Fred Miller is a California writer. Forty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some of these stories appear in his current blog:https://pookah1943.wordpress. com.
He was my best friend, Rosco Ace Mays III, by name, but everyone in the 'hood except his ole man called him Trey. Because Trey was the third "Ace" in the family, his dad had decided to call him "Lucky." He was a wiry little kid who was antsy and had an unforgettable steel blue gaze, and that might not seem unusual elsewhere, but as far as I know, he was the only kid on the south side without chocolate brown eyes. What I remember most about him was his ability to lie better than any other soul I'd ever encountered, and with a straight face, too. Trey was a true artist.
One particular incident I recall involved a baseball bat I'd left it at his place following a pick-up game in a vacant lot near the projects. The next day when I remembered where I'd left it, I confronted him. He swore that a gang of street toughs had snatched it out of his hands and had told him they intended to use it in a bank heist downtown. If he ratted them out, they said, he could consider himself dead meat. Besides, he added, if he'd complained about the bat publicly, sooner or later the cops would trace it back, to him and then me and we'd both end up behind bars. Think of it: two nine-year-olds shipped off to prison. And I did think about it for about a minute and never breathed another word to anyone.
That is, until I strolled over to the high-rise where Trey stayed and saw his old man hitting line drives and pop-ups to him with my bat. But what could I do? The rules of our turf were clear and inviolate. If I squealed now, his dad would whale the tar out of him for stealing and then me for ratting him out. This was the social order of our society, and it brooked no dissention. I said nothing, but revenge percolated through my mind…until he dropped a bomb.
According to him the heist had been pulled off the afternoon before and the bat, covered with blood, had been dropped on his porch during the night. When Trey discovered it, he cleaned it and left it outside to dry. And he confessed that he'd planned to hide it until the heat blew over and then return it to me, but his old man had seen it outside and Trey was forced to say he'd found the bat in a park. Bull. I just stared at him. And was about to punch him out, not so much for the theft as for his outrageous tales. But then he used a tactic no kid in our sphere of influence could challenge.
'If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'," he avowed with saucer eyes. It was finished. Done. I'd been pinned, and we were best friends again.
We continued to grow as a dynamic duo no other kid on the block would have dared to breach. We ran together, played together, and stole candy together from old Mr. Lee's bodega down the street. And we set traps for humongous wharf rats that prowled the alleys of our city. We never caught one, but the candy and cupcakes we lifted from Lee's grocery to bait the traps somehow always seemed to disappear. I had my ideas about what had happened, but Trey swore on a stack of imaginary holy books that a horde of rats had run off with the bait. Too many for him to intervene and escape with his life. To my knowledge Trey was never confronted with a situation that didn't allow him to weave a vivid, credible story on the spur of the moment, I mean.
The next time our friendship approached a level of violent rupture was about the middle of the eighth grade. And by now the two of us had a thriving business in the cigarette trade; twenty-five cents apiece or a dime if that's all a kid could scrape up. The dividing line of our friendship had been drawn over just the most beautiful angel in our school: Delores.
I gave her candy. I offered her cigarettes. Trey shelled out candy, cookies, lace handkerchiefs, barrettes, or anything else he could lift that he thought she might like. The better gifts, he confessed, had come from his sister, Daphne, who'd received them from a boy she no longer liked. She just didn't want any reminders of him around her room. Never mind that Trey didn't have a sister. Delores didn't know that.
In fairness, Delores was one sly fox, and she could reel us in on a moment's notice, her lashes fluttering like semaphores. She'd play up to one of us until she sensed the other's interest waning. Then she'd shift gears and make eyes at the other. She kept us hustling down to Mr. Lee's on a regular basis. Now, we'd always pony up and pay for some penny candy down here, because we didn't want the old grocer to become suspicious of our daily visits to his place of business. By my calculations, once we'd reached our senior year in high school, Delores had enough stash she'd collected from the two of us to go into competition with Macy's downtown, I mean.
By now our business acumen was so honed we figured it was time to launch ourselves into the big time. After five minutes of serious deliberations we concluded that the best contribution we could make to the vast growth of the economy in our ward would be with automobile hubcaps. Our task was to remove old caps from the marketplace, thus, allowing the original auto parts manufacturers to thrive. And like in most poor areas in the city, we had our choice of fences. The best, we'd heard, was a cat named Willie Joe down near Five Points. And we'd been told he could move anything at any time, no questions asked. Willie Joe had one cardinal rule: Needs could be fulfilled only between ten at night and two in the morning. And sometimes a dude had to wait in line in the alley by Willie Joe's because the trade was so strong. We quickly surmised that the two cops on the late-night beat in our 'hood were also on Willie Joe's payroll, and I've never wavered on this idea because as far as I know, Willie Joe still runs a booming business.
Because of our industrious natures, however, the two of us soon became solely responsible for altering one of Willie Joe's rules. We'd so thoroughly flooded the market with used hubcaps, our fence threw up a roadblock and said, "No more." Not even for a pack of cigarettes in trade. Nyet. Nada. Nothin' doin'.
Thus, once again we were forced to graduate into a more sophisticated venture: auto parts unlimited. To move up to a full array of merchandise, we were sure that two initiatives had to be successfully undertaken. First, someone had to be drafted to sharpen our skills in the efficient art of auto theft, and then we had to secure a chop shop wizard we could trust. We knew those challenges would take time and patience to develop, and they did—one whole week. Once we were in gear, an epiphany was born in my heart and soul and saved my sorry butt from a life of crime and punishment. Enter Momma, stage right.
Now, I'd never say Trey's momma didn't love him, she did. But the unreserved love tinged with iron-fisted determination that was my momma had long been legend in the 'hood. Momma had raised five boys, me the youngest, and nobody, I mean nobody in our family had done hard time. That wasn't unusual in our part of the world, it was unique. And Momma wasn't about to have her record tarnished by a sorry excuse of a son like me.
Trey and I had been caught in the act of hot wiring a new Cadillac when two cops appeared out of nowhere and cuffed us right there in the middle of the street before God and everybody else. And as far as I could tell, those cops had to have been hiding in the trunk of that car.
We ended up before a judge in criminal court, and because of our sterling record of achievement, the idea of being tried as juveniles was never discussed. But Momma had gathered her forces.
She had engaged the services of a high-rent attorney downtown to represent both of us, something she could ill afford to do; but nothing could stop her. This was about her blood kin and that meant war. She even had my four brothers prepped to testify that I'd never been in trouble with the law before. Only Trey and I understood the reasons for this. Old Mr. Lee down at the corner grocery was blind as a bat, and our former fence, Willie Joe, had people downtown on his payroll. We'd also learned to keep our mouths shut.
With grace from above (I found out later) and Momma's resolve, we got off with probation, or I should say, Trey did. Between Momma and my brothers, what ensued in my young life could have been what the Most Reverend Jones down at the Bethel AME Church would have called "a come to Jesus meeting." I got on my knees. I prayed. I swore on a Bible. And testified trembling in church. And if Momma had demanded it, I'd have pledged allegiance to the flag down at Times Square. And why was she so tough on me? Momma had told that judge in no uncertain terms that his eyes would never gaze on my young face in his courtroom ever again. He asked her how she could be so sure.
Without pause Momma declared that if I ever stepped out of line again, she'd deal the final blow herself. Everyone in the courtroom laughed except Momma, my brothers, and me. Momma's decrees were never to be taken lightly. That is, if one wished to continue to breathe the unpredictable air in our borough.
Strange as it may sound, I soon became comfortable within a church setting on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Bible study after dinner on Wednesdays. The cats on the block who weren't privy to what was happening in my young life probably wondered how a teen who'd pined to make the scene with the street smart dudes on the corner could feel this way. In my case, it was easy. Delores and her family also belonged to the Bethel AME Church and, wonder of wonders, she showed up there every time I did. Why? I'm ninety-nine percent sure Momma paid Delores's mom a visit on the sly and painted a picture of what might become of the two of us if those ladies didn't form a coalition and swear to a blood pact then and there. I can just hear Momma's scratchy voice now: "We'll kill two birds with one stone, Vera. You just watch." Momma was nobody's fool, I mean.
My relationship with Trey cooled somewhat after that court appearance. But not because we wanted it that way. His folks had decided I was the bad seed and Momma and my brothers had warned me to keep some space between Trey and me…or else.
The last time I recall rapping with Trey was around the week of our senior prom. I'd weaseled a promise of a borrowed car from one of my brothers to take Delores to the prom. The costs for this transaction amounted to a car wax once a month for six months. The price was high, but I thought it'd be worth it; after all, it was for my beauty queen. But I was a day late. Trey had already asked her to be his date. And besides, he had come into possession of a late model Dodge Charger with flashy mud guards and big daddy mufflers.
I was heartbroken. Trey had bested me yet again. But I was equally curious how he'd gotten the car. There was little doubt in my mind that he was itching to tell me.
"I suppose you're wondering where I got these bad wheels, aren't you?" he said.
"Um, no, it hadn't really crossed my mind," I said.
"Uh huh. Well, it will, so you best listen up now," he said. "It came from a distant uncle of mine for whom I'm named. He died suddenly last week and left the car to me in his will. I gotta tell you, I loved that old man, I really did." His eyes rolled and his hands and arms moved about in theatrical assistance to his newest tale.
"Hadn't seen him in years, but he was always in my prayers. Folks at the funeral said I even looked like him." His eyes widened, and he waited.
My eyes narrowed. I wanted to punch his eyes out. I knew Trey was named for his old man and I was confident that a car from a distant uncle wouldn't appear miraculously a week after the man's sudden demise. But I was also aware of what Momma had told me about getting into trouble again. Besides, if I disputed his facts, he'd just make up new ones out of thin air. I just nodded. End of story.
Following high school graduation I went right into the Marine Corps. Now, nobody in my crowd was anxious to face the discipline and risks entailed in the military, and that included me, but Momma had other ideas.
Most mothers would fret over the physical perils their children might face in a military setting, but Momma was concerned about financing my college education once I survived the Marine Corps. And she had every confidence I would survive it, she just knew. And it'd be useful to mention that Momma also knew just how much money the military provided for vets who wished to attend college. She was one of a kind.
All of my brothers had attended college, but none had finished. I was her last hope. And it'd be proper to note here that I was never consulted on the project. As far as Momma was concerned, it was a done deal. Either I'd complete a college education or I'd die trying. Momma never considered an alternative course of action.
By midsummer I was off to Parris Island, South Carolina, a small piece of land one step from hell. But that didn't faze me. I knew I'd die before I completed basic training, and I wasn't alone. Most of us sensed that our days were numbered. And we suspected that our drill sergeant had already started planning our last rites.
What saved me from utter destruction came from the social aspects within my military unit. A Hispanic from Texas name Chico bunked on one side of me and a redneck from Georgia, who went by the tag L. C., was on the other. The three of us had one thing in common: we instantly hated one another. Unfortunately for us, our D.I. spotted our enmity and had a catharsis in mind for this minor interruption to his program: none of the three of us could do anything without the assistance of the other two. In the mess hall we were forced to spoon feed each other. In the field we had to carry each other's back pack. Hell, we couldn't even go to the can without the other two standing over and guarding the third member of the triad. In short order our hatred coalesced into a single focus: our passionate dislike of our D.I. and, before it was over, Chico, L.C. and I had become one mean fighting machine. And we became friends for life. We still keep in touch. And I could now tell the Most Reverend Jones at the Bethel AME Church I had a clear vision of what the good Samaritan story was all about.
So I survived the Corps and returned to the place where I'd grown up, and signed the college applications Momma had waiting for me. She told me that Trey had found religion and was on a faith healing tour of the Old South. Well, I couldn't believe it. Momma said I had time to visit Trey on the road in rural Alabama before I started to college. And she said it'd be good for both of us. I had to admit I was more than idly curious how my best friend had morphed into a holy roller. Trey had never done anything I could recall that didn't end up with money in his pocket. I caught the bus south the next day.
What a shock. People on crutches and in wheel chairs were slowly making their way down toward the front of the revival tent, while others stood about in the aisles waving their arms, prancing around, and shouting "Amen" and "you tell 'em, brother." It was quite a sight.
Trey stood tall on the stage in a slick red sports coat with the glitter of gold around his neck and hands. He raised his arms to quiet the crowd and I heard a prayerful plea from him that would have brought the devil himself to tears. I couldn't believe it. Trey had found the path to eternal life ahead of me. He must have, I whispered to myself, still realizing a grain of doubt floated about somewhere in my soul.
Yet I saw folks drop their crutches, raise their arms and shout. And people on the stage in wheelchairs rise once Trey had placed his hands on their heads and prayed. Trey had a tongue for mesmerizing phrases, slick as glass he was. I was speechless.
And just before the "Right Reverend" R. A. Mays III pronounced a benediction, he made one last plea for disabled, lost souls.
"In my mind's eye I can see one more sister who needs the holy healing touch. She's shy, I know, but this may be her last chance," he said, his hand raised high, his eyes shut tight. The congregation was still.
"I know you're out there, sister. Have faith, the Holy touch is waiting."
Again stillness. And then I heard a murmur toward the back of the tent. And then louder conversations as one lone wheelchair eased down the aisle. Over the heads of others I could barely see her, but once I did, I realized she had the biggest head of hair I'd ever seen. An usher had rolled her up the ramp onto the stage and the crowd settled down.
"What's your name, sister?" Trey said.
"Eudora Mae Smith."
"And what's your problem?" he said.
"Why, I can't walk, Reverend."
"And why can't you walk, Eudora?" he said.
"I don't know, Reverend. Nobody does."
"And how long have you been like this?"
"Since I was a tiny tot, Reverend."
"Have doctors ever examined you?"
"Yes, Reverend, and they're stumped too."
"Do you believe, Sister Eudora?" His voice rose.
"Why, yes, Reverend, I do believe."
"Couldn't hear that, Sister Eudora!"
"Yes, Reverend, I do believe!"
He placed his hands on her big head of hair and said the longest, most passionate prayer I'd ever heard. Reverend Trey and Sister Eudora had their eyes shut, but no one else in the tent would have dared to miss the unfolding drama.
"Stand," he said. And slowly she attempted to lift herself out of the wheelchair. But then, after great effort and wincing pain, she slipped back down in her seat. An audible sigh echoed through the crowd.
Again, Trey placed his hands on her head, and said a few choice words followed by "Stand." She tried again. And failed. I could feel the tension in the audience laced with fervent whispers.
Reverend Trey looked at her and then at the audience. "This one's in the tight grip of the Devil. It's too much for me to handle alone."
I heard a lone shout of "fake" from the back of the crowd. Then a jeer. Then wholesale booing all across the congregation. The Reverend R. A. Mays III raised both arms with the glitter of gold flashing in the lights. "Silence," he shouted.
"What we need up here are four pure as snow believers to assist me. Can I have four believers down here on stage with me right now." Several people around me hesitated, then stood, but before they could move, two men and two women rushed from the side curtains to Reverend Trey's side.
"Place your hands on Sister Eudora," he said, and they did. Then he added his hands. By now I was wondering how I could get out of there alive if this failed. I had little doubt a riot would soon ensue if that woman failed to stand on her own two feet.
"Come outta there, Satan. You hear me? Come out!" All of the hands on her big hair shook and I wondered if this poor soul would be too dizzy to try to stand. I heard wails and shouts. A lady on the front row fainted. Then Sister Eudora stood. The crowd gasped and went wild with joyful shouts and praises of "God Almighty" and "Bless me, Sweet Jesus." Unfettered applause followed.
After the service I threaded my way through the ebbing crowd, but my friend had ducked out the back of the tent before I could get there. I asked several fellows taking a smoke out back where I could find the good Reverend. They pointed toward a trailer, so I wandered over and knocked on the door.
"Come on in, honey, door's open," I heard from within and opened the door. "I ain't yo' honey, Trey," I said.
We laughed and hugged, but before we could initiate any conversation the woman with big hair stepped up into the trailer, took off her wig, and said, "How big was the take tonight?" It was Delores.
"Why, Darrell, you sorry rascal, when did you get in?" she said.
Before I could reply, three serious-faced uniformed officers stepped in behind her.
Forget about the fact that I'd just arrived and was only a visitor. And ignore the pleas I made that I knew nothing about the eight grand the Reverend Trey had stashed under the table. Nothing seemed to go right after those unannounced men in blue placed the three of us under arrest.
And here I remain watching the sun rise through Alabama county jail bars. Wait till Momma finds out about this and hotfoots it down here, I mused. I don't care if he is my best friend, this fella's days are numbered, I mean.
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 and The MacGuffin. 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.
He was known to those few in Carmichael who remembered his father and grandfather as Swede the Third, a name he didn’t care for as it enflamed his most painful memory.
He had not started out as a bartender; but one might be excused for thinking so considering the number of years – thirty in 1986 – that he had worked at Jerry’s Tavern. His daughter, Audrey, was two when he started. When a new owner took over from Jerry O’Malley in 1967, Swede was already a civic institution.
Swede’s grandfather arrived in Carmichael late in the Nineteenth Century and worked as a farm hand until he died at the supper table after a long, hot day’s haying in 1928. An immense, broad-shouldered man with powerful limbs and chopped up hands, he worked like an ox and consumed heaped plates of meat and potatoes smothered in gravy. Everyone assumed he would live forever, but he died just shy of sixty-five.
By that time, Swede the Second had fulfilled his father’s dream of owning a farm, something he accomplished with bank credit in the Twenties. He had returned from the war in France minus two fingers of his left hand, hard of hearing in his right ear and with an eternal disinterest in Fourth of July fireworks. Despite an uncertain pricing environment, he increased the herd of Holsteins and Jerseys, planted an apple orchard and added two new rooms onto the modest farm house. Going ever deeper into debt, he tore down the dilapidated barn and built a spanking new one. He lost the farm in the early years of the Depression as milk prices sank well below his production costs. He left town leaving his family to their own devices.
Swede missed his father terribly. One minute he was there, tossing a ball with him or telling jokes at the dinner table; and the next, he was gone, leaving a void that confused and frightened the seven-year-old. For years, a giant of a man with a vague face appeared in his dreams, hoisted the little boy to his shoulders and galloped around the farm yard like a horse.
The family scraped by. Swede’s mother got permission to move into a cottage on a neighboring farm. She was charged no rent and got paid in kind for milking, shoveling manure, weeding the vegetable garden and haying – Stafford Thorstein having let go his hired hand and having no sons but rather a sickly wife and a married daughter who lived in the Midwest. Swede walked the mile and a half to school with his two older sisters and, before heading home, earned a few nickels doing chores at Fogarty’s Grocery while his sisters washed laundry for still reasonably well-off families like the Beckmans who owned the Ford dealership.
In later years, Swede had difficulty remembering a time when he hadn’t worked at least a part of each day except Sunday.
The family’s situation improved in the Forties. Stafford Thorstein began paying cash to Swede’s mother who, he had long realized, worked as hard as any man. Swede worked part-time for Stafford as well as another farmer, who offered him a full-time job when he graduated from Carmichael High in 1945.
