
Justin spent time with the Afghani people. “They liked us,” he said. "They were glad we were there. They wanted the Taliban out because they’re pretty awful people.”
Meeting the tribal elders was a memorable experience. “They’d cook up a big meal for us. There was lots of rice and squash and vegetables.”
He got used to seeing the Afghani women in their dark tent-like burkhas which enveloped their bodies.
“You’d only see their eyeballs because they had mesh over their eyes,” he said.
At the construction site where the noonday sun shines over the crew, Justin Stone jumps into his orange backhoe. Its huge teeth easily dig up chunks of asphalt on Park Avenue, near the Upper Moreland Library and the historic five-story apartment building – now Willow Grove Apartments - that once housed band leaders, such as John Philip Sousa, who performed at the former Willow Grove Amusement Park across the street, which is now the Willow Grove Park mall.
Justin dismounts from the backhoe and helps lay pipes and iron ductiles into the 4-foot by 8-foot trench. With military precision, six other men in the team do their part.
“It’s a very demanding and dangerous job,” said Brad Yurick, in his mirrored sun glasses and orange hard hat.
“This one water main is a particularly involved job because of all the utilities underground, some of them unmarked.” There’s always a danger, he explained, that a gas main might explode. And, although the men are extremely careful - "We watch out for one another" - every single one of them has suffered injuries at one time or another.
Brad extols the virtues of the crew and how well they work together: young Dalton Kirkman, aka “Roadhouse,” named after the 1989 action movie whose shapely tattoos adorn his body; Rick Hinkle, who wears a silver cross; Kevin the white-haired foreman, with whom Brad rides to work; Steve Church in the orange excavating machine, and Derrick Lilley, waiting to see action in his huge white dump truck. While waiting, he watches videos of his kids on his phone.
Each man does his part, like members of an orchestra awaiting his turn to perform.
“Do you feel you accomplished anything in Afghanistan?” Brad asked Justin.
“At the time, yes,” said Justin. “But then, things would turn right around and you’d give it all back.”
Derrick believes the same thing. “Some people wanted us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some didn’t.
"In the end, we made no difference at all.”
It will take a couple of weeks to install the water main the whole length of the block. The men work from 7 in the morning until 3:30 p.m.
At the end of each day, former Army Lance Corporal Derrick Lilley backs up his white dump truck and drops a load of stones into the trench to fill it up.
Afterward, a coat of blacktop is poured over the stones. It glistens in the sun when it dries, the end of a rewarding day of hard work.
David Haight received a degree in English and later an MFA in writing from Hamline University where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published the novel Overdrive in 2006, Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and Lemon, a collection of short stories in 2015. He is working on a second collection of short stories.
HANG ON, MOTHER FUCKER
All I wanted to do was spring from the car march until I hit the horizon, slip beneath it like a crack in a door and into another family. Despite my mother’s repeated failures at every job and marriage, her inability to raise a family and anything else you could possibly imagine, it was futile. There was no escaping. Unable to do either I normally screamed at her bloated little face. I didn’t have the strength today. Anyway I needed something from her.
“You swore that Mike would never move in. You swore.”
My mother, her ass plopped squarely on an old flat browning pillow, continued maneuvering the car straight down 5th Avenue. She reached over blindly with her right hand each finger wrapped in a different silver snake-shaped ring, until she found the dial and turned on the radio.
“Mom. I’m talking to you.” I flipped the radio back off. “I’m sitting right here. Ignoring me is not an option.”
“Eighteen years. That’s how long I put up with your father. Eighteen years of cooking for him, cleaning up after you rotten kids while he sat quarantined in that hospice of a bedroom. A near lifetime of watching him nearly drink himself to death.” A dramatic pause. “While everyone else was going out drinking and dancing and screwing I was riding the straight edge of a nervous breakdown. More than once I came home and thought he was dead.”
“I was there remember? A child,” I said pointing at myself.
“Those were my prime years. I can’t get those back. Do you have any idea what opportunities I watched pass me by?” She gave me a hard look, one that was supposed to impress upon my young mind the gravity behind the words. I sighed. “How could you understand? You’re still a tadpole. Perky tits and back shelf ass. You think they’ll all look at you like that forever.
“Once Kevin. Do you remember Kevin? Probably not. You were little. He knew what I went through. How tight money was. What your father was like. We were leaving the VFW on one of the rare occasions I was allowed out. I was all dolled up.”
“I really don’t need to hear about your infidelities mother.”
“We were just out the door when he stopped me and said ‘you did it again.’” She stopped and peered at me. Another of her patented glares. This was serious, apparently.
“Go on,” I said rolling my eyes.
“’You were the most beautiful woman at this whole god damned thing. Again.’ Isn’t that something? My breath was literally taken away. And for the record he and I never. Not that I didn’t think about it. God knows he wanted to. The way he looked leaning against that jeep with that square jaw. He was always in such great shape.”
That huge disarming shit eating grim ran wild across her face. My mother was quite beautiful.
“I never realized how vain and needy you are. It’s embarrassing.” Her face burned with anger, her heart wilted. “How could you be the most beautiful woman at something, again, which implies you went out a lot if you just said you were rarely were allowed out?”
“You know you have bitch face, right? It comes from your grandmother. Only thing she ever gave you. It’s why boys don’t like you the way they liked me, why you don’t get flirted with, or why they don’t drop to the pavement like they did for your sister. There’s no one who sees you the way Kevin saw me. Not yet. Certainly not Danny.”
“That’s not true,” I said too quickly.
“Is that so? Didn’t he tell you who he really wanted to fuck, those were his exact words weren’t they, and then named some other girl, moments after stealing the only virginity you had to offer? Or am I thinking of someone else?”
My mother stared at me. I refused to look at her. There was a long truth exposing silence.
“But you swore.”
“I’ll say this one more time,” she said sighing heavily. “No, I won’t be quiet because you bring this up every God damn day. I don’t remember making that promise,” she said. “Was I drunk? Jesus, I’m kidding. You never had a sense of humor. Although I probably was. Drunk. Wipe that ugly look off your face. I forgot that can’t be helped.”
“I know,” I said catching a glance of myself in the side view mirror. “People think I’m always pissed, like I’m a big unapproachable gorilla.”
“Hand to God,” she said raising her right hand, “comes from your grandmother. Check the photo albums.”
“You scratched out her face in all the pictures.”
“That’s because she was a scary bitch. God knows the few times I ever talked back the way you do I had to-”
“Kneel in the corner for hours, yes I know.”
“Anyway, if you were going to college like everyone else your age this wouldn’t even be an issue. We’d see you every other weekend when you came home to do your laundry.”
“You didn’t go to college.”
“That’s right,” she said rearranging her bangs in the rear view mirror. “Let’s just say that dementia didn’t mellow that old war horse out. She’d fall five times a day and argue with you, from the floor: ‘I didn’t fall.’ So no, I didn’t go to college. What exactly is your excuse? I don’t even charge you rent. It was Mike, big bad dog Mike that convinced me not to do that. You’re lucky I’m even letting you have this little shindig,” she added as a final little rip.
“You’ll still pick up the stuff, right?”
“You got the money so you’ll get your booze.”
The car eased into the flat parking lot baking in the sun of the dilapidated two story apartment complex where my father rented a single room for 295.00 a week.
“I thought you agreed to go to the liquor store awfully easy,” I said slumping in the seat.
“Listen,” she said turning sideways. “He has no one.”
“You don’t see the irony in that?” I asked popping the door open. “That’s not why we’re here. And I know you overcharge me for the alcohol by the way. You always do.”
Pushing open the door to his room the smell of cigarettes, sweat and Spanish rice came over me like a dirge. There were two nondescript dressers shoe polish brown, one cowering to the right of the door, a hot plate and stained dish perched on top and a second, the larger of the two in front of the window blocking out most of the natural light, all drawers open, a mammoth, old television plopped onto it the volume muted. There was a thin doorway to a tiny bathroom but no sight of Daisy.
The bed dominated the room like a felled elephant.
Against the headboard in white shrinking underwear and nothing else sat the hulking, exhausted figure of my father. What little was left of his hair was stuck to his head in tiny stress patches like sand burs, the rest hung in thin grease strands down to his shoulders parted mathematically in the middle. He held a perpetually burning cigarette with one hand, an empty Campbell’s soup can in the other presumably to ash into, though he didn’t while we were there.
“And who do we have here?” he asked me.
I raged. I wanted to weep. I wished I had never been grunted and shoved out into this earth. This was what my father always said to me to remind me that Daisy, the genius, was his favorite daughter and that I was the result of a night he couldn’t recall. Although honestly I wasn’t sure how many nights he could recall. It was just something he said to be cruel. I hated that it worked.
“Where is she?” my mother demanded, crashing into the bathroom and back into the sorry residence of my father a disgusted scowl on her face. “What was it this time? You have nothing left of value to pawn.”
He dropped the cigarette into the soup can, picked up the tiny glass of red wine, finished it in one slow swallow and poured another from the fat green bottle resting on the floor.
“It is my understanding my Christmas gift was used for an abortion.”
A horn blared outside.
“You son of a bitch,” my mother screamed and flew at him like a diving hawk knocking the glass of wine out of his hand and beat his large, over sized chest, neck and face. I pulled her off of him. He wiped the hair from his eyes and said, “I think the little genius said something about going to a shelter downtown,” dabbed the wine from his chest with his fingers and placed them into his mouth and sucked on them slowly.
Without another word we were gone, screeching down the highway, headed downtown.
The homeless shelter was tangent to an overpass. We had barely turned to the corner when my mother bellowed, “There she is,” tugging hard on my sleeve and pointing at her through the car window. She pulled the car to the curb.
As the sun set an angular meanness overtook the streets. They were coming alive with the people no one wanted – hookers, pimps, drug addicts, criminals, the homeless, forced out of the earth’s epidermis like a sliver. The addicts, like my sister, were easy to spot: thin and filthy, pacing nervously up and down the shadowed blocks, laid passed out under awnings, leaning upon deserted door frames or like Daisy, standing on the corner of a busy intersection, clasping a sign begging for money (and money only) praising our lord Jesus Christ in advance.
“What do we do now? Wait her out?” Her voice cracked. I wanted to spit in her face. No matter the transgression, no matter how heinous the sin the bosom of my family longed for Daisy, was incomplete without her, chasing her from state to state, shelter to shelter, disaster to disaster and didn’t give two shits about me.
“Are you kidding? There isn’t a postman alive who has anything on my sister.” My mother chuckled without joy. “She can endure rain, unbearable heat, anything. We could be here for days.” Although what I said was true a second truth a shadow truth descended on us both. If compassion refused to materialize she could flash that teensy brown smile and offer herself up for a sweaty ball of cash.
We approached. My sister an apparition from Auschwitz pointlessly kicked at the curb.
“Here take this,” my mother said offering her our ETS card. “Just take it. Get something to eat.” We knew she would trade it, pennies on the dollar for heroin but it didn’t matter.
She snatched it, slid it into the back pocket of her jeans and gave me a look as if to say: see, dropping the dirty homemade sign to the ground.
“They offer you a bible when you check-in to the shelter,” she said without looking at us. “This guy was going on about how it saved his life. He asked me if there were any passages that were particularly meaningful to me. I lifted my shirt,” which she did exposing a large bumpy oval scar. “Told him about my stigmata.”
“When did you get shingles baby?” my mother asked. “Those are really painful,” she said looking to me.
“I’ve never cared for the Bible I said. It’s so poorly written. He didn’t laugh,” she said dropping her shirt. “I handed it back to him: keep your anesthetic.”
“Says the junkie,” I said.
“Oh hello Esau.” She let out a deep belly laugh.
“You’re not even surprised to see us.”
“Should I be? Let me put that another way. Would you be if you were me?” she asked. “Well, let’s get on with it. Which way to my chariot?” she asked and raised her head skywards. We headed towards the car.
“Do you need to tell them you’re not coming back?” my mother asked. Daisy shook her head. “Are you sure? There’s a limited amount of beds. Better to tell them than have them turn someone away.”
“Like Jesus and the manger?”
“Now you’re Jesus?” I barked. Our tiny procession pushed onward. “I’ll do it,” I said, the call being met with resounding indifference both on the other end of the line and between the three of us.
“Maybe we should, not cancel exactly, but postpone your little shindig. What do you think?”
The car hummed. The freeway buzzed.
“Absolutely not. She’s fine. She’s not even high,” I said unsure if that was true. She wasn’t nodding which was a good sign. I wouldn’t have cared if she had been. It had taken all my powers of persuasion to convince Danny to come over. “It’s only a couple of people. She’ll just sleep anyway.” My mother’s face was twisted up with anxiety. She wanted to push the issue but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You okay with that honey?” my mother asked Daisy.
“I want to be Rimbaud. Not the seer or the enfant terrible like before,” Daisy responded her voice without emotion. “But the older Rimbaud, if one can truly speak of an older Rimbaud, (it seemed as if she were speaking to someone or to some lost part of herself certainly not to us although our presence was integral), the hard, stalwart, stubborn, sternly sober, nearly puritanical Rimbaud. Stripped of all illusions. Alone. All his angelic beauty scrubbed away by the African winds.”
My mother as she always did when she did not understand something simply chose to ignore Daisy’s words.
I didn’t understand what my sister was talking about either but each word seemed whole like polished stones in a beggar’s hand. Or like music dissonant but soothing. I recalled the occasion of Daisy’s first overdose. I showed up to the hospital with a t-shirt I had made up for her a picture of a smiling grim reaper with words, “almost had ya” beneath it. Not only did no one (except Daisy) laugh I was banished to my grandparents for a week so Daisy could recover in peace. I’m certain my mother and my father blame me for what’s become of her based on that fucking t-shirt. Since then so much has happened that I couldn’t have predicted but which now seems inevitable, including Danny wanting to screw my best friend after squandering my virginity. My sister regarded the horizon with the frustration and ache of something nearly remembered but just out of memories reach, which of course is exactly how I viewed her image, shrunken and pale in the side view mirror. I turned away as I caught a glimpse of my bitch face staring back at me.
I banged on the bathroom door again.
“Daisy, what the fuck? You’ve been in their all afternoon. I need to get ready and can’t babysit you. Not tonight.” I banged again. Harder. “If you’re using I’ll call the police. You can rot in jail for all I care. You won’t be so tough when you’re sweating and sick on a jail cell floor without mom to bail you out and get you cash for a god damn fix. Of course I had to buy my own prom dress and you got a new car and where’s that car now swimming in your veins? Puked up in an alley somewhere? but whatever, right. You’re the star.”
“Use mom’s bathroom,” came the belated response.
“I can’t. I know you don’t give a shit but they’re up there.”
“In the bathroom?”
“No, not in the bedroom. You know. Screwing,” I said lowering my voice. “They’re loud. They’ve been at it all afternoon like two gutter dogs.”
“By my unwilling count he’s cum three times with no signs of slowing,” my sister said with a wicked cackle. “I still don’t see what that has to do with you using the bathroom. I mean if they’re occupied…”
“He comes out to pee every time they finish, naked.”
A Satyr-like giggle came from behind the door. “I’ve seen his saggy white ass too many times. Once I snuck home in the middle of the night.”
“No doubt to relieve us of more of our belongings,” I said leaning against the door frame.
“There he was making something to eat in the kitchen buck ass naked. The sight of him trying to cover up his shit with a chicken wing is burned into what’s left of my brain.”
She didn’t come out. Then the slow undulant knocking started once more from behind the upstairs bedroom door. I had to make do preparing myself in the kitchen with my reflection in the toaster.
My mother made her way downstairs one step at a time wearing only underwear and a white t-shirt, her nipples going off like fireworks, swirling a low ball in her right hand, car keys dangling from her index finger. Danny had just arrived and stood just outside the sliding glass door, Tiffany and Amber attached to his gorgeous glowering biceps like a couple of trailer trash furies.
I stood frozen in the middle of the living room holding a meat and cheese tray that smelled like it was going sour.
“Well, let your friends in, tadpole,” my mother slurred, staggered over to the sliding glass door opening it. My friends did not move. “Don’t be shy. Come on in. Oh you’re Danny, aren’t you?” she said taking him by one of his sizable arms and moving him to the couch.
“What are you doing down here?” I asked. I set the cheese and meat tray on the coffee table.
“She’s told me all about you.”
“Oh yeah,” he said.
“Weren’t you the one, yes you were, who wanted to screw some other whore the second you were finished with my girl?” She stood up and made her way to the door where the Tiffany and Amber were still standing. “Was it one of these two? It can’t be this one,” she said tapping Amber’s cheek. “She’s young pretty. You know what young pretty is? It’s a woman who’s only pretty because she’s young. If you look carefully enough at her you can see how she’ll look come late twenties, early thirties. That’s when their youth will burn off and their true mediocrity will blossom and no one will want to throw a fuck in them. Better get married quick girl,” my mother said with a scoff, turning her back and sauntering away with that arrogance booze gave her.
Amber frowned, stepped to the far end of the deck and started smoking. Tiffany was sitting on Danny’s lap, the fingers of her right hand playing some phantom composition on his massive right shoulder.
“What the fuck are you doing down here?”
“Why are you screaming darling? Of course hosting has never been your strong suit. When she was little, eight maybe, we had this birthday party and she told everyone she was Annie like from the musical. So she gets up on her desk and starts singing along trying to force all these hyped up kids to watch her lip sync to the soundtrack. I don’t need to tell you how that went over.” She mimicked the sound of a dropping bomb.
“You gave away all my gifts.”
“Well, I’ll let you kids get to it,” she said and headed to the front door.
“I thought there was going to be beer,” Amber said leaning in from the patio.
“In the kitchen,” I said before turning back to my mother. “Where are you going?”
“Mike needs some cigarettes. Why you got any?” she said with a wink. “I can pay for them. More than you paid at the store,” she said and began searching for her purse, crashing into a wall, knocking several pictures down. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to do anything except deal with whatever was just now starting and would never end.
“You can’t drive.”
No one said a word.
“He likes Newports,” she said dangling the keys on her index finger like a fishing lure.
“This looks like family business,” one of the furies stated, appearing from out of the kitchen a half dozen beers cradled in the bottom of her shirt and before I knew what had happened Danny and company were long gone and my mother was making her way to her car.
“Go ahead,” I said to the empty room. “Kill yourself.” Only a few moments and it would be too late. She would have started the engine and taken off. Responsibility would be relinquished like a hat blown off my head. She split in the midst of confusion officer. I would have stopped her if I could have. I finished my mother’s low ball. I jumped up from the couch and darted up the stairs. “Mike,” I said knocking on the door. “Mike.”
“What do you want?” came his melancholy, sleepy post-coitus response.
“Mom is getting in the car.”
“I know. I needed some smokes.”
“She shouldn’t be driving. Mike? Mike?” There was no response and there was no way I was opening the door.
I darted down the stairs and outside as my mother toppled down in the driver’s seat onto the ratty pillow and pulled the door shut with effort. “Mom, wait.” She threw the car into gear and began to back out of the driveway. I ran alongside pulling on the door handle. She was laughing silently, hysterically, cruelly behind the glass. She cracked the window and tossed an old crumpled up pack of cigarettes at me. Feeling around the front seat with her right hand she found a couple of pens and tossed them at me too, the snakes wrapped around her fingers hissing at me. Lastly she threw her wedding ring out. It hit me just above the left eye and bounced away.
I ended up on the hood of the car. Giving me the middle finger she threw the car into drive.
“Hold on mother fucker!” she screamed with all the rancor of an exploding sun and we were off.
Sometime later, after crying in the park, and an unsuccessful attempt at shoplifting a forty ounce beer from Super America, I came up the driveway, passed the returned car and reentered the house, bruised, dirty, barefoot, my feet aching. Daisy’s shoes were by the front door like praying priests, her room empty. I placed my ear against the master bedroom door. Whispering and intimate giggling like butterflies wings, a prelude to more screwing told me my mother wasn’t dead.
I walked into the kitchen, opened and closed the refrigerator, looped around and through the living room and to the bathroom door. There was a slight shuffling. “Daisy?” I slapped at the bathroom door. “Have you been in there the entire time? Mom almost killed me. Somehow I found her wedding ring. On top on an anthill. Not that anyone will give a shit. Can you hear me?” I kicked it three times until it opened. Daisy, a condom on her right hand, her index, middle and ring fingers shoved up her ass, digging hopelessly.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I screamed until it felt like I was going to expel my lungs like angel’s wings and rocket to heaven.
“It’s the heroin. I can’t shit. I haven’t shit for days, weeks. I feel like an overstuffed sausage that’s going to explode,” she said with the most horrified face I had ever seen. I was emptied out, done for. I took the two steps into the tiny bathroom covered in mirrors, the picture postcard of Buckwheat that had been tacked to the wall over the light switch since the beginning of time laughing at us and took my sobbing sister in my arms, the stretched out condom flapping helplessly on my shoulder.
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 the County Fair
August was here and that meant two things: school next month was a bad thing, but the county fair coming to town this month was a good thing. Me and Bart had been saving half the summer for the fair. Minus what we spent on fries and Cokes, we had enough for a good time. The best rides of the year, hot dogs and cotton candy.
Bart was walking across the street smiling like all get out. This had to be good.
“Do you know what I have?” Bart asked. Before I could answer, he says, “Ride tickets for the fair. Tons of them. They can be used at the midway for games and stuff, too.”
“You heard me. We can ride free all night and do the midway games on the first day of the fair.”
“With these tickets! A friend of my mom is a sponsor or something. Doesn’t matter, but he gave me 100 tickets. Free.”
“Wow, your mom has some nice friends,” I said.
“We don’t have to pay for rides and stuff. Do you know how many hot dogs we can get now?”
“And cotton candy,” I chimed in. “The fair starts this Thursday. That seems like forever.”
It turned out it wasn’t that long until Thursday. Me and Bart were there at the 4 PM opening of the fair. Hungry and ready for rides. My first order of business was to get a cotton candy. Been a year since my last one. The best way to eat the sticky pink threads were by pulling chunks off using fingers. Never mind getting sticky fingers, it was cotton candy, like eating a pink cloud. I took my time savoring the pink delight. Bart pounded down a couple hot dogs while I enjoyed the cotton candy. Then I had two hot dogs. Loaded with mustard. Bart had three more hot dogs with me.
“Maybe five hot dogs in ten minutes isn’t such a good idea,” Bart said, rubbing his stomach.
“We got these tickets so we’re going on rides,” I said. “We’ll start with easy ones. The Zipper will have to wait for a while. I need to settle my stomach for that ride, too.”
After the third time on the tilt-a-wheel, we decided to ride on the spinning saucers. Two times on the spinning saucers and I couldn’t stop smiling. Once a year was not enough for this kind of living, and we still had tons of tickets in our pockets. The lines were getting longer at the rides so we headed to the midway games after a stop at a candy stall. One ticket for Baby Ruth was a bargain to me.
I always did well at the booth where you throw a baseball at a stack of milk bottles. By fair time, my fastball is tuned up from a summer of pitching. I always get a couple of big stuffed bears there. My mom has quite a collection.
We waited our turn at the booth. There was a group of three younger girls, one of them desperately trying to win a bear. I don’t know how many tickets she went through when we were waiting.
“She’ll never get a bear,” I whispered to Bart. “She throws like a girl.”
“She is a girl,” Bart whispered back.
“Line ‘em up,” Bart called to the person in the booth. “And prepare to give up some stuffed bears!”
SLAM! Milk jugs went flying. Three consecutive times all three jugs went catapulting off the stand. The three girls stood there watching in awe. It felt pretty good.
“That gets me a bear doesn’t it?” I asked the man.
“Tell you what, young fella, I don’t think you can do it one more time. You knock all three down the next time, I’ll give you one of the big bears. You don’t, you go away empty. Deal?”
“Here’s a ticket. Line ‘em up.” I was ready. “One more time and I get one of the big bears, right?” I asked.
“Yup,” was the answer.