“You work like your grandfather,” the farmer told him. “You get along with everyone including them Negro apple pickers who come up in the fall; my wife thinks the world of you; and you seem to have a good head on your shoulders.”
Meaning, Swede knew, that he wasn’t the kind to cut and run like his father. Swede thanked the man but turned him down and took a job as a truck driver. He liked the idea of being on the road and thought maybe he would run into his father someday. He grew a beard in imitation of the picture his mother kept on her dresser.
It wasn’t clear to Swede how he became such a good listener and likewise a sparse talker – at least when it came to talking about himself. Perhaps it was listening to the radio on the long stretches of highway or sitting at truck stop counters while the man next to him beefed about the wife or the kids or the mortgage. However it happened, by the time he started bartending in 1956, he had a knack for lending an ear. He gave up truck driving not because he didn’t like it but because he missed his family. He had married Dottie Gorman in 1952 when she was twenty-two and he was twenty-five. She was his first girl friend and the only person with whom he had ever talked about his father’s disappearance.
After high school, Dottie studied for a year at a beautician school downstate, returning to Carmichael to take a job at Nell’s House of Beauty. She surprised herself by falling for Swede at a New Year’s dance a couple of years later. Of course, she had known who he was. They had only been three years apart in high school, but she hadn’t paid much attention to him. He looked awkward and a little lost standing off to one side at the dance so she went up to him. They talked a lot, danced a little, had a glass of champagne at midnight and sang Auld Lang Syne. He walked her home to her parents’ house. As she shook his huge hand, she knew she would marry him – just not when. She stopped working at Nell’s House of Beauty when Audrey was born.
Little Audrey seemed to grow by leaps and bounds in the days Swede was on the road; and in spite of the squeals of excitement that greeted him when he walked through the door, he dreaded the look of accusation he read into her eyes when he walked back out. When Dottie told him she was pregnant for the second time, he gave notice the next day. Swede had five months’ experience as a bartender when Jack entered the world at just under eight pounds.
“He didn’t get that weight from me,” Dottie said with a weak smile, propped up against the hospital pillows and holding Jack to her breast.
They didn’t have what one would call a social life. Swede worked on the evenings when most couples went out, and Dottie – a delicate woman whose pack and a half a day of Pall Malls didn’t add to her stamina – had her hands full with the kids and the house. Swede could have taken his dinner at the Tavern; but he preferred to duck home to eat a hurried meal with the family. On Sundays, when the Tavern was closed, he and Dottie spent the afternoon romping with Audrey and Jack. As the kids got older and spent more time out with their friends, the two adults played endless games of checkers and backgammon. Or on cold days, they would build a fire and sit on the sofa - her fragile hand encased in his ham-fisted one - sipping bourbon, talking quietly and half listening to Frank Sinatra on the Magnavox record player Swede had bought Dottie for her thirtieth birthday.
They owned a small house at the foot of the thickly wooded hills that hemmed in the town on the south. Houses on steeply-tilted lots with panoramic views were scattered through the hills. Further south rose craggy Mt. Wheeler, originally Moose Peak but re-named shortly after the Civil War for the family of timber barons who were still a powerful presence in town. Starting at Route 43, the Mt. Wheeler road cut through a gap in the hills and wound upwards past the Carmichael Game Preserve. The odd farm along the narrow road supported only modest herds and small orchards.
The houses in their neighborhood were mostly ranch-style and set close together. Encroaching on the hills, they had tiny fenced-in yards. The ear of all and sundry in the Tavern, Swede had scant interest in leaning on a backyard fence to hear his neighbors’ views and no interest whatsoever in telling them his.
When Jack entered sixth grade, Dottie went back to work at Nell’s in order to put something aside for what she and Swede eagerly expected would be the kids’ college tuitions.
It was April 1986, and spring seemed to be in no hurry. The fields were pockmarked with patches of crusty snow; and the cows turned their backs to the biting wind. Ellis Fogarty slipped on the ice carrying Louise Zimmerman’s groceries to her car and broke his wrist. His son, Brian, insisted that his father either retire or stop helping even the most elderly of customers with their bags.
“We don’t have a parking lot like that infernal One Stop Supermarket out on 43,” retorted Ellis. “How are we going to keep our older customers if we don’t carry their bags?”
“We have a couple of carts. They can take one,” said Brian.
“Fine service that is,” snapped Ellis. “You think Louise Zimmerman, at her age, is going to push a cart along the sidewalk?”
“I guess not, but let me do the carrying.”
“And if you’re busy?”
“I’ll un-busy myself.”
The town chafed under the lingering hand of winter. The exhilarating first snowfalls were a faded memory. The felt-lined boots found under the Christmas tree were now well-used. The snow along the roadsides was caked with grit, and mornings of crystalline sunshine had given way to afternoons of dull skies.
“Winter, get thee behind me,” muttered Irma Mulcahy, Louise Zimmerman’s daughter, as she entered Jerry’s Tavern one Thursday in the middle of the afternoon. The bar was, as she expected, empty. Seated on a stool behind the bar, Swede was staring straight ahead. An open paperback lay face down on the bar. He looked at Irma with surprise but said nothing as she walked towards him, slowly running a hand along the backs of the bar stools as if checking for dust. She glanced up at the painting behind the bar of the reclining nude woman, noting the ample rear end and the inviting smile turned towards the viewer. Irma chuckled.
“What’s funny?” Swede asked in a low, flat voice.
“Just wondering how your customers would react if that were a painting of a man.”
“That would depend on who the man was. Now if it were Floyd...”
“Nah,” Irma grinned. “The football hero’s bod ain’t what it used to be.”
Swede smiled faintly. Irma picked up the book, a cheap detective novel.
“I thought you’d be reading a better class of literature,” she said.
“I thought you’d be frequenting a better class of establishment.”
“Got me there,” she said with a small laugh.
“What are you doing in here at this time of day? We don’t see much of you and Floyd even when the place is hopping.”
“I came for a Johnny Walker on the rocks.”
“The hell you did,” said Swede.
“It’s not for me”
Swede looked around..
“Is it a goblin you’ve brought with you then, Mrs. Mulcahy?”
“Not today,” Irma replied.
He stood up and, leaning his broad shoulders over the bar, checked the space around her.
“If so,” he said, “it’s an invisible one.”
“Not a leprechaun either and you’re forgetting that I’m only married to the Irish.”
“In that case, who pray tell is the Scotch for?”
He sat back down.
“Are you trying to get me fired?”
Irma hoisted her thickening frame onto a bar stool. Her reddish brown hair had started to gray, but she refused to color it the way her best friend, Virginia Wheeler, did. She leaned forward, keeping her eyes on his.
“Furthest thing from my mind.” She gathered her thoughts. “I just felt the Johnny Walker would be something of an ice breaker.”
“Is there ice that needs breaking?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no”
“You’re being awfully mysterious. If there’s something you need to talk about...”
“It’s not me, Swede.” She smiled at him in what she hoped was a gracious and not condescending fashion. “You are everybody’s ear – the town psychiatrist. Not to mention that most folks probably prefer you to young Father Di Lorenzo or Reverend Cairns.”
“Ah the Methodists. I’m a lapsed Lutheran myself.”
“No doubt,” said Irma. She looked down and then back up at him. “I simply thought that right now you might need someone to talk to.”
He was as much a giant as his father and grandfather; but now, however, he seemed to shrink. He rubbed the sty in his left eye.
“Audrey and Jack were here for a week.”
“That was three weeks ago; and anyway, I meant someone closer to your own age.” She patted the back of her head, a habit she had spent a lifetime trying to break. “One’s kids can only do so much.”
She paused. Swede said nothing.
“I hear Audrey is living in Chicago.”
“Works for Sears, Roebuck.”
“Los Angeles – trying to break into the movies.”
“He always was a stunner. How’s he doing?”
“Had a few bit parts. Nothing you would care to see.”
“Both far from home,” Irma mused as Swede fell silent again.
"Dottie was fifty-six, wasn’t she?”
Swede got off his stool. He took a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label from the mirrored shelf and set it on the bar. He put ice in two glasses and filled each with Scotch. He handed one to Irma and sat back down.
“After all this time, I don’t suppose I’ll get fired for one drink.”
They clinked glasses and drank. He set his glass on the bar and ran a hand over his thick, but well-trimmed beard.
“Yes,” he said, “she was fifty-six. You have a good memory.”
“She was a year ahead of me.” Irma patted the back of her head. “She graduated but I...” Irma smiled at the memory. “...got pregnant.” Irma briefly touched Swede’s huge hand with its delicate blond hairs. “She was too young for this to happen.”
“By half,” said Swede looking into his glass.
“She was a sweet person.”
Swede looked up.
“She hated losing her hair, “ he said. “The chemo will do that. She said she looked like her grandmother at ninety. She got so weak she could barely get out of bed. She padded around the house like a ghost. Like she already wasn’t there.”
Swede rapped his knuckles sharply on the bar.
“But she still wouldn’t give up the smokes. She asked for one the day before she died. I had to hold it to her lips.”
“Are you very angry at her?”
A hurt expression came into his eyes.
“You have every right to be angry. I would be. Floyd still smokes much as I carp at him.”
“Gave it up years ago.”
Irma got up.
“Excuse me, but I need the Ladies’ room.’
When she came back, she saw that her half-empty glass had been re-filled.
“Apart from angry, how are you feeling?”
“Maybe you should take over as psychiatrist.”
“Am I sounding too ,,, like a TV character?”
“No,” he said, “but it’s not easy for me to talk.”
“I’m not surprised,” she said, “seeing as you’re mostly on the receiving end.”
“I feel very old.” He started to take a drink but put the glass down. “We were married for thirty-four years. She was my first girlfriend.” He moved the glass around on the bar. “The house is so empty.”
“It will probably seem that way for a while.” Irma shifted her weight. “Look, I’m here to listen, and I doubt my advice would be worth much anyway; but maybe a couple of suggestions,,,” She gave him an inquiring look as if seeking permission to continue.
“Don’t let being alone become routine. See your friends. Go spend time with Audrey and Jack.”
“They’ll be thrilled.”
“I didn’t say move in with either of them.”
“They’ll be glad to hear it.”
He got off his stool and shook his right leg. He massaged his thigh.
“Gets cramped if I sit too long.”
“Walking would be good for it.”
“I must walk a couple of miles every day just going back and forth along the bar.”
They finished their drinks. He removed the bottle and glasses and took out a cloth from underneath the bar. With studied deliberation, he wiped the surface. “I know hardly anyone except the folks who come in here.” He continued along the already-shining wood polishing in broad circles. “I wouldn’t call them friends. Dottie was my friend. She understood me.” He looked back at Irma.
“Do you have a dog?” she asked.
“They make terrific companions.”
“Who would do the talking – the dog?”
“No, you,” Irma said with a small laugh. “Can’t be any worse than talking to yourself – maybe better.”
“We ... I don’t have the yard for a dog. I’d hate to see it cooped up all hours of the day and night.”
“Just a thought”
Irma got off her stool. She put her hands in the small of her back and stretched.
“I see what you mean,” she said, “about sitting too long on one of those things. I rarely sit much. I thought it would be easier when Earle got married and the last of the kids was gone, but Floyd manages to fill up the vacuum. He wants to remodel so we can take in a boarder. Buying up in the hills set us back a pretty penny although I could look at the view forever. Floyd is hoping for a Knicks fan.”
She gave his hand a squeeze.
“You’ll be okay,” she said.
“Got to go. Floyd will be home before long and wondering where supper is.”
She thought for an instant as if trying to focus on something.
“Maybe you’d like to come over for supper sometime.”
She buttoned her coat and turned up the collar.
“If spring doesn’t get here soon,” she said, “we’re moving to Florida.”
She started for the door.
“You know,” he said.
She turned back.
“Both our fathers skipped town.”
“Even after ... what ... a quarter century, I still think he’ll come back someday,” she said.
“I thought that for a long time.”
“You were so young...”
“Get that dog. To hell with the yard. Take him out in the woods.”
“Your father was here the afternoon before he left. I tried to talk to him. He wouldn’t talk.”
“After being an accounting manager, I guess stocking shelves at Fogarty’s was just too humiliating.”
“Damn Majestic Machine Tools,” she said sharply. “Wonder how they did in North Carolina.”
“Is it true he left a note saying: ‘Gone South? Good Riddance’?”
“Yes,” said Irma. “Just like the one that got nailed up at the plant.”
He saw Irma’s expression go blank.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’ve always wondered.”
“That’s all right.”
“It was thoughtful of you to come – to have bothered.”
“It wasn’t a bother.” She smoothed back her hair. “Think about supper. We’d love to see you.”
As she reached for the handle, the door opened; and Bernie Huggins, a retired state trooper, pushed into the room. He gave Irma a surprised look.
“Taken to drinking in the afternoons, Irma?” he asked. “Floyd’ll raise the dickens.”
“Not really,” she said. “Have you?”
“What else can an old ... man do for fun in these parts?”
“See you,” she said.
“Watch the sidewalks. It’s raining ice out there.”
A year later, on a March day of high winds, sparkling sunshine and a night sky full of crisp stars, Swede walked home from the tavern and shot himself in his living room. He was just weeks from his sixtieth birthday. For a very long time, Irma hated herself for not having followed up on the supper invitation. Swede left a note, asking that Irma take care of his German shepherd.
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 and The MacGuffin. He has received two Pushcart Prize nominations.
In January 2016, Prolific Press published his novel, Scudder’s Gorge. Previously, Wilderness House Literary Review had serialized both his verse novel, The Brave Maiden, and his novella, Snow.
Four of his full-length plays (one co-authored) and ten of his one-acts have been produced. He has directed productions of eight of his plays.
Geoffrey has a BA (Colgate), an MBA (Harvard) and an MA in history (Santa Clara). He served in the Peace Corps in Peru and had a successful career in banking before turning to writing.
When the smoke alarm began its hellish scream she sat bolt upright, jumped out of bed, and ran naked (she liked to sleep naked) toward the door. Unimagined terror flooded her senses as she heard the crackling of burning wood beneath the ear-splitting din. Smoke slithered under the door and enveloped her feet and calves.
She reached for the door handle but stopped when Brett shouted: “Wait.” His tone was so commanding that its very force froze her hand in midair. She turned around. Naked also, he was charging out of the bathroom holding two damp face towels. He handed her one and wrapped the other around his face. “Cover your face,” he ordered. “The children!” she cried.
It wasn’t hot in the tiny second-class cabin, but she woke covered with sweat. Her eyes wide with terror, it was all she could do not to scream. Gradually, the cabin rising and falling as the freighter ploughed its way ahead, she remembered where she was. The sweat ran down her back and between her breasts; her cotton pajamas as well as the sheets were soaked. She touched, momentarily startled, the red hair that now reached only the top of her ears, its curls cut into straight strips. Her fingers came away damp and gummy.
Why was it so short? Then she remembered. A few days after the fire, she had gone to the salon and told Molly to cut it all off. It was all she could think of doing. Brett had played endlessly with her thick curls. What other sacrifice could she lay before him?
Her life? Maybe. What was left of it.
“But Abigail,” Molly had remonstrated.
“Just do it.”
“I’d do anything if it would help,” Molly later told Evelyn, who owned the salon.
“Nothing will help,” Evelyn replied.
Abigail swiveled out of the narrow bunk and felt a tingle as her feet touched the cold steel floor. She wondered if the first-class cabins had carpets. She took off her striped cotton pajama top and dropped it on the bunk. Her fingertip followed a drop of sweat as it ran down her side. She walked quietly to the sink and, careful not to wake her cabin-mate, who was snoring ever so slightly in the other bunk, rinsed her face and wiped down her arms and torso with a damp wash cloth. She toweled off, put on a tee shirt, a light sweater and a pair of jeans. She slipped into her sandals and left the cabin. She climbed a flight of steep ladder steps to the upper deck. A mild breeze bathed her face. She glanced at the dark water and then walked along the deck to the open area in the bow. Mute forms lay in sleeping bags; some of the younger passengers had taken to sleeping on deck.
She sat in a deck chair and watched the sleepers, who would occasionally grunt or roll over in their bags. She wondered how they could sleep on the hard deck.
Hey, you could do that when you were in college. You could sleep twisted like a pretzel in somebody’s chair. You’ve just forgotten how.
She put her head back and stared into the black urn of night.
So much vast space. Is it just so much nothing? I wonder if there’s any chance ... stop it ... you don’t believe that and you know it.
The ship’s rocking soothed her. The Atlantic had been calm for over twenty-four hours now, but a nor’easter had struck a day and a half ago, early in the morning about ten hours out of New York. Heavy rain had engulfed the ship, and fierce winds made a boiling cauldron of the ocean. The freighter’s prow rose, pushed upwards by the swelling, crisscrossing waves, and then plunged sickeningly towards the trough. Near noon, she had felt compelled to venture out on deck. The wild, face-pummeling wind had lashed at her like an alley cat with its back up, and freshets of rain streamed through her hair, across her face and down her rain jacket. She had gripped the rail and stared, mesmerized, at the churning water.
It would be so easy ... and quick: just one heave. What would it feel like?
A sailor in shining yellow rain gear came along the deck and looked at her incredulously. Cupping his mouth, he shouted something she couldn’t hear but would not have understood anyway. His dark eyes fierce with anger, he took her by the arm and guided her brusquely to the arched door, closed it behind her and went on his way.
Returning to the cabin, she had lain in her bunk all that afternoon as the ship careened up and down, side to side. Waif-like, Tracy had barfed twice in the shallow sink. “Sorry,” she mumbled each time and staggered back to her bunk. Around five, the storm ended as unexpectedly as it had begun. That night she had again stood against the rail of the upper deck, this time gazing at a sky peppered with stars and at a long finger of moonlight that lay like a whisper across the quiet sea.
Gone for now was the terrible urge; but what would stop it from returning? Like one of those interminable upstate winters, it would not easily relax its grip.
“That was some storm,” said a young man who had stopped near her, cupping his hand to light a cigarette.
She nodded but said nothing. Her willingness to talk had been sporadic at best these last months. Mostly she had wanted to be alone: to think - as if thinking would do any good. She wanted to picture their faces, knowing that no matter how hard she resisted, they would grow dimmer with time. If not for her parents and Brett’s, she wouldn’t even have any photos.
On a cloudless and windy March afternoon, not quite two months after the fire, she took a walk on a back road not far from the blackened timbers that had been her house. She happened on a knock-kneed foal with its mother. Something about the foal gamboling around the patient mare gave expression to what until then were inchoate feelings.
“I’m hollowed out,” she said to herself.
It was at that moment that she knew she had to leave – for how long, she didn’t know.
She had no idea how long she’d been sitting in the deck chair with those encased sleepers lying carelessly on all sides. She hadn’t thought to wipe away the tears running down her cheeks. She got up and walked unsteadily along the deck.
Tracy turned on the light when Abigail closed the cabin door.
“I’m sorry. I thought I was being very quiet.”
“You were, but I sleep like a cat.”
Tracy sat up. Her thick dark hair framed her face.