Everybody watched me wind up and deliver a fastball.
SLAM! All three milk jugs went flying. Everyone clapped for me.
“I’ll have a pink one,” I told the man.
“Doesn’t your mom have enough of these, you bring at least one home every year to her?” Bart asked. He was right.
“Yeah, she kinda said that this year, too.”
“How about giving it to the little girl that tried so hard but couldn’t?”
I turned to the girl and said, “Hi. My mom has lots of these. We saw you trying to win one, would you like this one?”
Her eyes lit up. “Really?”
“And here’s some tickets for you and your friends. The midway games are hard, you might use them on the rides,” Bart said.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” came the replies.
The trio of girls skipped away headed to the rides.
“Thanks, Bart. That felt nice.”
“It did. Besides, we won’t use up all the tickets we have anyway. Just as good to have them enjoy them, too. How about we use some up on rides?”
We went on the Ferris wheel, the haunted house, the house of mirrors, just about everything but The Zipper, my nemesis. Things were going great. Still had a lot of tickets left, though.
“Look ahead,” Bart said. “Do you know who they are?”
“Nope, must be from another town.”
“See that? The three of them took a prize away from a kid and took his tickets.”
“Wow, some towns have worse bullies than our town,” I said. “Oh, my, they’re headed this way. What do we do?”
“We don’t have any prizes,” Bart said.
“But we have tickets. Should I hide this string of them in my hand?”
“Too late. They’re headed here. Just act calm,” Bart said.
I have no idea how Bart could stay so calm in dangerous situations, but he always did, and with a smile on his face.
“Hi. Enjoying the fair?” Bart asked the trio of guys.
“Shut up, stupid. I see you runts have tickets. Give them to me,” the biggest one said.
Now we are going to get pounded. Bart just stood there smiling. Not at the trio, but at something else. Even when they made a grab at my tickets, he just smiled.
“There they are,” a little voice shouts. It was the little girl with the big pink bear. The three turned around, scoffed, and returned their attention to me and Bart. This was not looking good.
Four big high school guys with letter jackets appeared out of nowhere.
“These three morons bothering you two guys?” asked one of them.
“Nope, these three morons were just about to leave us alone,” Bart said. Now he really breaks out into a huge smile.
“Well, GIT you morons!”
I ‘bout never saw three guys in a bigger hurry to leave, stumbling all over each other.
“I want to say thank you for being so nice to my little sister and her friends. This is their first time at the fair without parents. She really wanted a stuffed bear.”
“Glad it worked out. And thanks for saving our evening,” Bart answered. I stood there looking dumb. The four letter jacket guys nodded and walked away.
“Do you know who that was?” I asked.
“Well, yeah. That’s Tim Donavan, star running back and captain of the high school football team,” Bart said.
“You knew that was his sister all along?”
“Sure. She wanted a bear, that was all.”
“Well, it worked out okay, then didn’t it?” I asked.
“Sure did. How about some more hot dogs and then The Zipper?”
I had another cotton candy and two more hot dogs. I lost count on how many hot dogs Bart ate. No challenge doing the ride on an empty stomach. Our last tickets went to ride The Zipper. It went higher and faster than any other ride and spun you upside down, forward, and then backwards. Bart made it through but I didn’t. Maybe next year I will be able to keep my hot dogs and cotton candy down after riding The Zipper. All in all, it was a good day and who knows, there is always tomorrow.
Me and Bart Go Trick-or-Treating
School had been going for almost two months. The only good thing to look forward to was Halloween; Me and Bart had to get enough candy to last until Christmas. We had a route all planned out where the houses were close and had the most candy handouts in the past. Worked the last two years.
Me and Bart always dressed up as hobos. Easy costume with a floppy hat, an old shirt and some dirt smudged on our cheeks. This year I had a walking stick just to mix it up a bit.
We jumped the gun a little because it wasn’t quite dark when I waved goodbye to my mom.
“And yes, we will remember to say ‘Thank you’ at every house.” I wondered if Bart’s mom told him the same thing.
It was a little cold and damp, but it always was on Halloween. At least it wasn’t raining. Not like a weather could dampen our spirits.
“Another good haul at that house, Bart, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yup. Not the little candy bars but the big ones. My pillow case’s over half full.”
“Mine, too. I have a whole bunch of Baby Ruth, my favorite. Ssssh, the door’s opening,” I said.
“Trick or treat?” We asked in unison.
“Oh my, two little hobos. Here are a couple extra boxes of Milk Duds, those train rides can be long sometimes, right hobos?”
“Yes they can. And thank you. We’ll be thinking of you and enjoying the Milk Duds when we hop a train,” Bart said and then smiled at the woman.
“Oh you. Here’s another for each. If every trick-or-treater were as polite as you two, I’d want to do this every week.”
“Thank you and bye,” I called out as we turned to go down the front steps. “She was nice,” I said.
“Hey watch it,” Bart yelled at two boys who bumped into us. “Dressed like hobos. Who do they think they are? It’s so dark I didn’t see who they were, did you?”
“Yes. Fred Wick and Billy Ferber. Again. Do those jerks ever change?” I asked.
Bart helped me pick up my candy that spilled on the sidewalk.
“Don’t worry about them. We’re here to load up on candy.”
“Those two jerks can’t be doing very well running empty handed like that.”
“I guess,” Bart replied.
“We should leave the flashlights on all the time so we don’t get bumped into again,” I said.
As we walked up the steps at the next house, Bart said, “Hey look, there’s a mess on the picture window.”
We rang the doorbell and an old man opened it. He stared hard at us and looked confused. I was a little worried.
“Trick or treat?” Bart said.
“What? Now you want my candy? What’s wrong with kids today?”
“Uh, trick or treat?” I didn’t say it very loud.
The man’s eyes brightened up and he offered us ten candy bars if we’d help him change a light bulb in the dining room.
“My daughter won’t let me stand on a chair anymore,” he said.
“Glad to help you out,” I said. “We don’t need 10 candy bars; one each will be fine.”
Bart was up inside the house and on the chair when blue lights flashed outside.
I looked at the old man and said, “I hope you have more candy because the police are coming to the front door.”
The two officers were huge standing in the doorway. The older one asked, “These the two boys, Mr. Henderson?”
“Yes, officers, they egged my windows. The glass rattled and the noise nearly gave me a heart attack.”
The younger officer stepped forward and said, “Let me handle this.”
He pulled me and Bart aside and said, “You boys are in big trouble. Bart, I know your mom and this isn’t your style.”
“But officer, we didn’t do it. We’re loading up on candy,” I said.
He ignored me and spoke to Bart, “Let’s see if this can be fixed nice and quiet like.”
We all gathered on the front step and the younger officer said, “Mr. Henderson, what do you need done to resolve this situation?”
“Tomorrow is Saturday; if they come in the morning and clean the window and promise not to do it again, I guess that would be punishment enough. That sound alright, officer?”
“I think that will do just fine, Mr. Henderson. Jail’s pretty full right now anyway.”
“But we didn’t do it,” I protested.
“Sounds like a deal,” Bart said. He stuck his hand out to Mr. Henderson and they shook hands. I stood behind Bart.
“Bart, don’t make me regret this. I don’t want to hear from Mr. Henderson that you didn’t show up tomorrow morning,” the younger officer said.
“Me and Bart will both be there,” I said, not knowing how to get out of it. “Can we go and finish trick or treating now?”
“As long as you are here tomorrow morning.”
“Promise, officer,” Bart said.
Once we were away from the house, I said to Bart, “I’m sure Fred Wick and Billy Ferber did that to the house. I know we didn’t.”
“I know. But the old man can’t clean off the window so we might as well do it.”
We did a few more houses but our hearts weren’t really much into trick or treating after that.
“Candy take is down; we’re gonna have to ration to get to Christmas,” Bart said.
I met Bart in his driveway the next morning. Nine o’clock sharp.
“I had to beg my mom not to get involved and finally she agreed,” I told Bart the next morning. “She believes me when I told her we didn’t do it.”
I didn’t tell my mom,” Bart said. “Not much she can do but let us go clean up the window anyway.”
It was unseasonably warm that morning so water from the garden hose wasn’t very cold. Bart borrowed the same chair he used to replace the light bulb to reach the top of the window.
A blue car pulled into the driveway as Bart was climbing down from the chair. The lady smiled at him and said, “thanks for cleaning up, boys.” She walked into the house and called “Dad.”
Bart took the chair back into the dining room and stopped in the doorway. He motioned me over and we both listened to the conversation.
“Dad, where did you find these boys to help you?”
“Honey, those are the delinquents that egged the house. The two cops you called came when they were still here. The cops made them come back today and clean up the mess.”
“Those aren’t the boys that did this. I chased them in my car half way around town until I lost them then went home. I saw them. They were dressed as hobos, but they weren’t these two. I know these two kids are not the ones that egged the house,” she said.
Me and Bart’s eyes met and he smiled. I knew we didn’t do it.
“Hi boys, I’m Becca, Mr. Henderson’s daughter. There’s been a terrible mistake. I chased the boys that did this. I know you didn’t do this. My dad gets confused sometimes. Please accept my apologies.”
“I told the police we didn’t do it, but they wouldn’t listen,” I said. “Bart said your dad couldn’t clean off the window so we might as well do it for him. Besides, we weren’t going to get much more trick or treating after that anyway.”
“You know, I’ve been looking for some nice young men to do some yard work for my dad. Interested?”
“We’re not going to jail if we don’t?” I asked.
She chuckled and then said, “Heavens no, I want to pay you for it and for the cleaning of the picture window. Think you have time to rake the leaves off the lawn? There are two rakes in the garage.”
“Sure do,” answered Bart.
“I’ll stop at the police station and clear all this up. You two are good boys. One more thing, wait right here.” She came with a big bag and handed it to me. “Please take this candy so my dad won’t eat it all. That’ll help with your candy shortage from your shortened trick-or-treating.”
I opened the bag. “Thanks. Baby Ruth! My favorite.”
We raked the lawn in no time and were well paid for the effort. It turned out to be a good day and who knows, there is always tomorrow.
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.
En el pais de los ciegos, el tuerto es el rey.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
He left behind a wife and two young children in his village in Michoacan. In the Hudson Valley, he shared a two-bedroom apartment with four other Latinos in a river town that had seen better days. In the two years since he had left Mexico, he had sent his wife eight thousand dollars. They would open a store when he returned. He wrote twice a week and lay on his narrow bed to read her replies.
He had left the village once before: to go by bus to Mexico City where he got a job with a construction company that built mansions for the newly rich. He learned to shingle roofs and met Marta, a pretty young woman with a head on her shoulders whom he married as fast as a rattler strikes. Used to a mud-walled shack, he hardly believed they could afford a small apartment in a modern building with running water. He didn’t at all mind working weekends as a gardener to make ends meet. They had a son with another child on the way when, perched on a roof, his staple gun jammed. He brushed away the sweat that stung his eyes and turned the gun over. The mechanism freed and shot a staple into his left eye. Blood streamed from the eye. A fellow worker wrapped a soiled cloth around his head, and the foreman sent him to the hospital. The next day, the company fired him. He returned to his village and set himself up as a carpenter, but work was scarce. He built a shack behind his parents’ house. Chickens scratched in the dirt, and a pig wallowed alongside a rusting wire fence. His daughter was born in the shack. He could not afford the midwife, but his sister helped out.
He arrived in Blue Heron Lake with the name Pedro Sanchez written on a slip of paper. A Salvadorian had given it to him in the restaurant in Mississippi where he had washed dishes for five months. Carrying his one suitcase, he walked from the bus depot towards the center of town keeping an eye out for cops. He had ridden the bus for three days, and his mouth felt gritty and sour. He shivered as the March wind cut through his light jacket. He looked longingly at a McDonald’s but kept going. The clapboard houses looked tired, and he wondered if there would really be work or if the guy in Mississippi had been full of it. But he hadn’t been able to save much money washing dishes, and he had heard there were lots of Latinos in the Hudson Valley. That would lessen his chances of getting caught and deported.
Two kids shooting hoops in a driveway stared at him. His blind eye had the glassy look of a dead fish’s eyeball. Whether it was the eye or not, he didn’t like the way American kids looked at him. A few blocks further on, he came to a store with “La Bodega” printed in large letters on the plate glass window. Three round tables occupied a space in front of a counter while four aisles of tightlypacked shelves filled the rest of the store. Two elderly men drank coffee in small cups and talked to a young, solidly-built woman behind the counter. She leaned her elbows on the top of the glass case which was crammed with cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar.
The conversation stopped when he entered. He set down the suitcase. He glanced at the cookies, nodded to the men and spoke in a deferential voice to the woman:
“ Buenos dias, señorita. I am looking for a Pedro Sanchez. Can you tell me where I can find...
“As it’s Saturday, I imagine you can find him at The Black Dog although it might be a little early even for that son-of-a-bitch to be drinking.” She looked him over. “I’ll run you down when I close.”
“That’s kind of you.”
“Would you like a cup of coffee and a cookie? On the house.” He hesitated.
“Sit down. I’ll bring it to you.”
He sat at the farthest table and pulled a book from his pocket. She brought over the coffee and two cookies and glanced at the book.
“English. That’s a surprise. What’s your name?”
“Is there a last name?”
“Not for the moment.”
When Ramona dropped him at The Black Dog, she said: “Tell that bastard to go to hell.”
Pedro got him a job with the roofing company where he and two other Salvadorians worked. The company had no qualms about taking him on.
“Unless he loses the other damn eye,” said the owner.
Pedro also fixed him up with a bed in his cramped apartment. The building was dilapidated even by Huron Lake standards. The spreading maple out front was the only reminder of the time when it was a well-kept, single-family home. Miguel’s roommates called the neighborhood, “El Culo” or “The Asshole”. For hard workers, and harder drinkers, the four men kept the place surprisingly neat. Miguel made five, two in one bedroom and three in his. He had a drawer in a sagging bureau and a bed. A galley kitchen and a living room, with a swaybacked sofa, folding chairs and a television, completed the apartment. The shower dripped.
A painting hung on a wall in the living room: a religious procession in a village with snow-capped mountains in the background. A cassocked priest, swinging a smoking censer, led the procession. Two bare-headed peasants followed, carrying a heavy cross. Most of the crowd had their heads bowed, but a few stared boldly in the direction of the unseen painter. One gnarled, old peasant grinned as if he were in on a private joke.
He spent the spring and early summer tacking down roof shingles. On Saturdays, he found odd gardening jobs in the town’s few upscale neighborhoods. On Sundays, he read and went for walks. His favorite ran through pine woods and dropped down a ravine, ending at the estuary upstream from a defunct marina. He occasionally stopped by Ramona’s to talk and play with her two young kids.
On the odd Saturday night, he went with his roommates to The Black Dog. He had one beer and would dance if one of the young women who frequented the bar asked him. He was tall with straight black hair and high cheek bones. His bad eye and reserve were part of the allure, but he never went beyond dancing.
Pedro told him the women had money on who would get lucky.
“You could have any one you wanted.”
“Why can’t I lose an eye?” Pedro laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. “By the way, the foreman says you’re the hardest working Latino he’s ever seen. You want to watch that.”
In July, he went to a Sunday picnic sponsored by the Women’s Guild of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Bounded by the river, a dry creek strewn with boulders and scruffy woods, the park’s facilities included a baseball diamond, soccer field, open-air pavilion, playground and swimming pool. The Guild women had baked pies, cakes and cookies while the local Ecuadorian restaurant sold rice with chicken, skewers of grilled shrimp and lengths of sizzling sausage. The local Coke distributor had sent over a truck full of cases of Coke and bottled water. A part of the proceeds would go to a shelter. Children’s activities ranging from magnet fishing to face painting were held in the playground.
Coming on Ramona and her kids, he hefted Emilio into the air. The fouryear-old squealed and clapped his hands. “Me too,” screamed Marisol, his yearyounger sister. They headed towards the playground. Emilio raced to the jungle gym and started climbing. Marisol stayed behind, holding his hand.
“Go play” Ramona said to her, and she dashed off.
“They really like you,” Ramona said.
“Hey Miguel,” called Paco, one of his roommates, beckoning him to a group of men and a woman who were warming up with a soccer ball. “Have fun,” said Ramona and touched his arm. She moved like a cat, and her black hair swept over her broad shoulders and down her ample back. He had grown up playing soccer. His blind eye forced him to swing his head, but he was quick and agile. He found himself playing opposite the woman. She was lean with muscled calves. He was amazed at her ball handling. She cut around a forward and headed towards him. He challenged her. She took the ball to the outside, and he blocked her. She cut back. He stayed with her; and she passed off.
“You’re good,” he said.
“You mean for a woman?”
“So are you.”
A friendly rivalry developed between them. At one point, she received a pass; and he was moving towards her when a burly player named Carlos slide tackled her from the rear and sent her sprawling into the grass. Miguel helped her up.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
Carlos stood there smirking.
“Why did you have to do that?”
“If she wants to play, she better learn to take it.”
Miguel hit Carlos hard in the stomach. With a gasp, Carlos bent forward. Miguel shoved him, and Carlos staggered backwards into the arms of another player.
“So had you, amigo.”
For the rest of the game, Miguel watched Carlos. With only a minute left, the left wing on the opposing team took the ball down the side, got around the defending fullback and sent a high pass towards the center. The woman, who had raced downfield parallel to the wing, rose like a rocket and pivoting, headed the ball over the goalie’s outstretched arms into an upper corner. Miguel couldn’t remember when he had last seen a goal that good.
“My name’s Gwen,” she said, coming up to him after the game. “What’s yours?”
“Thanks for standing up for me. I’m sorry it came to that.”
“Some men have a hard time adjusting to a new world.”
“What happened to your eye?”
No one in Mexico was ever that direct.
“An accident – long time ago: a staple shot into my eye.”
“Hasn’t hurt your soccer.”
Ramona approached with Emilio and Marisol.
“Ramona, this is Gwen.”
“How was the game?” Ramona gave Gwen a hard look.
“Gwen scored the winning goal with an incredible header.”
“How nice.” Ramona gave Gwen a harder look. “What brings you to town?”
“My boy friend’s family lives nearby.”
Ramona’s voice softened.
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
Miguel, Ramona and the kids filled plates at the buffet and sat at a picnic table under a spreading maple. The breeze off the river dried his sweat-soaked tee shirt. After finishing his rice and chicken, he grinned at Emilio.
“Want to go swimming?” “Yes,” Emilio shouted.
“Me too,” laughed Marisol.
“Finish eating first,” said Ramona. “Both of you.”
He splashed Emilio and Marisol in the kiddy pool and then took each of them in turn into the shallow end of the big pool. He supported them under their bellies while they kicked madly and flailed their arms. Ramona sat swishing her legs in the water and then jumped in to cruise around.
When Ramona took the kids to play with friends, he found a quiet spot under a tree. He read and occasionally watched Emilio and Marisol playing with friends.
“A year and a half since I’ve seen Marta and the kids,” he thought. “Maybe
I’ll have saved enough in another year.”
Carlos and two other men left the pavilion. Carlos noticed him and started in his direction. The other men held him back. “He lost his eye in a knife fight ... that he won.”
Miguel smiled, leaned his head against the tree and dozed off - coming to with a start as cold water splashed on his head and ran down his face. Pedro laughed like a hyena.
“Time to wake up, pal.”
“Did you have to soak me?”
“Too good to resist. We’re out of here. Of course, if you want to stay,
Ramona will give you a ride. She’s been dying to, but you’d better hang on tight. She gives a hell of a ride.”
Miguel scrambled to his feet.
“Listen my friend, I owe you but watch it. I’ve got a wife and kids back home.”
“And I like Ramona.”
He started for Pedro but stopped, shrugged and walked away.
“Sure,” said Ramona. “You can help me get the kids down for a nap, seeing as you got them all worked up.”
Ramona had the second floor of a two-unit house. Her parents and younger sister lived downstairs. Leaving two older children behind, the family had come from Nicaragua ten years ago when Ramona was sixteen. Her father, who had been an accountant in Nicaragua, worked as a clerk in a hardware store. Her mother, formerly a history teacher, was an administrative assistant at the elementary school. Ramona’s husband had disappeared shortly after Marisol was born. Last year, the whole family became U.S. citizens. They celebrated with a barbecue in the backyard.
With the kids down, Ramona put on a CD.
“I don’t think a cannon would wake them now.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “Dance with me.” They danced for one song, and then he stopped.
“Coffee?” she asked. “Or something stronger?”
She set the tray on the table in front of the blue leatherette couch. She sat next to him and served. They drank silently. She lifted her thick hair off her forehead and touched his hand.
“My kids adore you.”
“They’re wonderful kids. It’s a shame about your husband.”
“Better that he’s gone. I married much too young. My choice of men has not been too good...”
“Especially Pedro. I was lonely. All he wanted was to screw a girl with big … you know.”
“I can imagine.”
“My judgment about men has not been good ... until now.” She put her arms around his neck and kissed him. He pulled back. “Do you not find me attractive?”
“You are very attractive and a charming woman.”
“I’m married, as you know.”
“You could get a divorce. If we got married, you would get a green card.
What’s in Mexico besides your wife and kids?” “That’s enough.”
“You could keep sending them money. You wouldn’t be the only man here with two families.”
“You would be easy to love, Ramona; and Emilio and Marisol are great. But I miss my wife and kids more than my life, and I’m going back to Mexico as soon as I’ve saved enough. I’m sorry.”
“We could just be lovers then. How long has it been for you?”
“Long enough that waiting a while longer will make no difference.” “You are some man,” she said. She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Your wife is very fortunate.”
He continued working through the rest of the summer and the fall; but except for a skeleton crew to handle emergencies, the company shut down at the end of November. The foreman told him to come back in the spring. By this time, he had sent Marta six thousand dollars. During the winter, he shoveled snow and did odd jobs; but despite the heaviest snowfall in years, he was down to five hundred dollars at the end of February and had sent no money home since the fall.
The roofing company began operations again in March. By late June, he had managed to send Marta another two thousand dollars but was again down to five hundred when he fell off a roof on a day of brilliant sunshine and scudding clouds. They were doing repairs at an older condominium development. He was getting ready to climb up the ladder when a worker who was already on the roof shouted that he was coming down to take a pee. He was the slowest man on the crew. Miguel shook his head, stepped away from the ladder and waited in the shade under the eave. The man glanced around and then quickly bent over as if looking for something. Then he edged down the steep roof and backed down the ladder.
Miguel started working where the other man had left off. He picked up a shingle and, stooping to hammer it in place, slipped on a loose piece of slate. He dropped to his knees, which might have saved him except that one knee landed in a shallow box of tiles. The box slid, and he tumbled to the side. Clawing at the roof, he careened backwards and dropped over the edge. His right leg hit the ground first and buckled.
The doctor who fitted the cast on his leg said he was lucky the fracture wasn’t worse but he still couldn’t work the rest of the season. He swung on his crutches out to the hospital parking lot where Pedro was waiting. The foreman told him he could come back spring. The cast came off in late September. Not even able to do odd jobs, he had ran out of money by then. Pedro said sorry but he would have to leave the apartment. Ramona carried his suitcase to her car in the pouring rain while he hobbled behind her using a cane. “Son of a whore,” she hissed in Pedro’s general direction.
He slept on her couch. Emilio and Marisol were thrilled. He played games with them and read them stories in both Spanish and English. Ramona watched them from the kitchen door, smiling hopefully. When she went to bed, she kissed him on the cheek. For almost a week, it rained every day. He read or looked out the window at the small backyard with its beds of purple and gold pansies. Ramona’s parents stopped by to talk. During breaks in the rain, he went for walks. He stopped by the library once and asked the librarian to show him how to use the computer after which he spent an hour searching the Internet.
“What are you looking for?” the librarian asked.
“What kind of information?”
On another walk, he stopped at a hardware store to buy tools. One night, after he had been at Ramona’s for almost two weeks, he told her that he wanted some air. A light breeze cooled his damp face as he walked down Franklin. He hadn’t taken the cane and stopped to rest under a street lamp. Two young girls glanced quickly at him before hurrying on.