“Are you okay?” Tracy asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Abigail stood rooted as if turned to stone.
“No,” she said. “I mean yes.”
“Would you like a joint?” Tracy asked. “You look like you could use one.”
Abigail smiled and breathed deeply.
“No thank you,” she said. “It’s not for me ... and really, I’ll be all right.”
She sat on the edge of her bunk. She didn’t feel like trying to sleep again – not right away. She had said little to Tracy in the two days they’d been cabin-mates, and she hoped Tracy didn’t think her rude.
“There are even more people sleeping on deck tonight, I think.”
“You should try it,” said Tracy, who had slept outside the night before. “It’s awesome. It’s like camping out on a water bed.”
“That does sound like fun, but I don’t have a sleeping bag.”
“You can borrow mine.”
“Thanks ... maybe.”
“Are you feeling better?” Tracy asked. “Your color’s back a bit.”
“Yes,” she answered. “Better.”
“It’s not the storm, is it? I know it’s been over for a day, but let me tell you: it took my stomach a long time to get right. Sleeping outside helped. The cabin made me think of barfing. Did I really gross you out.”
“No,” said Abigail. “It’s not the storm, and your getting sick didn’t bother me in the least. I’m glad you’re okay now.”
Abigail suddenly felt very tired.
“I guess I’m ready for sleep ... unless you want to talk some more.”
Tracy chewed her lower lip and then gave her head a quick shake.
“No,” she said. “We should sleep. There’ll be lots of chances to talk. After all, we’re on a ship.”
The next morning, Abigail and Tracy stayed behind at their breakfast table.
Food on the freighter was heavy and plentiful. Three meals plus tea were served. Breakfast that morning consisted of hot cereal, scrambled eggs, sausage, rolls, cheese, fruit and thick yoghurt. Abigail had only wanted a dish of the yoghurt on top of which she diced an apple. Tracy took a hearty serving of everything except the sausage.
“I’m storing up,” said Tracy. “Who knows what we’ll get in Morocco?”
“Exquisite food, I would imagine,” said Abigail, “what with the combination of Arab and French influences.”
“You sure know more than I do. Are you a teacher?”
“No, I was an architect.”
“Well, I’m storing up anyway ... just in case Arab and French combined ends up like my Mother’s rice and bean casseroles: burnt on the top and cold on the bottom.
“Where on earth could you be storing it?” asked Abigail. “You’re razor thin.”
“I know and it’s not like I exercise.”
When the waiters started giving them inquisitorial looks, they carried steaming mugs of coffee to the upper deck. They sat in deck chairs near the stern. The sky was cloudless. Dazzling sunlight danced on the waves and hurt their eyes.
“Should have worn my sunglasses,” said Tracy. “My mother used to bug me about them.”
Abigail glanced at her and then studied the vast expanse of ocean. A knot formed in her stomach.
Who will I ever bug?
She wanted to get up and walk away, but she forced herself to sit still.
“Why didn’t you want the sausage? Seems like good storage material.”
“Vegetarian,” Tracy replied, “but not vegan,” she added hurriedly.
First-class passengers marched briskly past, circumnavigating the ship. They did it in pairs and threes every morning. They wore casual clothes but eschewed the jeans and tee shirts ubiquitous in second class.
“They seem a determined lot,” said Abigail.
“Sure do. I hope I’m not being a jerk but why are you in second class?”
“You mean at my age?”
“It is true,” said Tracy, “that everyone else in second class is pretty young.” She reached back and smoothed her hair which that morning she had pulled into a pony tail. “Would it be really awful to ask how old you are?”
“Wow! Still, you’re different from the first-class stiffs. They walk around like they’ve got pokers stuck up their butts.”
“An apt description and thank you for the compliment.”
“So ... answer the question.”
“About second class?”
“I didn’t know how long I’d be gone so I wanted to travel economically.” She paused a second. “And I thought second class would be more interesting.”
Cawing gulls drifted above the ship. Occasionally, one shot into the water and came up with a small fish, which it promptly swallowed. A young sailor carrying a bucket came on deck through a low door. He had unruly, curly hair, long in the back, and wore a white tee shirt and dark blue work pants. He smiled, showing deeply stained, crooked teeth with two outlined in gold, and said: “Good morning, ladies” with a heavy accent. Leaning out, he dumped the food scraps off the stern. Noisily showing their appreciation, the gulls dived over and over again to fetch the garbage from the sparkling sea.
“How long are you traveling for?” Abigail asked Tracy.
“Don’t know either. I sort of quit my job and just left.”
“Interesting. What kind of job?”
“Admin assistant in a construction company. I started three years ago ... right after high school.”
“You didn’t like it?”
“It was okay. I learned a lot. I had no clue about what running a company was like.”
“Most people don’t.”
Tracy chewed her lower lip. Abigail waited patiently.
“There’s more to it. My boyfriend dumped me.”
“I’m sorry. Had you been going out long?”
“About a year.”
“Were you pretty upset about it?”
“Yeah,” sighed Tracy. “It was the second time it’s happened. Seems like once men get in your pants they lose interest.”
“Not all men.”
Abigail averted her face so Tracy wouldn’t notice her fighting back tears.
“Hey, that’s good to know. At times, I think I just make bad choices. I know it sounds dumb – and clichéd – but my parents were divorced and my father wasn’t around much so I didn’t have a very good male role model.”
“Could be,” said Abigail thoughtfully, “but maybe you just need time and experience. Very few people get anything right the first time.”
“Or second?” laughed Tracy.
“I will say that your boyfriend’s loss is my gain. You’re a ...”
She was going to say “delightful” but caught herself.
It might sound condescending ... especially to a younger person.
“...a great roommate,” Abigail concluded.
“Why thanks: that’s so nice of you to say.”
Tracy jumped up and grabbed Abigail’s left hand.
“Come on, I want to show you something.”
She led Abigail, the wind blowing in their faces, toward the bow. A group of the younger passengers sat in a knot. The wind muffled their voices. A few smoked, the wind tearing the smoke from their mouths. The first-class passengers, in their wool slacks, wind breakers and walking shoes, were still circling the ship, their arms pumping rhythmically. Tracy crossed the deck and climbed down a steep ladder that led to an open space behind the prow. Abigail followed.
Abigail noticed a hole on each side of the acute angle of the prow. The holes were just large enough for a person comfortably to fit their head through. Tracy knelt on the steel deck and stuck her head through one. Then she lay flat on her stomach. Abigail pictured the guillotine and shivered. She stood dumbly watching Tracy’s back and rear. Tracy pulled her head back out and shouted: “Try it.” Abigail got down and felt the steel bolts of the deck press against her knees. Terrified, she stuck her head through the hole and lay flat on the cold steel.
Suddenly she was hanging in space. She looked down at the water far below her and gasped. The ship’s prow rose and fell, slicing through the waves like a knife through butter. She bobbed with the ship’s motion, and the ocean rose toward her. She lost her fear, knowing her shoulders could not fit through the hole. She looked up and found herself gazing over the vast sea. It was completely different from standing at the railing. Except for the rise and fall, she was level with the horizon. It was as if she were a bird, skimming over the waves.
She heard Tracy shouting. She turned her head. Tracy was laughing and shouting: “Isn’t it fabulous?”
Brett opened the door. Her scream was muffled by the towel. Flames were licking up the stairwell. Catching fire, the banister crumbled in a flash and tumbled into the front hall. Flames edged rapidly along the hall and smoke billowed into their bedroom. The Oriental rug in the hall was on fire. The stench was sickening and the heat overwhelming. The fire headed towards the kids’ rooms. She took a step out the door, but Brett grabbed her arm. He jerked her back into the bedroom and pulled her rapidly towards the French doors leading to a small balcony. He yanked open one door and lifted her up. She hit his face and shoulders, trying to shout: “Put me down.” He stepped through the French door, took a quick look down and dropped her two floors onto a snow-covered bush.
“Abigail, wake up.”
She was soaked with sweat again. She opened her eyes. Tracy was sitting on the edge of the bunk, shaking her by the shoulders.
“What is it?”
“You were screaming. You shouted ‘Put me down’ a couple of times. It must have been a nightmare. Are you all right?”
Her voice shook.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Maybe some other time?”
“I don’t know, but thank you ... thank you for waking me.”
The day before they docked at Casablanca, Tracy suggested to Abigail that they travel together.
“Only if you get rid of the joints. The prospect of spending a few years as a guest of the Moroccan government doesn’t appeal to me.”
“I only brought five or six.” Tracy checked in a side pocket of her back pack. “Two left.”
They wrapped them in a Kleenex and ceremoniously dumped them from the stern.
“We won’t get the Jacques Cousteau Award,” said Abigail. “Not on this trip.”
“An oceanographer and environmentalist: he was dismayed at what was happening to our oceans.”
“Not as dismayed as I am at what just happened to my joints. I have visions of some shark doing loop-de-loops and cuddling up to a sea bass.”
Abigail was prepared for the stares of the men, but it surprised her how the eyes of women with covered heads seemed to follow and bore into them – although she assumed they were paying far more attention to Tracy, who was fair-skinned with delicate features.
Wearing close-fitting jeans and a flowing, multi-colored shirt, Tracy had commented, as they left the cabin that afternoon, that she didn’t want to attract attention. Abigail assumed she was referring to her usual skin-tight tee shirts that left no doubt as to the size (small) and exact whereabouts of her breasts, and she reflected that the jeans on their own would do a more than adequate job of attention attraction.
Having given up working-out after the fire, Abigail had added a few pounds to what was already a solid frame. She had played soccer in a Division-One college and not been pushed around. Brett had played soccer at the same college. “You have the most beautiful body,” he said the first time they made love, and when she objected: “I’m not into skin and bones. I need a woman who can help with the heavy lifting.”
She also had an extraordinarily pretty face and flashing blue eyes.
They cleared customs in the late afternoon and walked towards the city from the dock. Abigail carried a suitcase and wore a day pack on her back. Tracy had only the back pack, which towered above her, and a knit bag. “Be careful with your passports,” the customs officer had advised in French-accented English.
“Merci bien,” replied Abigail.
“Do you speak French?” asked Tracy in astonishment.
“We’ll find out. I took it through college and spent the summer between college and graduate school in France. But it’s been a while.”
“You’re way ahead of me. I know ‘Non,’ which I figure will get me through most situations.”
The buildings were white-washed and crumbling in this part of town. There was not a lot of traffic, and people walked in the street. They passed a woman covered head-to-toe in a blue robe and pushing a large blue baby carriage. An olive-skinned baby in a white jacket and cap was sitting upright in the carriage. The baby stared and then pointed at the two women. A little girl, covered except for her face in a light blue gown, walked along the side of the carriage. She smiled and said brightly: “Bon soir.”
“Bon soir,” replied Abigail with a smile.
“Hi,” said Tracy.
The street narrowed and started twisting and turning in an indecipherable pattern. They turned down an alley into an area of small houses, shops, and dark cafes. Two middle-aged men in sweaters and knit caps stepped out of their way and, grinning, asked: “Vous etes seules?”
“Non,” said Tracy in a loud, determined voice.
The men continued down the alley.
“What did they say?”
“They asked if we were alone,” said Abigail.
“I figured something like that. I told you I knew enough.”
At the end of another alley, they found a hotel that charged the equivalent of five dollars for a room for two. The narrow strip of a lobby sported two worn red sofas at right angles to each other and a couple of palm trees. A photo of King Hassan II hung behind the scarred front desk. The clerk was a tired-looking but friendly old man in a threadbare jacket and narrow tie. He had a few wisps of hair and a barely perceptible moustache. Abigail asked where they could find a good but inexpensive restaurant.
They climbed the stairs opposite the front desk that led to rooms on the upper three floors. Their narrow room was clean and contained two single beds, a sink, a chair, and a closet with shelves and a few drooping wire hangers. The window looked out on the fluorescent-lit alley. The bathroom was down the hall.
“I heard the word restaurant,” said Tracy. “Did he give you any good suggestions? I’m famished.”
“I thought you were all stored up.”
Abigail laughed and said she’d be ready in a flash. She went down the hall and opened the door marked: Salle de Bain. There was a sink, a stall shower with a plastic curtain decorated with purple flowers, and an oblong hole flanked by serrated foot pads. She stared at it for an instant, then shrugged and squatted.
“Guess what we have for a toilet.”
“A squatter, “ Tracy replied without missing a beat.
“How did you know?”
They walked back up the alley, around the corner, and found the restaurant in the next alley. Half a dozen tables of varying sizes and a bar with a few stools comprised the entire establishment. There were no decorations except for the apparently ubiquitous photo of King Hassan II. Abigail ordered lotte roti – having understood little of what the waiter had said but catching the word poisson.
“It’s fish – I’m fairly certain.”
Tracy picked the vegetable tajine. Abigail had understood the part about vegetables and told Tracy that it seemed okay. It turned out to be a fragrant and substantial stew loaded with potatoes, onions, zucchini, carrots, and tomatoes. The place was full with one other table taken up by foreigners: a young woman and three young men speaking German. Several adolescent boys lounged around the entrance.
“Why are you traveling alone?” asked Tracy as she forked half a potato into her mouth.
Delaying, Abigail peeled the skin off her fish and separated the flesh from the spine. She picked out a sliver of bone from between her teeth as she bit into the fish. She chewed thoughtfully while Tracy watched. Finally, she answered: “Because I’m alone.”
“That’s too bad.” Tracy ate a slice of zucchini. “This is totally delicious.” She ate a dripping square of tomato. “Were you ever married?”
“Oh damn. I’m sorry. That was so nosey.”
“That’s all right, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I understand.” Tracy pushed her hair, which she was wearing loose, off her high forehead. “It can’t be easy.”
Abigail took another bite of the moist flesh.
“The desk clerk was right. This is very good. He told me to have the fish.” She ate some rice dotted with green peas. “What will you do when you get back?”
“Probably go to the community college. I can do better than administrative assistant, but I would like to be in business. It’s kind of jazzy.”
“I think you’ll do well.”
“Because you’re bright and open and curious. I suspect those are important qualities in business. You just need to build your self-confidence.”
“You’re cool, you know that. I’m so glad I decided ... we decided ... to travel together.”
When they had finished eating, one of the boys who had been lounging at the entrance came up to their table. Abigail asked him what he wanted, but the boy spoke no French. He had on a dirty shirt and trousers; he was barefoot. He stared at the fish skeleton, few grains of rice, and two peas on Abigail’s plate. Finally, he said in halting English: “Please, Miss.” Shocked, Abigail handed him the plate, and he dashed off to squat in a corner. Shielding the plate with his body, he peeled tiny strips of fish from the bones and gobbled them down. Finished with the skeleton, he picked up the few grains of rice and two peas.
Abigail watched, tears brimming in her eyes.
Two days later, they took a rickety bus to Marrakech. The bus was crammed full with passengers, suitcases, and boxes. A further pile of luggage was strapped to the roof. Several women had placed caged chickens under their seats. An elderly man in a flowing robe sat in the rear with a goat held firmly in his lap. They sat on a wooden seat across the aisle from a veiled woman and a young girl. Reading a book in Arabic, she looked up briefly and smiled as Abigail, and Tracy stowed their gear under their seats. The veiled woman sat silently.
The bus rattled as it ambled along the crowded streets of downtown Casablanca. The traffic thinned as they reached the outskirts and passed trim white houses with walled gardens. Leaving the city, Abigail studied the countryside through the dust-caked window spattered with dead flies. In a field, a man in a narrow-brimmed straw hat raised a stick and rapped the rear ends of two, single-humped camels pulling a crude plow. The turned earth looked rich and loamy, but the adjacent unplowed field was littered with stones.
Not easy farming, she thought.
They passed through orange groves, and the perfumed air pouring through the half-open windows made her think of the time she and Brett had driven across southern Alabama, the air laden with the scent of honeysuckle.
Oh God, Brett.
She turned away from the window. Tracy was watching her. She tried to smile but sobbed instead. Tracy said: “Are...” and then stopped. The young Moroccan girl closed her book. She reached into a basket at her feet and extracted two oranges. The veiled woman put a hand on her arm, but she shook it off.
“Vous voulez?” she asked, holding out the oranges.
Abigail hesitated and noticed a flicker of disappointment in the girl’s eyes.
“Mais oui,” Abigail said. “Merci bien.”
She and Tracy each took an orange.
“Vous etes tres gentile,” said Abigail.
The girl smiled and fished two more oranges out of the basket. She offered one to the woman, who declined. She put the second orange back in the basket. They peeled their oranges. The girl put her peel back in the basket and extended a hand for the other peels. They each bit into a section of orange.
“Fabulous,” said Tracy. “Thanks,” she said to the girl.
“Vous etes Americaines?” It was barely a question.
Abigail nodded and, in an undertone, said to Tracy: “Don’t say ‘non’.”
The girl laughed. “Mes premieres Americaines. Attends jusque je dis a mon frere.”
Abigail listened intently.
Linda had just started French. They’re about the same age.
She struggled to speak.
“We’re her first Americans,” she explained to Tracy. “She can’t wait to tell her brother.”
The girl laughed and nodded surreptitiously at the veiled woman who faced resolutely forward.
“C’est ma grandmere. Elle n’aime pas les etrangeres. Mais n’importe parce que elle ne parle pas le francais.”
“It’s her grandmother,” Abigail explained. “She doesn’t like foreigners, but it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t speak French.”
“I’d say yours is pretty much up to snuff.”
At that moment, the driver turned on a radio; and a high-pitched song filled the bus. The road started to climb, and the bus swayed around tight curves. The unfamiliar music grated on Abigail’s nerves. She wanted nothing more than to look out the window and think about Linda and Zack. She would never see them again. The thought was intolerable. She stared at the barren hillside. She put a fist to her mouth and bit hard. She wanted the music to stop. She turned away from the window.
“Vous aimez la musique?” the young girl asked.
“Oui,” Abigail said. “Beaucoup.”
The bus left them off on the edge of the Town Square, the Jamaa I-Fna. They said good-bye to the young girl and smiled at the Grandmother who nodded stiffly in return. They found a dirt cheap hotel a few blocks from the square, dropped their things in the tiny room that didn’t even have a sink, and headed back to the Square. It was late afternoon, and the myriad performers, for which the Square is renowned, had just begun their acts. Knots of people, Moroccans and tourists alike, surrounded contortionists, snake charmers, and story tellers. Food stands were scattered throughout the Square. Abigail stopped at a stand that sold snails soaked in garlic and butter. Sniffing the pungent aroma, she asked how much.
“You’re not actually going to eat those,” exclaimed Tracy.
“Why not?” asked Abigail, handing the vendor the equivalent of twenty-five cents. “You didn’t blink when I had a steak the other night.”
“It’s got nothing to do with being vegetarian. They’re snails.”
“Right: a delicacy.”
“My mother spreads poison in her garden to get rid of them. It would be like eating ...” She hesitated for an instant and then burst out: “... caterpillars.”
“I’ll bet they eat those with relish in some places.”
“Yuck and double yuck.”
The vendor, an elderly man in a white skullcap, handed Abigail a small bowl and a pin with which to extract the snails from their shells.