“Do I look dangerous?” he asked himself. He made the sign of the cross and prayed for luck.
He put a letter in a mail box. He stopped in front of Buehler’s Jewelry Store and gazed briefly in the window at a gold necklace with a turquoise pendant. He glanced quickly up and down the street and then moved to the door.
He tested the handle and then took a heavy screwdriver from his pants pocket. He jimmied the lock and pushed. The door wouldn’t budge. He checked the street again and, taking a glass cutter from another pocket, incised a circle on the frosted glass that formed the upper half of the door. He gently tapped; and a circle of glass fell inwards. He reached in, slid back the dead bolt and opened the door. He stepped inside and smiled when he saw the glowing dot of red light high in a far corner. The alarm was where he expected it to be.
With light filtering in from the street, he made his way to a glass case. He could make out bracelets, necklaces and rings. He laid the screw driver and glass cutter on top of the case. He felt sorry about the damage he had done to the door, but there was no other way. With a small flashlight, he studied the contents of the case.
He looked up as he heard a car door slam. A powerful beam of light found him. He had to restrain a smile.
“Stay right where you are,” a sharp voice commanded.
The light shone in his eyes. He blinked. Both cops aimed their guns at him. “Very slowly, raise your hands. If you make a single move, we’ll blow your fucking head off.”
He did as he was told. One of the cops holstered his pistol and cautiously approached him while the other kept him covered. The cop cuffed his hands behind his back. The cop guided him out the door to the waiting squad car. At the station, as they poured themselves coffee, the cops laughed.
“These assholes are so stupid,” said one. “Haven’t they heard of silent alarms?”
As always, Marta felt a buzz of excitement when she opened his letter.
Every day my leg feels stronger. It is still not perfect, but I can manage without the cane. I am glad to hear that Pepe is continuing to improve at soccer and that Rosaria is studying hard. The last picture you sent is wonderful. Rosaria is so pretty. Like her mother. I will not be able to earn more money here until next spring, and I cannot wait that long to see you. Nor can I continue to live on Ramona’s kindness. We have saved enough to open our store if we’re careful so I’m coming home. I will probably serve some time; but with luck, I’ll be deported in a few months.
Your loving husband,
Miguel was represented by the public defender. He was deported after serving three months time.
Trey Mayfield is currently in the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Central Washington University. He is 23, happily married to his high school sweetheart, has a cat named August, and aspires to teach English. His first published work was a poem within Central Washington University’s annual journal The Manastash in 2016. When he isn’t writing in all different genres for the many classes he is taking, you can catch him fishing or making music with his friends.
“Honey, come on. I’m hungry. Hurry up and find your boots.” I sigh. My stomach complains loudly in agreement. After thirteen years, four months, and twenty-one days of marriage, you would think she could keep track of her boots. Sarah is always misplacing her things. Even in a closet of a room in a closet of a house, her things never turn up where she “left” them.
The apartment is not really an apartment. It never is in Tacoma. They are just small rooms with a toilet installed in each closet in a small shotgun house. The houses seem to be built for a family of four and maybe a dog, painted in colors that remind me of mom’s house. Instead, some wise guy thought it would be cool to turn a three-bedroom house into a five-bedroom apartment. My landlord calls it space optimization.
We look in every corner of the room: in the chest with the other shoes, underneath the curtains of the window, the sides of the bed pushed up against the wall, in the bathroom closet. Nowhere to be found. My stomach gargles again, making sure everyone can hear it.
“I’ll just go barefoot again. I like that better anyways.” She explains. I try to argue but hunger gets the best of me. She likes to splash her bare feet in the rain puddles as we walk. I swear, she is thirty-three, looks twenty-three, and acts fifteen. But if she is happy, I am happy.
I fasten my boots, tuck in my plaid pajama bottoms tightly into the boots, slug on my raincoat and begin the pat-down. Wallet. Check. Keys. Check. Flip-phone. Check. I reach for my keys and feel something circular, cold and familiar in my pocket. I pause. A shock flashes through my body, and a slow ache in the middle of my chest begins to form.
“Is everything alright, love?” Sarah asks, worry painted across her features. I shake it off, grab the keys to lock up the apartment, and walk out the door.
“Yeah, everything is fine, honey.” I try to convince her. We step out of the apartment and turn to lock the door. After, I give her a half-hearted smile, reach for her hand, and start down the stairs to the exit. The shock, it felt familiar. I try to remember, but I can’t think over my stomach yelling at me for a double-double burger. We step outside and start our Saturday morning trek down to our favorite Saturday morning restaurant. I squeeze her hand tightly, forgetting the weird exchange completely, rubbing the slow ache in the center of my chest.
“Isn’t the rain just lovely?” she says this every time it rains. She gazes out to Commencement Bay far past the blocks of houses and marvels at the droplets bouncing off the water. I watch her admire the rain as we walk. I love watching her. Her bright blue eyes wide with excitement, her auburn loose curls bouncing with every step, her washed out blue jeans cuffed up to her calf, her bare feet and her yellow rubber rain coat that is three sizes too big. She loves the coat. She says she feels like Curious George stomping in the rain puddles in her coat. Don’t get me wrong, it is ugly, but I adore her in it. People used to stare at her, wondering why a thirty-three-year-old woman is prancing around the rain with no shoes on like a five-year-old. I never cared. Her smile expresses an inner joy that warms me to my core. I will do anything, give anything, to keep that smile around. Then she turns to me and smiles brighter. She plants super-butterflies in my stomach, the kind that flutter so much, your stomach feels like it will burst. Her spirit is one of the many things I love about her.
We walk down the steep hill alongside North Tacoma Avenue not saying a word but enjoying the rain and good company. I see the tall pink neon sign hanging amidst the clouds: Shake Shake Shake.
“Wipe your feet before we go inside, alright baby? We don’t want a repeat of last time.” I tease.
She throws me a playful glare in return. “That hasn’t happened in a very long time. I didn’t know the mud was stuck to my feet.”
“You are just lucky they adore you. No one else gets in without shoes on.” She just smiles and walks toward the front door. She flips her curls over her shoulders in a mock sense of arrogance, and my heart flutters at the scent of coconut and vanilla her hair left behind.
“They can’t help it, I just have that effect on people.” She teases. I know she’s joking, but it is true. She has no idea the impact she leaves on people. I call her my little ball of sunshine.
I rush ahead of her in an earnest attempt to be a gentleman, grab the door, and hold it open for her. I gesture her into the establishment with a wave of my hand. She wipes her feet first.
“Oh, thank you, sir.” She mocks through a smile.
“your welcome, milady.”
We maneuver past the first cluster of tables and reach the bar. My stomach leaps for joy knowing what is to come. A calm soothes over me every time I look around this place. Splashes of pink and blue on the white walls, neon tubes of pink lining the underside of the bar, shiny aluminum counter-tops. The colors make me think of cotton candy. We served pink, blue and purple cotton-candy at our wedding. It looked like beautiful colorful clouds, bringing everyone joy. Cotton candy is Sarah’s favorite. I rub the ache in my chest as it wells up again.
I snap out of my reminiscing with the crawling feeling of eyes all over me. I glance around, everyone is watching carefully. Sarah looks around nervously as well. Strange. Then I remember: big yellow coat, no boots. She tends to get this sort of reaction from people. They act cautious at first, like a dog facing punishment. But not even five minutes later, she swoons them all with her radiance. She is like the sun; anyone who comes close have no choice but to orbit around her light and warmth to survive. I double check nothing gross is on me through the shiny napkin holder when the server comes up to take our order. Relief eases the crawling feeling when I recognize Jesse standing in front of us. A familiar, friendly face. Jesse would tell jokes to women in hopes to score their number. He is twenty-two and is bored at work, I don’t blame him. His jokes were always clever and funny too. His face is calculated and serious today though.
“Hey Ben, how you doin’?” He asks. There is a hint of carefulness in his tone.
“We’re good. Just enjoying the rain. ya’ know, the usual.” I respond, trying to lighten the mood. The look on his face tells me it didn’t seem to work.
“Okay. I just wanna make sure your feeling good today, alright?” I am completely lost. I continue to massage my chest to subdue the ache.
“Yeah, yeah, no problem, I guess.” I shoot Sarah an apologetic, nervous chuckle, and she reciprocates it. The air is starting to get weird. She whispers in my ear:
“People get weird on rainy days. Don’t let em’ ruin our Saturday, okay baby?” I flash her an understanding smile and breathe out the tense air. Jesse must have noticed.
“Hey, hey, don’t worry about it, okay? How’s my favorite guy today? You want the usual? The Double-Double Burger, fries, and a blueberry-strawberry swirl milkshake?” Jesse proceeds to bring the mood back up to Shake Shake Shake’s standard, happy atmosphere.
“Don’t forget Sarah, she wants the Saturday Special.” I reply. She lights up, adding a little jump in her seat trying to contain her excitement. I chuckle at her. She is a sucker for pancakes. He pauses for a quick second. She flashes her beautiful smile, which usually makes him blush. Instead, sorrow floods his eyes. As quick as the emotion came, it left his eyes, moving from his notepad with our orders back to us with a typical arrogant smile. He must be just having a bad day. Maybe struck out again this morning.
I scan my surroundings, hoping to change the subject. Just when I need it, I notice the paper calendar reading: Wednesday March 8. I chuckle
“Hey, Jesse, I think your super serving skills are slipping a little. It is Saturday, March 11th.” I point in the direction of the calendar.
“Huh… Oh, yeah, uh, I forgot to, uh, change it. Hold on a sec.” Jesse says between spurts of nervous chuckles. He walks over, hesitates to rip the calendar, then tears at the date until Saturday shows up. I notice he folds the other dates up into his pocket instead of tossing them into the trash. it’s Saturday, right? I don’t get Jesse today. The ache turns into a sharp pain and makes me clench my chest. Focus on breathing. Sarah puts her hand on my back and rubs it in circles. I am sure she means to take the pain away, and definitely helps. Jesse shakes his shaggy black hair in efforts to shake off the strangeness of the interaction.
“No, no, you’re right. My bad hombre. My mistake. Saturday pancakes for the beautiful lady, coming right up!” Jesse apologizes, then stalks off in an air of frustration. I wave off the exchange, but the fear isn’t shaking. I should call the doctor. This chest pain is not normal.
“Weird, right?” Sarah laughs, shaking her head. Seeing her curls bounce relaxes my breathing again. I don’t know what I would do without her.
“Yeah, super weird.” I agree. I pull out my old Motorola Razr to try to find Dr. Roberts’ number. I flip it open and hold the power button. No dice. I could have swore I charged it last night. I really don’t want to learn how to use those smart phones. I try the button again. Nothing. Shit. I tinker with it some more, giving the contraption my focus. I didn’t notice the bell above the front door ring. I didn’t notice two men maneuvering passed the first section of tables to reach the bar. I look up to see a man in an old-fashioned leather jacket grasping onto the back of Sarah’s seat. I tense up. She is staring off into space humming a song I can’t make out. She doesn’t notice him, and he doesn’t notice her. The man in the leather jacket is engulfed in conversation. He doesn’t notice Sarah as he lifts his leg to sit in her seat. My chest flares as I stand.
“Whoa, hey! What the hell are you doing?” I yell at the man. I must have startled him with my volume; he steps back in shock and then steps forward to confront me. the ache is sharp, but my anger keeps the adrenaline pumping. I have had enough with this day.
“What’s your problem? I am taking a seat. Everywhere else is full.” He replies. His gaze and fury met mine.
“don’t you see my wife sitting there? You almost sat on her. You need to open your eyes and move along.” I don’t want to fight the guy, but I’m losing my grip. The knot in my chest hurts so bad. Just as he steps closer, I lose my balance. The pain is too much: I grab at my chest and white knuckle the back of the seat. I hunch over, choking on the pain. My eyes shut, I see fragments in the blackness. I hear Sarah faintly calling. Ben. Ben! I try to regain my strength and coherence, but the room is blurry. She is probably furious with me for losing it. I talk myself back up. Come on, get ahold of yourself. Breathe in, breathe out. Stand up. Clutching my chest still not seeing clearly with the room spinning, I hoist myself back up.