“I can’t watch,” said Tracy, and she wandered over to a man sitting cross-legged in front of a coiled cobra that raised its head from time to time as if to take in the spectators.
They spotted an open-air café on the roof of a hotel, climbed three flights of stairs, and took a table at the edge of the parapet so they could look down on the square. Spectators – the tourists with their cameras pinned to their faces – thronged the large open space, moving from one performer to another. The two women ordered mint tea, which the waiter served by putting the leaves in cups and then raising the teapot slowly until a stream of water cascaded into the cups. They sweetened the tea with tiny sugar cubes and watched the activity below.
“It’s like a mini-circus,” said Abigail.
“I’ve never seen anything so exotic,” said Tracy.
They wandered into the souq that bordered the square and strolled along the rattan-covered lanes. Beams of light shot through the roof. Otherwise, the souq was dim and cool like a deep cavern. They passed stalls crammed with mounds of dazzling spices and shops selling carpets, carved chests and silver or painted tea pots. A young merchant dressed in jeans and a tee shirt that read I Love NY called to them in English:
“Best prices in the souq. Check it out.”
His store was well-lit and crowded with an astonishing array of merchandise. While Tracy picked through piles of Moroccan shirts, Abigail examined bolts of brightly-colored material, rummaged through racks of long robes, and then wandered over to the counter where several trays crammed with jewelry lay side by side. She picked up a necklace of engraved copper balls and spun one or two on the string.
Linda would have loved these.
“How does this look?” asked Tracy holding up a bright red shirt embroidered with silver threads on the front and cuffs. “Is it too bright?”
“Not at all: a little brightness is a good thing.”
“How much is it?” Tracy asked the young man.
“That’s way too much,” said Abigail.
“Not for this quality. It is hand-stitched.” He made a clicking sound by flicking his tongue against his teeth. At the same time, he jerked his chin upwards. “Okay: fifty-five.”
“Still too much.”
Tracy watched with amazement. The young man turned to her.
“Are you going to let your mother speak for you?”
They laughed and the man regarded them curiously.
“She’s not my mother.”
“We’re really...,” said Abigail.
“Sisters,” interrupted Tracy.
“In that case, fifty – which is a very good price. You won’t find better in all the souq.”
“You already told us that,” said Abigail. “Maybe we should find out for ourselves.”
“Trust me. That would be a big waste of your time; but if you insist...”
He shrugged with an air of indifference.
“We have plenty of time, but...” Abigail paused, winked at Tracy and then turned back at the young merchant who was watching her warily. “...we’ll settle at forty.”
“At such a price, I would have to go out of business.”
Looking as if she were watching a ritual from Mars, Tracy stuttered: “I ... I ... think ... “
“Are you from New York?” asked the young man.
“Close enough,” said Abigail.
“In that case, forty-five.”
“Done,” said Abigail.
“Something else?” asked the young man, folding the shirt and taking a sheet of wrapping paper from under the counter.
“No, thank you,” said Tracy.
“And for you, Lady?” he asked Abigail. “That necklace was hand made in the desert. It would look good on you. Or your sister.”
Abigail looked at him vacantly.
“Or a loved one back home,” he said.
The branches raked her naked body as she fell through the bush. Snow and leaves caught in her long hair. A stub of a branch stabbed her foot when she hit the ground. She was in the backyard. Several inches of snow covered the ground from the snowfall two days ago. It was dry and powdery and stung her feet as she ran toward the terrace. She noticed neither the icy wind from the garden nor the heat bursting in waves from the house. The glass from the windows had shattered and flames licked up the side of the house. She couldn’t get near the door that led from the terrace through the pantry into the kitchen. She turned away and raced around the side of the house to the front. She heard sirens blaring. She saw vague forms of people. She heard shouts. She ran to the front door and grabbed the handle. She screamed. From behind, someone grasped her around the chest and pulled her away. She kept screaming: “Brett, Linda, Zack,” over and over again.
She felt someone shaking her hard.
“Abigail ... Abigail ... stop it. You’ll wake everyone.”
Abigail woke gasping for breath. Tracy was sitting on the bed in a tee shirt and underpants. She gripped Abigail tightly by the arms. Abigail’s breathing slowly returned to normal. Tracy let go her arms. Abigail stared blankly at Tracy who pushed damp strands of hair off her forehead.
“You were shouting names this time,” said Tracy. “Please talk to me.”
Abigail stared silently.
“Please ... I’m so frightened.”
“Something terrible happened.”
“No,” Abigail whimpered, shrinking back.
Tracy grabbed both Abigail’s arms and shook her.
“You have to.” She fought to control her voice. “You can’t keep it bottled up. It’s choking you.”
Without a word, Abigail got up and went to her suitcase. She unzipped a compartment and took out a manila envelope. She extracted a sheet of paper and handed it to Tracy.
The Freeport Journal February 6, 1972
FIRE DESTROYS HOME
by Sharon Wilkins
The Freeport Journal Staff
A raging fire on the Barnesville Road last night engulfed the home of Brett and Abigail Jameson, leaving three people dead. The fire killed Mr. Jameson and the couple’s two children, Linda (age 11) and Zachary (age 9).
Mrs. Jameson was saved by her husband who dropped her from their bedroom window. He then attempted to save the two children, but the fire apparently spread too quickly, trapping him and the children in the doomed house.
A neighbor pulled Mrs. Jameson away from the front door where she was trying to reenter the house.
Mrs. Jameson was unhurt except for bad scratches and a third-degree burn on her right hand.
Captain Richard Bennett of the Freeport Volunteer Fire Department said that the blaze was completely out of control by the time...
Tracy stopped reading, stood up, and put an arm around Abigail’s shoulders. Gently picking up her right hand, she observed the crescents of scar tissue. She guided Abigail back to bed and stepped across the tiny room to turn off the light. She climbed into the bed and took Abigail in her arms. Abigail laid her head against Tracy’s shoulder.
“Tell me about your family,” Tracy said.
“We lived in an old farmhouse with an apple orchard. The house needed lots of work when we bought it, but that was the only way we could afford it. Brett and I did a lot ourselves, and it took years.
“The floors were what I loved the most: old, wide oak boards held together by misshapen nails.
“‘This is a place to raise children,’ I had said to Brett the minute I saw the house. We were so happy living there. The kids had a swing hanging from an apple tree that might have been sixty, seventy years old – who knew. We built them a tree house, and they spent hours up there with their friends.
She talked for over an hour. Tracy held her the whole time.
“I can’t get it out of mind,” she concluded, “that if we hadn’t bought that old farmhouse but instead had lived in a more modern place, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
“If you think like that,” replied Tracy, “you’ll never heal.”
“Unless, of course, you don’t want to.”
Tracy wanted to go to the ocean so they took a bus to the coast and stopped in a town called Essaouira – on a long stretch of rock-strewn beach. The town overflowed with hippies who jammed the cafes and restaurants, thronged the back alleys and filled the hotels so that Abigail and Tracy found themselves in some kind of hostel that had toilets but no showers. Fortunately, the public baths were clean, if dilapidated, with walls water-stained like a Rorschach test and a clientele that ranged from loud, exuberant hippies with unshaven legs and armpits to shy Berber women who quietly undressed down to their underpants and sat in small groups pouring water over themselves from wooden buckets.
At an outdoor cafe near the town walls, they spread butter and raspberry jam thick as putty on croissants and occasionally ordered scrambled eggs – Abigail’s with a thick slice of ham. They read the morning papers in the lavish sunshine (Tracy the Herald Tribune; Abigail struggling with Le Monde) and dawdled over their coffee. Time had no meaning except that the day began and the day ended: when they got up and when they went to sleep.
Finished with the papers, they walked far out along the beach. Camels, led by men in long blue gowns and white turbans, plodded sedately along the beach. Large burlap sacks filled with stones hung from wooden frames affixed behind their humps.
By the time they turned around to head back, the town was a mere series of specks on the horizon.
Late one afternoon, they sat in the café drinking mint tea and watching the sunset when a young man with the makings of a beard and blond hair reaching to his shoulders sat down at the next table. He had on a white tee shirt with rips under the armpits and bold letters on the front: MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR.
“You are English?” he asked with a German accent.
“No,” said Abigail, “but thanks for the compliment.”
“Ah: American imperialists.”
“You’ve got it turned around.”
“It was the English who had the Empire ... and the Germans.”
The German looked nonplussed for an instant and then broke into a thin laugh. “You are very clever,” he said, then looked at Tracy. “How do you find Morocco? Pretty far out, eh?”
“It’s beautiful,” replied Tracy.
“You are a student?”
“I am studying at university in Hamburg.” He pulled nervously at his hair. “Maybe we should eat dinner tonight? You and I?”
“I’m sorry,” said Tracy, “but I don’t think so.”
“Oh well,” said the young man and got to his feet. He leaned towards Tracy. “You want to buy hashish candy? Guaranteed good shit.”
She didn’t as much as glance at Abigail. She shook her head.
“No, thank you. Better try somewhere else.”
As he stalked off, Abigail smiled at Tracy and said:
“You handled that creep nicely.”
“Did I really?”
“You know, I think your judgment about men will be just fine.”
“It will,” said Tracy, “if I keep learning from you.”
“What could you have possibly learned from me?”
“Courage,” said Tracy.
The next morning, they walked even further than usual. They passed several camels kneeling on the beach while men in the familiar blue gowns piled stones into the sacks. The men paid no attention to the two women. It was a warm day with only a hint of a breeze off the ocean. The sky’s deep blue vault was tinged with a powdery gray at the edges. The town was completely out of sight. They took off their new sandals, purchased at a shop in town, and walked through the lapping waves. They sat on a small dune.
“Sitting here,” said Tracy, “is as close to absolute stillness as I can imagine.”
“Indeed,” said Abigail. She glanced at Tracy.
“You’re a wonderful friend,” Abigail said.
They headed back. The camels were now far ahead of them, carrying their loads into town. A young man and woman, European, passed them. Otherwise, the beach was empty for a long stretch. About a quarter mile from the town, they saw a woman running frantically at the water’s edge, waving her arms and shouting. Abigail and Tracy ran up to her. She was dressed in a long, gray robe but no head covering. She yelled at them in Arabic and pointed out to sea. The waves flowed in long, gentle undulations. She ran towards the water, went in a ways and came back.
Abigail scanned the water close to shore and saw nothing.
“What is it?” Tracy called to the woman. “What is it?”
The woman pointed again. Then Abigail saw it: two arms thrashing and a head bobbing and then sinking – about thirty yards out. She dropped her sandals and dashed for the water. She swam towards the head, but it disappeared. Her jeans felt heavy and slowed her down. She reached the spot where she thought she had seen the head and dove but found nothing. She swam again. She dove. Nothing. She swam in a circle, certain this was the right area. She dove, turned this way and that and then barely made out the boy in the murky water, sinking towards the bottom. Her lungs raw with pain, she kicked her legs and pushed desperately with her arms. Flinging herself forward, she grabbed an arm. The boy swung with his other arm and clipped her on the jaw. She let go. He sank again. She went after him, caught a fistful of hair and yanked. He came up a bit and she threw an arm around his neck. Desperate for air, she pulled with her free hand towards the surface. He twisted and fought her. She almost lost him again. Suddenly, Tracy was there, pushing the boy up by the waist. They exploded into the air and gasped for breath. The boy was choking and gasping but had stopped thrashing. They each took an arm and pulled him towards shore. They dragged him onto the beach and knelt, gasping, on the stone-littered sand. The boy spit out a mouthful of water. The woman ran up, followed by two panting men. One of the men pounded the boy on the back while the other helped Abigail and Tracy to their feet. The woman hugged the boy and jabbered at Abigail and Tracy.
The man who had helped them to their feet said something to her in Arabic and turned back to Abigail and Tracy.
“She is saying ‘Thank you’ over and over again,” he explained. He spoke perfect English. “She cannot swim, and but for you two the boy would have drowned. You did a very brave thing. There will certainly be one Moroccan family that will always think kindly of the United States.”
The woman kissed their hands; and the boy, who was about seven, shyly shook hands. Abigail and Tracy watched with the two men as the woman led the boy towards town.
“How did you know we were American?” Abigail asked.
The man wore trousers and a white shirt. He was middle-aged and starting to go bald.
“My name is Pierre Jobert. I own that restaurant over there,” he said, indicating a building on the beach near town.
“The fancy French one?” asked Tracy.
“The same. Fouad is my maitre d’,” he said, nodding at the other man.
Fouad smiled and bowed slightly.
“We happened to be looking out the window,” continued Pierre, “and ran over to see what was going on. It would be my pleasure if you would be my guests at the restaurant for dinner tonight. It’s the least we can do.”
Abigail stood looking out to sea after Pierre and Fouad had walked back to the restaurant. She walked a few feet into the water. The waves lapped around her ankles and the bottoms of her jeans. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She wiped them away. She walked back to the beach and stripped off her dripping tee shirt and leaden jeans. Wearing only a bra and panties and without saying a word to Tracy, she walked slowly but deliberately back into the sea. When the water reached her knees she plunged into a wave and, with smooth high-arched strokes, swam and swam until she could no longer stand the ache in her arms. She treaded water. Tracy watched her from the beach.
That was close, she thought. We almost lost him.
She turned to the west and watched the late afternoon sun. Her thoughts turned in a direction that she realized she had been resisting for some time.
Brett, will we ever meet again? And Linda and Zack: will I ever see your shining faces? I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I could be wrong. After all, no one knows. It’s not much to hang onto, but why not hope? In the meantime, I have a friend; and she’s enough of a reason to go on living.
Abigail swam back to the beach, her muscles begging her to stop. Stepping out of the water, she felt drained but at peace.
As much as I ever will.
She put on her soggy clothes and walked up to Tracy who was silently watching her. She took Tracy by the arm.
“Let’s go get baths,” said Abigail, “and rest up for a great dinner.”
Arm in arm, the two women walked towards town.
Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
It's All Gravy
Like glittering raindrops falling on a burnished palm frond, the peso coins dance and spin atop the dark wooden casket before dropping into the small net attached to its edges. Tossed by the many people lining the path up the last rise of Mantalongon, a few coins miss their mark and fall to the earth. They are gathered by the children in the long following procession of mourners. On an adjoining hill, a couple of low humped bulls lift their heads from the grass and stare. The Philippine Sea and the Island of Bohol fill the horizon to the east. To the west, the jungle tree tops dip down to the Visayan Sea and the Tanon Strait. The hazy image of Negros rises beyond. Atop the mountainous backbone of Cebu, Joe Benedict will be buried. It was the only final resting place that ever occurred to him. And one he took pains with to title and protect.
Dressed in leather sandals, dark trousers, and white shirts, grey with sweat, the six casket bearers rest the coffin at the lip of the open grave. It is cooler up here where the winds from two seas mix and swirl. Alone and unadorned, except for a little iron grill fence, and a small flat stone, its high polish brightly reflecting the overhead sun, Joe commands the view in all directions. A few metal chairs to one side of the fence serve to rescue the carriers and their tired feet.
As the procession arrives and gathers, and the sun drops a bit to the west, a young priest emerges from the crowd and stands at the head of the grave. On his right side and a step behind, a salt and pepper haired woman in black nods for him to begin.
Swinging an incense burner to and fro, and throwing sprinkles of holy water over the casket, the priest consecrates the site and blesses it with a short prayer. The bearers lower the casket, letting the hemp ropes follow it down. Stepping forward, the woman drops a handful of earth onto the casket and follows the priest outside the fence. Several others who can get close enough add their own handfuls of dirt. This ritual done, the thumping cadence of spaded earth dropping ever more silently on a wooden box ushers the crowd out over the hilltop. Spreading their nipa mats on the same ground that much of their food comes from, they eat and sing until the sun drops close to the rising mountains of Negros. Many, over time, and one in particular, will return to this grave, burn a candle or two in the still of the night, and say a prayer for Joe’s soul. The American was one of them and they loved him.
*** TEN YEARS EARLIER ***
From a hard scrabble patch of land in the foothills of the Virginia Appalachians Joe Benedict watches the sheriff’s small motorcade make its way across the valley. He knows they are coming to deliver the papers that will confiscate his rough cut home for unpaid taxes. And he knows that there is nothing he can do to stop it. At least nothing that he is willing to do. The same country that he almost died serving is going to take the only real home he ever knew.
Coming out of that unnecessary war and inheriting this place from his grandfather had given him time to look at where he had been. He didn’t much like what he saw. Ahead, to where he was supposed to go, he liked even less. Turning his back on both directions, he used this rocky and sparsely timbered land to wall off what he considered a failed society full of broken promises. By hunting, a little gardening, and odd jobs working for the valley elite, he had eked out an existence blessed by a strong back and good health. Now, in his senior years, he is watching those he can no longer put off come to take the only things that have kept him alive.
In one of those unexpected reminisces, Joe recalls the highlands of Pleiku, Vietnam, and the stunned look on the young Viet Cong’s face when he shot him. Joe leans his 30-30 Winchester against the gate post. There will be no more killing like that—ever. He will not argue or refuse the papers. He will let it play out the American way with a heaviness that has its own gravity. He will go....but with grace.
Having gone as far as it can, the black SUV, a large gold colored star on its door, comes to a halt. The deputy follow-up car does likewise. While the deputy remains in his car, the sheriff kicks open the SUV door and hauls himself out.
Sheriff Higgins, overweight but not particularly quarrelsome, has been the sheriff around here for a long time. Just your average kind of sheriff, he keeps getting re-elected because he knows most people, including Joe. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he tries to take an easy manner with the well-to-do, who are well represented throughout the valley. Carrying a clipboard of papers, he approaches Joe and smiles when he sees the 30-30 over against the gate post.
“Glad to not see you holding that iron over there,” Higgins says, nodding toward the 30-30, “I expect you know why I’m here.”
Joe is more relieved than nervous. Relieved to finally start the beginning of the end.
“Uh-huh...I’ve been waiting for you ever since the certified letter came. I guess after a couple of weeks, you won’t have to traipse up here anymore to check on my deer harvesting etiquette.”
“Expect you're right about that. But you know, I never did much care about how you hunted to eat. It was just nice to get up out of that valley some. In respects of that, I’ll be sorry to see you go. This is all the Feds doing you know.”
“Yeah, I know...never have been many places that I didn’t have to go to start with. Maybe I’ll discover something valuable as a result of all this. Who knows, I got a couple of weeks to get going, right?”
The sheriff hands Joe a stack of papers.
“That’s right, Joe. It’s all in there and wherever you go or whatever you do, you can use my name to vouch for your lawfulness, whatever that’s worth.”
“Okay, Sheriff. Two weeks and I’m out of here. Been a long time coming, I guess.”
After shaking hands, the sheriff turns and walks back to his SUV, motioning for his deputy to back out. Once his bulk is loaded behind the wheel and the door is closed, the sheriff sticks his head out the window and yells up at Joe, “Say Joe, can I ask you a question?”
“Fire away,” says Joe.
The sheriff looks in the rear view mirror, watching his deputy depart, and seems to consider the question. After a moment he smiles and says, “Tell me something valuable that you could discover out there where you haven’t been.”
Without thinking twice, Joe replies, “A loyal people.”
Wagging his finger at Joe, the sheriff grins, whips a U-turn in the scrub and drives away.
Thinking about what he had just said and wondering why the sheriff had wanted to know, Joe watches the sheriff go down the hill and out into the valley. Feeling like what will be, will be, he walks over to the gate post and hefts the 30-30. Levering open the empty chamber and magazine, Joe smiles, closes it, and dry snaps the hammer to the sky. All things must pass.
* * *
Looking out the small bulkhead window at the azure waters of the Cebu City Port area, Joe leans into the bank and watches the wing dip and rise as the jet lines up for its final approach to the Cebu International Airport. Once the flaps are lowered, the open sea quickly gives way to mangrove swamps followed by small barangays, or villages, amid scattered coconut palms. Just as lines of laundry get close enough to count the bed sheets, a blur of dark tarmac suddenly fills the earth beneath. A heavy bump followed by the feel and noise of reverse thrusters brings smiles to most of the passengers touching down after many hours in a flying tube. Out on the edges of the tarmac, the lush green tropical growth, under a brilliant sky, lends an air of optimism and high spirit to the immediate environment. Joe Benedict welcomes this feeling and smiles along with the others. He had bet on the tropics and the Filipino spirit when he had closed the book on his American life. Before that he had long contemplated such a switch. Now it was actually happening.
Coming out of customs and immigration, Joe takes the first in a long line of white taxis and heads across the Mactan bridge to Mandaue. Far below the bridge superstructure, looking like toys in a bathtub, ships of many different flags lie at anchor in the Mactan Channel. Off the bridge, small cars, large trucks, jeepneys, and thousands of motorcycles share the roads and side streets. All throwing up a diesel fog that keeps anything with windows and air conditioning closed tight.
With only a backpack to contend with after a half hour ride, Joe pays the taxi driver and hops out at the congested Southern Cebu Bus Terminal. A huge compound enclosed by high cinder block walls, tin roofed stores, and benched waiting areas, the terminal houses the many buses going to all the Southern parts of the island. Sign boards on the front windshield announce to the hundreds of passengers milling about which bus is theirs. Joe locates the bus going to Dalaguete, climbs aboard giving the conductor his fare, and takes one of the last remaining seats next to an attractive woman some years younger than him. Being the only white person aboard, a fact driven home by the many stares he receives, he assumes that what he has heard about getting away from the congestion and tourist traps is true---the further from the city he goes, the more natural and clean it will be. And the more he will stand out.
After traveling along the coastal highway for an hour, making stops, and passing one city associated town after another, the congestion thins out and crowded landscapes are replaced by open rice paddies and fish ponds bordering a sea with white beaches and coconut trees. Banana trees run right up to the highway on one side while, at high tide, the sea splashes among mangrove swamps on the other. Vendors with bulky loads of snacks and drinks hop on the bus to peddle their wares for a few kilometers, then hop off and catch another bus going back.
Buying some ampao, or puffed rice cake, from one of the vendors, the lady next to Joe notices his curiosity as she nibbles on the crunchy treat. Boldly, she unwraps another square, turns deep brown eyes upon his curiosity, and says in very good English, “My name is Alicia, and I will give you part of my tasty ampao if you will tell me where you are from and where you are going.”
Alicia Lamdagan, in her mid-fifties and a native Cebuano, proved to be true to the namesake of her heritage. Lamdagan is the Cebuano word for bright. The youngest of three daughters, she watched her sisters marry and have children of their own before she finished her Catholic elementary school. Of exceptional intelligence and spirit, she was put forward by the Nuns to gain a higher education through the nunnery and took her vows as a nun, with a confidence in God and charity, at the age of twenty. Her work in the rural Catholic orphanage of the Mantalongon Mountains, year after year, gave her a lasting rapport with the people of the area. And her brightness proved fruitful for the children she cared for. However, her good intelligence, balanced with an even stronger spirit, would not let her walk away when the Diocese eliminated the rural orphanage from its sphere of patronage and ordered her to another service in Manila. Instead, she renounced her vows, removed her habit, and with what resources she could scrape together, kept her orphan children and their home from sinking into nonexistence. Now, headed back to her labor of love and spirit, after visiting the city, she has noticed the white man beside her eyeing her snack.
Joe, though surprised by his seatmate’s candor, is completely taken with the humorous sparkle and openness of her wide set eyes. Framed by long, raven black hair and the bone structure of an intelligent Polynesian pedigree, there is a light in her eyes that disengages any need for him to be defensive. In fact, a rarity for Joe, quite the opposite.
“Well, I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know for sure what you are eating, but it is valuable information that you seek.”
“Touche,” Alicia replies with a smile that broadens the handsome light of her face. “These little tidbits of rice and sweets are considered a delicacy here in Southern Cebu. Delicious, or lami as we say, their value, I assure you, is equal to your information.”
Enjoying his newfound social skills with a complete stranger, Joe replies, “In that case, my name is Joe, not like the GI Joe of Filipino fame, but like short for Joseph of the coat of many colors. I am from the United States, and I am going to Dalaguete to start a new life.”
“I am very familiar with the Joseph of the Bible and what he did,” Alicia says, while searching his eyes for any deception. “Tell me Joe, what will you do in this new life?”
Suddenly feeling a little vulnerable with such a broad question, Joe looks to his hands and considers his reply. Alicia, seeming to intuit the situation, pushes a full package of ampao into Joe’s hands and says, “Here Joe, I must not make an unfair bargain with you. Enough, try one of these, they really are lami. And they don’t unfairly squeeze your wallet either.”
Tasting the ampao and finding truth in everything that Alicia has said, Joe shrugs and broadly describes his situation, and the hopes that accompany it, while Alicia seems to listen with a sense that goes beyond just her hearing.
Feeling the benefit of having such a good listener for the first time in recent memory, and having talked about personal things with another, Joe’s long dormant social curiosity starts to peek out from its covers. “What about you,” he asks, “are you from Dalaguete?”
“Not exactly, I’m from Mantalongon, in the mountains above Dalaguete. I could never afford to live along the shore. Besides, I run an orphanage, that is where my work is. And, let me tell you, there is plenty of it there. My helper is getting too old to keep up, but he has no other place to go. And I have no money to hire, so it’s pretty touch and go.”
Having started to share her problems as well, and needing to vent with someone other than God, Alicia goes on to explain how all this came to be.
Joe struggles to hide his astonishment at the gumption and spirit of this woman. Rarely has he met people of such character and charity. Certainly not back where he comes from. Besides, back there, he would never allow such things to be presented to start with. That would require too much trust.
Entering the greater Dalaguete region, Joe and Alicia break conversation and watch the jungle come right up to the highway, broken only every now and then by a house or an ocean vista. Along with their silence, some sort of higher reality seems to come over them. Sensing this, they curiously look at one another, like they are seeing each other for the first time.
“You know I was just thinking,” Joe says.
Alicia solemnly nods.
As if having the same thoughts, Alicia continues to nod as Joe says, “I could save my little bit of money and come to Mantalongon instead of Dalaguete, take a look around, maybe fix up a few things. Give the old guy a break. No pay needed, room and board would be nice. What do you think?”
Like one bright soul supplanting the solemn visage of another, Alicia’s face lights up as she replies in an almost hallowed voice, “Oh merciful God, that would be wonderful.”
After the long stretch of jungle and sea, entering Dalaguete Poblacion is like going from the natural wild to the festive tame in a couple of heartbeats. Multicolored signs asking for business hang everywhere, and both sides of the road are occupied by one structure or another. Banners stretch over the highway signaling that life is good and that this spot is a good place to enjoy it. Pushcart vendors, selling everything from barbequed chicken feet to skewers of shrimp shish kabob, come and go along the market area where fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables, are sold by the kilo. City Hall, with the police station and post office, is located across the street from the market as well. Nothing like the city, but for rural Filipinos, just about all things that are needed for everyday life can be found here.
At the bus stop, just off the first cross street after coming into Dalaguete, eighty-one year old Pedro Abbas sits behind the wheel of an ancient World War Two-era jeep waiting for Alicia’s bus to arrive. There is no transportation between here and Mantalongon other than private motor bike. And that is a dangerous ride with young Filipino bikers carrying multiple passengers in and out of the mountains for whatever fare they can get. Since he can’t find the part to fix the broken water pump at the orphanage, Pedro is happy to wait for his pick-up...as long as the jeep doesn’t conk out. Knowing the bus is due soon from the cell phone texts received by others waiting for the same bus, Pedro uncurls from the driver's seat and attempts to straighten up his old frame. Still slightly bent after pushing his back in as far as possible, he hears the bus coming over the hump bridge into town and stands by to welcome Alicia back to the province.
Amid a cloud of dust and diesel fumes, the bus arrives and the waiting area comes alive with activity. Alicia, in the middle of several others, steps down from the door and waves to Pedro. Starting to lift his hand, Pedro freezes when he sees the white man, a backpack over one shoulder, walk up and join her on the way across the street.
“Pedro, this is my friend, Joseph,” Alicia says. “He is coming with us to have a look around at our repair needs. Isn’t that nice?”
Joe extends his hand and says, “Just call me Joe, Pedro, nice to meet you.”
A study in contrasts presents itself as an aged Pedro, deep brown and slight of build with only a little dark hair left, and a younger Joe, white and tall with graying blonde hair, shake hands. A little stiff in manner, Pedro can’t hide his surprise at having an extra worker aboard.
Glancing frequently in the rear view mirror at Joe in the back seat, Pedro mostly ignores Alicia’s chatter as they travel from the bus stop straight out the cross street to a dusty and curvy road into the mountains. As they gain altitude, it isn’t long before the clutter of the coast gives way to open vistas and a rolling, sparsely inhabited landscape. Halfway up the mountain a huge lizard-like monitor, as long as the jeep, leaps from the jungle, scurries across the road, and back into the jungle. Neither Alicia nor Pedro make any mention of this creature but Joe fervently hopes that his bed will not be one that is on the ground. Never has he seen a lizard so large. Pedro sees Joe’s reaction in the rear view mirror and smiles.
About thirteen kilometers into the hills they top out and pass through the small settlement of Mantalongon to an outlying large structure of bamboo and native materials. Set on a rolling plateau, among one of the few hectares of jungle growth at this location, the orphanage, a few outbuildings, and their immediate courtyards, look pretty run down. But the happy children bouncing up and down and waving in the main hall’s front yard give the place an air of freshness that belies its true condition.
Alicia asks Pedro to show Joe to an empty native house and get him settled while she helps a couple of volunteers prepare their evening meal. Joe finds the nipa hut, with a grass roof and bamboo slatted floor, neat and adequate for his needs. Dumping his pack on the small bed, he follows Pedro out and about on a tour of the grounds.
Stopping at the well and broken water pump, Pedro shows Joe the laid out parts of the pump and explains that he was unable to find the proper part to repair it. Amazingly, Joe looks the layout over, cannibalizes a piece from another broken pump lying in a junk pile, and quickly reassembles all the parts. After reconnecting the pump to the electrical outlet, he opens the line and throws the switch. Hissing and coughing, the line shakes a couple of times, then emits a smooth stream of water. Pedro, thoroughly impressed with Joe’s seemingly miraculous tinkering skill, grabs Joe’s hand and pumps it like it will bring water as well. Truly happy about what he has just witnessed, Pedro lets go of any animosity that may have existed. And with that one small deed Joe gains a loyal assistant instead of a resentful helper. Gladly, Pedro finishes the tour for Joe, pointing out the many things that could use a repair job, then proudly escorts him to the eating area.
Gathered for dinner, happy faces listen to Pedro go on about what he saw done with the broken water pump, and how this glorious act will extend to the many other needful things that are about. For several of the children, Joe is the first actual man who is like the people that they have, on occasion, seen in foreign media.
Alicia, happy to have had such good fortune in meeting Joe, looks down the long picnic table and adds considerable weight to the moment when she says, “Well Joe, it seems that you have made quite an impression around here. We hope you can stay a while.”
With a fork full of food halfway to his mouth, Joe pauses and looks at all the smiling people.
“Really, you all, I just got lucky. Just wait until I break something because I’m stupid.”
Amid the laughter that follows, one boy of about ten stands up, waits for the laughter to die, then says in practiced English, “Stay Joe, please. We will take care of you.”
This small plea brings a subtle seriousness to the table that forces Joe to set his fork aside and clear his throat. Taking a moment to check a rampant emotion that tries to blur his vision, Joe sees all those faces fixed on him. After a moment of inner struggle, he stands and looks at the boy who made the plea, then everyone else at the table. Not really knowing what to say, but at the same time feeling a privilege that he has never known, Joe simply says what he feels, “It would be an honor to be your fixer.”
* * *
Watching the gecko skitter back and forth across the coco wood beam for the grass roof, Joe finds it odd that he hasn’t heard its chirps. The breeze from the oscillating fan makes it comfortable to lie under the cover in the morning and listen to the competing choruses of crowing cocks. Now is his special time to take stock of life in general…...good enough, nothing grandiose. Just plain, simple, and best of all, non-deceptive. Loyal. As the fan swings around the gecko again skitters across the coco brace. Isn’t that a little pearl of wisdom, Joe declares to himself. A gecko that uses a fan. Known for bringing good luck and heralding it with their chirps, geckos are welcome guests. But the mute gecko could be a different story. Joe’s thoughts play with this possibility until he hears a slight rustle near his door.
Alicia’s gentle rap and worried voice ends all his speculation about mute geckos.
“Joe, are you awake? Something terrible has happened and I need your help.”
Knowing that indeed something very serious must have occurred to bring Alicia to his door this early, Joe jumps up and into some shorts. Opening the door, he finds Alicia fully dressed and carrying a small flashlight, as is normal for her early rounds. What is not normal is the look on her face and what she says.
“I just found Pedro dead...sitting on his prayer rug in the door of his hut.”
Thoroughly alarmed, Joe tries to wrap his mind around the incongruity of Alicia’s statement. Pedro seemed fine at dinner last evening.
“A prayer rug?” he says. “What does he do with a prayer rug?”
“Come now,” Alicia replies, “I will show you. Pedro is...was a Muslim.”
Thinking how little we sometimes know about each other, Joe pulls on a shirt and follows Alicia across the grounds to a replica of his own hut. Slumped over against the open door, a Koran in his hands, Pedro looks like he is only asleep. Joe places his fingers along Pedro’s carotid artery but finds no pulse. A closer inspection finds no sign of life.
“His religion was very personal and private to him,” Alicia says. “He only prayed in private, or sometimes, at night, in the doorway, like he is now.”
“All this time I spent with him, and I had no idea,” Joe says.
“That is as it should be,” Alicia says. “Prayer in a closet is sometimes most powerful. We must honor his faith and quickly return him to his maker. I will get a stretcher. Please help me prepare the body for burial.”
Joe and Alicia had finished washing and cleansing Pedro by the time the sun was up two fingers. Word had spread quickly in the orphanage but not much beyond which was also as it should be. Pedro had no known blood family. He had come from the Southern islands more than half his lifetime ago. The orphanage was his only family now and this would be a private, simple funeral, according to his faith.
While the oldest children and a couple of farmers from the immediate area dig a grave in the largest and closest coconut grove, taking care to situate it perpendicular to Mecca, Alicia and Joe shroud Pedro in an unused and newly washed bed sheet. Fragrant white flowers of the Camia plant are spread over Pedro and tucked within the folds of his shroud and scattered on the grave floor.
Gently placing Pedro on his right side, facing Mecca, Joe and Alicia take pains to observe his religious beliefs and honor his passing.
The few adults there, as well as the children, drift away when Joe and Alicia, now becoming a pair more than before, each lift a shovel and start covering their old friend. Perspiration glitters upon their brows by the time they finish.
Having patted down Pedro’s final resting place under the towering coconut trees, they linger a bit, catching the slight fragrance of ginger, Pedro’s favorite tea additive. Weary from their duty, and with feelings too poignant and perhaps too unknown for words, Joe and Alicia reach out. And together, spades shouldered and hands held, they walk back to their home.
Hitching the wagon to the old Jeep, Joe prepares to haul a fresh load of coconuts and corn to the local agricultural cooperative. A cooperative that he and Alicia organized to benefit the growers of the region, giving them better and more stable prices for their crops. Feeling reflective, Joe puts off the bumpy ride into town for a while to count his blessings. There is the bartering connection established under his tutelage that brings together the good crops of the highlands and the protein rich fish of the coastal area, helping all persons high and low. Joe smiles as he acknowledges that it is a rare place in the Dalaguete community that the pair of them, American fixer and Filipina teacher, are not known and respected. Life is good. And it is loyal, dependable.
Further reflecting on the passing of Pedro, Joe can see that, in a natural way, it was the beginning for him and Alicia as each other’s first true partner. And how that partnership and the proximity of their work together accentuated other needs, despite their older years. Needs that simply and lovingly resolved themselves. How the acceptance and understanding of the people around them acquiesced to that resolution naturally. Happily, Joe recalls the smiles that would greet them when they emerged from the same large nipa hut. Smiles and changes as natural as the never ending tropical growth. Fingering his driver’s license and ID card, Joe remembers the good wishes he and Alicia received when they took it one step further with a priest, thus setting him up with his Permanent Philippine Residency. And, like the icing on a lovely cake, giving him the inclusion and belonging that he had missed for most of his life. How nice it was that Alicia, no less, also found natural beginnings, ripe with promise. Even as her raven hair began to show touches of silver.
Realizing that the sun is moving, Joe hurriedly fires up the Jeep and heads across the yard to the jungle road. Seeing the youngest orphan boy feeding the chickens, Joe stops and yells, “Hey Antonio, scatter that feed and get in. We will go to Mantalongon and make some pesos.”
Antonio lights up, all teeth, and in one swoop scatters the feed, throws the bucket in the back, and jumps in. As Joe eases the Jeep and its load along the rutted road, Antonio stands, grips the windshield with one hand, and points out the coconut trees he is one day going to climb with the other.
Uncoupling, but reluctant to further break the so sweet connection, their fingertips toy along each other’s nakedness---little dances of touch up a thigh, or around a nipple. Looking toward the grass thatch roof in the dim light above them, they see only their thoughts drifting in and out of focus, like the breeze from the rotating fan. The pre-dawn sounds of crowing cocks subsides only long enough to pick out a jungle bird call every now and then. And a new resident gecko, adding its chirps to this chorus, tries not to be out done. To Joe and Alicia, in the languid world of after love, these sounds could all be a symphony, or a concert, the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Woodstock, or even the Vatican Choir. There is no limit to their travel nor to what they can hear during these times. Up in years, they consider this sweetness special to them, a blessing.
Speaking to this special place that is all around them, Joe shares his truth.
“You know, baby, if I die tomorrow there will not be an ounce of regret in me. And there must not be an ounce of regret in you. If I have to go first, know without doubt, that I am not gone. I will be in everything that we ever touched, every memory of every look we shared. And as you go on, so do I. It can be no other way.”