“I.. I’m, sorry. I’m gonna… go… bathroom.” I barely get the words out over my breath. I don’t wait to see concerned or scared eyes from everyone around, including Sarah, and stalk off to the bathroom in the back.
Still hunched, I shrug to the bathroom door. Water. I turn on the faucet, plunge my head under it, and breathe. Happy thoughts. Sarah. Her jumping puddles. Twirling in the rain. Her smile. Sarah. The pain begins to ease, finally. I take a sip of the water, trying to ignore the sulfuric taste it brings. Breathing heavy, I glance at the mirror ahead of me. I haven’t shaven in awhile, and I look tired. Not just in my face, but in my eyes. I am getting old. I almost don’t recognize the thirty-three-year-old man staring back at me. I’ll call Dr. Roberts when I get home.
I gather myself to face Sarah and the others as I exit the bathroom. I will apologize for getting angry. The weird air must be me not feeling well. I peek around the corner, dreading the confrontation, and notice Sarah isn’t in her seat, but the man in the leather jacket and Jesse are still talking. The pain creeps back into my chest, pulsing at me.
“Don’t mind him, that’s just Ben. He comes here everyday thinkin’ his wife is still here. It’s been this way for months, thinks everyday is Saturday. It’s a damn shame n’ all, but lately things are gettin’ worse. I don’t know, just play along to keep the peace, will ya?” The man nods.
My ears burst from the rage in my chest. What the hell are they talking about? I can’t stop, I stomp in their direction. I am losing my grip.
The man in the leather jacket sees my coming in his direction and tenses up.
“Oh, hey, sorry. We will find somewhere else to sit. Didn’t see your, uh, wife sittin’ there.” The man explains. I can’t seem to catch my breath. I don’t get it. Where is she? I took another stride closer in fury and Jesse hops the counter to block my way. He presses firmly on my shoulders. Jesse is strong.
“Where did my, my wife, go?” I breathe.
“Hey Ben, man, I’m sure she’s coming back. Maybe the bathroom or somethin’. Don’t worry about it, alright? Take a seat, I’ll get you the usual, eh?” Jesse acts like he’s conversing with an angry bear. I take a step back. Everyone is watching me. I can’t think about sitting back down, I am still trying to breathe. My chest, the pain welling up, but deeper. It spread like a virus, now a crack in the concrete instead of a hole in the ground. I slowly bring my hand underneath my shirt and press against the pain. My fingers trace a line. It runs down the middle of my chest, like a baked potato cut open, then sowed back up again. The scar hurts, hurts bad. I hear Dr. Roberts’ words in my head: It will heal. It’s odd that it hurts, but it will heal. Just like all wounds, it takes time. I pull my trembling hand out, then slide it back to my keys pocket. The hard, cold circle. Tears crash onto the ground like raindrops on the bay as I stare at the ring. Her ring. No. No no no. I catch the flash of light from a car driving by. It seemed so bright, I felt blind. I stagger back into a table with a family sitting at it, just watching. Like watching a horror film. The tears flood my eyes, I can’t see. My mind’s eye racing with traces of flashing car lights, a stormy night, and Sarah yelling my name. Ben! The rooms spins as I grip my chest and repeat: no, no, no, no. Jesse takes a step closer.
“Ben, take it easy man. You will be okay. She will be back. She comes back everyday. Just breathe, man.” She comes back everyday. I stare at Jesse, looking in his brown eyes for something, anything to hold onto. Things go silent.
“Where is she?” I breathe
“She… She’s gone, man.” No. No. NO! I thrash backward, knocking the family’s table over, sending their fries and shakes all over the room, scaring a holler out of the wife and children. I push Jesse off. The door bell goes off as I throw myself out of the restaurant and into the rain. Sarah. My Sarah.
Outside, the rain blends with the tears, but I can still feel them coming. The sharp pain in my scar is accompanied by the crushing weight on my shoulders. How did I forget? Who have I been talking to? Everyday? Too heavy to walk home, I stop, lean against a street light pole, and watch the tears fill a puddle, breathing in her name in and out, trying to survive.
After a moment that felt like hours, listening to the cars splash by, I trudge up the hill alongside North Tacoma Avenue, each step harder than the last. I look toward the rain and stop again.
I hear Sarah: isn’t there rain lovely? My eyes shut. I breathe deeply….
I hear the splash of a puddle and peek an eye downward. A barefoot woman in a yellow rain coat smiles at the puddle her feet stomped into, then she stomps again. I breathe: coconut and vanilla. I level my head and the weight lifts off my shoulders. Sarah turns her head and smiles deviously.
“Sarah” I breathe through a grin. The pain dulls as I rub my chest. I feel tears on my face. No, that can’t be right. We must be outside taking a walk in the rain. I know she loves the rain. I must have been lost in thought while on auto-pilot. I return her smile.
“You’re gonna get my PJ’s all wet.” I tease. She gives another splash in my direction and laughs. There it is, the sun pulling me into orbit. The joyful euphoria succumbs to the growls of my stomach. She looks at me with radiance.
“What’s wrong, Ben?”
“come on, it’s Saturday. let’s go get some food.” Nothing is wrong when I am with you. I glance at her feet again and smile.
“But first, let’s go home and find your boots.”
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League and others. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. She’ll receive her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts in June from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.
No Place Like Nebraska
Patrick waited out the morning in the beige café just off the interstate. Everything looked dreary to him today. He had hoped for more but he knew the political realities of the little town of Wahoo. It had been a Republican stronghold since FDR. Just 30 long miles down a desolate backroad, a half-hour away from the state capitol of Lincoln, Wahoo was even more conservative in every way than the rest of the state, if that was possible. Just last year, though, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated which had thrown the country into widespread rebellion. But not here in Nebraska where time and politics seemed to stand as still as a silo. The night before, his unsurprising election loss had been a landslide and Wahoo looked to be the final nail in his political coffin. It was his home town, after all.
He had never felt so alone. He looked up from his coffee cup to see Rebecca, his assistant, coming back from the women’s restroom. Ten years younger than he was, she had been along for the ride from the start, never making any demands of her own. They had shared political strategy but not much more. She walked over to him and put her arm tentatively around his shoulders.
“I’m so sorry, Patrick. I wish it had gone differently.”
“We both knew the odds.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The coffee shop was nearly empty after what passed for the breakfast rush. The room was a little shabby like Wahoo itself, the only place left to eat that was at all decent. Over the years, the town had shrunk like cheap wool in the rain, losing population and gaining dust. All the buildings seemed to be the same color, weathered by the brutal Nebraska winters. He had given his last stump speech from the gazebo – a bandstand in the town’s better days - that unseasonably warm November morning two days ago before the election. There were eight people there - mostly friends from high school.
As he stared out the window into the square, his thoughts circled around the many times he had visited his grandmother just a block or so away. She proudly kept a framed picture of Herbert Hoover on her mantel, placed directly in the center where family photos usually resided. When he was old and bold enough, he’d argue with her.
“Grandma, don’t you know Hoover was responsible for the Great Depression?”
“Nonsense,” she would scoff. “That was Roosevelt’s fault. He was a Socialist.” She always pronounced it “Roo” not “Roe,” which aggravated him almost as much as her antediluvian politics.
Still, her house was warm and comforting, the sugary smells from the kitchen and the nostalgic memories nearly nullifying what eventually became their constant disagreements. The house was small - two bedrooms and one bath - the place where she had raised Patrick’s father who had inherited her intransigent conservatism. It was simpler when he was young, oblivious to his father’s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. He hadn’t found out until a political friend told him years later. By then, it didn’t matter. But now, he wanted to think of the times when he didn’t know so much, when life was pure and uncontaminated. For him, that’s what Nebraska was all about. It was the main reason he came back after graduating from college five years ago with his political science major. There was something unfinished here.
He looked over at Rebecca and positioned his chiseled face into a smile. He wasn’t used to comforting words. She walked around his chair and sat opposite him at the wobbly table.
“Thanks. You did a good job. Not your fault this didn’t happen,” he said.
“I know. The chances were just…”
“I thought maybe civilization had made it across the plains after Kennedy died.”
They watched as the waitress come over, carrying a coffee pot and a cup. She had the outdated look of someone who had been brought up here and had only ventured as far as Beatrice or maybe North Platte. The mousy hair was probably in the same style she wore in high school.
“Would you like some coffee, honey? And how about more for you, sweetie?”
“Yeah, thanks. You, Becca?”
“No, thanks. You ready to go?”
Patrick thought for a minute and shook his head. He wasn’t ready. Somehow he already knew he’d never be back here in this same sad place. He would never again run for the state legislature, never come back to Wahoo, never be able to romanticize his childhood again.
He stared into the cup and in its blackness could picture that final rupture with his father. Patrick had been a senior in high school and President of the poorly attended Young Democrats club. He had come home late from a meeting flush with enthusiastic plans, carrying campaign materials for a statewide political race.
Anger seemed to spew like magma from his father that night, just as it always did. Its appearance was inevitably both sudden and surprising. Patrick never understood his wrath or the reasons for the frequent beatings he suffered. But now, at 17, he was nearly grown, taller than his father. These days, the weapons of choice were words.
His father catapulted from his chair. He reached for the stack of pamphlets but Patrick quickly pulled it back. “You’re not going to pass around that shit, not in my town. That guy’s a Commie.”
Patrick turned to face him. “Yeah, I am. And it’s not your town. It’s mine, too. And Mom’s. And Grandma’s. You don’t run things around here any more.”
“Don’t you talk to me like that. You have no sense. No respect for authority.” He reached behind him for a heavy red vase that always sat on the side table and impulsively hurled it at his son, just missing his head. The deafening noise as it crashed against the fireplace brought his mother running. She stopped at the doorway, frozen by anxiety.
“Glenn, what’s going on? Patrick?”
Mavis was still wearing her apron from her hours in the kitchen that evening, her face wizened by the cruel signs of premature aging. She had a weary, gray look about her which always made Patrick feel sorry for her. He knew she would stand up for him if she could. But his father had been violent with her, too.
“It’s OK, Mom.”
“No, it isn’t,” his father roared. “Your son is a traitor. You’ve failed him, Mavis. He’s a bum. He’ll always be a bum. I’m ashamed to say he’s in my family.”
No one knew what to say. Inside the scorching silence, Patrick knew what he had to do.
“Sorry, Mom.” He went over, gave her a quick hug and made his way upstairs. A half hour later, he came down carrying a small suitcase to find the house empty. It didn’t matter any more. He took one last look at the frayed, faded ovrstuffed furniture in the living room and slowly turned the knob on the front door. He paused for just a second, hoping for what? A miracle? But he knew better. Within fifteen minutes he was at his friend’s house and into a different life. He would never return to the creaky old house and would never speak to his father again. He didn’t come back for the funeral, either. For him, his father had died years before, that very night he left.
Rebecca’s silky voice intruded into his reverie but he was grateful to be shaken out of it. “You’ll run for office again. It always takes a couple of times for people to…”
“No, I don’t think so. But thanks for your confidence. In fact, thanks for all of it – your hard work, your coming here with me today. All of it.”
He looked over at her again, this time noticing her lively, clear blue eyes. She was attractive in a preppy sort of way, always dressed well, a little buttoned down. How much of his life had he missed? He wished he could feel the infused energy from all the caffeine he had ingested that day. Maybe that was why he began to notice the throbbing at his left temple. It was almost a relief to feel a physical kind of pain, something that could be medicated away.
He took a deep breath. “Let’s go. I’ll drop you off at your place in Lincoln.”
He felt a subtle but fleeting longing for her but there was far too much static on the line for him to make any decisions about it now. They slipped into his dirty, beat-up blue VW bug and started to drive away from the café.
“Would you mind if we drove around a bit?” he asked.
“No. Sure. What are we going to see?” She was curious without being intrusive. She had learned to be cautious around him.