Joe turns his cheek to the pillow as Alicia’s eyes well and birth a tear.
“Because of you,” he continues, “each breath that I take is nothing but gravy---extra life above and beyond. I never thought that I could be somebody. Only, did I want to find a way to know that my life was not useless. And, if God would really bless me, a life that was not a lie. Thanks to you, and the God that is a part of you, that is.”
Joe falls silent, takes an elbow, and looks down at Alicia. Finding an intoxicating depth in her eyes, his head lowers, as if in surrender. And in a choked voice he concludes, “The bounty of your love fills me beyond words.”
Suddenly, as if he just remembered a fire he must fight, Joe sits upright and declares, “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken that many words at once.” Swinging his feet over the edge of the bed, he is about to stand when Alicia grabs both his shoulders from behind and pulls him back down into the bed.
“How dare you! You're not going anywhere until I tell you a thing or two about what a wonderful person you are and all the good and hope you have brought here. And I’ll start by telling you that it's not all gravy. You deserve whatever you have been able to gain. And a lot more.”
Determined to get in a complete say, Alicia sits up, places her hand firmly on Joe’s chest...and starts to cry.
“I love you so much...and we are getting old...nobody lives forever.”
Sniffling and sobbing, Alicia is overcome with emotion and for a moment can’t go on.
Wiping her face with the bedcover and taking deep breaths, while Joe smiles up at her and gently smoothes her tears, she eventually seems to regain her composure.
“I never want you to doubt that you mean the world to me and the people around us. You give of yourself in ways that will grow, sending up shoots that will always, in one way or another, further your brand of goodness.”
Alicia, the image of abundant grace, lowers her eyes and kisses Joe’s breast. And, as if to seal her touch and all their emotional talk, lies her cheek upon the warm mark of her lips.
Gently strumming a path down Alicia’s spine, Joe cherishes the ensuing silence, pregnant with fulfillment. But, as a touch of morning color comes to the light under the grass eves, he wonders how he will tell her what he learned on his last trip to the city.
* * *
Bursting from the smaller bedroom, almost tearing the curtain from its hooks, adopted 11-year-old Antonio, the last of the orphans, grabs a stick of lumpia from the kitchen table and bolts out the door.
“Tony, slow down. Where are you going in such a hurry?” Alicia calls after him.
Yelling back over his shoulder, Antonio replies, “To take Lucy and Big Boy to the hilltop grass. They have to eat too.” Antonio considers the two working carabao, or water buffalo, his personal charge.
Looking across the kitchen table at Joe, Alicia says, “He gets more like you everyday.”
“And his smarts from you get bigger too,” Joe replies.
Alicia nods and decides that it is time to ask the dreadful question. Sliding a prescription leaf from the local medical clinic across the table, she says, “Joe, what is this?”
Joe’s face falls when he sees it.
“I was going to tell you, sweetheart. It’s a referral to a specialist in Cebu City.”
“And did you go?”
“Yeah, I went.”
Having noticed his occasional dizzy spells and shortness of breath, Alicia, her stomach a sudden steely knot, reaches over the table and lifts Joe's chin, “It’s your heart isn’t it?”
“Yeah, baby, they say I need bypass surgery.”
“Then let’s do it. Lots of people get it done.”
Wishing he were anywhere else at this moment, Joe takes Alicia’s hand. “They can’t, Ali. They say that there is something unusual about my aorta and they don’t have the technology here to pull it off.”
“What about Manila?”
“Same thing there. They want to send me to the United States where they have had some success with this thing. Couple of problems with that though.”
Joe pauses and looks to the roof.
“Please listen hard, babe. I don’t want to have to say this again. And never forget that I love you and would do nothing to hurt you. It is what it is. There is no trickery here.”
Feeling numb and strange, he kisses Alicia’s hand as his eyes well up.
“We don’t have the money for such a thing. It is tremendously expensive and if you don’t have the money, or very good insurance, you can’t even get in the door. Since the war, my war, I have given nothing to America. And I have never asked for anything. They have hospitals there for people like me, but they are very poor and wouldn’t even attempt such a thing. I’d be condemned to just sit or lie there and watch people with money get fixed while I die. It was such stuff that drove me from that place to start with. To die with your loved ones near, and the dignity of knowing that all that can be done is being done, is so much better, to me, than feeling like a threadbare throwaway, hung in an auction of life to the highest bidder. For me, that would be suicide. We are better than that. Please, Ali, don’t expect me to leave my home for a chance that is no chance and even worse,”
Having spoken his heart in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago when he met this exceptional woman, Joe gently leads Alicia, weeping and without volition, from the table and says, “Come on, babe, let's take a walk back to the beginning and visit Pedro.”
* * *
Feeling a little punk, Joe decides that half a day is enough. He will visit the hilltop and enjoy a little communion. It gives perspective to his downs and helps with an old man’s moods in general.
The eatery, once the main hall and orphanage dormitory, is overflowing with the lunch crowd when he stops by to tell Alicia where he is going but the crowd doesn’t pick up his mood as it normally would. Taking the new Jeep, Joe drives down the road and takes the grassy track up the slight elevation to his special place. The view of the three islands and the seas that surround them is gorgeous enough to lift even the most forlorn. Sitting in the open Jeep, with the comfortable January sun on the back of his neck, Joe looks out over the vast Philippine Sea. Almost before he can feel his breathing become a touch tight, his utter attention is captured by something different about the distant and slightly vague image of Bohol. Kissed by the connecting waters, Bohol is changing ever so gently into a soothing golden mist that advances toward him. Never before has Joe witnessed such pretty happenings. Thoroughly taken and most interested, he marvels at the sky filled with this miraculous display. As the mist descends upon him, touching his skin, it gradually parts to reveal his greatest love, Alicia. Struck with humble awe as the mist disappears and her image becomes the ALL, Joe’s forehead sinks to the steering wheel and his eyes close.
* * * FIVE YEARS LATER* * *
The heavy beat of drums, mixing with the enchanting soprano voice of a Filipina singer, blasts from speakers throughout the Benedict Cooperative complex. The cleared main floor of the eatery is crowded with young dancers, and a few not so young. Everywhere there is color. From the hanging banners, to the dress of the dancers, to the blooming bougainvillea, to the food and drink-laden tables, color paints the day. Kitchens, both local and catered, are in high gear cranking out the favorite foods of the islands. Scattered roasting pits send up the musky sweet aroma of lechon from the spitted suckling pigs turning over them. And an occasional long bamboo cylinder containing tuba, or coconut wine, shows itself. It is the yearly fiesta in honor of Joseph Benedict, the late patron fixer of Mantalongon.
Like a glacier in the midst of a blossoming rain forest, Alicia’s white, lustrous hair runs to the floral pinks and purples of her sundress as she surveys the activity of her famous kitchen. Noticing someone that she wishes to speak with, she clicks down the lacquered coco wood floor in high heels, her back straight, though carrying the Bible’s threescore and ten years. Stopping next to her pancit specialist, Rose, she takes a bamboo sliver and spreads the pancit to examine it.
“This looks good, Rose. These large prawns are what Joe always said made the difference between good and regular pancit. This tray will not last five minutes once placed outside.”
“Thank you ma’am, I wish he could be here,” Rose replies.
Alicia looks from the pancit to Rose, smiles, and pats her hand.
“So do I Rose, so do I. We’ll just have to let him know how good it is.”
Nodding with a smile to all the help that looks on, Alicia walks out of the kitchen to look for Antonio.
As the night lights come on, Antonio brings the Jeep around and Alicia, holding a small bag, gets in. The fiesta fades to silence as they drive out to Joe’s grave and park. After slipping on sandals, Alicia joins Antonio in front of the Jeep. Taking her arm, Antonio steadies her the last few steps to the small stone marker just inside the iron grill fence. After dusting off the marker with her hand and chipping off the wax of others, Alicia removes three candles from her bag and gives one to Antonio. With a match, she lights Antonio’s candle and nods. Antonio drips wax on the marker and stands his candle in it. Calm is the night as the candle light slightly flickers across their faces. From that candle, Alicia lights the other two and places them beside the first. Cast in grace by the candlelight, they pray, touching the small stone frequently, gathering the spirit that is embedded there. They need only look at each other to affirm and behold that spirit. Joe’s spirit. And, again, that which is inviolate, as he had predicted, nourishes them.
Driving back through the little patch of jungle and the Benedict Cooperative, Alicia and Antonio smile and wave to their friends and workers before parking the Jeep. Following Antonio into the house to rest before the main event and her speech, Alicia turns before shutting the door to admire the large rainbow colored banner strung over the courtyard. WELCOME TO THE JOSEPH BENEDICT FIESTA.
“My heavens,” she thinks, “how he would have loved it. It is all gravy.”
The door closes.
Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Derelict now for more than 25 years, the grime covered coal tipple rises from the coal dust and slate like some kind of huge tin man from the Wizard of Oz. Shrouded in the hollow’s misty light as the sun breaks the ridge, the old mine takes on an almost magical quality. And it is quiet. A time when the night has retired and the day is only beginning to stretch. Perched here on the porch of my hillside shack above it all, I watch the black hole beyond the tipple. It is time.
Looking like black sticks, their hard hats blazing carbide, Biff and Spike emerge from the hole bearing a makeshift stretcher. On it, wrapped in the canvas cover of a mining machine, lies a dead miner. Switching off their lights but not pausing to rest, they trudge along the track and pass under the tipple. There, seemingly fueled by an inexhaustible strength, they leave the track and disappear into the green hillside below my shack. I can hear them talking between gasps of air as they wind their way up the path.
“I ain’t never seen nobody cut up like this before,” Biff says. “What we gonna tell his wife, Spike?”
“God damn it,” Spike replies. “Just shut up and haul. My boy was worse than this. The jaws of that thing got a taste of us with him. Jesus God, they’ll want me to operate that thing next.”
My wife, Jenny, having heard their voices, joins me on the porch.
“Oh Lord, Joe. Are they headed up this way again?”
Knowing the ways a bit better from my side, I try to instill in Jenny a calm that doesn’t come easy.
“Fraid so darling. Just like clock work ain’t it?”
Not one for two ways about something, Jenny lays it out pretty clear.
“Well Joe, just pretend that they ain’t here. Let ‘em come every morn if’en they want. We’ll just not see ‘em. And they can’t make us.”
The stretcher at their feet for the first time, Biff and Spike, hats in hand, look up at Jenny with white socketed eyes, black faces ashine with sweat. Spike, thinking how it was with his boy, says, “I’m sorry…….”
“I don’t see you and I don’t hear you Spike,” interrupts Jenny. “Same goes for you Biff.”
Looking down at the canvas lump, Biff does the unusual and actually speaks during this visit.
“But this here’s Joe, Jenny. Don’t you want to take care of him?”
“I don’t see you.” Jenny replies.
Looking to the empty chair at her side, Jenny continues.
“You see or hear anything, Joe?
“Just another quiet morn above a dead mine,” I say. “Just go on back inside, Jenny.”
This old soiled tipple of yesteryear at a very special time. I figure many out there would find it spooky and unclean. But out there is clearly beyond the pale, no doubt here. Besides into these reaches can not be seen. I can watch out there come and go across their flat tableaus. Yet if our eyes meet, nary a connection will be made. Like one way mirrors, I can look out but they can not look in.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
Those old saws just don't cut it anymore
Talk, talk, talk. A phrase like 'a stitch in time saves nine', memorized to mold our lives, is outmoded today. How many other adages are so non-21st century?
Been a faithful subscriber to several magazines? Have publishers rewarded your constant renewal? Television commercials once marketed magazines and lured newcomers with freebies or big discounts but only if a subscription had lapsed; loyalty meant a long-term subscriber got nothing!
So, being prompt, frugal, considerate, and future-oriented is contrary to our current way of life. A "stitch in time" saved each magazine paperwork and none had to write up a new mailing label, but it didn’t produce presents. Now, 2017, with fewer printed publications, little has changed.
Throw in a 19th century philosopher like Emerson: "The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it." How would he have felt if he'd seen IBM's tenth anniversary personal computer ad, back in 1991, proclaiming "But you get all the presents" if you now buy. I bought their original 1981-PC for lots of money, no computer support groups, almost no software, and even got an IBM printer. No one gave me gifts then, and IBM didn't offer any to its oldest (no pun intended) and faithful customers. I purchased three more IBM PC's since '81 and never did get a thank-you note. Same thing with the brand I purchased once IBM exited the personal computer market. Sure, Emerson would’ve told me I was 'rewarded' with being a pioneer home-computer owner, but extra cash would have be nice as I continued to be brand-loyal. Same now as I stick to familiar brand but have to change computers once again as my operating system isn’t compatible with much of anything. The company has on its own computer that I have bought its desktops and printers since Windows 95 first started; why doesn’t it thank me with even a free reap of printer paper?
Down with Puritanical "A penny saved is a penny earned" philosophy! It's archaic and un-American. It gives great self esteem, but no credit rating. You can't get a loan without charge cards and debits. Too risky. Plastic makes perfect.
Remember the video camcorder? A "little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Salespeople once insisted I go from bulky to 8mm size cassette as VHS or VHS-C would be obsolete. "Remember Beta or old cars' 8 track tapes?" they reminded me. Who converted 8mm tape into VHS format in order to play it on a VCR, that, today, is as outmoded as the Kodak Brownie camera. "Buy American" helps the national economy, but Kodak exited the 8mm video camera market, then16mm film, then print photos. Only "death and taxes" are guaranteed. Kodak, once the biggest employer in Rochester, New York, is a shadow of a company and even few people use digital cameras since the smartphone in one’s pocket is a camera.
We've all heard stores announce semi-annual promising, and that the next isn't due for six months. Twelve days after our purchase, the item is 30% off. Strike when what "iron-is-hot?"
Airlines. Call for flight information. Get pressured. "He who hesitates is lost." Coach seats are in short supply. True there's cancellation or change-of-date penalties, but buying immediately guarantees when prices increase, and the operator assures they will, you won't pay a raise. Well, "penny saved/ penny earned" jingles never noted who has use of our dollars for months prior to actual departure, and fare-wars start after our online purchase was processed.
For a $200 penalty, I can change to the now-lowered price, which, of course, totals more because of the huge change-ticket-penalty; if I’d waited to buy at the last minute.... As for those people who have not given airlines use of their money in the form of totally-paid-for advance reservations with all the penalties for alteration attached, they might be rewarded with buying-last-minute savings on same seats. Just like gifts magazines give to non-subscribers.
So, there's "no fool like an old fool." Right?
updated, but first Published Opinion Page B-11, September 4, 1992, The Sacramento Bee newspaper, Sacramento, California.
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.
A THIEF COMES CALLING
Mira cruised up Main Street looking for the parking lot. There it was over on the left. Sure enough, theNew Hope township commissioners had given her her very own parking space.
“The Rug Merchant” read the sign as she backed into the spot, right next to Gerenser’s 48-Flavors Ice Cream.
The lot had been nicely plowed, Mira thought, as she smoothed down her ankle-length skirt, checked herself in the rear-view mirror - she knew she was a beauty – but, at twenty-eight, was the only one of four girls unmarried in her Orthodox Jewish family.
The air in the resort town smelled fresh and clean, with a hint of pine in the breeze. Although statistics said it rained once every three days in neighboring Philadelphia, there were so many good days it didn’t matter. Sort of like her own sales record at the shop. Some days she barely sold a pair of earrings, other days she might make ten or twelve-thousand dollars on her imported carpets.
“Hello, Miss Nessenbaum,” said the postman, who was wheeling his cart on the sidewalk.
“Jack!” she said. “For heaven’s sake, call me Mira.” She repeated it for emphasis. “Mee-ra, Mee-ra, Mee-ra.”
He doffed his cap, repeated her name, and said he’d see her later on in his run.
Oh, if only she would get some orders through the mail instead of all those invoices she had to pay.
With her pocketbook slung over her chest, she walked briskly to her store, refusing to window-shop at the other stores in this famous resort town on the Delaware. The same town, she remembered, where news anchorwoman Jessica Savitch and her date ate at the chic French restaurant Chez Odette – Mira kept kosher and only walked passed it, smelling the “trafe” food – but after the anchorwoman ate a meal, she returned to her car, with her date, and they backed right into the Delaware River. Death by drowning.
So many ways to die, Mira thought, as she jingled the keys to her shop on Bridge Street.
She waved to the cop in the little house that stood before the noisy chain-link bridge from New Hopeto Lambertville, New Jersey. The Delaware was calm today and patches of snow were beginning to melt, showing the newly-freed green grass that lay at the side of her large shop.
A colorful sign “The Rug Merchant” hung high above the store. She oversaw its design, choosing blue and burgundy, didn’t mind if it cost a pretty penny. It was The Rug Merchant’s best advertising tool, along with its online presence. Wealthy people drove down from New York City to look at her stock. Mira’s shop not only contained carpets but imported silk wall hangings, jewelry for men and women, and a new line of suitcases she found at a home show in New York.
Entering the store, the first thing she did was to check to make sure no one had broken in. The holiday season was a dangerous time and the New Hope police personally visited every shopkeeper to warn them not to leave cash in the till and to double-check their locks.
Locking the door behind her, she would open at precisely ten a.m. and not a moment sooner, even if an anxious customer knocked on the door and begged to be let inside.
She went into her inner sanctum, her small windowless office, which smelled of coffee and ripe bananas. She fairly smiled at her Keurig coffee maker, selected a dark-roasted bean, clicked the packet into place, and waited to hear the first drippings of coffee falling into her dark blue mug.
Her eyes swept across her desk. She was OCD-orderly. Neatness, to Mira, meant a sparkling clear mind, ready to do business.
Orthodox Jews were for the most part disciplined. “To everything its season.” To everything, a prayer of gratefulness, including the dark roasted coffee, which Mira sipped on while she turned on her Bose radio to the classical musical station – she recognized Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – and dusted off a few glass shelves.
Five customers were lined up outside the shop. They were bundled up against the cold and a few clapped their hands together to keep warm. The Rug Merchant sold a dozen clocks, most imported fromSwitzerland and Belgium – she refused to carry anything from Germany – and when the silver anniversary clock swirled around, doing its merry little dance, while chiming ten times, she went over to the door and let in her potential customers.
“Good morning, good morning,” she cooed. “Thank you for shopping at The Rug Merchant.”
In filed five customers including a man who did not look like a customer. What was he doing here? A quick wave of fear chilled her stomach. “Gherlin,” she thought. The fear hormone residing in the fundus of the stomach. Mira had dropped out of medical school. She couldn’t stand the curriculum of memorizing everything, the lack of sleep, creating purple puffy bags under her eyes – periorbital puffiness, they called it in med school - and the sorry lack of contemplative Jewish males.
“Let me show you what I just got in from Persia,” she said to a handsome couple. Walking over to her rolled-up carpets on the floor, she pulled out a small red and blue beauty. They oohed and aahed.
“Marvin,” said the handsome woman. “That’s it. That’s exactly what I want for the foyer.”
“It’s yours, my love,” he said.
What an easy sale that was. Some customers hung around for an hour or more and Mira got an ache in her back and chapped hands from rolling out the heavy carpets over and over, while they tried to decide.
At last, she was alone with the stranger.
“How can I help you, sir?” she asked.
He was tall with thick gray stubble on his face.
The soprano was singing on the radio and Mira snapped her fingers to the rhythm.
“You ain’t gonna believe this,” he said. “But my whole life I’ve wanted a beautiful rug for my apartment.”
“Your name, sir?”
“Jimmy,” he said.
She thrust out her hand which he took with both of his.
“I’m so happy you let me in,” he said. He was missing some side teeth.
“What can I show you, Jimmy?”
They spent the next two hours together. Mira brought him a mug of coffee and they sat on a rug-covered bench, which was really a piano stool, and talked.
Jimmy had just gotten out of prison. He was a thief.
“I been to just about every goddamn prison, ‘scuse my French, in the state of Pennsylvania,” he grinned. “Don’t like it none and that’s why I swear to God,” he said, raising his right hand, “I’m gonna try to never steal again. But it ain’t gonna be easy, I’ll tell you that.”
“Don’t try not to steal. Just make a promise to yourself and your God.”
“You’re a good woman,” he said.
He told her a story. Years ago, he went to a party, got stinking drunk and had a fling with a beautiful Jewish woman who was attracted to him. The woman, whose name was Anna Schwartz, was now the head of the American Jewish Foundation of Philadelphia.
“My bad seed turned to gold,” smiled Jimmy.
Mira smiled and had a fantasy of going to bed with him. It was not unpleasant.
“A penny for your thoughts,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Let’s take a look at the rugs. Pick out what you’d like.”
They went to the middle of the store where rugs hung on heavy metal hangers. Jimmy, who smelled of cigarettes and sweat, fondled every rug he saw, feeling the fine woven contents, then swinging over to another rug.
“These are just bee-you-ti-ful,” he said. “But I know what I want. I knew it the first time I saw it.”
She looked at him.
“I want you,” he said, laughing. “Not really. Well, a’course I do, but I know I can’t have you. I’ll take this here yeller rug in your place.”
He turned to the first rug they looked at.
“I’ll say one thing, Jimmy. You have exquisite taste.”
Mira told him about the ten-thousand dollar rug he selected. Told him it was made of one-hundred percent silk, which, although made by the tiny silkworm, was the strongest natural fiber in the world.
“If you let me pay in installments, I can get it.”
“We’ll work something out,” she said.
The chimes jingled on the front door and in walked the mailman.
“Should I leave it on the counter?” he called to her.
“I’ll take it,” she said, walking over to him.
“Thanks, Jack. What’s going on in town? Good holiday traffic?”
“Well, if having the cars at a standstill is any sign, then the merchants are doing gangbusters.”
“That’s what we like to hear,” she said.
“You all right?” he asked in a sort of whisper.
“Just fine. Meet Jimmy. He wants the finest rug in my collection.”
Jack nodded his head and said he must be going.
“Merry Christmas,” he called while Bach’s Oratorio filled up the now-empty store.
Mira excused herself and opened the door to her office. She refilled her cup of coffee and sat down at her desk to relax and look over the mail. Three catalogs had come in. She turned to the back cover and caressed a shiny carpet from Pakistan, then put it in her stack of catalogs. She went through the fun things first before seeing if any invoices had arrived or, more importantly, new orders.
Fancy stationery heralded a possible buyer from Connecticut, the rich bedroom city of New York. Opening the envelope with her pink-colored nails, she gasped. A man named Henri La Vin had ordered a twenty-thousand dollar Persian from her online catalog.
“Thank you, Lord,” she said, looking up at the ceiling. Looks like I can stay in business another year.
“More coffee, Jimmy?” she called out.
She heard the coffee dripping, and walked out into the store.
Where had Jimmy gone? He was nowhere to be found.
His blue cup of coffee had an inch left of coffee. She went to the front door, opened it, and walked outside.
He had utterly vanished.
Mira forgot about him as the day wore on. The Lord was good to her. Her sales surpassed anything she had ever known before. She began to dream. She had a condo at Summerhill Farms three miles away in New Hope where she lived with her cat, Miss Suze. Maybe she could buy that red leather recliner she saw in the window of Harold’s Modern Designs on Main Street. Wouldn’t it feel wonderful to sit there, with Miss Suze in her lap, and put her tired aching feet up at the end of the day?
“You materialist!” she chastised herself, laughing. “Is it so terrible, Lord, to want a few pretty things?”
Sitting down at her desk to get ready to close for the day, she held out her small hands, and looped a finger around her ring finger, pretending she was engaged to be married.
“Silly! You silly silly gir!” she laughed, as she gathered up her pocketbook, stuffing it with checks and bundles of cash. After locking up the shop, she looked up and down Bridge Street to make sure she wasn’t being followed.
She closed at six, while other stores closed later, a hedge, she believed, against getting mugged.
Okay, she thought, I’ll look at the red recliner in the window and imagine. As she walked down Bridge Street, she cast her eyes to the corner shop. The owner, Harold Lerner, was a nice elderly gentleman, widowed last year, and slightly senile. His daughter had just come to work with him, letting him believe he was still in charge.
There it was in all its magnificence. How nice it would look on her turquoise and yellow silk carpet. Miss Suze would love it, too. She loved soft material to rub herself on.
As she stood entranced by the recliner, she thought she was imagining someone’s arms around her chest. But, no, someone was tugging at her pocketbook, which was slung across her chest. She was prepared for this. Once, when she was at med school, she was going down a back stairway, and a neighborhood kid, wearing a sweatshirt and hood, grabbed at her backpack.
She had given out a galloping scream that sent the young man running.
Now, in the darkness of the winter’s early evening, in front of the recliner of her dreams, she opened her mouth to scream.
A hand stopped her and pushed her to the ground. She could not see his face as he pried the pocketbook from underneath her. He struck her hard on the head with his fist so she passed out for a few seconds. When she awoke, she lay sobbing on the sidewalk, humiliated, her head throbbing with pain.
Where were the pedestrians to help her? Why hadn’t anyone come to her rescue? This was the Kitty Genovese story all over again, she thought as she forced herself off the sidewalk, Kitty, the woman inBrooklyn who was stabbed to death while the whole neighborhood witnessed the murder from their windows.
She knew where Jimmy lived. And she was going to find him. She began to trot down the street. She trotted past her new parking spot, then kept on going to the motel at the end of the town. That was his apartment house, he had told her. The Sunrise Family Motel was all lit up with Christmas lights. In front was the Nativity Scene, all in white. The office was closed but she rang the bell and a woman answered.
“What happened to you, Miss? You’re a bloody mess,” she said.
“I’m fine,” said Mira. “Which room is Jimmy’s? I don’t know his last name.”
“Jimmy Reilly, that would be.”
She pointed across the courtyard and sent her to apartment nine.
His old Chevrolet was parked in front of his blinds-covered window. Mira walked across the sidewalk, heart pounding, and knocked on the door. She tried to peek into the blinds to see if her red pocketbook was there.
There was no answer.
“Jimmy, I know you’re in there,” she said. “Open up!”
There was still no answer. She decided to wait for him if it took all night. Suddenly she saw him walking outdoors, a tall man in a warm navy peacoat – was it prison issue? He didn’t see her.
Where was he going? She began to follow him. His hands were stuffed in his pockets and he was mumbling to himself.
She was taken aback when he abruptly turned around and saw her.
“Why, miss?” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I want to come into your apartment,” she said.
“Impossible,” he said. “Impossible.”
“I insist,” she said, following him to number nine.
He was blowing on his hands he was so cold. She stood in front of the door. Finally, he took out his key and opened the door.
She rushed inside, right behind him. The room was neat as a pin. Nothing was out of place. Two chairs, a desk, a bureau with a mirror and a television set. A bathroom was in the corner. Mira walked through all the rooms, searching. She looked in all the drawers and under the bed.
Jimmy laughed. “No, ma’am,” he said. “I didn’t steal none of your rugs. Got out of the shop before temptation took a hold of me.”
She sat down on his bed.
“I was friggin’ mugged, Jimmy. My pocketbook was stolen.” She began to cry.
Jimmy went into the bathroom and she heard him running the water. He returned with a hot washcloth.
“Reminds me, miss, of all the fights I got into,” he said, as he lay the hot cloth gently across her face. She saw all the blood on the washcloth.
“I’ll tell you something, miss. If I had seen that bastard touching you, I’d have beaten the crap out of him.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, lying down on the white bedspread. “I know.”
Jimmy came over and lay down beside her. “I ain’t gonna touch you now, miss. Not unless you want me to.”
She reached up and put her hands on his cheeks.
“Yes,” she said. “I’d like you to touch me. I need you right now, Jimmy, just like that other Jewish girl did.”
Carlynn Winters is majoring in Biology and minoring in Neuroscience and English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work has been featured previously in Down in the Dirt. Typically, coffee and inquiries about life and stars accompany her newfound love for writing.
I am sitting at the bar looking at my leg bouncing off of the stool.
This is what I tell her.
It was a Saturday night that we had planned for weeks in advance.
When I first ask Eric about the dinner, he starts biting his nails, something he does when he gets anxious. Twenty seconds into my explanation on the importance of meeting his parents, I can tell I lose him. Even with those round, bulging ears of his, he doesn’t seem to hear a word of what I am saying. Eric has tried pushing it off for as long as possible. Finally, I convince him to set the date– the 26th of November we are going to meet them over dinner.
I mean, Nancy, Eric and I have lived together for almost a year and I had never met his parents.
He keeps busy at the office and I at the restaurant, but his parents only live about an hour and a half north. And of course he’s never met mine before, but that doesn’t mean I can’t meet his. You know my parents. I thought it would be nice to meet his parents who seemed normal.
We get dressed silently as he fidgets with the tie around his blue-striped collar and I with the zipper in the lower back of my dress. We walked to that energy-efficient car– you know the one he traded for a couple of weeks ago? Anyways, I shiver as we slip through the front yard. Its small doors are hard for me to even get into, let alone Eric whose long legs brought him to the door of the car in nearly three strides. At the restaurant I help myself to the door and Eric follows behind.
I first notice a man with long legs and broad shoulders sitting next to a dainty woman in one of the booths in my station. Everything about him reeks Eric. His whole body resembles Eric’s. His legs are so long that they almost hit the underside of the booth, so he has to stretch them out into the aisle. His arms suggest he works out regularly, and his thick, dark hair indicates no sign of aging. His wife’s brown hair falls in small curls on her collar bone. I suddenly became aware of my own hair and its loose waves falling below my chest.
Darren was working my station that night. He walks over, smiles at me, and introduces himself to his customers as he pours water in their cups.
Nancy, the father looked just like Eric, just alike.
After finishing topping off our glasses and laying fresh bread on the table, Darren laughs and says, this must be the parents?
Eric blushes immediately as I look to them and nod. Yes, this is them, I say.
About half way into the appetizers, I realize I am staring at his father for so long that I have to shake my head to regain control. I start talking a lot, and his mother seems to reciprocate the conversation well. Her eyes light up when I ask her about her work, and she begins almost too excitedly about her alma mater and the gift-card making business she currently works for.
She seemed so excited to have me as her audience.
Meanwhile, the father is just turning his straw around his cup, gazing off at those pictures of the inspirational quotes hanging on the wall.
Darren brings out the wine, which Eric nearly finishes before the appetizers are picked up from our table. Anyway, I’m so fidgety or something, my legs accidentally hit the father in the shin. He jerks but does not look at me.
I’m sorry, I say. My legs tend to shake when I am excited. I’m so sorry, I say. Is your leg okay? I ask.
After a few seconds, he blots the wine dripping from his mouth with his napkin and peels his eyes off the picture hanging from the wall and says, it’s all right. I couldn’t help notice the size of his ears when he addressed me. His wife smiles and continues her story about the time one of the quotes in her gift cards was published in some small, literary magazine.
He seems like a pleasant man, Nancy adds with a chuckle.
Darren refills our glasses with wine as our entrees are served. After his next trip to our table, Darren gives me a look as if to indicate something is wrong. I look at Eric, who I realize has not said much the whole conversation, and see sweat beading on his now-yellow forehead and cheeks. The mom finishes her story of her favorite college tailgate, so I take advantage of this break in conversation.
Are you alright? You don’t look well, I say.
It must have been the fish I ate, he says. I don’t eat fish very often, he says.
He gets up to go to the restroom and I am left with the parents. I look over at the father’s plate and see the half-eaten turkey club sandwich, which is one of the cheapest entrees on our dinner menu. I trace my eyes up his big arms up to his neck then ears. Those ears, they must have been the same size, if not slightly larger, than Eric’s. And his mother had the most endearing eyes, Nancy, but I don’t think the father looked into them once as she started another story about a customer that came into her store on Tuesday. Eventually, she finishes, and silence hangs in the air.
What job was it that you said you had again? The father asks.
Darren interrupts me as he pours more wine into the father’s glass. She works in this restaurant with me sir, he says. I am taking over her shift right now actually, he says.
Seems like you have some nice friends, the father says. He picks up his wine glass and takes a swig as I gawk at the raw nubs that are his fingernails.
Eric comes back some time later, I don’t know how much later, and sits down. Feel better? I say. Eric is looking at the eyes of the fish sitting on his plate. I guess so, he says.
We finish eating a couple of orders of that one dessert– the apple crumble cake with the whole apple on the side– and Eric and I talk about how we met. I tell them that cute part of the story where we put a lock on that bridge in the middle of the highway like in Paris. You should’ve seen his mother’s eyes light up. She nudges Eric and giggles at his sentimental side, and the father smiles behind the thumb he is nibbling on. Eric forgot that I already mentioned the part where he wrote our names on the lock, so he repeats this to his now smiling parents.
I know something felt off. I just wasn’t sure what.
Darren comes by to pick up the dessert plates and accidentally knocks the unfinished apple off of the father’s plate and it rolls on the ground past those long legs. Eric leans down, picks it up, and hands it to Darren. Darren comes back with the check and I see Eric and his father give each other a look.
Was there something wrong? Nancy says, holding her glass and crossing one leg over the other. It seems like something is wrong, Nancy says.
Nothing is wrong. The father picks up the check, pays for it, and we all walk out.
I am feeling a bit groggy, but I see Eric and his father walk ahead to the cars while the mother and I wait near the restaurant door.
It was so nice talking to you, she says. Did I tell you what lovely eyes you have? she asks.
Thank you. I’ve never been told that before, I say. And I loved hearing all of your stories, I say. Her eyes look almost wet but, like I said, I am a bit groggy.
We stand there with chill bumps on our arms. Our dresses were both probably inappropriate to wear that night; it was cold. I look at Eric and his father walk away. In the dark I can barely distinguish between the two silhouettes of their sport coats.
I thought I could hear the battery of the car running more loudly on the drive back. I speak to Eric, reminding him about the birthday celebration I was going to throw for Darren later that week. Did you remember to buy that wine that I asked for the other night, I ask. He looks at me when we stop at an intersection and raises his eyebrows, which subsequently raises his big, fat ears. I don’t remember you asking, he says. We stop on the way back at Kroger and pick it up.
That sounds like an anticlimactic night, Nancy says, but I can tell she doesn’t understand why I just told her.
That’s interesting that they look so similar, she adds.
I remember glaring at the bruised apples in the aisle at Kroger as Eric thumbs through a magazine in line holding the wine.
It is December now. My life is going to change. I can feel it, almost as much as I could feel the cold breeze that night walking back to the car.
Don currently resides in Orlando Florida where he is studying Creative Writing for Entertainment. He does dream big, but sometimes too big. Then again a little optimism never hurt anyone.
Hitching A Ride
Carol screamed as she threw the tire iron against the door of the car. It didn’t help the situation at all really, and the dent it left only added to the cost of the damage.
“It’s fine,” she tried to convince herself as she wiped the sweat from her forehead. She could not have been any less prepared for her journey. No spare tire, no power on her phone, and no backup plan. She accused everyone, even life itself, did not want her to reach her dreams and move forward with her life.
“Stay here and work in the store,” her family said. The store that offered little opportunity and even less excitement.
“Help keep the family business alive,” they continued, as if they were actually suffering. She had heard it enough times that the dam finally broke.
“Fuck the store!” Carol had responded in front of customers. “Fuck the store! Fuck this town! And fuck you! I need to do this with my life, it’s what I want!” she remembered yelling while clutching her acceptance letter in her hand. It was rare for her to suddenly outburst like that, but enough was enough. She looked back on it. She admitted she overreacted a little bit, but that was nothing compared to her practically stealing one of the family’s two cars and begin making her way across the country to New Jersey. That was only last night, and now she was stuck in the middle of nowhere.
She was not entirely alone. Passing the horizon she could see a vehicle approaching. There had to be another option. This was beneath her. Nope, she had to do this. She had to humiliate herself.
This has got to be karma, she thought.
She stepped to the side of the road and stuck her thumb out, but not without hanging her head in shame. “Please don’t stop,” she said to herself. “Please?” No such luck. She watched the window of the van slowly roll down, and of course the man driving matched the vehicle. Pale and outdated.
“So uhh,” began the driver, “do you need a lift?”
“Oh no. I just thought that I’d get some fresh air and give you the thumbs up letting you know how good of a driver you were. What the hell do you think?” she said. She was too frustrated to filter her words and realized how rude that was. She expected the driver to take off without her. She wouldn’t blame him.
“I think you’ve been out in the sun too long,” he said looking at the tire on the ground. “There’s an exit a few miles up the road that leads to a small town with a private repair shop. Nice folk. They’ll be able to bring a tow truck out and take your car in.” He unlocked the van’s passenger door. “I can take you there if you want. Unless you want to tell the next person how well their driving is.”
Although she was thankful he did not leave she still felt humiliated for flagging down help. The air conditioning felt good, but the van smelled like it had lost its new-car smell about fifty years ago. Carol watched as she left her car behind hoping that she got everything that she needed from it. The silence for the first couple of miles did not feel comfortable at all.
“So what’s your name?” he asked. She did not answer. “Look I’d turn the radio on, but it’s been busted since last month. ‘Least we can do is keep each other entertained.” The silence was already killing her so much that she decided to give in.
“Carol. What about you? Where’re you headed?” she asked trying to carry the conversation.
“Daniel,” he said pointing to his ID holstered on the dash, “I’m on a business trip to Indiana. Nothing too exciting. How about you?”
“I’m trying to get away from family actually. They don’t think university is the best thing for me,” she said. “They think staying in that small nowhere-town and working in their shop is the life I was meant to have. Well screw that!”
“So you stole their car and ran away.” He lightly accused.
“What? No I didn’t steal—“ She was cut off by his quick glance that screamed doubt at her. “Alright. I stole one of their two cars. It’s not like they needed two.” She thought for a moment. “How’d you know?”
“Because I did the same thing when I was seventeen as well.”
“I’m nineteen, thank you.”