He didn’t answer because he didn’t know yet. With the grief and sense of loss came the sudden sense of buoyancy that comes from closure. He now felt free to make his escape from this airless universe, this decaying small town that lived in his brain no matter where he was.
“Let’s drive through town. I’ll show you where I grew up. The first time.”
William C. Blome writes short fiction and poetry. He lives wedged between Baltimore and Washington, DC, and he once grabbed a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars while the getting was good. His work has previously seen the light of day in such fine little mags as Scarlet Leaf Review, Amarillo Bay, PRISM International, Fiction Southeast, Roanoke Review, Salted Feathers and The California Quarterly.
Okay, so here’s another procedure down the pipe, nothing else is scheduled for today, and my new Billy Casper putter (yeah, I snared it from a Goodwill store, but it’s new to my ass anyway) impatiently waits in the bag just to show me the good luck and skill I know is in it for dropping long putts all over the swiss-cheese surface of the practice green, and so I’m ready as rain to get the hell out of here after I finagle a canoe needle and a figure 8 stitch to suture up this bastard as tight and smooth as the day he slid out of his momma, when, wow, there’s a loud cry from near the autoclave, and all of us still huddled around the patient naturally want to know what’s up. Then one of the two young busty techs in purple scrubs comes galloping back to tell us her rider’s gone invisible! [Oh don’t believe that, I’m only joshing, ‘just trying to be a tad funny with my words, me and my fucking comic relief!]
But this fine, fine purple tech is now saying—and she’s shaken up to the point where she’s starting to pant and heave those tits—that all four bins of instruments she placed in the autoclave and just finished sterilizing have actually changed their texture and shape, and that as much as she can discern in the shock of sudden discovery, “Some have gone leathery, some have crumbled like graham crackers, some have become plumes and feathers, and a few turned into concrete-hard pieces of strung-out taffy. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” And the little sexpot adds, “But the funny thing is, everything stayed all silvery and shiny.”
Well, now say what you will, if what I’ve just heard is substantially correct (and please understand, I can’t pad back there to investigate until I finish trussing up this turkey in front of me), my first thought is that there are lots of odd things that can be believable near or within this particular surgical suite, simply because this is one of the few left anywhere with large bare windows still in the outer walls of several of its operating rooms. How the hospital dodges being forced to get rid of these ancient fixtures in a modern surgical environment (when they’re certainly observed and written up during every certification audit) beats the heck out of me, but here I am once more, in this hospital’s OR, and working inside a see-through arena of strange shit. Because, of course, this is not my first time witnessing some looney tunes in this place.
No, the first time was about six years ago, and I was in the midst of an appendectomy then, and I looked through the window and saw several farmers outside attacking one another with hoes; they were really battling at the edge of an adjacent cornfield, whacking the daylights out of each other, and I can still picture their bright blood spattering all over the pale green leaves, and I kept watching until each of the crazy farmers eventually hobbled off in a different direction.
Then the last time I was here during a weird incident was a little less than two years back, when a surgical nurse grabbed one of the boom boxes we keep in this OR and tried to pitch it through the window while the rest of us were scrubbing up pre-op. Luckily, the window didn’t break or shatter, we didn’t have to re-schedule anything, and our CD-player stayed intact through hitting the glass and crashing onto the floor, and it ably played out a pounding Carmina Burana throughout yet-another appendectomy.
FAUX FABLE: THE ONLY TIMES ANDREW WAS EVER CALLED ANDY
Andrew was never called Andy except by a totem pole in Washington state, and respectfully, that first happened when Andrew was standing off by himself while the other tourists lined up at a water fountain or queued inside to buy bags of aromatic, crushed mint leaves. “Andy,” the totem pole snorted, “can you take your thumbnail and scrape off the moss that’s bearding my middlemost face, and would you mind giving the beak of my lowermost crow a couple of sharp strikes with your finger to clear my nostrils? Just two little charities are all I ask before you pile back on the bus and continue to Walla Walla.”
Andrew grudgingly did what he was asked before boarding the bus for Walla Walla. But clear as a goddamn bell, just after Andrew and the other tourists finally got off the bus and entered their motel in Walla Walla, the totem pole’s voice was in his ear again. “Andy,” it said, “you did one helluva job cleaning my face and helping me breathe better, and I appreciate it, lad, I appreciate it, but that fucking lower beak keeps closing up on me. Could you please find it in your heart to do whatever you have to do and come back here right now? I need you to kick the daylights out of my protruding schnozz. From where I stand, it would be worth a couple of charities. Yeah, let’s see: that would tally charity three and charity four I’ll owe you.”
It didn’t take long for Andrew to comprehend that this time, to do what he’d been requested, he was going to have to get rid of the quarrelsome-and-refusing bus driver and then drive the empty bus back alone to where he’d been, but somehow, for the sake of achieving charities three and four, he did what he thought was best. He knifed the nasty driver, swiped his ring of keys, and then motored back to the totem pole.
Once there beside the painted post, Andrew’s two swift and angry kicks to the wooden beak were all it took for the pole to proclaim, “’Feels great, Andy, ‘feels great! Now I’m breathing like a champ, and I owe it all to you, killer, I owe it all to you. Once more I’m in your debt.”
This time, apprehensive Andrew was not all that anxious to be on his way, and so he stood his ground, waiting for whatever was to come next from the pole, like another plea and another charity opportunity, or maybe simply further thanks. However, nothing additional was uttered. Andrew knew he couldn’t go back to Walla Walla, but with nighttime fast approaching, he decided simply to stretch out and rest inside the bus across a pair of seats. But what with all the day’s excitement, he just couldn’t fall asleep. He kept shifting about uncomfortably, and the day’s fatigue kept refusing to complete its work. It was then that the totem pole’s voice sounded: “Andy, won’t you please quit being so restless? You’re forcing me now to make good on my first favor: Take some of those sacks of mint your travel-mates left on the bus, and use them as pillows, dumb-dumb, and I think I can guarantee that in no time, you’ll be sleeping like a baby.”
Moral: Informal charity will now-and-again be odorous.
I often have a sexy guest named June in my apartment, and June wanders about and lounges at will in every room except the den. She believes that if she attempts to sit on or drape herself over the sofa there, tan thimbles will rapidly pop out and cover the sofa’s cushions, even those already beneath her body.
For what it’s worth, this sofa does have a light brown hue June tells me she associates with Namibia’s coastline, the South Atlantic place that June calls home and where she once lost a fair amount of her clothing. That was about four years back.
Before I knew about June’s Namibia, I naturally thought her recoil at going in the den was based on the hard and uncomfortable texture thimbles would present to anyone who might care to slouch all over such a surface or plunk down bare-assed on it, for apart from the sofa, there is no other seating in the room save for my old desk chair, which, somewhat and completely coincidentally, was upholstered years and years ago in a pebbly green naugahyde I’ve always thought (and been told by several other guests) is redolent of many, many very small (and even microscopic) thimbles.
Andrew’s little Burmese seldom showed herself to strangers, but then again, Andrew seldom had visitors. The little cat, probably in no way redolent of the cymbal-clinking, gong-banging, angular-dancing stereotype we all have of the denizens of her far-away, genetic homeland, loved to fall prone upon Andrew’s outstretched legs as he sat night after night at the counter beneath his living room windows, patiently dialing for foreign broadcasts on his shortwave radio. Some nights even monster stations like Radio Netherlands or the BBC played hard to get; other nights (though rarely) low-powered obscurities like the Guyana Broadcasting Service or Radio Mozambique popped up loud and clear, even if for no longer than, say, ten minutes at a clip. Through it all, the little Burmese would stay cuddled and dozing on Andrew’s ankles.
But when Andrew spur-of-the-moment decided to sell his radio and use the proceeds to help finance a flight to Amsterdam, he didn’t give a thought about what he was going to do with his cat while he was gone. It wasn’t until the morning Andrew was actually in a taxicab and nearing the airport that he suddenly remembered Taboo, and how in the world was she going to survive the next several weeks without him? He reluctantly ordered the cabbie to turn around and go back.
Andrew’s first dilemma was he had no means to afford boarding the cat with a veterinarian; this pending trip to Europe was digging very deep into Andrew’s savings. His second dilemma was he had no relatives nearby, no family he might contact and turn to for help. And then a third dilemma was that though he had good friends here like you and me, and though we both readily agreed and promised when Andrew nervously phoned us that morning that, sure, we would take turns looking in on Taboo each day until Andrew got back, neither you nor I was in the least dependable. (I know we’re not really all-that honest, either). However, our promise to him on the phone that morning was all Andrew needed to stay on target and go through with his trip.
Now for my own part, after only a couple of visits to Andrew’s place to see how Taboo was doing (and of course she was always somewhere in hiding), I said to myself the hell with this, coming over here every other day is inconvenient as shit, and so on one of my visits, I intentionally allowed Andrew’s side door to remain wide open, both while I was there and after I left. I’m willing to bet all the tea in China that on your days (or day) that week, you did much the same thing with the back door. All I know for sure is that I shrank my promise and duty down to a Friday-only sojourn, and by the time my next Friday rolled around, I beheld that the bowl of Taboo’s food and the pan of her water had not been touched. After a detailed search, I became satisfied Taboo herself was gone. I became satisfied Taboo had realized her freedom, and that step by step, mile by mile, she was out there treading and threading her way back to Myanmar and the essence and glory of her hereditary homeland.
Sad to say, however, in Taboo’s place within Andrew’s world there are now a ton of what I think are properly called green bottle and blue bottle flies buzzing about. Fuck, I’m no entomologist, but in every room they seem to be zipping in straight lines back and forth through the air, and they frequently collide head-on with one another or against the window panes. What with our open door policy, I can only hope more flies leave than come in, and that in time, all might fan out and appreciably dissipate or disappear before Andrew (or even you) comes back to this house again.
D.B. "Doc" Robertson is a college student from Indiana. While being new to the world of published writing, Doc has been writing creative fiction since he was a child. However, he recently rediscovered his love for writing through college courses in creative writing. In his free time, Doc works as a writing tutor at his university. He hopes that he can introduce the world to his writing.
Sean pulled his coat closer to his body and burrowed his head deeper into his scarf. The wind was blowing hard and the cold was biting as he walked through the hushed city. He glowered as he continued to hide his face from the pain of winter; the falling snow reminded him of nothing but misery.
As it drifted down onto his face, he brushed the flakes away with a disfigured hand and drudged forward towards home. Stopping in front of a run-down house, Sean found himself thinking about the dreadful night that was burned into his memory.
* * *
He was nine years old. It was the middle of the night and Sean was standing barefoot in his front yard, looking at the flakes that were falling. He was stunned; the picture before him was unlike anything he had ever seen before. The fall of flakes was relentless and Sean couldn’t stop looking until one landed in his eye. He closed his eyes and tried to rub away the burning sensation. Blinking, he regained his vision and looked ahead once more. The wind blew and Sean shivered; he had forgotten his coat inside the house. But there was no way he could go back.
* * *
Sean walked inside the small house to find his wife and child bundled in a blanket on the living room couch. He gave his wife a small smile as his daughter dashed out from under the blanket to give him a hug. “I missed you, daddy,” the girl said. “I missed you too, cupcake. Little cold today?” He asked, clutching her head against his chest. She nodded her head sadly. “It was really cold when I got home, but momma turned on the fireplace for a bit and it got warm!”
Sean glared at his wife, and then unfurled his daughter’s hug to look her in the eye. “Cupcake, could you go upstairs for a couple of minutes? I want to ask your mother about how her day went.” His wife shot her a knowing look, and his daughter went upstairs without a word.
* * *
Sean kept his gaze fixed on the scene that played out in front of him. They were in the middle of one of those winter storms that Sean had only read about. Snow piled up outside. The roads were frozen solid and cars couldn’t travel so much as a mile without spinning out. Much to the joy of his classmates, school had been cancelled for three days in a row. However, as much fun as it was to spend three days indoors, the power in his house had been shut off by the massive storm, and his father kept a fire lit overnight just to have some heat in the house.