“Sorry, you just seem a bit young. At least you have a reason. I left because I was fed up. There’s nothing I regret more to this day.”
“You regret leaving?” she asked. She thought that leaving to live his life was the best decision he could have made.
“I do. After two days I wanted to go back, but my pride wouldn’t let me even though I had no on else to look to for help. I got lucky though. I managed to find a stable life and got the chance after years to go back to apologize. I was too late though. Never got the chance. Now I realize that they were just being parents.” There was silence for the the rest of the drive.
Carol thought back to her family as they took the exit. They were the only people she could go back to and she had pretty much alienated them. What if things did not go as planned and she needed them? Would they help her? Just how bad had she hurt them? She was so caught up in her head that she did not notice they had pulled up to the repair shop.
“Look I’m sorry for what I said—“ She was cut off again.
“Don’t apologize to me. You take care now,” he said before he drove off.
Carol knew who to apologize to, and she would as soon as she could.
Sam Landry exists in Gloucester, MA where he works at a non-profit, and he doesn't exist elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he lets everyone know he was nominated for that prize and just assumes he won it. (He didn't.) His mother thinks he needs a hair cut but what she doesn't know is he'll keep that hair in a bag in the closet if he does cut it off.
A Man Drinks And Smokes Alone With Friend
A tap on the filter cleans off the tip. A bright, burning ember emerges from the cover of ash, small, but bright enough to stick out in the dark, Rudolph’s red nose at midnight, burning and not moving but burning. The cigarette rests between two fingers, rests above the ash tray where it dumps its ashy clothes, rests there as a breath in does not always need to burn, is not always smoldering. The filter is pinched between the thumb and the middle finger as the index taps to clean off the ash, tap tap, barely a whisper but loud, loud in a dark room where only a man and a bottle and a pack and an ash tray sit. The room is decorated probably—the man is not a mongrel—but in a dark room you can only make out shapes, a frame, clearly that’s a stove, maybe that’s a toaster.
The index finger taps on the cigarette and the man wakes up. His eyes are open, have been open, adjusted to the dark, but he is not there. Physically the man sits in the dark with a bottle and a pack and an ashtray. There is no denying he sits there in the dark, there is no denying that he holds the cigarette and pours the drink and snuffs the cigarettes and pulls out more. But the man is not awake sitting there, a diesel truck can idle for hours without losing a drop of gas, a man can sit for hours with eyes open and never be awake, wake up but never stay awake, fall asleep and roll over onto a mine, a grenade, an explosion and blink, and he wakes up but he’s still asleep, and all the while his body remains still.
The index finger taps on the cigarette and the man brings the cigarette to his mouth. The ember carves the air, a straight line from the ash tray to his lips, each inch the ember moves with careful consideration of the air parting, Moses parted the sea to free his people, the man parts the air to free the butterflies dying in his stomach for a moment or two, he parts the air with a cigarette, parts his lips too. His lips part enough to snuggle a cigarette between them, for a moment, the cigarette rests between his lips and the stale taste of the filter fills his mouth before he creates a vacuum and pulls.
The smoke fills his mouth, fills his throat, fills his lungs. The man pulls, drags, and the cigarette must oblige. For a moment he holds the smoke in his lungs, longer than a second but not long enough to milk every flavor, every carcinogen. Long enough to let it work, but not long enough to let it dissipate in his lungs. Long enough to stretch, not long enough to stay, to make permanent residency on the cilia that would scream for help if they weren’t shriveled and black.
When he is done holding the cigarette to his lips, done pulling in, done holding the smoke in his lungs, the man brings the cigarette back to the ashtray with the same careful consideration for the air between, the man parts his lips, the man softly exhales and a dragon sits where the man is, breathing smoke, ferocious, relieved. His lips form a slight slit and smoke fills the air, lost in the pitch black but passing like a fog through the night as it crosses the ember, sitting like a fog in the night, the room is smokey but only if you’re there, eyes used to the dark, able to see past an ember. Before he is done billowing he seals his lips and finishes exhaling through his nose, smoke rifling through his nostrils into his lap, bouncing off his thighs and back into the air, parts lost in the dark, parts found by the tray, parts found by the ember, all of it dancing through different shapes and forms and degrees of opacity.
Next to the tray sits a glass, empty but still coated, and next to the glass sits a bottle, half full, half empty, it does not matter, a bottle and a glass sit. Like every night, for however long his body can stay up, the man sits at the table with the tray and the pack and the bottle and the glass. The glass sits empty now, 20 minutes ago he filled it, and now it’s time to fill it again. This is the process, this is the ritual, the man is well-versed in his traditions, no matter how deep into the night the motion is always the same. The hand with the cigarette remains floating above the ashtray and the other grabs the bottle. The cap is not on—liquor will not go bad, the man will not spill a drop—and he barely lifts the bottle off the table as he pours into the glass.
The stream is steady from the mouth of the bottle, practiced. The liquor is poured fast enough to not catch the lip and trickle down the bottle, but not too fast that it overflows the small tumbler made for dry, clean drinks. A steady stream, not a splash at all, the glass fills with at least a shot’s worth, maybe two, the man does not count his drinks like a child, like a teenager sneaking sips from dad’s handle of Bombay, he fills a glass and he sips or slams or whatever the moment calls for. The glass fills with liquor, not to the brim because this is not a competition but at least half way, and the man rests the bottle on the table with barely a sound of glass hitting wood. This is the process, this is the ritual, the man is well-versed in his traditions.
The cigarette is near its conclusion. The man brings the cigarette to his lips and takes a final drag, a deep one, a long pull, every last bite is savored, shake stretched across a lifetime if realistic or possible. As he launches smoke from his nose, lets smoke drop, as the smoke fills the dark space joining the other haze that lingers, he brings the tip of the cigarette down like a giant dropping a gavel into the ashtray. Tuff, tuff, tuff. The ember sparks off slightly as it’s pinched into a little black, chalky mound, twisting into itself like a car smashing into a wall. A few last remnants of smoke rise from the last bits that are swirled around as the man makes sure the cigarette is out, crunching the filter and whatever tobacco remains wrapped in paper further and further into the glass until it’s clear the ember is no longer lit. There is no ceremony for release; like in war, the cigarette lays where it’s dropped, a body in a mass grave without a name or a post or anything, soldiers who pulled themselves over the trench to die in another.
The man rests one hand on the table palm-down as the other hand reaches for the glass. He drinks gin. He used to drink gin and tonic or gin and juice, he used to be a lounge drinker, someone who drank while relaxing. Enough repetitions, enough time with a drink and that drink needs no help, the man drinks straight gin. Each sip tastes the same, each sip is new. This one is like all the other sips, tastes like the height of summer, tastes like the days after Christmas, tastes like pastels on a yacht. This one is unique, tastes like rotten bits of banana at the bottom of the bag, tastes like coal in a sock, tastes like dust wiped from a neglected bureau, tastes like a pull from a brown bag. The man lets the liquor rest on his tongue, slide of the sides to underneath where the veins are pretty much exposed. Your liquor goes longer when it rests under the tongue, the buzz buzzes harder as it enters straight into your bloodstream and passes through your brain and neck and seeps into your muscles and you settle, you settle and relax as you neither swallow the liquor nor spit it out, you take it through your cheeks and tongue and the fleshy bits that make up the mouth.
The liquor never really hits. The gin is to keep the man in the chair, to keep him sitting up. The drink keeps his face stoney, cut, unkempt with a shadow. Instead of thinking about the frame or what sits in the desk, really any thinking at all, the liquor keeps steely eyes on a point that is far past the wall the man stares through, probably at a place you cannot reach walking or driving or flying, blank stares that cut through the physical world.
But you cannot stop a thought. From the corner of his eye he sees the outline of the frame, and he reaches for a cigarette without a glance towards the table or the frame, without much of anything but muscle memory moving him. The motions are the same, he grabs the pack, flips open the top, brings the pack to his mouth so he can pull a cigarette out by the filter with his teeth, brings the pack to his mouth because his other hand still hold a glass with gin, the glass sits on the table but he holds on, not for dear life, not loosely, but he holds on. He places the pack on the table, no noise, and grabs the lighter from his pocket. His eyes do not move, his head remains forward, the frame remains in the corner of his eye, and with a flick the cigarette is lit and the lighter returns to his pocket.
After the first drag, he takes a sip of the gin with the smoke still in his lungs and the burn of his tongue crackling to the heat of the smoke. He swallows this time, he still leaves the liquor in his mouth but not for as long, so to let the smoke in his lungs free. Too long without a sip and something stirs, too long without a drag and the itch itches, not a real itch but the moments we have alone when you want to yell but have no reason to, when you feel like you need to run a marathon but know that your feet and lungs will only take you a few hundred yards before you’re hunched over taking short-but-deep labored breaths, butterflies that feel like they should be carrying you but all come up dead when you’re in an alleyway puking. The man lets go of the smoke, the tiniest bits of the gin that catch rides on the smoke carried through the mouth and then through the nostril as vapor on the smoke and a warm, fuzzy feeling courses through the man’s head.
When the man is not keeping a blank mind, when he is not distracting with a sip or a gulp, when the warmth leaves through the windows in his eyes, the frame on the desk sticks out from the corner. The frame was his mothers, when she died years ago it was in one of the many boxes with pictures of him and his siblings and cousins, some gone some not. The frame was one of the few blank ones, maybe one that his mother didn’t like, he never got a chance to ask or ever saw a reason to when she was alive, someone with a box dedicated to frames will have extras lying around, not everything needs a history, a backstory. Moms have frames.
The man was not sentimental, was not really much, in fact it was the only frame in the apartment. Years ago he got it from his mother, years after that he took a picture, months after that he framed it. Days after that he brought the frame to work. Years after he left work, for good, and brought the frame with him to his last job. Now it sits in a dark room, often surrounded by smoke, only seen from the peripherals, sticks out to eyes spent in the dark. Sometimes the man can go an hour without remembering the frame is there. Sometimes it’ll shine in the night, sometimes his eyes move a millimeter to the left to get a better view of the monolith, sometimes the outline in the black that’s less black after hours is lined with silver, crumbling silver that breaks into dust or smoke or ash or a glass that doubles as pestle and mortar.
Tonight the man’s head turns. Not his eyes, his head turns to the frame. The cigarette’s ember reaches the filter, tuff tuff tuff, and the man’s head turns more. He shifts his hips in the seat towards the frame, leans his right arm on the table. The closer the frame is to his direct vision, the heavier everything feels: the man’s arms are wrapped in bricks; his legs post-marathon; his neck ready to crack and his head ready to roll off his shoulders. He reaches for the glass, but he doesn’t grab it. Instincts kick in and die; apprehension rears its ugly head or is it a saving grace; his fingers float away from the glass and into his lap as now the room is lit. The room shines with the glow of a dark frame in a dark room; the air, the smoke does not change.
Tonight the man stands up. He stands up every night, sure, you cannot sleep in a chair in the kitchen every night, but he is not going to be sleeping in the chair in the kitchen. Usually the man retreats to bed by taking the path furthest from the frame; if the frame is on one side of the room, he sticks as close as he can to the other. But tonight he stands up, the liquor stronger than most nights, the blood rushing to his head as the man does the same, maybe it’s the speed to his feet, maybe because of general change in altitude, maybe he drank faster than usual. The man does not keep track of his drinks. On his feet he stands steady, a foggy head but firm, locked legs. Usually standing means straight to bed. Tonight he stands, still.
He leans forward, the type of lean that is only noticeable to the one leaning. Every part of his body moves fractions of a millimeter closer to the frame, all but his feet. The man's hand twitches, floats towards the pack on the table the same way he leans but does not make it and floats back to his side. Small movements that feel big when your body is making them, small movements that feel big when you have no control, movements that are made on their own but with the subconscious push off the dock.
A foot steps forward. Not a leap, barely even a step other than by definition, a foot steps forward. The sole of his boot eases into the floor, the man always sits in the kitchen fully clothed, stands the same. The sole carries the weight that leans into the step, and the other foot steps when ready. The man’s gaze does not leave the frame. What is barely 5 or 6 feet feels like miles, the trail blazes from short steps and almost-tippy-toes that are hidden in a boot. The man’s gaze does not leave the frame, does not look away. He blinks, the type of blink that is not involuntary but not chosen, the blink that happens when anxiety fills your gut with sour milk and rot worms, the blink that happens when there is no turning back.
He stands over the table where the frame sits, arms at his side, arms reaching forward, two hands heading toward the frame. The hands tremble, but not with the dramatic flair that trembling implies, the hands shake but not like a paint mixer, the hands shake like the stirring during the beginning of an earthquake, when people look around and wonder if they’re the only one who notice the shaking. The picture is lost in the darkness, dark features and old unpolished glass, but the man knows what the picture is, what it shows. Fingertips touch the wood and his hands shake a little more. Hands bring the frame closer.
The man stands there. In his hands the frame sits, in his eyes nothing, in his eyes a tear wells up, not enough to drop but enough to sit. He blinks and the tear escapes, rolls a few inches down his cheek until there’s no more gas, no more tear to run. His lips tighten, roll back into the mouth, scrunching up his face, bringing the whole thing to a point at the nose, wrinkled skin, water lines. A long breath, air not smoke, steadily carries the last bits of numbness from the gin up from his gut into his lungs into his throat into his nose, the man is not sober, he is not fucked up, he is standing holding a frame as a tear-line dries on his cheek and a gush blasts through his brain, through his veins to his heart which feels like it’s going to stop and explode, an explosion ends with stopping, redundancy, some traditions are well versed, some traditions forgotten but never lost, he rides the bike into the frame.
The man stands there. His eyes close, completely, not firmly but they are closed. Years ago he would fall asleep standing at this hour, a blink would've laid him out, but tonight he stands, eyes closed, fingers tightening on the frame. His hands shake more, the rest of him still, but his hands shake, his eyes are closed but he can see the picture. He rubs his right thumb up the glass. Below that thumb is part of the picture under the glass. He rubs again, studying each new spot with the surface of his skin, a place he has been before. The air is smokey. There is no reason it shouldn't be, enough smoke will stay in the air, the air is smokey and the glass foggy and the man's right thumb clears it with delicate precision. He rides the bike into the frame.
Has the temperature dropped? Goosebumps, the hairs on the back of the man's neck rise, go stiff, straight. A shiver travels down his spine, from between his shoulder blades to his feet, back up his whole body and into his lips. The frame travels to the man's chest, two hands on the frame, a rock floating through space. As he pulls the frame to his chest with steady hands, hands that do not rush, the man's chin leads his head down at the same speed. He faces the frame, barely a foot away from his face, maybe inches, and his eyes are closed. Maybe he lost his night vision.
His eyes open. Maybe he didn't lose a thing, he sees, he looks. The man is never ready. A car crash, he can't look away, a train wreck, a plane hitting a building, some horrors when you see them you see them and you do not look away and the songs of awe and excitement and split-seconds ring through the halls that lead from your pupils into your brain into your heart. His jaw drops, not with sudden shock but to the cadence of a laugh, or a slower drawl, or a whisper. Both eyes well. What sounds like the distant shrill shriek of a mouse dying in a trap is the noise, the guttural cry, the plea for help crawling out of the man's mouth, snuck out in a rocket launcher, surfing on molasses. His thumb clears the glass again, his right thumb wipes and his brows drops his eyes into a squint, pressing the tears out of his lids and onto his wrinkle-cut face.
He sobs. There is no description of sorrow. Every man has broken down like this one has, to his knees, a sobbing mess in a dark kitchen filled with hours of smoke and gallons of gin. Every man laughs at this one, happy this is not them, thanking God that they never have to spend a minute on their knees sobbing in their kitchen holding a frame with a part of the glass rubbed clean. Most of the time the man drinks, the man stays in control, the man decides he is going to fill a glass and light a cigarette and stare straight ahead through the dark kitchen, making pretend a frame that is always there is never there, but this is not what happened tonight. The man stands up one night, the man gets on his knees, the man collapses and sobs alone in a kitchen.
The first bits of sun poke above the horizon. The next bits of sun wait, the peak is the most jarring, the rest gradual. There is a bird, a call, a repeated cadence, not a wake-up call but a call made daily, chords plucked every day. Another bird calls, different. KI-KI-KI. Too-OO too-OO. They are different birds with different songs, similar notes but different songs. A car starts, backs up, pulls out. The birds call again and again, some time between calls, no time between calls. A rickety front-door opens, slams shut as it is let go, far off, not miles but not feet. KI-KI-KI. Too-OO too-OO. Maybe the first is a beetle. Maybe it is a bird.
The man opens his eyes. Usually he makes it upstairs to bed. This morning he wakes up on the kitchen floor, laying on his side, curled into a ball. A ball, a knot, pulls on his neck, the trouble with sleeping on the floor. He lays on the floor in the fetal position, his arms crossed across his chest, clutching the frame close. The man closes his eyes not for more sleep, but for less awake. The pinch in his neck feels real. The knot. The tear.
Using his right arm, he pushes himself to a sitting position, left leg out straight, right leg tucked in. Hunched over, he places the frame onto the table above him with his left arm, the frame face-down, like every other time. A year ago the man waited a month to flip the frame up. This is a task to save for the looser nights when the liquor comes out of the bottle with a glug glug glug, when the man fills a taller glass. Not every night is kept in a smaller tumbler.
The clock on the stove is off, the light cut through the dark, it's early in the morning, probably 4? 5? 6? The man pulls himself to his feet. It's not just the neck, his whole body is sore, creaks and cracks and stretches and bumps. The frame is not there, oh no, the frame will not be there for a long time, the man grabs a cigarette out of the pack with his back to where the frame lays face-down. During the morning the man is busy, he shakes off the dust that settles on him all night as he sits smoking and drinking. There are not many cigarettes left in this pack, there is a fresh one upstairs next to the bed. From his pocket he pulls the light, places the cigarette in between his lips, lights the tip. He is sloppy, his actions, his movements rushed. Some mornings he drops the cigarette. This morning he is as careful as he can be while rushing, making amends for an embarrassment that no one saw, that every man saw and laughed at and thanked god it wasn't them. The morning after he looks at the frame is when the sober version of himself is the most on-point.
The bottle has a few splashes remaining. With his right hand, the man grabs the bottle, firmly gripping the bottle before lifting it off the table. He holds it in his right hand, tilted with the label facing him. His left hand raises the cigarette to his mouth, he pulls, he pulls, the ember turns into a point, a spear, an arrow head. His eyes do not look away from the bottle. They stare with resignation, a half-hearted stare down, the man is a fawn and the bottle a bear charging, and the fawn freezes, fakes strength, and when instincts kick in the bear kills in the chase and the man pours the rest into the glass. The bottle falls from his hand, bounces once with a klunk on the table, his eyes still on the spot where the bottle rested in his hand. His eyes remain, his hand moves, grabs the glass, the glass reaches his lips, he takes a steady sip. The gin sits under his tongue. The first drink always feels right, sugar coats the mouth, slides down the esophagus, settles on an empty stomach and dances with the acid and lining, speeds up the start, blinks the man out of a gaze. Perhaps he'll shower today.