* * *
Sean kept a tight grip on the collar of his wife’s shirt. “I told you that we don’t turn on that fireplace. Ever.” She could see the rage in his eyes and struggled to find her words. “Sean, I know, but she was so cold and it was only for a couple of minutes. If you could’ve seen how happy it made—“
Sean struck her hard across the face with his disfigured hand, then grabbed her chin with the other. He forced her to look at the twisted hand that he held in front of her. “You see this? You see this hand? This is why we don’t turn on that fireplace.” He shoved her towards the kitchen. “Now go make us some dinner.”
Sean walked away from his wife as he crossed towards the living room couch. As he laid down facing the fireplace, he listened to his wife fiddle with pots as he stared at the fake logs in front of him.
* * *
Sean kept looking at the front door of his house, waiting for his parents to emerge. But they never came. Crying, he looked down, trying to ignore the pain in his left hand. Cradling the burnt hand, Sean looked back up at his house and continued to watch the blaze consume it. A mixture of snowflakes and ash continued to fall around him. Although he hoped that somebody would help, he knew that nobody would be coming anytime soon.
* * *
The house was dead when Sean woke up. Groggy, Sean lifted his head and looked for his wife in the kitchen, where he found no sign of her. Getting off the couch, Sean scanned the kitchen and found that there was no effort to even start a meal. Furious, Sean stormed upstairs into their bedroom. But she was nowhere to be found. He went back downstairs, where he found a note hanging over the fireplace:
This is goodbye. I’ve had a bag packed for months but today I finally built up the courage to leave you. Don’t come looking for me because I don’t want to be found. You’re a monster, Sean. Enjoy your life without me.
Unwavering, Sean began to crumple the paper until he saw a tiny note scrawled at the bottom of the page. He unraveled the paper and read the two tiny words scribbled in blue crayon:
Sean read the last sentence in disbelief. He ran upstairs to his daughter’s bedroom, only to find it empty. Her stuffed animals were no longer littering the floor and her clothing had been pulled quickly from her drawers. With tears in his eyes, he punched a hole in her bedroom wall, disfiguring his only good hand. He recoiled in pain and looked once more at the note.
As he walked back downstairs, he read the sentence over and over again. Crossing towards the living room, he lit the fireplace and looked at the note in his hand. Sadly, he crumpled the paper once again, threw it into the fire, and sat on the floor. Alone, he stared as the flame danced around the paper, watching the blaze consume it.
Rob Santana's work has been published in Centum Press, HP Lovecraft, story shack, short story.me, Streetwrite.com.
“I heard you’re the re-invention of ‘stupid.” Sheila said to ‘Johnny Brain-Dead,’ the chosen nickname for John Minter from certain female classmates. It was a warm spring Friday afternoon and the sun wouldn’t punch out until six p.m. John, sixteen, had just finished playing handball in the park’s courtyard with Eddie, same age, his friend and classmate. Eddie went to the public rest room for a horse piss while John waited for him before the ‘skanks’ showed up. He detoured to the grassy hill and they followed him. Sheila, also sixteen, was getting on John’s case for messing up her BFF Myra’s math test. He had been seated ahead of her during the exam, allowing her to peek at his answers. “Next time she’s on her own,” John warned. “Last I heard cheating on a test is un-cool.”
Sheila stepped up to him and got in his face. “So why’d you agree to it, Brain-Dead?”
“Cuz you told me to, or else!”
“Fuckin’ A, ‘or else” Sheila nodded, hands on hips. Her other BFF Kate, (Sheila had two BFFs) spotted her and joined the rhubarb. “I just came from Myra’s crib?” she said, pointing at John, “she told me Brain-Dead here gave her the wrong answers on purpose!”
Sheila glared at John.
“Zat true, Brain-Dead?” She approached him. John stood his ground. Sheila was on the school wrestling team and was taller. Just then skinny, crew-cut Eddie showed up in his warm-up jacket and jeans. He sidled next to John, eyeballing Sheila and bleach-blond Kate.
“Sup, John? What’s the prob?”
“Mind ya business, Eddie.” Sheila said.
”Yeah, mind ya business.” Kate echoed, wearing a crop-top and shorts.
John turned to Eddie. “Wonder Woman here thinks I gave the wrong answers on purpose for Myra to copy. How could I have done that if I didn’t know the answers myself? That test was a bitch, yo.”
“Bunch a’ skanks, all of them.” Eddie said, loud enough for Sheila to hear.
“You wanna repeat that, Enema?”
Eddie did so. “And the name’s Eddie, Skank.”
“Fug ‘im up, Sheila.” Kate said.
Eddie raised his eyebrows. “Let’s see you try!”
But John stepped in. “It’s my battle, Eddie.”
Eddie frowned. “Naw! Dude! I can handle her.”
But John insisted. Sheila was the school bully. (or ‘Bully-ette, as Eddie once named her). Even though Sheila was a ‘girl,’ the guys avoided getting into a fight with her. She could box and knew all the Greco-Roman grappling moves. The school jock she beat up at the courtyard last month was so abashed he switched schools.
Nobody messed with Sheila Friggin’ Gomez.
She stood five feet eight and ate nails for breakfast. But John wouldn’t back down this time.
“You sure, Johnny?” Eddie asked, as John removed his Mets jacket and looked around. The park was nearly empty. His heart pumped acid. Sheila pulled off her Yankees’ jacket. Her cut-off jeans showcased long, smooth but firm thighs. She stared down John, who lacked street-fighting skills. “Fug im up!” Kate repeated, as the two combatants circled each other.
“Keep your right hand over your chin, Johnny!” Eddie instructed.
The fight did not last long.
In less than a minute Sheila had John pinned to the grass, twisting his arm behind his back with her knee on his spine.
“Give up?” she whispered in John’s ear. He nodded, grimacing in pain. She helped him to his feet. John’s face was flushed red. He had been beaten by a girl. Sheila and Kate slapped palms. Two other girls had stopped up the knoll to watch. They applauded and Sheila waved to them, grinning. John bowed his head, looking like he wanted to crawl under a rock. Eddie placed an arm around his shoulder.
“Dude, whatta you lookin’ so sheepish about?”
John spoke to the ground. “Isn’t it obvious? I lost to a girl.”
“Aaaw, is wittle Johhny cwying?” Sheila teased. Kate giggled and whispered something in her ear. They burst out laughing. They were in no hurry to leave and whipped out their iPhones. Texting to other BFFs, John imagined. He felt low.
“Okay.” Eddie poked John’s chest,” I’m gonna show you what you did wrong. I’m gonna show you how to think outside the box.”
John frowned. What did Eddie mean by that?
“Yo, skank! Eddie yelled to Sheila. “I'm right here!”
“Yeah, fug ‘i'm up, too.” Kate yawped. Sheila hesitated. Eddie looked too eager for a battle. He ambled towards her.
“Knock you out,” he said, then shoved her.
“Ho’ shit!” Kate shouted, backing up. Then Eddie slapped Sheila, whose eyes blazed. She quickly got him in a headlock, flipped him to the grass, and straddled his chest, sliding her knees up to his arms, pinning them. John went pop-eyed. A feeling stirred his senses.
Sheila began slapping Eddie across the face. Hard.
Eddie squirmed underneath her. He made a feeble attempt to buck her off. John studied his face. Was Eddie smiling? Sheila was on to the kick and shot to her feet. “Sicko!” she murmured. “Let’s go, Kate.” The girls walked away, not looking back.
John pulled Eddie to his feet. “You okay?”
Eddie chuckled. “Of course I’m okay. I wish she hadn’t stopped so soon. Hurt so good, those slaps.”
John’s brows knitted. “Aren’t you embarrassed?”
Eddie reared back like whoa. “Dude, don’t you get it? It felt good feeling her weight on me. I don’t have male ego issues like you do. You were lucky she accepted your challenge. She was dumb enough to accept mine! It’s a kick, yo. Too bad she caught on, though. She won’t be fighting with boys again, trust me.”
John thought about it, and it took a while before he grasped Eddie’s meaning.
But his sense of shame faded. Eddie had changed his perspective on the body boundaries between boys and girls in combat.
Amy Boyer has had a passion for writing since high school. Her favorite genre is Inspirational romance. Amy is currently enrolled in the creative writing for entertainment program at Full Sail University, and resides in Branson, Missouri.
Snowflakes swirled around Hannah’s face as she trudged through the snowy Ohio countryside. She held her niece protectively to her side. The bitter cold pierced through Hannah’s cloak; she pulled her niece Rebekah, closer, to shelter her from the cold. She could hear the roaring of a motor which came to a stop beside her.
The older white Chevy idled beside them. The window dropped, and Hannah was relieved to see Benjamin Miller sitting behind the wheel. “Where can I take you?” came the voice over the rumbling motor.
“Can you take us home”?
Benjamin nodded, “Jah.”
Hannah had met the handsome Mennonite last summer. Hannah opened the door and placed Rebekah in the seat. Hannah then slid in beside her niece pulling, the door shut, and allowing the warmth to envelop her.
Rebekah’s brown eyes darted around the cab of the truck taking, in the foreign objects. Her delicate fingers skimmed the worn upholstery on the seat. Although it was common for the Amish to hire drivers, Hannah suspected it was her nieces first time to ride in anything other than a buggy. She lovingly reached over to tuck a few stray auburn hairs that had escaped from her crisp white kapp. Rebekah’s face mirrored her mothers, a fact that brought an ache to Hannah’s heart. She had been heartbroken that her sister chose to abandon her faith and her daughter after her husband’s tragic accident.
“Did you do well in school today”? Benjamin asked Rebekah.
Thinking for a moment she responded, “Jah,” in her Pennsylvania Dutch dialect.
“How was your pretty school teacher’s day?”
Rebekah looked up at her aunt. Hannah blushed in response but answered anyway. “The Kinder were restless today with the snow. Hannah laughed, and Benjamin smiled at the sound of her voice.
Benjamin had thought often of Hannah since he had met her last summer at a friend’s wedding. She had caught his attention when she served him a slice of lemon meringue pie, tall and graceful wearing a green cape dress and white apron. Dark copper hair peeked out of the front of her kapp. She had been busy all afternoon helping to serve the guests and clean after the wedding. He learned from Hannah’s brother Levi she was the schoolteacher and helped her mam look after their abandoned niece.
“Thank you for stopping!” Hannah exclaimed as they drove to the farm. “Please stay for dinner”. “For your trouble” she quickly added.
“Your welcome and I will”. “I haven’t had a good meal since I left Missouri”.
Hannah laughed “well Mam is the best cook, and Levi will be happy to see you again.” The truck pulled into the driveway and came to a halt. The door creaked as Hannah opened it. Out jumped Rebekah she ran off looking for her Gross Mami.
“She is full of energy” Benjamin remarked.
“Jah” nodded Hannah” a little too much for Mam.”
“It is gut you are helping your Mam Hannah.” Hannah sighed and gave a quick nod of her head. The black bonnet covering her prayer kapp shifted slightly.
“It must be difficult for your family”. Benjamin surmised.
“yes” Hannah agreed and walked towards the door.
Once the wooden door swung open the yeasty aroma of hot rolls tickled Benjamins nose. Hannah’s mother warmly welcomed the visitor. Taking his coat and ushering him into the kitchen. Benjamin took a seat at the large oak table filled with a large pot of chicken and dumplings, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a large basket of hot rolls. Hannah filled his glass with tea. After finishing the silent prayer Benjamin ate heartily. He couldn’t recall a meal tasting so good.
Benjamin’s visit was an answer to Levi’s prayers. He had more furniture orders than he could keep up with Levi had been looking for someone to help with his business. He knew Benjamin was a talented carpenter and hoped he would accept his offer. Benjamin tried concentrating while talking with Levi but couldn’t help stealing glances at the pretty school teacher working in the kitchen.
“So, I would be working here at the farm in your workshop?”
Benjamin considered the offer; unsure of which was better the money or being close to Hannah. Deciding it was a win win situation he agreed to the offer.
Thanking the women in the kitchen and saying his goodbyes. He smiled sheepishly at Hannah. I will see you tomorrow”.
“Tomorrow Hannah questioned?” trying to stop the flutter of her heart.
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